Harbinger Vol. 2 No. 1 — Toward a Historical Perspective of Libertarian and Anarchist Education in the United States



Kai Molloy

To explain the endurance and commitment to anarchism by many American radicals throughout the twentieth century, most contemporary historians, scholars, and even radicals have repeatedly emphasized the social, political, economic, or cultural factors. When combined, these factors have sustained the credibility of anarchism as a social theory, philosophy, and practice in the United States. Anarchism had nearly become an anachronism in the more advanced industrial nations of Western Europe, particularly following the defeat of the anarchists in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). What has by far received the least attention is the way in which many anarchists’ revolutionary projects have suggested models that respond to the real and perceived needs and desires of oppressed and dominated peoples throughout America. Among the most critical and least studied of these activities and programs, is the education of both radicals and the masses. This type of education (of both children and adults) has historically been as politically effective as it has been theoretically and practically imperative.

Over the last half century, anarchist education has been neglected or largely ignored by American educators. This apparent lack of awareness or complete disregard by many historians, scholars, and radicals has often arisen out of prejudice or misunderstanding. Historically there have been certain periods of great interest in anarchist and libertarian pedagogy in the United States because of its application to widespread calls for social and educational reform and transformation. This interest was particularly strong in the 60s and 70s. If one were to survey educators today, however, it would probably be found that most know very little about anarchism and anarchist pedagogy historically or philosophically. It is also probable that many educators today hold views of anarchism which have been distorted by conventional notions and the popular imagination. They have very little inclination to devote time to the study of anarchism or anarchist pedagogy. In fact, many educators would probably deny knowledge of the existence of anarchist or anarchist educational movements in America altogether.

Between the 1820’s and the end of the 1900’s hundreds of men and women on both the North American and European continents, as well as parts of Asia, developed an amazing set of pedagogical theories and ideas that can be called “libertarian” in their form and content. In the past one hundred and eighty years, these various theories and ideas have inspired thousands of remarkable educational experiments, activities, programs, and schools in the United States. They operated under the auspices of other radical and utopian social movements and experiments, and later under the heading and sponsorship of various anarchist movements themselves. Many of these libertarian pedagogical theories continue to find a place in the undercurrents of contemporary American educational thought although they often go unrecognized, overlooked, and can appear, at first, to be non-existent. In addition, many libertarian experiments, activities, programs and schools still exist in the United States today. The Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont, the Sudbury Valley School in Farmingham, Massachusetts, and various informal study groups which have spontaneously emerged at anarchist bookstores and libraries over the past few decades are examples of anarchist pedagogical practices. Unfortunately, however, a great many more have long passed into history.

The history of anarchist and libertarian education is very rich indeed. In fact, for nearly two hundred years, radicals from New York to Los Angeles and from Seattle to Fairhope have carried on ventures in learning that are unique in American history. These ventures were inspired by European and American educators, radicals, revolutionaries, and social theorists. More than a thousand such ventures have been undertaken in different parts of the country in which children and adults alike could study in an atmosphere of freedom, spontaneity, and self-reliance, in contrast to the authoritarianism, discipline, and obedience of the traditional classroom.

These “libertarian” forms of education have differed not only from other radical educational experiments and ideas, but from each other as well. They have also differed from time to time, place to place, theorist to theorist, and tradition to tradition. Their founders and theoreticians, moreover, cover the entirety of the libertarian spectrum, with prophets ranging from Max Stirner, Leo Tolstoy, and Charles Fourier to Pierre Joseph Proudhon, Michael Bakunin, and Peter Kropotkin; from Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Robert Owen; from Johann Pestalozzi to Freidrich Froebel. These theorists and practicioners have sought to abolish all forms of hierarchy and domination – political, social, and economic, as well as educational – and to replace them with a new society based on the voluntary cooperation of free individuals.

Among the contributors to such endeavors have been many famous figures from the radical and artistic world, including Robert Owen, Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Josiah Warren, Benjamin Tucker, Rudolf Rocker, Voltairine de Cleyre, Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Margaret Sanger, Carlo Tresca, Walt Whitman, Eugene O’Neill, Upton Sinclair, Robert Minor, Robert Henri, George Bellows, Man Ray, Rockwell Kent. Their object during times of war and peace, social unrest and stability, government repression and pardon, and economic depression and progress, has been to create not only new types of schools, but also new cultural forms, new lives, and ultimately, a new social order.

With such remarkable educational and social visions, it is surprising that anarchist education in the United States has never received a comprehensive historical or philosophical treatment. Indeed, the problems of liberal and progressive educational reformers and their various theories of social change have made up the dominant literature in the history and philosophy of American education. On the other hand, the libertarian tradition in American education has only been briefly acknowledged or examined and as such, mostly in terms of the radical experiments, programs, activities, and schools of the free school movement in the 1960’s, and the de-school, un-school, and home-school movements which have followed.

Yet, there is a historical tradition of American libertarian education that predates the libertarian educational movements of the last three decades by almost one-hundred and fifty years, and shares with them a common set of assumptions and values, as well as a common desire for radical, if not revolutionary social change. On the broadest level this tradition can be identified by its rejection of the dominant cultural, political, social, economic, and, more recently, ecological relationships, and by its implicit or explicit use of education to alter these relationships.

