(Self-Directed) Education is a Political Act

[postmeta author=”Alexander Khost” photo=”/img/tp/alexander-khost.jpg” date=”2020-01-01″]Alexander Khost (he/him) is a father and youth rights advocate. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Tipping Points and founder of Voice of the Children. Read more[/postmeta]

The front page of the 1999 course calendar for the Anarchist Free Space and Free Skool (AFS) of Toronto stated:

Education is a political act. By deepening our knowledge of ourselves and the world around us, sharing skills and exchanging experiences in an egalitarian, non-hierarchical setting free of prejudice, we challenge disempowering habits and broaden our awareness of alternatives to the inequalities of a capitalist society.1

After reading those lines for the first time years ago, I began to rethink my own work with young people in the self-directed space we were in, and I slowly came to the realization that I was not an educator but rather a youth rights advocate. The great significance of this discernment and how it has reshaped the work I do with young people is still a surprise to me, and may be of use to others.

As I noticed is true for many of us who have stumbled into Self-Directed Education one way or another, my intention from the start was not necessarily to change the world or to challenge the politics of society. I was merely unhappy with my own public school upbringing and did not want the same or any of the available alternatives for my own children or the children I was working with in schools. After opening a democratic free school and later watching my children self direct their own education, I began to understand that my actions were not only educationally radical but also politically so. To be clear, I am talking about political ideology, which Wikipedia defines as:

a certain set of ethical ideals, principles, doctrines, myths or symbols of a social movement, institution, class or large group that explains how society should work and offers some political and cultural blueprint for a certain social order. A political ideology largely concerns itself with how to allocate power and to what ends it should be used…. Political ideologies have two dimensions: (1) goals: how society should be organized; and (2) methods: the most appropriate way to achieve this goal.2

Initially, I discovered and understood that conventional, compulsory U.S. schooling was molded into what it has become by rich philanthropists looking for personal, political, and financial gain. In part, I understood this by reading John Taylor Gatto’s An Underground History of American Education. He writes:

Forced schooling arose from the new logic of the Industrial Age — the logic imposed on flesh and blood by fossil fuel and high-speed machinery….

After the Civil War, utopian speculative analysis regarding isolation of children in custodial compounds where they could be subjected to deliberate molding routines, began to be discussed seriously by the northeastern policy elites of business, government, and university life. These discussions were inspired by a growing realization that the productive potential of machinery driven by coal was limitless….

Forced schooling was the medicine to bring the whole continental population into conformity with these plans so that it might be regarded as a “human resource” and managed as a “workforce.”3

Since my article concerns the politics of Self-Directed Education specifically, I will not continue to elaborate on the politics of conventional education but will instead discuss the politics of trust based Self-Directed Education.

An Overview of the History of Politics in SDE

I feel it necessary to look back at the roots of where Self-Directed Education4 came from in order to be able to understand, discuss, and practice current methodologies. Much of this history I have discussed in my prior writing in Tipping Points, and so, I will try to just briefly touch upon the important points here.

By far, the largest SDE movement in the United States was the Free School Movement of the 1960s and 1970s, initially inspired by the 1960 release of A. S. Neill’s book, Summerhill, A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. Neill himself refused to admit that Summerhill was political or to involve the school in any political propaganda, “The ideal is no propaganda in the school. Many socialist and communist teachers would not subscribe to this…. I am all for a war cry of NO PROPAGANDA OF ANY KIND.”5 Regardless, the school has still been treated as a threat by the U.K. Office for Standards in Education6 and within the politically motivated hippie counterculture movement, it directly inspired over six hundred schools to open across the U.S. in under a decade.7

Most U.S. free schools also closed their doors in that same decade, not able to outlast the 1980s shift toward conservatism. One of the schools that survived, of course, was the Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts which also drew its influence from Neill but decided to overhaul the methodology of how Self-Directed Education is practiced. And of course, Sudbury Valley itself then went on to inspire many more SDE schools and centers.

The Modern Schools were inspired by perhaps the most politicized SDE school principal in history, Francesco Ferrer i Gu√†rdia, who opened the first Escuela Moderna (Modern School) in Barcelona in 1901. Within a few years, over forty more Modern Schools in Barcelona and the surrounding area opened with many more using Ferrer’s school and books as a model. In 1909 Ferrer was falsely accused without trial by the Spanish Government of leading an anti-military uprising to assassinate the king and was executed by firing squad. More on the history of Modern Schools can be found here.

