Francesc Ferrer i Guardia: Anarchist Education and the Revolutionary General Strike
By Michael Long
ASR: Anarcho-Syndicalist Review
Anarchist Education and the Modern School. A Francisco Ferrer Reader (AEMS), a new offering from PM Press, is edited by Mark Bray and Robert Haworth, two increasingly respected names in contemporary writing on anarchism past and present. Bray pub- lished Translating Anarchy: The Anarchism of Occupy Wall Street in 2013 and Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook in 2017. Haworth produced Anarchist Pedagogies in 2012 and Out of the ruins: The Emergence of Radical Informal Learning Spaces in 2017. Weighing in at 324 pages, their new book brings together Joseph McCabe’s 1913 English translation, revised and updated by Bray, of about two-thirds of Ferrer’s The Origins and Ideals of the Modern School, and new translations by Bray of the rest of Ferrer’s writings on La Escuela Moderna (the Modern School), the general strike and other topics, many appearing here in English for the first time. There are chapters detailing Ferrer’s life story, old black and white photographs, analyses of his ideas, including contemporary anar- chist critiques of the Modern School, articles from the Boletin de la Escuela Moderna, prison poems, a 60-page chapter by Bray on Ferrer the martyr, and more.
Having migrated from republicanism to anarchism, Ferrer is best remembered today for having founded La Escuela Moderna in Barcelona in 1901 – a libertarian model that continues to influence progressive education around the world. While the Modern School and Ferrer’s ideas about education are the main focus of AEMS, Bray and Haworth show that there were other sides to Ferrer the revolutionary, and not a few inconsistencies. Bray’s ‘Introduction’ and chapter 2, ‘Francisco Ferrer: the man’, are well researched, honest and critical (as opposed to judgmental) evaluations of Fer- rer’s life and achievements. Of special interest to many ASR readers will be a short section on Ferrer’s less-well-known advocacy of the general strike, violent if necessary. The following essay focuses about equally on Ferrer and the book itself.
Ferrer: The life* The thirteenth of 14 children, Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia was born on January 10, 1859, to a fairly affluent, Catholic, Catalan family, owners of a vineyard in the small village of Alella, near Barcelona. His experiences at two abysmal local schools were a major reason for what would become a life-time interest in children’s education. He recognized how an unholy alliance of church and state used (and still uses) education to brainwash young people into a life of obedience and servitude, but equally, the politically transformative opportunities education could provide in revolutionary hands.
Ferrer’s own formal schooling ended at 13, when he moved to a nearby town to work for a merchant, Pablo Ossorio, whose republican views and activism influenced him greatly. At 19, he left that job for one as a ticket inspector on trains going to and from France. It was during one such journey that he met a young woman, Teresa Sanmarti Guiu, beginning the first of what would be a series of romances throughout his life. Francesc and Teresa married and had two daughters, but, it soon became apparent, little else in common. Ferrer liked to read and was teaching himself French; Teresa was materialistic, averse to republicanism, and simply wanted her husband to work his way up the railroad career ladder.
In 1883, aged 24, Ferrer joined a Masonic lodge. Freemasonry at the time was a secular hot-bed for radicals, including many well- known anarchists. Teresa was not pleased. The marriage fell apart, the pair separated, and in 1884 Ferrer quit his railroad job and moved to Paris, where he opened a wine shop, later converted into a restaurant, the Libertad. He kept in touch with Teresa, however, and she and their two young daughters joined him. She hated Paris and Ferrer’s continuing involvement with the Masons. The restaurant was doing well, but business suffered after 1886, when an anarchist, Clement Duval, fled into it after stabbing a police agent. Ferrer closed Libertad in 1889 and began giving Spanish lessons instead.
The couple had a total of seven children, of whom only three lived to adulthood. The marriage deteriorated very badly again, mostly, it seems, due to Teresa’s opposition to Ferrer’s polítics, and they separated for a second time, sending their daughters to live in Bendigo, Australia, with Ferrer’s brother, Jose. On June 24, having failed to have him arrested as an alleged anarchist, Teresa confronted Ferrer on the street, firing at him three times with a revolver. Fortunately, she was a rotten shot, and only managed to scratch his head. Teresa, not Ferrer, was arrested, but received just a one-year prison sentence, subsequently suspended. She then met a rich Ukrainian aristocrat and moved with Ferrer’s and her son, Sol Ferrer, to the man’s huge estate near St. Petersburg, where they had three children.
Increasingly disgusted by the careerism and corruption of establishment republican politics, Ferrer joined Jules Guesde’s socialist Parti Ouvrier Francais (French Workers’ Party, the POF). In 1896, as a POF delegate, he attended the fourth congress of the International in London, where an authoritarian socialist proposal to exclude everyone opposed to parliamentary action, i.e., the anarchists, was contested by Malatesta, Nieuwenhuis and others. Ferrer was the only POF delegate to vote with them. The proposal passed, and after leaving London, Ferrer left the socialist movement for good, moving ever closer to anarchism and the anarchists he befriended in Paris, such as Anselmo Lorenzo and Charles Malato. He was also drawn to the growing strength of revolutionary syndicalism, epitomized in France by the Confederacion Generale du Travail (CGT), established in 1895. While publicly condemning propaganda by the deed, much in vogue at the time, especially in France (Ravachol, Emile Henry, Auguste Vaillant, Sante Caserio, et al.), a hand-written note by Ferrer four years earlier, in 1892, had ended with ‘Viva la dinamita!’, indicating at least some sympathy for a more direct approach to social problems.
*This brief summary of Ferrer’s life story is closely based on Bray’s two opening chapters. Page numbers here and throughout the review refer to pages in AEMS, not in original documents such as Ferrer’s The Modern School, which appears as chapter 3, pages 44-154.
Ferrer went back to language teaching, even publishing a pedagogical grammar for Spanish that he claimed to be the simplest and fastest way to learn the language when taught using “the Ferrer Method.” In 1894, Ernestine Meunie, a wealthy, devoutly Catholic French woman, 12 years his elder, became one of Ferrer’s students. In the years that followed, Meunie gradually changed her politics as a result of listening to her Spanish teacher. Importantly for Ferrer’s ideas, three months before dying in 1901, she also changed her will, leaving him a valuable building in Paris, thereby providing the revenue he needed to fund the Escuela Moderna and other projects.
Meanwhile, Ferrer had an affair, and another son, with a politically much more compatible student, Leopoldine Bonnard, a French teacher and anarchist who would go on to teach French at the Modern School when it opened. Citing Archer (1911, 15), Bray reports (29) that Ferrer would happily have married Leopol- dine, but was already married to Teresa, and Spanish law forbade divorce. Sol Ferrer later claimed that it was Leopoldine, not his father, who had first come up with the idea of the Modern School.
