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Spaces of Learning: The Anarchist Free Skool
Part two of four of a collection of essays from the book Anarchist Pedagogies.
This article is part two 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.
book cover

Social theorist Michel Foucault used the occasion of his 1967 lecture, “Of Other Spaces,” to introduce a term that would remain generally overlooked within his expansive body of work, the notion of the “heterotopia,” by which he meant a counter site 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.

Decades later, Foucault’s notion of heterotopias would be echoed by the anarchist writer Peter Lamborn Wilson. Published in 1985 under the pen name Hakim Bey, the book T.A.Z.: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism would become an almost instant contemporary anarchist classic. In T.A.Z. Wilson/Bey outlines, in often exhilarating flourishes, a lively version of anarchist heterotopias. These anarchist heterotopias, now called TAZ, are the anarchist society in miniature. In them structures of authority are suspended, replaced by relations of conviviality, gift-sharing, and celebration. They are living embodiments of what the anarchist Peter Kropotkin termed “mutual aid.” And they exist, not in a post revolutionary future of in the distance, but right here, right now.

While Bey’s work put forward some unique visions, and did so in often- provocative language engendering a fair bit of controversy within anarchist circles, what he calls TAZ, or something very close to them, have always been part of anarchist culture and politics, as well as the culture and politics of the working classes and oppressed more generally. These have been, in other contexts, infrastructures of resistance.1 To mention only a few examples, one might make note of the culturally vital and politically raucous Wobbly union halls of the 1910s and 1920s, the revolutionary community centers of Barcelona during the Spanish Revolution in the 1930s and the variety of squatted cultural centers of Europe from the 1960s to the present. Indeed Wilson/Bey’s inspiration is drawn explicitly from the diversity of heterotopias and intentional communities of history, including pirate utopias, the Munich Soviet of 1919, Paris 1968, autonomist uprisings in Italy during the 1970s, and the radical ecology camps of the 1980s and 1990s.

Over the last two decades, whether aware of this history or not, many young anarchists, punks and artists took Bey’s message to heart, building a host of community centers, infoshops, and free spaces in cities across North America, including Toronto. These spaces were intended as something a bit more permanent than the temporary autonomous zone. Envisioned as permanent autonomous zones, or at least potentially durable ones, these anarchist spaces have provided support structures for oppositional cultures, infrastructures of resistance. They have formed crucial aspects of the broader do-it-yourself (DIY) movements which provide alternative cultural and economic infrastructures in music, publishing, video, radio, food, and, significantly, education. Anarchist heterotopias provide important sites for skills development, for learning and practicing those skills which are undeveloped in authoritarian social relations.

Their existence allows for some autonomy from the markets of capital, some freedom from the restrictions of mainstream education. Their ethos runs counter to capitalist consumerism: play rather than work, gifts rather than commodities, needs rather than profits. For participants, they provide the imaginal, if not the material, means for undermining state and capital relations and authorities both ideological and structural. Practice often settles for something much less than that.

Contemporary anarchist heterotopias are not to be confused with the intentional or “drop-out” communities that have emerged at various points in North America, most recently the countercultural communes in the 1960s and 1970s. Contemporary anarchists are less interested in dropping out, preferring to build alternatives in alliance with people involved in more mainstream projects rooted in the day-to-day experiences of poor and working- class people. Anarchist heterotopias today are most likely to be located in urban neighborhoods and open and accessible to community involvement, rather than the arcadian spaces of isolated rural communes.

The following provides a glimpse into one such heterotopia, the Anarchist Free Space and Free Skool (AFS). Hopefully the images reveal both the promise and problems that people face while trying to create room for education outside of the confining structures of the permitted. These are experiences of collaborative learning over several years bridging classrooms and communities, particularly marginalized communities, to highlight opportunities for critically engaged teaching and learning. Through participatory approaches bringing students and street involved people together in contexts in which people are simultaneously teachers and learners these efforts contributed to a teaching/learning praxis informed by critical pedagogy and antiauthoritarian social perspectives contributing to empowerment for learners and communities. Along the way participants tried to effect positive changes in themselves, the skool, and the community.

Anarchy and Education

For anarchists, learning should help people to free themselves and encourage them to change the world in which they live. As Joel Spring2 suggests: “[E]ducation can mean gaining knowledge and ability by which one can transform the world and maximize individual autonomy.” 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. At the same time it is hoped that such pedagogical practices might contribute to revolutionary changes in people’s perspectives on society, encouraging broader social changes.

