Ferrer ý Guardia
story of Francesco Ferrer’s involvement
with the Rational Education Movement in
Spain is complicated and often contradictory,
if relatively short. While the theoretical
foundations for "rational" education
had been laid out as early as the 1860s
by Mikhail Bakunan, Paul Robins, Fredrick
Froebel, Peter Kropotkin, Tolstoy; and
even earlier by no less than Rousseau;
Ferrer’s own involvement did not begin
until after 1895, and did so as a result
of his involvement with anarchist revolutionary
movements in Europe. Ferrer came
to revolutionary politics at a pivotal
time in Spanish History, when the prevailing
political climate was more friendly to
leftist thought, and so was able to rise
to prominence. It is somewhat ironic
that a man who would come to be so reviled
among his peers in Spain would come to
be one of the movement's great martyrs.
Ferrer can be a difficult person to grasp,
and while he is often canonized by the
proponents of free education, many of
his actions call to question his commitment
to those ideals. While a steadfast
opponent of the establishment, Ferrer
was in fact quite wealthy. While
he spoke and wrote about the ideals of
Free Education, his own interest seemed
more directed toward the training of future
revolutionaries. James Joll has
called Ferrer an “intellectual practitioner
of free love,”
which is, perhaps, a bit harsh, but Ferrer’s
personal life was colourful to say the
least and adds to the question as to whether
he may have, in the later part of his
life, used revolutionary politics and
education not as its own end, but to further
his own personal celebrity and gain.
Francisco Ferrer had been a revolutionary
all of his life. He was born on
a farm near Barcelona in 1859, a time
when Spanish society had been going through
great upheaval. In 1868, Ferrer,
only 9 years old, witnessed revolution
with the abdication of Queen Isabella
in favour of more liberal, republican
government. The struggle for a viable
successor would provide the context for
the Franco-Prussian War. This would
lead to a weak and ineffectual constitutional
monarchy, followed by a short lived republic
which led to a period of near civil war
and general social upheaval before the
eventual restoration of the Bourbon Throne.
This period of sporadic uprisings from
both the right and left wings could not
help but leave its mark on Ferrer.
Prior to becoming an anarchist and educator,
he had been involved with the anticlerical
Republican movement against the Spanish
monarchy, and was a follower of Manuel
Ruíz Zorilla. After making an aborted
attempt on the life of General Villacampe
in Madrid in 1886 he was exiled to Paris.
There, in the cafés and bistros, Labour
Temples and Lodges, he learned and refined
his own anarchist and revolutionary leanings.
He became involved in many liberal causes,
becoming a supporter of Dreyfus in the
famous French Anti-Semitism case and serving
as a delegate to the 1896 Congress of
the Second International. He returned
to Madrid in the 1901 after inheriting
1,300,000 Francs from an elderly spinster
of his acquaintance, Mlle. Ernestine Meunié.
The concepts of rational education did not grow
out of a vacuum. Rather, they developed
out of the circumstances and needs of Spanish
society of the time. Throughout the 1870s,
80s and 90s, Barcelona had become a center
of both anarchism and labour activism.
By the late 1890s the failure of more moderate
trade union tactics as well as the influx of
unskilled workers from the East and South had
left urban workers in bad straights with little
opportunity for escape. Further, public
education in Spain, and Barcelona in particular,
was dreadfully deficient. It is estimated
that state-run public schools accommodated
at best, only 1/3 of school-aged children.
Furthermore, students were expected to pay
for their school materials, an expense few
could afford. Nearly all of the 489 private
schools in Barcelona were run by religious
orders, many on a charity basis, and subsidized
by the state.
Few of these emphasized little more than religious
indoctrination and training.
The ideals of free education begin in response
to the ideals of classical education that
were particularly prevalent at that time.
The first part of the free education system
begins with the belief that imitation
and repetition perverted or inhibited
the natural development of the pupil.
The learning of new skills, both simple
and complex should instead be done in
a natural fashion. In contrast to
the development of ivory tower scholarship,
the proponents of rational education believed
in knowledge derived from both experience
of, and interaction with the world - "learning
by doing." This was set in
the educational needs of the working class,
many of whom needed training in skilled
trades, as well as the ability to read
and write, at a time when illiteracy rates
in Spain could be as high as 73 percent!
Mikhail Bakunin had first proposed a system of integrated
education at the First International in 1870.
