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The Ferrer Modern School, (n.d.) by William J. Durant, Principal New York: The Francisco Ferrer Association.

The Ferrer Modern School

      WHY are most children-- practically all children-unhappy at school? Have you ever thought of that? You have observed the fact, let us hope; if not, ask any public school teacher about it. But have you inquired into the causes of this unhappiness? I warrant not one in a hundred of you has thought ten minutes about the subject; none the less you will probably put me down as a fool when I say that if you can answer tins question and solve the problem which it involves, you will have done much more for your fellow men than all other reformers combined can do. Let us see.

      If you ask me why children are unhappy at school I should ask you what you meant by unhappiness, for I conceive this to be the first question which the teacher must answer if lie is to be a rational educator. What is happiness, what makes it, what destroys it, why is it essential to proper education? To answer these questions is to arrive at the libertarian theory of education and to justify the existence of the Modern School.

      Happiness is the free play of the instincts. Free play: the play of any instinct must, if happiness is to continue, be impeded only by coming into conflict with a more imperative instinct-which is to say that repression is consistent with happiness only when it is self-repression. Of the instincts:---but what is an instinct? Instinct is unconsciously purposive action: genetically, an instinct is an impulse to act in a certain way, inherited from organisms that have regularly, or at least repeatedly, acted in that way. The instincts chiefly involved in the making or marring of happiness are, I should say, these four: the self-preservation, the inquisitive, the sexual and the gregarious instincts--the will to live, to learn, to mate and to associate. Nine-tenths of your daily actions are reducible. I should offer to show, to one or other of these four cardinal instincts; and these four, in turn, are themselves reducible to the one fundamental instinct of pleasure: the will to pleasure--and not, as Schopenhauer would have it. the will to live, nor, as Nietzsche would have it, the will to power-is the pre-dominant instinct, the predominant organic desire, at the source and bottom of every action of every life.

      Well, I propose to take these four instincts one by one, and tell you, as briefly as I can. why I think their free play constitutes happiness and their frustration prevents or destroys it.

      You may, if you choose, suppose the self-preservative instinct to enter only into matters of life and deafly but as I interpret it I should include under it all matters of physical and mental health, however trivial. So I should attribute to the impeded play of the self-preservative instinct the unhappiness that comes of business disappointments and failures; and contrariwise I should say that it is in the free and prosperous play of this same instinct that we are made happy by such cosmically trifling matters as a promotion, a raise in salary, a fine opera, or the prospect (not the aftermath) of a "big meal". Now why does a child want to move about in school, or play, or shout? Because enforced inactivity, enforced (if I may so speak) immobility, enforced silence, are opposed to health, come into conflict with the instinct of self preservation. Do you remember your own schoolboy days? Well, were you perfectly comfortable sitting erect, "shoulders thrown back, hips well to the front," as the physical training manuals put it? Obviously, to enforce such rigidity is to fly in the face of an unconquerable instinct; is it any wonder that the child is made unhappy, that the teacher is made unhappy (can one be happy in enforcing what one knows to be ridiculous?), that the whole disciplinary system breaks down into a patent pedagogic absurdity? Do you object that this system of repression is necessary because of the large number of pupils, that where classes number thirty or forty or fifty you must have order, even if it involves the unhappiness of both the teacher and the child? The answer is simple: Let twenty pupils attend for two hours in the morning and the other twenty attend for two hours in the afternoon, and let the morning class of one week be the afternoon class of the other; that would shorten the working day of both the teacher and the pupils (the term applies, as things are now, to the latter as well as to the former), it would provide sufficient time for all the abstract work which the student needs for one day, and it would increase the teacher's comfort and efficiency.

