Any school implicated in a plot to assassinate John D. Rockefeller is a school that I want to know more about.
Training bomb-throwers is not, after all, what we believe we do in American education. Notwithstanding the lengthy history of collusion in state violence by any number of institutions of higher learning in the US [i], more of us these days may be inclined to follow the reasoning of Donald Rumsfeld in his remarks situating these sorts of things in certain educational institutions in South Asia: “These extreme radical madrassas are … producing more terrorists every week or month than we’re able to capture or kill” (Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, 2006). Whatever else American schooling involves, it is not an overt commitment to political violence by persons not representing the federal government.
A hundred years ago, the political landscape of the United States was both more rancorous and more diverse than it is today, and the eventual “triumph” of capitalism still not assured. What do we know of models and theories of education issuing from that end of the American political spectrum that still contested a capitalist society?
The school implicated in the bomb plot against Rockefeller was founded as the Modern School of New York. In attendance at its opening ceremony on New Year’s Day, 1911, were the then-notorious anarchist agitators Emma Goldman (instrumental in its creation) and Alexander Berkman. The son of Margaret Sanger was among its original cohort of nine students. The school based itself upon the ideas of Catalan anarchist Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, in whose honor it is sometimes also referred to as the Ferrer School, the Ferrer Center, and the Ferrer Modern School. From its first location in Greenwich Village, the school moved uptown twice (the second time to Harlem), before decamping to New Jersey and assuming the name Stelton Modern School. It retained this name until the school closed in 1953.
The plot against Rockefeller came to light when a tenement on Lexington Avenue on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (five blocks from the Ferrer School) exploded on 4 July 1914. Three men were killed in the explosion by the bomb they had brought (but failed to deliver for reasons unknown) to Rockefeller’s house in Tarrytown, New York, the previous day. (A fourth man, not involved in the plot, survived.) The owner of the apartment and the decedents of the explosion are referred to by Goldman as “comrades” who had worked with Berkman on a campaign of protest against the Ludlow Massacre of April, 1914, in which Colorado National Guard troops used Gatling guns to kill 13 strikers, and immolated 13 women and children in their tents. The troopers had been paid by Rockefeller, whose Colorado Fuel and Iron Corporation had been idled by the strike for several months. The three dead conspirators (Arthur Carron, Charles Berg, and Karl Hanson) had all been beaten by the police in a Union Square demonstration against Rockefeller, organized by Upton Sinclair, for which Berkman and a number of boys from the Ferrer School representing the Anti-Militarist League later stood trial.
At length the police learned that Carron, Berg, and Hanson had met frequently with Berkman [ii] at the Ferrer Center to plan their attack, including on the night of 3 July, and that teenage students were used as lookouts during these meetings. An urn containing the ashes of the bombers was displayed briefly at the offices of Goldman’s Mother Earth magazine before being placed in a niche in the school’s auditorium and venerated there almost as a reliquary. After the move to New Jersey, the ashes were scattered to the winds on the site of the Stelton Modern School.
Goldman recalls that it was Berkman who obtained the bodies for cremation, and that “the remains of the dead comrades … were deposited in a specially designed urn in the form of a clenched fist rising from the depths” that thousands passed through the Mother Earth offices to honor. A public commemoration in honor of Carron, Berg, and Hanson attracted 20,000 people to Union Square, and was addressed (among others) by Ferrer School president Leonard Abbot. Abbott’s address later appeared in the pages of Mother Earth.
