Origins and Philosophy

Francisco Ferrer
Francisco Ferrer y Guardia, commonly known as Francisco Ferrer.

Francisco Ferrer was born on a farm near Barcelona on January 10, 1859. He rejected the Catholicism of his parents and became a freethought adherent. He was also a radical republican in his younger days, and in 1885 he fled to France following a failed uprising against the Spanish monarchy.

While in France, Ferrer was heavily influenced by anarchist thought and was inspired by Paul Robin’s libertarian school at Cempuis. Ferrer began tutoring students in the use of the Spanish language. As a tutor he became acquainted with a wealthy French woman named Ernestine Meunie, who left Ferrer half of her estate when she died. He returned to Barcelona in 1901 and used his new money to start a school in Barcelona.

The educational program of Ferrer can be summarized with several points.

  • A focus on the “self-realization” of the pupil through opportunities to develop knowledge and skills, instead of on drilled instruction.
  • Anti-church and anti-state sentiment. In Spain the Catholic Church wielded tremendous political power. Ferrer did not want children to be indoctrinated into the Church program or nationalist education.
  • An anti-authoritarian atmosphere. Teachers were supposed to guide students in learning, not drill uniform lessons. Rigid discipline was not enforced and rooms were not arranged in orderly rows with the teacher having a raised desk. Punishments and grades were not used.
  • An emphasis on the individuality of each student, rather than an established program for everyone to follow.
  • An emphasis on learning through experience and the “integral education” of physical and intellectual activity. Ferrer education included field trips to museums, factories, and the outdoors, as well as arts and crafts. Some Modern School instructors went so far as to discourage reading by younger students.
  • Education was a continuous, lifetime process. Adult classes on subjects like hygiene, health, language, art, philosophy, science, literature, and philosophy took place at Ferrer schools.
  • Education was meant to be made available to everyone, not only the wealthy classes. Ferrer schools catered to working class children and adults by keeping tuition low. They were coeducational both in gender and in the social origins of students.
  • The school was both an instrument of self-development and a lever of social regeneration. Ideological instruction varied among Ferrer schools, but frequently instructors would instill values of liberty, equality, and social justice into students, and Ferrer’s textbooks had a general antistatist, anticapitalist, and antimilitarist line. Schools often included instruction in Esperanto, an international language meant to promote solidarity among different nationalities.
  • Ferrer earned the ire of the authorities for his successful schools of science and subversion. They blamed him for an event known as the Tragic Week (July 26 – August 1, 1909). When the Spanish government called up reserves to fight a colonial war in Morocco, the people of Barcelona responded with a general strike that developed into a popular insurrection and was soon suppressed with overwhelming violence. While Ferrer undoubtedly opposed the war and the government, the Tragic Week was not engineered by any leaders, and certainly not by Ferrer. However, the Spanish government executed Ferrer after a sham trial on October 13, 1909.

    Ferrer became a martyr and his death caused an international outrage, particularly among anarchists and liberal and socialist freethinkers. Interest in his ideas took off worldwide, and became firmly established in the United States. On June 3, 1910 the Francisco Ferrer Association was founded at the meeting place of the Harlem Liberal Alliance. Anarchists took a leading role in establishing Ferrer schools – Alexander Berkman and some of his comrades had already founded a Modern Sunday School before the Liberal Alliance meeting.

    The United States was not a stranger to educational experiments based on libertarian and socialist ideas. Some examples of educational experiments include the school at Robert Owen’s utopian New Harmony community, Josiah Warren’s activities at Spring Hill, A. Bronson Alcott’s Temple School of Boston, and Sunday schools run by German immigrant anarchists in Chicago. Marietta Pierce Johnson’s School of Organic Education, in the Single-Tax colony of Fairhope, Alabama, would even have some staff members in common with later Ferrer schools. In addition, those involved in the Modern School looked to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau for inspiration.

    What distinguished Ferrer schools was their affiliation with the legacy of Ferrer, usually belonging to the Franciso Ferrer Association or its successor (from 1916), the Modern School Association of North America. While the example of Ferrer was interpreted in different ways, his ideals were appealed to as the guiding principles of the Ferrer Modern School movement.

    Further Reading:

    Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School: Famous anarchist Emma Goldman, who would be very active in the Modern School movement, comments on the execution of Ferrer.

    Francisco Ferrer: Active anarchist Voltairine DeCleyre, who translated Ferrer’s essay “The Modern School,” comments on the execution of Ferrer.