Libertarian education: an alternative model of education, by Andrea Sola

Posted on 9 Gennaio 2016 by Andrea Sola

Libertarian education: an alternative model of education

by Andrea Sola

Libertarian education is a current of pedagogy that has distant origins, and that has been theorized by many authors and put into practice in many experiences almost anywhere in the world.

This is not an educational method canonized and divided into a number of practical and educational instruments such as happens in Montessori or Steiner schools, but is a series of values and principles  that are put at the base of the educational relationship that have declined in a number of different educational practices depending on the contexts.

It is still the primary source of inspiration for many groups of educators and is based on the knowledge that children are an oppressed class, and then on the need of overcoming the adult-centered vision in the educational relationship, and on the enforcement of the child as autonomous individual and carrier of his own needs and rights.

Libertarian education, therefore, is characterized by the centrality that takes the attitude that adults, and teachers if you’re talking about school contexts, have towards children and young people.

If there arises the question of what are the aims of the educational relationship and we agree that these objectives should aim at developing personality autonomous and independent, as is recognized by all progressive pedagogical conceptions, then the viewpoint that we call libertarian adopts a radical position: the focus is no longer on what you learn, but how you learn because it is the way through which this learning that will depend on the type of person that will be forming.

The adult-child relationship is then analyzed in its valence of power relationship. It is from this perspective that I would like to describe the specificity of the libertarian vision of education, which in my opinion is the basis of this concept, although it was not explicitly thematized by all thinkers and educators that refer to it.

The focus is not placed primarily on contents of teaching and even on teaching methods as such, but on the way in which this relationship is handled by the adult. This approach does not want to impose a worldview already structured that the child must assimilate, but starts from this question: what is the relation of intentionality holding adult with child? What is the nature of the power that you’re exercising with children, if it is a kind of impositive power or is a power that helps to develop its autonomy?

Certainly it is impossible to imagine a total absence of direct rules of conduct on the part of the adult, due to the condition of extreme dependency of the child especially in the early stages of life: children have absolutely need of direct intervention of adults to survive (is taken, covered, worn, protected from external dangers, fed and equipped with the necessary to survive, etc), but baby comes too, and this is the aspect that should be highlighted and understood in its future implications, in a relationship with adult (which can be defined as of type imitative-normative) whose leadership is achieved through the direct or indirect example (symbolic-discursive communication).

The child is forming himself in its specificity of character through these two types of ascendancy, forced and imperative power or regulative power, performed by adults.

If you look at what are the effects on personality in child education of these two types of assimilation of adult behavior, we easily recognize as forced-type messages produces habituation to undergo, to a general feeling of fear that configures in him the first traits of a slavish consciousness, with the consequent feelings of anguish, hatred, envy and respect of the force as such. Regulative power reports produce the pride of knowing how to control and to know how to obey, the sense of emulation and self-respect or pride, that always accompanies the awareness of its capacity to act in a controlled and responsible manner.

In this perspective, it is necessary that adults preliminary question their attitude towards the child; the parent or teacher must be able to understand how to enter in relation with the child and then put into question his expectations, being able to recognize how much in these expectations has his need for affirmation of his power and knowledge. Only in this way he can fulfil the task to help its growth and to his future autonomy.

If you acquire this awareness and accept this attitude, different considerations follow on the ways of learning (2). If you renounce to a direct and imperative transmission of your knowledge – or persuasive, which is the educational relationship sweetened version – the educational relationship will be based on the exchange and will produce a shared learning (3).

Therefore, we must recognize the specific characteristics of the childish mind and its peculiarities which are, let us not forget, deeply different from the adult ones. Here comes into play the affectivity and the importance that it has in the disposition to learn of the child: if we don’t keep in mind its importance we don’t understand anything about who’s in front of us.

If we persist in believing that children can join passively, directly, to our logic that is based on rationality, that is on what for us is obvious, we remain far from their sensitivity and we will continue to hear them inadequate and thereby to be obsessed with the anxiety of changing them (how often do we say that with children you need to be patient … because they’re small and they can’t figure out!)

We should instead look for us to understand them because only in this way we can be in tune with them and then be really useful to them.

Try reading what children say about adults (when they are free to do so of course …!)  and you will see that we will open a world totally unknown, which will surprise us, but only because we were not attentive to their signals, which are things that they are not telling us directly but that they are trying to convey with a coded language. It is this language that we should learn to undrestand.

