Article: Notes On An Anarchist Pedagogy

by Ron Scapp

21st May 2018

To enter classroom settings … with the will to share the desire to encourage excitement, was to transgress. Not only did it require movement beyond accepted boundaries, but excitement could not be generated without a full recognition of the fact that there could never be an absolute set agenda governing teaching practices. Agendas had to be flexible, had to allow for spontaneous shifts in direction.

 bell hooks (1994: 7)

Introductory Note: On Being Reasonable, Or Not

Soon after the 2016 US presidential election, my book Reclaiming Education: Moving Beyond the Culture of Reform was published. I believe it to be a well-argued, cogent and even-handed critique of the deleterious influence and impact that neoliberalism has had on the United States generally, and on (public) education specifically. The book is, to my mind anyway, a hard-hitting, clear and persuasive reaffirmation of education understood as a transformative process – understood as what Paulo Freire calls “education as the practice of freedom”. Such an understanding and affirmation of education stands in stark contrast to the way neoliberals construe and promote education, that is, education viewed as a “product”. I believe Reclaiming Education to be a very reasonable book informed by the important work of Henry A. Giroux, bell hooks, Stanley Aronowitz and Angela Davis, among many others. Unfortunately, it strikes me that the circumstances that made being reasonable reasonable have drastically changed.

As a result, something that might typically be considered less reasonable, even much less reasonable, may be required of us, by us. Of course, I say this at a time that is still early-on in the Trump administration’s second year, a time during which we have witnessed (on a daily basis) one unreasonable assertion or action after another. At such a moment it thus seems reasonable to reconsider, rethink and reassert the claim that education is a process of transformation – that, however unreasonable it may seem to some, education ought to be fully embraced by us as the practice of freedom, just as Freire asserted. We may now need to acknowledge and accept that being reasonable under the current assault on education has its limits and, in fact, may prove to be unreasonable. The assault on education, after all, is an assault on freedom, and, how can we reasonably stand by and allow such an assault to go unchallenged?

I say this, not so much as some kind of “tit for tat” response to the frightening display of blatant disregard for reason forwarded by Trump and his many spokespeople (shout-persons?), as an attempt to break away from the numerous strictures of trying to maintain “being reasonable” in this moment of unreasonableness (see Scapp 2016a). So, what follows is more or less a compilation of notes on what might be considered an anarchist pedagogy. I want to advance (as I and others have done before) a pedagogy that articulates and advocates a stance against the fascistic moves to (further) control and constrict education as the practice of freedom. But here, in these notes, I want to present this stance in an abridged manner, and to offer those reading a brief argument and means for liberating teaching and learning, in and out of the classroom, in the ever-strangulating age of Trump.[1]

These notes are inspired by and loosely modeled on David Graeber’s musings, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology (2004), as well as drawing influence from Robert Haworth’s anthology, Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education (2012). But, unlike Graeber’s and Haworth’s bold efforts to lay out and forward anarchy, my efforts here are far more modest in scope and ambition. I also suspect that I express a certain tentativeness regarding anarchy as such. My goal here is to consider, in a very cursory and provisional, but honest, manner (in this, Graeber and I are very much on the same page), how educators might approach and “deploy” anarchy methodologically in the classroom. I want to offer something concise, clear and useful to help those so inclined to resist and overcome the stultifying rigidity that has imbued itself throughout education on all levels of instruction – a rigidity that has been championed by neoliberals and social conservatives alike in the name of reform (in this, I believe that Haworth and I are on the same page – see Scapp 2016b).

I want to make a move here, a move that many may well perceive as somewhat (or very) unreasonable, a move to explicitly embrace anarchy methodologically as a means to purposefully reconsider the dynamics of education under siege and to promote “education as the practice of freedom”. Now, it may just be the case that embracing anarchy methodologically is tantamount to embracing it ideologically. But for my purposes, in what I am attempting to sketch out, I want to simply note that whatever an anarchist pedagogy might prove to be, it may not provide us an argument for advancing anarchy universally – and doing so is not the purpose here. I am aiming to offer a short and straightforward example of (and rationale for) embracing education as the practice of freedom, and using “an anarchist pedagogy” to achieve this.


Note #1: Why An Anarchist Pedagogy?

When I was growing up anarchy had pretty much one and only one possible meaning: utter chaos and a total disregard for any notion of the rule of law. The term anarchy evoked fear, and was identified with those who were unpatriotic and represented a threat to the promise and security of the United States. This was, after all, during the Cold War, and the Vietnam War, and fears over the security of the nation and the world itself ran deep, as they do once more (whether real or imagined). As Justin Mueller notes in his essay, “Anarchism, the State, and the Role of Education”:

Anarchism has had a rather bedeviled career, maligned by many, misunderstood by most, and marginalized even by erstwhile theoretical allies. In the popular imagination, it is often seen as simply synonymous with chaos, disorder, or violence; more likely to evoke the image of a smashed Starbucks window than a nuanced philosophy based upon principles of economic and political equality.