Elizabeth Ferm and her husband Alexis, opened the Children’s Playhouse in a blue collar neighborhood of New Rochelle, NY in 1898. The school moved into Brooklyn in 1901 and eventually found its way to downtown Manhattan. They struggled to keep the school running for working class families and due to lack of funds eventually closed in 1913.8 The couple later moved to and ran the Stelton Modern School in New Jersey, an anarchist colony and school. To date, the Modern School movement was the second largest SDE movement in the United States with anarchist schools springing up all over the U.S. and abroad over approximately ten years. Stelton was the longest running of the schools, surviving until the end of World War II.9 The educational model has been all but forgotten in part because the movement’s radical anarchist beliefs made it a target through the Second Red Scare.

[pullout]After opening a democratic free school and later watching my children self direct their own education, I began to understand that my actions were not only educationally radical but also politically so.[/pullout]

Others started their work in Self-Directed Education as a political act against the state, or at least were accused of such. For example, Leo Tolstoy’s short-lived Yasnaya Polyana, an SDE “peasant” school opened in 1860, in Tula Oblast, Russia.10 Tolstoy, a self-proclaimed anarchist, was suspected of being a revolutionary; his school and home were raided, and Yasnaya Polyana was closed two years after it had opened.11

Friedrich Froebel, the famous inventor of the kindergarten, also ran into political trouble when he found his schools banned in Prussia for “undermining traditional values by spreading atheism and socialism.”12 Froebel’s model of blending play and socialization had a great influence on many, including Elizabeth Ferm and also the American Transcendentalists A. Bronson Alcott and Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, who opened The Temple School, the first SDE school in Boston, in 1834.13 Interestingly, Peabody later went on to open the first kindergarten in the United States.14

The Civil Rights Movement gave rise to Charles Cobb’s Freedom Schools, the first of which opened in 1964. The schools were a reaction to the inequity and continued segregation of blacks and whites in public schools in the United States, despite the Supreme Court having declared this unconstitutional ten years earlier in Brown v. Board of Education. The program “was designed to prepare disenfranchised African Americans to become active political actors on their own behalf” and as a part of the “long struggle for freedom, voting rights, and quality education in the United States.”15 More on the history of racial justice in Self-Directed Education can be found here.

It is from these roots that the current models of Self-Directed Education grew. Notice how even this briefest history of SDE prominently features socialists, anarchists, and libertarians, all outcasts of the state and conventional society. Although SDE truly has apolitical roots in hunter and gatherer societies,16 once the industrial era arrived and governments around the world began enforcing compulsory schooling, Self-Directed Education took on new significance as a political response.

The Politics of SDE Today

It took me years and years to begin to understand the differences in practice of SDE models, their significance, and their relations to one another. These models can broadly be grouped into three categories that to some extent have corresponding political ideologies:

  • Freedom with a focus on autonomy
    For some who are practicing Self-Directed Education, the definition of freedom starts and ends with individual autonomy. While group cooperation may be necessary to achieve this, the end goal is preserving the individual’s freedom. This corresponds to the political ideologies of Libertarianism, which is defined as seeking “to maximize political freedom and autonomy, emphasizing freedom of choice, voluntary association and individual judgement.”17 With regard to SDE, this means prioritizing the individual’s needs within a community. In this method, the individual lives and learns by themselves until they seek out others or come into conflict, which should then be resolved in a manner that most closely aligns with the individuals’ interests.
  • Freedom with a focus on community
    For others, emancipation starts with cooperation, and the emphasis is not at all on the individual but on communal equity. Freedom is collectively built and maintained. This corresponds well with the ideologies of Socialism, defined as “doctrine that calls for public rather than private ownership or control of property and natural resources. According to the socialist view, individuals do not live or work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another.”18 With regard to SDE, this means prioritizing cooperation and a communal sense of belonging, aiming to create equity and harmony through which the individual can then find their own independence.
  • Autonomy through mutual aid
    And for others, freedom starts with the individual but that individual can only be free when all others are also not oppressed. The emphasis here is on the individual continuously striving towards their own freedom while supporting other community members in their own liberation efforts. The aim is equity, keeping freedom in balance. This fits well into the ideology of Anarchism, which is explained as, “a process whereby authority and domination is being replaced with non-hierarchical, horizontal structures, with voluntary associations between human beings.”19 With regard to SDE, this means prioritizing a voluntary collective of free individuals who have agreed to have concern for one another to ensure their equity and self-determination.

Practitioners across all three categories share trust in the individual and the ultimate goal of liberation. What sets them apart are their methodologies toward achieving that goal and what the “liberation” actually means to them. While my hope is truly that differing philosophies can find ways to align, I believe that it is also extremely important to understand and communicate clearly the differences in where we’re coming from and what we practice. Having clarity over the differing definitions of freedom and the ability to communicate clearly about such things can only help forge stronger bonds within our alliance.

