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January 11: The Modern School

January 11, 2015

428px-Modern_schoolThe first American Modern School opened on this date in 1911 on St. Marks Place in New York City, founded by Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, and other anarchist activists, with only nine students, including the son of Margaret Sanger and future dada artist Man Ray (Emmanuel Radnitzky). It was also known as the Ferrer Center, after Francisco Ferrer, a Catalan anarchist and educator who founded the Modern School movement and was executed in monarchist Spain in 1909. The school had a non-authoritarian atmosphere and an emphasis on integrative education and experiential learning. In the summer of 1914, several anarchists associated with the Ferrer Center attempted to bomb the mansion of John D. Rockefeller, and instead blew themselves up in the apartment of Louise Berger, a Latvian anarchist who edited Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth Bulletin. After police raided the Ferrer Center several times following that bombing, the organizers bought 68 acres in Piscataway, New Jersey and became the center of the Stelton Colony, which eventually had close to 100 homes. About three-quarters of its residents were Jews, and the majority were anarchists. The school and colony remained open until 1953, which made it the longest lived of several Modern Schools in the U.S. To read more about the Stelton Colony and its personalities, click here.

“Principals and teachers were predominantly native Americans of Anglo-Saxon heritage, while pupils were predominantly Jewish, and nearly all of working class origins. The largest ethnic group at the Stelton colony were East European Jews, but there were also many Italians, Spaniards, French, English, and native Americans, as well as a number of other nationalities, including Chinese.... Teachers were widely varied in their experience and theoretical knowledge. The task of teaching eager and rambunctious children without subduing them or stifling their curiosity was extremely taxing, and many teachers did not last long.” [Shown in the photograph: Principal Will Durant, who would meet his future wife Ariel as a student at the school he led, with nine students at the second site of the school on East 12th Street, in 1912.]