(in Haworth 2012: 14-15)

I believe that Mueller’s summation of the attitude and general perspective regarding anarchy here in the United States is pretty much spot on, and why it will lead many to question my desire (rationale) to in any way employ “an anarchist pedagogy” in the name of education.

In his introduction to Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, David Graeber titles the first fragment: “Why are there so few anarchists in the academy?” (2004: 2). My impulse is to respond simultaneously, “duh!” and then “duh!”: first, I would never ask that question, for many reasons; second, “duh!” how could anyone “inside the academy” not instinctively know why? (see Spivak 1993 and Bourdieu 1988). And, of course, Graeber does know why. But he is much more optimistic (?) than I. And he is certainly not naïve about the academy.

I suppose my question would be/is, “But why are there so many authoritarians and even fascists in the (US) academy?” And, my impulse is to respond simultaneously to my own question: “duh!” and then “duh!”: first, why ask such a question given the history of education in the United States; and secondly, “duh!” – given the documentation of the various abuses of power historically throughout our school systems and the current vexed nature of education in our nation, what other response is there than “duh!”? There are many scholars and activists who have called our attention to this history and current state of education in the United States, but Joel Spring’s work comes readily to mind, and his book Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of Dominated Cultures in the United States should offer even those resistant to accepting such a history enough evidence and analysis to at least acknowledge that schooling has never been free of politics (oppressive values and forces), and specifically a politics of devaluation and domination of non-white peoples. As Spring rightly notes:

Unfortunately, violence and racism are a basic part of American history and of the history of schools. From colonial time to today, educators have preached equality of opportunity and good citizenship, while engaging in acts of religious intolerance, racial segregation, cultural genocide, and discrimination against immigrants and nonwhites.

(2012: 2)

So actually, my question (note) is: Given the history that Spring and many others have documented, and the current state of education, how can we not consider “an anarchist pedagogy”? That is, how can we not demand “education as the practice of freedom”? Once again, the response must be: “duh!” – this is so because those of us of committed to education as the practice of freedom must re-enter our various educative spaces and locations and be prepared to advocate for and enact the liberatory and transformative power of education (once again).


Note #2: Self Critique, Yet Again

Like many Americans (and many others around the world), I have been attempting to process the Trump election and his presidency. Of course, this is difficult on many levels, in part because he has quickly and loudly begun to do things (sign “executive order” after “executive order”, as well as appoint questionable individual after questionable individual to his cabinet and the Supreme Court) that will have, and have already had, important consequences. One such action/appointment has been the successful installation of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education.

This is certainly not the first time that a Secretary of Education has been so openly hostile to public education, and education as the practice of freedom. One need only remember Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education, William Bennett, and his explicit charge to dismantle the Department of Education and to upend public education in the process. Since the Reagan era, the impact and effect of neoliberalism (and its push to privatize everything, including public schools by way of the charter school and “choice” movement) have done real harm to students, teachers, administrators and entire communities. And now Betsy DeVos is poised to continue the assault on education in a manner that is nothing less than the (patho)logical next step in the corporatization of education.

That the corporatization of education is already well underway – one could even argue that it is already achieved – doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. I believe that the work of Michael Apple, bell hooks, Henry A. Giroux, Kenneth J. Saltman, Paulo Freire, Angela Davis, Alex Molnar and the many other theorists and critics who have identified and confronted the influences and consequences of neoliberalism, have also pointed to numerous ways for achieving education as the practice of freedom.

But, at this particularly dark moment in our nation’s history, I feel the need to act inside the classroom in a manner that more readily and visibly embodies the important and insightful critiques and guideposts of critical pedagogy,[2] perhaps in a manner, inspired by Graeber and Haworth, that rejects and abandons (education) policy, and more demonstratively and communally embraces the liberatory and transformative power of education itself, free from the bondage of neoliberalism.

Early on in Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Graeber offers us: “against policy (a tiny manifesto)”. Graeber tells us:

The notion of “policy” presumes a state or governing apparatus which imposes its will on others. “Policy” is the negation of politics; policy is by definition something concocted by some form of elite, which presumes it knows better than others how their affairs are to be conducted. By participating in policy debates the very best one can achieve is to limit the damage, since the very premise is inimical to the idea of people managing their own affairs.