Given the unapologetic embrace of the bomb plot exemplified through the treatment of the bombers’ remains, it is difficult to accept the view that the Modern School/Ferrer Center/Stelton Modern School and its personnel had merely been hoodwinked, serving as a meeting place but nothing more. This perception is strengthened by the story of the lone survivor of the tenement explosion, a Wobbly named Michael Murphy:
Asleep when the blast occurred, Murphy had a miraculous escape when his bed fell through the floor to the apartment below. Dazed but uninjured, he staggered into the street, where a policeman gave him his coat. Murphy managed to slip away and went to the office of Mother Earth, where Berkman at once sent him, accompanied by [former Thomas Edison employee, fired for IWW organizing, Charles Robert] Plunkett, to [Ferrer School president Leonard Dalton] Abbott’s picnic in New Jersey. From there he was taken to Philadelphia by members of the Radical Library whom [Ferrer School custodian and later Stelton principal [iii]] Joseph Cohen had summoned by telephone. After lying low for a while, he was sent to England by way of Canada. More than twenty years later, he wrote to Cohen, asking if it was safe to come back. “Dad gave such a double-take when he read that,” Emma Cohen remembers, “and figured that if he had to ask such a question after all that time he had better stay put. So [Cohen] answered no.
The school had deep roots in American anarchism, its first president and several of its teachers praised by Emma Goldman in her autobiography as the only people in America sharing her educational philosophy. At least one member of the faculty was among Goldman’s lovers (Hippolyte Havel); others, such as Harry Kelly and Sadikichi Hartman, had published in Mother Earth long before the school was established. The Ferrer School also seems to have followed the Mother Earth offices in its peregrinations around Manhattan. In 1911, when Mother Earth was housed at 210 E. 13th Street, the school opened at 6 St. Mark’s Place, moving within months to 104 E. 12th Street [iv], just around the corner. In 1915, the school was located at 63 E. 107th Street, and Mother Earth at 20 E. 125th Street. The relocation to New Jersey was precipitated by heavy federal and local surveillance of the school after the United States entered the war in Europe in April, 1917:
“Police were there every night,” recalls Maurice Hollod [former student and lookout for the Rockefeller bombing conspirators], “arresting and harassing the boys.” The Lusk Committee, formed by the New York State legislature to investigate seditious activity, charged that the Ferrer School children had been taken “at the most impressionable age” and taught an “utter disregard for our laws, and imbued with the idea that a state of anarchy was the true blissful state.” That such an institution should have been allowed to exist for almost ten years, the committee complained, was “not a very high compliment to the City of New York.”
Mother Earth was suppressed at this time; Goldman and Berkman were imprisoned, then deported to Russia; and the Ferrer School left New York for good.
“Smash the State” — of New Jersey
In 1933, John G. Scott and Jo Ann Wheeler of Craryville, New York, borrowed the name Mother Earth for an anarchist magazine they published until the following year. Scott, an economist and “Thoreauvian anarchist,” had just been fired from a position at Hayes State College in Kansas for professing free love in his civics class and teaching Darwinian evolution. The final issue of the revived Mother Earth appeared in 1934, shortly before Scott and Wheeler took up teaching duties at the Stelton Modern School, which their children attended. I spoke with their son, Jon Thoreau Scott, about his years at Stelton.
By Mr. Scott’s recollection, the Modern School in its Stelton, New Jersey, incarnation did not have a self-consciously political cast to it:
The Modern School did not preach anarchism. It did not “teach” any form of “ism”. So I did not experience any connection to any political pursuasion except in the opinions of people in the community who had their own views. But they rarely talked to the children about “isms”. The main idea of the school and the teachiers was to let the children decide for themselves how they would lead their lives. I think that EG [Emma Goldman] visited the school in Stelton before she was deported, around 1919 or so, and no doubt she had an affect on the teachers, but probably not on the children. (J. T. Scott, personal communication, 2007; errors are original to the message, received via e-mail)
If the faculty did not impress a definite political orientation upon the students, it is not the case that the parent body was without patterns in its allegiances. At least half, Mr. Scott recalls, were recent Jewish immigrants from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, drawn to Stelton in part through the school’s connections to local shops and factories in the needle trades.
