Two Recent Books from Factory School


In fact, the truths set forth or the facts recorded must be endorsed and supported by man's own experience before man can appreciate or understand them. Words become living agencies as soon as they express the thing we know to be true. The words of the writer may be used to convey a live thought, a spiritual message, but we are unprepared mentally and spiritually, there is no thought exchange or spiritual message transferred to us. Look, observe, think and assimilate and thus create your own book. -- Elizabeth Bryne Ferm

Over the course of the last year or so, Factory School has published many interesting books, two of which are closely related: Freedom in Education, by Elizabeth Bryne Ferm (2005), and The Modern School of Stelton: A Sketch, by several different authors (2006). The latter was originally published in 1925 by the Modern School Association of North America, which intended to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its founding of the first libertarian school for children in the United States. Reprinted by Factory School in its entirety, complete with the original photographic illustrations, The Modern School of Stelton was mostly written by Joseph J. Cohen, who had been instrumental in re-locating the Modern School from New York City, where it had been founded in 1911 as an outgrowth of the anarchist-inspired Francisco Ferrer Center, to Stelton, New Jersey. (The Ferrer Center stayed in New York City, where it was dissolved in 1918.) Another contributor to The Modern School of Stelton was Alexis C. Ferm, who had been -- with his wife, Elizabeth Bryne Ferm -- brought in to be the school's principals between 1920 and 1925, and then again in 1933. The book also includes short essays by Harry Kelly and Leonard D. Abbott, who had been the Ferrer Center's first Chairman and President, respectively.

It is interesting that Elizabeth Ferm, or Elizabeth Bryne, as she is sometimes called, isn't given very much attention in these histories of the Modern School. Harry Kelly doesn't mention her at all; Joseph Cohen and Leonard Abbott only mention her in passing. She is, of course, mentioned several times by Alex Ferm, but once again only in passing; he offers no sustained portrait or appreciation of her efforts. One might get the impression from all this that Elizabeth was a relatively minor figure, and perhaps only mentioned because of her husband. But that impression would be quite incorrect: Freedom in Education shows her to be a groundbreaking theorist and an excellent writer. Thanks to Factory School, she is no longer an unread or forgotten author.

Apparently a series of essays written for The Modern School magazine in the 1920s, Freedom of Education was originally prepared for publication by Alex and first printed by Lear Publishers (New York) in 1949, five years after Elizabeth's death. The Factory School edition of the book reprints the original text, which included a biographical note on the author by Alex, plus "The Spirit of Freedom," a short text that Elizabeth published in The Modern School magazine three years before she joined the endeavor at Stelton. It is an excellent collection: without announcing itself as such -- there is no preface or introduction of any kind -- Freedom in Education is a major contribution to the fields of infant development, children's education, and libertarian social theory.[1]

One of the striking things about "The Spirit of Freedom" is that, despite its date of publication (October, 1917), it does not refer to the Bolsheviks' October Revolution. Nor does it refer to Lenin, Marx, Bakunin, Nietzsche, Goodwin, Stirner, Proudhon or any other anarcho-communist writer. Perhaps Elizabeth Bryne sees all of these men as mere reformers: "If reformers could inaugurate or legislate into existence a perfect social and economic state of Society," she writes, "we should nevertheless fail to realize any real benefit or permanent change." The problem with reformism is the fact that, "a free state -- to be permanent -- must evolve from a free people. We cannot bestow free conditions," which "must be worked for and established consciously." Compounding the problem is the fact that "A simple natural state could not be enjoyed by Society today." So-called adults, "who have not expressed themselves self-actively since babyhood would feel awkward and perplexed in a natural condition." In short, "A free Society, a free condition, would naturally result [only] from a spontaneously self-active, self-employed, self-directing body of humans." To create this new "body of humans," one must start -- not with the adults, the young, nor even the children -- but with the infants, the only ones in whom "the instinct and impulse for freedom" is completely un-self-conscious and unrestrained. "If we succeed in fostering the instinct and impulse of freedom which the infant reveals we may reasonably count on building a free Society," Bryne says, to conclude her revolutionary manifesto.

