One would be hard-pressed to find an anarchist who doesn’t agree with the idea that schooling is a system created to continue churning out obedient workers. They would also recognise that society does this through a commonly Westernised understanding of “acquiring” knowledge that ignores and punishes human diversity in terms of culture, language, ability, interest, and purpose. Despite this, we have found that many also believe that it is a system we should maintain because of propaganda that came from common colonial and hegemonic ideals about how our educational systems function, claiming that they develop civilised citizens and pass on pertinent knowledge. Rarely does it feel as if they’re willing to question what either of those concepts means with regards to integrating kids into a bigoted capitalist system through years of lessons that indoctrinate them into the status quo.
Why is it that we believe that schools create civilised and obedient citizens? What do we even mean when we say “civilised” and “obedient”? How many people are we excluding because the very nature of those concepts has roots in colonial, white supremacist, and ableist structures? Why do we believe that children must be siloed into an environment as unnatural as schools in order to learn anything? How does that impact them and the wider society?
If we take a broader perspective, we will find that among the different nation-states of the world, there really are only superficial differences between their school systems. These largely come down to details like at what age mandatory schooling starts, how many years people must spend within the compulsory system, what content our ultimately similar curricula contain, and what completion of that mandatory path looks like. Some places have created legislation that coerces preschool attendance that pushes four-year olds into school environments that are so counterintuitive they spend months crying about being at school as they acclimate to a generally less nurturing environment, while other territories choose to allow children to start later by making kindergarten optional and requiring them to be enrolled in the first year of primary school. Some school systems make it possible for people to ‘drop out’ of school by a certain age and acquire something that is equivalent to a diploma that will let them proceed with their life through an alternative path, while others do their best to coerce people to complete the prescribed system otherwise they risk struggling through the rest of their life because it intentionally failed them.
But why does anyone need to be in schools at all? Why does the state get to be the final arbiter of what it means to ‘complete’ an education in order to get paid work, creating a false equivalence between ‘learning’ and ‘education’ while conflating it with the push to turn everyone into workers? How does a person ever really ‘finish’ learning?
While these are important questions, it is best to start closer to the beginning. There are several aspects of the first six years of a child’s life that we need to consider with regards to schooling because of how strongly they are impacted. Many of these are drastic changes from the ways that children exist prior to entering school, all of which focus on enforcing rules about obedience and submission. These include:
- Being forced to sit down quietly for long periods of time, learning to keep discussion and interjections to a minimum;
- Learning fewer skills of collaboration because of an increasing focus on individualisation as they age through the system;
- Being coerced into participating in activities that are increasingly organised by adults without their input;
- Being forced to focus primarily on literacy and numeracy skills, sometimes to the detriment of other skills, abilities, or interactions;
- Having almost zero time to ask questions and reflect upon what they’re learning;
- Neglecting the ways that children engage in critical thinking, pushing them to follow prescribed methods of questioning;
- Being punished for asking too many questions, regardless of their relevance;
- Having their autonomy violated through prescribed schedules that may not be the most healthy for their own bodies.
As children start primary school, they are already expected to be socialised “properly” and to follow rules at school that often are contradictory and exclusionary for many of them. Though we know that they are expected to be obedient, they also are supposed to speak their minds when adults request it. The combination of these two contradictory statements means that their ideas have to be phrased in ways that are seen as “acceptable” by the teachers, school administration, and national school programs they follow in order to achieve certain learning goals and to acquire specific skills. While they sit quietly most of the time, children are also expected to be healthy, interested in physical activity, and interactive with their peers at all times. They are chastised during breaks when they opt for less physical and more solitary activities because they’re “not getting enough exercise” or they’re “not making friends,” even though the rest of the school day is dedicated to interfering with these goals (regardless of whether or not that’s what the child wants to do). It’s also expected that children are able to achieve according to both national curricular plans and international measurements from the OECD. Governments set certain levels of literacy, numeracy, and science skills that children are expected to meet by a given age while also creating obstacles for them and their families to even make that possible. Meanwhile, many adult politicians run their mouths spouting pretty statements about inclusion and democracy in schools, even as they rip away any and all social services that these children and their families would need to survive.
As children become teenagers and move into secondary school, they are put in a system that effectively fast-tracks them through the pipeline of the workforce. They are expected to know who they are and what they want to do with their lives despite the fact that adults go to such lengths to diminish those opportunities for them. Those who do not fit in—because of their mental or physical health, ethnicity, race, gender, class status, migration status, or desire to resist—are sent through this pipeline but receive very few, if any, of its benefits. Some are put on a track that provides them far more opportunities to end up in prison, while others may be put on a track that helps the state institutionalise them for their “inability” to survive in a demanding world they had no part in creating. Should they be pushed behind the walls of prisons and institutions, many youth will become further segregated into structures that continue to exploit them, since they are regarded as sub-human. The state will then turn them into legal slaves who will receive next to nothing for their work, either being forced to perform because of their status in a prison or underpaid because of their disability status. Instead of support and freedom, they will be forced into a life in poverty.
Simply because this trajectory exists for any person, it is made more than clear that the “care” work that our society purports to value in the early years is later seen as unnecessary as we continue to grow into adulthood. Teenagers often do not receive the benefit of care by their teachers or society, with many blaming them for whatever failure they endure rather than exploring how such an entirely demoralising and inhuman system could be at fault. By the time they enter secondary school, the dehumanisation of teenagers is complete.