In a published interview, Mr. Scott pointed out that the political and other prior careers of some faculty at the school did not always serve them well:
Quite a few famous people were teachers at the school. Most of them didn’t last; they had their own ideas and really didn’t believe in this concept of freedom. My father, for example, was a teacher there. He didn’t really want to be there but he was asked to do it when the principal left. I don’t think he really had that flavor even though he was an anarchist. But he had also been a professor and once you have been a professor and you go through our school system, you sort of get adapted to it. […] And there were professors who came and took the job but they didn’t last for more than few months. My father was one of them. They believed more in teaching than in learning.
Thus the crucial thing for this school was not political ideology, but the practice of freedom by the children:
The children did not really feel any obligation to believe in any political persuasion. As I see it the hope of the teachers was that if children experienced true freedom ealy in ther lives they would want to have a society that would be free. They would, perhaps, choose anarchism. But it was never preached. Freedom was just given to us. And that was the key element of the libertarian education of the Ferms [v] and the Dicks and of nearly all of the teachers and organizers of the school. Perhaps the goal of the school was to somehow convince us to desire true freedom, and even eventually become anarchists. That was never a part of the way the school was run. I would say that only a very few of us became anarchists, like me, and if so quite late in life. (J. T. Scott, personal communication, 2007; errors original)
It is a fine ideal, to strive to convince children to desire true freedom. How is such a thing done in practice?
I really don’t know what goes on in schools today, but I seriously doubt if there is real freedom. After all, teachers are there to “teach” and most teachers don’t really know how to let a child be free. It is not a goal of the public schools. When freedom is the goal as it was in Modern Schools and free schools of today children get the message that they really can choose what they want to do. For example in the art room in Stelton the “teacher” did his or her own thing and the children did what they wanted to draw, paint, sculpt etc. It was the same in all activities such as printing, writing stories, woodwork, weaving, metalwork and play. The child decided what to do.
If a child went down a wrong path he or she was not corrected unless the child asked the teacher for advice. In most schools I think that the teacher has the children do the same thing, but I could be wrong. If art teachers really allow children to do as they want with their artwork then freedom prevails. But again, I don’t know how they do things in the grade schools of today. (J. T. Scott, personal communication, 2007)
This approach begs the question of how the children became aware of moral autonomy, personal responsibility and accountability, and related concepts.
OK. I was two. My first recollection of Stelton is that I was underneath the table in the art room, drawing pictures while kids were fighting all around me. Every now and then they’d have a big fight. Everybody would decide to fight and the teachers would allow the fighting until it stopped. That was the principle. Then they would start reasoning: Well, [children,] what did this accomplish? But I didn’t want any part of the fighting because I was the littlest kid there! So I went under the table and continued doing my work.
Mr. Scott was nine years old before learning to read, and his sister a year and a half older. This was, as he recalls it, a source of no concern around the school (nor an impediment to life prospects — Mr. Scott went on to become Chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the State University of New York at Albany, having majored in engineering at Cornell and earned a PhD in biochemistry at the University of Munich). Books were available at Stelton, though many alumni have said otherwise in their recollections of the school — a dispute reflecting, perhaps, the school’s priorities:
The school had an art room, a weaving room, a kindergarten, which [consisted of] blocks. There were books. Some of the students remember that the books were banished, but that’s not true. There was a big wall of books in the weaving room. You could take them out, read them, look at the pictures and do anything you wanted with it. But I didn’t. Once in a while, I would. Once a day, a teacher would come in and read children’s stories. For a long time, I participated in that. But in addition to those three rooms, there was a nice stage and an auditorium where they held meetings and we did plays. It was a very nice school. There was a ceramics shop, a printing shop and a wood shop. There were all kinds of fields, athletic fields. My father would do hikes and nature walks.
