45th annual discussion at Alexander Library carries forward the legacy of a local anarchist school
Last Friday, a group of progressive-minded people gathered in Alexander Library for the 45th annual Friends of the Modern School meeting and discussed alternatives to the conventional form of education.
The Modern School was a democratic school and anarchist community located in the North Stelton area of Piscataway Township from 1915 to 1953. The Modern School provided an alternative to regular education and encouraged its students to be creative and self-reliant, according to the website. The school was based on the principles of a Spanish anarchist named Francisco Ferrer, who founded the first Modern School in Barcelona in 1901.
In 1973, the Friends of the Modern School organization was established to celebrate and preserve this legacy. One of the Friends of the Modern School’s first projects was the donation of the archives of the Modern School to Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers.
According to the event’s Facebook page, Alexander Library, which is about three miles from the location of The Stelton Modern School, now contains the largest available collection of archival materials about the Modern Schools.
One of the speakers at the event was Vivian Gornick, a well-known writer who wrote a book in 2011 about Emma Goldman and how she helped found the Ferrer Association which led to the organization of the Modern School. She has written for Village Voice, The Nation, The Atlantic and The New York Times.
The other two speakers were Alexander Hilerio, a Rutgers alumnus who made a short film about the Modern School and Ferrer Colony, and Alex Khost, the vice president of Friends of the Modern School and an adamant children’s rights advocate and activist.
Khost founded the Teddy McArdle Free School and cofounded Playground NYC, which is a nonprofit organization advocating for young people’s rights by providing physical environments that encourage risk-taking and experimentation through self-directed play, according to the website.
According to the CDC, over 6 percent of young people between the ages of 4-17 take medication to treat ADHD.
“It’s funny because a lot of people come up to me and they’re like, ‘you’re crazy doing this with your kids,’ and I’m like, ‘no, what’s crazy is pumping your kids full of drugs to keep them in their seats.’ If you step back and look at it as not what most people are doing, the school model that looks crazy is actually the model that most people are doing,” Khost said. “I think that we really need to stop and look at what we’re doing to kids today. See how pent up and how depressed and anxious people are. And so much of that is because they don’t feel control over their own lives.”
Among undergraduate college students today, 62 percent report feeling overwhelming anxiety as a result of being overworked in the conventional school system, according to The New York Times
The idea behind free schools is trusting children to make their own decisions about their own lives, he said. This will, in turn, allow young people to grow into more responsible adults.
“They learn how to negotiate, they learn their own interests and skills, they learn their strengths and weaknesses and what they want to work on,” Khost said. “And therefore they become more responsible for their own lives and grow up more responsible.”
Khost graduated from Rutgers in 1997 and said that since he had never been able to make a lot of his own decisions before college, when he began school here his new-found freedom led to irresponsible decisions.
Khost said that a book his father gave him in high school, "Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing," changed his perspective on conventional schooling.
“It just stuck with me and I became a teacher,” he said. “I decided to open my own school when my son was one year old, and I was starting to think ahead about what he was going to do for school, and so what I did was I studied the models that I knew at the time.”
Khost said there are many different ways to carry out alternative forms of education and self-direction, such as individualistic forms where students would focus on independent freedom or communal freedom where the students make decisions as a group, which is also called a democratic school.
The form he originally knew of was free schools, which in the United States was a part of the 1960s hippie movement, he said. There would be school meetings where the children vote on things.
“The model I used (to found the Teddy McArdle school) had a kind of judicial committee where if somebody broke a rule, the kids talk about like, ‘okay, this person broke the rule. What do we do about it?’” he said. “‘If they’ve broken the rule 20 times, what do we do about it?’”
Khost said that in terms of classes, the kids were allowed to propose their own ideas for subjects and could pick from which they would like to participate in.
“Usually these schools are small, they’re like 20 to 80 kids in a school,” he said. “My kids’ school in New York has 35 kids in it, and four facilitators, they call it facilitators instead of teachers.”
In some places across the world, free schools are much more common. Khost said that the small country of Israel has 40 of them and that some of those schools have up to 300 or 400 kids.
There are some universities that are run democratically, Khost said. Doing so is difficult because students arrive at these universities already having experienced years of conventional schooling.
“I did my junior year abroad here, I went to Reddington in England, which was not at all like this type of education,” he said.
Khost said that while studying abroad he had a class where the professor created a syllabus and then asked each student to choose a week with a topic that interested them and present on it.
“So much of what we do, especially in like the 101 classes (at Rutgers), is just somebody sitting there talking at you, rather than engaging and making it meaningful,” he said. “The more you can make it meaningful where you’re not just learning something but you’re actually able to make an impact, you’re actually going and doing something …”
Universities should think about how they can make the classroom setting more engaging for their students, Khost said.
Jerry Mintz, who has been a leading voice in the alternative school movement for over 30 years, attended the event. In 1989, he founded the Alternative Education Resource Organization and since then has served as its director
He said he first heard about the Modern School Movement from Nellie Dick, an instrumental member in the start of the movement, when she was 96 years old. He made a documentary with her, and has also made videos of about 20 other modern school reunions.
“The problem with the public school system is it’s kind of based on sort of an 1875 industrial model which was what it was designed for, so the basic approach uses a paradigm which is totally discredited, which is that kids, or people, are not natural learners but need to be forced to learn,” he said.
Mintz said the University, along with around 97 percent of other public schools, take the aforementioned approach.
“What people involved in radical education believe shouldn’t be considered so radical,” he said. “Children are natural learners, and modern brain research has shown that that is true.”
School Starters is an online course administered through the Alternative Education Resource Organization, and it helps people all over the world start new alternative schools step-by-step. The organization has started over 100 new alternative schools.
Mintz said that at the event, he spoke with a man who has a 3-year-old child and wants to start his own homeschool resource center and is joining the School Starters course.
“It is very difficult to do a public school with this philosophy now, but hopefully it will be changing,” he said. “(Rutgers students) should consider themselves lucky to have the archive of the Modern School here because it was leading the way, really, into the 20th century, to make this approach one that people knew about.”
Nick Welna is a student at Teacher’s College in Manhattan and found out about the event through interested friends.
“I came because I read a lot about Ferrer and the Modern School and wanted to see what it was like to actually meet people who went through that experience rather than just read in the history books, and also to find out what could be possible both inside and outside of public schools today,” Welna said.
He said in his experience as a teacher, the general principles of operating without hierarchy, using more cooperation and relying less on coercion in the learning process are things that are considerably more helpful.
Anarchism is a fascinating political philosophy overall, Welna said. It manages to give guidance without enforcing dogmas.
“I mean I taught for five years in public schools and I think we are living in a time right now where teachers really try to use force and pressure to get their students to cooperate, especially in low-income schools, and I think we need to stop that," he said. “I think there are a lot of other ways to get kids to learn things and I think that anarchism provides a really useful framework at a time when the rest of our society says, ‘no, just use rewards, use punishments, trick them into learning.’”
Welna said people have to answer the question of how to apply principles from free schools to conventional life and education for themselves and that, for him, the learning process is a lot about following and walking a path that others have already been down.
“There’s a lot of path walking that is done without respecting to autonomy of the followers of the next generation following in the footsteps," he said. "And I think that what’s cool about the anarchist tradition and about the work that these people did in particular at (the Modern School), is it seeks to maximize the freedom and autonomy of the people who are following in the footsteps of their teachers."