Chapter 3 Radical Teaching and Social Movements: Historical Legacies


The Modern Schools: Education as a Process of “Drawing Out, Not Driving In”



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The Modern Schools: Education as a Process of “Drawing Out, Not Driving In”



The underlying principle of the Modern School is to make impossible the mere instructionist: the instructionist blinded by his3 paltry specialty to the full life is meant to serve; the narrow-minded worshipper of uniformity; the small-souled reactionary who cries for ‘more spelling and arithmetic and less life;’ the self-sufficient apostle of consolation, who in his worship of what has been fails to see what is and what ought to be; the stupid adherent of a decaying age who makes war upon the fresh vigor that is sprouting from the soil—all these the Modern School aims to replace by life, the true interpreter of education (Goldman, “Modern School” 146).

--Emma Goldman, circ. 1912


The Modern Schools movement was a remarkable experiment in “libertarian education” from around 1910 to 1960, connecting two periods of radical social movements in the United States. Although the founders of the Modern Schools in the U.S. represented a diverse array of radical perspectives, anarchists were the dominant force. Modeled after the Spanish radical Escuela Moderna founded by Franscisco Ferrer in Barcelona in 1901, the Modern School movement in the U.S. was one of the most enduring radical educational projects in American history. At first these schools focused on educating young children, but later grew to include informal, popular adult education—including lectures, workshops, publications, and theatre. The explicit purpose of the Modern Schools was to create a “libertarian” form of education in which a child could “learn to develop as an individual through the free play of characteristic traits” as well as a “social being, through his intercourse with his fellows” (“Prospectus” 349). Anarchists placed tremendous hope in the ability of education to nurture a revolutionary culture.

Anarchism and Education


While much attention has been given to the vibrant growth of radical labor unions and socialist organizations during the first part of the twentieth-century, the depth and scope of the anarchist movement in the U.S. is less a part of American common knowledge. Emma Goldman; Margaret Sanger, one of the most radical feminist birth-control advocates; William “Big Bill” Haywood of the International Workers of the World; the martyred anarchist-syndicalists Nicola Sacco and BartholomeoVanzetti; and to a lesser extent, the anarchist philosopher Alexander Berkman, are perhaps the best known figures associated with early twentieth-century anarchist movements. The life and work of anarchists such as the “poet-rebel”4 Voltarine de Cleyre; anti-racist, feminist, and radical labor activist, Lucy Parsons5; and many others remain in relative obscurity. Perhaps even more important than a lack of notable names associated with the movement is the misrepresentation of the American anarchist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century rooted in propaganda framing anarchists as nothing but bomb-throwing terrorists, idealistic dreamers, or a disorganized bunch of radical individualists. On the contrary, as Paul Avrich, one of the foremost scholars on American anarchism explains:

Communists and syndicalists, pacifists and revolutionists, idealists and adventurers—the American anarchist movement encompassed a fascinating and often contradictory variety of groups and individuals, whose activities ranged from strikes and terrorist attacks to the dissemination of birth-control propaganda and the creation of libertarian schools (American Anarchist xvi).

Anarchists were united in their struggle to inaugurate a “stateless society based on the voluntary cooperation of free individuals” (xvi) echoing the sentiment of socialists and communists during the same period.

One significant difference separated anarchists and socialists on questions of authority, the state, and democracy. Marxists argued that any social revolution must go through a transition phase—the dictatorship of the proletariat—in order to eradicate the economic, social, and cultural practices of capitalism. Anarchists, however, refused any notion that a new—even if transitional—State could ever bring about the kind of stateless society they envisioned. The State itself was part of the problem and such a political revolution would merely exchange “one set of rulers for another without altering the essence of tyranny”—all governments were inherently oppressive and stifled the creative spirit of the people. Instead, anarchists called for a social revolution that would “abolish all forms of political and economic authority and usher in a decentralized society of autonomous communities and labor associations, organized ‘from below’” (xvii-xviii). Anarchists believed strongly that for a revolution to be successful, it was necessary to build independent, autonomous spaces within which a new form of subjectivity—the truly free individual—could be developed. This was the task they set for the Modern Schools.

