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Monday, January 07, 2008

Francisco Ferrer and Modern Schools

I had written earlier about how most children have a very biased upbringing where their outlook is largely shaped by the religious, economic and social prejudices of parents, teachers and everyone around. Francisco Ferrer, an anarchist, had conceptualized Modern Schools in Spain to develop a new generation of individuals free from such bias, aware of the injustices that exist in the name of religion and nationalism, and possessing a multi-dimensional and rational outlook in life.

Several ideas of the Modern School, that were considered revolutionary in the early 1900s, have now become an essential feature of most non-theocratic schools. All modern schools insisted on co-education of boys and girls to prevent any gender-linked feelings of inferiority or superiority. The schools also insisted on having a mix of students from all economic classes so that class hatred was not ingrained in the children. The fees were set in accordance with a sliding scale with students from lower income families paying minimal amounts.

But several principles of Modern schools will still be considered radical. The schools rejected all faiths and their teachings and propagated a morality that was free from religious dogma and was more a result of the inherent good in all individuals. When it came to teaching of mathematics, the school refrained from any mention of profits or wages to prevent conditioning of the child’s mind in the mercantile system. The schools also refrained from advocating any political view as Ferrer believed that politics put greater emphasis on the powers of a select few to bring in any progress if at all instead of reinforcing the capabilities of every individual.

One of the most revolutionary concepts practiced by the Modern Schools was to not have performance ratings for the students. According to Ferrer, the objective of education, particularly at a school level, was to equip every individual completely with the required skills and not to filter individuals for rigid job definitions. Absence of rewards and punishments has been one of the founding pillars of anarchist schools as these were perceived to be ways to create new inequalities. Examinations were therefore only used as a means to identify areas of improvement.

Another unique concept was the provision for Sunday lectures and night lectures at many of the Modern Schools. These lectures were targeted at both the students and their parents and focused on a range of topics: hygiene to progressive discourses on ill-effects of superstition and gender equality. These lectures were also supplemented by the school magazine that was also targeted at spreading a liberal and rational outlook among the students and parents.

Apart from the intense political and religious backlash against this movement with anarchist roots, the schools had difficulties in sourcing dogma-free textbooks. For this, they had to rely on their internal efforts which called for a lot of resources. But the biggest problem for modern schools was to source quality teachers who were free from any reactionary attitude. They also had natural constraints on expansion as they were not backed up by the usual sources of financial support for primary education: missionary churches and governments. As such, modern schools were a short lived affair. They lasted in Spain for only one year and stopped after Ferrer’s arrest. They had a slightly longer life in North America and a few schools are still open in Canada and the US.

For more details on Ferrer’s ideas on the Modern School, please check out this link.

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