This system was further developed and refined
by Trinidad Soriano, a mathematics professor
from Seville, at the Second Workers’ Congress
in Saragossa in 1872. Soriano lobbied
for scientific education and the development
of a theoretical mastery of the natural
sciences, to be followed by technical training
in areas chosen by the student.
It was also felt that schools, in addition
to intellectual development, should be
responsible for the physical and, like
their adversaries in the parochial schools, moral
development of the child. Games,
sports, nature walks and gymnastics were
all part of a program designed to develop
simultaneously the mind, body and spirit.
This also served to teach the child early
on the interconnectedness of things and
prevent disconnection or the development
of an “artificial dualism” – between mind
and body, man and nature, between men
and women. Towards this end coeducation
– a new and often scandalous concept –
was also encouraged. School was
designed to resemble life.
Thus, the critique of the parochial system
was also extended to include the inequities
of the state system. Ferrer wrote,
by way of comparison: In French lay schools,
“the State (was) replaced (by) God, Christian
virtue by Civic Duty, religion by patriotism;
and submission and obedience to the king,
the Aristocrat, and the clergy, by reverence
for the bureaucrat, the proprietor and
Implicit in this was a critique not only
of religious and state education, but
a critique of the capitalist system as
well. For anarchists, the mission
of rational education was to destroy prejudice
and encourage the development of a “scientific-psychological
Ferrer was looking for a revolution, and
the only way this revolution could succeed,
or even get off the ground, was through
education of the masses and a breaking
of the Marxist idea of False Consciousness.
However, by 1900 a decade of terrorism
and repression had taken the revolutionary
steam out of many in the anarchist movement.
Ferrer seemed to see hope for the future
through the training of a new generation
of anarchists and revolutionaries, and
he saw in the principals of free education
his route to this goal.
He saw the modern schools as a
way to “combat religion, false concepts
of property, nationalism and family.”
On September 8, 1901, with funds
from his personal fortune, Ferrer established
the Escuela Moderna in Barcelona.
From the start, Ferrer downplayed his
anarchist connections, emphasizing instead
the progressive and anticlerical aspects
of his programme. This gained him
some support among the middle classes
(the “Scientific Masses”) to whom his
appeals were mostly directed. It
also deflected attention from his presence
in Barcelona. None-the-less, Ferrer
worked closely with Anarchist organizations
in the development and running of
However, while Ferrer publicly emphasized
the principals of Rational Education,
his private views were somewhat different.
The Rational Education offered by Ferrer’s
Escuela Moderna included a great
deal of indoctrination into the principles
of anarchism and revolution. While
the school was certainly more progressive
than any available alternative, ultimately
most of the schools educational offerings
came back to the revolutionary.
Ironically, the “Scientific Masses” that
Ferrer so championed were effectively
excluded by the school’s high tuition
(15 pesetas a month).
Moreover, the working class desired more
practical educational goals than those
Ferrer would come to offer. Ferrer's
apparent disregard for his own stated
policies would quickly drive out Clementine
Jacquinat, the school’s first director,
who broke with Ferrer in 1903 and denounced
him publicly in a privately published
pamphlet distributed in Barcelona.
None-the-less, through active self promotion
and a dynamic and engaging personality,
Ferrer remained the champion of popular
as well as radical education in Barcelona
as well as Spain at large, and he rapidly
rose to some celebrity.
Because existing textbooks were considered
inappropriate for the Escuela Moderna,
Ferrer used some of his fortune to build
a publishing house to develop special
textbooks for the school. In addition,
he produced some revolutionary pamphlets
and manifestos as well as introductory
texts to the natural and social sciences.
Because of the low cost of Ferrer’s publications,
they were adapted by many of the other
lay schools in the area. One example,
a textbook history of Christianity El
Origen del Christianismo was highly
anti-clerical, concluding with a homage
to "Science," “the liberator
Both the Escuela Moderna and Ferrer’s
activities expanded rapidly during the
period from 1901 to 1906.
By then, he had opened additional
schools around Barcelona, which served
a total of about 125 students.
The highpoint came on Good Friday
– April 12, 1906, when 1,700 children
from anarchist and lay schools all over
Barcelona assembled at Tibidado for a
That celebration would come to be the
pinicle for free education in Spain.
Only a few short months after the Good
Friday demonstration, all would begin
a rapid decline. In September of
1806, during King Alfonso XIII’s marriage
celebration, Mateo Moral, an employee
of Ferrer’s printing house threw a bomb
at the wedding procession. Shortly
thereafter, Moral committed suicide.
