Chapter 3 Radical Teaching and Social Movements: Historical Legacies


The Modern Schools in the United States



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The Modern Schools in the United States

Never before in the history of the world has one man’s death so thoroughly united struggling mankind” (Goldman, “Ferrer” 275).


A year after Ferrer’s execution, anarchists, socialists, syndicalists, and other radicals in New York City founded the Ferrer Association to promote the ideals of “freedom in education” in the United States. Anarchists made up at about half of the twenty-two charter members (Avrich, Modern School 37). Within three years the Ferrer Association helped establish Modern Schools in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Detroit, Brooklyn, and Toronto (46). Most began as Sunday schools, in the tradition of the Socialist Sunday Schools and other alternative weekend schools established around the turn of the century.9 The majority of the schools were short-lived. The Ferrer Modern School in New York, however, eventually moved to Stelton, New Jersey in 1915 and remained open until 1953 offering a range of early childhood and adult education classes in the libertarian tradition. The schools also served as central locations for radical political activity: Margaret Sanger brought children of strikers to the Ferrer School during the intense textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912; the school raised funds to help support the Mexican Revolution; and the school’s publishing house hosted Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth Bulletin and other anarchist publications (90).

The Ferrer Association announced the opening of its New York school in the January 1911 issue of Mother Earth Bulletin. Three courses designed for students between the ages of fifteen and twenty were to be taught on Sundays and evenings: Contemporary Literature, taught by Columbia University professor of English and Comparative Literature, Bayard Boyessen; Principles of Government, taught by Gilbert Roe; and Contemporary History, taught by Paul Luttinger (“Prospectus” 348). The school soon took on a more ambitious project: opening a Day School for younger students in lieu of State-sponsored public education. The Day School was an attempt to create an autonomous educational institution that sought to, as the International Workers of the World would say, create “the new society within the shell of the old” (I.W.W., “Preamble” 13).10 On the surface, the Day School’s curriculum was not altogether different to what one might expect to find in a public school at the time. The courses offered included Composition, Reading, Mathematics, History, Social Evolution, Science, Physical Education, and General Discussion for “any ideas or problems suggested by students by their experiences at home, in school, or elsewhere” (“Prospectus” 350-51). In fact, the founders of the Modern Schools did not necessarily take issue with all of what the public schools were teaching and were as grounded in the discourses of positivism, romanticism, and Enlightenment reason.

The issue for anarchist and libertarian educators was that the public schools were interfering with the “natural” development of the child and her or his ability to reason. As Leonard Abbott, first president of the Ferrer Association, wrote for Mother Earth Bulletin in 1911, “to-day in our schools, children are taught to blindly revere the government…that is it honorable to be a soldier…to admire the capitalist system of industry” (Abbott 119). The Modern Schools and the free schools of the future would teach children “to reason about all these things, and will end by wanting to change them. For at heart most children are idealists” (119). The goal of libertarian education should be “one of vitalizing the child-nature, of getting at the true nature beneath the appearances that so often cloud it” (118-9, emphasis in original). To radical educators today well versed in postmodern critiques of essentialism, rationality, and positivism, the Modern School’s reliance upon Western rationality and romantic attachment to an essential self is glaringly apparent. However, looking at the kinds of pedagogical practices undertaken by Modern School teachers tends to complicate the picture.
Curriculum and Composition
Now the fortunate thing is that all or almost all children are born rebels” (Coryell 273).
The first course listed in the curriculum suggested by the Ferrer Association was Composition. The course focused on two kinds of writing: first, “Original themes on topics chosen by the pupils from experiences from their own lives;” and secondly, “Stories and sketches suggested by the imaginative or actual experiences of the pupils” (“Prospectus” 350). When Emma Goldman wrote about the importance of the Modern School in resisting the regimented education of the public schools, she used composition as an illustrative example. She argued that “the way composition is taught in our present-day school, the child is rarely allowed to use either judgment or free initiative. The Modern School aims to teach composition through original themes on topics chosen by the pupils from experience in their own lives” (Goldman, “Modern School” 145). Public schools assigned students predetermined writing themes that interfered, according to the founders of the Modern Schools, with a child’s natural tendency toward critical thinking.