Returning to Barcelona after Meunie’s death, Ferrer opened the Escuela Moderna at number 56 (now number 70) Caille Bailen on September 8, 1901, with 18 boys and 12 girls in the first class. In a busy three-month period, he also founded the Boletin de la Escula Moderna in October, and the anarchist labor periodical La Huelga General in November.
The following year, he fell in love with Soledad Villafranca, 21 years younger than him, one of two sisters who came to teach at the school. His relationship with Leopoldine ended in 1905, whereupon she left, taking their 5-year-old son Riego with her to Amsterdam, and later to Barcelona. He had little contact with Riego thereafter, and Bray comments (31) that “given how much time and energy he put into working for the education and well- being of children, Ferrer seems to have given his own children a surprisingly small amount of his time.”
The School’s publishing arm, also founded by Ferrer in 1901, was a story in its own right. First, the pedagogic texts it produced were adopted by many other schools, thereby spreading the ideas and values of the Modern School elsewhere in Spain. Second, it published books by several prominent anarchists, including Jean Grave, Elisee Reclus and Georges Paraf-Javal, as well as work by local University of Barcelona academics. Third, and most important of all, its administrator, Mateu Morral, a young Catalan anarchist, moonlighted as a bomber. On May 31, 1906, he attacked the wedding procession of King Alphonso XIII in Madrid, killing 26 people and injuring 100 others. Surrounded by militiamen 48 hours later, he killed one before shooting himself. The events had catastrophic repercussions. Concluding he was implicated, the Spanish state arrested Ferrer and shut down the Escuela Moderna, never to reopen. Ferrer was eventually acquitted after a campaign on his behalf, but strong circumstantial evidence suggest he had indeed been involved, having met with Morral and others plotters the night before the attack, sending a large check to the man who assisted in Morral’s initial escape, and more.
Released from prison following his acquittal, Ferrer moved back to Paris with Soledad Villafranca, where he was very active, despite being under constant police surveillance. Among other things, he covertly funded the new revolutionary syndicalist labor federation Solidaridad Obrera, co-founded a new Masonic lodge in Barcelona, founded the International League for the Rational Education of Children, and in the summer of 1908, wrote The Modern School. (The book would not be published in his lifetime.)
In March 1909, the couple visited London, meeting with Malatesta, Kropotkin and others, and briefly with his and Leopoldine’s 12-year-old son, Riego, then at boarding school in London, before returning to Barcelona. There, a strike broke out in response to the Spanish government forcibly send- ing 20,000 working-class and peasant conscripts to quell an uprising in Morocco against the colonial Spanish government.
In what became known as the Tragic Week that followed, barricades were erected in Barcelona and surrounding towns and cities, violent clashes erupted between strikers and the Guardia Civil, dozens of churches and 30 convents were burned, over 100 people were killed, including several policemen and priests, 296 civilians and 124 police were injured, some 1,725 people were charged, and 2,000 others fled to France, mostly to evade conscription. Two-thirds of those arrested were discharged, but 17 were sentenced to death. Twelve death sentences were commuted, but five were not, including that of Ferrer, who was charged with having masterminded the whole uprising.
Although it had chosen not to sponsor the strike officially for fear of repression, Solidaridad Obrera had indeed been one of the main forces behind it, and Ferrer was a major force behind Soli- daridad Obrera. Nevertheless, his role had in fact been minimal, his attempts to influence decisions having been rebuffed by the working-class strike leaders as unwanted meddling by someone of different class origins. Bray comments (39) that “(A)t most, Ferrer was one of the hundreds or thousands of revolutionaries attempting to foment unrest and push the course of events in a more radical direction.” Unlike with Morral’s attempt to assassinate Alphonso, there was absolutely no evidence that Ferrer played an important role in the uprising. This did not deter the state.
It seems likely that the government was keen to use the fabri- cated “mastermind” claim as a way of securing revenge for Ferrer having escaped punishment for his alleged involvement in Moral’s assassination attempt on the king and/or for the threats to church and state posed by his ideas about education and the dangerous example of the Escuela Moderna. On October 13, 1909, aged 50, just four days after a sham five-hour trial by a kangaroo court in which Ferrer was not allowed to call any witnesses or even select his own lawyer, he was executed by firing squad in the moat at Montjuich Castle in what Avrich (1980, 32) described, accurately, as a judicial murder. His grave today lies in the Montjuich cemetary, side by side with those of Ascaso and Durutti.
Ferrer and anarchist education
A lengthy section of AEMS (pages 44-154) is devoted to a translation, completed and updated by Bray, of The Modern School: Posthumous explanation and scope of rationalist education. Ferrer wrote it two years after the school closed, and it was not published until after he died.
Although he is usually remembered as having founded (perhaps innocently enough, for simplicity’s sake) ‘La Escuela Moderna’ (The Modern School), and even though that is the name he used in the title of his own account – it is clear that what he viewed as more important about its full name has been lost over the years:
We created the Modern, Scientific, and Rational School, the fame of which soon spread to Europe and America. If in time it will lose the title of modern, over the centuries it will be strengthened more and more in its titles of rational and scientific. (58-59)
Ever virulently anti-clerical, Ferrer saw education in religious schools as the “systematization of ignorance.” (66) Time and again, he stressed the need to rid society of the stultifying role of religion (in Spain, the Catholic brand) in education and in society as a whole, replacing it with science and reason. Education’s emancipa- tory potential was emphasized:
For my part, I consider that the most effective protest and the most positive revolutionary action consists in giving the oppressed, the disinherited, and all who are conscious of a demand for justice as much truth as they can receive, trusting that it will direct their energies in the great work of the regen- eration of society. (52)
There was a pressing need for co-education: Coeducation was of capital importance for me ... Nature, philosophy, and history teach, against all the fears and atavisms, that women and men complete the human being, and ignorance of such an essential and transcendental truth has been the cause of the greatest evils. (60-61)
Equally important was co-education of the social classes: The only sound and enlightened form of school is that which coeducates the poor and the rich, which brings the one class into touch with the other in the innocent equality of childhood by means of the systematic equality of the rational school. (64-65)
Were he alive today, Ferrer would undoubtedly have said the same thing about coeducation of the races. And then there was hygiene, which was primitive in Spanish schools in the early 20th century, resulting in numerous health problems for teachers, students and parents. At Ferrer’s invitation, local medical experts implemented a number of important improvements in the Escuela Moderna, which Ferrer describes in some detail. (67-76).
