History of the Modern Schools

By Susan Spayth Riley

Francisco Ferrer
The Modern School came into existence in downtown New York City in 1911. It was sponsored by the Francisco Ferrer Association and was a logical outgrowth of the activities of this group, established a year earlier. The association was organized by twenty-two anarchists and anarchist sympathizers and sponsored a center located in a building on St. Mark’s Place in the lower east side. The center served as a meeting place for radicals, “free thinkers”, immigrants and bohemians. There were night classes in political philosophy and history, English for recent immigrants. There were lectures on art and literature, discussion groups, arguments, amateur theatricals. Clarence Darrow lectured there at one time and Will Durant spoke on the history of philosophy and gave a series of lectures on sex.

New York City at the time was a place of cultural ferment and intellectual vitality. Radicals of all political persuasions of both the working classes of this country and Europe; middle class educated Americans from the Midwest and New England converged on this urban center to explore new ideas in art, economics, women’s changing role in our culture. New faces and names in art and theatre were everywhere. Industrialization and its effect upon the economy and culture, the miserable living conditions of the workingman and his family in the slums of the city, the problems of the immigrant who needed work and housing – all provided challenging problems for talk and controversy. Communists and anarchists at the opposite ends of the political spectrum and those of varied persuasion in between, waged lively verbal warfare in gatherings in cafes on the lower east side and in the living rooms of the enlightened of Greenwich Village. Konrod Bercovici in his autobiography, “It’s the Gypsy in me” describes a café scene:

“…the political disputes raged from table to table. At one table the Marxists advocated organization, discipline and dictatorship of the proletariat. At the adjoining table the philosophical anarchists shouted back that the world would be no happier a place to live in under socialism than it was under capitalism, and that a policeman with a socialist badge was no less a policeman than one with a capitalist badge. The Marxists, the anarchists shouted, wanted power and not the happiness of mankind.”

Emma Goldman
“The socialists sneered at the anarchists and called them foolish utopians.”

“The philosophical anarchists, the Kropotkinists…didn’t advocate bomb throwing. They believed that people could be educated to a degree that would make every form of constraint superfluous. To achieve that, these anarchists published the best literature, translated the best books from a dozen languages, and organized amateur theatricals, concerts, and lectures…The anarchists of East Broadway believed in the essential goodness of man…”

The Ferrer Association was the center for the exploration of these issues. It was founded in memory, and named after the Spanish educator, Francisco Ferrer, who was killed in Spain in 1909. Ferrer had devoted his life to the establishment of anti-clerical, libertarian schools in Spain. His primary concern was to free schools from the dogma of the Catholic Church. As an anarchist he believed soundly in the idea that education eventually would save mankind. The anarchists of the lower east side, as well as those in other parts of this country and Europe, were his admirers. When Ferrer was falsely accused of conspiracy and executed, a martyr to the cause of anarchism and education, outrage at the injustice of the execution resulted in establishment of the Ferrer Association in New York City.

Activities at the Association headquarters reflected the anarchist belief in the basic goodness of human beings. Pervasive at the Ferrer Center was the conviction that, if provided the nurturing environment and education, individuals would be free to develop maturity and self-reliance so advanced there would be no need for the restrictions of government. And because of the anarchists’ basic respect for the differences of opinion, the Center held its doors open to those of all political persuasions and welcomed verbal contention that was the natural and expected result of such diversity.

Alexander Berkman

It was in ways to quote Dickens, “the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness…” Certainly it was a period of activity, of thought, of bold notions, of change, of nonconformity. Yet the excitement of this vitality paralleled the most abject poverty, misery and frustration for the urban workers and immigrants, inhuman working conditions, long hours, dark, crowded and rat-infested slums. It was the era of the sweatshop.

It was from this intellectual and emotional turmoil of the city that the seeds of Margaret Sanger’s crusade to free women from constant birthing grew, and that drove her forward in her efforts to give women more choice in their family’s size. It was also within these concentric circles of humanitarian and political strivings that the trade union movement gained momentum.

And it was also on this scene that increased efforts were mounted to provide children with a more humanitarian kind of schooling. At the center of all this the Ferrer Association was a haven for the reformers, a meeting place for planning, for socializing, for the consolidation of ideas. It followed naturally that members of the Association should want to start a school so their own children could be provided the benefits of a schooling that would help them grow into thinking, creative individuals equipped to participate in the liberation of mankind.

