The Education of Mondragón

November 3, 2008 at 4:37 am 3 comments

(Please note that the following is a first attempt, and needs some editing. Also, I decided in this essay to examine the aspects of Mondragón’s education that bears respect. This is not a critical examination of the education of Mondragón in regards to what it needs to improve, although such a discussion would be a good, lengthy, and important one. Instead, this is an exploration of the aspects of Mondragón’s educational philosphies, techniques, and models that should be regarded as beneficial influences):

Knowledge is power.

Knowledge must be socialized so that power can be democratized.

After the socialization of culture, inevitably follows the socialization of wealth and even of power. We may say that this is the indispensable and prior condition for the democratization and socioeconomic progress of a people.

-Don José María Arizmendiarrieta, Reflections


The above quote illustrates the unique tie that exists between workplace democracy and learning-place democracy. Don José María Arizmendiarrieta, the founder of the Mondragón cooperative movement, argued often about the distinct and important ties that exist between working and learning. Through his community and cooperative organizing efforts in the Basque region of Spain, Don José María was able to tirelessly paint education as the core to any successful implementation of revolutionary change towards democratic workplaces and a just society.

Mondragón is currently one of the largest worker cooperatives in the world and is an impressive and vital example of worker’s self-management and democracy. It is, in fact, a co-op of co-ops – held together via a cooperative bank, a cooperative congress, a dedication towards expanding democratic-economic opportunities, and the overall cooperative experience. The first cooperative of the Mondragón group was a child of a school built with the labor and the capital of a community desperate for social justice and economic security. The community of now 100,000 workers has its roots in a school that begun with twelve-pupils. Five of these pupils went on to start Ulgor, the first cooperative of the Mondragón movement. Their teacher, Don José María, continued to be involved with the new movement and wielded great influence over its direction and message. Thus, this cooperative movement was created out of an educational movement; consequently, the natures of working and learning have become inseparable in the experience.

There are many written documentations of the overall history, structure, and functions of Mondragón. This will not be one of them. Instead, this discussion will specifically focus on the philosophy of education that makes up the cooperative experience and specific educational implementations that exist within the Mondragón structure. In addition, it would take a great deal of time to explore every single aspect of Mondragón’s educational model (the primary schools, research institutes, the training methods of workers, the University of Mondragón, and so on), and to analyze both the promising aspects and those characteristics that need improvement. Therefore, this conversation will focus on particular examples that should be regarded as inspirational models.

Mondragón is by no means perfect, but there are multitudes of critical lessons to draw from its example. Throughout this dialogue, we will explore four specific arguments: 1) Cooperativism as an educational movement that uses economics is an exemplary model, and socialized knowledge is a direct prerequisite to socioeconomic progress and justice; 2) Mondragón’s link between workplace democracy and learning-place democracy are strong in the schools, but imperfect; 3) democratic and ongoing education is not only important in the promotion and establishment of cooperativism and workplace democracy, but it is also crucial to the continued maintenance and safeguarding of such movements and institutions; and 4) the Mondragón workplaces of democracy are also learning-places of democracy.

It All Started With a School

“It has been said,” Don José María wrote, “that cooperativism is an economic movement that uses education; we can also alter the definition, affirming that it is an educational movement that uses economic action” (Morrison, 1993). From both this quote and the one we began with, it can be determined that Don José María saw a distinctive and inseparable link between work and education. Among the Mondragón movement, Don José María is regarded as an almost sacred figure. This community organizer’s words and works are still used for inspiration and guidance, and the existing morals of the cooperative experience remain heavily rooted in his teachings. In fact, while I spent time at Mondragón, one cooperator explained that the movement was in need of a new Don José María Arizmendiarrieta – a true leader, an inspirer. These words were spoken as the entire world, including the Basque country and Spain, began to see banks around the globe crumble and a new economic crisis was being unraveled. As global capitalism crashed down onto itself, the Mondragón cooperative experience was certain it would survive. It had done fine in the calamity of the 1980’s, and it was structured with the intent purpose on the just sharing of wealth and burden, which would help to cushion the blow of the 2000’s (something the rest of the world was just beginning to realize). Even with all of this, they were still looking to an educator and an organizer who had jump started the cooperative journey in the 1940’s – and who helped the democratic work-experience thrive despite its existence within a repressive, fascist state. (Travel Notes, 2008) Therefore, it is important for any of us interested in a new, cooperative, and humane form of economics to examine this rich history.

