Francisco Ferrer's Modern School


Excerpted from Murray Bookchin's _The Spanish Anarchists_, forthcoming in 1997 from AK Press. (Honest, guys! I'm working on the index to the detriment of my social life. -- FB)

Chapter Seven: Anarchosyndicalism

The New Ferment

By the closing years of the nineteenth century, an organized libertarian movement in Spain had virtually ceased to exist. Police reprisals against the terrorists, coupled with repressive legislation, led to the dissolution in 1896 of the Pact of Union and Solidarity. The Anarchist Organization of the Spanish Region was in shambles. Workers began to leave libertarian organizations as rapidly as they had entered them several years earlier. In Cordoba, for example, after the promising revival of the 1880s, only a few acolytes could be persuaded to attend the May 1 celebration of 1893. In the following years, the rallies were given up altogether. In vain did leading Anarchists reverse their views and speak out against terrorism. As early as 1891, Kropotkin warned that while "the development of the revolutionary spirit gains enormously from heroic individual acts # it is not by these heroic acts that revolutions are made." By 1900, all but a handful of the outstanding Anarchists who had supported "propaganda by the deed" had abandoned terrorist methods as a strategic form of direct action.

Yet the "Idea" was far from dead in Spain, and Anarchist terrorism was never to disappear totally. Libertarian ideas now began to take root among the intellectuals. It was at this time that leading Spanish writers and painters such as the novelist Pio Baroja and a young artist, Pablo Picasso, began to flirt with the "Idea." Others, notably the astronomer Tarrida del Marmol and the engineer Ricardo Mella, were actively involved in the movement itself. _La Revista Social_, an outstanding Anarchist theoretical journal founded in 1896, became a forum for a wide range of professional people from the universities, arts, and sciences. Disillusioned by the failure of terrorist tactics, many Anarchists began to place their strongest emphasis on the importance of education in achieving their social goals. This period was the heyday of libertarian schools and pedagogical projects in all areas of the country where Anarchists exercised some degree of influence. Perhaps the best-known effort in this field was Francisco Ferrer's Modern School (Escuela Moderna), a project which exercised a considerable influence on Catalan education and on experimental techniques of teaching generally. The persecution to which Ferrer was subjected in later years brings into sharp focus the enormous problems and obstacles that faced almost every effort to reform Spanish society. To promote the concepts of the Modern School, Ferrer was obliged to be more than an educator, and his personal fate, in turn, became a political event of great importance in the early years of the twentieth century.

There seems to be nothing in Francisco Ferrer y Guardia's background that should have made him an educator or even an iconoclast. He was born on January 10,1859, in Alella, twelve miles from Barcelona. His parents were devout Catholics who raised their son in the traditional manner of moderately well-to-do peasants (his father owned a small vineyard), and there is no evidence of any rebellion in the boy until he was sent off to work in a Barcelona firm at the age of fifteen. The owner, a militant anticleric, apparently exercised a great influence on his young employee. In any case, by the time Ferrer had reached twenty he had declared himself a Republican, an anticleric, and joined the Freemasons, the traditional haven for liberal thought and political conspiracy in Spain.

The young Catalan caught the attention of Manuel Ruiz Zorrilla, the radical Republican who had been a former premier under Amadeo and who in 1885 was enjoying a lively conspiratorial exile in Paris. Working as a railway employee, Ferrer rode the trains between the French frontier and Barcelona, engaged in the precarious job of smuggling political refugees to France. He also functioned as a courier in Zorrilla's efforts to win over army officers to a Republican coup. When General Villacampa pronounced for a republic in September 1886, Ferrer participated in an aborted Catalan uprising. This was the last insurrectionary attempt to turn Spain into a republic for the next half century. Its failure found Ferrer in Paris, occupying the post of secretary to Ruiz Zorrilla.

It was in the French capital that Ferrer began to abandon the party politics of the Republicans for education. This was a major shift that marked his development toward Anarchism, although he was careful never to describe himself as more than a "philosophical Anarchist," an acrata. He was greatly influenced in that direction by Anselmo Lorenzo, whom he met in Paris. In any case, his new interests could not have been better placed. Almost any effort to bring more schools to Spain would have fallen like rain on a parched land. At the turn of the century, nearly 70 percent of the Spanish population was illiterate. Teachers were grossly underpaid, and rural schools (where there were any) were often little more than shacks in which barefooted, ill-nourished children were given only the most rudimentary instruction.