Better hygiene, boys and girls, rich and poor, in the same school – all this may seem unexceptional enough today, but such was not the case in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the period during which the first free schools opened. The Catholic Church had long held a suffocating grip on most aspects of society in southern Europe, nowhere more so than in Spain. What little public education existed was dominated by the Church, of miser- able quality, and available only to boys. Just one town in three had a school, and two-thirds of the population was illiterate (Smith 1983, 5). In sharp contrast, the values of the Modern School were openly anti-statist, anti-capitalist, and anti-militarist, and there was a clear commitment to social justice. Reasoning skills and practical scientific inquiry were central components in the curriculum. It was a free school where, in Emma Goldman’s words, ‘free’ meant “to free the child from superstition and bigotry, from the darkness of dogma and authority” (Goldman 1931, 458). It was understandable, then, if Ferrer viewed education and La Escuela Moderna as a path to emancipation for women and for the poor and downtrodden, and equally understandable if what he was doing was viewed with alarm by both the Spanish state and the Catholic Church.
Students paid to attend La Escuela Moderna, but working- class students were given a discount. Parents, children, and other adults flocked to lectures and whole courses, e.g., in physiology and hygiene, and geography and natural science, provided for them by sympathetic University of Barcelona faculty members in the evenings and on Sundays. The ideas caught on. Fourteen new Ferrer-inspired schools opened in Barcelona and 34 others elsewhere in Catalonia, Valencia, and Andalusia. The church was especially troubled by the mixing of boys and girls.
There were 30 students, 18 boys and 12 girls, from all social classes, when the school opened, 114 in June, 1904, and more than 120 when, after five years of continuous harassment, and at the urging of the church, it was finally shut down by the Spanish state in 1906 as part of the fallout from Mateo Morral’s disruption of Alphonso’s wedding celebrations.
In addition to organized opposition from church and state, Ferrer faced several other problems in Barcelona in 1901 that are perhaps less severe (in some countries, at least) for free schools today. One was finding suitable teachers. He wrote (76-80) that teachers competent to carry out rational instruction did not exist when the School first opened. Initially, therefore, the Modern School staff comprised individuals who believed in its values and goals, who then had to learn from practical experience. The supply of teach- ers for the Escuela and for branches that opened elsewhere was gradually supplemented by young men and women who underwent training at a rationalist teacher-training center Ferrer opened under the direction of an experienced teacher and in close cooperation with staff at the Modern School. Nevetheless, teachers of the kind required were always in short supply, especially as pay was so low.
Providing teachers with a living wage (and even minimal benefits) was a second problem, and one that certainly is faced by progressive schools to this day. This is especially true among those that encourage applications for admission for children from working-class families, whose fees are then often reduced or waived altogether. The Albany Free School, in New York State, for example, pays its full-time teachers around $11,000 a year, less than the already disgracefully low U.S. minimum wage for full-time work.
A third problem was the lack of suitable pedagogic materials. Ferrer describes (93-107) the difficulty the School had in finding suitable textbooks or people to write them, as well as items for the School library. Adopting books used in lay schools was not a solu- tion. Rational education was not simply secular education, with the religious content removed, for what had replaced the religious content was equally problematic:
I first read a large number of works in the French code of secular instruction and found that God was replaced by the state, Christian virtue by civic duty, religion by patriotism, submission and obedience to the king, the aristocracy, and the clergy by respect for the functionary, the prioprietor and the boss. (94)
Ferrer wanted neither: “Rational education rises above these miser- able intentions.” (96)
The difficulty in finding texts that did not indoctrinate children into thinking their needs could be met by belief in a deity, a govern- ment, or both, shows just how difficult the context was in which Ferrer was struggling to start a free school in Spain at the time – a school free of such illusions. He sought help from intellectuals of the day, and from the general public. One who provided regular assistance to the new school was the anarchist geographer, Elisee Reclus.
Even Reclus, however, could not suggest a suitable book, writing from Brussels:
Dear friend, in my opinion there is no text for the teaching of geography in primary schools. I do not know a single one that is not infected with the venom of religion, patriotism, or, what is even worse, administrative routine. (Reclus, 1903, 105)
Reclus and Ferrer agreed that a return to nature and discovery learning outside the classroom provided a much better alternative for learning geography, and many parts of math and science, as well. Nevertheless, new materials were written, and by the end of year 3 of the School’s existence, were being used not only at the Escuela Moderna, but at 32 other schools throughout Spain, including 16 elsewhere in Barcelona. (A complete list of the 32 schools and locations appears on page 126.) There were 51 girls and 63 boys attending the Escuela Moderna by that time. Textbooks produced especially for the original school and published by its in-house press were adopted in 120 secular schools started by the League of Freethinkers – schools that, like the Escuela Moderna, also provided literacy classes and other courses for adults. Despite its location in Barcelona, Ferrer deliberately made Spanish the language of the School and its publications, so that whatever they produced would be accessible beyond the Catalan-speaking region.
The last section of his monograph (148-151), ‘The closing of the Modern School,’ is an elegant expression of defiance after the shut-down following his arrest as an alleged accomplice (which he again strongly denies) in Metteo Morral’s attempt on the Spanish king. Rather than accept it as a defeat, Ferrer notes the year-long (1906-1907) international attention the case brought to the School and to his creation of the International League for the Rational Education of Children. He devotes considerable space to what he views as one of the biggest problems faced by free schools: the lack of teachers trained to work in them, and of any way to create them. Groups wishing to start new Modern Schools would contact him from many parts of the world, he reported, to say they had money, buildings, books and would-be students, but they often lacked suitable teachers.
Overall, Ferrer concludes, the Escuela Moderna of Barcelona [was] a most successful attempt that distinguished itself in two ways: 1. While open to successive improvements, it set up a
standard of what education should be in a regenerated society. 2. It gave the creative impulse to education. (150)
The school had produced children with the knowledge and values needed to create a just, progressive society and had inspired similar projects elsewhere. In fact, it was its very success that had triggered the opposition that led to its closure. Ferrer was clear about a major source of that opposition, and optimistic about the future:
The spread of our influence attracted the hatred of Jesuitism of short and long habits, like vipers in their dens, who took shelter in the palaces, temples, and convents of Barcelona, and this hatred inpsired the plan that closed the Modern School. It is closed still, but it is currently concentrating its forces, defining and improving its plan, and gathering the strength for a fresh attempt to promote the true, indispens- able work of progress. That is the story of what the Modern School was, is, and must be. (151)
Bray points out that the Modern School was not without its critics, including some anarchists of the period, even though their views tended to be lost amidst all the praise lavished on Fer- rer in the immediate aftermath of his murder. Chapter 5 (AEMS 188-206) begins with part of a letter to Ferrer from the incoming first director of the Modern School, Clemence Jacquinet, written in 1990, two months before she arrived in Barcelona. Ferrer had famously promised:
I will teach them only the simple truth. I will not ram a dogma into their heads. I will not conceal from them one iota of fact. I will teach them not what to think but how to think. (Avrich 1980, 20)
Nevertheless, Jacquinet was worried that Ferrer’s strong beliefs might themselves become a new dogma. She was convinced chil- dren would be better off exposed to a variety of opinions, and that the obvious superiority of science over religion would be enough for them to win the day. The important thing, she wrote, was that children reach that understanding on their own, becoming independent thinkers in the process.
