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Anarchist Pedagogy in Action: Paideia, Escuela Libre
Part one of four of a collection of essays from the book Anarchist Pedagogies.
This article begins a four part mini series. It is an except of a chapter from the collection of essays, Anarchist Pedagogies, Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education. Many thanks to the publisher, PM Press and the editor, Robert H. Haworth for allowing us to reprint these excerpts.
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For twenty-nine years, the city of Merida, in Southwest Spain, has hosted what is probably the only anarchist school left in Spain: Paideia. The school is named after the classical Greek concept of civic education involv­ing the process of personal and social training toward active citizenship, aiming not to teach “stuff” but to create a working community of learning. Broader than mere education, Paideia was conceived of as a lifelong process of character building in preparation for direct democracy. It involved the absorption of knowledge and skills, but most importantly, it was about cre­ating a living practice of participatory self-managed citizenship. Through a unique pedagogical methodology profoundly rooted in anarchist values and principles, the small Spanish school has been facilitating such a practice with and by children.

This chapter is based on a three-day-long participant observation at Paideia, during which we shared the life of the children and the adults that constitute it. Even though this is a short period to carry out in depth critical ethnography and, admittedly, did not offer us sufficient time to, for instance, ascertain potential discrepancies between discourses and specific practices, our sojourn in the school, during which we had unsupervised access to all students, classes, and activities, remains a good starting point for the description and analysis of anarchist pedagogy in action. Indeed it is notori­ously difficult to obtain permission to visit the school, let alone undertake participant observation there and we were thoroughly vetted by the peda­gogic team before being granted access in September 2007.

The chapter will describe and analyze the main pedagogical precepts that regulate the school, as well as explain how these are implemented in every aspect of the school life. Indeed, Paideia is fundamentally rooted in the notion that anarchism must be experienced, and it thus seemed crucial to communicate this through a form of reflexive storytelling. Our findings will thus be presented in the form of a narrative of our life on site.

Freedom as Responsibility

Located in an old two-storey pastel yellow farmhouse on what was once the edge of the city, Paideia used to be surrounded by fields and lush olive groves. Today, every single tree has been bulldozed and the school sits in a desolate landscape of churned up brown mud and partially built roads, which make it feel like a threatened oasis stuck in the hell of urban sprawl. Enormous bulldozers roam around its edges, the old walls and floors shudder with every scoop of broken earth. When the bulldozers are gone, 1,500 brand new identical suburban homes will surround the school. “We are making the future,” declare the developers’ colorful billboards.

Term has begun a few days before our arrival and we have been asked to meet with the staff collective on the evening before we actually come to observe the daily activities of the school. The fifty-eight children have all gone home and despite the long days, from 10 a.m. till 6 p.m. with stu­dents and then admin till 9 p.m., the collective of pedagogues greet us with warmth and numerous kisses. We sit down at a large round table sur­rounded by messy shelves of books and towering piles of paper. Everyone introduces themselves. Josefa Martin Luengo, whom all here call “Pepa,” is one of Paideia’s founders and its main theorist; she has just published her sixth book on libertarian pedagogy, a reflection on the methodology developed at the school: Paideia. 25 años de educación libertarian1. All seven female and one male teachers are adamant that they are not “teachers,” they are facilitators of experience and processes, rather than transmitters of knowledge. Most of the students call them by their first name or simply “the adults.”

Unlike “free schools” such as A. S. Neill’s Summerhill in the UK2, Paideia does not see the process of growing up free as something passive. It is not a relaxed laissez-faire attitude where children can simply do whatever they want while the educators remain impassive and value free. It is instead a dynamic exercise, which involves creating a working community that is held by a set of clear values and where the rights of educators and students are acknowledged as equal. Central to the life and learning of the school are seven values derived from anarchist philosophy: equality, justice, solidarity, freedom, nonviolence, culture, and most impor­tantly happiness. More than maths and languages, science and history, these are the real subjects. But how these values are learnt is as important as what they represent.

“The first few weeks of term after summer are always different from the normal way the school runs,” Martin Luengo explains during this first meeting. “Returning from the summer holidays is always a problem, because for two whole months the kids live with their parents and their grandpar­ents, who do everything for them, they watch a lot of TV, get influenced by consumerism and competitiveness. The children lose their autonomy. Thus, when they come back they forget how to do things: if they need to cut carrots, for example, they look at us with imploring eyes, they have forgotten what needs doing... Their minds aren’t free when they have to ask what to do!”

Practicing Self-Management in the Everyday

At the core of Paideia’s practice is enabling the children to take charge of their autonomy and practice self-management1. From as young as eighteen months until they leave at sixteen years old, the students run the entire school in collaboration with the adults. Every aspect of school life is decided through assemblies attended by all. From organizing the lunch-time menu to planning the timetables, resolving personal conflicts to choos­ing what academic subjects to study, every detail is discussed and managed collectively without coercion or authority. As Martin Luengo explains: “They are free when they know what they want. It is so much simpler to be told what to do than being free. Passing on your responsibility to others is easy.”