[pullout]Having clarity over the differing definitions of freedom and the ability to communicate clearly about such things can only help forge stronger bonds within our alliance.[/pullout]

With that said, I created the following diagram as a visual aid to help understand the many various SDE methods at work, how they generally are similar and different, how their sense of “freedom” is ideologically politicized, and how they are allied as trust based models in contrast with fear based counterparts in the top section of the diagram. This diagram seeks not to pigeonhole any one model into a political ideology but rather to provide a broad understanding of where each model lies on a spectrum of definitions and methodologies of “freedom” and education as a political act.

[img class=”credit no-border” src=”/img/tp/2019/13387-khost-2.jpg” align=”center” width=”100%” alt=”A chart showing fear based and trust based models of education”]Diagram by Alexander Khost[/img]

Since freedom is rooted and established in trust, the act of stripping away that freedom starts with fear and control. Therefore, I have simply distinguished these two overarching philosophies into “Fear Based” and “Trust Based” categories. The fear based models of education are out of scope for this article (for more on that, start with this excellent article). However, I want to briefly touch upon why “Democratic Schools” are listed under this category. Note that “Free Schools” are listed under the trust based model; while most Free Schools are also democratic, it is possible to have democratic decision-making in fear based schools (e.g. “Vote on whether we’re studying the Nile or the Pyramids first…”) This distinction is not always clear and earlier in my research caused me a lot of confusion, especially in my travels to Europe where I learned that visiting a “democratic” school did not necessarily mean I could expect the school to be self-directed as well. It is also important to note that often (but not always) this did not mean the educators there were not interested in SDE. Rather, they were often working constrained by laws that make SDE illegal in countries like Greece, Turkey and Germany. Meanwhile, in the United States the adoption of democratic education within conventional schools can also be seen in classroom meeting trends and in the work of organizations like the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA).

On the “trust based” side of the diagram, most notable might be that I have placed unschooling under all three political ideologies. Unschooling is certainly the most difficult SDE methodology to pin down, since it is practiced for so many different reasons and in so many different ways. I broke it down into three general sub-groups:

  • Self-Governed Unschoolers under the Libertarian label are generally those unschoolers looking for independence from institutionalization. These are families who are focused on the liberation of their learners. While they might be a part of some collective or taking classes in various places, ultimately their focus is their own freedom and learning, not the welfare of any collective or group they may temporarily be a part of.
  • Decolonizing Unschoolers is best described by Zakiyya Ismail, who simply wrote, “It is about stepping out of an oppressive system and into a liberatory one.”20 For these unschoolers, this is not just about independence of one’s own learning; it is also about dismantling the oppressive system of conventional schooling in order to create an equitable world, and so, this model fits well under the Anarchism label.
  • Communal Unschoolers is admittedly a term I made up for clarification and distinction in this diagram. However, this is a very real type of unschooling, a type that I run across often in my own work with unschoolers. Communal Unschoolers are families who unschool as a collective in order to make it possible to do so for each individual family. There’s a reliance on each other and a buy-in in order for each learner to be able to unschool. Therefore, this model fits best under the label of Socialism.

As for schools and centers, I’ve placed Sudbury Schools and Liberated Learners under the Libertarian umbrella. Liberated Learners are listed here for the same previously mentioned reason that Self-Governed Unschoolers are in this category. And while Sudbury Schools are communities, their standard of no adult offerings and policy of barring parent involvement align with the notion of learning based primarily on the individual’s needs. Their School Meeting and Judicial Committee structures reflect the Libertarian idea that governance is necessary but should be made as small as is necessary to maintain autonomy.

I have listed Free Schools and Summerhill on the other end of the spectrum, under the Socialist label. While individual freedom is certainly valued highly in these schools, Summerhill and Free Schools generally emphasize being a collective reliant on communal equity. In contrast to Sudbury Schools, these schools generally have communal offerings (or classes in the case of Summerhill) and often rely on parent involvement in the community (or the adult “House Parents” and older youth “Beddies” who foster a sense of “family” at Summerhill, which is a boarding school). There is a real sense that a culture needs to be developed for a healthy learning atmosphere to thrive (much like the nineteenth century SDE Swiss educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi’s premise that an “emotionally secure environment” needs to be present for “successful learning” to take place).21

[pullout]A young person practicing Self-Directed Education will experience radical freedom and trust based ideologies, and those experiences will influence the development of their framing of the world.[/pullout]

Judith Suissa compares Summerhill to the third category listed in the diagram, anarchism, when she writes, “What Neill was really after was an appreciation of freedom for its own sake– a far cry from the social anarchists, who viewed freedom… as an inherent aspect of creating a society based on mutual aid, socio-economic equality and cooperation.”22 From this reasoning, I have placed in the anarchistic category Agile Learning Centers, as well as the more obvious Free Skools and Modern Schools (which directly declare/d themselves anarchistic). Agile Learning Centers were a direct reaction to the Free School model, retooling and reframing Free School practices for meetings, conflict resolution, and so on. These consent driven structures and nonhierarchical systems align with anarchist ideologies. Additionally, the ALC Network’s intentional dedication to social justice and equity separate it from the other SDE models and also fall under the definition of anarchistic values.