Jacquinet resigned as director after the first year, taught at the School for the second year, and then left, convinced that her worst fears had been justified, a view supported by the Catalan anarcho- syndicalist intellectual, Jose Prat: “Is it possible ... that emancipation rests precisely on the non-profession of such and such opinions that we today believe to be redemptive?” (192)
After leaving, Jacquinet wrote in a piece, originally a talk, entitled ‘Sociology in the School’:
The emancipation of humanity does not consist in professing such and such opinions, but rather in searching for the free and complete development of individuals . ... Why, then, do teachers, even those who profess libertarian opinions, have such little confidence in freedom? If they have done enough to evade error in the school, then why do they fear simply leaving free space for the truth? ... Moreover, if our aspira- tions are just, if our social critiques are founded in the truth, then it stands to reason that they will be spread on their own, inevitably, from a sincere study of nature observed in all of its aspects according to a rigorously scientific method in order to deduce the consequences from the social point of view. (197) ★
Arguments of this nature in favor of “neutral” forms of “teach- ASR 76 ing free of all classes of isms” continued after Ferrer’s death. The Summer 2019 views of Ricardo Mella (1861-1925), anarchist collectivist and historiographer, built on those of Jacquinet. Mella maintained that children should be exposed to all ideas and left free to find their own way through them:
In clear and precise terms: school should be neither republican nor Masonic nor socialist nor anarchist, just as it cannot and should not be religious ... (202) There is a big difference between explaining religious ideas and teaching a religious dogma; to expound upon political ideas and teach democrarcy, socialism, or anarchy. It is necessary to explain it all but not impose anything, as true and just as it is thought to be. Only at this price will intellectual independence be effective ... (203) They don’t realize that forging minds according to their favored model is anti- libertarian, since it snatches away from the child in their most tender youth the ability to think according to their own initiative ... (204) Not even absolute liberty should be imposed, but rather freely pursued and accepted. (205)
Mella denied that science, rationalism and anarchism were inherently related. Rationalism could just as easily be argued to underlie all sorts of philosophies, he maintained. Even within an- archism, if science and anarchism were assumed to be one and the same, it could be used to justify anarcho-communism, individual- ist anarchism, mutualism, or anarcho-syndicalism: “Which is the truth, the science, to firmly establish this uncontrollable absurdity of the rationalist absolute?” (205)
Bray draws attention to the conflicting views within the an- archist movement on these issues. Understandably, he does not attempt to resolve them in a book like this. Suissa (2006), however, points out that implicitly or explicitly, educators in the anarchist tradition have a clear moral vision. They seek to build free, egali- tarian societies in which coercion and oppression of all kinds are banished, and in which every individual, not just a fortunate elite, can realize his or her potential. The schools tend to have a socially conscious curriculum designed to offer students opportunities to learn rational thinking, mathematics, science, arts and humanities, and simultaneously, the value of individual freedom (as opposed to mere license), equality, free association, mutual aid, cooperation, and social justice. The free school in Ferrer’s time, as now, was seen as the ideal society in embryonic form – building the new society within the shell of the old.
The revolutionary general strike
In his insightful Introduction, Bray is at pains to bring out the complexities, and sometimes inconsistencies, in Ferrer’s political beliefs and actions. His dedication, starting in 1901, to establishing networks of modern schools supposedly delivering non-ideological, peaceful, scientifically based, rationalist education – an ambitious enough goal – was only one side of the man. Simultaneously, Bray notes (5), Ferrer founded and financed an anarchist labor periodi- cal La Huelga General (The General Strike) in which, under the pseudonym ‘Cero’ (probably employed so as not to scare away parents of Escuela Moderna children), he published several articles indicative of distinctly non-pacifist beliefs. One was entitled ‘The Republicans are not revolutionaries – Only the general strike will make the revolution’, and another, ‘Will there be blood? – Yes, a lot’.
A third, ‘Preparing the revolutionary general strike’, argued that it would be better not to organize one at all if it had to be peaceful. And as noted earlier, there was also circumstantial evidence that Ferrer was willing to support propaganda by the deed, as in the case of Mateu Morral’s attempt on Alphonso in 1906.
La Huelga General published articles by many well-known Spanish anarchists of the day, and by such international luminaries as Kro- potkin, Malatesta, Reclus, Nieuwenhuis, Grave, Malato and Paraf-Javal. Ferrer’s own rhetoric was certainly appropriate for a supporter of militant anarchist working-class action. The following are brief quotes from just four of the six short articles (with titles and publication dates) by “Cero” reproduced in AEMS. The complete emancipation of the workers will come neither from the Church nor the state, but rather from the general strike that will destroy both. (‘God or the State: NO – The General Strike: YES.’ Nov. 25, 1901) What a devastating torrent will be unleashed by the popular masses upon all obstacles that oppose their supreme vindication. And so, yes, the blood will run and spill everywhere.
(‘Will there be blood? – Yes, a lot.’ January 5, 1902) A general strike means the common, instant action of all workers not to ask for this or that improvement from their masters, but rather to eliminate the masters. It is about replacing the regime of wage labor, which is always neces- sarily unjust and expoitative, with a regime of solidarity and general well-being. That is the meaning of the general strike. (‘Preparing the revolutionary general strike.’ Jan. 25, 1903) Precisely, the craziness of those who don’t understand anarchy is based in their inability to conceive of a truly reasonable society. (‘Property and the Anarchists: The crazy and the reasonable.’ November 15, 1901)
The official state justification for Ferrer’s execution was his alleged role in fomenting the events of the Tragic Week. This was ironic, Bray comments, as more of his relationships with anarchists were with middle-class intellectuals and writers than with the kinds of anarchist workers involved in the rebellion that led to the declaration of martial law and his arrest. In fact, working-class anarchist militants were often distrustful of Ferrer’s middle-class origins and relative wealth (mostly, the money from the Ernestine Meunie inheritance after her death in April, 1901).
And there were some gounds for their distrust, Bray points out (214), as under his pseudonym “Cero,” Ferrer had also published an article claiming that after a general strike, the poor would be better off, but the wealthy would be allowed to continue living in their extravagant homes:
The rich will be happier than today, because they will continue to enjoy without seeing others suffer. The poor won’t envy the rich, bcause they won’t lack anything. (‘The General Strike will enrich the poor without impoverishing the rich.’ December 5, 1901)
Even Chicago School economists would hesitate before making such obviously ridiculous claims. Could it be dismissed as an off- hand remark by Ferrer on a bad day? Hardly. This was a short, carefully written article, another example of the inconsistencies Bray highlights in Ferrer’s thinking.