For her, the only source of inspiration seems to lie in the work and example of the man she refers to simply as "Froebel," never giving his first name. A "successor" to "the educator, Pestalozzi," this Froebel is the only one to have "based his whole educational work upon a close study of the simple mother with her first born" (so says "The Spirit of Freedom"). Froebel is also mentioned several times in the pages of Freedom in Education, but once again without saying who is he, what he's written, whether he's alive or not, etc. It's as if we are supposed to know who he is. Ahhhh, yes: Froebel!

Friedrich Froebel (1782-1852) was in fact the inventor of the kindergarten, for which he laid the theoretical groundwork in 1826, when he published Die Menschenerziehung. The first German kindergartens were established between 1837 and 1840. It appears that, as far as American educators go, Froebel and the German kindergarten system were "discovered" by Susan Blow, a member of the St. Louis Philosophical Society, while she was on holiday in Germany in 1870. Like Blow and the other St. Louis philosophers, Froebel was strongly influenced by the work of GWF Hegel (1770-1831), particularly his writings on education and history. Susan Blow was so impressed that, upon her return to the United States, she began to campaign for an American kindergarten system, which was begun -- under her auspices -- in 1873, with the creation of the Des Peres School in Carondelet, Missouri. The idea caught on, thanks in part to a timely translation of Froebel's book into English, under the title The Education of Man (1877). In 1889, Susan Blow moved to New York City, where, among other activities, she translated the prose sections of Froebel's Mutter- und Koselieder (originally published in 1844) into English as Mother Play (1895) and wrote Letters to a Mother on the Philosophy of Froebel (1899).

The year that Susan Blow arrived in New York (1889) was also a significant one for Elizabeth Bryne. Born Mary Elizabeth Bryne in Illinois in 1857, she moved to New York to open a bookstore with her first husband, Martin Battle, in 1877. After they separated, Elizabeth got a degree in piano from the New York Conservatory of Music (1885), and became active in the struggles against poverty and in favor of women's rights. In the late 1880s, her sister died after a long illness and Elizabeth decided to adopt and take care of her two infant children. "To do the job properly," Alex Ferm says in his biographical note on his wife, whom he married in 1898, "she resolved to take a course in child education." Elizabeth's studies were greatly enriched and deepened by the facts that, technically speaking, she had no children of her own and thus no "ulterior motive" nor "self-interest" in their education and development. She writes in Freedom of Education that,

It is said of Darwin that he watched and studied frogs for twenty years. When shall we be able to tell of having studied children for so long, not only in the study room or on paper, but in the open of the child's own life? And studied without any ulterior motive, without self-interest, except the one great interest that should ever unite adulthood and childhood -- the unity of life. The test for earnest seekers after truth -- no matter what field -- is, keep your hands off! Wait and observe the life in its freedom, and the truth will be revealed to you.

In 1899, Elizabeth Bryne graduated from the Training School for Kindergartners, which was sponsored by Dr. Newton's All Souls' Church in New York. Alex Ferm reports that "the theories" Elizabeth learned at school were "based on Froebel's ideas of child education." Indeed. During the precise period in which Froebel's texts were becoming widely available in English, Elizabeth Bryne was the head of the Brooklyn Guild Kindergarten (1890); the co-founder (with Alex Ferm) of "The Children's Playhouse" (1901), located in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn; and the co-founder (again with Alex) of a free kindergarten on Madison Street in New York City (1906-1913). And so, when she was finally invited to the Modern School at Stelton in 1920, Elizabeth Bryne -- then 63 years old -- had been studying, thinking about and using Froebel's ideas for more than 30 years.

To this remarkable woman, the importance and usefulness of Froebel's ideas were located in his insistence on the primacy of creativity in all human endeavors. In Freedom of Education she explains, "Froebel held that through self-expression man would objectify his desires and impulses and thus develop and become aware of his own nature, his own individuality; and through this consciousness of self, he would eventually comprehend the unity of all endeavor, of all life." But without true self-expression, or with expression that simply reproduces what has been internalized, "we have a thing that is not self-revealing," that "has no message for anyone," and that "clutters the road which should be left open and free." Because young children do nothing but express themselves -- every infant "has a self-centered, self-conscious, self-determining and self-directing instinct which shuts out the useless and unnecessary things which would serve only to distract and confuse him" -- they are both the role models for adults who would like to free themselves from capitalist oppression and the ones most likely to benefit from a new pedagogy, organized around self-expression.

