A Primer of Libertarian Education


A PRIMER OF LIBERTARIAN EDUCATION, by Joel Spring, New York: Free Life Editions, 1975, 154 pp. + biblio, $3.95.

In The Republic Plato argues that one and the same part of the mind or soul cannot move in two opposite directions at one and the same time. In A Primer of Libertarian Education Joel Spring conclusively refutes Plato. As blithely as if contradiction were the principle of identity, he opts in plainest language for purest libertarianism and in equally plain language for purest totalitarianism. He performs this supposedly impossible feat under the title of something that is called "radical education." "Radical education," as delineated by Spring, concerns itself on the one hand with turning out, as the sine qua non of any libertarian society, a person free of all "internalized authority" (pp. 33, 35), completely "self-owning" (p. 38), self-regulating (p. 82), and "unwilling to bow to authority" (p. 131). It concerns itself on the other hand with promulgating and implementing the revolutionary replacement of capitalism (p. 104), "selfish individualism" (p. 123), and nonegalitarian social structures and phenomena (passim) with socialism (pp. 107, 134), "social consciousness" (p. 142), egalitarian social structures (pp. 9, 14, 28, etc.), and some form of participatory democracy (pp. 71, 77, 126).

Instead of proposing a certain view as his own Spring often proposes it as the view of an author whose definition of radical education he is expounding but at the same time, it is clear, expounding as correct dogma. Thus Spring does not himself espouse the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism but he cites Neill, a leading theorist and practitioner of radical education, as castigating English education for "preparing each generation to fit into a capitalist economy" and so "producing a slave mentality" (p. 104). Spring himself defines radical education as opposing mere liberal reform of society and as demanding a radical transformation but always along communal, egalitarian, and similar lines; see, for instance, his introduction and chapter 1. Putting two and two together one must conclude that among other things radical education, as conceived by Spring, envisages the revolutionary replacement of capitalism—and so I have contended, supporting my contention with a reference to Spring's use of Neill's views. This has been my practice generally. I have not been willing that Spring should evade the clear import of his deliberate associations, and my references express this determination.

One's immediate response to Spring's double-barreled discharge in opposite directions has to be: By what illogic does one propose a system of education that is intended to turn out nth-degree libertarian minds and concomitantly an nth-degree totalitarian milieu for their earthly habitation? That is like laboriously scraping together and making snowballs only to toss them into a raging furnace. But the illogic does appear.

Any number of thinkers—de Tocqueville, among others—have pointed out that a society dedicated to equality (one of Spring's main concerns) and democracy (another)—or might not one speak of these as being "internalized authorities" of Spring's?—is a society in which conformity of view and behavior imposes itself everywhere, naturally and invisibly, thus producing not merely a physical but a spiritual totalitarianism (the worst kind!). Spring himself, it should be noted, does everything but arrive at a perception of his own inconsistency on this point.

Seeming not to realize that he is engaged in blowing to smithereens his own societal contentions, he cites studies of a kibbutz in which egalitarian principle and participatory democracy have reigned supreme and uncontested for 50 years. According to Spring's own description of these studies' findings, the members of this kibbutz, young and old, possessed a "collective 'superego" that was "all-controlling." (pp. 116-23.) Translated into previous terms, this means that the very form of society that Spring's radical education is meant to bring into being nurtures and ensures the most complete "internalized authority" possible and hence the most complete non-freedom of the person. Thus, what Spring is in fact advocating in his theory of "radical education" is the very antithesis of its official thesis—internal freedom!

Is it only such abstract and subtle contradictions that Spring seems incapable of perceiving? By no means. With equal aplomb he espouses concrete and gross ones. Thus, speaking as a libertarian, he proposes that children be "freed" from economic (and thus instructional) dependence on the family. But how is this economic independence to be brought about? In the next sentence he tells us, "The surplus income of the head of the family could be rechanneled to the children." And how is this to be brought about? Suppose no "head of family" volunteered? Spring has an answer to any such contingency: "This might involve a plan which would levy a tax on adults for the support of children" (p. 137). One can only sigh in disbelief.

The intelligent reader, who is sure to perceive the many contradictions lurking in the shadows of Spring's sunny prose, may be tempted to put down the book in immediate disgust, and I should not blame him. Nor should I blame him if, wondering how anyone could be so blind to contradiction, he concluded that emotionally and intellectually Spring was at bottom not a libertarian at all but a totalitarian, whose only complaint with government is that present government does not happen to enforce his own particular prejudices and views. There is, I confess, pretty solid ground for such a suspicion.