In 1941, a young priest named Don José María Arizmendiarrieta was assigned by the Catholic Church to a small, obscure, and war-ravaged town by the name of Mondragón. This town, which was in the Basque region of Spain, was suffering under a ruthless tyrant and recovering from the Civil War. Franco’s regime suppressed the Basque language and culture and had killed the leaders of the town or forced them to flee. While it might seem that entering a town as a priest was an influential role at the time, the Basque Church had not sided with the rest of the Catholic Church during the Civil War and had opposed Franco (Kurlansky, 2001). Yet, almost immediately, Don José María began to teach religious and human values at the only local apprentice school. This school was part of a steel company (the Union Cerrajera), but it only admitted the children of its employees, plus about 10 to 12 other students per year. These students were then obligated to work for the company. In all, this served only about 15% of Mondragón youth who might have been interested in furthering their education. Don José María came to realize that this teaching post would not allow him the opportunity to reach and effect the youth of the town. Despite his offers to help raise the funds to expand enrollment at the apprentice school, the firm refused any such action. (Morrison, 1993), (Mondragon Cooperative Experience, 2007)

Rather than surrendering to defeat, Don José María took action. The priest traveled around the small town and presented the residents with a proposal for a new independent training school. Following this, Don José María placed ballot boxes on street corners and asked folks to indicate their willingness to support such an enterprise. An overwhelming 600 responses came in, pledging support with either cash or some other form of contribution. October of 1943 saw the grand opening of a new community-run training school, called the Escuela Profesional (or in Basque: Eskola Politekinoa), with twenty pupils ready to start. (Morrison, 1993), (Mondragon Cooperative Experience, 2007)

As the means to make this school possible came directly from the population of Mondragón itself, it seemed only right that the contributors should elect the school’s management committee (Morrison, 1993). In addition, the students played a critical role in the fund-raising efforts, and Don José María organized those who were invested in the college to perform community service, including fixing homes and other basic necessities, to garnish more support from the population (Travel Notes, 2008). From the beginning, Don José María turned towards members and participants of the new training school for self-financing self-governance. Easier paths were avoided, such as placing the school under the control of the Catholic Church (Mondragon Cooperative Experience, 2007). In 1947, with the support, guidance, and organizing of Don José María – twelve students of the first graduating class continued their education with five-year University studies (Morrison, 1993). In 1955, five of these pupils founded the first industrial cooperative, named Ulgor, in the town of Mondragón. As more cooperatives sprung from this training school and cooperative movement, and as they became linked through inter-cooperation and the formation of the Caja Laboral (the cooperative bank), the school itself grew and become more complex. It itself transformed into an education cooperative; cooperative elementary schools plus other training and educational ventures formed into The League of Education and Culture (now called the Hezibide Elkartea); and in 1997, the University of Mondragón was born. Today, there are well over 45,000 pupils in cooperative and educational programs in the Mondragón structure: from elementary schools, to research institutes that serve to make inquiries for other Mondragón cooperative businesses, and to adult education facilities (Morrison, 1993), (Travel Notes, 2008).

It has been recognized that Mondragón’s schools were largely the foundation for its existing cooperative system. These schools, institutes, and programs helped develop technically trained, competent, and free-thinking workers and the foundations for specialized co-ops. It is important here to recognize that the training that students and workers received was more than just technical. Instead, the Mondragón educational systems were also providing social and ethical education that was considered inseparable components to the technical training for the cooperative experience (Morrison, 1993), (Travel Notes, 2008). This is an essential component because of the direct challenge it posed to the traditional “the son of an engineer shall be an engineer and the son of a worker, a worker” (Mondragon Cooperative Experience, 2007) social model. Consequently, this method also trains a worker to be a free-thinker, and thus allowing the worker to engage in the democratic workplace experience – and additionally to combat any form of worker subordination. In the early days, this model that characterized the schools of Mondragón helped lead pupils to participation in the cooperative enterprises and helped motivate future decisions (Morrison, 1993).