Anarchists seek freedom from internalized authority and ideological domination. “In the modern state, laws were internalized within the individual, so that ‘freedom’ merely meant the freedom to obey the laws that one had been taught to believe”.2 Internalization of the laws through socialization in school has been viewed as a means to end disobedience and rebellion. Freedom is freedom from direct control of the state but only if one acts according to the laws of the state.2

The protoanarchist Max Stirner referred to the thought that one could not get rid of, the thought that owned the individual, as “wheels in the head.” Such thought controlled the will and used the individual, rather than being used by the individual.3 What Stirner called “the ownership of the self ” meant the elimination of wheels in the head. Stirner distinguished between the educated and the free. For the educated person, knowledge shaped character. It was a wheel in the head that allowed the individual to be possessed by the authority of the church or the state. For the free one, on the other hand, knowledge facilitated choice, awakened freedom. With the idea of freedom awakened within them: “the freemen will incessantly go on to free themselves; if on the contrary, one only educates them, then they will at all times accommodate themselves to circumstances in the most highly educated and elegant manner and degenerate into subservient, cringing souls.”3 For the free, knowledge is a source of greater choice rather than a determiner of choice.2 Ideas, as wheels in the head, subject people to the ideas themselves. Domination does not refer only to the internalization of ideologies that refer to sacrifice for supposed needs of society, external to the individual. It also refers to moral imperatives that capture a person’s creative capacities.

There were two levels of wheels in the head. The first levelled people through everyday life. One went to church and paid taxes because that was what one was taught; that was the way one lived. On the second level were ideals—ideals that move people to sacrifice themselves for the good of the fatherland, that made them try to be Christ-like, ideals that led them to give up what they were for some unrealizable goal. It was this realm of ideals upon which the strength of the Church and State was built. Patriotism and religious fervor were the results of people being possessed by ideals.2

Stirner objected to notions of “political liberty” because it only spoke of the freedom of institutions and of ideology. Political liberty “means that the polis, the State, is free; freedom of religion that religion is free, as freedom of conscience signifies that conscience is free; not therefore that I am free from the State, from religion, from conscience, or that I am rid of them.”4 This perspective proved profoundly influential for a range of Free Skool participants, as it has for anarchist educators for decades.

The free school movement finds its inspiration in the anarchist Modern School movement begun by Francisco Ferrer in Spain. The free school movement emerged in the 1950s and spread through the 1960s as an effort to develop alternative forms of education and self-development in a context that was considered increasingly alienating, rationalized, and industrial. Anarchists were actively involved in the free school movement and their involvement is seen as crucial to the antiauthoritarian character and direction of the movement. Free schools were viewed as “an oasis from authoritarian control and as a means of passing on the knowledge to be free.”2 Indeed, one of the principle proponents of the free school movement was the best-known anarchist in the United States, Paul Goodman, whose works were widely read and discussed during the 1960s and 1970s. Notably, contemporary anarchist activists have rediscovered Goodman’s works through recent emerging movements. Free schools were, for Goodman, part of a broader decentralization and de-bureaucratization of social institutions. Goodman argued that schooling had become a process of grading and certification that largely benefited industrial elites who gained trained, and largely obedient, personnel. Education had become more and more geared toward perceived labor market demands. For Goodman5: “This means, in effect that a few great corporations are getting the benefit of an enormous weeding out and selective process—all children are fed into the mill and everybody pays for it.” In response Goodman argued for the development of small-scale schools or minischools in urban centers. Through participatory involvement and decentralization, these minischools could allow for direction according to the needs and desires of students and the communities and neighborhoods in which the schools were situated. Goodman also suggested that “in some cases schools could dispense with their classes and use streets, stores, museums, movies and factories as places of learning.”2 Indeed Anarchist Free Skool participants pursued such an approach regularly holding classes on the sidewalks in Kensington Market. On other occasions classes were held in laundromats, nearby parks, and at picket lines where workers were on strike.

The Anarchist Free Skool

The Anarchist Free Space and Free Skool (AFS) was begun in April 1999 by artists and activists who had organized a fairly lively free skool at a soon-to-be-closed hangout, the Community Cafe. When the Cafe shut down some of the freeskool participants, looking to keep things going, set up shop in a roomy storefront location in Kensington Market, a multicultural, historically working-class neighborhood in downtown Toronto.

