Francisco Ferrer i Guardia

Francisco Ferrer i Guardia

Catalunya has a long history of exciting educational thought. I have been wandering the streets of St Pol talking democratic education with an old friend, Dani, who used to work at Summerhill. We also met up with Marcelo, who worked as a volunteer in Villandás at our small place in the mountains ( His daughter, Alegría, was profoundly influenced by experiences she had in a summer camp when she was an adolescent and is now interested in a different way of educating. Her partner is a secondary school teacher. Her sister has renounced education and is working as a goatherd and cheese-maker.

Catalunya has been in the news because of the independence movement. It is an autonomous region within Spain but its level of independence is more threatening to the overarching Spanish state than other regions that similarly have their own languages and cultures: the Basque Country, Galicia and even Asturias, where I live. Perhaps this difference and the history of the region explains the unique vitality of educational alternatives in the area. Even the Jesuits here have started a programme that gives children more choices about their classroom activity and brings in elements that look strangely like democratic education.

Memorias de unos ojos pintados

Memorias de unos ojos pintados

Prior to the Civil War there was a range of alternatives in Catalunya. I recently read a novel by Lluis Llach, the famous singer-songwriter, called Memoria de Unos Ojos Pintados, which starts with a young boy who goes to a free school where his ideas are respected and he is given many choices. Freedom and tyranny are themes in the novel as it twists its way through the Civil War and subsequent repression. Reactions to tyranny are strong in Catalunya just because the repression here was harsh. Franco’s dictatorship was punitive and vengeful all across Spain but Catalunya was the focus of singularly vicious repression as the home of Spanish anarchism. Durruti was Catalan. The Barcelona anarchists are major players in Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

Homage to Catalonia

Homage to Catalonia

The story of education here, however, goes back further in time. The school in Llach’s book seems to be loosely based on Francesc’ Ferrer i Guardia’s Escola Moderna. Ferrer’s schools were a spectacularly successful attempt to introduce modern ideas into an education system that had up to then been dominated by priests and nuns. Schools were for the families of the rich and privileged and did not offer much of anything for the poor children of the workers who were the real motor of the industrial economy in the region.

He was executed by the repressive government in 1909 for supposedly fomenting revolt against the war in Morocco. The death of Ferrer i Guardia was a tragedy. His murder

Ferrer i Guardia

Ferrer i Guardia

was written up by an English journalist, William Archer, The Life, Trial and Death of Franciso Ferrer Guardia. Archer does not have much sympathy for Ferrer i Guardia’s educational programme, but he is outraged by his judicial murder. What did Ferrer i Guardia stand for? He had travelled to Paris and adopted the ideas of anarchists such as Jaurés who were advocating alternatives to traditional heirarchies and power structures. In my reading of the book I was particularly struck by his emphasis on hygiene and cleanliness, good nutrition, community life and the encouragement of political awareness. This is something that Archer criticised. He thought that the levels of literacy and numeracy were remarkable but that the children were full of the political ideas of adults. He thought they parroted opinions that they could not possibly have generated by themselves.

It is an interesting question. Is a political education necessarily an indoctrination? Neill, in his earlier books, talks about the way he tries to engage children in thinking about profiteering. He also despairs of children leaving education too early to fulfill roles in society that seem to be predetermined by their social class: girls into serving; boys to the plough. It is hard to see how education could NOT be political in that world. If that was the case in Scotland, how much more would it be the case in Spain where only a tiny proportion of the nation’s children were eligible to go to school. One part of the success of Ferrer i Guardia’s Modern School movement was that it provided education to the children of parents who, under the traditional system, would have had no chance of receiving any education. The fact that he was engaged in providing this education made him a challenging figure to the heirarchies that existed in the country. He did not ask to be shot, but he was a marked man.

What about today?

I come from writing a series of posts about privilege and moral luck. It seems that the argument has turned upside down in the space of one hundred years, doesn’t it? Whereas Ferrer i Guardia was providing an education for working class children the state did not provide for, Summerhill provides an optional education at a prohibitive cost. It is a curious inversion. It is even more curious if you think that the Jesuits, who were providing what Buñuel called a “medieval” education in the early twentieth-century, have proven to be more advanced than the state. What would Ferrer say to that?

Ferrer did not want religion in his schools. He and his teachers had a vision of an aconfessional society where education would be free for all and guided by social democracy. You could say that this is what we have today. Schools are free for all. In Spain they are largely aconfessional. It is not like England where religious education is compulsory. There is a huge panoply of social services attending to all kinds of needs and teachers fit into this system. They are paid for by the state. The state appears to be entirely benign in this: it takes taxes to pay for services for all, which are free at the point of delivery. If you want religion now you have to take your child out of the state system and pay for them to go to a primary school where they will educated “by the nuns” or the Jesuits.

What is entirely lacking from the state education systems of western democracy is the sense of participation that guided Ferrer. His project was formed in opposition to a predominant ideology and class that was set on the oppression of the working classes. If you read Peter Preston’s The Spanish Holocaust, you will be left in no doubt that the Civil War was the terrible and terrifying embodiment of this class war, still a long way in the future when Ferrer was arrested and shot. The strength of the working classes in Catalunya permitted people to start thinking about a different kind of education that was not designed exclusively for the ruling classes, that was not guided by religious beliefs and promoted health and hygiene as well as the academic subjects in the curriculum. Children were brought up into a world of shared values.

Paradoxically, libertarian education today is compelled to work outside the system. The Fundació Ferrer i Guardia in Barcelona supports work within the system; it does not find allegiance with the many free schools that proliferate in Catalunya. I have spoken to state school teachers who see private democratic schools as something akin to alternative medicine: an option that rich people can pursue but no substitute for the free health care provided by the state; something of doubtful value that is neither scientific nor modern; something inherently divisive as it sets apart one group of children from the rest.

Where did things go wrong?

When I went to visit a democratic school this morning with one of Marcelo’s daughters, Alegría, she asked me what effect Summerhill had on people graduating from the school. She felt that a school where children were given decisions over what they studied would have given her more resilience in the face of the uncertainities of adult life. I was struck by her strong reaction to her experiences at secondary school. It had not been possible for her to make decisions at any point over what she was studying and she felt that the teachers themselves gave no indication that the subjects had any relevance beyond getting the grades that would allow their students to progress to the next level in the system. She is an academic success, with a degree in Biology, but she feels that her education did not allow her to ask important questions about her direction and purpose in life.

The education that Ferrer offered confronted the status quo. The same was true of Neill in his Dominie days. They both looked forward to a different and better future, moulded by intelligent thought and reflection. They both worked outside a mainstream system that was inimical to them. It is hard not to reflect on the struggles for social justice in Catalunya which has been the centre of so much struggle and suffering in the twentieth-century.

Escola Moderna

Carrer Bailén, 56, Barcelona

The building on Carrer Bailén, 56 where Ferrer had his school is marked by a small bronze plaque. It is a small gesture that helps to keep the spirit of those years alive in a period in history when educational systems have turned into threatening monsters. That would have surprised Ferrer and he might have struggled with the same problems that face us today:

How do you make change in a system that has become an instrument of control?
How do you balance the larger state with regional nationalisms and local identities?
How can the terrible situation of Alegría be avoided?
What kind of education will prepare young people for their futures?
What kind of future are we working towards?

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