      More important in the education of the child than this instinct of self-preservation is the inquisitive instinct, the instinct of curiosity. We get hardly the real unadulterated flavor of tills instinct in the direct questions of the child; we find it, rather, if we have sense enough to see it, in the little experimental actions of infancy, with their sometimes painful, but always educative results: we find it, above all, I should say, in the child's involuntarily inarticulate curiosity as to the mysteries of sex and life. So baby sees an object and tries to grasp it; it hurts itself, let us say, it is burnt, or it falls out of its cradle-it learns. Or it hears its elders speak, and imitates the sounds purely out of curiosity to see what the subjective and objective results will be; so it achieves the marvel of articulate speech.

      You may tell me that these matters concern not the teacher, but the parent. I am convinced that they concern both, and that the teacher should not hesitate to give any child who asks for them the plain physiologic facts about the transmission of life. But without pressing that point I ask you to consider that aside from the topic of sex the teacher is forced by the present educational system to repress the child's inquisitive instinct at every turn. The child is given to understand, to begin with, that it must ask only such questions as are related to the topic in hand-that one item is sufficient in itself to condemn any system of education which defends it. But more than that, the child comes to feel, after no long time, that to ask the teacher a question is to run the risk of displeasing her, even if only because an answer involves more or less of a digression. And so, in three cases out of four, the child remains silent, is displeased, loses interest, does not learn as it would learn were its curiosity satisfied.

      That the child suffers, again, by the undue repression of its sexual instinct, is no longer a disputed proposition. "Where do I come from?" asks the child, puzzling at once both theology and science; "who made me?" We lie to it as well as we can; we mutter infantile futility about storks and Indians and doctors with a whim for bringing babies to unwilling parents; but we know, every one of us, that it were better to tell the truth at once than to wait for it to come later from sources that defile it in the giving. But we are so morally corrupt that we look upon sex as an indecent thing; we forget that to the mind of the child, undefiled by the horrible absurdities of our immoral moral code, the truth about its body will seem indeed a beautiful truth,--that its body was once part of its mother's body, flesh of her flesh and bone of her bone. And then, one day, we wake up uncomfortably to the fact that our child is passing through the same deplorable stage of sex development through which we ourselves passed,-the onanistic stage; and it strikes us that had we told the truth at once we might have mitigated the ravages of that vice by forewarning and instruction. But we go on making fools of ourselves in this matter generation after generation. And, not content with that error, we teach our youth that extra-marital intercourse between lovers is sinful; again we repress, and again we precipitate evils worse than those we think to guard against. For consider for a moment the economic impracticability of early marriage today, and you perceive that the prohibition of extra-marital intercourse between lovers necessarily entails prostitution. Repression and repression and repression; that is the history of the sexual instinct in practically every man and woman; and almost always with the same result,-excess. When will we learn that honesty is the best policy?

      We come to the gregarious instinct-the instinct of social association. To nine men out of ten, I imagine, the most intolerable thing in the world is enforced loneliness. Have you ever noticed that a dog will rest peacefully for hours in a room with his master or one of the family, but will get up and show discomfort if left absolutely alone? I don't think we've evolved out of that yet, do you? We still whistle or smoke to keep ourselves company in the dark; we still go where the crowd goes and, for that matter, do pretty much as the crowd does; we still take pleasure in the society of friends and mourn when one is lost to us. Well, do you think it is different with the child? Why do you suppose one child in school wants to whisper to another? Why does Tommy pull the afraid of Mamie's hair, or kick Sam's foot, or pass a note to Harry? Because Tommy wants association, social communication; because Tommy can't get along without some kind of social intercourse. Can you? Unfortunately, capitalism is not so strong yet as to enforce silence in its factories and offices; if it did you might know more about the unhappiness of the child at school. Some day when you feel particularly well, gather about you in one room as many friends as you can get for the occasion, seat yourself in the middle of them and then let every one of you-preserving absolute silence-read a book, or a succession of books, in which you take no interest, to which, indeed, you are most heartily, most violently, hostile; at the end of three hours you will be an ardent advocate of libertarian education.

      Let me sum up the argument. Happiness is the instincts; hut the educational methods now in vogue play of the instincts; therefore, those methods are the happiness of the child. But the happiness of the to its proper development in mind and character; therefore, those methods must go. I do not ask you to admit that; I ask you to think it over.