Elizabeth Bryne doesn't say so, but this Froebel -- several decades before Marx -- seems to have taken what Hegel said about mankind's objectification of impersonal nature ("the outside world") through labor, and applied it to mankind's objectification of human nature ("the inside world") through creativity. And so, by becoming a devout Froebelian, Elizabeth Bryne also became a kind of left-wing Hegelian (even if she didn't know it).[2] This might explain why she seems far more modern to us today than do her "anarchist" contemporaries, most of whom had little or no interest in critical theory. I say this with full awareness that, despite or alongside her fierce libertarianism, Ms. Bryne was also a deeply "spiritual" person. She occasionally refers to creepy shit like The Ascension of the Virgin, a painting "which depicts how insensitive the churchmen were to the spiritual truths they were supposed to protect." But Elizabeth Bryne was no "Church lady." In a truly remarkable passage, she proclaims,

No design, no example for life can be given to man. Froebel passionately declares that ‘no life, not even the life of Jesus, can serve as an example.' Each life is particular and unique in itself. Each life must create its own form.

Here she sounds like a religious "heretic": not only is she an anti-clerical, but she's against all representation, even that of Jesus! As a result of this unusual mix of socio-political libertarianism and religious heresy, some of Elizabeth's declarations sound a lot like those made decades later by the members of the Situationist International, especially Raoul Vaneigem, who has written many books about the heresies suppressed and/or absorbed by the Catholic Church.[3]

To go back to what Elizabeth says about the primacy of self-expression: the distinction between the outside and the inside is central to her practical philosophy. At the beginning of her book's first chapter, which -- following Froebel -- is devoted to the role of "Creative Development in Education," she proclaims,

Unless an act is the outcome of an inner necessity it is not creative. If it is not creative it cannot educate. In the degree that a human expresses himself creatively, in that degree he lives. In the degree that man does not reveal himself in his daily life, in that measure he exists as a material thing and he in no way fulfills his destiny as a self-conscious being, self-determining, self-directing and self-revealing.

It is precisely here -- at the beginning -- that Bryne finds that she must distinguish between Froebel's ideas and the way that Froebel's ideas were put into practice in kindergartens in the New York City area. Elsewhere in "Creative Development in Education," she states,

One of the gravest objections to our present school system is the initiation of the young into forms which have not been called out by any need or desire of the child […] In the school the child soon finds or senses that his acts are caused by an outer influence or permitted by an outer authority. The flow of his former life is diverted and consequently its course no longer normal. His inner voice is stifled and through he may still feel the impulse to act independently, there are too many voices in that child center for him to distinguish his own. From the standpoint of human growth, the outer voice is always false and totally unrelated to man's inner life. When the school succeeds in deadening the sound of the inner voice, it becomes an enemy to human development and a hindrance to life.

Later on in Freedom of Education, Elizabeth goes so far as mention and criticize the great Froebel by name.

After many years of practical kindergarten work, we realized that the kindergarten system did not serve to help the child to develop as an individual. Froebel's educational principles we fully agreed with, because they were verified in the life of the child; but we found that his system, like all systems, hindered the very thing that Froebel most desired to help the child to realize, i.e., self-consciousness through ‘spontaneous self-activity' [emphasis added].

Unlike Froebel and other "reformist" system-builders, Elizabeth is an improvising or "spontaneous" revolutionary theorist.

Education cannot be reduced to a system [she writes]. It cannot be standardized. There is no method for demonstrating its efficiency. Every locality must reveal its educational need in a particular manner. Education is a spiritual union of unconscious youth and conscious age. No degree can make an educator. The spiritual development of adult life is the magnet which attracts and holds the developing child. The bond is an inner one [emphasis added].

We might call her a localist: it is the local situation -- that is, the particular children to be educated -- that determines what the educator should do, not the reverse.[4] The educator can't be a specialist or dogmatist of any kind.

