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Alternatives to neoliberalism: Anarchist schools in the United States and Winnipeg

The Modern School movement of the early 20th century provides many lessons for today’s education activists


First class of students at the Vancouver Peretz School, 1945. Ben Chud is the teacher; he was also the school’s first principal. Photo courtesy the Jewish Museum & Archives of BC.

“Between 1910 and 1960 a remarkable educational experiment took place,” writes historian Paul Avrich in The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States, regarding anarchist educational centres in North America during the first half of the twentieth century.

While the humanistic educational philosophy of the Modern School movement—centered on respect for the dignity of students—was groundbreaking, educational workers today are likely to both recognize it within themselves and take inspiration from it.

Additionally, the political context of anarcho-syndicalism from which many of these schools emerged is worth revisiting as a viable means for those who care about public education. These models, after all, have the potential to positively transform the anti-democratic administrative power structure within schools, as well as the austerity of neoliberal governments outside of them.

Educational Philosophy

The American Modern School drew significant influence from radical educator Francisco Ferrer, and modeled its practices on his Escuela Moderna, established in Barcelona in 1901. Ferrer was executed by the Spanish state in 1909 for his radical beliefs and practices following a kangaroo court ruling.

This drew protest from notable figures of the period such as George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, and Arthur Conan Doyle, and it was in response to Ferrer’s death that the Francisco Ferrer Association was founded in New York City, setting the American Modern School movement into motion. One key aspect of the movement was its respect for students, as characterized by Ferrer, who “stressed the dignity and rights of the child, encouraging warmth, love, and affection in place of conformity and regimentation.”

Though mostly based on Ferrer’s educational model, the Modern School movement in the United States was also influenced by radical American educators who organized and taught earlier in the nineteenth century.

Francisco Ferrer (1859–1909) was a radical freethinker, anarchist, and educationist behind a network of secular, private, libertarian schools in and around Barcelona.

Educator Josiah Warren was one such American radical who, in the early 1830s in Ohio, “instructed boys in a variety of trades” and “taught them more in one week… than they would have learned in a year by the common method of enforced instruction.” Warren’s approach to education was that of an equal to his students: “I shall act as their friend rather than as their master.”

In 1834, A. Bronson Alcott, founder of the Temple School in Boston, Massachusetts, believed that pupils should be, “allowed to sing, dance, and make noise without fear of corporal punishment. Abandoning the birch rod, Alcott gave the children love”.

According to Avrich, “another partisan of Alcott’s was Henry David Thoreau, who was an influential figure among the proponents of libertarian education. Thoreau resigned his position in the Concord Public School rather than use physical force against the students.”

Famously, Leo Tolstoy would also have a major influence on the American Modern School movement. Tolstoy, at his Russian Yasnaya Polyana School in the 1860s, “favored an ‘unconscious education,’ a natural process in which the children are not even aware that they are being educated.”

Founded in 1907, a more immediate precursor of the American Modern School was Marietta Pierce Johnson’s School of Organic Education, which sought “the development of sincerity, the freedom of children to live their lives straight out, no double motives, children never subjected to the temptation to cheat, even to appear to know when they do not know.” The influence of these early radical educators is clear when one considers the words and practices of teachers from the Modern Schools.

According to Jim Dick of the Mohegan Modern School in Crompond, New York, good teachers, “do not impress their individuality upon the child; they try to discover that of the child and develop it.” Bayard Boyesen of New York City’s Ferrer School said that, “education is a process of drawing out, not of driving in,” and that we must treat students, “not as one who will enter life when he leaves our hands, but as one who has entered life already.” At the Stelton Modern School in New Jersey, Elizabeth Ferm attributed her success to, “a constant loosening of the reins.”

Many of the Modern Schools’ teachers held their educational beliefs until the very end. Consider Nellie Dick, who, involved in both the Mohegan and Stelton School, said at age 86: “My views on education have remained essentially the same… just being human to the children.” Ferrer Center music instructor Manuel Komroff echoed Nellie Dick’s sentiment at a reunion in 1974: “it was because of this Academy Humane that many of our lives have been wonderfully enriched.”