Due to the number of students who have returned from summer holidays with “tendencies toward dependence,” as the adults call it, the school is temporarily under what is known as Mandado—which roughly translates as “to be ordered.”It is a state of exception, sometimes applied to individual students but in this case applied to the entire school. As the students are seen to no longer be able [to] take the initiative to do things themselves and are asking the authority figures (the adults) what to do, they are mandado-ed, told what to do by the staff. This state of exception remains until the students decide to call for an assembly where they will discuss collectively whether they have returned to a state of freedom and responsibility. If there is consensus for the Mandado to be lifted, then the school will return to normal and no one will be told what to do anymore. “They need to re-find their anarchist values,” concludes Martin Luengo. “It doesn’t take long. No one likes being told what to do all the time. But if they want to be free they have to fight for it.”

The morning after, we go to the school for 9:30 a.m. and wait for the chil­dren. The school bus arrives, a long sleek brand new white coach. Children pour out. The older ones hold hands with the little ones guiding them down the steps and into the school grounds where they pat the two lounging school dogs and are kissed by the waiting adults. The smaller children, eighteen months to five years old, peel off to the kindergarten annex; we stay with the older ones in and around the main building.

There is a flurry of activity as the children scatter in every direction to join their different “collective working groups.” We follow the cooking group: seven children in mixed ages from five to sixteen go into the kitchen put on white aprons and start preparing the day’s meals. Outside, a couple of children are swinging on the trapeze attached to an old crooked Cypress tree but the rest are busy, some weeding the garden, some tidying the classrooms, and a few sweeping floors with brooms that are nearly twice as tall as them. Despite the state of Mandado, no one seems to tell anybody what to do. There is a constant flow and movement of energized children throughout the building, getting on with things without being managed by teachers or even a school bell. In fact the school has no bells, and the only clock visible seems to be a tiny plastic one tucked away in the corner of the kitchen where the cooking group are chatting away as they prepare breakfast. All take part: the older children and one adult look after the younger ones as even five-year-olds wield large knives, diligently cut up tomatoes, and stir the industrial cauldrons.

Every Friday, a working group in charge of the week’s daily meals meets to organize cooking for sixty people. Spanning from six to thirteen years old and chaired by one of the children but with an educator present to guide them on issues such as nutrition and balanced diets, the group decides a daily menu. Each child proposes an idea for a dish, which is debated and agreed upon. If it happens to be one of their birthdays, they have the right to choose the day’s menu without debate. Once the week’s menus are set, the children check what food is left in the store cupboards. Lists are made, the children, armed with specially devised forms, decide who will telephone the wholesale suppliers to place the weekly provisions order, and then cooking begins. Next week another group will take over.

“Come on, it’s time to work, Manu,”calls Carlos from the kitchen. Although he is only seven, and not the official coordinator of the cooking group, who is thirteen-year-old Arai, Carlos is able to see what needs doing and can gently wheel his friend away from playing and back in the kitchen. Meanwhile, three other children, who can’t be older than nine, are going around the entire school with a pen and paper, asking everyone how many fried eggs they want for lunch. They skip up the wooden stairs, past a 1930s framed poster declaring: “If the tyrant doesn’t grow the wheat; why do you demand bread?”

Food is seen as a key aspect of the socialization process at Paideia: not only is it a simple way of coming together and building relationships, but by giving the children the opportunity to choose their own food and cook, they learn to be much more independent and self-reliant. The nursery children are the first to eat in the morning. They arrive holding each other’s hands accompanied by an adult. A five year-old and two three-year olds begin to set the tables for twenty-three children of the nursery.

Values as Pedagogical Framework

The white walls of the dining room next door are plastered with colored pieces of paper each printed with a different quote, including Joseph Proudhon’s famous tirade: “To be governed is to be watched over, inspected, spied on, directed, legislated, regimented, closed in, indoctrinate, preached at, controlled, assessed, evaluated, censured, commanded”3.

No school is value free, state or otherwise. State schools are potent vehicles for replicating the values of capitalism4. For eighteenth-century philosopher William Godwin, there were two axes of power: government and education5. Godwin argued that since government depended on the consent of the governed, the most important area for political struggle was education, because it was there that people’s thinking was formed. In 1783, as the public debate over the implementation of mass state education was taking place, he published a prospectus for a school that abolished authority and valued the autonomy of the child, in which he expressed his fear that if education fell into the hands of the state, “governments [would] not fail to employ it, to strengthen its hands, and per­petuate its institutions”6.