(2004: 9)

And, as the people I have identified in these notes thus far all document, policy (education reform) is little more than a “governing apparatus which imposes its will” on teachers, students, administrators, and entire communities with high stakes testing, the deskilling of teachers, the cuts to and diversion of funding for public education, and the imposition of the corporate model to direct and control all “outcomes”. And, following Graeber’s pushback to “policy”, I want to enact, to whatever degree possible, “an anarchist pedagogy” to acknowledge, confront and overcome the very dominating and authoritarian dynamics at work in the classroom today from kindergarten right on through to graduate school.

I want to evoke and provoke the issue of anarchy as a counterforce and impulse to the “governing apparatus which imposes its will on others”. I want to engage education as the practice of freedom methodologically, and not just ideologically (of course, I would agree that a genuine embracing of education as the practice of freedom ideologically would axiomatically mean to embrace it methodologically as well – as I believe Paulo Freire and bell hooks demonstrate, and many others also successfully participate in such engaged pedagogy).

But for my musings here, I want to consider enacting freedom directly and in totality throughout the classroom. This is the case, in part, because I want to challenge myself, and to some degree many of my colleagues, to once again consider and reconsider how we “are” in the classroom, living and embodying education as the practice of freedom, and, in part, to accept the need to acknowledge, confront and address the reality that we “operate”, however critically, within the very “governing apparatus which imposes its will”. As a result, I am, for the sake of these notes, forcing myself to fully embrace freedom, and, to whatever degree possible, attempting to reimagine and recomport myself toward promoting education as the practice of freedom.

As good a “critical” pedagogue as I believe I am and have been, for me these notes are a call to identify my beliefs, habits and pedagogy, not unlike Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy were for him. These notes are a consideration of how I embrace and enact those beliefs, habits and pedagogy, and represent a challenge to improve upon my pedagogy. I have decided that rethinking my own pedagogy in light of an anarchist pedagogy might prove the most challenging, informative and constructive mediation on pedagogy I could contemplate and enact at this moment.


Note # 3: A Short Take on Education as the Practice of Freedom

In addition to taking the time and space for self-reflection and critique, another purpose of these notes is to offer someone who hasn’t read bell hooks or Paulo Freire a sense of the look and feel of such teaching in a short form, like some kind of field guide. I also want to offer those who do engage with the work of such critical pedagogues, and who do such good work themselves, a discussion that they can have ready at hand to disseminate to students, colleagues and even “policy makers” to help drive home the importance of resisting the disastrous effects of “the banking system”[3] of teaching. I also want to offer them an argument that emphasizes and promotes the many possibilities of the transformative power of education, when embraced as the practice of freedom. And, just as I am using these notes as an opportunity to challenge myself, perhaps these notes can be of similar use to those who regard themselves as critical pedagogues and who engage education as the practice of freedom. It is from this very respectful and humble position that I believe we all always need to rethink, reconsider and reclaim our pedagogies from the “governing apparatus which imposes its will”.[4]

At this moment I am particularly interested in rethinking the pedagogy I bring to the classroom, and hopefully help to create in the classroom, because there has been a very palpable recoiling due to the gush of emotions since Trump’s election. Students, colleagues and just about everyone I meet are pushing hard to explain, resist and (sadly) even in some cases to justify and defend Trump’s agenda and manner. If, as I have already noted, politics has always been at play (at work) in our education systems, our schools and our classrooms, it appears that we are currently experiencing an intensification of the polarizing impact of (bad) politics on education, and, along with it, an intensification of the scrutiny over what is being taught and by whom. The various moves to impose a corporate model on education and to specifically limit education as the practice of freedom that have unfolded over the past thirty years have proven to be successful in numerous ways (see Apple 1982, Aronowitz 2000, Davis 2012, Freire 1992, Gabbard 2003, Giroux 2011, hooks 1994, McLaren 1994, Molnar 2005, Saltman 2003).[5]

We have encountered the ongoing assault on academic freedom: from the imposition of “standardized syllabi” that “inform” the consumers (the students) what to expect from the product (the course), to the influence of “for profit” schools promoting “marketable skills and degrees” that continue to undercut and otherwise call into question the “value” of the humanities and fields of inquiry such as Ethnic Studies, LGBT Studies, and so on; and from the ever increasing demand for educators and students to adhere to the corporate high benchmarks of productivity, efficiency and accountability, buying-in to the belief in the authority of the market itself, to the continued devaluation of the “labor” of educators as educators, and to the promotion of educators as merely distributors of useful information (that is, to be more useful in and to the labor market).

