The execution of Catalan anarchist and educator Francisco Ferrer, on this day in 1909, was not punishment for the crime of which he had been accused. That the charges against him were fabricated is not in any doubt. Rather, his execution was the ruthless elimination of a vocal critic by powerful vested interests. His firing-squad in Barcelona was an act that echoed the death of Socrates more than 2,000 years earlier. For there is no more succinct summation of the real reason Ferrer was murdered by the state – at the behest of the Catholic Church – than those charges levelled against Socrates:
“Failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges”. And “corrupting the youth”. These are the reasons why Ferrer – anarchist, humanist, educator and revolutionary – was killed.
As is traditional in these cases, the man who would prove such a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church was born into a Catholic family. But by his late teens, he was far from the faith. Militantly anti-clerical, and a revolutionary republican with it, he saw Spain exploited and persecuted by both its political leaders and the Church. And was determined to do something about it.
Implicated in several anti-government plots, Ferrer was exiled to France in the 1890s where he met Paul Robin and Sébastien Faure. Their school in Cempuis was to become his inspiration. Anarchist activists, they believed the most effective revolution would take place not on the streets, but in the schools. It was in the education of children that the class divide was perpetuated and only by liberating our minds from tyranny could we hope to drive it from the world.
Fired up by their example and determined to free his native Catalonia from the Church’s monopoly on education, he returned to Barcelona in 1901 to found the first of his “Modern Schools”. Controversially, unlike other schools, the Modern School was co-educational. It was secular and had students from all social classes. With the explicit aim of challenging the established order, Ferrer saw his school as an incubator for original thought, or in his own words, it provided “antidotes to all dogma”. Most importantly of all, it would foster in its students a deep respect for life, for nature and for each other.
The school was successful. Soon there were almost 40 Modern Schools in Catalonia, and almost a hundred others were teaching from the textbooks he published. Suddenly Francisco Ferrer found himself at the head of a movement, and by 1906 there were over a thousand children in his secular schools. Unsurprisingly, the Catholic Church fiercely denounced these “atheist schools” and placed pressure on the government to intervene.
Finding a pretext to do so wasn’t hard. The Modern Schools were not just about educating children. In the evenings they were adult learning centres. And were also used by labour unions and other anti-establishment groups to host meetings. So when the librarian at a Modern School threw a bomb at the king in 1906, Ferrer was arrested.
Despite being held in prison for a year, no evidence of his involvement was ever produced and he was released without charge. In the meantime, however, the authorities dismantled the Modern Schools and by 1907, not one remained.
Unbowed, Ferrer set about rebuilding. He lectured throughout Europe, published a book, The Origins and Ideals of the Modern School, and founded the International League of Rational Education. All the while he remained involved in local politics, and was a vocal supporter of Solidaridad Obrera (Workers’ Solidarity); an alliance of labour unions and anarchists.
But in 1909, in announcing his intention to re-open the schools, Ferrer became a marked man. And the chaos of what became known as the “Tragic Week” provided the opportunity to end his work. An anti-government uprising was ignited by a strike called by Solidaridad Obrera as well as opposition to military conscription. For a week the striking workers took control of the city, while an anti-clerical group, The Radical Party, set about burning down religious buildings. By the time the army brutally suppressed the rebellion, 80 churches and convents had been destroyed.
Although he wasn’t in Barcelona at the time, Ferrer was arrested and charged with “leading and organising an armed revolt”. Though as one contemporary commentator said; “Founding schools was his crime”. His trial was before a secret military court, and it quickly became clear he was being silenced. “With such infamous lies they are trying to kill me”, he wrote to a friend. It’s rumoured Pope Pius X sent a personal message of congratulations to the prosecutor when the founder of the Modern School was sentenced to death.
And on the morning of October 13th, Francisco Ferrer was executed by firing squad. As he was shot he cried out, “Long live the Modern School”.
But the story of this revolutionary educator didn’t end there. His death was met with public protests throughout Spain and in Paris, Rome and Brussels. The backlash to his “legal murder” was so severe it forced the King to demand the resignation of the Prime Minister. And soon, thanks to his book, schools inspired by his ideas sprang up all over the world, the largest of which — in New York — remained open until 1958. While there are no surviving Ferrer Schools, his ideas have nonetheless helped shape modern theories of education. Though, arguably not nearly enough.
The night before his execution, Francisco Ferrer wrote on his cell wall… “Let no more gods or exploiters be served. Let us learn rather to love each other.”
[Written by Jim Bliss]
I had never heard about this man but really enjoyed reading about him. I guess that is the point of your site.
I think it is a good idea that you have other writers to sometimes help you out as it must be hard work. Can I apply?
Hi BillR. I enjoyed reading this entry too. 🙂
Yes, I am very grateful to the gents I have asked to contribute – they are all great writers with extraordinary weltanschauungs.
I would like to ask about the “textbooks” supposedly written by Ferrer –because I don’t believe there were any. Rather, Maria Montessori and Ferrer were collaborators, and her materials and educational model were used in (not textbooks at all).
Hi TGrant. Thanks for taking the time to comment.
I don’t believe Ferrer ever wrote any textbooks, and I didn’t mean to suggest he did. However, I believe the Modern School movement was responsible for publishing a number of progressive textbooks (and perhaps Spanish translations of foreign books)
I’m basing this on, what I must admit is a vague reference to the textbooks in William Archer’s biography, The Life, Trial, and Death of Francisco Ferrer. In his book, Archer suggests that “… [by] 1906, thirty-four schools with over 1,000 students were directly or indirectly influenced by the school and its textbooks.”
However, Archer doesn’t go into any detail about those books or what they might have been. Indeed, for a biography of the founder of the Modern Schools, Archer’s book doesn’t really spend much time on the Schools themselves, concentrating more on Ferrer’s anarchist politics in Paris and Barcelona, along with the events leading up to his execution (which, admittedly, are the parts of Ferrer’s life that lend themselves best to “a good story”).
So I agree with you that there’s no evidence for Ferrer having written any textbooks himself, but at least one biography of the man (and I confess, it’s the only biography I’ve read) does claim that the Modern Schools published and distributed textbooks.
Regarding your other point, I must admit that I was unaware of any collaboration between Montessori and Ferrer. Certainly she’s not mentioned in Archer’s book. I don’t know enough about Maria Montessori to know whether she spent any time in Paris when Ferrer was there (wasn’t she based in Rome up until Ferrer’s death in 1909? And while she did live in Barcelona for a while, she didn’t arrive there until 1915, six years after Ferrer’s execution) but I’m pretty sure any collaboration between the two of them would have been at least worth a mention in Archer’s biography. I’d be interested to hear more though, if you have any information about such a collaboration.
Francisco Ferrer did write textbooks for his schools. I have some.
I attended the Ferrer Modern School of stelton, NJ from 1934 to 1946. I and three others who attended that school (that closed in 1953) attended the Oct 13, 2009 Centenial of Ferrer’s execution and gave talks at the main ceremony. We stayed in a tourist building about a block from where the truck killed many people on Las Ramblas, a walking street near the Place de Catalunya. I am hoping that Catalonia is able to form its own country! There is now a street named after Ferrer in Barcelona.