In fact, Ferrer’s participation in the militant labor movement often seemed to lack a clear focus. In ‘Preparing the general strike’, he noted, correctly, that any hard-won wage gains are quickly cancelled out by rises in the cost of living, arguing, therefore, that strikes were only worthwhile if revolutionary, and only revolutionary if state violence is met by working-class violence. As “Cero” in La Huelga General (but not as Ferrer, head of the supposedly pacifist Modern School), he urged readers onward to the “last baptism of human blood” necessary for the creation of a new world. Bray suggests (215) that the overall picture supports claims by some Spanish historians that “Ferrer and many of his anarchist comrades were not yet interested in the philosophy of revolutionary syndicalism per se as much as they saw the general strike as an opportunity to jump toward popular insurrection.”
Stronger evidence, I suggest, lies in the absence of any mention of trade (much less industrial) unions in any of the six articles – a strange omission, surely, for a true revolutionary syndicalist advo- cating militant industrial action. Who organizes general strikes if not labor unions? There is a single oblique reference to ‘resistance societies’ in one article, which Bray says in a footnote (n22, 224) was ‘(E)ssentially a synonym for a union during this period’, but that is all. La Huelga General printed its 21st and final edition in June 1903. Revolutionary syndicalist ideology would not take firm shape until the formation of Solidaridad Obrera in 1907, for which Ferrer was certainly a major funding source.
The International League for the Rational Education of Children
Ferrer announced the founding of the International League in the Boletin de la Escuela Moderna on November 1, 1908. Its purpose would be to spread the theory and practice of rational education internationally – education, not traditional teaching – with Ferrer as President. There would be a board of directors, and regular publications in French, Spanish and Italian. Ferrer’s vision of the emancipatory value of rational education was explicit:
Given the fact that simply by educating children rationally there can emerge generations capable of religious, political, and economic emancipation, we want to dedicate our efforts to the propagation, development, and defense of this education as far as our radius of action will reach.” (231)
The League did lead to new rationalist schools being founded in several countries, including three in Cuba, but rarely attracted more than a few hundred members in any one of them. Soledad Villafranca assumed the presidency after Ferrer’s death, but the League faded away within a few years. Why this happened despite the international outcry and opening of new Modern Schools in many countries following his execution is unclear.
Francisco Ferrer: The Martyr
Bray contributes another fine chapter (235-295) describing and analyzing the protest movement on several continents that built up around Ferrer’s arrest, trial and execution. He briefly notes the founding (and in many cases, due to oppressive regimes, untimely demise) of well over 100 Ferrer-inspired schools in over 20 coun- tries, including two by IWW affiliates in Cuba and Chile, and 47 Modern School affiliates in Spain that had been established even before Ferrer was murdered. Twenty Modern Schools were started in U.S. cities. Most lasted just a few years, but the Modern School of Stelton, New Jersey, ran for nearly 40, and one in Lakewood, New Jersey, for 25. (For an authoritative history of anarchist education and Modern Schools in the U.S., see Avrich, 1980.)
Practices in the schools varied considerably around the world, partly because groups of differing political persuasions founded and supported some of them, and partly because direct contact with Ferrer, his ideas, and his writings had been relatively limited before his death and in many parts of the world, and in an era before TV, the internet and (so-called) “social” media, inevitably remained so afterwards. Bray notes that, even among anarchists, support was not guaranteed. Stelton, for example, was regulary criticized by anarcho-syndicalist, Wobbly and founding ASR co-editor Sam Dolgoff (1902-1990) and his partner Esther, who published a mimeo sheet Looking Forward in the early 1930s “to protest what they considered the oppressive elements of the school.” (247; It should be noted that despite their criticisms, they enrolled their sons in the school.) Anarcho-syndicalists were the strongest sup- porters, however. The revolutionary syndicalist Solidaridad Obrera advocated “rational and scientific education for our children” in its mission statement, and its successor, the CNT, added ‘modern’ to that description. (249) Many anarchist educators of the period were also members of the FAI.
Bray reports (251) that anarcho-syndicalists implemented most of Ferrer’s pedagogy in a variety of schools for children and adults, in ateneos (aethenaeums), union halls, collectivised workplaces, and elsewhere. Interestingly, however, they largely surrendered Ferrer’s goal of cross-class education, focusing, instead, on an avowedly working-class agenda, one that took Kropotkin’s ideas about integral education more seriously, combining intellectual pursuits with a far greater focus on practical skills applicable to working-class trades.
The second half of the chapter consists of articles written by some of Ferrer’s most prominent supporters, including Rudolf Rocker, Emma Goldman, Voltairine de Cleyre and Alexander Berkman. The piece by de Cleyre (261-277) is magnificent.
Afterword by Robert Haworth
A silent partner until the very last, Robert Haworth comes to life with a brief ‘Afterward: Learning from Ferrer’ (296-306). He suggests that Ferrer’s contribution to current educational theory and practice is substantial, but that the Escuela Moderna was always faced with the problem of reconciling advocacy of a rational, scientific approach to education with “trying to instill a moral message within the curriculum that contested capitalism and promoted cooperation and solidarity.” (299) In other words, there was a disconnect between theory and practice, and some force to the claims by Jacquinet, Mella and others that the curriculum in the Modern School(s) would impose a new orthodoxy, rather than create children capable of thinking for themselves. Haworth writes:
It seems that many radical and progressive educators at that time were struggling to have a factual and science-based approach to teaching and learning, while, at the same time, wanting to instill particular beliefs and ideas about how the world operates and, ultimately, how they could transform it. (299)
On the importance of spontaneity in education, he notes (301) Emma Goldman’s belief that in both home and school, “education is the process of drawing out, not of driving in,” and asks whether it is really possible to build a relationship between a rational educa- tion, part of which involves showing students scientific facts about the world, and spontaneity. He quotes Judith Suissa approvingly when she describes the methodological tension in the Modern School at Stelton:
It is a serious failing of the work of anarchist educators that they made little systematic attempt to provide a theoretical account of the relationship between child-centered pedagog-
ical practice and their own anarchist goals and values. (Suissa, 2008, 85). We will return to this issue below.
Evaluating Ferrer, and AEMS Bray and Haworth have performed a valuable service in pre- senting so much of Ferrer’s work in digestible form for a modern audience. However, I think AEMS could have been improved in two ways: by including more historical information about anar- chist writing on education before Ferrer got to work, and at least minimal information about current “free schools” in many coun- tries, which are, after all, a significant part of his legacy. Third, the position they take on the criticism of Ferrer (and other anarchist educators) for “imposing a new dogma” is also open to challenge, although admittedly a very tricky issue.