From nineteenth century utopian experiments to working class union movements, from transcendentalist school experiments to libertarian socialist and explicitly anarchist educational ventures, an American libertarian tradition in education has developed. It has remained distinct from liberal and progressive approaches to education by the way it defined a radical, indeed, revolutionary approach to child rearing that attacked traditional notions of how children learn, grow, and develop. This tradition has also been highly critical of, and has sought to change the dominant political, social, and economic relationships and the cultural expression of those relationships, because they stifle human growth and potential. More significantly, however, the libertarian tradition has often incorporated a wide-range of activities, beliefs, and values that work to develop a culture of freedom. Indeed, libertarians have often used education as a central part of the more general process of social and cultural transformation that has included changes in human relationships in the family, the school, the work place, and to nature, as well as other political, social, and economic relationships.

While what can be included in the libertarian and anarchist traditions has not been expressly defined, and while the boundaries of these theoretical and practical frameworks or world-views have not been clearly drawn, a set of theorists and practitioners has come to be associated with these loosely defined traditions. For the purposes of this and other upcoming articles, however, I have chosen to define the two terms “anarchist” and “libertarian” in what I believe to be their broadest and most general sense. I define an anarchist as one who rejects all forms of external and internal hierarchy and domination, most significantly all forms of government, the State, and capitalism and “believes that society and individuals would function well without them.”1 My definition of a libertarian (which I share with historian Peter Marshall) is one who believes liberty is a “supreme value” and “would like to limit the powers of government [and the State] to a minimum compatible with security.”2 I would also agree with Marshall’s statement that the “line between anarchist and libertarian is thin, and in the past the terms have often been used interchangeably.”3 Historically, however, some libertarians have promoted systems of free market capitalism and property-ownership, systems that all anarchists have consistently and emphatically rejected. “Even so, they are members of the same clan, share the same ancestors, and bear resemblances”4, writes Marshall and it is for this reason that I have chosen to include the educational perspectives of both libertarians and anarchists in these articles.

While no definitive American libertarian or anarchist history of education has been written which traces the ideas and practices of this radical tradition, a handful of works on specific aspects of each subject, as well as articles, books, and unpublished scholarly and academic studies have dealt with one phase or another of this tradition. Unfortunately many of these books are no longer in print, a number of the articles are available only in hard-to-find and obscure publications, and the few unpublished studies that do exist are buried deep in private or university archives.

As a result of the disparate array of articles and books I mentioned above, a set of theories and a variety of practices have come to be associated with libertarian education in America. Yet an examination of the literature shows that only the free school movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s has received a thorough examination. In the traditional and more conventional American educational literature, libertarian educational theories and practices have been isolated and relegated to specific methodologies, specific philosophies, and to a specific historical period: the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Thus, the analysis and perspective of libertarian education in the United States has remained ahistorical, asocial, and isolated primarily to the confines of the sixties decade. In fact, past libertarian theories and practices and the social, economic, political, and historical conditions surrounding them have seldom been examined. The repercussions on the libertarian educational movement have been that issues and problems are seldom seen in a historical context, and even less frequently understood as problems of what I have called the American libertarian tradition in education. Indeed, the historical tradition of libertarian theories and ideas, as well as experiments, activities, programs, and schools that began as early as the 1820’s, has only received minimal attention, if any, in the historical and theoretical writings of educators, or in the scholarly and academic writings on American society.

Yet certainly these various educational theories and practices need to be explored and examined if we are to come to an understanding of the libertarian tradition in American education, or gain further knowledge and perspective on the origins, emergence, development, and relationship between the various nineteenth and twentieth century socialist, utopian, and educational traditions, in America, Europe, and throughout the western hemisphere. This also suggests the need for a body of literature that explores, historically and philosophically, the American libertarian educational tradition in order to understand the fundamental relationship between libertarian pedagogy, other radical pedagogies, revolutionary educational transformation, radical school reform, and social, economic, political, and ecological transformation.

I believe that an understanding of the libertarian tradition in American education and its relationship to various socialist, utopian, and educational movements, as well as a perspective on its place in U.S. history and society, will help us to understand several other things of equal importance. First, it will help us further appreciate the true significance of libertarian education as a body of ideas and pedagogical practices. Secondly, it will demonstrate the relevance of libertarian education to the various political, social, economic, ecological, and educational, problems facing modern societies. Third, it will reveal the crucial need for further elaboration and expansion of libertarian ideas in education if modern societies are to overcome these problems and become truly free and equal. Finally, a study of the libertarian tradition in American education will show that the quest for freedom both in our societies and schools is not only a central part of our collective experience but resonates with deeply felt human needs and desires; that freedom is necessary for the continuation of individual thought and creativity, as well as for the fulfillment of the human potential.

In view of these circumstances, I have decided to examine the history of American libertarian and anarchist education in a series of articles to be published by the Institute for Social Ecology in their publication Harbinger over the next couple of years. The purpose of these articles is to broadly narrate the history of the American libertarian educational movement, examine the various theories, practices, and tendencies that make it up, and highlight them. I would also like to demonstrate that there is a historical tradition in American education that can in fact be defined as libertarian, study this tradition’s successes and failures, and assess its place in American life. In the next article, I will begin this series by providing readers with a broad overview of anarchist and libertarian education in the United States, so please look for it in the coming months.


  1. Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (London: Harper Collins, 1992), p. xiii.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.