The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States

The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States

by Paul Avrich


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In this comprehensive study of the Modern School movement, Paul Avrich narrates its history, analyzes its successes and failures, and assesses its place in American life. In doing so, he shows how the radical experimentation in art and communal living as well as in education during this period set the precedent for much of the artistic, social, and educational ferment of the 1960's and I970's.

Originally published in 1980.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691615943
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #309
Pages: 480
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate School of the City University of New York.

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The Modern School Movement

Anarchism and Education in the United States

By Paul Avrich


Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-10094-4


The Martyrdom of Ferrer

On October 13, 1909, Francisco Ferrer y Guardia, a Spanish educator and freethinker, was shot in the trenches of Barcelona's Montjuich fortress. Following a mock trial, at which no solid evidence against him was brought forward, a military court had found him guilty of fomenting a popular insurrection, which had raged for a week — the "Tragic Week," it was called — before being crushed by government forces. The execution of Ferrer, the founder of rationalist schools, provoked an international outcry. A little-known figure outside radical circles, he was catapulted into sudden prominence. On both sides of the Atlantic there were meetings and demonstrations of protest. In a number of European cities, streets were renamed after him and statues erected in his memory. Most important, however, a movement for libertarian education, inspired by his example, quickly spread throughout the world.

Who then was Ferrer? Why did he become an international martyr? Was he or was he not an anarchist? Did his schools teach social rebellion? Was he involved in a plot to assassinate the king? After seventy years his name remains the subject of controversy. It is still not easy to disentangle fact from fantasy, truth from lies and half-lies. Yet we know enough about Ferrer and his work to understand why his name became synonymous with modern education, and why, as a result, the Spanish authorities were determined to get rid of him.

Francisco Ferrer y Guardia

Francisco Ferrer was born on January 10, 1859, on a farm near Barcelona, where his mother was still living at the time of his execution. Although his parents were devout Catholics, one of his uncles was a freethinker, and his first employer, a grain merchant, was a militant atheist. The spirit of revolt seems to have been in Ferrer's blood. He grew into a young man of independent character, with violently anti-clerical views and a taste for conspiratorial adventure. By 1883 he was a Freemason and radical Republican, a follower of Manuel Ruíz Zorilla, who was living in Parisian exile. As a conductor on the railroad between Barcelona and the French frontier, Ferrer was able to act as a courier for Ruíz and to help political refugees find sanctuary across the border. In 1885 he himself was involved in an abortive republican rising and compelled to take refuge in France.

Ferrer and his family spent the next sixteen years in Paris. Married and the father of three daughters, he earned a living by teaching Spanish and by selling wine on commission. At the same time, he served as unpaid secretary to Ruíz until the latter's death in 1895. Ferrer threw himself into various radical causes, becoming an ardent defender of Dreyfus and a delegate to the 1896 Congress of the Second International, held in London. His years in Paris, moreover, saw a hardening of his lifelong hostility to the Church. Active in rationalist circles, he taught at the Masonic school of the Grand Orient Lodge and attended the International Free Thought Congress at Prague in 1897.

While engaged in these activities, Ferrer met many people and was exposed to new ideas. As Emma Goldman noted, he "learned, absorbed, and grew." Cast adrift by the death of Ruíz, he moved from radical republicanism to the extreme left. Studying anarchist literature and frequenting anarchist clubs, he encountered such prominent French anarchists as Louise Michel, Elisée Rectus, and Sébastien Faure, as well as Charles Malato and Jean Grave, with whom he became close friends. He also formed ties with exiled Spanish anarchists, above all Anselmo Lorenzo and Fernando Tarrida del Mármol. Impressed by their personal qualities and attracted by their ideas, he came to regard himself as their comrade. By the end of the 1890s he had developed a philosophy based on "the sovereignty of the individual, free from institutional restraints."

Ferrer, as a teacher, conceived a special interest in education, a subject of intense discussion in both anarchist and rationalist circles. In 1900 Jean Grave, editor of Les Temps Nouveaux, published a widely read brochure contrasting "bourgeois" with "libertarian" education, and a spate of similar works appeared in print. Ferrer's appetite for such literature was insatiable. His imagination, moreover, was captured by Paul Robin's school at Cempuis, which became a model for his own Escuela Moderna.

Robin, a leading pioneer in the movement for libertarian education, had been named director of the Prévost Orphanage at Cempuis, near Paris, in December 1880. Remaining in this post for fourteen years, he laid the groundwork for an "integral" education, of girls as well as boys, designed to develop both the physical and intellectual capacities of the pupils in a noncoercive atmosphere. "He believed," said Emma Goldman, who made a pilgrimage to Cempuis, "that whatever part heredity may play, there are other factors equally great, if not greater, that may and will eradicate or minimize the so-called first cause. Proper economic and social environment, the breath and freedom of nature, healthy exercise, love and sympathy, and, above all, a deep understanding for the needs of the child — these would destroy the cruel, unjust, and criminal stigma imposed on the ignorant child."