His vision was prescient: individualism, competitiveness and the acceptance of hierarchical authority, the dominant values of our culture, are subtly encouraged through schooling to this day7. Although not necessarily part of the openly designed public curriculum, these values are transmitted through the conditions of learning and the way the school operates. It is a form of “hidden curricu­lum” where implicit values and priorities are picked up at an unconscious level. It is not blatant indoctrination but insidious influences that emanate from the everyday climate and structures of the school; the relationship between teacher and pupil, the layout of the classroom, the way the school is managed, the system of rewards and punishments, and so on. Added to this are the unexamined and unspoken assumptions of the teachers who send messages out daily: only certain kinds of achievements count, bookish learning is more valuable than practical skills, middle-class values are more worthwhile than working-class ones, obedience to law is good. disobedience is bad, certain career choices are more worthy than others, contributing to society is honored, criticizing is discouraged8. Despite a long tradition of anarchist educational ideas and practices9, many which eventually percolated into main­stream education, there is rarely any mention of it in histories of education and pedagogical theory.

“Children must be accustomed to obey, to think, according to the social dogmas which govern us” wrote Spanish anarchist and educator Francisco Ferrer10 describing church-run Spanish state schools in the first decade of the twentieth century. Freed from religion, his Escuela Moderna (Modern School) was about “a drawing out rather than a driving in”11. It was a process of self-development where the child’s unique spirit could be nurtured rather than shaped or suppressed. His ideas spread following the global condemnation of his mock trial and execution after the bloody suppression of a Catalan antiwar uprising in 1909. As a result forty-eight schools inspired by his ideas sprang up in Spain and many more across the world11. The notion that education could be for emancipation rather than subservience began to gain ground. Ferrer had been inspired himself by earlier anarchist experiments in France, first at Cempuis12, a state school where Paul Robin’s ideas of integral education aimed to develop every aspect of the child’s potential—physical, intellectual and moral and where sexes were mixed, something unheard of at the time13—and later at La Ruche, which merged an independent school, with a cooperative farm funded by the production of honey.

To anarchists, the whole idea of teachers imposing authority on children and there being a hierarchical learning relationship where knowledge is poured into the silent, obedient heads of students, is an anathema11. It was a process of self-development where the child’s unique spirit could be nurtured rather than shaped or suppressed. Despite the evolution of teaching methodologies in the twentieth century and the recent trend of “student-centered learning”14, the underlying structures of most schools remain the same. It is still the teacher who decides when the “student-centered learning” takes place, where it will happen and what the student will learn. The student is cer­tainly not the center of decision-making but a passive recipient of decisions made from “above.” They don’t learn to own themselves but to obey others. They have been ingrained with what primitivist author Derrick Jensen says is our culture’s central belief, “that it is not only acceptable but desirable and necessary to bend others to our own will”15. Spending six hours a day for twelve years in a place where they have virtually no say in anything, where being governed is all they know, a profound passivity becomes normalized, the hopelessness of submission becomes fixed deep below the child’s skin. It is a perfect preparation for the consumerist future that awaits them16.



[1] Luengo, Martín. Paideia. 25 años de educación libertarian. Manuela teórico práctico., 2006. Madrid: Ediciones Villakañeras-Colectivo Paideia.
[2] Neill, A. S. Summerhill, A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, 1960. New York, Hart Publishing Company. Miller, R. Free Schools, free people: Education and democracy after the 1960s, 2002. New York: SUNY Press.
[3] Proudhon, P. J. General idea of the revolution in the nineteenth century, 1851. Courier Dover Publications.
[4] Giroux, H. Schooling and the struggle for public life: Critical pedagogy in the modern age, 1988. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Giroux, H. Stealing Innocence: Youth, corporate power, and the politics of culture, 2000. New York: Palgrave.
[5] Pollin, B. R. Education and enlightenment in the works of William Godwin, 1962. New York: Las Americas.
[6] Godwin W. An account of the seminary that will be opened on Monday the fourth day of August at Epsom in Surrey, for the instruction of twelve pupils, 1783. London: T. Cadell.
[7] (Whitty and Young, 1976; Giroux, 1988)
[8] Postman, M. and C. Weingartner. Teaching as a subversive activity, 1969. New York: Dell.
[9] Bakunin, M. In L’Égalité 1969. Les endormeurs, 26 June & 3, 10, 17, 24 July. Suissa, J. Anarchism and Education: A philosophical perspective, 2010. Oakland: PM Press.
[10] Spring, J. A primer on libertarian education 1998. Montreal: Black Rose Books.
[11] Avrich, P. The modern school movement:Anarchism and education in the United States, 2006. Oakland, AK Press.
[12] Bremand, N. Cempuis: Une expérience d’éducation libertaire à l’époque de Jules Ferry, 1880-1894, 1992. Paris: ed. du ML.
[13] Demeulenaere-Douyere, C. Un précurseur de la mixité : Paul Robin et la coéducation des sexes, 2003. Clio 18. Retrieved from http://clio.revues.org/index615.html
[14] Rogers, C. “As a teacher, can I be myself?” In Freedom to Learn for the ’80s, 1983. Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company. Rogers, C. “The politics of education.” In Freedom to Learn for the ’80s, 1983. Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company.
[15] Jensen, D. A language other than words, 2000. Vermont: Chelsea Green.
[16] Giroux, H. Stealing 2000)