Spring everywhere seems to suppose in his primer that the views he proposes, and those of people with whom he basically agrees—like Friere, Reich, Neill, and Illich—must be made to prevail (Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!); the present social structure must be replaced; society must be "organized" to ensure equal wealth, equal rights, etc., etc. But how can these "musts" be made into reality and kept reality except through totalitarian controlling of the views and actions of individuals? If Spring were emotionally and intellectually a libertarian I believe he would have addressed himself seriously to this question and maybe, even, have jettisoned his Marxian "musts" in the face of it.

But he does not.

But, though again I would not blame the intelligent reader for throwing down A Primer of Libertarian Education in disgust, I can also recommend his going on—even though he might now and then have to hold his nose. I can think of two very persuasive reasons that argue in favor of his doing so.

For one thing, Spring, with exemplary lucidity, limns the educational theories of Godwin, Ivan Illich, Stirner, Rousseau, Freire, Reich, Neill, and other "radical educators" and assesses the libertarian and societal implications of their theories. For the general reader who is probably unfamiliar with the works of these authors, this is opportune (since "radical" theories of education are at present in the ascendant) and informative reportage.

But second, and more important, Spring calls to our attention a problem that threatens the very name and possibility of libertarianism but which, strangely enough, has escaped the notice and investigation of most genuinely libertarian authors. It seems to be a problem that has exposed itself to, and become the property almost solely of, those totalitarians in libertarian clothing like Godwin, Freire, Rousseau, Neill, Reich, and Spring himself who somehow think that individual freedom can be made the capstone of a collectivist general will and vice-versa.

Traditional education, Spring argues (following Godwin and many others) is dedicated to forming the character and thoughts of the child, and it does so. Thus, when we tell a grown-up to be self-regulating or to be the master of his own thoughts instead of being mastered by them, we are a good step too late: his mind has already been made up for him (and not by him). In Stirner's terminology, he is owned by his thoughts instead of owning them.

Like Rousseau, Stirner, Neill, Reich, Freire, et al, Spring therefore conceives the primary task of the libertarian educator to be this: to somehow see to it that the child does not, in being educated, become mastered by an "internalized authority" but begins and remains the owner of himself and his thoughts, the one who has decided (and not been decided for). But this is not a problem that is of concern just to the libertarian educator, according to Spring. It is the logically first problem of libertarianism for, Spring wants to maintain—and one can see the prima facie plausibility of his doing so—"Political liberty has little meaning if an individual's actions are guided by an internalized authority from which there is no escape" (p. 33).

How is this libertarian-defined education of the child to be accomplished? Drawing on the authors already mentioned, and others, Spring propounds as negative prescriptions various "should nots": the child should not be instilled with religious or moral "oughts" and "ought nots"; the attempt should not be made to turn him into something, for example, a good citizen; his natural drives should not be repressed and in particular, his sexual ones should not be; the child should not be indoctrinated with thoughts; and so on (pp. 48, 102, 125). In furtherance of these "should nots" Spring in some places suggests and in others as much as proposes that public education and formal schooling be abolished and that family controls over children either be eliminated or made nominal (pp. 125, 134, 139).

Plainly, however, a child cannot be placed in a vacuum of mere "should nots." What positive steps are to be taken to ensure that he is a "self-owner," is self-regulating, that he truly decides for himself instead of being decided for—in particular, being decided for by an "internalized authority"? Spring agrees here with Marx and Freire. By engaging in economic action and decision—for instance, being an actual part of the work force—but being made conscious of the social forces impinging upon oneself, one becomes self-conscious and thus is able to decide for oneself instead of being decided for (p. 72). Presumably in line with this Marxian-Freirean conception of self-rule and its necessary conditions, Spring contends that today's prolonged childhood should be replaced by the medieval practice (to believe Spring) of dressing and treating children as grown-ups as soon as they are out of their swaddling clothes (p. 112). As we have seen, however, Spring also proposes, as an alternative, that at a certain age—he mentions 12 or 13—the child be given a State stipend allowing him to do just what he pleases, independent of either family or government control (p. 137).

Are these answers tenable? For all their possible attractiveness to libertarians (I except, of course, Spring's State stipend), it does not seem to me that they are.

Suppose we give Spring everything he asks for—even the possibility (which is doubtful, indeed) of a continuing society in which no "should" or "should nots" are directed to children. Presumably, though, this noninternalizing condition is brought about by Spring and other radical educators observing the principle that the minds of children should not be inculcated with "should" and "should nots"; that their natural impulses and drives should not be suppressed; that internalized authorities, no matter what else, must not be allowed to develop and must be stamped out where they do. But is this cluster of philosophical "should nots" and "musts" not itself an internalized authority that rules the minds of Spring and his cohorts? It would seem to be just that.

"But at least," Spring may say, "I and my subordinates shall have preserved the self-rule of the society's children!" But will they? According to the Marx-Freire prescription that Spring opts for, one can master social forces only if those impinging upon one are brought into one's consciousness. A certain set of "shoulds" and "should nots" is being observed and applied invisibly in the education of Spring's hypothetical "free" children, for example, "Their sexual drives should not be suppressed." If, then, these children are not to be merely mastered by what is happening to them they will have to be told by their educators what is happening to them.