These notes are intended to take a simultaneously reflective break from the ever-growing authoritarian reach of the state and of “the market”, and at the same time to suggest some decisive actions to promote and reassert education as the practice of freedom. This is why I have said that I would like these notes to serve as a kind of field guide to education as the practice of freedom.

As many of us directly involved in the “field of education” (working as teachers and administrators from kindergarten through twelfth-grade, or those working in schools of education and on various education initiatives and in policy think-tanks) have witnessed (and sometimes promote and/or confront), there is much emphasis on a “best practice” approach and on “evidence-based” support for said practices. As a result, so much of education research and teaching is “data-driven”, even when the data is suspect (or just wrong). And, still more harmful, there exists a prejudice against “theory” and against a theoretical approach to teaching within a social/political/cultural context that emphasizes other aspects and dimensions of teaching and learning (such as the history and legacy of racism, sexism, class elitism, homophobia and biases against those with abilities and disabilities that render them “problematic” or outside the mainstream of education concern). All of this leads to an obsession with “information”, to the detriment of teaching and learning (see Scapp 2016b: Chapters 5 and 6). We also wind up with no vision or mission – education becomes little more than a “jobs preparatory program” and a competition in the market place. This is what leads us to the litany of reform programs (from the Bush administration’s “No Child Left Behind” to Obama’s “Race to the Top”, never mind the practically innumerable local initiatives attempting to “fix” education). The results are proving disastrous for all.

At the same time, even though someone may employ a theoretical stance and perspective, this doesn’t guarantee a successful classroom dynamic. We need to remember that how we are (a concern of these notes from the very start) is just as important as what we are presenting, and even why. We need to establish trustworthiness and a sense that students have the freedom to explore, challenge, work together, and even be wrong. Of course, I recognize that the classroom dynamics will look different in elementary school than in a graduate seminar, but for the sake of this meditation on pedagogy, I would like to posit that while acknowledging the differences that exist at different levels of instruction, the essential character of “education as the practice of freedom” ought to be manifest at every level, and at every turn. The hard and important work of good teaching is helping to create and establish that freedom.


Note # 4: An Example from the Field

As I’ve just mentioned in the previous note, of course I believe that age and level of instruction bring with them genuine differences to the learning environment, and so part of the goal of these notes is to provoke more and different explicit engagements toward embracing and enacting education as the practice of freedom at each level – by those teaching at each of those different levels of instruction. In addition, as Haworth’s Anarchist Pedagogies acknowledges and discusses, anarchy itself is multifarious and is differentiated depending on any number of circumstances and “localities”. As Allan Antiliff puts it in the Afterword to Haworth’s anthology, “I was struck again by the diversity of approaches and perspectives within anarchist pedagogy, as well as the many avenues awaiting further development” (2012: 326). So, I very much acknowledge the many different layers, levels and dynamics of teaching and learning (whether in state-run schools – i.e. public schools – home-schooled children and private institutions of all stripes), as well as acknowledge the complexity of “anarchy” itself and of anarchist pedagogies. What I want to offer here is just one example of how, at both the undergraduate and graduate level, we might attempt (or at least entertain?) an anarchist pedagogy – in part, to challenge and push ourselves as educators and to promote education as the practice of freedom.

In my introductory note I indicated (or at least suggested) that I am not a self-described anarchist, and may have reservations regarding a politics predicated on anarchy as such (I will say more about that later). I am much more allied and associated with those who typically get identified as “critical pedagogues” and with critical pedagogy itself. But, as I also remarked in the introductory note, I feel compelled to push myself in an anarchist direction (action) precisely because of the particular moment in which we find ourselves. And, while I have always practiced what bell hooks calls “an engaged pedagogy”, one that honors and respects education as the practice of freedom, I feel that it is necessary to explicitly embody acts of resistance against “a state or governing apparatus which imposes its will on others”, and simultaneously to explicitly embody acts of liberation in the classroom. While I do believe that critical pedagogy strives for this and demands strategies for achieving an engaged pedagogy, I feel it necessary to consider more fully an anarchist engagement as a means of considering and reconsidering my own “critical” pedagogy. What follows is just one modest example of an attempt to disrupt the stultifying status quo while struggling to engender greater freedom and student participation in teaching and learning.