Before beginning the first cooperative, the early students spent up to eleven years in environments that cherished cooperative values. And by the time the first co-op began, there were more workers who had come to share cooperative ideals. They had been exposed to the teachings of Don José María, the other teachers, the community members who supported the enterprises, and the other students. Although it should be recognized that it wasn’t the Escuela Profesional intention to start a cooperative movement, that is what it de facto accomplished through democratic risk taking and decision making.

The Educational Philosophies of Don José María Arizmendiarrieta

As illustrated, Don José María Arizmendiarrieta was an instrumental figure in the initial creation of the Mondragón cooperative system. Yet, he continued to play a leading and transformative role in the continued development and expansion of the movement. Through his wielding of great influence, Don José María was able to impact the future of the huge cooperative movement that sprung out of the tiny Basque town. What follows bellow will be an exploration of his philosophies, writings, and influences regarding working and learning.

For Don José María, education was simply good economics. Without education, scarce goods and services would go unproduced or undistributed. Alongside this, Don José María argued, education is an indispensible element to the emancipation of the worker. A redistribution of wealth is essential to the overall cooperative movement, but without the socialization of knowledge there is no way to humanize and democratize work. “Teaching,” he wrote, “should be ongoing in order to be effective. Tools and machines need to be continuously renewed but above all there has to be a renewal in the mentality of human beings because they are destined to be the masters or these tools” (Arizmendiarrieta, 2007). The worker, then, must experience ongoing education in order to participate in a democratic workplace. But in addition to this, the workplace must be a place of learning for the worker – so that the worker avoids becoming a tool or a part of a larger machine. Education in the cooperative movement is thus not only a critical part for the starting and maintaining processes of a co-op, but it is also an indispensable element in the safeguarding of the movement from a takeover by tyrants. Don José María, however, took it further:

Knowledge is power and in order to democratize power, one must socialize knowledge beforehand. We accomplish nothing with the proclamation of rights, if afterwards the people whose rights we have proclaimed are incapable of administering those rights or if, to be able to act, these people have no recourse but to count on only a few indispensable members in the group.

(Arizmendiarrieta, 2007)

The Mondragón cooperative movement as we know it today begun in a small, war-torn, and extremely impoverished town. The people who populated the movement were under a double oppression: first from the militaristic and economic forces of a fascist state, and second for being Basque – whose language, culture, and leaders were brutally repressed. These may have been several factors that led Don José María to proclaim that we must fight economic poverty directly alongside the “poverty of intellect” (Arizmendiarrieta, 2007). The poverty of intellect, or rather the control of knowledge, is an authoritative mechanism used to keep the powerful in power and the poor in poverty. We can determine that Don José María was correct about this. Mondragón the town, as it is today, has grown extensively and now holds over twenty-two thousand residents and its economic poverty has chiefly been erased, largely due to the cooperative movement that it spawned (Travel Notes, 2008).

Don José María noticed a trend amongst communities whose economies improved due to revolutionary movements. In such movements, he argued, education is grabbed by a privileged few who generally come from a single social class. This “implies an anti-economic and anti-social enslavement at the same time,” he insisted. This could not be allowed in the young and growing Mondragón cooperative movement.

The socialization of education, the access to it by everyone in the community without discrimination, the granting of opportunities to all persons… are fundamental postulates of all social movements of our times. The proclamation of human rights that are not matched by economic and educational guarantees are ephemeral concessions just for show and are destined to produce poor results… These people must be concerned with education, because only slavery will be found if they follow the path of illiteracy and ignorance instead.