Now what is happening is that no "shoulds" or "should nots" are being directed at them; but that social fact is connected with the prompting motive that "shoulds" and "should nots" should not be inculcated, and that motive with the further ones that their inculcation produces internalized authorities and that internalized authorities must not be allowed to develop because one is then not a self-owner, etc. Spring's hypothetical "free" children will have to be made conscious of these forces impinging upon them! But one cannot, for instance, be made conscious of pain without sometime in one's life being made to feel pain or feeling pain.

If Spring and his educators tell the children under their charge merely that what is happening to them is such and such and that this such and such has as its cause certain beliefs of what should or should not take place that Spring and his cohorts entertain, the children will still have no inkling of what is meant by "should" and "should not." They can only be given that inkling by being made to feel what a should or should not is. So, in appropriate tones and gestures, Spring and his cohorts will have to inform the children that natural drives should not be suppressed, internalized authorities should not be allowed to develop, etc. In short, they shall have to make the children feel the shoulds and should nots that they themselves feel. But in succeeding in doing this they of course will have inculcated the minds of their charges with those very "shoulds" and "should nots" that are their own internalized authorities!

The Stirnerean problem therefore remains: "How are children to be reared and educated without producing in them internalized authorities?" Spring's regimen of "should nots" and Marx-Frierean productions of consciousness ostensibly fails. Is any viable answer to the Stirnerean challenge available to the libertarian? He might, it is true, reject the premise that one is truly free only if one is not dictated to by an internalized authority. But let us suppose, as many genuine (and not merely pseudo) libertarians will suppose, that this premise has to be accepted: what then? Must the libertarian concede defeat—a defeat that appears to bring in its train the very disestablishment of libertarianism itself? I do not believe so. I believe an answer to the Stirnerean problem can be had, though not one that can seem very appetizing to most libertarians, I fear.

We know what we have to come up with: a system of education and a system of society that do not internalize authorities. Now we know that a society or State where a collective will exists is one where internalized authority exists. Thus, if we are to locate the internal and external conditions for a truly libertarian society and mind we need to locate something that militates against a collective will. It will also have to be, it is obvious, something that does not internalize itself as an authority. This cannot be reason or sentiment, since rational and emotional persuasion both internalize themselves as authorities. There is one thing, however, that both militates against a collective will and that does not internalize itself as an authority. This is brute force. For example, if you enslave me by brute force (not if you enslave me by rational or emotional persuasion), then and only then am I always ready (as the authors of antiquity never tire of remarking) to rebel, give me but the opportunity. In short, if enslaved by force I am not a slave by virtue of internalized authority, nor does there exist between me and my nominal master a collective will. And this is true of any action or condition that is founded upon brute force as such.

The solution to the Stirnerean problem of education takes, accordingly, this form. In education the rule of reason must be publicly eschewed. The rule of sentiment likewise. In their place brute force must be publicly enthroned. The child must be made by patent brute force to do what anyone having the power and will to exercise brute force decides. And the same, needless to say, holds for grown-ups: they will want to adjudicate their relations through force alone, being sure to give no further justification of their adjudications.

It can be expected, no doubt, that children and grown-ups alike will hedonistically complain, saying that the rule of force is grievous. But that will simply mean that the rule has not internalized itself. The final proof that it has not will be, of course, the ever-present fact that both children and grown-ups are ready, given any opportunity, to rebel against it. Thus, both will be internally free and, since no collective will shall exist, they will be socially free as well!

Each of these corollaries of the rule of brute force, incidentally, seems to be perceived by Spring—though dimly, as through a dark glass. Thus he notes in one place that "while the nuclear, triangular family can be viewed as a source of dependency on authoritarian figures it can also be seen as providing an opportunity for the child to separate herself or himself from the rest of society and develop a private self" (p. 123). Unfortunately Spring nowhere exploits this brief intellectual breakthrough.

I should be remiss (internalized authority speaking!) if I did not point out that in this review I have focused upon the libertarian and Marxist dimensions of "radical educational theory." According to Spring, an important third dimension of the theory stems from the "Freudian left," as embodied in the works of Neill and Reich (p. 10). Its strictures against the suppression of sexual drives and activity are to be read, at least partly, in that light.

Mention should also be made of the bibliography that Spring appends to his primer. It provides, for the general reader, a very usable and handy library-ladder to some of the higher shelves of "radical educational" literature: that strange blend of libertarian-totalitarian thought, which finds faithful expression for itself in titles like Bettelheim's "The Children of the Dream: Communal Child-Rearing and American Education."

John O. Nelson is a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado, and a frequent contributor to REASON.