      But if you admit that even in part you will ask me, What are you going to substitute for these methods now in force? Libertarian education. And what do I mean by libertarian education? I mean by that the development of the body, character and mind of the child solely by means of the free play of its instincts. That must not be taken as an authoritative definition representing, on this point, the mind of those who are supporting- libertarian education in New York City. But it is the definition on which my application of the theory rests. And now something- about that application of the theory.

      The Modern School was opened in October last year by an organization-the Francisco Ferrer Association winch had been formed and had existed chiefly, if not solely, to establish such a school. The association pledged itself to keep all isms out of the school, and though I am a Socialist, I have made it a point never to impress my views upon the children, but rather to let them arrive at original views upon the basis of their own observations, stopping them here and there where I could show them that their premises were untrue or their reasoning illogical. The class is open without charge to all students, whether they be of conservative or of radical families, and visitors are permitted at any time to enter the classroom and see the libertarian theory in operation.

      The class just now consists of nine pupils in regular attendance, ranging- in age from 4 to 10. They do not assemble at any given hour; they come when they wish to come and go when they wish to go. Last Monday Gorky came at 7.30, Stuart at 8, Oscar at 9, Rion at 9:30, Amour at 9:45. Madga and Sophie at 10, and Ruth and Revolte at ll. That day was exceptional in its demonstration of the "liberty of assemblage" on most days we are all together before 10.

      Each of the pupils has his or her blank book, in which the arithmetic, the writing and the occasional drawing are done. In these blank books every morning I write certain examples and problems; whether they are done or not, whether they arc done in the morning or in the afternoon, is left to the choice of the pupil. Strange to say, the pupils- -with occasional exceptions, of course" -not only do the examples, but often ask for more. You would be surprised to see how readily you can get a thing done by a child if you ask, and do not command. Try to force a child to do a thing and lie will either refuse to do it or lie will do it ill; ask him to do it, give him the reason and let him see that it is entirely his concern, not yours, as to whether or not he is to do it, and you will find him not only doing it, but doing it well. That is, of course, the merest rudiment of pedagogic psychology.

      The teaching, necessarily, is individual; and especially so in reading. Where new arithmetical processes are taught it often enough happens that more than one pupil wishes to attend; but to ask the other pupils to attend when one pupil is reading is to ask that which you will never get, even by compulsion. My experience in the public schools has convinced me that when you think the class is attending to a reader it is really attending to the story, or to something else; the great majority of the pupils are reading aloud, for the obvious reason that he who reads aloud must read more slowly than he who reads to himself. And where the reading lesson is different for each pupil such enforced attention would be doubly absurd. There are some in the class who have had to begin at the beginning in reading; these, after some experimenting, I have taught by the word method, with good results. Spelling is not taught at all; it is taken for granted that spelling conies with reading, not with the study of a spelling- book. How did yon learn to spell? Was it by studying the speller? I should wager that not one-fifth, not one tenth, of the words you know how to spell were contained in the spelling-books you studied at school or elsewhere; nine-tenths of your knowledge of spelling comes from the reading you have done. To see a word correctly spelled, to see it again and again and again, is to achieve for yourself a visual memory of the word-a memory which, aroused by association, comes to your assistance when you wish to use the word yourself. That is the way I learned to spell, though I have been in school all my life. And the boys and girls of the modern school will be good spellers because they are going to be great readers---because they are going to have interesting books put in their way day after day until, even by mere reading, they evolve into educated men and women.