Here, in that order, are a few comments on each. Despite his reputation today as a pioneer in progressive education, and notwithstanding the radical status of the Modern School in the Spanish social context of the period, Bray notes that by his own admission Ferrer was not an innovative educational thinker, writing that “conscious of my incompetence in the art of pedagogy I sought the counsel of others.” (50) AEMS does not set out to provide a historical survey of anarchist educational theory and practice, so it would be silly to complain that it does not provide one. Bray briefly mentions some early theorists (not all of them anarchists) whose ideas were influential, but the book would have been stronger, and more useful for spending at least a few pages tracing the evolution of anarchist ideas about education before Fer- rer got to work. Identifying the sources and nature of the ‘counsel’ Ferrer sought at the level of both theory and practice, would allow a more clear-sighted evaluation of his contributions
To illustrate, the potentially emancipatory role of education, which was central to Ferrer’s thinking, and about which much is made in AEMS, had been stressed as far back as 1793 by Godwin, who recognized the sinister role played by the English state system as a powerful means for social control – the way children were socialized into their roles clearly designed to serve the interests of those in power. And it was not just state education systems that were to be feared, the ex-clergyman warned:
Even in the petty institutions of Sunday schools, the chief lessons that are taught are a superstitious veneration for the Church of England and to bow to every man in a handsome coat. (Godwin, quoted in Smith, 1983, 12) Reading should not be forced on children too early, he argued.
Timing was crucial. Direct instruction was to be de-emphasized, and more attention paid to providing feedback on intrinsically motivated, student-initiated learning (Goodman, 1966; Smith, 1983). Schools and teachers should respond to children’s needs and interests when they emerged, not try to impose their own: According to the received modes of education, the master goes first, and the pupil follows. According to the method here recommended, it is probable that the pupil should go first, and the master follow. (Godwin, 1793, 1986)
At the theoretical level, Ferrer was strongly influenced by, and borrowed from, a number of other earlier and contemporary writ- ers and practitioners. Several are mentioned in AEMS, including Fourier, Proudhon, Bakunin, Ferrer’s friend Jean Grave (Grave, 1900), Kropotkin and Elisee Reclus, but little more than mentioned. L’educacion integrale, a core principle of anarchist education, does not merit an entry in the AEMS index. For histories, analyses and references to sources on integral education, see Avrich (1980, 3-68), Fidler (1989), Shotton (1993, 1-32), Suissa (2006), and, especially, Smith (1983, 18-61).
"lives without working by assuming that when people go to buy they are robbed by high prices? And so these 12-year- old economists conclude that the gypping of the working class must be perpetuated by the time the worker gets his paycheck, that “exploitation occurs predomonantly at the point of production.”
Similarly, students tackled the problem of unemployment, proving somewhat more astute than the U.S. Congress. When faced with the fact that 12 million lacked jobs, while 28 million worked for nine hours a day, they treated the problem as a simple mathematical problem, concluding that a six-hour day would al- low for full employment.
While the four-week summer program classes were structured by the WPC staff, students took charge of organizing social and recreational activities, putting their lessons in running meetings and organizing to practical use. Worker-students in the regular program played a more active role, helping arrange the curriculum, organizing the evening debates and lectures (as well as entertain- ments), and handling conflicts and discipline.
Work People’s College had neither traditional tests not grades nor diplomas. The faculty were not academics, but rather workers with many years’ experience as wage slaves and in labor agitation.
While there was a schedule of classes, Thompson recalled, there was little lecturing.Rather, students were encouraged to hunt up information and present it in the form of debates, soapbox talks, articles and skits, many of which found their way into the pages of the IWW press. (A WPC theater troupe also regularly toured northern Minnesota and Upper Michigan, performing for im- migrant and labor groups.) One of those plays, “Banker’s Island,” told the story of three workers stranded on an island with a banker who used his supply of gold to get them to build him a home and provide him with the necessities of life. But they organized when the banker decreed that they could not eat the bounty on “his” island without paying for it, and reorganized things to suit themselves. After a few days the boss capitulated, agreeing to wash the dishes in exchange for an equal share of the food.
Regular classes ended in 1941 (the summer program continued for a few years) and the army seized the campus during World War II. WPC did not reopen, and its building was sold in 1953.
‘Integral education,’ as many ASR readers will know, roughly translates as integrated, whole person, mind-and-body education. It is closely related to a second core principle, learning by doing. Both reflect the belief, argued forcefully by Kropotkin, that the separation of manual work and mental, or intellectual, work was a major cause of inhumane social stratification:
To the division of society into brain workers and manual workers we oppose the combination of both kinds of activi- ties; and instead of ‘technical education,’ which means the maintenance of the present division between brain work and manual work, we advocate l’education integrale, or complete education, which means the disappearance of that pernicious distinction. (Kropotkin 1890/1913, 1985, 172)
If knowledge is power, then providing socioeconomic elites with crucial information and skills while simultaneously denying them to others, Kroptkin argued, serves to perpetuate a two-tier system of haves and have-nots. Such inequality is enshrined in- stitutionally to this day in systems, on the one hand, of variously named private schools, grammar schools and academies, and on the other, of technical and vocational training schools. His solu- tion was straightforward: “Through the eyes and the hand to the brain – this is the true principle of economy of time in teaching.” (Kropotkin, ibid, 175)
Ferrer’s debt was not just to the theorists. When it came to practice, there were several early free school experiments that set out to change society by following these principles, or did so at roughly the same time as Ferrer – some inspired by the Escuela Moderna, some an inspiration for it – and they worked well under what were always adverse conditions. They included the anarchist orphanage at Cempuis with Paul Robin as director from 1880 to 1894, and schools established by Elias Puig in Catalonia, Jose Sanchez Rosa in Andalusia, Leo Tolstoy at his Yasnaya Polyana estate in Russia, and Sebastien Faure’s La Ruche (The Beehive) and Madeleine Vernet’s L’Avenir Social (The Social Future), both just outside Paris. As Bray and other historians have recorded, Ferrer was in communication, and in some cases, direct personal contact with several of these people.
Founded in 1904, three years after Ferrer’s initiative began, Faure’s La Ruche was an especially noteworthy, early example of both l’educacion integrale and learning by doing. In a rational, liberating, non-coercive, co-educational environment, “problem” children rejected by the traditional French education system learned mathematics, science and other academic subjects ef- fectively through operating an on-site agricultural cooperative, producing eggs, milk, cheese, vegetables and honey and selling them in nearby Paris to help support the school financially. There was a strict timetable for the indoor, classroom curriculum at La Ruche, however, and it was fairly traditional and more teacher- centered than is often recognized. (Gribble, 2004, 184) Similarly, in an urban setting, at la Escuela Moderna, children participated in practical training, museum and factory visits, and field trips to study physical geography, geology and botany (Suissa 2006, 80), part of a great emphasis Ferrer placed on learning by doing. Why look at pictures in books, Ferrer asked, if the real thing lay just outside the classroom window? Like La Ruche, the Modern School, too, had a more traditionally organized “indoor” curriculum, for which, as Bray notes, some anarchists criticized Ferrer at the time.
