Chapter IX. The Reform of the School

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 25, 2012

There are two ways open to those who seek to reform the education of children. They may seek to transform the school by studying the child and proving scientifically that the actual scheme of instruction is defective, and must be modified; or they may found new schools in which principles may be directly applied in the service of that ideal which is formed by all who reject the conventions, the cruelty, the trickery, and the untruth which enter into the bases of modern society.

The first method offers great advantages, and is in harmony with the evolutionary conception which men of science regard as the only effective way of attaining the end. They are right in theory, as we fully admit. It is evident that the progress of psychology and physiology must lead to important changes in educational methods; that the teachers, being now in a better position to understand the child, will make their teaching more in conformity with natural laws. I further grant that this evolution will proceed in the direction of greater liberty, as I am convinced that violence is the method of ignorance, and that the educator who is really worthy of the name will gain everything, spontaneity; he will know the child's needs, and will be able to promote its development by giving it the greatest possible satisfaction

In point of fact, however, I do not think that those who are working for the regeneration of humanity have much to hope from this side. Rulers have always taken care to control the education of the people; they know better than any that their power is based entirely on the school, and they therefore insist on retaining their monopoly of it. The time has gone by when rulers could oppose the spread of instruction and put limits to the education of the masses. Such a policy was possible formerly because economic life was consistent with general ignorance, and this ignorance facilitated despotism. The circumstances have changed, however. The progress of science and our repeated discoveries have revolutionised the conditions of labour and production. It is no longer possible for the people to remain ignorant; education is absolutely necessary for a nation to maintain itself and make headway against its economic competitors. Recognising this, the rulers have sought to) give a more and more complete organisation to the school, not because they look to education to regenerate society, but because they need more competent workers to sustain industrial enterprises and enrich their cities. Even the most reactionary rulers have learned this lesson; they clearly understand that the old policy was dangerous to the economic life of nations, and that it was necessary to adapt popular education to the new conditions.

It would be a serious mistake to think that the ruling classes have not foreseen the danger to themselves of the intellectual development of the people, and have not understood that it was necessary to change their methods. In fact, their methods have been adapted to the new conditions of life; they have sought to gain control of the ideas which are in course of evolution. They have endeavoured to preserve the belief's on which social discipline had been grounded, and to give to the results of scientific research and the ideas involved in them a meaning which will not be to the disadvantage of existing institutions; and it is this that has induced them to assume control of the school. In every country the governing classes, which formerly left the education of the people to the clergy, as these were quite willing to educate in a sense of obedience to authority, have now themselves undertaken the direction of the schools.

The danger to them consists in the stimulation of the human mind by the new spectacle of life and the possible rise of thoughts of emancipation in the depths of their hearts. It would have been folly to struggle against the evolving forces; the effect would be only to inflame them, and, instead of adhering to earlier Methods of government, they would adopt new and more effective methods. It did not require any extraordinary genius to discover the solution. The course of events itself suggested to those who were in power the way in which they were to meet the difficulties which threatened; they built schools, they sought generously to extend the sphere of education and if there were at one point a few who resisted tills impulse — as certain tendencies favoured one or other of the political parties — all soon understood that it was better to yield, and that the best policy was to find some new way of defending their interests and principles. There were then sharp struggles for the control of the schools, and these struggles continue to-day in every civilised country; sometimes the republican middle class triumphs sometimes the clergy. All parties appreciate the importance of the issue, and they shrink from no sacrifice to win the victory. “The school” is the cry of every party. The public good must be recognised in this zeal. Everybody seeks to raise himself and improve his condition by education. In former times it might have been said: “Those people want to keep thee in ignorance in order the better to exploit thee: we want, to see thee educated and free.” That is no longer possible; schools of all kinds rise on every side.

In regard to this general change of ideas among the governing classes as to the need of schools, I may state certain reasons for distrusting their intentions and doubting the efficacy of the means of reform which are advocate by certain writers. As a rule, these reformers care little about the social significance of education: they are men who eagerly embrace scientific truth but eliminate all that is foreign to the object of their studies. They are patiently endeavouring to understand the child, and are eager to know — though their science is young, it must be remembered — are the best methods to promote its intellectual development.