Throughout their time in secondary school, teenagers are supposed to connect their future adulthood to productivity and work tasks. They are to prepare for a life of credit and loans to survive with a bare minimum of anything: money, resources, care. Some hypocrites like to call this a ‘career’. Others actually have the nerve to call it a ‘free life’. No questions are allowed, no mutual care is found, and there is no feeling of being part of a group. You’re already categorised into what part of the hierarchy of the workforce you will be in. If you belong to the capitalist class, you of course have a guaranteed spot to maintain the class you were born into. As for the rest of the people? Who cares what happens to us. We’re left to figure everything out for ourselves and with minimal assistance. Solidarity, it seems, has been indoctrinated out of us by a system that focuses on the individual to the detriment of collaboration.
So, children grow up in a contradictory environment that denies their humanity while telling them that being human means they must be productive machines with specific skills. It tells them that they’re useless—often worse than worthless—if they don’t have them or struggle to perform them. In this process, the ability and space to ask necessary questions is thrown away and replaced with a system that encourages passivity, acceptance, and unwavering agreement. Kids and teenagers are not supposed to question either the school or the social system they live in. That is how the Western schooling system has been used as a colonising tool ever since its inception, which happened even more after the development of regulations for and about compulsory schooling. Further, many countries still maintain laws that allow schools and police to use physical punishment to the extreme, with police officers literally walking the halls of schools or patrolling outside of them, enforcing the required obedience and threatening someone’s removal and arrest for simply not attending school.
We consistently deny their human needs and right to resist against such a violent system, even in locations where policing is not done to that kind of excess. A constant argument used within anarchist spaces is that “children need to be in school” because they need to be looked after and cared for during a process of socialisation that can only happen within a space designated “for children.” It’s fairly common for adults to still maintain that they need to control children despite claims that they want liberation for everyone. Far too many of us maintain that this system of schooling as positive and unquestioningly support its continued existence, having swallowed much of the propaganda and believing that it can or should be reformed. We want to make decisions for people who we refuse to include in our struggles for liberation.
In the process of denying them the right to ask questions and decide for themselves about how best to organise their learning, children and teenagers are being stripped of their right to revolt and participate in society at large. In addition to the threat of physical punishment, many are also being medicalised into submission across the globe and in different ways. This is not to deny the existence of neurodivergence or the need for accommodations or medications that many people may need, especially as neurodivergent people are often expected to ‘fit in’ according to society’s expectations and their neurodivergence is frequently questioned as they age into adulthood; it’s to point out that we often institutionalise those who resist and demand answers for difficult questions, and we have ample evidence that marginalised and oppressed people across history have had to endure this. People who choose to resist might pay an incredibly high price for even daring to question this system, especially if they are poor, Indigenous, Black and disabled.
For example, children who are seen as being defiant have been diagnosed with behavioural disorders, like “oppositional defiant disorder.” Something like ODD is characterised by a pattern of ongoing anger or irritability and defiance towards authority figures, mirroring similar “disorders” of the past that have targeted marginalised peoples. This should prompt more questions: Who are they defying and opposing? How can young people not be angry when who they are is so vehemently denied, completely neglected, or overtly criminalised? How can they not be irritable when they are forced to exist within an oppressive structure that silences and abuses them? It’s impossible not to notice the ways in which our schools are outright banning the existence of queer people, and they are actively silencing any history that goes against white supremacy. Adults are making decisions that they claim are best for children when it’s really best for the status quo. It’s a constant that children have to endure such an environment because “adults know best” about what’s good for them to learn and know, even if it means putting them into spaces that coerce them into performing more “normal” behaviours. Why shouldn’t they defy “authority figures” who do little more than shut them out of the world they exist within, forcing them to memorise incomplete and inaccurate histories? Why should they respect a system that constantly pushes them to closet whatever they can about themselves just to be safe?
For these, among the myriad of other reasons, we believe that we should focus on regaining and maintaining the rights of young people to a life without schools. We believe that we all need to embrace our collective right to ask ‘why’, refusing to allow people and institutions to silence us when we point out their flaws. Asking ‘why’ implies a strong desire to understand the reasons and causes behind certain processes in our societies, enabling us to understand how things work together and the historical background for our present situation. Asking ‘why’ implies exploring our own existence, resisting the colonial and imperial attitudes that continue to hurt every single one of us. It helps us to disrupt the comfort that an extremely patriarchal system has created for many adults, forcing more people to come to terms with the harms that are done to many for the sake of the few.
We like to think that we identify as anarchists because we do not accept that our Western capitalist system is neither natural nor the best social system to live in. On the contrary, capitalism is a predatory system that is killing us with all of its available mechanisms. It’s killing our humanity, our connection to the environment and the planet, and it is ruining our home in every way possible. The schooling system, then, was also created in order to reproduce and teach the fragmentation of thought that the Western capitalist system necessitated through its nation-states and free market, all of which has pushed us into hyper-individualisation and believing that producing and consuming can make us happy. As anarchists, we must regain the revolutionary power of asking ‘why’, followed by asking the many other questions about how revolutionary tools can be used to create new societies. Because after understanding why and how we got here, it is important to act to figure out what we are going to do to abolish this system and create what we really need to survive.
We don’t seek to provide answers to these questions, as many of them are things that we need to discuss within our own geographies. The answers would be different depending on where and when you are because we all live within our own contexts. But we live in such similar systems that have been developed from many of the same ideas, and we need to work collectively to find as many answers as possible that will ensure we are all free. We feel, for this moment, it’s enough to ask the questions and push ourselves to consider the world around us so that we can better understand what we’re up against.