The Free Space was intended as a venue for committed anarchists, novices, and nonanarchists alike to come together and share ideas about the prospects, difficulties, and strategies for creating new, antiauthoritarian social relations. The primary vehicle for this was an ambitious schedule of classes on diverse issues. The hopefulness of the new collective was expressed in a statement on the front page of its course calendar.

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. The Anarchist Free School is a counter-community dedicated to effecting social change through the application of anarchist principles in every sphere of life. This Space represents and opportunity for the community at large to come together and explore these alternatives. The Anarchist Free Space welcomes all applications for use of the Space.

Courses reflected the desire for openness — they weren’t all about anarchists talking to anarchists about anarchy (though a few of them were just that). Some of the courses included “Love Songs of the 20s and 30s,” “Street Art,” “Understanding Violence Against Women” and “Alternative Economics.” Not just the mind but the body was taken care of in a yoga class and in shiatsu workshops. For most of the year at least one class was running every weekday evening. Far and away the most successful and long-running were “Introduction to Anarchism” and “Class Struggle Anarchism, Syndicalism and Libertarian Socialism” (See Appendix).

For me, some of the most interesting courses weren’t courses at all but more like events. Every Tuesday at 9:23 p.m. sharp the International Bureau of Recordist Investigation gathered for excursions in their particular type of mayhem. The Recordists promised and often delivered “A weekly meeting, open to those with an interest in Recordism, Surrealism, and other currents of the Fantastic and the Absurd in contemporary art and culture (and spirituality, and politics, etc., etc.), for the exploration of those topics via discussion, presentations, game-playing and other collective activities, and general nonsense and tom-foolery.” One Recordist evening consisted entirely of a fellow cutting his way out of a cardboard box. Eyebrows were raised throughout the space when one of the Recordists’ mummies turned up in the basement. The mummy proved popular, however, eventually garnering its own wardrobe and securing a privileged place in the front window.

Another interesting event-class was the ponderously titled and sadly short-lived “Drifting as Foundation for a Unitary Urbanism.” Inspired by the Situationists’ dérive (or creating spontaneous pathways through the city), “The Drift,” as it became known, brought people together to wander through the nighttime city exploring the hidden, unseen, out-of-the-way places of an alter-Toronto.

In addition to classes the AFS tried to revive the anarchist salon tradition. As the course booklet noted: “Salons have a colourful history throughout the world and in particular within Anarchist Communities. Salons are intentional conversational forums where people engage in passionate discourse about what they think is important.” At the AFS the third Friday of every month was reserved for lively discussions on various topics decided upon by participants. Often the salons included a potluck dinner and performance. By all accounts the salons were enjoyable and engaging affairs drawing upwards of forty people.

Other memorable happenings ranging from the wacky to the profound included the infamous Satanic Ritual Party which brought the cops and almost made one of our pagan members quit; the Go Guerrila performances and zine launch; a couple afternoon punk shows organized after Emma closed; and (on the profound side) the Books to Prisoners poetry readings by ex-lifer John Rives.

Some projects never did come together and others suffered a lack of attention. The lending library suffered regular neglect as no one seemed interested in taking care of it. Eventually it fell into complete disrepair. A proposed free table for used goods never really got started. Neither did the Revolutionary Anarchist Bowling League (RABL). More positively Anti-Racist Action and the Toronto Video Activist Collective (TVAC) continue to make use of the space for meetings and video showings. Others such as Food Not Bombs and the Recordists pulled out before dissolving completely.

Free Skool participants openly acknowledged the example of the anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer who suggested that radical pedagogy should question and challenge the traditional or habitual practices that sustain existing social structures.6 Courses emphasized the capacities of people to act and shape society’s direction, starting with local environs in which they lived, worked and learned. The anarchist Paul Goodman argued that, within free schools, “The use of certified teachers could be dispensed with and people like the druggist, the storekeeper, and the factory worker could be used as teachers.”2 The participants at the Anarchist Free Skool pursued such an approach. In place of instructors who presented information in a unilateral fashion, with a dominant voice, classes involved AFS members who acted as facilitators, taking responsibility to photocopy and make readings available, and ensuring that the space was available and open and people welcomed. Given their initial familiarity with anarchist ideas and texts they helped to fill gaps in knowledge, particularly about specific practices, theories, or histories, where possible and necessary or to suggest texts for future reading. Often new students would ask specific questions about how anarchists had handled particular issues, such as justice or punishment, historically. Typically, responsibility for introducing a topic rotated through the class participants according to their personal interests or availability as they volunteered to take responsibility for specific readings or weekly topics. Following a brief introduction to the readings or cases, classes were opened up to a loosely structured discussion based on individual and collective readings of the topic.

