Anarchy in the Classroom

News & Politics

anarchy sign
This isn't what students learned in Mark Seis' "Deconstructing Systems in the Pursuit of Anarchy," class at Fort Lewis College.

"If ten people walk beyond civilization and build a new sort of life for themselves, then those ten are already living in the next paradigm from the first day. They don't need to belong to a party or a movement. They don't need laws to be passed. They don't need permits. They don't need a constitution. They don't need tax exempt status. For those ten, the revolution will already have succeeded."

An anxious silence passed over the class. A nervous twitch here, a shifting foot there. Others kept their heads down trying to stay focused on that non-existent object of importance lying on their desk. No one knew how to respond to such a quote because it challenged exactly what the students were doing: sitting obediently. The classroom itself was particularly sterile -- windowless, beige brick walls with the students uniformly placed in rows.

It was the first day of Professor Mark Seis' "Deconstructing Systems in the Pursuit of Anarchy," class at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. A class about anarchy which was taught by an "authority" on the subject... how ironic to explore the idea of a world without a state in a class funded by the state. Seis met the hypocrisy with open arms and dug right in. He had started off the semester with visionary novelist Daniel Quinn's quote, not realizing how strongly this juxtaposition of anarchy and authority would carry through to the end of the semester.

It was in 2001 that Fort Lewis College was thrust into the limelight when the administration prohibited English professor Michelle Malach from teaching a course on pornography. Since then Colorado legislature has entertained the idea of an "Academic Bill of Rights," which among other things, would require the hiring of more politically conservative professors on campus, an idea popularized by the notorious David Horowitz, one time radical communist now turn radical conservative. Horowitz included several Colorado campuses in his speaking tour to combat what he calls "indoctrination centers for the political left." As this story goes to print, state legislature is considering another bill which would ban any discussion of "controversial" issues not explicitly addressed in class syllabi. And so it seems appropriate that the battle continues, once again in Durango, Colorado.

After Seis' dramatic opening, the class proceeded to examine, analyze and discuss a philosophy understood by many to be synonymous with "chaos," "destruction," "disorder," "sedition," and of course, "terrorism." All of these are certainly themes that bring about suspicion from authorities, especially in the state of Colorado. However, these themes were not studied by the class because in actuality, they do not represent anarchy.

emma goldman
Emma Goldman, feminist and anarchist intellectual

Seis describes the course by explaining that it "was originally designed to understand the foundations of systems by seeing the ways in which they are deconstructed." In many ways, it sounds like your typical post-modern college class: analyzing and deconstructing. And analyzing and deconstructing, according to Seis, "is largely what many of the intellectuals associated with the anarchist movement have done throughout history."

In addition to analyzing and deconstructing systems, the course was also designed to expose many of the misconceptions about anarchy and teach students what the term really means.

Fort Lewis Senior Josh Rankin, one of the students in the class, talks about some of those misconceptions. "I was actually hitchhiking up to school this semester and someone picked me up and she asked me what class I was going to, sort of chit-chat, and I said I was going to anarchy class. She got this really panic stricken look on her face and she was like, 'You mean devil-worshipping?' and I said, 'Well that's not exactly what anarchy is,' and I gave a brief explanation of what I thought it really meant, but it was really funny and I don't know if she pictured us in some kind of cult sitting there with Mark [Seis] sacrificing a goat in front of the class or what. I think as a society we're taught that anarchy is a really destructive thing, [that] it can be lumped into the same group as terrorism or something like that, but whereas after taking the class and reading anarchists I just got a different perception of what anarchy means."

Karl Marx's fiery rival Mikhail Bakunin

In the class students unlearned the myths of anarchism by putting down mainstream newspapers and instead picking up books, articles and essays from a variety of works expounding on the ideas of anarchists, from Karl Marx's fiery rival Mikhail Bakunin, to the Russian scientist of a milder demeanor Peter Kropotkin. They read the anarchist who didn't see women as equals, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, as well as outspoken feminist and passionate speaker Emma Goldman. Classic punks came in to talk about the connection between punk and anarchy and they used zines such as the Colorado Springs-based "Infinite Onion" as reading material. From the class they learned that anarchists didn't seek out death and destruction, but a life based on cooperation rather than competition, freedom rather than coercion, and equality rather than hierarchy.