Because of his unconventional methods of education and other radical activities (he was also a pioneer of the birth-control movement in France) Robin became the target of conservative critics, both secular and religious. Finally, in 1894, he was removed from his position. The reason, as Benjamin Tucker wryly put it, was that he had "refused to teach the orphans that France is bigger than the world or that God is bigger than man."

But Robin had left an enduring example. After his departure, the school at Cempuis continued to function; and in 1897 two of his disciples, Manuel Degalvès and Emile Janvion, formed a League for Libertarian Education which aimed to start a school in Paris on the lines of Robin's experiment. Supported by such luminaries as Jean Grave, Louise Michel, and Elisée Reclus, as well as Kropotkin and Tolstoy, the Libertarian School, as it was to be called, was to offer an active, outdoor education as opposed to instruction primarily from books. According to the League's prospectus, entitled Freedom Through Education, "the sciences will be studied at the same time as letters, by practical illustration, even before reading is learned. The children will be brought face to face with Nature, and excursions will be made into the fields and Zoological Gardens to promote this end."

Tolstoy offered his personal help in the project. "I started my social activity with the school and teaching," he wrote to Les Temps Nouveaux, "and after forty years I am more convinced that only by education, free education, can we ever manage to rid ourselves of the existing horrible order of things and to replace it with a rational organization." For lack of funds, however, the school was unable to open. Only a summer school was established, which lasted but a single season.

Although Ferrer apparently never visited Cempuis, we know that he met Paul Robin and corresponded with him, and that he was deeply influenced by his ideas. Furthermore, he became an active member of the League for Human Regeneration, of which Robin was the founder. By the beginning of the new century, Ferrer had begun to dream of founding a libertarian school in Spain similar to that at Cempuis, a school where instruction would be based on rational principles and where children of both sexes could study in freedom and harmony. "I intend," he wrote to his friend Jose Prat, "to form a school of emancipation, which will be concerned with banning from the mind whatever divides men, the false concepts of property, country, and family, so as to attain the liberty and well-being which all desire and none completely realizes."

Ferrer's dream soon became a reality. For in March 1900 he inherited a large sum of money — almost a million francs — from Ernestine Meunié, a middle-aged French lady to whom he had given lessons in Spanish. Mile. Meunié had been a woman of conventional outlook until Ferrer, a persuasive teacher, succeeded in converting her to his ideas, and when she died she left him half of her estate. This unexpected legacy enabled him to return to Spain and found a Modern School in Barcelona.

Freedom in Education

Ferrer returned to Barcelona in 1901, after sixteen years of exile in France. It was a time of widespread unrest, a moment when, as a result of the defeat in the war with the United States and the loss of almost all the remaining Spanish empire, many intellectuals were discussing and criticizing the conditions of Spanish life. Among the areas of greatest neglect was education. The need for educational reform was acutely felt by all social elements. Two-thirds of the Spanish population were unable to read or write. Only 15,000 of the nation's 45,000 towns had a public school; and most schools, whether lay or ecclesiastical, were grossly inadequate both in equipment and in the quality of the teachers, who were sworn to uphold Catholic dogma and were under the supervision of parish priests and diocesan inspectors.

The decade of the 1890s had seen a rising tide of revolt against the old ways in Spain, in education as in industry and government. A spontaneous movement for secular instruction had sprung up in different parts of the country, in which efforts had been made by liberals and radicals to incorporate new ideas of science, history, and sociology into the educational curriculum. The impulse toward national regeneration after the defeat of 1898 gave these reformers a new audience, and the debate sharpened over how best to educate the illiterate masses.

In this debate Ferrer became an active participant. Starting from his deep hatred of the church and its domination over education, he called for a rational school in which pupils would not be stifled by religious dogma but would be free to organize their own lessons without compulsion. Ferrer, as we have seen, was one of a succession of European educators who aimed at bringing literacy and enlightenment to the laboring classes. In Spain itself, a tradition of rationalist education can be traced back to a scattering of republican and Fourierist schools in the 1840s and '50s, and to a larger number of anarchist and secularist schools in the 1870s and '80s, all of them makeshift affairs organized in the teeth of government opposition. Although Ferrer may have been the first to call his enterprise a "Modern School" (Escuela Moderna), he was following in the footsteps not only of Paul Robin at Cempuis but also of Elías Puig in Catalonia and José Sanchez Rosa in Andalusia, who had responded earlier to the yearning of Spanish workmen for independent secular schools.