(Arizmendiarrieta, 2007)

Learning Cooperatives

In 1997, three cooperative schools of the Mondragón movement – a business school, an engineering school, and a humanities and education school – came together to form Mondragón University. To this date, the University now consists of these departments and other research centers. It is also home to the two innovative examples of ALECOP and Saiolan (we will come to these shortly) which demonstrate what can be accomplished with a cooperative learning movement. (Travel Notes, 2008)

The structure of Mondragón University itself is a complicated one, and it consists of both promising and lackluster elements. The University is a cooperative, made up of students, faculty, staff, and more. When the University began, it used essentially traditional teaching techniques: teacher-centered, focused on the transmission of knowledge, almost completely exam and lecture centered, and the works. However, in recent years, it has adopted an educational strategy known as Mendeberri, which is similar in many ways to the philosophy of Paulo Freire. This model is learner-centered, focused on the learner’s integration of knowledge, problem and project based, and more. (Morrison, 1993), (Travel Notes, 2008)

Yet, it would be a completely separate discussion to asses all of the pros and cons of the Mondragón University system. So instead, we shall focus heavily on two inspirational and informative programs of the University.


ALECOP is a unique cooperative that was begun by students in 1963. Its heritage is found in the dawn of the Escuela Profesional; and in fact, it was the brain child of Don José María Arizmendiarrieta. ALECOP was founded to solve the issue that some students needed to help provide the income of their family and to cover tuition costs. The solution was to combine work and study, and to provide students with jobs that would still function as a part of their educational experience. This concept allowed for the formation of a training school that would function specifically through both learning and working. Such education would allow students training in the company, work experience, money to cover tuition, and general income. The institute identifies itself as a social project, with economic and social goals and outcomes.

Today, ALECOP is a company which “leads in the development of educational projects abroad,” (ALECOP, 2008) and it is currently the primary manufacturer of teaching resources in Spain. In addition, the co-op designs, develops, manufactures, and sells other materials – including: electronics, automotive parts, telecommunication components, and more. Student members of ALECOP are enrolled in Mondragón University or other vocational, training, trade, and community schools that are in one way or another linked to the cooperative enterprise.

Approximately four hundred individuals are currently active members in the co-op. Three hundred-fifty of these are student-members while the remaining fifty are worker-members. However, ALECOP is not large enough to provide jobs for every single one of these student-members, and only one hundred-twenty work directly in the co-op. The remaining student-members are provided jobs in another Mondragón cooperative (these students are still regarded as members of ALECOP and are privy to all of its resources and educational characteristics). Student members spend half of their day working and the other half studying. However, both of these activities are regarded as equal components to their education. On average, a student spends a year and a half working in ALECOP or another cooperative. However, once they graduate, they can remain at their ALECOP job for up to an additional year. An average salary for a student-member is 500 euro a month (670 dollars). Like any Mondragón cooperative, students must make a capital contribution when entering. ALECOP’s rate is 600 Euros (800 dollars). However, this does not get paid with a lump sum. Instead, this is assumed from their wages – 75 Euros over 8 months. As with the workers for every Mondragón co-op, the student-members take part in the profits and interests of ALECOP. Students can distribute their hours of work over different days to fit their school schedules. It is true that their pay is less than a normal Mondragón cooperative’s, but it is much more than other jobs they would have access to during their time as students. (Travel Notes, 2008), (ALECOP, 2008). Additionally, it is comparatively much better than many work-study programs in United States schools.

In ALECOP, it is the goal for students to learn competence (skill) development. The cooperative breaks this down into five groups: 1) technical skills; 2) methodological competence; 3) participative skills; 4) personal competence; and these all flow into 5) professional competence. The institute argues that these develop the specific competences and skills of decision-making techniques, teamwork, building a global vision of work, information and communication, work involvement, planning and organizing, and putting critical thought into solving problems. In fact, ALECOP has a precise definition of what it means by “competence,” which each student-member develops: “To collaborate with others in working to achieve common aims, exchanging information, assuming responsibility and dealing with any conflicts and problems that arise.” (ALECOP, 2008), (Travel Notes, 2008)

Each student-member of ALECOP works with a specific “tutor,” or educator, who is a full time worker-member and owner of the co-op (just as the student-members are owners as well). This educator and member works with students on specific skills. The tutors work with students, make sure everything is functioning properly in the cooperative, and serve as the managing core. In addition, they also provide the curriculum and projects for students to work on. To put it into perspective, consider ALECOP a cooperative training ground. Students who are part of the cooperative have a wide range of different job opportunities and further paths for advancement in the company. However, each job has a different set of learning goals, skills, and outcomes. Thus, no one student’s experience is the same. (ALECOP, 2008), (Travel Notes, 2008)