Even more, within Free Skool classes and meetings, anarchists tried to develop active listening, respectful debate and productive disagreement, in a context that recognizes the harm done to many “students” by their previous negative experiences in mainstream schools. Punctuality, passivity, and obedience were in no way promoted at the AFS. Emphasis was on training for community action and the development of critical social consciousness. Some even identified the structures and pace of modern urban environments themselves as barriers to learning.

Organizers realized that there are many barriers people face to free and independent learning. They emphasized efforts to break dependency and inhibition within the learning process. The anarchist Emma Goldman criticized approaches to learning that emphasized the actions of rulers, elites, and governments. Such an approach, still too common today, conditions people to accept a society in which the majority of people are passive, expecting groups of leaders to direct events. Such approaches typically reinforce authoritarian institutions. Anarchist Free Skool participants saw the impacts of such teaching first-hand. In initial meetings of classes nonanarchist participants often expressed an acceptance of social stratification or presented a view that elites were entitled to the unequal social rewards they received. One of the common responses was that they had “more important jobs” or “greater responsibilities.” The Anarchist Free Skool classes provided an important opportunity to discuss such questions in a constructive and respectful manner. Anarchists noted that often the most important jobs, such as garbage pickup, were least rewarded. Similarly, work with the most responsibility, such as mothering, was not rewarded monetarily at all. Caring work, such as early childhood education and nursing, was not rewarded in terms of status and was often underrewarded monetarily, relative to the work’s importance.

For anarchists, learning should contribute to independence of thought and action and contribute to capacities for self-determination. In the view of Free Skool participants, it is always important to avoid ideological approaches to learning. Anarchist ideas should be subjected to lively criticism and revision like any other ideas. Debate should always be open and welcomed within anarchist spaces. Dogmatic insistence on the rightness of particular theories or ideas must be avoided and tendencies to dogma actively undermined.

Anarchists at the Free Skool did not view the space as a place to indoctrinate or spread a particular ideology. Such an approach would be bound to fail anyway, and furthermore it would contravene participants’ principles of anarchism and antiauthoritarianism. Education should support people in freeing themselves from social dogma and encourage their efforts to change social structures and social relations positively. Rather different varieties of anarchism and other steams of radical thought were presented for debate, discussion and appraisal. Hidden histories of resistance and alternative social organizations were explored.

Classes enjoyed participation from around five to thirty people. Gender was mixed with the proportion of men, women, and transgender participants varying by class. Similarly classes were facilitated by men and women in roughly equal proportion. The AFS was quite successful in overcoming the generational divisions that afflict many activist groups, particularly some of the direct action groups of the alternative globalization movement. The Free Skool provided a space in which children as young as a few months old played while folks in their eighties debated and shared jokes. Participants in classes ranged widely in age, with classes generally enjoying involvement from a range including late teenagers to sixty- and seventy-year olds.

In addition to classes, the Free Skool also served as an information center in which books and other media were available on loan to community members. More than simply offering courses on alternative and independent media, the Free Skool made cameras and movie-editing equipment available for community movie making. Experimental filmmaker Kika Thorne brought equipment for editing Super 8 film and showed anyone who was interested how to use it.

This was all part of the broader emphasis on skill-sharing. People registered their various skills with the Free Skool so those seeking to learn specific skills could easily contact someone willing to share information and experiences. Larger workshops were regularly held on specific topics, skills, and activities including zine-making, guitar, art, knitting, cooking, and gardening. Sessions were also provided on self-defense. Reflecting holistic approaches to health, classes, and workshops were provided on nutrition, first aid, and basic health care.

[1] Shantz, J. Re-building infrastructures of resistance. Socialism and Democracy, 2009.
[2] Spring, J. A primer of libertarian education. Montreal: Black Rose, 1998.
[3] Stirner, M. The false principle of our education. Colorado Springs: Ralph Myles, 1967.
[4] Stirner, M. The ego and his own: The case of the individual against authority. New York: Libertarian Book Club, 1963.
[5] Goodman, P. Compulsory miseducation. New York: Random House, 1966.
[6] Ferrer, F. The origin and ideals of the modern school. London: Watts and Company, 1913.

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