This emphasis upon a child’s natural abilities to learn and to critically think permeated the entire curriculum. In The Modern School in New York published in 1911, Bayard Boyesen, then director of the New York Modern School, underscored the need for a pedagogy that did not impose a particular way of thinking on the child. He wrote,

The personality of the child, during the sensitive and hazardous years of early youth, must be kept free from the intrusive hands of those who would mould and fashion it according to preconceived models, who would thwart this quality and divert that, in order to fit the child into the ideals of the teacher. We [Modern School teachers] take the center of gravity, which has lain hitherto in the teacher, and put it firmly in the child itself, for it is our aim not to lead, but to follow the activities of the child, using its natural interests as points upon which to draw out and develop its native qualities (qtd. in Avrich, Modern School 75).

Boyesen argued that all forms of rigidity—including sitting children in rows of desks, placing a “raised desk” for the teacher in the front of the classroom, and other standard signifiers of order in the traditional classroom—must give way to what he called “free order” (Avrich 75). Free order developed organically from students’ own desires and abilities. Likewise, discussion must follow the directions students pursue and the teacher must “restrain himself from supplying the conclusions which the children are working out for themselves” (75). The central goals were to cultivate “individuality, autonomy, [and] self-realization” (75).

Modern School teachers also tried to disrupt power disparities between teachers and students. Benzion Liber, a doctor, former teacher, and Romanian immigrant, was the first to enroll his child in the Day School in New York. As part of a series on libertarian education Liber wrote to the school’s publication The Agitator, explaining what he saw as the proper role of teachers:

The teacher…must be a free man, free thinking, and free acting, and must be a lover of truth. He will never consider himself an authority for the children, he will always be their equal and friend and will never claim to have more rights than they have. He will try never to impose his views of his conclusions on them, although it must be borne in mind that this is not always possible; but whenever he gives the children an opinion of his own, he shall always give them reasons for holding it, so that they may be duly warned and not believe blindly ([2-3]).

Teachers at the schools such as Will Durant echoed such sentiment. Durant was a socialist with anarchist sympathies, especially when it came to education. Durant believed that radical schooling should strive to create classrooms that embodied the hopes of a future, free society. Durant posed the questions:

What if the best school, like the best government, was that which governed least? To be a guide, philosopher and friend, and never a disciplinarian; to be a comrade and fellow-student rather than a teacher; to let children grow up freely without artificial pedantry or unnatural constraints: surely that would be a delight to the soul, and perhaps an illuminating test? (196).


Durant’s pedagogy also illustrates how some Modern school teachers sought to connect classroom instruction with contemporary social movements When discussing history or current events, Durant would use the opportunity to teach geography and economic development. For example, when he discussed the Lawrence textile strike or the suffragette marches, students “found the location on the map and traced the routes from New York City, learning something about the transportation facilities between the places” (88). When the New York Modern School moved to Stelton, New Jersey, the curriculum began to emphasize experiential education, displacing instruction in more traditional disciplines. Under the direction of Elizabeth Ferm, the school was reconceived as a “colony” of radicals seeking to establish a living, working libertarian community.

Elizabeth Ferm and her husband Alexis were charged with the leadership of the Modern School at Stelton in 1920 and established what Avrich calls “one of the most radical experiments ever to take place in the history of American Education” (256). Elizabeth Ferm was one of the pioneers of libertarian education, having already established “free schools” in the New York area and having written extensively on libertarian education.11 Ferm argued that the role of the educator is to hold a mirror up to a student, “so that the individual may see how his acts reflect his thought and his thought reflects his act. That thought and action are indivisibly, inseparably one—helping the individual to realize this, consciously, by holding him responsible for every word and act” (Ferm 26). The Ferms rejected all academic learning as “metaphysical” or “abstract” training that “placed an alien burden on youthful minds” (Avrich, Modern School 284). When the Ferms took over the Modern School, one of their conditions was that they would have control over all curricular matters (275). They abandoned all formal academic instruction and instituted a hands-on curriculum, consisting of “printing, weaving, carpentry, basket-making, pottery, leather crafts, metal work,…singing, dancing, and sports” (275). For the rest of its history, Modern School focused on the development of the full individual completely free from any formal constraints.

