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The “Free” School and Boston’s Corvid College

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In 1901, Francisco Ferrer y Guardia, Catalan anarchist and teacher, began a new tradition of radical education. He founded La Escuela Moderna (or “The Modern School”) in Barcelona. In Catholic, Monarchist Spain, La Escuela Moderna hoped to free education from the domination of the church and “educate the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting,” flattening the hierarchy of teacher and student, and promoting independence and free-thinking to those who would one day lead the working class in the social struggle. The only problem was, La Escuela Moderna was so expensive that only the wealthy middle-class could afford to send their children. The “Free” School and Boston’s Corvid College

by Jake Carman
Boston Anti-Authoritarian Movement Newsletter, BAAM # 31

In 1901, Francisco Ferrer y Guardia, Catalan anarchist and teacher, began a new tradition of radical education. He founded La Escuela Moderna (or “The Modern School”) in Barcelona. In Catholic, Monarchist Spain, La Escuela Moderna hoped to free education from the domination of the church and “educate the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting,” flattening the hierarchy of teacher and student, and promoting independence and free-thinking to those who would one day lead the working class in the social struggle. The only problem was, La Escuela Moderna was so expensive that only the wealthy middle-class could afford to send their children.

Nevertheless, the Ferrer model began a revolution in education, the results of which we are still seeing today.

In 1911, two years after Ferrer’s execution, sister schools of La Escuela Moderna sprang up across the world. In New York City, Alexander Berkman, Emma Goldman, and Voltairine de Cleyre opened the Ferrer Center with nine students. Other schools opened in South America, Cuba, London, and elsewhere in the US, often teaching day classes to children and continuing education for adults in the evenings. While in Spain, the revolution in education helped promote the working class-consciousness so valuable to the 1936 Spanish Revolution, here in the United States, Ferrer’s ideas were influential in reshaping the educational landscape, even among some mainstream private schools.

Today’s Free Schools often take the word “Free” literally, using both English meanings (i.e., social-political freedom and at no cost). Under this model, teachers are as free to teach what they want as the students are to learn. Free Schools exist from Portland, Oregon, to New York City, to Australia. Kassie Carlson wrote about her visit to one such school in Whitechapel, London, for the February edition of the BAAM Newsletter: “The London Free School Collective aims to ‘confront hierarchy and inequality in education and reclaim knowledge to develop self reliance.’ ...classes include clothes making, radical reading group, computers, self-defense, nomadic kiln construction, class politics and climate change, and DIY/zine publishing.” Whitechapel, like many Free Schools, has no official campus, but rather hosts classes in a variety of spaces across the city. This can be beneficial, according to Carlson, as it “encourages many different communities to engage in the activities.” The Manhattan Free School offers education to people ages 5-18. According to their website, “We believe children learn best by actively engaging with the natural world through first hand experience...We believe democratic free schools restore childhood to children and allow children to form healthy relationships with people of all ages.... We believe that people of all ages learn responsibility when they possess and can exercise the responsibility and liberty to govern their own communities.”

This winter in Boston, a new school following in the tradition of radical education begins classes. Corvid College, according to their website, is “A college for anyone who was or is unsatisfied with the bureaucratic, hierarchical nightmare that is the education industry today.” While Corvid College is neither a descendant of La Escuela Moderna nor a Free Skool, it is still influenced by anarchist politics and ideas. Their website states, Corvid College is “Anarchic: self-managed in spirit, horizontal in structure.” Classes are meant for learners of all ages, and topics range from Primitive Daoism, to Anarchism and Religion, to the Criminalization of the Immigrant, to the Moral and Ethical Limitations of Democratic Decision-Making, to Looking at the Sacco and Vanzetti Case: The Uses and Meaning of History for Anarchists.

Eric Buck, one of the founders of Corvid College, told us in an interview, “during my years at Goddard (I) discovered the Ferrer Schools in Spain. Slowly, as I began to read more and more in alternative educational experiments, I began to develop a picture of what a college built around self-direction in all respects might be, not just pedagogically but financially and organizationally.” Buck came to Boston, as he humorously put it at a BAAM meeting last spring, “To escape Academia,” and soon got to work holding meetings of anarchists and others interested in alternative education. But what they came up with is something new, different than the Modern School and the Free Schools, as it is infused with elements of traditional colleges. “None of us know how to ‘do community’ anymore,” Buck says. “I think the college model can be resuscitated and put to use in revivifying the practice of community... This is why the college model has been chosen over other educational processes, like the freeskool or the skillshare group.”

However, while Corvid College isn’t necessarily a direct descendant of La Escuela Moderna, and it isn’t a Free Skool, its influence from anarchist politics and ideas renders it different from traditional colleges. Corvid College does not plan to seek accreditation. Instead of grades and degrees, the organizers hope students will develop portfolios. “Accreditation is one of the primary means of impersonal, professional, institutional control over what is taught today,” says Buck. “Accreditation requires institutionalization of what we want to be free of: institutionality... Accreditation is just one mark of the whole system that destroys or impedes the educative impulse and standardizes human growth. In other universities, students should be demanding the de-accreditation of their university. In Corvid they won’t have to.” Students can sign up for courses on the website: http://corvidcollege.wikidot.com/

One criticism of Corvid College is that some of its courses are quite expensive. A course called The Massachusetts Legal System, for instance, at $500 costs almost half as much as a course at UMass Boston. According to Buck, “Course fees at Corvid are set by individual teachers, and higher costs for a course indicate a teacher’s higher needs....Since we find ourselves still in an economy that is based on money and expect to for some time, we wanted to make the college function in such a way that if someone wanted to make a living from it, she could try. In other words, no one is going to prevent anyone who wants to propose a course (notice I did not say be employed) from charging something for it.” While the College does not intend to provide financial aid per se, they have some creative suggestions for the economic problem. As Buck said in our interview, “Teachers offer a variety of idiosyncratic discounts and cost mitigations: some are putting out a tip jar so student can pay-what-they-can. Some accepting goods and services in lieu of cash. Others offer discounts when a certain enrollment figure is reached, or for paying cash in full up front. Still others are teaching for free because they can and want to. Finally, since we value financial transparency and directness and despise bureaucracy, students living under financial duress should contact the course teacher directly and see if any arrangements can be made.” Even if some courses may be beyond your means, participating in radical education projects can only encourage their development and growth; and if there’s one thing the people of our region need in these times, it’s the spreading of a new ways of learning and teaching.

A further model of popular education useful to the growth of an anarchist movement, alternative to the mainstream model, the traditional Free School model, and the Corvid model, might be a School of Work and Struggle. In these times of high unemployment and matching discontent, it would be very beneficial for anarchists to create people’s institutions where we can research and together learn skills in the various trades of labor (especially ones which would be useful to us after the revolution, and are thus vital for us to immerse ourselves in now). While teaching ourselves and our un- and underemployed neighbors how to do useful work, we can also learn and share the theoretical ideas of anarchism and, more practically, how to effectively organize within the labor movement and how to create workers’ power and job autonomy today. There is a veritable treasure chest of historic wealth through which anarchists who seriously ponder where the best use of their energy and efforts might be in furtherance of the cause can find inspiration in the lessons of those fellow travelers who walked the path before.

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