Friday, October 13, 2006

modern school reunion

Today is the 97th anniversary of the death of Francisco Ferrer, an anarchist and freethought educational pioneer whose persecution by both church and state and execution on trumped-up charges led to outrage and an international movement to emulate his ideas.

Ferrer and other European educators wanted a "modern" approach to education based on freedom and reason, in place of the traditional one based on coercion, rote and indoctrination. Emma Goldman, who visited Sebastien Faure's French modern school La Ruche, conveys the atmosphere of the school in her description from her autobiography:
He [Faure] had taken twenty-four orphan children and those of parents too poor to pay and was housing, feeding, and clothing them at his own expense. He had created an atmosphere at La Ruche that released the life of the child from discipline and coercion of any sort. He had discarded the old methods of education and in their place he established understanding for the needs of the child, confidence and trust in its possibilities, and respect for its personality.

Not even at Cempuis, the school of the venerable libertarian Paul Robin, which I had visited in 1900, was the spirit of comradeship and co-operation between pupils and teachers so complete as at La Ruche. Robin, too, felt the need of a new approach to the child, but he still remained somewhat tied to the old text-books on education. La Ruche had freed itself also from them. The hand-painted wall-paper in the dormitory and class-rooms, picturing the life of plants, flowers, birds, and animals, had a more quickening effect on the imagination of the children than any "regular" lessons. The free grouping of the children around their teachers, listening to some story or seeking explanation for puzzling thoughts, amply made up for lack of old-fashioned instruction.
The Modern School attitude was equally hostile to the approaches of parochial and public schools; in his biography of Voltairine de Cleyre, Paul Avrich vividly describes her opinion:
She shared his hatred for the Catholic Church and its authoritarian educational methods, which they both had experienced at first hand. At the same time, she rejected the public school, which she considered an agent of government indoctrination, instilling a blind obedience and "revolting patriotism" in the minds of the children.
Of the modern schools that were founded in the United States in response to Ferrer's death, the longest-lived was the one that started in New York City in 1910; after being shut down, it moved to a newly formed utopian colony of Stelton in New Jersey in 1915, both of which lasted until 1953. This school was involved with numerous other experimental ideas, including modern art, and benefitted from the talents of many well-known people: not just anarchists like Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, but many distinguished artists, writers, and thinkers like Will and Ariel Durant, Mike Gold, Robert Henri, Rockwell Kent, Eugene O'Neill, and Margaret Sanger.

Far ahead of its time, the modern school movement is little known or appreciated today, with some attention from anarchists and alternative educators (but for some reason, virtually none from the freethought community).

For more information on the complex history of the movement, see Paul Avrich's definitive book on the movement, The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States, or the section on the Stelton colony in The Communal Experience: Anarchist and Mystical Communities in Twentieth Century America by Laurence Veysey; Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre have written powerful shorter essays about the subject. The new-to-DVD documentary Free Voice of Labor: The Jewish Anarchists also has a section about the Modern Schools.

The memory of the Stelton school and colony is kept alive by the Friends of the Modern School, many of whose members grew up at, or were otherwise personally involved with Stelton. On September 16, they held their 34th anual reunion (and the third consecutive one I've attended) at Rutgers University. While the reunion is a way for Steltonites to keep in touch, interested members of the general public are welcome to attend; many of their discussions address wider issues (I'm sorry I didn't attend in 2003, when the main talk was about the decline of the labor movement). One regular attender for more than a decade and a half has been the indefagitable Jerry Mintz, who has covered the reunions regularly in his magazine Education Revolution (and its former incarnation AERO-GRAMME); he also has available a video of his interview with the Modern School's Nellie Dick. (On the other hand, Friends secretary Jon Thoreau Scott has regularly appeared at AERO's conferences, and has presented about the Modern School there.)

Part of the meeting was devoted to remembering members of the community who had passed away in the last year, including Paul Avrich, the historian of anarchism; and Jim Dick Jr., son of Stelton directors Jim and Nellie Dick and co-founder of the Summerhill Society in the 1960s (which had a role in starting the period's free school movement by bringing the approach of A. S. Neill's Summerhill to the United States).