Just as there has been increased monitoring and deskilling of K-12 educators (kindergarten through twelfth grade), those teaching in higher education have also encountered the impact of the “state or governing apparatus which imposes it will”. This type of imposition comes in many forms and varieties, just as is the case with K-12 education, but, regardless of the form or type, this imposition is consistently mandated both by the state and manipulated by the many corporations (educational entrepreneurs) now “dedicated” to improving education, with their alleged innovative tests and other instruments that better “measure” student success and teacher productivity. At the college and university level, there is an ever-increasing attempt to control and restrict (academic) freedom, in and out of the classroom. This is also achieved by different means, but one major factor is through the conformity (and concomitant rigidity) demanded (dictated) by all sorts of accreditation bodies, both at the department and program level. The accrediting organizations get to make such demands before placing their imprimatur on an “approved” program. And this is also done at the university level as a whole (for example, by regional accrediting agencies and associations that cover different sections of the United States, through which each institution “gets accredited”). What is interesting (that is to say depressing and oppressing) is just how readily and willingly so many professors and (I suppose a bit more understandably) administrators accept, adopt and require these “impositions” (the establishment of very specific criteria regarding “learning objectives and outcomes”, as well as the “collection” of vast amounts of data all required to get accredited or re-accredited). One consequence of these mandates has been the steady transformation of course syllabi from what was once an expression of academic freedom and (often) a somewhat idiosyncratic articulation of an individual professor’s “take” on a subject, theme or discipline to what is now an almost uniform publication that pronounces, in advance, everything required by the regional accreditation organization. In addition, these accreditation organizations more and more frequently not only tell you that you must collect this data, they also tell you what are the “acceptable” categories, terminology and objectives. Thus, one college course syllabus now looks almost identical to any other syllabi, even from a different discipline, all, to my mind, in an attempt to regulate teaching and learning, and bring them under the control and watchful eye of the “state or governing apparatus which imposes its will” (see Scapp 2016b).

Now there are many unfortunate consequences to such conformity and uniformity, but what I would like to focus on here is how such an imposition contributes to working against education as the practice of freedom, and how in the name of “rigor” we allow rigidity to set in and control our classrooms. By requiring that professors reproduce a syllabus from a universal template, to ensure clarity, student responsibility, due dates and all course requirements, departments and universities impose a form and structure on all courses and rigidly demand conformity. Please understand that I very much appreciate clarity and the articulation of responsibilities and so on, but what gets sacrificed in the process is something I believe is essential to education as the practice of freedom, namely the freedom to encounter each class as a community of active participants in teaching and learning, and not just the passive recipients of information and instruction. To some, the “syllabus issue” may seem a relatively minor one, but for me it indicates and creates the very opposite educative space that I attempt to offer and negotiate with each and every class I teach. And, my refusal to perform accordingly, specifically to distribute a syllabus on the first or second day of class (if at all) is both an act of resistance (however minor in the grand scheme of things) and an important act of invitation and welcome to those students in the class. In essence, I am, with the effort and contribution of the class, attempting to create a different educative space from the one that is expected to be uniformly implemented via the “universal syllabus”.

There is a long tradition of attempting to create such an “other space”. Feminist pedagogy has argued for and provided such other spaces, at times at grave personal and professional cost (denial of tenure, promotion, as well as ridicule). So too have disciplines and perspectives as diverse as Ethnic Studies and Queer Studies, and Environmental Studies and Performance Studies offered challenges to the constrictive traditional learning environment (space) and also offered new possibilities of reconfiguring those spaces (in and outside the classroom). In his essay “Spaces of Learning: The Anarchist Free Skool”, Jeffery Shantz rightly notes that:

Social theorist Michel Foucault used the occasion of his 1967 lecture, “Of Other Spaces”, to introduce a term that would remain generally overlooked with his expansive body of work, the notion of “heterotopia”, by which he meant a countersite or alternative space, something of an actually existing utopia. In contrast to the nowhere lands of utopias, heterotopias are located in the here-and-now of present-day reality, though they challenge and subvert that reality. The heterotopias are spaces of difference. Among the examples Foucault noted were sacred and forbidden spaces which are sites of personal transition.

(in Haworth 2012: 124)

It is precisely this effort to help create another kind of space, a “heterotopia”, that leads me to disrupt the distribution of the syllabus as the first gesture of the semester, and to solicit and elicit contributions and participation from the class toward this end.

Part of the reason that complying with the “syllabus-edict” is problematic is that it fully initiates and substantiates “the banking system” of teaching that Paulo Freire so astutely identified and named, and so thoughtfully and thoroughly criticized (as oppressive). Participating in the automatic act of handing out the syllabus (hardcopy or electronic) constitutes the very first “deposit” within the banking system, and renders students passive from the very start: “This is what you will need to know!”. So, the very modest and simple gesture of not distributing the syllabus initiates instead the very first activity for the entire class, specifically, a discussion of what the class will be.