Thus the Modern School – taking the same name as Ferrer’s schools in Spain Escuela Moderna – opened its doors in October, 1911. The handful of children attending met in several rooms of the Association Center, which by then had moved to East 12th Street from St. Marks Place. Because the building was unsuitable for children with no outdoor facilities for play, it was moved the next year uptown to a house on East 107th Street, a part of Harlem brimming with recent immigrants, and within easy walking distance of Central Park. By mid 1914 the school boasted an enrollment of thirty pupils, a combination of children of working class families and middle class. So successful was it by then it is said that many who applied had to be turned away because of the limitation of space. Teachers and principals of the school in those early days came and went, and though the general ideals of the school were clear, pedagogical philosophy and curriculum were ill defined and somewhat amorphous. The fact that it was not a rich man’s school, and salaries for the teachers were meager, probably had something to do with the high faculty turnover.

Will Durant and the class of the Modern School, 12th Street, New York - 1912

Leaders of the Ferrer movement in the main were not educators – Will Durant was the first principal [ed. actually the third] of the school. Joseph J. Cohen, one of the guiding spirits of the early Modern School movement, conceded in an article entitled, “The Difficulties of the Modern School,” that it was almost impossible for “amateurs” to agree on educational policy, though he did admit there was consensus “on the basic principal that education means the drawing out and development of the potential powers of the child instead of forcing knowledge on the child as is being done in the public schools today.”

In part because of the increased political activities and tension in the city and the intrinsic nature of urban life itself – congestion, traffic, noise – leaders of the Association proposed moving the school to the country. The move was not agreed to without considerable controversy. There were those who viewed the move as an escape from the responsibilities of social change. Revolutionary movements are best carried on in a stimulating, exciting, urban atmosphere, they contended. Others felt that an educational experiment with the best interests of the children in mind would be more successful in a quieter, cleaner, rural setting. The latter group prevailed and the move was made.

This group, led by Harry Kelly who had pushed strongly for the move from the city, negotiated the purchase of 140 acres of farmland 30 miles from New York, near Stelton, New Jersey, where it was planned that the school would become the hub of a community. Plans were to sub-divide the land into acre plots to be sold to each family for $150, allowing for a small margin of profit to go toward maintenance of the school. Some land would be left free for roads. The one building on the land, an old farmhouse, would become the school building and a dormitory would be built adjacent to this for the boarding pupils. Only a mile or so from the Pennsylvania Railroad Station at Stelton, the area would be within commuting distance for those who worked in the city, many of whom were Eastern European Jews skilled in the needle trades.

The Living House

On the morning of May 16, 1915, a gloomy, rainy spring day, the thirty-two students of the Ferrer Modern School were moved by train to the new community at Stelton. Along with them were several hundred adults, supporters of the project. Through the dismal rain they walked from the station to the old farmhouse. The dormitory was incomplete, and those who were already there in charge of preparation were still cleaning out the debris caused by a ceiling of the farmhouse that had fallen the night before. However, in spite of these difficulties the children were eager and spirited. A brief ceremony, including the planting of two lilac bushes and some solemn speeches marked the occasion.

The first summer was a busy one. A water system had to be installed, the dormitory needed finishing and money was short. Yet by the time winter came the Colonists were not ready for it. These were city people, unfamiliar with ways of coping in a rural setting. The problems of that first winter with little heat, an unreliable water supply, were such that only a handful remained ‘till spring. But the next summer brought hope; the Colony had survived the first crucial test. The school was rooted well enough to take hold as the center and heart of a community that was to last almost four decades, strong enough to weather two world wars and the Great Depression.

Stelton Dormitory, Day of Arrival, May 16 1915

The lack of a cohesive philosophy of education for the school when it was founded carried into the early days in New Jersey. Again, there was a large turnover of teachers and principals, few who proved professionally capable of educational leadership for any length of time, but all adhered to the general ideals concerning freedom in education. There were those who took seriously the statements of Francisco Ferrer who had written in summarizing his principles: “The whole value of education consists in respect for the physical, intellectual, and moral faculties of the child. As in science, the only possible demonstration is demonstration by facts; education is not worthy of the name unless it be stripped of all dogmatism…” But these ideas needed to be altered and interpreted for American youngsters, as Ferrer’s schools had been primarily for Spanish adults, emphasizing his crusade against Catholic indoctrination. Freedom in education as a guiding principle is a commendable generalization, but it is not sufficient guidance and is too open-ended to be helpful to the layman undertaking leadership in an experimental, progressive school. Such a generality can be interpreted in too many ways to become a functioning educational philosophy.