Barry Pateman, associate director of the Emma Goldman Papers (and editor of a number of books including Chomsky on Anarchism), gave a spirited talk on Emma Goldman's life and the vital role of the Modern School approach to her ideas. Emma was highly involved in the New York City modern school; and while her ideas about free love are relatively well known, her equally revolutionary ideas about children are not.

Also, Stelton seems to be on its way to being recognized as part of local history: not only was a marker and plaque put up last year at the site of the school in Piscataway, but it's mentioned as a historic New Jersey site in the 2006 edition of the Raritan-Millstone Heritage Alliance's Guide to Historic Sites in Central New Jersey (p. 45). Ironically, the book lists it right next to Camp Kilmer, a military camp created during WW2 next to the Stelton colony and which played a large role in its decline.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Transcript of Rushkoff ETFF Hanukkah show

My second transcript for Equal Time for Freethought is now online: from last year's Hanukkah season, Barry Seidman's holiday interview with Douglas Rushkoff.

The interview started off with a subversive look at the historical origins of Hanukkah, based on Rushkoff's treatment of the subject in his book Nothing Sacred: The Truth about Judaism. The role of circumcision led to a discussion of the modern Jewish take on the practice. The holiday also led to the issues of assimilation in general, and of Passover as another holiday which Rushkoff had an alternative take on. The touchy topic of what a humanistic secular Jew should think about the Israel situation was dealt with. Even technical difficulties were an opportunity for discussion: when noise interfered with the reception as he was discussing Passover being a de-idolization of the Egyptian gods, he said "I hear strange and exciting sounds" and "It's those gods coming back at me now". After the interview was over, Barry said, "Very interesting concepts. I was born and raised and grew up Jewish and didn't know half these things he talked about, myself."

Rushkoff on Judaism:
In some ways, I see [that] Judaism at its best is really just civilization. It's really just a set of ethics and laws and reminders that human beings should matter to one another. And you get your idols out the way, so that you can appreciate one another instead of these idols. Whether they're ancient gods, or modern gods like money and power and fame and those sort of things.
and on how his interpretation is out of sync with more traditionalistic ones:
[I]t's gotten to the point where I don't talk about Jewish issues, Judaism, as Judaism, anymore. Because current, modern Judaism as practiced, for the most part, is so antithetical to what I see as the humanism underlying Judaism that I think it's easier to do humanism as humanism. It's easier to make the world a better place without, in some cases, being so publicly affirmative of where it might have come from for me. Because other people get the opposite message from it.... I'm finding when I do a talk or an event under a Jewish banner, people in attendance generally are less willing to engage with Judaism for real, than people are if I just go speak at a Barnes & Noble or somewhere about media or culture or something else.

Monday, October 02, 2006

fall dorkbot

Last month, dorkbot-nyc got off on a roll with its first meeting after the summer hiatus.

Bret Doar showed his hybrid roboticized musical instruments including the Huffyphonic Gyrobanshee 1000, a combination of a bicycle wheel and a guitar. Jon Lippincott demonstrated Vis Virtual Universe, which displays and navigates through a surreal 3D animated solar system, which he wrote from the ground up in C++ (which fit in with my blenderheaded fascination with all things related to 3D computer graphics). David Kareve explained his exhibit which uses freaked-out crash test dummies to explore the culture of fear reinforced by the terror alert system; I was tickled to see that his presentation of the various spoofs of the terror alert system included the Sesame Street one that I've had on my blog sidebar almost since the beginning of the blog (which I got from freeman, libertarian critter):



The next day's installment of the popular video blog Rocketboom did a segment covering the meeting. For more media coverage, dorkbot's instigator Douglas Irving Repetto is featured in the recent book Makers: All Kinds of People Making Amazing Things In Garages, Basements, and Backyards by Bob Parks.

This Wednesday brings October's meeting. (In fact, I made a flyer for the meeting which just went live on the site last night, who knows whether anybody will see it).