Of course, such a stance, such a gesture, doesn’t mean that I would not have thought through the course beforehand. Certainly, I envision a course that would be meaningful and connected to their program of study. But, what I do not do is “decide” everything in advance, and leave no room for input, suggestions and contributions to the syllabus that we create, to enhance the course we create. This offers students a (new?) way of interacting in the class, with each other and the teacher, a way of engaging in social and educative interactions that are mutual and dialogic from the very start. As Shantz claims:

Anarchist pedagogy aims toward developing and encouraging new forms of socialization, social interaction, and the sharing of ideas in ways that might initiate and sustain nonauthoritarian practices and ways of relating.

(in Haworth 2012: 126)

I am claiming that the simple and modest gesture of extending a welcome to participate goes a long way “toward developing and encouraging new forms” of teaching and learning, new forms of mutual and dialogic interaction that are both respectful of the subject matter and of the students, and, if successful, does create the very “heterotopia” Foucault and Shantz describe.

I also ask students about the ways we might be able to evaluate their work and the course itself, evaluate the success of the teaching and learning, and my ability to help facilitate successful teaching and learning. The results vary, but students always come up with interesting and innovative ways to evaluate and consider their work and the value of the course.

I suspect that someone who feels very obligated to teach “required material”, for a biology or math course, might say that such “flexibility” and “student input” are unacceptable because it is not doable in their classes, and is even detrimental to staying “on pace” with the course – that they don’t have even one class “to waste” on such a gesture, such an invitation to contribute to the dynamics of the class. I, respectfully, disagree, and I have worked with colleagues who teach such “rigid” courses, and helped them experiment with inviting student contributions to the making of the course (in some cases it is only the first class, but in others that “activity” extends well into the semester).

I fully understand the concerns some may have regarding this action not to distribute the course syllabus and to have students directly contribute toward its creation. But, it is truly amazing to witness the levels of involvement and responsibility by all. And, this first gesture is a genuine one. It allows both the teacher and students an opportunity to create a different kind of educative space and embrace education as the practice of freedom.

Note #5: Anarchy means no Rulers, but can We still have Leadership (in the Classroom)?

Justin Mueller, in his essay “Anarchism, the State and the Role of Education”, is again helpful when he notes:

The word “anarchy” comes from the Greek, “an” meaning “no” or “without”, and “archos”, meaning “ruler” or “authority”. In this sense, the concept does not mean “chaos” but rather an opposition to hierarchical power relationships, which are the corporeal embodiment of the notion of “opaque” authority. Thus opposition to the State and capitalism are appropriately features of anarchist theory, but they are incidental byproducts of this primary rejection of hierarchy, of divisions between those who command and those who are compelled to obey. This simple principle of opposition to hierarchy and imposed authority, taken seriously, logically extends to an opposition to all dominating and exploitative social, political and economic power relationships, including not just capitalism and the State, but patriarchy, racism, sexism, heterosexism, war (and by extension, imperialism), and any number of other manifestations of power disparity as harmful to human development.

(in Haworth 2012: 15-16, see also Scapp in Saltman and Gabbard 2003)

I quote Mueller at length here because he succinctly offers us a useful description of anarchy and touches upon some important issues that I want to connect specifically to classroom dynamics, following up on my “syllabus example” in the previous note.

As exaggerated or melodramatic as it might strike some, my not-distributing-the-syllabus-action is for me, the students and my colleagues a bold act indeed. It not only indicates that “we” share the important task of laying out the course, but it is also a blatant disruption of business as usual, one that can and does have consequences (from very good pedagogical results, to some vexed administrative and programmatic reactions). And, in essence, I see it as a moment of anarchist pedagogy, but one that, in fact, taps into and invites the expression of solidarity and leadership at the very moment that the expected authoritarian gesture is abandoned. The action of not distributing the syllabus sets off reactions and concerns, but they are now reactions and concerns of the entire class (including me). I suppose that there are any number of other gestures (non-actions) that could also disrupt the class-as-usual modality (again, one can think of numerous strategies emanating from feminist pedagogies to the techniques of the late controversial psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan). But, I believe that offering students the possibility (and the responsibility) to participate (differently) provides an opportunity for genuine solidarity and leadership in the class.

I know that Mueller notes that “anarchy” means without a ruler or authority, but I want make a distinction between “ruler” and an “authority”. I do not mean to split hairs here or in any way undermine my own (attempt at an) anarchist pedagogy, by re-inscribing “leadership” and “authority” in the now “syllabus-less” class. But, perhaps as a consequence of the influence of critical pedagogy, I still want to believe (hope) that when presented with such opportunities students do work collectively (in solidarity) and guide (lead) each other and themselves precisely because they tap into their own expertise and knowledge (authority) and their natural desire to learn.

