4 July 2011 **** Front Page

Emma Goldman on education

By Tapani Lausti

C. Bríd Nicholson, Emma Goldman: Still Dangerous. Black Rose Books 2010.

The strong Spanish anarchist tradition has not featured prominently in the huge demonstrations of the "indignados" in Madrid, Barcelona and other Spanish cities. The demonstrators seem to be keen to avoid connections which might divide activists. They emphasise that some people have well-defined political ideologies, some consider themselves to be apolitical.

Be that as may, I bought C. Bríd Nicholson's book on Emma Goldman in an anarchist bookshop, La Malatesta!, in Madrid during those heady May days. Anarchism is not dead in Spain. Not far from the bookshop is the headquarters of CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo), the anarcho-syndicalist trade union, which last year celebrated its centenary. You hardly ever see CNT mentioned in the media, but there it is, proud of its grassroots democracy, operating without a bureaucratized professional leadership.

Nicholson's book does not cover Goldman's visits to Spain during the Civil War, but Goldman took a keen interest in the developments and was horrified by the way the communists had started imprisoning their fellow-combatants who were anarchists or POUMistas. Even some members of the International Brigade were objects of the communists' wrath. (See How Stalin destroyed revolution in Spain)

Another link to Spain was Goldman's activity in the Modern School Movement, which was based on the ideals of the Spanish educationalist Francisco Ferrer. Nicholson quotes from Paul Avrich's book on the movement, according to which Goldman saw American education at the time as a "veritable barrack, where the human mind is drilled and manipulated into submission to various social and modern spooks, and thus fitted to continue our system of exploitation and repression." (p. 193) Nicholson writes: "What Goldman sought was a method of educating people wherein they would learn to think and discern for themselves the ideals of freedom and choice in every aspect of their lives." (p. 109)

Indeed, Nicholson observes that over the years Goldman became more and more convinced that education was essential in trying to achieve a libertarian society. In Paris she was impressed by Sebastian Faure's school. Faure explained to Goldman: "It is amazing how frank and affectionate our little ones are to each other. The harmony between themselves and the adults at La Ruche is highly encouraging. We should feel at fault if the children were to fear or honor us merely because we are their elders. We leave nothing undone to gain their confidence and love; that accomplished, understanding will replace duty; confidence, fear; and affection, severity." (p. 107)

Back in the US, Goldman put her own thoughts in writing: "Since every effort in our educational life seems to be directed toward making of the child a being foreign to itself, it must of necessity produce individuals foreign to one another, and in everlasting antagonism with each other." (p. 107)

Nicholson quotes further from Goldman's educational ideas: The solution was that education should insist "upon the free growth and development of the innate forces and tendencies of the child. In this way alone can we hope for a free community, which shall make interference and coercion of human growth impossible." (pp. 107-108)

In 1911 Goldman took part in setting up the Ferrer school in New York. Goldman saw the school as a center of education where not only children but adults could come and learn. She also set up an American anarchist educational organization, which included recent immigrants as well as Americans. Goldman was able to draw many Americans to anarchism. Radical ideas were not that difficult to spread in the early 20th century America. Modern Schools were a success story. To facilitate this broad educational process, Goldman wanted to establish local organizations, which would set up schools, hospitals, libraries and cooperatives. All this would result in "a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes and inclinations." (p. 113)

I am sure today's Spanish "indignados" would agree.


Visit the archive: Social thinking, Spain, Noam Chomsky, Michael Albert



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