Ferrer was arrested as the instigator
of the incident and, using a provision
of the 1902 Inspection Law, all the anarchist
schools in Barcelona were closed.
Newspapers and magazines across Spain
denounced the assassination attempt.
El Corazón de Jesus, a local paper
run by the clergy wrote “these crimes
will continue as long as Spaniards maintain
the freedom to read, to teach and to think,
from which comes all these antisocial
Steadfastly denying any involvement, he
actively encouraged an international campaign
for his release, using clerical and conservative
attacks against him as proof of his persecution.
However, Ferrer’s trial by public
tribunal was a shambles, and while he
seems, in fact, to have been guilty of
putting Moral to the task, little evidence
directly implicating him was brought.
Moreover, the liberal government of the
Marques de la Vega de Arnije was committed
to the ideals of secular education and
defended it against both real and perceived
attacks from the clerical establishment.
The tribunal eventually caved in to external
pressure from Ferrer’s campaigning and
he was ultimately acquitted on 12 June,
Following his release, Ferrer embarked
on a speaking tour of Europe. There,
he was able to promote himself as the
defender of rational secular education
against the attacks of both conservatives
and the clergy. While his reputation
in Spain had been sorely damaged, he became
a champion martyr and cause celebre
among the leftist intellectual community
in Europe, even as he became increasingly
irrelevant at home. The Free Education
Movement had lost momentum after the 1906
bombing, and Ferrer, who spent increasing
amounts of time abroad, gradually lost
control of it. Furthermore, many
of Ferrer’s associates began to loose
their positions, the Radical Republicans
shifted to more moderate views and tactics
and formally broke ties with him.
Many lay schools stopped using his texts.
Abroad, Ferrer was increasingly becoming
the spokesman of rational, non-clerical
education, but at home he suffered from
a backlash against his movement.
The branch schools he had opened suffered
faltering enrollment, and the main school
in Barcelona remained closed.
The Tragic Week of July, 1909 was the
final blow for Ferrer’s modern school.
The Tragic week began as a protest against
the Moroccan War, but it rapidly disintegrated
into general rioting. In the course
of the riots, 80 religious foundations
were destroyed or burned, and the government
was forced to declare martial law and
use the military to restore order. A
new conservative party that had come to
prominence in the government in 1907 had
Ferrer arrested and tried by Military
Tribunal. He was convicted as the
“author and chief” of the events of the
Tragic Week, and was executed by firing
squad at the Fortress of Monjuich on October
Glass work by the
anarchist artist Flavio Costantini
commemorating the execution
of Francisco Ferrer
In fact, Ferrer’s culpability in the events
of the Tragic Week is highly doubtful.
There was nothing to link him to the event
and little to suggest that the rioting was
anything but random. But the Tribunal
felt strongly that he had contributed, through
his publications and activities, to the “revolutionary
tensions” that underlay the events. More
to the point, Ferrer had made many enemies
among the establishment. Through his outspoken
attacks of them, his grandiose self promotion,
and his flair for publicity, he had made himself
a target. Furthermore, there was suspicion
among both the establishment, as well as among
the general population, that Ferrer had escaped
justice for the 1906 attempt on King Alfonso.
And so, while his execution raised an international
outcry, it caught little attention at home.
This was due in no small part to the fact
that Ferrer had managed to alienate many
in the leftist community in Barcelona.
He had become arrogant and was perceived
by many as intellectually dishonest.
As his methods and agenda became known,
he had lost much of the Middle Class support
that he had so coveted. Carolyn
Boyd has observed that, for the socialist
and anarchist organizations still active
in Spain, Ferrer was in fact of more use
dead than alive. Dead, he could
be exploited as a martyr.
Furthermore, secular education in Spain
had become linked in the public imagination
with revolution, rebellion and leftist
indoctrination. Conservatives and
the clergy could and did, argue with example
that education in the hands of the masses
was dangerous. Future proposals
for secular public education were defeated
when the spectre of social revolution
was raised by the right wing. Only abroad,
where he was known only through his published
writing and speeches did he remain a champion
of Free Education.
In light of his revolutionary activities,
Francisco Ferrer is a questionable martyr.
His dynamic and engaging personality
is undoubtable, his commitment to the principals
of free education may be questionable, but
regardless of these personal failings, the
mark that he ultimately put on the Free Education
Movement has been profound.
 Joll, James.
Eyre & Spottiswoode.
London, England. 1979.