As I have previously acknowledged, I view myself very much in the tradition of “critical pedagogy”, but also acknowledge that these notes are very much a genuine expression and reconsideration of that pedagogy, of my pedagogy. I am guessing that if anyone has read this far into these notes, they have either “tolerated” my “critical” perspective and leanings, and my commitment to “education as the practice of freedom”, or have continued to read on just to compile more evidence of my naïve “progressive” view of education as “transformative”. I admit to all of this, but with an important caveat: my “critical pedagogy” is neither unexamined nor a “blind” (naïve) buying-in to what Richard Kahn would identify as the “industrial strivings of modernity” or “the ideology of progress” (see Kahn in Amster et al 2009). While I do employ and deploy Freire, I come to him with the strong influences of feminism (specifically bell hooks), Ethnic Studies, and postmodernism. As a result, I am well aware of the language and ideology Kahn warns us about, but believe my own work and disposition help prevent me from falling prey to such dangers – these notes are, for me, another example of not remaining fixed or (self-)satisfied with my pedagogy (see Scapp in Freire et al 1997).

So, my modest attempt at engaging an anarchist pedagogy strikes me as no less challenging to myself or the students if we consider the notion of liberatory pedagogical engagement as an opportunity to express and further develop their own expertise and authority. I see this as an important example of how knowledge, expertise and authority typically get co-opted by individuals and institutions and converted into “authoritarian” positions and stances, and denied to students, save on the performance of complying to this or that task or requirement. For me this is similar to confusing ambition with greed – I want students to be ambitious, to desire and yearn for knowledge and wisdom, and they need to be ambitious to do so. But, alas, in our sorry state (literally), ambition is only understood (known) as greed.

A Final Note: Of course more needs to be said, but what I’ve said will cost me

From the Introductory Note, I have acknowledged that these notes were to be very much considered a “cursory and provisional, but honest” attempt at rethinking my own pedagogy at this particular dark moment in US history. I also know that much more needs to be worked out and much more has been worked out by others. But, this was intended to be a moment of honest reflection on my own pedagogy, and an attempt to continue mapping out new directions and strategies to engage education as the practice of freedom.

The syllabus action is just one of many such actions and non-actions taken by me each and every class. I also, whenever and wherever possible, attempt such actions and non-actions during committee meetings and other gatherings where the typical hierarchical authoritarian rule is at play. This involves many gestures, many comments, many risks. I have purposely spoken about one particular act, and not about many others. I have done so to avoid (or at least minimize) the backlash, from many quarters, that even these modest notes will no doubt provoke.

Even contemplating an anarchist pedagogy these days is risky business and I know that even what little I have considered in these notes will cost me, as it has cost others. As we know, people in charge don’t even like the “suggestion” that the order of things is subject to debate and possibly being disordered. My work, in and out of the classroom, has always been a struggle to have that debate and to create such disorder (not chaos and violence), to create “heterotopias” wherever possible, however modestly (see Scapp 2006). My own background in philosophy, education and Ethnics Studies has led me to act in certain ways; it seemed appropriate to consider acting even more – even if it turns out that what I am doing should be continued.

In her essay “Anarchism, Pedagogy, Queer Theory and Poststructuralism” Toward a Positive Ethical Theory, of Knowledge and the Self”, Lucy Nicholas claims:

Many anarchist pedagogical practices and perspectives can be understood alongside poststructuralism and queer theory because they are concerned with subjectivity, in terms of shaping individuals according to maximum possible “autonomy”. This is a process that both perspectives tend to consider as fundamentally situated and collective. As such, anarchist approaches to pedagogy can easily be allied with poststructuralist ideas about the subject as nonfoundational and, therefore, while not predisposed to any particular way of being, having the potential to be fostered according to a particular ethic.

(in Haworth 2012: 242)

What I have attempted to begin here is to understand my own postmodern perspectives and pedagogy in light of what an anarchist pedagogy might be (for me). I wanted to push myself (however far I could), to take a “particular way of being” (my way of being in and out of the classroom) and to consider “a particular ethic”, an anarchist ethic and pedagogy.



Works Cited

Apple, Michael (2012), Education and Power, New York: Routledge.

Aronowitz, Stanley (2000), The Knowledge Factory, Boston: Beacon Press.

Ball, Stephen J. (ed.) (2013), Foucault and Education: Disciplines and Knowledge, New York: Routledge.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1998), Homo Academicus, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Davis, Angela (2013), The Meaning of Freedom, San Francisco: City Lights.

Amster, Randall, Abraham Deleon, Luis A. Fernandez, Anthony J. Nocella II, and Deric Shannon (eds) (2009), Contemporary Anarchist Studies: An Introductory Anthology of Anarchy in the Academy, New York: Routledge.

