I had intended to write this for the centennial anniversary of Francisco Ferrer’s death but forgot about it. Better late than never I suppose.
Many people, radicals included, are not even aware that he existed – or what the Modern School was.
Ferrer was a Spanish revolutionary, it’s still debated on whether he was an anarchist or not though I think it’s fair to call him one since his “ideals” are a comfortable match.
He grew up in an age when the Catholic Church dominated the state and public life. Politically, economically, culturally, sexually it was despotic and its unpopularity was growing. Decades after Ferrer’s death another infamous Spanish anarchist and revolutionary, Buenaventura Durruti, remarked on the gutting and burning of churches during their revolution that, “The only church that illuminates is a burning church.”
In context of the social condition of the Spanish working and peasant classes, this comment makes perfectly good sense. They were rebelling against their oppressor.
When considering Ferrer’s openly stated thoughts on rebellion and the Church, it is no wonder he was killed by the state:
Rebellion against oppression is merely a question of statics, of equilibrium. Between one man and another who are perfectly equal, as is said in the immortal first clause of the famous Declaration of the French Revolution ("Men are born and remain free and equal in rights") there can be no social inequality. If there is such inequality, some will tyrannise, the others protest and hate. Rebellion is a levelling tendency, and to that extent natural and rational, however much it may be discredited by justice and its evil companions, law and religion.
I venture to say quite plainly: the oppressed and the exploited have a right to rebel, because they have to reclaim their rights until they enjoy their full share in the common patrimony.
And the “Programme” he wrote on the Modern School goes further in explaining his objective:
The mission of the Modern School is to secure that the boys and girls who are entrusted to it shall become well-instructed, truthful, just, and free from all prejudice.
To that end the rational method of the natural sciences will be substituted for the old dogmatic teaching. It will stimulate, develop, and direct the natural ability of each pupil, so that he or she will not only become a useful member of society, with his individual value fully developed, but will contribute, as a necessary consequence, to the uplifting of the whole community.
It will instruct the young in sound social duties, in conformity with the just principle that "there are no duties without rights, and no rights without duties."
He was openly declaring the intent of sowing the seeds of not just discontent with “old dogmatic teaching” but that of sexism, class warfare, and social inequalities in general.
He realized that teaching children was one of the most radical things he could do to overcome old hatred and prejudices, and that their aspirations for change “must not seek to gather fruit until it has been produced by cultivation, nor must it attempt to implant a sense of responsibility until it has equipped the conscience with the fundamental conditions of such responsibility. Let it teach the children to be men; when they are men, they may declare themselves rebels against injustice.”
He opposed isolating girls from boys. Girls should not be given a separate education from the boys. He knew that the process of segregation was used to keep women down:
A man must suffer from ophthalmia of the mind not to see that, under the inspiration of Christianity, the position of woman is no better than it was under the civilisations; it is, indeed, worse, and has aggravating circumstances. It is a conspicuous fact in our modern Christian society that, as a result and culmination of our patriarchal development, the woman does not belong to herself; she is neither more nor less than an adjunct of man, subject constantly to his absolute dominion hound to him–it may be–by chains of gold. Man has made her a perpetual minor. Once this was done, she was bound to experience one of two alternatives: man either oppresses and silences her, or treats her as a child to be coaxed–according to the mood of the master.
In 1906 Francisco was accused of participating in an assassination attempt on the King of Spain and subsequently the school was shut down. He was released uncharged after more than a year of imprisonment. He left only to return to Spain to continue his work by publishing The Origins and Ideals of the Modern School.
During an uprising in the summer of 1909 dubbed Tragic Week Ferrer was swept up by the military and tried in a kangaroo court.
On October 13, 1909 Francisco Ferrer, at the age of fifty, was killed by a firing squad.
In what could best be called a prophesy Ferrer wrote in Chapter III of his book, I Accept The Responsibility:
For my part, I consider that the most effective protest and the most promising form of revolutionary action consist 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 regeneration of society.
Following the news of his death many Modern School’s were started around the world, most notably in the New England area of the U.S. They flourished for a time but when state repression aimed at anarchists clamped down on their activities, and when World War Two reared its ugly head (a war that divided many over whether to support the Allies against the fascists), the schools found it difficult to thrive and died out.
Many heroes were made out of Ferrer’s work. Students and teachers looked back fondly. Some lost and some forgotten. The anarchist historian, Paul Avrich revived many of their stories in his book, The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States. But a century has past and his work is still as important and radical as it was when it got him killed.