A second area where more information would have been useful ★ concerns the current situation of “free schools.” The experimental ASR 76 schools, as Bray describes, especially the Escuela Moderna, went on Summer 2019 to inspire numerous “modern schools” soon after Ferrer’s murder.
They also continue to inspire the revival and spread of free schools, alternative schools and alternatives to schools, for adults as well as children, in many countries today. At the very least, references to the growing literature on at least a few of those, e.g., Duane (1995); Fremaux & Jordan (2012); Gribble (1998, 2004), Mercogliano, (1998), Shantz (2012), Shotton (1993) and Ward (1995), would have been valuable for many readers.
Gribble makes the case that many so-called ‘progressive’ or ‘democratic’ schools are currently closer in spirit to Ferrer’s views than were the early 20th century anarchist schools. He distills (2004, 187-188) a ‘central core of common values’ shared by such schools: reliance on reason rather than doctrine, self-government or shared responsibility, freedom to choose, equality, and respect for and trust in the individual child. All five are consistent with the anarchist educational principles advocated by Ferrer. Beyond free schools, anarchist educational principles have permeated many areas of contemporary “mainstream” education, including Problem-Based Learning (Gijselaers, 1996) and, some would claim, the child-centered, teacher-de-centered philosophy and advocacy of exercises de la vie practique, or “exercises in daily living” (Kramer, 1978) of Montessori schools. In addition to its basis in developmental psycholinguistics, the nine philosophical principles underpinning Task-Based Language Teaching (Long, 2015, 63-83) are l’educacion integrale, learning by doing, individual freedom, rationality, emancipation, learner-centeredness, egalitarian teacher-student relationships, participatory democracy, and mutual aid and cooperation.
The third matter, the charge that the Modern School was guilty of imposing “a new dogma” is a difficult, and in my view still unresolved, issue more broadly in anarchist education. As noted earlier, from Godwin on down, writers about anarchist approaches to education have devoted serious attention to the “new dogma” issue raised at the time about Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna by Jacqui- net, Mella and others, and AEMS is no exception. Bray suggests that Ferrer’s rejection of state education (important enough) was a mostly a matter of its church and/or state content, rather than of the traditional form that education took, some aspects of which
continued to operate in the early day-to-day organization of the School, as they did at La Ruche. Ferrer was taken to task for this at the time by anarchists such as Ricardo Mella, who argued in favor of the opposite approach, providing politically neutral content (is there such a thing?) while concentrating on ridding education of its traditional form. When Haworth talks about imposing a new orthodoxy, rather than creating children capable of thinking for themselves, the need “to help students name the world they live in as opposed to having someone name it for them” (302), he appears to agree.
In addition to Bray and Haworth, both Gribble (1998) and Suissa (2006), devote considerable space to the issue, which is often linked to the broader one of child-initiated learning. For example, Gribble notes that after agonizing over the matter, many alterative schools have decided that reading needs to be started for some chidren well before they would otherwise choose to do so if left to their own devices. These are all scholars I admire, yet variants of the charge that showing children scientific facts about the world works against child-centered, discovery-based learn- ing strikes me as overblown. Children at the modern schools, it should be remembered, were encouraged to discover facts about biology, math, etc., not just in the classroom, but through nature walks, field trips to factories, work on the farm at Cempuis, and other kinds of ‘manual work.’ Even such discovery-based learning could be criticized as planned, “pre-determined discovery,” not the genuine article, but if so, then why not argue against all organized learning, including schools of any kind?
If anarchists believe that their analyses of the causes of social injustice are fundamentaly correct, and that religion, capitalism, fascism, and authoritarian socialism clearly all conflict with the interests of free peoples, then it is obviously important that children learn as much. It is absurd to hope that chidren and young adults will discover on their own, in a few years at school, what it has taken (and then, only a minority of) adults decades and count- less tragedies to discover. Why risk throwing away that hard-won experience and those insights?
In any case, if it is the ability of children to discover things themselves and reach their own analyses and conclusions about society that is the (only?) priority, the two goals are not incompatible. Numerous examples come to mind, but for reasons of space, let us imagine just one. While on an urban field trip, children observe a noisy street demonstration or see a picket line and banners hanging outside a factory. Children and adults of any age will want to know what is going on, why those people are doing what they are doing, what this or that shouted slogan means, and so on. One possibility, depending on the students’ age, is to join the demonstration (assuming, these days, it is not some sort of neo-fascist spectacle) or talk to the strikers and stand in solidarity with them for a while, perhaps spawning a group project and regular follow-up visits to the picket line. Back at the school, student-initiated discussions about what they saw are likely, but teacher-initiated ones will work, too. Either can easily lead to the children digging into the causes of the demonstration or the strike. At that point, however, how many teachers, in whatever kind of school, are, or even should be, capable of limiting themselves to answering student questions about the events without adding information the children did not explicitly ask for, e.g, about corporations off-shoring jobs to cheaper labor markets? Is that imposing a new dogma or saving time?
The fact is, waiting for people of any age to learn from things they happen upon in the environment or from asking questions is prone to failure and at best, hopelessly inefficient. First, children will not “happen upon” a lot of things they would benefit from knowing about.
How will children, even teenagers, know of the existence of activities and whole disciplines (playing the clarinet, physics, chemistry, field hockey, linguistics, computer programming, spycraft, electronics, etc.) that they might be perfectly cut out for if teachers do not alert them to their existence? Is there a clear line between “alerting” and “imposing”? And what of the fact that an early start is often crucial in many fields if someone is eventually going to reach their true potential, or even just a useful level, in one of them? Many scientists supposedly make their most important discoveries in their twenties, for example, and the evidence is clear that there are maturationally constrained “sensitive periods” for achieving native-like abilities in new languages. Start first exposure to the new language after various (surprisingly early) ages, and you may do well, but can never achieve nativelike abilities in (successively) pronunciation, collocations, or grammar. When tested in her mid- twenties, Mary found out she had exceptionally high aptitudes for language learning, but unfortunately, only began learning one when she was 25.
Second, learning from things children or adults happen to encounter in their environment, i.e., from so-called ‘positive evi- dence,’ is often unsatisfactory for being incomplete. To illustrate, people can learn what is grammatical in a new language, e.g., about adverb placement in English as a second language, by hearing or reading countless examples of such sentences as (1) I drink three cups of coffee every day and (2) Every day, I drink three cups of coffee. But they cannot learn on that basis alone that (3) *I drink every day three cups of coffee, is ungrammatical (due to the constraint in English against interrupting verb and direct object), as such sen- tences do not occur in the input, so would require them to notice the absence of something. Native speakers of the many languages in the world, such as French and Spanish, in which sentences like (3) are perfectly grammatical, will produce sentences like that in English as a result. To learn that sentences like (3) are ungrammati- cal, they will need implicit or explicit ‘negative evidence’ in the form of an intervention of some kind (explicit “error correction,” implicit corrective recasts, clarification requests, etc.).
