The European Libertarian Schools: Yasnaya Polyana, La Ruche, & Escuela Moderna

Leo Tolstoy was a Christian anarchist and an early theorist of libertarian educational ideals. His home at Yasnaya Polyana was made into one of the first experiments in free schools. He made the site and himself available to poor, orphan children for instruction as a means to help them improve their life situation. There were no marks, no compulsory attendance, and the pedagogical techniques were in line with the ideals of free education. Sebastien Faure founded La Ruche, The Beehive, in 1904 on an agricultural commune just outside of Paris. He received considerable support from the anarcho-syndicalists of this time and developed a program that utilized integral education to encourage incorporation of students into a crafts-based cooperative economy.

Francisco Ferrer's Escuela Moderna is perhaps the most notorious and influential of the early experiments in libertarian schooling. Ferrer founded the Escuela Moderna in 1901 in Barcelona, the center of Spanish anarchism at that time. His program followed the ideals of integral education and adhered closely to the educational philosophies of anarchist theory. Ferrer was closely affiliated with prominent anarchist intellectuals of the period, and ran a publishing house for libertarian texts. Ferrer designed the curriculum to be fiercely anti-statist, antireligious, and anti-militarist. Ferrer was later accused of a connection with a series of bombings by anarchists, was sentenced to death in a mock trial, and ultimately executed by the Spanish state.

The Modern School

Francisco Ferrer's martyrdom attracted the attention of anarchists around the world, including American anarchists such as Emma Goldman, who wrote about the Escuela Moderna in her periodical Mother Earth. Goldman, along with Alexander Berkman and other prominent American anarchists of the time, founded the first modern school in New York in 1909. The modern school was modeled after the Escuela Moderna and other libertarian experiments. The school in New York was known as the Ferrer Center.

The Ferrer Center in New York was quite active, drawing in philosophers, poets, radicals, and other prominent artists and academics into its rich intellectual atmosphere. The school was rocked with controversy after some members of the Modern School community were implicated in an attempted assassination plot on industrialist John D. Rockefeller. After this, the Ferrer Center closed amidst repression from the wider community. A group involved in the Ferrer Center relocated to Stelton, New Jersey where they founded the Ferrer Colony and continued to teach in a libertarian style while incorporating more hands-on agrarian education into the school.

The Hobo Colleges

The Hobo Colleges were institutions initially founded by James Eads How, through his organization the International Brotherhood Welfare Organization, for the education of migratory and itinerant workers. The college was championed by Ben Reitman, the hobo doctor, lover of Emma Goldman, notorious anarchist, and physician to sex workers. Reitman opened a branch of the Hobo College in Chicago. The Hobo Colleges were places for workers to learn and discuss philosophy, often in the company of professors and students from more legitimately accepted schools. Additionally the Hobo College was a place for itinerant workers to discuss radical political theory and to exchange practical skills regarding health, nutrition, traveling, and traditions from hobo culture.

Freedom Schools

The Freedom Schools were pivotal in the emergence in white allyship during the civil rights era of the American south. The Freedom Schools were essentially places where black folks could come develop literacy skills necessary for their participation in the political process of the United States, a sphere from which they were systemically excluded at the time. The efforts of Septima Clark, in conjunction with organizers from the Highlander Center, led to the foundation of the Citizen Schools (also known as Freedom Schools). These schools used a non-coercive and student-centered pedagogy to educate students for democratic citizenship and civil rights. Many luminaries of the civil rights movement attended workshops at the Highlander Center including Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Freedom Schools played a large role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and other major acts of civil disobedience and political action throughout the era (Horton, 1990).
Many of freedom schools were operated by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in conjunction with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), both leading civil rights organizations who collaborated to create Freedom Summer, a summer educational program for literacy in black communities focused in Mississippi.

The Free University

The free university movement emerged from the student protest movements on college campuses throughout the 1960s. Throughout this time period, hundred of free universities sprouted up offering courses that ranged across a wide spectrum. The initial free universities grew out of Free Speech Movement organizing on the Berkeley campus (Draves, 1980). Much of free university theory came from the Port Huron Statement, one of the defining documents of the new left.
Free universities often were situated on college campuses and existed as a sort of community education component of the very universities that free university proponents criticized as corporate tools for an industrial capitalist order. Free universities offered courses, sometimes numbering in the hundreds on a variety of topics that ranged from “Zen Basketball” to “Revolutionary Organizing, Terrorism & Sabotage.” The free universities were not always inherently political, but many of them did organize around left-wing politics. Later in the development of the free university movement, many free universities became community learning networks and were quite widespread, even considered mainstream.


Unschooling, also sometimes referred to as deschooling, is a radical approach to the de-institutionalization of schooling. Some of the most thorough discussions of unschooling have been taken up by Ivan Illich, Paul Goodman, Grace Llewelyn, and Gustavo Esteva. The basic premise of unschooling is that schools are an overly formalized system for the social reproduction of values that mimic the most alienating and hierarchical aspects of industrial capitalism. Unschooling's main aim is to reclaim learning from schooling. This concept has manifested in the creation of informal learning networks and has been foundational in the popularity of home schooling in left-leaning radical circles.