Paul Avrich's The Modern School Movement


The Modern School Movement,
Anarchism and Education in the United States
by Paul Avrich
1980 Princeton University Press
Princeton University
447 pages (hardcover)
Reviewed by Chris Mercogliano
This brilliant, painstakingly researched work is an essential addition to the body of literature on alternative education. I say this because, as the author himself so astutely points out, just as the most current freedom-in-education movement born of the 1960s was beginning to make its first loud rumbles, the last of the Modern Schools was quietly closing its doors for the final time. And few of the new generation of proponents of radical educational change in America appeared to take notice, and further, to honor those who had gone before them.
Avrich's excellent book accomplishes a great many things; but for this reviewer its greatest value is just such an honoring of the previous generation of risk-takers and rule-breakers who sowed the seeds of change which so many of us are attempting to harvest today. It is critically important that every social movement recognize its roots and learn from its past successes and failures. In other words, "the movement" of the '60s and 70s did not invent itself and Avrich's subject here, the Modern School Movement, was one of its most immediate philosophical and idealogical predecessors.
Thanks to Avrich, Professor of History at Queens College and the Graduate School at the City University of New York, we now have a permanent record of the Modern School Movement and an intimate, exquisitely detailed look at the people and principles which, under the loose heading of anarchism, would create some twenty schools across the nation. These were schools where students would learn in an atmosphere of freedom and self-reliance, and schools many of which would be embedded within surrounding intentional communities whose avowed purpose was to bring about radical social and political change.

Avrich's approach is largely biographical, based on dozens of extensive interviews with surviving Modern School teachers and students (who still gather annually in New Jersey for a joyous, day-long reunion). We are treated to a fly-on-the-wall view of the movement's origins and what made it tick, as well as what split schools and communities apart. Little mystery here -it was usually the simple inability of people to hang in together long enough to work out their differences, which were many in those wild and politically contentious days.

The Modern School Movement, which spanned the years from roughly 1910 to 1960, was the product of an era when radical experimenters in art, education and communal living all came together to pursue common goals, the highest of which was to create a better world for all. The overriding belief which sustained them was this: If we could only raise a generation of children who were free of race and class predjudice, of a belief in the necessity of war, and who could think their own minds and solve their own problems, then a new social order would, in fact, be possible.
This is a story for the ages. A late-19th/early 20th century Spanish anarchist named Francisco Ferrer decides that power politics and political violence are not the way to effect positive and lasting social change. Instead, he elects to fly directly in the face of a fascistic monarchy and start a school for children based on freedom of choice and expression, learning for learning's sake and the imperative of finding one's own truth. He believes that the best way to create a just society is simply to raise a new generation of children on just, humane and democratic principles; and so he starts a small school in Barcelona. Further, Ferrer believes that what society calls education is not some sort of preparation for life, but is life itself. From both precursors and contemporaries like Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Froebel, Kropotkin and Tolstoy he borrows key words like "freedom," "spontaneity." "creativity," "individuality" and "self-realization."
Named the Modern School at a time when when "modern" wasn't yet a dirty word, it becomes perhaps the first co-educational school in the history of the Spanish nation-state. But, before long the monarchy feels very threatened by this small experiment in such a radically new way of educating young children. It's no small wonder, because also basic to Ferrer's philosophy is the intention to develop individuals who are equipped mentally, morally and physically to fight to build a future libertarian society. Quoting Ferrer, "We do not hesitate to say that we want men who will continue unceasingly to develop; men who are capable of constantly destroying and renewing their surroundings and renewing themselves; men whose intellectual independence is their supreme power, which they will yield to none; men always disposed for things that are better, eager for the triumph of new ideas, anxious to crowd many lives into the life they have."
It's not hard to see how words like these would be threatening in a society utterly controlled by Church and State; and so, suddenly Ferrer is accused of treason, arrested and summarily executed. However, news of his martyrdom and his highly successful school spreads quickly around the world and Ferrer Modern Schools begin to sprout up like weeds&emdash;hence the birth of the "Modern School Movement." Here in the U.S. his ideas are adopted by a diverse group of New York City radicals, the best known among them Emma Goldman, Margaret Sanger and Will Durant. The end-result is the evolution of the Stelton School and Community in Stelton, New Jersey, of which SKOLE's own Free School is in so many ways a direct descendent, as well as other anarchist schools and communities like the Mohegan Colony, located a few miles east of Peekskill, New York.
Much like the utopian communities Amana and New Harmony which preceded them, these anarchist schools and communities eventually outlived the times which had inspired and sustained them. What remains with us today are several handsful of their surviving members and Avrich's thorough and loving retelling of their stories. This is a must read for anyone connected with the idea of freedom in education.


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