Leonard Abbott-Stelton dorm ca. 1918

These confusions remained for a time after the school’s transplant to the country. However, on the whole the move was a stabilizing one. Though there never was a time during the school’s history that was free from controversy, the establishment of the school in the country atmosphere, where the natural elements of rain, sun, cold and mud replaced urban soot and noise, seemed to encourage a more profound search for the basic meaning of libertarian education. There was more thoughtful exploration not only of the ends of the movement, but of its methodology. The Ferrer Modern School of Stelton became more than a mere adjunct of the Ferrer Association and its primarily political concerns. The school became the center of a community, its focus rather than an afterthought. The Ferrer Colony supported the school and the school supported the Colony.

Disagreements in those days concerning educational techniques and routines, the role of the teacher, the place and time for academics, methods of discipline and so forth, were thoroughly debated and often the controversy was heated. Yet it would seem that the threads of anarchist philosophy woven into the very fabric of the foundation of the school and the community saved the school each time contention was on the verge of toppling the structure. The anarchist’s basic faith in the goodness and perfectibility of man, a belief in and respect for diversity of ideas and genuine warmth and friendliness was always able to re-cement the pieces when damage was done. Anarchism at Stelton was more an attitude and a set of values than a political ism. The anarchist concern for the dignity of the individual was in marked contrast to the strident beliefs of the communists of that time who were primarily concerned with a social system, a love for the “masses” but little regard for the individuals who comprised the masses.

From 1915 into the 30’s, during that period when progressive schools were blossoming in other parts of the United States and were hailed by many as a fresh hope for the reform of education, the Modern School remained in the back eddies of this stream. This was perhaps because of its geographic location as well as its social isolation. More than a day school for the children of the urban middle class elite, it was a boarding school as well as a school for families living in the Colony. The offspring of both working and middle class parents attended. The fact that the school was inextricably braided into the mesh of an experiment in community living – an important facet of a viable counter-culture – also served to set it apart from the urban progressive school movement of that day. Too, it was not an educational experiment sparked by professionals joining in from time to time.

Alexis and Elizabeth Ferm

In spite of these unique qualities and its seeming isolation from the urban centers where progressive education was being tried and tested, the Modern School at Stelton was, none-the-less, an important part of the movement. It is significant that during certain periods of history some phenomena – educational or social – appear at different places but at the same time arising from the same root cause, though seemingly unrelated. Such phenomena often occur in isolated locations, separate from one another and without obvious connection but fired by identical concerns. So it was with the Modern School. It was very much a part of the progressive education movement and as such has made a significant contribution to the growth of more open education in England and in this country today.

An interpretation of the ideas of Frederic Fröbel was reflected in the educational philosophy of Alexis and Elizabeth Ferm who first came to the Modern School in 1920; the philosophy of John Dewey was mirrored in many programs at the school and espoused by certain faculty. During the 20’s the school hosted a constant stream of visitors investigating the educational experiment at Stelton. However, teachers and parents associated with the school rarely referred to the institution as “progressive,” but rather as “libertarian.”

Why this was so, I am uncertain. Perhaps it served to emphasize their desire to remain independent, to be uninvolved in the prevailing currents of liberal education thought at the time.

But it remains true, there are very basic ideas common to educational ideology that puts the child and his needs at the center of the curriculum, that allows for the uniqueness of each child, that places value on the development of the child’s creativity, his problem-solving abilities, his resourcefulness and his self esteem; as opposed to the idea that education is simply a body of knowledge to be passed from one generation to another. Whether the term “open,” “libertarian,” or “progressive” is used does not negate the implicit common denominator. The sources of these ideas in one form or another can be uncovered during the past 200 years and are expressed by Rouseau, Tolstoy, Fröbel, Dewey and others. Their expression is now flowering in England and, to a limited extent, in the United States. The school at Stelton made a significant, if not major, contribution to the interpretation and implementation of these educational concepts. The Modern School was in a way like a pebble thrown into a pond – the ripples from which extend and repeat themselves across the surface of the water long after the pebble has sunk below the surface.

*From the Introduction of the book “Recollections from the Modern School Ferrer Colony” by Victor Sacharoff and others, published by the Friends of the Modern School.