The shift away from academics was not solely the work of Ferms. Experiential learning represented one of the competing theories of education that anarchists and other radicals grappled with in the Modern Schools. Many of the Stelton colonists fiercely disagreed with the Ferms’ rejection of academic learning, arguing that an experientially based curriculum was a move to depoliticize the Modern School. The more militant colonists argued that “education…was not merely the instrument of self-development but also a lever of social transformation, a means of altering social foundations” (280). The militants saw the school as a means of “training revolutionists,” to which Elizabeth Ferm countered, “the savior of the world will not be the class-conscious worker but the creative artist” (Ferm, A. 5).

What remained at the heart of the Modern School ideal, however, was the belief that the role of education was to disrupt the seamless reproduction of dominant institutions by creating autonomous, libertarian schools. The founders of the Modern Schools recognized that capitalism, patriarchy, racism, and other forms of exploitation were composed as much by dominant social practices as they were by “laws” or “structures.” Furthermore, Modern School teachers believed steadfastly in the agency of individuals and social groups to intervene in and transform oppressive social structures.

The Modern School experiments resonate with certain tendencies that have continued to reemerge in academic teaching and in composition and rhetoric. In the 1960’s, for example, Peter Elbow, Ken Macrorey, and Donald Murray argued for student-led classrooms based on experiential knowledge as a way of freeing students from the oppressive structures of educational institutions. In Deschooling Society, Ivan Illich argued that the institutionalization of mandatory schooling needed to be abolished due to its role in rationalizing thought and undercutting free thought and development. In each of these cases, similar arguments are made for delinking from standardized, formal education and introducing libertarian models of education. Like the Modern Schools, one of the greatest barriers to the development of free individuals was formalized instruction that interpellated individuals into the demands of highly rationalized industrial society. By breaking the cycle of industrial reproduction at the level of education, these educators saw the possibility of creating counter-subjects—that is, individuals who did not conform to the dictates of the dominant society.

As Berlin argues, “expressionists” argued that “all the teacher can do is provide and environment in which the student can learn, relying on such activities as free writing, rewriting, journal writing” that places emphasis on developing the student’s individual voice (Reality 152). Expressionist rhetoric shares the Modern School’s faith in allowing students to express themselves without the strictures of formal education. Berlin suggests that early tendencies of expressionist rhetoric in US colleges and universities were encouraged by elite notions of liberal culture (73). However, as shown in the Modern Schools, expressive rhetoric was also employed for radically different ends. Just as some expressivists in the 1960’s saw libertarian education as part and parcel of political change by empowering students to think critically and freely (Elbow; Murray), so did teachers at the Modern Schools.

What makes the cases of 1960s expressivists and the Modern School interesting is that both emerged at moments of social upheaval alongside mass social movements. This is important in that it suggests that liberatarian education comes to the fore at moments of radical opening in the social fabric where new subjectivities and practices become material, even if for fleeting moments. This does not mean that libertarian education is radical by itself. Libertarian education and expressivism can be as reactionary as traditional schooling when they do not exist in a context of social change. The case of the Modern Schools suggests that a radical pedagogy of social movements must be able to make room for the expression of alternative subjectivities and create practices that encourage autonomous, self-directed activity of students. But this is tricky stuff. Isolated from direct connections with social movements, an emphasis on the unfettered development of the individual is quite useful in reproducing capitalist culture’s fetish of the individual at the expense of the social.



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