However, not all of those who taught in the Modern Schools would look back on the experience as Dick and Komroff did. At the Ferrer School, for instance, teacher John Coryell, “remained only a few weeks, departing after one of the Bercovici boys climbed onto a windowsill and threatened to jump out.” While these antics could at times be charming, such as when one little girl, “insisted on skipping rope noisily while [her teacher] Durant expounded on the evolution of man,” the exhausting schedule in some cases of seven days a week year-round, caused a heavy turnover of personnel.

Modern School Student Success

The Modern School movement produced positive results for its students. For instance, with the guidance of instructor Bobby Hutchinson of the Ferrer School, student Emma Cohen, by her own choice, read astronomy throughout the school year, an experience she found “terribly exciting.” Upon entering high school, Emma “made a brilliant showing, leading [her] class in all subjects.” Emma graduated as valedictorian, eventually becoming a child psychologist after studying at Radcliffe College, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Ferrer School instructor Will Durant gave each of his pupils a notebook with reading and arithmetic materials; whether they completed them that day, or indeed at all, was up to each child. To Durant’s delight, “the children not only did the assignments but often asked for more.” Furthermore, at the carpentry shop for his students, “At three o’clock, Durant tried to send them home, with only occasional success: ‘they want to stay, and do stay, sometimes till five o’clock. Did you ever hear of a school where the children came too early and stayed too late?’”

At the Children’s Playhouse Modern School in New York, run by Alexis and Elizabeth Ferm, it was observed that, “many of the children were fond of drawing and took ‘the greatest pride in each other’s work, boasting of it almost as if it were their own.’” Folk singer Joan Baez, in commenting on her mother’s experience at the Stelton School, said that, “There was one school she was sent to which she loved.”

Other students who were to achieve prominence later in life attributed their success to the colony: “It was at Stelton that Ethel Butler, a dancer with the Martha Graham troupe, discovered her life’s vocation.” Edgar Tafel built such interesting structures that his teacher predicted he would become an architect, and indeed he afterward assisted Frank Lloyd Wright, “in designing the famous Johnson Building in Racine. His years at the school, he believes, had been crucial to his imaginative development.”

This approach to learning could only be fostered as teachers and students were treated as equals. Eva Bein of the Ferrer School would later recollect that her teachers used to discuss things with them, “things you would think pertinent only to adults. They really respected us as people.’” Sadly, for Eva, “the transition to public school had fearful results. I once made a blotch with the pen-point on the paper and the teacher slapped me in the face.”

The Modern School movement punctuates the fact that horrific experiences in past education systems, such as the experiences of Indigenous residential school survivors in both the United States and Canada, were not simply a “product of the times.” In fact, there were very humane and progressive Modern Schools operating at the time.

Students in the second-year class at the Workmen’s Circle High School, New York, 1922. Source: Kinderland, December 1922. Courtesy of Stanford University Libraries, Department of Special Collections.

The Modern School Classroom

The classroom of Ferrer Modern School teachers John and Abbey Coryell consisted, in addition to a piano and large work table, of “small movable tables and folding chairs, so that the room can change its form according to the work of the class.” The Organic School in Fairhope, Alabama, “had no desks, and classes were often held out of doors.” Classes at the Stelton Modern School were also held outside, with novelist Mike Gold commenting that, “the whole green tract is their school.” At the Brook Farm in Massachusetts, each child “was expected to work a few hours every day at some form of manual labour.”

Within the Modern School movement was an interesting debate regarding the role that books and reading should play within the classroom, summarized by Joseph Neef, of the Pestalozzian school near Philadelphia, who asserted that his pupils would, “read no book, till they are able not only to comprehend what they read, but also distinguish perfectly well good from bad, truth from falsehood […] all nature shall be their book, and facts their instructors.” Accordingly, book learning there was deferred until the age of ten.

While many characteristics of classrooms within the Modern School movement were different and interesting, many other aspects would have been familiar to us now. For instance, students at the Ferrer Modern School were taken on “frequent outings and picnics, visits to zoos and museums,” and to the studios of artists. Students staged their own productions in the Ferrer Centre’s Free Theatre, and produced their own magazine containing poems and illustrations, “the first of a long series of magazines that was to continue at Stelton and Mohegan.”