This kind of professional indifference is, in my opinion very prejudicial to the cause they seek to serve. I do not in the least think them insensible of the realities of the social world, and I know that they believe that the public welfare will be greatly furthered by their labours. “Seeking to penetrate the secrets of the life of man,” they reflect, “and unravelling the normal process of his physical and psychic development, we shall direct education into a channel which will be favourable to the liberation of energy. We are not immediately concerned with the reform of the school, and indeed we are unable to say exactly what lines it should follow. We will proceed slowly, knowing that, from the very nature of things, the reform of the school will result from our research. If you ask us what are our hopes, we will grant that, like you, we foresee a revolution in the sense of a placing of the child and humanity under the direction of science: Yet even in this case we are persuaded that our work makes for that object, and will be the speediest and surest means of promoting it.”

This reasoning is evidently logical. No one could deny this, yet there is a considerable degree of fallacy in it, and we must make this clear. If the ruling classes have the same ideas as the reformers, if they are really Impelled by a zeal for the continuous re-organisation of society until poverty is at last eliminated, we might recognise that the power of science is enough to improve the lot of peoples. Instead of this, however, we see clearly that the sole aim of those who strive to attain power is the defence of their own interests, their own advantage, and the satisfaction of their personal desires. For some time now we have ceased to accept the phrases with which they disguise their ambitions. It is true that there are some in whom we may find a certain amount of sincerity, and who imagine at times that they are impelled by a zeal for the good of fellows. But these become rarer and rarer, and the positivism of the age is very severe in raising doubts is to the real intentions of those who govern us.

And just as they contrived to adapt themselves when the necessity arose, and prevented education from becoming a danger, they also succeeded in organising the school in accord with the new scientific ideas in such a way that nothing should endanger their supremacy These ideas are difficult to accept, and one needs to keep a sharp look-out for successful methods and how things are arranged so as to avoid verbal traps. How much has been, and is, expected of education! Most progressive people expect everything of it, and, until recent years, many did not understand that instruction alone leads to illusions. Much of, the knowledge actually imparted in schools is useless; and the hope of reformers has been void because the organisation of the school, instead of serving an ideal purpose, has become one of the most powerful instruments of servitude in the hands of the ruling class. The teachers are merely conscious or unconsious organs of their will, and have been trained on their principles. From their tenderest years, and more drastically than anybody, they have endured the discipline of authority. Very few have escaped this despotic domination; they are generally powerless against it, because they are oppressed by the scholastic organisation to such an extent that they have nothing to do but obey. It is unnecessary here to describe that organisation. One word will suffice to characterise it — Violence. The school dominates the children physically, morally, and Intellectually, in order to control the development of their faculties in the way desired, and deprives them of contact with nature in order to modify them as required. This is the explanation of the failure; the eagerness of the ruling class to control education and the bankruptcy of the hopes of reformers. “Education” means in practice domination or domestication. I do not imagine that these systems have been put together with the deliberate aim of securing the desired results. That would be a work of genius. But things have happened just as if the actual scheme of education corresponded to some vast and deliberate conception: it could not have been done better. To attain it teachers have inspired themselves solely with the principles of discipline and authority, which always appeal to social organisers; such men have only one clear idea and one will — the children must learn to obey, to believe and to think according to the prevailing social dogmas. If this were the aim, education could not be other than we find it to-day. There is no question of promoting the spontaneous development of the child's faculties, or encouraging it to seek freely the satisfaction of its physical, intellectual, and moral needs. There is question only of imposing ready-made ideas on it, of preventing it from ever thinking otherwise than is required for the maintenance of existing social institutions — of making it, in a word, an individual rigorously adapted to the social mechanism.