To take another example, watching people play chess provides positive evidence about many of the moves different chess pieces (knights, bishops, kings, queens, pawns, etc.) can make, but trying to learn the game that way will mean having to wait a very long time before witnessing rare, yet important, moves, like en passant. And the observer will not know the limits, or constraints, on the moves he or she witnesses. For instance, a pawn can advance either one or two squares on its first move (except in an en passant situ- ation), but only one square at a time thereafter. An observer sees pawns advancing up the board, sometimes one square, sometimes two squares, at a time. How does he/she learn, simply by watching people play and not seeing something happen (like not hearing someone say *She understand most of the time her classes), that two squares at a time is not allowed after that first move, and not al- lowed on the first move, either, if it means an opponent’s pawn is passed by on an adjacent square in the process? Given enough examples, the observer may eventually understand the constraint, but only after a long time, and possibly never.
The point of these examples is not, of course, to suggest that anarchist educators are guilty of ‘imposing a new dogma’ if they teach, say, a French- or Spanish-speaking child wanting to learn English about constraints on adverb placement, or a child inter- ested in learning to play chess the rules about en passant. Rather, it is to highlight the frequent need to teach children (or in many cases, adults) things the learning of which they could not possibly initiate, for the simple reason that people often don’t know they don’t know something, or what it is that they don’t know. Back from the field trip, is it acceptable, for a teacher to use the fac- tory strike and off-shoring to explain the evils of capitalism, or is preaching anti-capitalism to impose a new dogma? When does the educator cross the line between “following the child’s lead” and “imposing knowledge”?
Such “interventions” seem entirely reasonable to many, myself included, but Jacquinet, Mella and some current anarchist com- mentators appear to disagree and feel that Ferrer was at fault. Put another way, is the priority in a free school that children develop in any direction they choose, however ideal that may sound? Should we ★ stand by if they want to join a fascist march? Isn’t there an anarchist analysis of society’s injustices, and of what a better society would look like, that it is in everyone’s interest that children (and adults) learn? However and whenever children and adults are ready, is it not reasonable for the curriculum to reflect anarchist values and analyses? In other words, is it not the main purpose of anarchist- inspired schools (universities, etc.) to graduate anarchists? If not, why bother with free schools and anarchist-inspired education in the first place?
AEMS is an honest book, by no means a Ferrer hagiography. While admiring Ferrer’s undoubted accomplishments in the face of organized opposition and repression, Bray does not shy away from criticism where criticism is due. Among other things, he points out several inconsistencies in Ferrer’s thinking, or between his proclaimed principles and Modern School practice. One ex- ample concerned the issue of grades, rewards and punishments. In a section (87-93) entitled ‘Neither Reward nor Punishment,’ Ferrer laid out the case against both:
Having admitted and practiced the coeducation of boys and girls, of rich and poor – having, that is to say, started from the principle of solidarity and equality – we are not prepared to create a new inequality. Hence, in the Modern School there were neither rewards nor punishments, nor exams to puff up some children with the flattering grade of “outstanding,” while others received the vulgar grade of “pass,” and others still suffer the shame of being scorned as incompetent. (87)
In fact, however, Bray notes (11), it was clear from Modern School textbooks, articles in the Boletin de la Escuela Moderna, and Ferrer’s own writing that daily activities at the Modern School were, initially, at least, “far more scheduled, disciplined, routinized, and traditional than many would imagine from what some have hailed as the preeminent “anarchist school.” In the early months, students were even issued number grades that were published in the School newspaper, and were subject to rewards and punishments, e.g., not being allowed to go on a School outing, for misbehavior. These practices were discontinued after the first year, fortunately, with Ferrer opposing grades and emphasizing student initiative.
One possibile explanation for the inconsistency, I suspect, is simply that Ferrer himself, like the early teachers, was learning as as he went along (note the title of Mercogliano’s book), correcting prejudices and habits he had ingested from his own school experi- ences as a small child. Given the radical nature and complexity of what he was doing, and the extremely hostile Spanish context in which he was doing it, it was surely unreasonable to expect him to get everything right first time. His eventual position on punishment, at least, was certainly crystal clear, if rather optimistic:
Scolding, impatience, and anger ought to disappear with the old title of “schoolmaster.” In free schools, all should be peace, happiness and fraternity. (93)
More puzzling in an anarchist project, however, as Bray points out, was evidence of hierarchical decision-making. For example, even if well motivated, Ferrer wrote of having rejected a proposal from the (advisory) Modern School Committee for an extravagant School opening with hundreds of invited guests because “I was, in that and all other things related to the Escuela Moderna, the executive power.” (55)
Another strength of AEMS is its inclusion of raw data of various kinds – enough to inspire graduate students (and faculty) in col- leges of education to undertake scholarly research on the Modern School, and on free schools in general. The book’s bibliography is a treasure trove of lists of newspapers of the day, archives, and original and secondary sources. One example is the reproduction of issues of the Modern School Bulletin. (155-187) Here are yearly
enrollment numbers for boys and girls, hour-by-hour details of the children’s daily schedule, curricula for children of different ages, children’s course grades, and individual personal comments on the first year’s students (a practice quickly discontinued as part of Ferrer’s opposition to rewards and punishments), student presentations, a summary of students’ attitudes towards money, and short articles by Ferrer and outside sympathizers on such topics as ‘Discord in the Family,’ ‘Direct Action’ and the potential for free schools to influence traditional schools. The piece on direct action (177- 179), penned by physician and Socialist Party politician Adrien Meslier, included the claim that physical violence (propaganda by the deed) was justified in extreme cases of state oppression. Bray suggests that its publication in the school’s Bulletin reflected Ferrer’s and comrades’ desire to link pedagogical work and revolutionary struggle. Whatever the motive, it is certainly something unlikely to be found in the newsletters of the freeest of free schools today. Another strength of AEMS is the attention devoted to Ferrer’s less-well-known, militant support for revolutionary syndicalism and, especially, the general strike.
As is often the case when state violence is unleashed, short-term losses, tragic though they are at the time, often become victories in the long run, and so it was with Ferrer. “The military firing squad,” Bray concludes (39), “may have eliminated Francisco Ferrer, the man, but in so doing they created Francisco Ferrer, the martyr, whose legacy would spread rationalist education around the world.” AEMS is a fine book and a fitting tribute to Ferrer.
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