          Kahn, Richard, ‘Anarchic Epimetheanism: The Pedagogy of Ivan Illich’, pp. 124-135.

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari (1983), Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Descartes, Rene (1980), Meditations on First Philosophy, Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill Publishing.

Foucault, Michel (1979), Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, New York: Vintage.

Freire, Paulo (1992), Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York: Continuum.

Freire, Paulo (ed.) with James W. Fraser, Donaldo Macedo, Tanya McKinnon and William T. Stokes (eds) (1997), Mentoring the Mentor: A Critical Dialogue with Paulo Freire, New York: Peter Lang.

          Scapp, Ron, ‘The Subject of Education: Paulo Freire, Postmodernism and Multiculturalism’, pp. 283-291.

Giroux, Henry A. (2011), On Critical Pedagogy, New York, Continuum.

Graeber, David (2004), Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Chicago, IL: Prickly Paradigm Press.

Habermas, Jürgen (1998), On the Pragmatics of Communication, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Haworth, Robert H. (2012), Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education, Oakland, CA: PM Press.

          Muller, Justin, ‘Anarchism, the State, and the Role of Education’, pp. 14-31.

          Shantz, Jeffery, ‘Spaces of Learning: The Anarchist Free Skool’, pp. 162-174.

          Nicholas, Lucy, ‘Anarchism, Pedagogy, Queer Theory and Poststructuralism’, pp. 242-259.

          Antiliff, Allan, ‘Afterword’, pp. 326-328.

hooks, bell (1994), Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, New York and London: Routledge.

Saltman, Kenneth J. and David A. Gabbard (2003), Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools, New York: Routledge.

Scapp, Ron, ‘Taking Command: The Pathology of Identity and Agency in Predatory Culture’, pp. 213-221.

McLaren, Peter (1994), Critical Pedagogy and Predatory Culture, London: Routledge.

Molnar, Alex (2005), School Commercialism, New York: Routledge.

Scapp, Ron (2006), Managing to be Different: Educational Leadership as Critical Practice, New York: Routledge.

Scapp, Ron (2016a), ‘Of PomoAcademicus Reconsidered’, Humanities, 5:3, Summer, pp. 66-77.

Scapp, Ron (2016b), Reclaiming Education: Moving Beyond the Culture of Reform, New York: Palgrave.

Shor, Ira (1992), Empowering Education, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1993), Outside in the Teaching Machine, New York: Routledge.

Spring, Joel (2012), Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality: A Brief History of Dominated Cultures in the United States, New York: McGraw-Hill Education.


[1] I am using the refrain of reasonableness and unreasonableness, in part, as an allusion to the complex and complicated position that Jürgen Habermas promotes with his social theory that highlights “communicative action” as the foundation for working “together” in large part by all participants ultimately “being reasonable” (1998: 406-423). I am also alluding to the position noted by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari in their book Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia: “There is not one of these aspects – not the least operation, the least industrial or financial mechanism – that does not reveal the insanity of the capitalist machine and the pathological character of its rationality: not at all a false rationality, but a true rationality of this pathological state, this insanity” (1983: 373).

[2] For those unfamiliar with critical pedagogy I would like to use Ira Shor’s helpful description of it from Empowering Education: “Habits of thought, reading, writing, and speaking which go beneath surface meaning, first impressions, dominant myths, official pronouncements, traditional clichés, received wisdom and mere opinion, to understand the deep meaning, root causes, social context, ideology, and personal consequences of any action, event object, process, organization, experience, text, subject, matter, policy, mass media or discourse” (1992: 129).

[3] For those unfamiliar with the expression, Paulo Freire offers a critique of the sort of teaching in which students are viewed as little more than empty vessels, and the teacher as the “authority” charged with responsibility (state obligation) to “deposit” information into the students’ empty heads. The teacher then (in the form of tests, quizzes and questions) makes “withdrawals” from students who have successfully memorized the deposited information. The emphasis is on rote memorization and the teacher being the only authorized knowledge(able) one in the classroom. See Chapter 2 of Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1992).

[4] And while I truly believe that reading Foucault is profoundly important and useful, on so many levels (see especially Discipline and Punish 1979, and see also Ball 2013), what I am asking of myself and of those reading these notes is to consider embodying freedom in the classroom and attempting to negate the “authoritarian” presence of the state and capitalism in our educative spaces and locations, in short, to introduce anarchy into our classrooms and into our teaching.

[5] The notes in this article are intended not merely to re-argue or repeat the work of all these good people, but instead attempt to use their insights, positions and observations as a kind of manual for moving forward, moving toward reclaiming education as the practice of freedom.