Around 1912, Emma Goldman underscored anarchists’ understanding of education as a site of political struggle. She argued that the “great harm done by our system of education is not so much that it teaches nothing worth knowing, but that it helps to perpetuate privileged classes, that it assists them in the criminal procedure of robbing and exploiting the masses” (Goldman, “Modern School” 141). The greatest harm of the school system “lies in its boastful proclamation that its stands for true education, thereby enslaving the masses a great deal more than could an absolute ruler” (141). “Our present system of economic and political dependence,” she continues, “is maintained not so much by wealth and courts as it is by an inert mass of humanity, drilled and pounded into absolute uniformity, and that the school today represents the most efficient medium to accomplish that end” (143). Against such regimented indoctrination, Goldman argues that true education should be “a process of drawing out not driving in…the possibility that the child should be left free to develop spontaneously, directing his own efforts and choosing the branches of knowledge which he desires to study” (144). If, as Goldman believed, the ruling classes maintained power primarily through schooling, then it was necessary to counter this practice through a new kind of school.
The Inspiration for the Modern Schools: Francisco Ferrer and Escuela Moderna
While anarchists had long been interested in radical education6, it was not until the execution of anarchist educator Francisco Ferrer in Spain that anarchists began to found independent, libertarian schools in the United States. Ferrer’s notion of education stood in stark contrast to what many radicals saw as a factory for producing compliant workers and citizens:

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…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 (Avrich, Modern School 7-8).

For Ferrer, “freedom in education” meant not only freedom from State, church, and industry’s influence on the education process, but also from the authority of the teacher (9). Ferrer wrote that under the prevailing social system, the teacher was an agent of the ruling class, teaching her or his students “to obey, to believe, to think according to the social dogmas which govern us” (qtd. in Avrich, Modern School 9). He saw the teacher as serving a similar social function as soldiers and police by “always imposing, compelling, and using violence.” The “true educator,” by contrast was, “the man who does not impose his own ideas on the will of the child, but appeals to its own energies” (9). Ferrer founded schools that encouraged children to develop individually through a “spontaneous” process in which they should be taught only how to think, not what to think (9).

In addition to challenging the power of the State, the church, and the teacher, Ferrer stressed what he called “integral education” that would disrupt the separation between mental and manual labor. The concept of integral education, Avrich notes, was most widely associated with the educational theories of the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier, but was widely accepted by many radicals in the late nineteenth century. In advocating for integral education, the French anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon argued that

Labor and study… so long and so foolishly kept apart, will finally emerge side by side in their natural state of union. Instead of being confined to narrow, specialized fields, vocational education will include a variety of different types of work which, taken as a whole, will ensure the that each student becomes an all-around worker…the industrial worker, the man of action, and the intellectual will all be rolled into one (87).

Likewise, Marx argued for integral education as the only “way of producing full human beings,” and Bakunin argued for coeducational schools that would prepare students for “a life of thought as well as work, so that all will become complete and integrated individuals” (Avrich, Modern School16). The libertarian tradition of “freedom in education” also had a strong anti-intellectual tendency. Libertarian educators such as Bakunin favored an experiential form of education that could not be taken over by “theorists and system-builders who claimed to wisdom” but who were far removed from the lived experiences of the masses (17). Escuela Moderna mirrored this emphasis on experiential learning.

Radicals in the United States were aware of Ferrer’s educational writings and his experiment in “freedom in education;” however, it was not until Ferrer was executed in 1909 that a truly international Modern School movement was launched.7 Ferrer chose Barcelona as the site for his school, because in the early 1900s the city was a hotbed of radical activity8. From its beginnings, Spanish authorities tried shut down Escuela Moderna and subjected Ferrer to interrogations, arrests, and searches. Ferrer was arrested in June of 1906 on charges of planning an assassination attempt on King Alfonso VIII and encouraging Mateo Morral, who worked at the school’s publishing house, to carry out the plan (28). The school was shut down, never to open again. Ferrer was released a year later and embarked on a tour of Europe to promote libertarian education. He returned to Spain in 1909 to to take part in the growing militant social movements that culminated in a mass uprising in the summer of 1909, known as “Tragic Week.” The government brutally put down the uprising and resorted to torture, deportations, and executions to prevent further mobilization (31). Ferrer was arrested in August and was charged with being “author and chief” of the uprising (31). Following a prejudiced trial, Ferrer was found guilty and sentenced to death before a firing squad. Ferrer’s execution precipitated waves of protest all over the world and “instantly,” Paul Avrich argues, “the comparatively obscure pedagogue became a universal figure” (33).



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