Saturday, February 26, 2011

Utopia: 'Free Education', 'Free Schools' and Free Students

Paulo Freire: criticised the "banking concept" of schooling
Following the UK government's decision to let universities charge £9,000 a year in tuition fees, students on rallies and occupations have again raised the demand for free education. Of course there should be no barriers or disincentives to education, because everyone benefits when someone gets educated. No-one should have to pay for education, whether they are children, young adults, older adults looking to pick up a new skill, or even (shock horror!) wanting to learn for the pleasure of learning. But to me and many other communists, 'free education' means far more than not having to pay for it.

'Free education' is not compatible with capitalism. Though there have been liberal reforms down the years - such as the abolition of caning - the fundamental structure of schooling remains unchanged from Victorian times, when it was made compulsory by the capitalist state in much of Europe. Then as now, apart from the basic skills needed for the workplace, the main lesson learned by pupils is defeat at the hands of the state. It could also be argued that this is also a basic skill needed for the workplace. Yes, from the age of four you must get up early, do things you probably don't want to do, and be ordered around by people you may not like. You must stand in line. You must respond to bells and whistles. You must not question your superiors.

The Brazilian educationalist Paolo Freire argued that even if you did want to learn what was on offer, the education systems of capitalist states were completely unsuitable. He criticised the top-down nature of what he called the "banking concept", by which teachers dictated what was to be learned, pupils memorised the 'facts' as presented, and regurgitated them when it was time for assessment. For Freire:
"Education must begin with the solution of the teacher-student contradiction, by reconciling the poles of the contradiction so that both are simultaneously teachers and students." By contrast, in a "problem-posing education, people develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation." 
Though Ferrer was murdered by the state, his dream lives on
At the turn of the last century, Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer established an Escuela Moderna in Barcelona, with the stated aim of educating "the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting". Unfortunately, even freedom is never free under a capitalist system, and the school was forced to introduce tuition fees, finally closing after five years. Ferrer himself was executed without trial for sedition, following the Catalan 'Tragic Week'. However, his influence survived him, as his The Origins and Ideals of the Modern School was translated into English, and anarchists in New York, London, Liverpool and other places followed his example and ran free schools in the lead-up to World War One.

In tribute to Ferrer, I'll conclude on a suitably utopian note, by quoting the words of a nine-year-old girl who attended Ferrer's school. We can only imagine a teacher's response to this under the National Curriculum:
"A criminal is condemned to death; if the murderer deserves this punishment, the man who condemns him and the man who kills him are also murderers; logically, they ought to die as well, and so humanity would come to an end. It would be better, instead of punishing a criminal by committing another crime, to give him good advice, that he will not do it again. Besides, if we are all equal, there would be no thieves, or assassins, or rich people, or poor, but all would be equal and love work and liberty."
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