Out of the Ruins: An Anarchist Studies Journal Review

Out of the Ruins: The Emergence of Radical Informal Learning Spaces

By Judith Suissa
Anarchist Studies Journal
March 2020

As Robert Haworth notes in his introduction to this volume,
there is a rich tradition of anarchist criticism of state schooling
as one of the institutions that ‘uphold and reinforce’ a
particular set of social, political, economic and cultural ideas
(p6). This collection of work by educational activists, theorists
and practitioners promises to document and explore the
‘radical learning spaces’ emerging as alternatives to the
social imaginaries of formal state schooling. On one level, it
does just that, offering an inspiring and at times sobering
reflection on the pedagogical and political challenges
involved in creating and maintaining such spaces. Yet on
another level, I felt it failed to address the central
philosophical, political and moral questions at the heart of any
attempt to articulate an alternative to compulsory schooling.
For the people being educated in state schools are children;
and a common claim of anarchist and libertarian critics of
compulsory state schooling is that, in Voltairine de Cleyre’s
words, defenders of state schooling are ‘not interested in the
actual work of schools, in the children as persons, but in the
production of a certain type of character to serve subsequent
ends’ (p4).
However, children are glaringly absent from this
collection. Although the editors highlight some familiar
criticisms of state schooling in their introductory chapters,
every single one of the following chapters exploring actual
experiments in alternative education is about adults. Three
theoretical chapters, John Elmore’s ‘Miseducation and the
Authoritarian Mind’, David Gabbard’s ‘Don’t Act, Just Think!’,
and Rhiannon Firth and Andrew Robinson’s ‘From the
Unlearned Un-Man to a Pedagogy without Moulding: Stirner,
Consciousness-Raising, and the Production of Difference’,

raise important questions to do with what philosophers of
education often refer to as ‘the pedagogical relationship’. Can
this relationship be constituted in non-hierarchical terms? Is
some form of authority inherent in every educational
interaction? Can the education and upbringing of children be
neutral? Can it be genuinely emancipatory and non-directive
at the same time? These are questions that have exercised
the minds of educational philosophers, theorists and
practitioners for decades, and yet they are strangely
circumvented by most of the discussions in this book, the
focus of which is educational encounters between adults.
Elmore’s chapter is the only one to explicitly discuss children
and to address the developmental aspect of authoritarian
education. He defends ‘the development of the critically
conscious personality’, drawing on the work of Paulo Freire,
and although he occasionally conflates ‘formal education’ with
‘state schooling’, he at least offers a hopeful alternative for
teachers, including those working in state schools, concerned
to foster genuinely participatory democratic practices and
In contrast, Gabbard’s chapter makes some fairly bleak
and at times denigratory comments about ‘teachers’ in
general, thereby failing to acknowledge the ways in which
even the most ‘traditional’ classrooms can be spaces in which
radical, emancipatory pedagogical practices can emerge.
Firth and Robinson’s chapter, while rich in theoretical
insights into the work of Stirner and the idea of self-
actualisation as reflected in the feminist tradition of
consciousness raising, is perhaps the most frustrating in its
omission of any consideration of children. For surely the
chapter’s central question –‘whether a pedagogy without
moulding – a pedagogy compatible with horizontal relations
and the rejection of command – is possible’ (p70) comes into
sharpest focus, and is most philosophically troubling, when
we are thinking about teaching children. Indeed, our very

conceptual distinction between teaching and education is tied
up with how we think about this question. Although the
authors claim to have established that a pedagogy without
moulding is ‘both possible and desirable’ (p70), and make
some valuable suggestions for developing such pedagogical
practices with adults, the question of whether such a
pedagogy is possible or desirable with children remains a
contested one, as reflected in the work of generations of
radical educators.
The remaining chapters are a combination of first-person
accounts and theoretical reflection, drawing on different
intellectual traditions to offer a valuable resource for
educators keen to put their radical educational ideas into
practice. This is particularly so in Farhang Rouhani’s chapter,
‘Creating Transformative Anarchist-Geographic Learning
Spaces’, which demonstrates, not for the first time, that the
discipline of geography has much to offer anarchists and
other radical activists concerned with power relations within
pedagogical processes. Rouhani’s careful articulation of the
distinction between an anti-hierarchical and a non-
hierarchical approach is particularly valuable; although, once
again, I was left wondering how applicable this distinction is
to adult-child pedagogical relationships.
Similarly, Petar Jandric and Ana Kuzmanic, exploring
the idea of digital colonialism, offer a fascinating theoretical
perspective, insights from which surely have implications for
schools and for children’s engagement with ICT.
The authors who document their experiments with
radical and anarchist pedagogy both within and outside
traditional higher education institutions are honest in their
appraisal of the challenges involved in this work. Sarah
Amsler and Andre Pusey, working in a UK context, and Jeff
Shantz, Dana Williams, Erin Dyke and Eli Meyerhoff, and
Sandra Jeppensen and Joanna Adamiak in a North American
context, raise important questions about the political context
of higher education and the challenges of resisting its

dominant forms within a capitalist system. Williams’ account
of ‘teaching anarchism by practising anarchy’ is particularly
insightful on the question of what actually happens when
educators try to ‘turn over the reins to the students’ (p157).
Dyke and Myerhoff focus less on classroom pedagogy
and more on racial and economic inequality in access to
higher education. Their aim was to ‘create a working-class
institution that centred ways of knowing and learning that
resonated with people’s everyday lives and histories,
especially people who existed only on the margins, if at all,
within higher education’ (p175), and their discussion of how
and why they failed in this mission offers a sobering attempt
to grapple with the tensions between ‘ideals of changing the
existing higher education institutions and creating alternatives
to them’ (p179). Similar tensions are addressed in
Peppensen and Adamiak’s chapter, which problematises the
traditional boundaries between academic practice and
political activism, concluding ultimately that ‘radical learning
must move outside the university’ to really challenge
structural inequalities. (p228).
Given that many of the contributors clearly share
Amsler’s concern with ‘the destruction of democratic
sensibilities, social collectivities, and experiences of critical
learning’ (p110) in contemporary society, it is frustrating that
there is so little consideration, within this collection, of the
question of how people come to develop such sensitivities in
the first place. Surely questions about children and childhood
are central to this enquiry. Yet while, as Jeppesen and
Adamiak acknowledge in their chapter, anarchists and other
radicals have developed counterhegemonic learning spaces
across ‘primary, secondary or post-secondary’ education
(p228), it is really only post-compulsory education that is
explicitly addressed here.
The longest chapter in the book, David Backer et al.’s
‘What is Horizontal Pedagogy?’, documents and reflects on
the experimental educational group that emerged from

Occupy Wall Street. In its focus on social movement activism,
this chapter, more than any others, seems to answer the
question Haworth poses in the Introduction: ‘How can radical
informal learning spaces inform and expand our
understandings of current social movements and
communities resisting neoliberal capitalism?’ (p11). This
question, I would suggest, is an accurate description of this
book’s focus, and of its value.

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