I spent a lot of time in the wood shop; most of the time I think I spent in sports and games. We played most of the time, which is what we should do. That’s where you learn. You learn by playing. (J. T. Scott, personal communication, 2007)
The method of reading instruction chosen in this case — and motivated by a desire to read the comics, not to approach great literature — bears mentioning:
My mother was the reading teacher and I said to her, “I want to learn how to read.” She said, “All right, here’s the poetry book. Read this poem.” I said, “I don’t know how to read that poem!” She says, “You read it and start here and you read that poem until you know it.” The poem was, What Did Poor Robin Do?
So I learned that. She started pointing out, well, now you see, you know these. Of course, I already knew the poem, that’s why she put me on that poem. She knew I knew it. So, I started connecting the words and then next poem and then five, six poems later, I was pretty good. […] That’s it — recognizing the word in print. And when you are nine, how long does that take? No time.
This laissez-faire attitude towards literacy, although not unknown in other approaches to schooling, was nevertheless a major point of criticism directed at the school by outsiders. (In contrast to Waldorf Schools, for instance, earlier reading was not prevented.) At Stelton, Mr. Scott recalls, the moment a child asked to learn to read was deemed the right moment for the child to learn, and no earlier.
As with this experience of reading, so too with other subjects: a student at Stelton was taught only what the student requested. In his first algebra class, Mr. Scott and classmates completed a year’s work in six months, meeting for one hour three days per week. A year later, compelled to begin in a typical public school, Mr. Scott had this experience with algebra:
The transition academically was a joke. I knew more than all those kids already. Just from studying on my own and reading books and things like that. I knew some of things in the English book since I had already read them. I already had the equivalent of a year of algebra and here I have to take algebra! I tell my students, “What do you think I got on the first algebra test?” They had a test every week and that was the very first test I ever took in my life. Of course I got a hundred on it. The next one, I got a hundred, and about seven, eight weeks went by and the teacher announced, “Why can’t you all do like Jon?!” After that, I did not get a hundred any more! So I started missing one or two every now and then purposely. But I asked the teacher, “Why do I have to take this? I know this stuff, I can do it anyway. I don’t have any problem with it.” He said, “Oh, you can use the practice. And it’s required by law. You have to take this.” So, I took it. […]
The model of one size fits all doesn’t work. So, our school system stinks, to be honest with you. I saw that by the time they got to the ninth grade, most of the students were not interested in learning. They had no desire to learn. And I still did. So, I did really well in school. That was typical of most of the kids from the Modern School. They became very, very successful in high school and when they went to New Brunswick High, chances are that the valedictorian of the class came from the Modern School. I would say that most of them were that simply because they were not brain-dead yet.
The fact that a student with Mr. Scott’s background, far from being incapacitated in a more typical public school, can instead excel there, might be the last thing in the world to commend the Stelton School model to American schooling in the present day — for reasons I intend to address in my summary.
Are Our Schools Free?
I don’t know whether every school — or even very many schools — should be like the Stelton Modern School. But I would propose that the experience and perspective of Jon Thoreau Scott beg at least two significant questions about schooling in the era of No Child Left Behind: How do we understand the notion of freedom in preparing young people to live in what some consider a free society? And: Does schooling, as now constructed in this country, serve the imperative of instilling a learned helplessness?
As Mr. Scott would have it, the tragedy of schooling today is that most students could probably learn what they need to know more or less on their own. If they do not, it is because students are too often habituated to believe otherwise about themselves, and because this habituation leads them to find all learning onerous.
As teachers, we are predisposed to believe we are very important to learning. Yet it seems to me perfectly self-evident that, for fully half of my students, I am present while they learn, a by-stander — and that to say I have taught them anything is to claim far too much. For many, indeed most, of the rest, getting through the school day is a matter of performing the role of student — appearing to have learned, playing along. I am complicit in this by setting the rules: “Show me this much, and you will pass.” From them, I reward only achievement, seldom or never learning. And students know this.