At ALECOP, there is a system of evaluation and encouragement for students, which is known as ATEKO. In the beginning of their tenure, students are trained in the functioning of ALECOP, they are integrated into the enterprise, and an initial assessment of their skills takes place. Following initial work exposure and experience, the students then plan activities, projects, goals, and a path to continue down – while they continue to develop experience in a democratic workplace. Students continually work with a tutor-advisor, who provides them with information, follow-up, support, and evaluation. Throughout their period of involvement in the co-op, students choose a work path to follow (such as worker skills, managerial experience, and so on) and an area of development to be involved with (such as automotive, educational, mechanical, electronics, and more). At the end of their time in ALECOP, the students negotiate a cooperative evaluation of their experience with their tutor-advisor. The assessment process of the student’s work is based on the development of their transferable skills. This final step is to contrast and compare the two views of the student and the tutor, who collaborate on an outcome (this evaluation process was designed by the worker-members). Such a practice is unique to ALECOP, and is not experienced at any other part of Mondragón University.

It is worth noting that a few years ago, ALECOP was experiencing financial difficulties, so the cooperative’s main focus was in economic security. However, the situation has since stabled, and so the institute is able to provide more focus for other interests. Yet, this does expose one potential turbulent spot for the co-op’s existence as an educational project.

The governing structure of ALECOP is evenly divided between student-members and worker-members and students equally share responsibilities in managing, governing, and guiding the cooperative. Additionally, every student-member has the right and “duty” to take part in the Mondragón general assembly, social council, and all other aspects of the cooperative experience that every Mondragón co-op is involved with. (ALECOP, 2008), (Travel Notes, 2008).

During my time in ALECOP, I was able to speak with a few students and each one praised the experience and cooperative with the highest of words. While that is no scientific study of the overall satisfaction of the student body, those who I talked to had an infectious and convincing commitment to ALECOP. One student attested that before coming to ALECOP, and even with their experience at Mondragón University, they had no understanding or knowledge about economics. However, the experiential education that they were involved in at ALECOP gave them a competent background in the subject. And what were they studying to become? An English teacher. (ALECOP, 2008), (Travel Notes, 2008).


Saiolan is another unique example of the fusion of work and learning that comprises the cooperative movement. Located in the town of Mondragón, it identifies itself as “Business Innovation Center” that functions as a cooperative. It has existed for over twenty years and it is a part of Mondragón University. The mission of Saiolan is to promote new activities for the direct creation of new companies, the diversification of currently existing companies, and/or the innovation of products, services, or processes. With its students and faculty, Saiolan seeks to proactively identify new needs and to focus on the integration of entrepreneurs, “feasibility studies,” and prototypes. (Saiolan, 2008)

At the time of Saiolan’s founding in 1981, Mondragón University had yet to be formed. Thus, it was founded as a part of the Escuela Politécnica de Mondragón (the engineering school). In 1985, it was transformed into its own independent department of the Technical Office in the engineering school. In 1986, Saiolan launched its first two enterprises – the first focusing on technical software, and the other working in industrial design. The project was so successful that in 1997 it created an incubator building for new companies. The year 2000 saw the start of collaboration between Saiolan and the URRATSBAT program of the Basque government, with the intent to expand the “entrepreneur culture” to Vocational Training Centers (Sailoan, 2008).

In addition to proactively identifying new needs, Saiolan’s students and faculties work on creating new businesses and activities – within and outside of Mondragón. The creators of such undertakings, the students, are free to choose if these new projects will be cooperatives or not (Sailoan, 2008). While it is in the Mondragón mission statement to create new jobs, such ambitions are labeled “preferable.” While companies must be complete cooperatives (everyone is a worker-owner, and there are no employees) to be a part of the Mondragón system, the movement refuses to force new businesses and jobs they help create into being cooperatives. Worker cooperatives are arenas for workplace democracy, and it must be a free choice to engage in such an experience (Travel Notes, 2008).

