Hidden schools and clandestine science education

At the heart of education lies perhaps its grandest purpose: to maximise your potential to contribute to society. Why then, would education ever be denied to certain groups?

 Illustration by  Sarah Nagorcka

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka

Government restriction or denial of education on particular topics, or to particular social groups, is an ancient and effective means of subjugating a population. Forbidden subjects span everything from religious education to science, history, literacy and numeracy. As with any government-instated prohibition, the lack of provision for education serves only to drive these services underground, and creates a booming black-market for those wanting to learn about the topics to which they have been denied access. 

Education bans are especially prevalent in oppressive dictatorships or during foreign occupations. Under Taliban control, provision of education to girls in Afghanistan was terminated after their 8th birthday. It was asserted that the suspension was only temporary until facilities could be put in place to prevent cross-gender contact, but due to the strict Taliban interpretation of Islamic Law, which prohibits education of women, it is likely that there was never any real intention to see such facilities come to fruition. The ruling had a devastating effect on the Afghani education system, resulting in the dismissal of an excess of 100,000 young girls, 8,000 university undergraduates and 7,000 female teachers. 

The sudden explosion in demand for clandestine educational services saw the rise of several underground schools. The Golden Needle Sewing School, founded in 1996, provided Afghan women secret access to lectures by professors from Herat University under the guise that they were learning to sew. The Afghan Institute of Learning (AIL) operated 80 underground schools for girls during the Taliban regime, and developed a 95% female teaching staff. The AIL continues to support education centres in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and has established new colleges with specific focuses on computer science, nursing, and pedagogy. 

 
  Through AIL, women can train as midwives and mothers-to-be can learn what to expect during pregnancy, delivery and post partum.   Direct Relief/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0) 

Through AIL, women can train as midwives and mothers-to-be can learn what to expect during pregnancy, delivery and post partum. Direct Relief/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) 

 

This is not an Islamist-specific phenomenon. During the Russian empire’s control of the Kingdom of Poland, the Uniwersytet Latający (Flying University) was established so that Polish youth could attain an education outside of government censorship. The school earned its name by hosting its classes in a wide variety of different locations so as to evade detection by government officials. After Russian authorities abolished laboratory instruction from Polish schools, Władysław Skłodowski, an educator in the fields of mathematics and physics, brought a collection of scientific instruments home and taught his children about their proper use. Skłodowski’s daughters, Maria and Bronisława, were ineligible for higher education as government policy forbid women from attending university. 

The two sisters began their education in Poland at Uniwersytet Latający before moving to Paris to complete their advanced degrees. While in Paris, Maria married Pierre Curie and adopted the name Marie, along with the change of her family name. Marie Curie, of course, would go on to be one of only four laureates in history to receive two Nobel Prizes. 

 
  Pierre and Marie Curie in their laboratory.   rosefirerising/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

Pierre and Marie Curie in their laboratory. rosefirerising/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

The Uniwersytet Latający was eventually legalized, and transformed into Towarzystwo Kursów Naukowych (the Society of Science Courses). However, no longer afforded protection by its clandestine nature, it was forced to close its doors to students during the Nazi Germany occupation of Poland. During this time, a staggering proportion of Poland’s schools were closed by German officials, who decreed that Polish education should end after only a few years of elementary education. The spirit of Uniwersytet Latający was once again revived, and the Tajna Organizacja Nauczycielska (Secret Teaching Society) was established to cater to this new demand for underground primary and secondary educations. The Tajna Organizacja Nauczycielska cooperated closely with the Polish government-in-exile and the Underground Polish State, and approximately 8,000 (about 15%) of its members were arrested and killed by Nazi soldiers.  

In Australia, there is little we have to fear in terms of government censorship and our freedom of access to a quality education in whatever field we choose, and so it may come as a surprise that underground educational facilities persist here despite the perceived lack of government censorship. Around 50,000 Australian children are unregistered home-schooled pupils. Somehow subject to the polar opposite of Władysław Skłodowski’s situation, the parents of these children elect to educate their children in secret, citing a deep-seated distrust of the state educational system as motivation for doing so. 

In light of the struggle for a public education in places like Afghanistan and Poland, many find the decision to home-school children in a country that enjoys unrestricted access to educational facilities more than slightly perverse. However, there are some subjects that are still considered strictly taboo, even by home-schooling standards. Pretend for a minute that you want to know about bomb-making. If you were to ever express this desire aloud it would be completely understandable for people to treat such an interest as highly suspicious, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t legitimate reasons for wanting to know about it. You would be pretty hard-pressed to find a university course that caters to the bomb-making crowd or an aisle in the library for books on the topic, and for good reason. 

 
  To mark the progress in dismantling censorship, some libraries even celebrate “Banned Books Week”.   Eckhart Public Library/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

To mark the progress in dismantling censorship, some libraries even celebrate “Banned Books Week”. Eckhart Public Library/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

The censorship of taboo science books has provided a niche market for underground publishers such as Paladin Press and Uncle Fester Books to fill in otherwise educationally liberated nations, such as Australia and the United States. Paladin Press specialises in books about survival and preparedness, and offers a catalogue of detailed instructional textbooks on improvised explosives, among other things. Uncle Fester Books on the other hand offers postgraduate-level guides on the manufacture of illicit drugs, including and especially methamphetamine. Both of these publishers maintain legitimate businesses by selling their publications over the Internet. In a world where entire university educations can be completed via correspondence, it’s no exaggeration to say that advanced courses in taboo science are available if you are willing to go underground.  

This may come as a surprise, but scholars of organic chemistry can propose illicit drug syntheses on the back of an envelope without breaking a sweat. The repertoire of organic transformations used to make illicit drugs is the same as those used to create life-saving antibiotics and other medications; in fact, most illicit substances are so easy to manufacture that they are done so on massive scales, in caravans, mostly by a poorly-educated criminal underclass. Books on weapons manufacture and clandestine drug syntheses are nothing more than themed textbooks on engineering and chemistry, and the information contained within is no different from what might be expected from a standard science syllabus. Just as violent video games have failed to produce a generation of psychopathic, car-jacking super soldiers, the availability of scientific “dark arts” education is in fact probably quite benign.   

 
  At the heart of education lies perhaps its grandest purpose: to reach one’s potential, and in turn, be of your best use to society.   Don Shall/Flickr  (CC BY 2.0)

At the heart of education lies perhaps its grandest purpose: to reach one’s potential, and in turn, be of your best use to society. Don Shall/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

 

The formal denial of education, for whatever reason, does little to quell an appetite for information in the minds of fascinated people. It’s clear from the Taliban rule of Afghanistan and the foreign occupations of Poland that people will seek out opportunities to learn and teach – even under the threat of death. For the home-schooled masses, misguided or not, it is a firm passion for a quality education, not a disregard for it, that drives these parents to boycott the public system. We seem hard-wired to value information of all kinds, and indulging our appetite for it is healthy and natural. Go and learn about whatever you want; history demonstrates that no one is going to be able to stop you.