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.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:
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.
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.