For funding and future development, Saiolan works intensely alongside the MCC (Mondragón Cooperative Corporation); Mondragón University; the Caja Laboral; and the Basque Government to name a few. Alongside faculty members, students – or preferably a group of students – will come up with an idea. Following this, they study the market, the technology needed, and the economy. This idea is researched and a plan is formed. Students may either work independently, with other Mondragón cooperatives, or some other existing company. Once this has all been determined, the students launch a “prototype real market test.” With the success of this, or the necessary adjustments made, the students will then launch their idea into the real market. These projects can be anything between new companies, new products, new processes, a spin-off, and more. Saiolan, for their part, offers support, tailored and customized coaching, economic resources, laboratories and other technical needs, as well as collaboration with Mondragón University teachers, and more. In total, Saiolan has helped generate over 127 new companies, of which only 25 have thus far closed (that’s a survival rate of over 80%). However, the institute admits that with the job creation explosion, quality has been sacrificed for quantity – but they are working on resolving this quandary. (Sailoan, 2008), (Travel Notes, 2008)

Learning as Revolution; Working as Revolution

Mondragón has always believed and upheld that the ongoing education, training, and learning opportunities for workers, managers, and all other participants in the cooperative enterprise is essential (MacLeod, 1998). This is a vital aspect of Mondragón for several reasons. First, Mondragón is dependent on the ideas of all of its workers. As one cooperator of Mondragón that I met was fond of saying, “100,000 workers means 100,000 opportunities.”  Additionally, the majority of promotions and advancements come within the cooperatives themselves. It is therefore important to keep workers with an active mind, thinking critically, and up to par on everything. Both the current operations of the organization as well as its future are completely dependent upon the workers themselves. (Travel Notes, 2008)

As We Build the Road as We Travel, a history and study of the Mondragón cooperative movement by Roy Morrison, argues: the age of industrialism is over. No longer do we participate in a world that is divided mostly amongst capitalist and socialist lines. Conflicts are much more entangled, and this requires fresh and new solutions. Mondragón, Morrison states, puts an emphasis on new solutions to “social reconstruction.” While Mondragón should not be regarded as the “answer,” it should be considered an illustration of social and economic change that comes from below and is controlled from below (Morrison, 1993). It needs to be understood that the Mondragón example is based upon the fusion of working as learning and learning as working. The following is one of the ten cooperative principles of Mondragón, as quoted in We Build:

Education is essential for fulfilling the basic cooperative principles. It is fundamentally important to devote sufficient human and economic resources to cooperative education, professional training, and general education of young people for the future.

(Morrison, 1993, Page 12)

The notion that work was a matter of suffering intended by biblical commands, for humanity to toil following its expulsion from paradise, was universally rejected by Mondragón from its very origins. As the Basque country is a densely catholic region, this concept was near revolutionary. Work was instead a means of both individual and collective renewal and for building community. Don José María, in his Reflections, stated this, “Work constitutes a good, renewable day by day…the antidote to correct social and mental imbalance…Work [is] the best means in the search for social peace” (Arizmendiarrieta, 2007).

One example of this can come from my experience in a factory of the largest industrial Mondragón cooperative, FAGOR. While touring the factory, the group I was with pointed to a large board in the middle of the plant that seemed to have a lot of activity, and we asked what it was for. The cooperator who was showing us around informed the group that, among other things, this board was used by the worker-owners to share information, advice, knowledge, and recommendations. “Like what?” we asked. She did not speak perfect English, but she was able to demonstrate: “Well, if a person is working, and they are doing this,” she made a motion indicating she was using a screwdriver on a washing machine, “but then they figure out, oh wait, it is both faster and better for your back to do this,” she made an motion suggesting she was now using the screw driver on a different part of the washing machine, “then they come to this board and they let everyone know.” If it turns out to be correct, she explained, then management will study it, try to enhance it and implement it, and then spread the idea to the other factories. “All of our new ideas are very dependent on all of the workers,” she explained happily. The cooperator went on to explain that this board was the center of innovation in the factory, where workers share their ideas, improve the cooperative, and see direct benefits from it (because the more the company profits the more the individuals profit in health, promotion, confidence, community, and more). In this one minute example, we can begin to see a world of cooperative working through cooperative learning (Travel Notes, 2008). Joint-knowledge is a built in structure to the cooperative experience, and as We Build sates, “cooperativism is the development of the individual not against others but with others” (Morrison, 1993, page 11).