As to his pedagogical theories, Ferrer drew heavily on both precursors and contemporaries, from Rousseau, Pestalozzi, and Froebel to Kropotkin, Tolstoy, and Robin. He was in the direct line of an educational tradition which, rooted in eighteenth-century rationalism and nineteenth-century romanticism, involved a shift from emphasis on instruction to emphasis on the process of learning, from teaching by rote and memorization to teaching by example and experience, from education as a preparation for life to education as life itself. With "freedom in education" as its watchword, this tradition aimed to do away with the formality and discipline of the conventional classroom, the restrictions and regulations that suppressed individual development and divided education from play. It cultivated physical as well as mental development, crafts and arts as well as books. Hostile to dogma and superstition, it emphasized reason, observation, and science, as well as independence, autonomy, and self-reliance. Anticoercive and antiauthoritarian, it stressed the dignity and rights of the child, encouraging warmth, love, and affection in place of conformity and regimentation. Among the key words of its vocabulary were "freedom," "spontaneity," "creativity," "individuality," and "self-realization."

For the conventional school the proponents of libertarian education wished to substitute a "free" school — free, that is, from religious and political domination, indeed from authority of any sort. To Ferrer and his predecessors, the church presented the greatest obstacle to public enlightenment. They held that children should be given a "rational" education in a freethinking, nonreligious atmosphere. As Bakunin declared, education "must be founded wholly upon the scientific development of reason and not upon faith; upon the development of personal dignity and independence, not upon piety and obedience; upon the cult of truth and justice at any cost; and above all, upon respect for humanity, which must replace in everything the divine cult." Schools, Bakunin added, must be rid of "this fiction of God, the eternal absolute enslaver." Ferrer, a militant atheist, thought in similar terms. Education, he wrote, must be antireligious because "science has shown that the story of the creation is a myth and the gods legendary." His aim, in Emma Goldman's words, was "to free the child from superstition and bigotry, from the darkness of dogma and authority."

To Ferrer, however, state education was as noxious as that of the church. For state and church alike sought to keep out new ideas that might undermine the status quo. "Rulers have always taken care to control the education of the people," he declared. "They know better than anyone else that their power is based almost entirely on the school, and they therefore insist on retaining their monopoly on it."

In these phrases Ferrer was echoing the views of libertarian thinkers since William Godwin, whose Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) is considered the first modern anarchist attack on the state. To Godwin government education was an instrument of political control, stunting "the progress of knowledge and illumination" while endeavoring "to form all minds upon one model." He saw the public schools as a weapon wielded by the state to shape the will and character of its citizens and to condition children to docility and obedience, rather than stimulate independent judgment and a critical attitude towards authority. "Government by its very nature counteracts the improvement of the individual mind," he wrote. "Before we put so powerful a machine under the direction of so ambiguous an agent, it behooves us to consider well what it is that we do. Government will not fail to employ it to strengthen its hands and perpetuate its institutions."

For Ferrer, as for Godwin, the school was "an instrument of domination in the hands of the ruling class." The government used the schools to produce loyal citizens; the church, faithful parishioners; the manufacturers, obedient workers. Those in charge of education had "never wanted the uplift of the individual, but his enslavement." Ferrer believed that the emancipation of the people could not be accomplished so long as they remained in ignorance. The central problem was therefore to break the stranglehold of church and state over education and to inaugurate a system of schools in which "the child will develop freely without subjection to any dogmatic patron." What was needed, he insisted, was "the establishment of new schools, in which, as far as possible, there shall rule the spirit of freedom which, we feel, will color the whole education of the future."

"Freedom in education" meant freedom from the authority of the teacher as well as of the church and state. Under the prevailing system, argued Ferrer, the teacher was merely an agent of the ruling classes, training his charges "to obey, to believe, to think according to the social dogmas which govern us." Like the soldier and policeman, he was "always imposing, compelling, and using violence; the true educator is the man who does not impose his own ideas and will on the child, but appeals to its own energies."

For thinkers like Godwin and Bakunin, learning could flourish only in a libertarian environment. Reacting sharply against the barracks tradition of drilling lessons into students through a combination of repetition and punishment, they saw education as a spontaneous process rather than something to be imposed on the child. Rote, memorization, routine, the staples of conventional learning, destroyed the imagination and inhibited the natural development of children. Under the existing system, where originality and individuality were suppressed and conformity and mediocrity were at a premium, where children were taught what to believe, not how to think, even the most flexible student might be drained of all creativity and initiative.


Excerpted from The Modern School Movement by Paul Avrich. Copyright © 1980 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Illustrations, pg. ix
  • Preface, pg. xi
  • Chapter 1. The Martyrdom of Ferrer, pg. 3
  • Chapter 2. The Francisco Ferrer Association, pg. 34
  • Chapter 3. The Ferrer School of New York, pg. 69
  • Chapter 4. Rebels and Artists, pg. 111
  • Chapter 5. Three Anarchists, pg. 165
  • Chapter 6. Lexington Avenue, pg. 183
  • Chapter 7. The Early Years, pg. 219
  • Chapter 8. Elizabeth and Alexis Ferm, pg. 256
  • Chapter 9. Mohegan, pg. 289
  • Chapter 10. The Declining Years, pg. 312
  • Chapter 11. Conclusion, pg. 350
  • Notes, pg. 355
  • Bibliography, pg. 403
  • Index, pg. 429

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