The project that Ferrer was to establish as the Modern School has many elements that would almost seem conventional today, but it was also distinguished by features that even now have scarcely advanced beyond the experimental stage. To understand the remarkable advance scored by the Modern School, one must see it against the background of the Spanish educational system as a whole.

Although Spain had a universal education law, the majority of schools were run by clerics who used brutal teaching methods and emphasized rote instruction in Catholic dogma. These clerics openly inveighed against any political group, scientific theory, or cultural tendency which displeased the church. Coeducation, tolerated in the countryside only for want of school space, was rigorously prohibited in the cities.

To this bleak establishment Ferrer opposed a program and method of instruction that the clerics could regard only as "diabolical." He planned to establish a curriculum based on the natural sciences and moral rationalism, freed of all religious dogma and political bias. Although students were to receive systematic instruction, there were to be no prizes for scholarship, no marks or examinations, indeed no atmosphere of competition, coercion, or humiliation. The classes, in Ferrer's words, were to be guided by the "principle of solidarity and equality." During a period when "wayward" students in clerical schools were required to drop to their knees in a penitent fashion and then be beaten, the teachers in the Escuela Moderna were forewarned that they must "refrain from any moral or material punishment under penalty of being disqualified permanently." Instruction was to rely exclusively on the spontaneous desire of students to acquire knowledge and permit them to learn at their own pace. The purpose of the school was to promote in the students "a stern hostility to prejudice," to create "solid minds, capable of forming their own rational convictions on every subject."

To Ferrer, however, "the education of a man does not consist merely in the training of his intelligence, without having regard to the heart and will. Man is a complete and unified whole, despite the variety of his functions. He presents various facets, but is at the bottom a single energy, which sees, loves, and applies a will to the prosecution of what he has conceived." One of the most important tasks of the Escuela Moderna, Ferrer insisted, was to maintain this unity of the individual, to see to it that there was no "duality of character in any individual -- one which sees and appreciates truth and goodness, and one which follows evil." The school itself must be a microcosm of the real world, embodying many different sides and human personalities. Hence, Ferrer insisted not only on coeducation of the sexes but on a representative variety of pupils from all social classes. Every effort must be made to bring the children of workers together with those of middle-class parents in order to create a milieu for the young that is fully liberatory, a "school of emancipation that will be concerned with banning from the mind whatever divides men, the false concepts of property, country, and family." Much of this is pure Anarchism and reveals the influence of Lorenzo and Kropotkin on Ferrer's mind.

It was not until September 1901 that Ferrer established the Escuela Moderna in Barcelona. He had been a teacher during his long stay in Paris. There he had befriended an elderly student in one of his Spanish classes, Mlle. Ernestine Meunier, who left him a substantial legacy after her death. With these resources, the first Modern School was started with an original class of twelve girls and eighteen boys. Within ten months, the number of students had more than doubled, and in the next few years fifty schools based on the principles of the Modern School were established in Spain, mainly in Catalonia. Ferrer, who had invested Mlle. Meunier's money in well-paying securities, built up sufficient funds to establish a publishing house that turned out small, inexpensive, easily understood books on a variety of scientific and cultural subjects. These were distributed widely throughout Spain to peasants, braceros, and workers, often by wandering Anarchist propagandists. It was from these booklets that the poorer classes of Spain acquired their first glimpse into the strange, almost totally unknown world of science and culture that lay beyond the Pyrenees. Although more guardedly than in Paris, Ferrer maintained his association with Anarchists, taking a number of them on his staff and giving employment to his friend, the aged Anselmo Lorenzo, as a translator.

The growth of the Escuela Moderna and the wide distribution of its booklets infuriated the clergy. But for years there was little they could do beyond denouncing the school and pouring vituperation on Ferrer's personal life. The opportunity to restrict Ferrer's work finally came in 1906 when Mateo Morral, a member of Ferrer's staff, threw a bomb at the royal couple of Spain. The assassination attempt miscarried, and Morral committed suicide. Ferrer and the Modern School were held responsible, although the young assassin had explicitly denounced the Catalan educator and Anselmo Lorenzo for their opposition to atentados. Such was the state of Spanish justice at the time that Ferrer was held in jail for an entire year while police professed to be accumulating evidence of his complicity in the Morral attempt. A review of the case by the civil courts established his innocence, and he was released, but he never reopened the original Modern School in Barcelona. ...


Ferrer was murdered by the Spanishstate in the aftermath of the Tragic Week


To the Spanish Revolution archive