And so in putting these ideas of deconstructing systems into practice, the students of the class unanimously, with one abstention, decided that they would not comply with a certain component of the evaluation process for general studies courses. It was when Seis brought in a memorandum issued to him from the General Education Council that the debate began.

The anarchy course was offered as a part of the new general education system, in which students are required to take upper division classes in addition to the typical entry-level courses. The program was also designed to give students a well-rounded understanding of the world. Thus, four sections were created: systems, environment, technology and culture. Each student is required to take a class from each area.

Seis' anarchy class was designed to fulfill the requirement for a course examining systems (in this case how to deconstruct them). As such, the course, along with other upper-division general education courses, is held to a unique set of standards. After gaining approval from the General Education Council, the courses must then prove that they achieve what they set out to accomplish. Part of the assessment process requires professors to submit a work sample from students 3, 8, 11, 17 and 26 on the class roster. Seis felt obligated to tell his class this. He expected protest, but what he didn't expect was a hands-on application of the material taught in the course.

Using consensus, a decision-making method common among anarchists, the class decided that they would refuse to hand over the papers; Seis supported them. And so on December 19th, 2003 the class sent out a memo signed by the professor and all but one student (who abstained from the decision) to the General Studies Committee. The memo listed the various reasons for their decision not to hand over their papers.

As a professor, Seis thought that the extra requirement was unnecessary since the class already had to pass inspection from several committees and also included student evaluations at the end. In the memo, Seis also wrote, "I find this personally offensive to be surveilled by a group appointed as the Thematic Studies Thought Police (TSPS)."

Gary Gianniny, Chair of the General Education Council, took issue with the charge of the policy being a form of thought police, saying, "There's nothing about saying whether or not professors should get tenure or promotions. The privacy thing, when looking at students' papers -- we white out all the names that are in the paper."

Still, Rankin and other students had additional concerns about the policy. Some wonder how an outsider, who had not taken the class, participated in the discussions or read the material would be able to truly understand any of the papers, let alone make a judgment as to whether or not the class was worthwhile. Other students were not necessarily bothered by the possibility of having their papers read, but were offended by the fact that they would have never known such action would take place had it not been for their professor telling them. And of course, there was always the fact that they were in an anarchy class and as Rankin said, "We had learned all semester that we didn't need that kind of patriarchal force overlooking everything in society so why would we let them overlook what we were doing in class?"

It remains unclear what decision will be made in regards to students' refusals to hand over their papers. Administrators seem reluctant to pursue the issue further and will most likely accept the class decision. The class' action has also lead to the promise of a review of this method of assessment by the board, possibly leading to the actual removal of the policy. No matter what the outcome of this situation is, those involved in the anarchy class have made it clear that this is not an isolated incident, but part of a larger issue of free speech in the classroom.

Rachel Stryker, Sociology representative on the General Education Council expresses her concerns about control over the curriculum. "I feel that it's an incremental drift towards more state intervention into higher education in the forms of surveillance," she notes. For Stryker, it's also about censorship and hypocrisy. "I don't think it's a coincidence that there is currently a bill in the Colorado Legislature that would effectively censor us from talking about controversial or political topics that are not explicitly mentioned beforehand in the syllabus. So on the one hand they're determining what we can talk about and then on the other hand they are creating laws to punish us for talking about what we want to talk about."

Seis shares similar concerns to Stryker, "There's a real ethic of distrust that has been created in the state of Colorado regarding higher education and a lot of people see that from the legislative aspects as a threat to their particular political agendas. So they're trying to discourage first amendment rights of open speech and dialog and democratic environments, and I think this is the real danger."

From their actions, it is clear that the students in the anarchy class are those people intolerant of such threats to free and open discourse. For now, they claim that they are still committed to the memo they signed late of last year and will not back down.

Clayton Dewey is a 20-year-old Humanities major at Fort Lewis College.

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