      The history lesson takes tile form of a biographical narrative constructed from various sources and put into a form which catches the pupil's interest. Several of our many visitors have been taken off their feet, when they entered the classroom, by being asked, without preliminary ado, "Are you an Indian or a white man?" For the boys--even the girls-of the class have made themselves, so to speak, a part of the History of the country; they have put themselves into the place of the national heroes, fought with them or, not seldom, against them; and in the yard, when we go down to play--which is not at any set hour, but whenever we wish---the scenes which have been described in the course of the narrative are re-enacted, sometimes not without bloodshed. So we played, one day, the drama of John Smith and Pocahontas, with myself as the Captain and the class as Indians bent upon destroying me; so we played, time and again, Indian and white man warring for supremacy in the new world. You wonder, perhaps, that this mighty interest in war is not opposed, even repressed; but if you do, you forget that the individual must pass, in his development, through the great phases of development through which the race itself has passed. To ask the boy to repress his interest in war and battle is to ask him to be untrue to himself; it is to fly in the face of the libertarian principle; it is to confess at the outset that the libertarian principle is not sound, let that wholesome barbarian instinct take its part in the moulding of the child; it will work itself out sooner in our children than it did in ourselves-if it has worked itself out in ourselves. And after all, we do not want our children to be too soft, too meek; there are times when it is not virtue to keep the peace; there are times when a little of the Nietzschean spirit would serve us well and bring us nearer to liberation. That does not mean violence, fistic or other; it means strength of character, force of personality, and the readiness to suffer all things for principle's sake.

      With the history we read stories illustrating' the life and customs of our ancestors, of the Indians, of the Eskimos, etc.: and we have gone to the Museum of Natural History to see exhibits that have helped us in that study. Later we intend to take all-day trips to the score of educative institutions in the city; and we have, of course, already begun to utilize the public parks as places of interest and recreation. We want to visit as many factories as we can, and see how the things are made that we wear, and use and eat; but I find it very hard to get permission to bring the class into such establishments. There is scarcely anything dietetically more educative than to see just how the meats, the candy and the beverages which we eat or drink are made or prepared. If you can get permission for the class, or for the older members of the class, to visit the establishment with which you are connected, it would be a help and a favor indeed if the per- mission were secured. Notification of such permission could be sent to me at the school, 104 East 12th street.

      Geography, too, is studied in connection with history and occasionally in connection with current events. When we read about Leif Ericson we looked up the map to trace the course of his vessel; when we read about Columbus we made ourselves at least temporarily acquainted with the routes followed by the traders before Columbus, and with the route proposed by the great navigator himself; when we read that the Puritans had Lent their Indian captives to the Bermudas to be sold as slaves, we saw where the Bermudas lay; and when we spoke of the Lawrence strike, or the trip of the suffragettes to Albany, we found Lawrence and Albany, traced the routes from New York, and learned something about the transportation facilities between the places. And when an accident happened to my train on the New Jersey Central we talked for quite an hour about the geography of New Jersey, about I lie railroads that cross the State, and about this or that place to which one or another of the pupils had gone. That is the way we are imbibing geography; we are making no pretense at memorizing lists of capitals and large cities, imports and exports, and other thing's, that you and I have for- gotten. One thing I lack in this matter of geography, and that is the experience of travel; I feel that the man who has never traveled can hardly be inspired by geography, or inspire others thereby. I wish I could get people who have traveled, and who have interesting stories to tell, to come and tell those stories to my boys and girls; I picture some old sea-captain recounting his exploits, with the children hanging upon his neck and arms as they hung on mine yesterday when I told them of George Washington's trip to Fort Duquesne. And though it is too late for me to remedy my own defect now, I think I should see to it, were the world run to suit me, that all teachers of geography should be well-traveled men and women.

      There are other lessons: industry lessons, in which we learn how shoes, books, and other things are made; writing, singing, and even piano, lessons, whenever they are wanted; and drawing lessons not only occasionally, hut regularly, every Wednesday afternoon, under the direction of Miss Amy Londoner, who has studied under Robert Henry. Here perhaps more than in any other field the initiative of the pupil is brought out; there is no copying of other pictures, nor any direction to draw this and not that; the pupil is given full liberty to draw whatever It wishes to draw, to use pencil or ink or crayon, to draw on paper or on the blackboard.