It cannot be expected that this kind of education will have any influence on the progress of humanity. I repeat that it is merely an instrument of domination in the hands of the ruling classes, who have never sought to uplift the individual, and it is quite useless to expect any good from the schools of the present day. What they have done up to the present they will continue to do in the future. There is no reason whatever why they should adopt a different system; they have resolved to use education for their purposes, and they will take advantage of every improvement of it. If only they preserve the spirit of the school arid the authoritative discipline which rules it, every innovation will tend to their advantage. For this they will keep a constant watch, and take care that their interests are secured.

I would fix the attention of my readers on this point: the whole value of education consists in respect for the physical, intellectual, and moral faculties of the child. As in science, the only possible demonstration is demonstration by facts; education is not worthy of the name unless it be stripped of all dogmatism, and unless it leaves to the child the direction of its powers and is content to support them in their manifestations. But nothing is easier than to alter th is meaning of education, and nothing more difficult than to respect it. The teacher is always imposing, compelling, and using violence; the true educator is the man who does not impose his own ideas and will on the child, but appeals to its own energies.

From this we can understand how easily education is conducted, arid how light is the task of those who seek to dominate the individual. The best conceivable methods become in their hands so many new and more effective means of despotism. Our ideal is that of science; we appeal to it in demanding the power to educate the child by fostering its development and procuring a satisfaction of its needs as they manifest themselves.

We are convinced that the education of the future will be entirely spontaneous. It is plain that we cannot wholly realise this, but the evolution of methods in the direction of a broader comprehension of life and the fact that all improvement involves the suppression of violence indicate that we are on solid ground when we look to science for the liberation of the child.

Is this the ideal of those who actually control the scholastic system? Is this what they propose to bring about? Are they eager to abandon violence? Only in the sense that they employ new and more effective methods to attain the same end — that is to say, the formation of individuals who will accept all the conventions, all the prejudices, and all the untruths on which society is based.

We do not hesitate to say that we want men who will continue unceasingly to develop; men who are capable of constantly destroying and renewing their surroundings and renewing themselves; men whose intellectual independence is their supreme power, which they will yield to none; men always disposed for things that are better, eager for the triumph of new ideas, anxious to crowd many lives into the one life they have. Society fears such men; you cannot expect it to set up a system of education which will produce them.

What, then, is our mission? What is the policy we contribute to the reform of the school?

Let us follow closely the work of the experts who are engaged in the study of the child, and let us endeavor to find a way of applying their principles to the education we seek to establish, aiming at an increasingly complete emancipation of the individual. But how are we to do this? By putting our hand energetically to the work, by promoting the establishment of new schools in which, as far as possible, there shall rule this spirit of freedom which, we feel, will colour the whole education of the future.

We have already had proof that it leads to excellent results. We can destroy whatever there is in the actual school that savours of violence, all the artificial devices by which the children are estranged from nature and life, the intellectual and moral discipline which has been used to impose ready-made thoughts, all beliefs which deprave and enervate the will. Without fear of injury we may place the child in a proper and natural environment, in which it will find itself in contact with all that it loves, and where vital impressions will be substituted for the wearisome reading of books. If we do no more than this, we shall have done much towards the emancipation of the child.

In such an environment we may freely make use of the data of science and work with profit. It is true that we could not realise all our hopes; that often we shall find ourselves compelled, from lack of knowledge, to use the wrong means. But we shall be sustained by the confident feeling that, without having achieved our entire aim, we shall have done a great deal more than is being done by the actual school. I would rather have the free spontaneity of a child who knows nothing than the verbal knowledge and intellectual deformation of one that has experienced the existing system of education.

What we have sought to do in Barcelona is being done by others in various places. All of us saw that the work was possible. Dedicate yourself to it at once. We do not hope that the studies of children will he suspended that we may regenerate the school. Let us apply what we know, and go on learning and applying. A scheme of rational education is already possible, and in such schools as we advocate the children may develop freely according to their aspirations. Let us endeavor to improve and extend the work.

Those are our aims. We know well the difficulties we have to face; but we have made a beginning in the conviction that we shall be assisted in our task by those who work in their various spheres to deliver men from the dogmas and conventions which secure the prolongation of the present unjust arrangement of society.