Sexual education was also taught in early twentieth century Modern Schools, with the belief that “the truth about the 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.” Years later one pupil commented on the success of this approach by remarking that “there was an attempt to have you not feel ashamed of your body.” Instruction in hygiene was also provided, at the Ferrer Modern School by Dr. Liber, who “gave a ‘long and passionate lecture,’ with a personal demonstration, on how to clean one’s teeth.” Student Emma Cohen recollected that, “for anyone his age to be so absorbed in a proceeding so elementary seemed to us remarkable.”

Winnipeg and the Modern School Movement

The American Modern School movement was linked to Winnipeg by the fraternal society called the Arbeiter Ring, or Workmen’s Circle. As Avrich notes, “schools were started in New York by German socialists and (beginning in 1906) by the Jewish Workmen’s Circle. According to Harry Kelly, he and Alexander Berkman taught in the Workmen’s Circle schools before the Ferrer movement was launched.”

Speaking with Canadian Dimension, Roz Usiskin, former President of the Jewish Historical Society of Western Canada and a past graduate of a Peretz school, explains that the Arbeiter Ring “had meetings where they would send delegates to New York; the decision was made in the United States that the Arbeiter Ring should start Schuls wherever they had organizations.”

Writing for the Manitoba Historical Society, Usiskin documents that in Winnipeg, the Workmen’s Circle had three branches operating in the early 1900s out of the Liberty Temple on Pritchard Avenue and Salter Street in Winnipeg’s North End. The three branches were branch number 169, The Revolutionary Marxists, branch number 506, The National Element, and branch number 564, The Anarchists.

In Jewish Life and Times, Volume VIII: Jewish Radicalism in Winnipeg, 1905-1960, D.I. Victor explains that “as a result of the diversity of socialist factions, there were at various times five separate, and to a great extent, different Jewish radical schools functioning in Winnipeg’s North End.”

In 1917, explains Victor, “the Radical Socialists broke away from the [more traditional] Peretz School and organized the Liberty Temple School on Pritchard Avenue.” After this, another internal split occurred between sympathizers of the Russian Revolution and more moderate Social Democrats, and thus a Revised Yiddish school called the Arbeiter Ring School was established in 1921, which within six years saw an in increase in enrollment to 260 pupils.

This Arbeiter Ring School took the principles of the Arbeiter Ring as the basis of its educational curriculum. The syllabus included subjects such as the Yiddish language and literature, Jewish history, and history of working class movements. Victor comments that “Radical organizations, labour unions, a library, fraternal organizations, and a very active Muter Farein [mother’s club] grouped around the school.”

Continued differences of opinion within the Arbeiter Ring School on whether to support or criticize the Soviet Union could not be solved despite an attempt in 1930 to do so by changing the name of the school to the Arbeiter Ring Liberty Temple School. While it was hoped that this would legitimize both strains of socialism that existed within it, there was a final break and the school split in two in 1932, crucially with the more pro-Soviet sect gaining possession of the assets.

According to Victor, “Starting in 1932, the Arbeiter Ring carried on with its own school, first in rented quarters and later in its own home at 240 Manitoba Avenue with the help of a small group of faithful supporters: Social Democrats, Anarchists, Bundists, and other elements of the Jewish working class who believed in Yiddish socialist schooling but who bitterly opposed the positions embodied in the Liberty Temple School.” The Arbeiter Ring School only lasted a short time. It closed in 1937 for financial reasons.

Like the American Modern School movement, Winnipeg’s radical schools emerged from a mixed ideological milieu which included communists, social democrats, syndicalists, labour Zionists, Bundists, and anarchists.

In 1907, the anarchist branch of the Arbeiter Ring in Winnipeg, with a membership of 35, invited famous anarchist and a central figure of the American Modern School movement, Emma Goldman, to speak. Paul Burrows of the Manitoba Historical Society explains that, 12 years before the Winnipeg General Strike, Goldman’s message to Winnipegers was summarized as “strike often, strike hard and work for the general strike”, a syndicalist belief that was criticized by leaders in the Winnipeg Trades and Labour Council, as well as the Labour and Socialist Parties. Fortunately, asserts Burrows, Goldman was favorably received by Winnipeggers—if they had listened to the other leftist leaders at the time, “there would never have been a General Strike in 1919.”