With all of this said, it is important to remember that each individual and each center is different, and that such diagrams are only useful as a general guide to understanding the methodologies. At the same time, this comparison of SDE models to political ideologies is also an important reminder that, while one does not need to support radical politics to believe in SDE, a young person practicing Self-Directed Education will experience radical freedom and trust based ideologies, and those experiences will influence the development of their framing of the world. The same is also true of children being raised in conventional fear based environments, different as the politically ideological implications may themselves be.

Articulating these SDE model differences while holding as foundational their trust based alliance is a practice intended to establish a greater bond. With this understanding, all of us in this world of Self-Directed Education can learn more from one another. During this time period where partisanship is dividing humanity so severely, it is important to remember our similarities and to remember that all individuals, regardless of political beliefs or educational beliefs or any other beliefs that diversify humanity, all deserve to be approached with respect and kindness. I am proud to be in alliance with other members of this trust based Self-Directed Education movement, and I celebrate our many flavors and methods.

For further discussion on this topic, please join us on this ASDE forum post (free registration required).



[1] Haworth, Robert H. Anarchist pedagogies : collective actions, theories, and critical reflections on education. PM Press, 2012.
[2] “List of political ideologies.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_political_ideologies. Accessed 31 December 2019.
[3] Gatto, John Taylor. The Underground History of American Education. Oxford Village Press, 2000.
[4] Please note, despite Self-Directed Education (SDE) being a relatively new term for describing this method of education, I will use it throughout this section to remain consistent and clear in my explanation of this model of education.
[5] Croall, Jonathan. Neill of Summerhill : the permanent rebel. Routledge, 2014.
[6] “Summerhill’s fight with the UK government.” http://www.summerhillschool.co.uk/summerhills-fight.php. Accessed 31 December 2019.
[7] Allen Graubard, “The Free School Movement,” Harvard Educational Review, Volume 42, Issue 3, September 1972.
[8] Avrich, Paul. The Modern School Movement : Anarchism and Education in the United States. Princeton University Press, 2014.
[9] Ibid
[10] Simmons, Ernest J. Tolstoy. Routledge, 2016.
[11] “The Pupil of the People: Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy’s Peasant Schools at Yasnaya Polyana.” https://geohistory.today/tolstoy-peasant-school/. Accessed 31 December 2019.
[12] “Friedrich Froebel (1782–1852).” Education Encyclopedia – StateUniversity.com, https://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/1999/Froebel-Friedrich-1782-1852.html. Accessed 31 December 2019.
[13] “Temple School (Massachusetts).” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Temple_School_(Massachusetts). Accessed 31 December 2019.
[14] “Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, 1804–1894.” http://www.alcott.net/cgi-bin/home/champions/Peabody.html. Accessed 31 December 2019.
[15] “Exploring the History of Freedom Schools.” Civil Rights Teaching, https://www.civilrightsteaching.org/voting-rights/exploring-history-freedom-schools
[16] Gray, Peter. “The Human Nature of Teaching II: What Can We Learn from Hunter-Gatherers?” Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/freedom-learn/201105/the-human-nature-teaching-ii-what-can-we-learn-hunter-gatherers. Accessed 31 December 2019.
[17] “Libertarianism.” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Libertarianism. Accessed 31 December 2019.
[18] Dagger, Richard, and Terence Ball. “Socialism.” Encyclop√¶dia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/socialism. Accessed 31 December 2019.
[19] Wittel, Andreas. “What is anarchism all about?” The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/what-is-anarchism-all-about-50373. Accessed 31 December 2019.
[20] Ismail, Zakiyya. “Why Unschooling as Decolonisation.” Growing Minds, https://www.growingminds.co.za/learning-reimagined-conference-why-unschooling-as-decolonisation/. Accessed 31 December 2019.
[21] “Johann Pestalozzi (1746–1827).” Education Encyclopedia – StateUniversity.com, https://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2319/Pestalozzi-Johann-1746-1827.html. Accessed 31 December 2019.
[22] Suissa, Judith. Anarchism and Education: A Philosophical Perspective. PM Press, 2010.

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