What this also emphasizes is that knowledge in Mondragón is not a commodity but instead a social tool and a tool of solidarity. In a discussion with another cooperator in the same factory, she emphasized and expressed pride in the fact that the Mondragón co-ops encourage inter-cooperation and the mutual sharing of information and knowledge. This is where Don José María’s proclamation that socialized knowledge results in cooperative economics becomes evident.

Mondragón was born from an apprentice industrial-training school. Since that time, the individual co-ops and the cooperative movement has grown and strengthened their educational basis and missions. As described, Mondragón’s education can be seen in its schools. Additionally, these programs are directly responsible for creating cooperative jobs. Yet, the wide-range of educational involvement in Mondragón expands from day care to universities and from primary education to continuing education and postgraduate classes (MacLeod, 1998). Mondragón’s deep concern with education can be traced back to its early days, when the movers and shakers of the movement were convinced that the future would be determined by those who controlled the best technology (Morrison, 1993). The Basque region of Spain had undergone many atrocities during and after Franco’s rise to power. However, the town of Mondragón was only a little ways away from another small, but well-known village. The town of Guernica had met a tragic fate when Franco invited Hitler to try out the German’s new planes, technology, and form of war-fare on the small town. For hours, Guernica was ripped apart by the fascist forces. It served as both a dark reminder to the Basque people of Franco’s brutality, but also how his military success in the Spanish Civil War was due to technology provided by Hitler and Mussolini (Kurlansky, 2001). The leaders of the Mondragón movement knew that cooperativism would thus have to promote humanity at work alongside the continued intellectual development of the collective and the individual. Technology had decided the fascist takeover of Spain, but it could also provide a liberated future. Such a future, however, would have to come through not just critique, rhetoric, or revolutionary replacement of leaders. The foundation for this future would have to come from the “creation of a new reality” (Morrison, 1993) forged by learning, working, and social practice.

Hierarchy of work and knowledge is the livelihood of the capitalist structure. However, equilibrium of and between work, learning, and knowledge is the foundation of the Mondragón cooperative movement. In the capitalist system, knowledge is recognized as a commodity which people must prove their worthiness of having or their wealth to just buy it. Yet, in Mondragón, we witness the fusion of democratic work and socialized knowledge (Arizmendiarrieta, 2007). Yet, this hierarchy – which is so imperative to the maintenance of capitalism – is propped up by the false notion of scarce materials and fabricated needs (Morrison, 1993). For this reason, it is essential for Mondragón and the cooperative movement in general to provide equal and equitable educational opportunities for its workers, consumers and all community members. The very survival of cooperatives depends on their adherence to the equilibrium, because true cooperatives cannot work within the same structure of hierarchy that capitalism utilizes. Hierarchy and capitalism must teach a certain few to lead and the rest to obey these leaders. The equilibrium of Mondragón, then, must strike a balance and transparent field between all. No one person must be given access to learning and knowledge over others.

The importance of the equilibrium of knowledge and the stress put on developing the best technology as possible highlights the importance of shared-knowledge between workers. In a strict-hierarchy the elite controls access to, discovery and implementation of, and the benefits from knowledge. In Mondragón, however, it is crucial for all to work towards the mutual discovery of knowledge and to share in the access to and benefits from it (Travel Notes, 2008). This is reflective of the cooperatives themselves: isolated and alone, they are week. Yet, working together makes them strong. Individually, workers can be subjected easily – but together as a cooperative force, they are dynamic (MacLeod, 1998). Mondragón demonstrates that together we can strive for more than just survival or supremacy. By exercising our freedoms to learn and to work with liberty and cooperation, we have the ability to construct communities (Morrison, 1993).

A system put into place with force will always depend on a system of force to be maintained, even one that is supposed to promote work, learning, and unity. From the onset, then, Mondragón has always considered itself a way to bring about non-violent revolution (MacLeod, 1998). This is why Don José María argued that work and learning should be viewed as a process of renewal, and not a mark of sin. Just as importantly, Mondragón provides an economic base for a social shift in society. It provides a path that is successfully non-violent in movement, and thus will not require violence to maintain. The learning and working emphasized by Mondragón are therefore the roads to revolution.