      You want to know, perhaps, when the grammar lesson is given. It is not given at all. Grammar is taught not at times and in special lessons, but all day; when mistakes in grammar occur they are corrected, and the reason given if there is a reason--and that is all the grammar we have. We learn good English as we learn to spell-by it better yet, of course, by writing. But there never lived a man who learned good English by studying grammar. Do you know one?

      The afternoons are generally spent in the little carpenter work- shop which has been fitted up for the class; there yon may see and hear the children hammering and sawing and planing away with all the creative earnestness in the world. At 3 o'clock I try to send them home, with very occasional success; they want to stay, and do stay, sometimes till s o'clock. Did you ever he fore hear of a school where the children came too early and stayed too late?

      What about discipline? We have none. Discipline means some sort of compulsion, doesn't it?--and the libertarian pedagogue has to get along as well as lie can without using compulsion. If reasoning is discipline, then we have much discipline; for inevitably there arise quarrels, and then we hold informal court and plead our cases, and have sentence pronounced upon us, that we are wrong or right or both at once. At first, because the children were unused to liberty, the liberty was abused; it took some time to make the children see that the liberty which infringes upon the liberty of another is tyranny. They had never been in a school in which they had been allowed to talk, to sit or stand where they chose, to read or write or play as they wished; and now that the strange freedom was given there came times when the talking interfered with a lesson, or the play became too rough; did the libertarian theory break down at such points? Not at all; two weeks of patient reasoning made each pupil see just what liberty was, and what tyranny; and now I have no trouble at all with any question of "discipline." Of course, if the children who came to me had been brought up on the libertarian principle there would have been no trouble even at the beginning; as the matter stands I consider it no little argument for that principle that I have found it capable of solving all disciplinary difficulties so thoroughly that such difficulties no longer exist with me--whereas in the public schools in which I have taught those problems never for ten minutes ceased to exist.

      I am asked every now and then whether I think the libertarian theory can be said to be successful. I have always refused to give either an absolute affirmative or an absolute negative to that question; but now, fortified by experience, I want to put myself on record as convinced that the libertarian theory has come to stay, that it can he made to work, and that it is the theory on which must be based the education of the future. I feel that in our little school in 12th street the theory has already proved itself capable of standing the trial of actual test by practice; and you have no conception of the difficulties, financial and otherwise, under which the experiment has been made. If the Modern School ever closes its doors, if it ever gives up the fight it is making for a rational education, it will not be because the libertarian theory will have been shown to be impracticable, but because the experiment has been made under the adverse circumstances which always attend so revolutionary an enterprise; the failure of the school, if the school ever fails, will be the fault not of the theory for which it stands, but of the manner in which--we are not all Ferrers or Faures-- and the circumstances under which that theory has been applied.

      One last point. Those of you who have read Spencer's interesting book on education will remember that the philosopher defines education as the proper preparation of the individual for life; and that definition, as I understand it, implies such preparation of the individual as will fit him for his future environment. Now, then, does the libertarian method of education fit the individual for his environment? That is a fatal objection to the theory, isn't it?-- if we must fit the individual for his environment! What about making him unfit for it?--might not that be one way of bringing about such an opposition between the individual and the environment as would result in the improvement, or at least the alteration, of the environment? Is not all progress a conquest, of environment? So I think, so the theory would have it; and I am quite ready to admit that the Modern School is not going to turn out human cogs for the wheels of the capitalistic machine. The Modern School product is going to be different ; lie is going to be imbued with the idea, and accustomed to the full enjoyment, of liberty; and if he does not get such liberty from society, then society must look for trouble. Therein, perhaps, lies our hope; not alone in the pressure of wage slavery will be born the greater commonwealth for which we strive, but in the moulding of men and women who will light for the things they will have found to lie true. For we, in our school here, are trying to make not martyrs, but fighters; not saints, but heroes; and we think it is these girls and boys who will lead the new generation in the struggle for the liberation of the human soul. Free the child, and the child will free the race.


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