Leonard Remis, a student of the Arbeiter Ring School who later went on to become a deputy minister in the Ed Schreyer’s NDP government recalls that “We would often have outstanding visiting socialist speakers, poets, and leftist personalities of the day, such as Rudolph Rocker.” Rocker, a renowned London-based anarcho-syndicalist, recalls moving to Mohegan Colony in 1937, a small international settlement close to New York City, where he completed his memoir, London Years. The Mohegan Colony featured one of the most prominent Modern Schools from 1924-1941.

Undoubtedly the most colourful alumna of Winnipeg’s radical schools was Kitty Harris, who lived in Winnipeg between 1905 and 1923, and attended the Arbeiter Ring School. Elected as the Secretary of the local One Big Union (OBU) during the Winnipeg General Strike, Harris went on to be a key figure in Soviet espionage networks across the globe. Eventually marrying Earl Browder, General Secretary of the American Communist Party, she played a role in penetrating the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, and helped organize an illegal spy-ring in Mexico City. Harris would later have a book written about her entitled Kitty Harris, the Spy with Seventeen Names.

Syndicalist Strikes Still Relevant

Before his untimely death, the radical educator Francisco Ferrer, who inspired the American Modern School movement, argued that education had the potential not only to change students for the better, but society as well. Paul Avrich makes the case that Ferrer was in fact applying to education the principles of syndicalism. Syndicalism is a form of social action that views unions, rather than political parties, as the best way of bringing about social change. One of the best examples of this was the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

To quote Paul Avrich:

The school, in other words, was at once an instrument of self-development and a lever of social regeneration. With this lever, Ferrer believed, the revolution was destined to triumph, ‘first among individuals, and finally in society as a whole.’ In the meantime, it would serve as a libertarian alternative to the existing regime, an embryo of the coming millennium, an enclave of freedom within the larger authoritarian society, providing a model for others to emulate. Ferrer, in effect, was applying the principles of syndicalism to educational practice, with the school, the counterpart of the union, acting as a vehicle of social transformation. (The Industrial Workers of the World would have described this as ‘building the new society within the shell of the old.’)

While reading about the Modern School movement, great educational workers of today will surely recognize within themselves the very same educational philosophy of sincere respect for their students. Indeed, anyone who has ever had an educational worker coach them in sports, help them with work after school, or offer a shoulder to cry on in challenging times, has benefitted from a similar educational philosophy to that which was so present in the Modern School movement. In this way, great educators are always radical.

However, organizationally, the military-like order within present-day school systems differs greatly from the “schools for [the] children of workers… directed by the workers themselves” of the Modern School movement. This issue, coupled with the problem of government cuts and the chronic underfunding of education, cannot simply be fixed by individual action on the part of educational workers—solutions to these greater problems require collective action.

Rather than putting one’s faith in a political party that promises the world (after the next election cycle), those who care about high quality education should, like Ferrer, consider syndicalism; that is to say, the process of using unions “as a vehicle of social transformation” in order to achieve better outcomes.

It was the syndicalism of the General Strike that shook Winnipeg in 1919, which according to historian A. Ross McCormack, “represented the greatest opportunity for significant social change ever to occur in Canada.” As the educational workers employing the syndicalist tactic of worker strikes in the United States over the last few years suggest, workers in education can act together, successfully, to advance the interests of their students.

What’s more, these tactics can improve labour management power imbalances within school systems in the interest of educational workers, thereby empowering those who do the work, and understand best the needs of their students. Perhaps it is more than just wishful thinking to say that were the teachers and students of today in charge of education, backed by a strong labour movement, an alternative like the Modern School movement could be implemented widely.

Riley McMurray is a 1919 Winnipeg General Strike bicycle tour guide and CUPE 2348’s lead shop steward. Find him on Twitter.


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