A capitalist corporation can be identified as an association of capital. In this system, those who control capital control the knowledge, the work, and therefore the power. Worker cooperatives, however, are an association of people (MacLeod, 1998). In these cooperative systems there must be equal control and access to knowledge and learning. All work and workers are regarded as equals, and their worth is not determined by their capital. In Mondragón, individuals work together – not against one another. In order for this to succeed, they must share power equally. And this power is channeled through access to and control over cooperative work and learning.

The Survival of Mondragón

It is interesting to examine how Mondragón has survived first in a fascist state and now in a capitalist-dominated world. Even more significant is to understand that Mondragón’s economic success was first accomplished by people with access to no significant material assets. It was constructed in an obscure, industrial town in the aftermath of Franco’s victory. Most of the town’s leaders had been killed or fled, and unions were outlawed (Travel Notes, 2008). There were no major funders for this new vision, no philanthropy groups that guided it along, or anything of that nature. It was built with the backs of the people who it was meant to serve. In almost every other part of the world, industrialism had been used to control and manipulate the masses of workers. However, Mondragón, the worker cooperative movement, rose as a direct response to industrialism. Thus, we should identify social development as a major key to its economic advance. The movement was building factories, starting cooperative businesses, and producing goods – but all of this served as a means to construct from below a new “cooperative social reality.” The solidarity of the movement was built on both economic and social roads (Morrison, 1993). Today, it only continues to expand and rapidly reach more individuals and communities. In 1988, Mondragón had around 21,000 cooperators (MacLeod, 1998); in 2008, they have roughly 100,000 in all regions of Spain – and it is beginning to consist of workers from South America, Asia, the Caribbean, and more.

Much has been written about Mondragón’s survival surrounding the creation of the Caja Laboral and like factors, but this discussion has primarily focused on the importance of education to the construction and survival of the cooperative experience. This is crucially important because the Mondragón experience depends upon the capability and competence of every single worker, who are each individual owners of their co-ops and full participants in the cooperative experience. Unlike some other historical examples, Mondragón is not a form of cooperativism that is imposed from above by the state or for some sort of corporate reform. It was built from the bottom up, a social experience engaged fully by all of its participants (Morrison, 1993). One path depends upon the higher powers for survival, while the other is maintained by its own structure. The lesson that we can take from Mondragón is that the basic strengths of the system lies in its cooperative behaviors of working and learning (Morrison, 1993).

In most of Europe and the United States, cooperatives are generally isolationist and minor in the main economy. From its start, Mondragón knew that it had to work against this trend. For this to succeed, each new cooperative would have to be connected with one another through associations such as the Caja Laboral, shared capital, solidarity, shared principles, and shared knowledge (MacLeod, 1998), (Travel Notes, 2008). This is why the cooperative movement is so involved in educational experiences, ranging from consumer education to the continued training of workers, and from primary schools to the University. As Greg MacLeod, author of From Mondragón to America, argued, there cannot be fundamental changes in society unless these changes come from the building blocks (MacLeod, 1998). Mondragón, for its part, has recognized that the inseparable relation between working and learning is a key to creating this fundamental change.


Arizmendiarrieta, Don José María. Reflections. Bilbao: Mondragon, 2007.

Kurlansky, Mark. The Basque History of the World : The Story of a Nation. New York: Penguin (Non-Classics), 2001.

MacLeod, Gregory. From Mondragon to America : Experiments in Community Economic Development. New York: Cape Breton UP, 1998.

Morrison, Roy. We Build the Road As We Travel : Mondragon’s Cooperative Society. New York: New Society, Limited, 1993.

Saiolan. Rep.No. Technical Office of Escuela Politécnica de Mondragón, Saiolan.

“Travel Notes,” From Trip to Mondragón. Taken by Brian Van Slyke, 2008.

Whyte, William F., and Kathleen K. Whyte. Making Mondragon : The Growth and Dynamics of the Worker Cooperative Complex. New York: Cornell UP, 1991.

Welcome to ALECOP. Rep.No. ALECOP, Mondragón. 2008.


Entry filed under: Other Thoughts, Related To Free Schooling, Workplace Democracy. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

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