So two characters that have a fundamental importance for learning become into evidence:

1 – the motivation to learn, i.e. the interest of the child to the object of the study (it has been shown in numerous ways as only if there is an interest you have true learning; when this is missing everything that was supposed to have taught vanishes as if by magic in a very short time).

2 – trust that the adult must convey in child’s ability (it is an attitude whose presence, without being subject to any explicit statement, is always felt by the child).

Recognize the centrality of these two aspects means to respect the independence and dignity of children as independent people, and not like subhuman beings on the way to become like us.

It is from what has been said that follow the other joints that are the basis of libertarian educational practices that here we will review briefly.

– Driving character of libertarian practices is the recognition of the right of the child to be free to learn. This is perhaps the aspect that most arouses doubts about approaching this educational perspective, because that’s what most highlights the fear of the adulto to loose his rights to be a guide, to be the “director of the scene”. Since it has been said that it is important as we learn, we must then also be able to respect the individual time and ways of learning, that is we must be able to recognize and respect individual differences of each subject, renouncing to any homologation. To accept this principle means to renounce to impose our own “roadmap” to children, be willing to leave their freedom of choice and to focus on the development of their personal responsibility.

– Other aspects of this approach are the importance of play as a form of knowledge and exploration of self in the world and to all forms of education “incidental” (Paul Goodman) that is determined by an “incident”, a search that produces unexpected results, as they are born from an opportunity offered by life, where the subject is active and motivated to research , and that for this reason are the more important and significant for those who are discovering them. Once again, what counts is the process by which you get to achieve the result, from there the importance of errors, uncertainties, changes of direction in the way of self formation.

-Then there is the practice of sharing of rules in the educational contexts. Democracy is alive and direct practice of the groups; Hence the custom of collective discussions on general decisions (the assemblies) and the practice of the courts of boys, which are an essential element of all experiments of this kind. What characterizes these practices is that the rules are not enforced but are shared; the difference is crucial, it’s all here.

I should note in passing how is utterly unfounded the cliché where according to the principles of individual freedom, then the rules are not there because they are considered without importance: it’s quite the opposite, the more freedom is practiced more need to respect the rules, but should be accepted and shared responsibly by everyone.

– The rejection of any hierarchy of knowledge, based on the recognition of the different forms of intelligence that are proper to each individual (Gardner).

Practices of hand and art  working for example: children through crafts, manufacturing and use of images are learning about the world in different ways from those typical of discursive-rational language; therefore these practices must be indispensable part of any personal experiences in whatsoever age.

One last thought, to conclude this succinct overview, about the ways in which we learn that special relationship that takes the name of teaching: every one of us, at a time when enters into a relationship with a child or a person much younger than him adopts unconsciously the patterns of relationship which in turn he experienced when he was younger; only a very careful and severe self-analysis can make him aware of the baggage that has inherited and that is driving its present acts. To put it in the terms of this context, the adult teacher is playing the kind of power that he himself has suffered: the job of teacher or educator is subject primarily to this rule and is therefore from this task of self knowledge that must start any project of changing educational paradigms.


Note 1 – It is not possible here provide even a summary list of authors and experiences that refer to libertarian thought in education; I will just mention, just as particularly significant examples, some writers: Tolstoj, Alexander Neill (founder of Summerhill school), Janusz Korczak (Polish pedagogue who died in a concentration camp along with his children in the Warsaw ghetto), John Holt, founder of the free schools in the States, and Paul Goodman, who introduced the idea of incidental education. A synthetic but very comprehensive text on the subject is The libertarian and education by Michael Smith.

Note 2 – The learning process is apparently a passive process, of pure transmission of knowledge from one person to another; in fact it is inherent in the act of learning a particular relation, regulatory, implying an active participation of the subject who learns in the assimilation process of that knowledge: learning could not take place without it.

Only apparently it is a one-way operation, that is produced only by the action of communication ok knowledge on the part of those who do not possess it; in fact it is an operation of “mediation” in which the active participation of the learner is necessary and without which it would give any concrete result, IE, no one could speak of a successful transmission. This is to say that, despite the learning process being considered in common sense as a one-way operation, conducted by the only adult/teacher, it is always going on an active sharing learning on the part of the learner; in this sense we can speak of an exercise of a regulatory power and not imperative.

Note 3- This is the aspect that most marks the distinction between a libertarian and a simply  “progressive” way in education: the rejection of a report “insincere” in respect of the child, for example in the theories of Rousseau, which is also underway where it has the look of “persuasion”, and the authenticity of the relationship established with children (difference this already highlighted by William Godwin , the first to have theorized this approach in his controversy with Rousseau in the early days of discussion on education).