There's no phony liberalism here: educators must learn not to manage, criticize, judge or intervene (chapter 3), even if a lot of toys get smashed to pieces (chapter 12). Such toys -- all of them -- deserve to be smashed!

Commercial toys may be taken as symbols of the present stage of human consciousness [Elizabeth writes]. How many realize today that their outer lives should be necessitated by an inner need? The intense diversion which surrounds us all tends to distract the individual from any realization. Tabloids, movies, phonographs, radios and the automobile serve to exaggerate the importance of external life. The reaction of man to all this is a sense of emptiness, loneliness and discontent.

Play is central to the child's inner life. It is, Elizabeth says, "what religion is to the adult": "an earnest and serious inquiry into the nature of life through and by means of an external form." Play is a "continuous, permanent expression of all forms of life; […] the law of development demands that every living thing must express and reveal itself in play." And so child's play must be encouraged (chapters 13 and 14), even if it turns "rough and tumble" (chapter 15). How rough? "I am inclined to think," she says "that, deplorable as a criminal start may be, there is more hope in it than in a submissive condition."

It is positively thrilling to read Bryne as she -- decades before the great theorists of play[5] -- imagines the place that the New Kindergarten will occupy in the New City and the New Society:

But what have I to offer in place of all the things that I would abolish? Well, I too would establish play centers, but in every neighborhood. Mine would include the whole block, for I would go back of the city houses, tear down the fences and utilize the wood for a playhouse which I would build in the center. If the wood were not fit for building purposes, I would pile it in the center and make one great bonfire to celebrate the event. With the barriers removed, the work-a-day life of the neighborhood would be seen.

But let's not get carried away. Every theorist has his or her blind spots, and childhood sexuality, unfortunately, is Elizabeth Bryne's. She does not give it its own chapter and the subject is raised, somewhat awkwardly, in the chapter ostensibly devoted to "Rough and Tumble Play" (chapter 15). She wants children to engage in sexual activity only when they have achieved a proper age, but does not specify what that age should be. If children are "pre-maturely" engaging in sex, it is simply because "artificial conditions help to breed artificial states of being," because "hothouse treatment tends to foster a general exotic state favorable to delicacy, cowardice, morbidity, sex curiosity and sex precocity." Of course, Elizabeth is also opposed to masturbation ("self-abuse") and I wouldn't doubt that she means homosexuality when she speaks of "delicacy" and "morbidity." But such a drawback should not prevent us from reading and praising Freedom in Education. It simply means that when it comes to books, we need to create our own.

Bill Not Bored
4 August 2006

[1] Is Elizabeth Bryne really best described as "a libertarian"? As an "anarchist"? These questions should also be asked of both the Modern School and the Francisco Ferrer Center, both of which were staffed by spiritualists, socialists and rugged American individualists, as well as by libertarians and anarchists. In this regard, see my review of Alan Antliff, Anarchist Modernism: Art, Politics, and the First American Avant-Garde (2001).

[2] For example: in Freedom of Education, the image -- which is either truly or falsely reflected back to its creator -- can be used to describe capitalist society as a whole. Elizabeth Bryne writes, "When we review the arbitrary discipline of the home, school and society, we find […] that their discipline is not designed to foster the spirit of life. It is intended to reproduce images of life, to perpetuate old forms of life, and to guard against the creation of new forms. Nature abhors an imitation, but not so with these self-appointed guardians. They value the imitative uniform thing far more than the genuine nature thing" [emphasis added]. Note the striking similarity to Feuerbach's The Essence of Christianity (1841): "But certainly for the present age, which prefers the sign to the thing signified, the copy to the original, representation to reality, the appearance to the essence illusion only is sacred, truth profane." Here one might also be reminded of the visual metaphors used by the Marxist critical theorist Georg Lukacs to discuss modern alienation (History and Class Consciousness, 1926), as well as those used decades later by the "situationist" theorist Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967).

[3] Raoul Vaneigem's books include The Movement of the Free Spirit (1986) and The Resistance to Christianity: The Heresies at the Origins of the 18th Century (1993).

[4] "Pedagogy implies localized practices, not socialized centrality." Henri Lefebvre, The Right to the City, contained in Writings on Cities (Blackwell, 1996).

[5] For example, Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (1938). See also the work of Constant.




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