By this logic, Mr. Scott’s experience also leads me to question whether one of the highest priorities of schooling in America in the early 21st century is nothing more than to preserve the institutions of schooling. That the corporate presence in schools has boomed in recent years — marketing directly to children, supplementing budgets by sponsoring school events in exchange for brand presence, recruiting low-wage employees for high-turnover positions in the guise of vocational training, and providing a lucrative captive market for the standardized testing divisions of major publishers or, need it be said, manufacturers of stimulant medications — begs a critique that Emma Goldman would have found compelling. Is it not, after all, entirely likely that schooling increasingly serves no other agenda than the corporate?
Most students probably can learn on their own what they want to know (let alone what they need to know, since they learn that in spite of, not because of, schooling), and this is a problem for schools. What they probably cannot do on their own is produce Adequate Yearly Progress results on standardized testing, if only because the tasks are too contrived, pointless, and deliberately alien to the real needs of developing minds. This being the case — and the revenue at the schoolhouse gates being, until recently, the last untapped store of treasure left for the corporate economy to devour (Schlosser, 2005) — we cannot possibly afford the cost of free minds in free schools. That, I would propose, is a source of ballast to the status quo in the social foundations of American education that will not be overcome without a profound and sweeping reappraisal of our assumptions about why we send kids to school.
[i] It is true that the US educates many people, if not to be bomb-throwers, at least to be bomb makers. The relationship between the military and the university was a major issue in campus unrest in the 1960s. For instance, the discovery of documents connecting Columbia University to the weapons-development efforts of Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) contributed to protests ending in police violence (Columbia Strike Coordinating Committee, 1968). (IDA operated at the time as part of a university consortium that was also mandated to recruit students into defense-related industries; Institute for Defense Analyses, 2006). Such relationships continue, including locally, under the auspices of the University System of Georgia. For instance, the Georgia Tech Research Institute operates laboratories in support of electronic warfare systems, “countermeasures techniques”, missile systems, and “Military Sensing Technology”, among others (Georgia Tech Research Institute, 2007).
[ii] Berkman was imprisoned in 1892 for an attempt on the life of Henry Clay Frick, instigator of an incident of armed violence similar to the atrocities at Ludlow, perpetrated against strikers at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead, Pennsylvania, steel mill. Berkman received a 22-year sentence, and would still have been in prison at the time of the Ludlow Massacre had his sentence not been partly commuted (Berkman, 1999 ). Berkman originally intended to kill Frick with a bomb instead of a gun, but his prototype failed to detonate when he tested it on a Staten Island beach. Goldman (1970 , p. 536) writes of her reaction to the news of the explosion that killed the Rockefeller conspirators:
Comrades, idealists, manufacturing a bomb in a congested tenement-house! I was aghast at such irresponsibility. But the next moment I remembered a similar event in my own life. It came back with paralyzing horror. In my mind I saw my little room in Peppi’s flat, on Fifth Street, its window-blinds drawn, Sasha [Berkman] experimenting with a bomb, and me watching. I had silenced my fear for the tenants, in case of an accident, by repeating to myself that the end justified the means. With accusing clarity I now relived that nerve-racking week in July 1892. In the zeal of fanaticism I had believed that the end justifies the means! It took years of suffering and experience to emancipate myself from the mad idea.
[iii] If the rise from custodian to principal seems either (a) meteoric, or (b) ironically horizontal, it is worth recalling that Thoreau (who figures into the narrative below) was once Emerson’s handiman.
[iv] Less than 3 blocks away from this location, and slightly south of Union Square, an explosion in a bomb factory in another residential building at 18 West 11th Street claimed the lives of three more “comrades, idealists” representing the Weathermen faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) on 6 March 1970. This precipitated the birth of the covert wing of this faction, known as the Weather Underground — one of the last violent, anti-militarist and anti-capitalist revolutionary groups in the US (Varon, 2004).
[v] The reference is to Elizabeth Byrne Ferm (d. 1944) and Alexis C. Ferm (d. 1971), who took over the running of the Stelton School in 1924. In her autobiography, Emma Goldman mentions the Ferms as her closest American friends.