A Short Graphical History of a Mostly Jewish and Entirely Anarchist Elementary School
All images courtesy Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Library
What do you do when your drama teacher makes you wear a tree costume that is really uncomfortable? If you’re an elementary school student at the anarchist Stelton Colony in New Jersey, you go on strike. Not every group of elementary school students would think to unionize, but it wasn’t much of a stretch for the students at the Stelton Colony’s Modern School. Active from 1911 until 1953, the Modern School was a radical experiment in libertarian elementary school education, in which children were not even compelled to attend class. Organized by the anarchist Ferrer Association, the school was operated and attended largely by recent Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.
While the embrace of capitalism and the free market system has been a persistent theme in Jewish immigrant life throughout the modern period, various anti-capitalist ideologies played significant roles in Jewish communities throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Modern School was a product of this revolutionary milieu, which had a period of extreme vitality in pre-war New York. The following pages offer a window into that era through a series of images from the Stelton Colony, which housed the Modern School after 1915.
In 1911, a group of anarchists that included Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman founded the Ferrer Center and Modern School at St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan. Initially, the classes and lectures held there targeted adults and featured well-known radical speakers including Eugene O’Neill, Upton Sinclair, and Margaret Sanger. The day school was nominally modeled after a Barcelona school founded by the martyred Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer, for whom the center had been named. The school’s students were offered a heavy dose of political radicalism in an entirely unstructured environment. When, in 1914, three Ferrer Center regulars blew themselves up while building a bomb apparently intended for the Rockefellers, the political atmosphere became so intense that the leaders of the Ferrer Association determined that the school needed to be removed from New York. The anarchists decided to build a school and a community to support it on a piece of land in Stelton, New Jersey.
Some land was set aside as a permanent home for the school and the rest was sold to prospective colonists in one-and two-acre parcels. The colonists supported themselves by working in the garment district in New York and selling what they grew on their own land. Away from the political pressure cooker of Manhattan’s anarchist scene, the school became less concerned with instilling revolutionary fervor in its young charges and more focused on providing artistic and cultural education.
For many of the Jews who sent their children to the Modern School and lived at Stelton, political activism was a means of assimilation. Anarchists saw themselves as members of an international proletariat, not a particular ethnicity. They learned English and were eager to work with the non-Jews who served as principals, donors, and teachers at the Modern School. Religion was seen as pernicious. Jim Dick, who was a co-principal at the Modern School beginning in 1917, wrote, “I believe that the School has always tried to furnish an environment in which the child will not look for gods or heroes to save him, but will be self-reliant.”
The Great Depression and the increased popularity of communism over anarchism aided the school’s demise. But the final nail in the Modern School’s coffin came in 1940, when the government built a military base on the land next to Stelton. While the thousands of soldiers housed there were largely well behaved, some houses were broken into and a girl was raped. All that remained after 1953 was for the trustees to sell off and distribute the school’s remaining assets.
Anna Schwartz, pictured teaching a woodworking class was a staff member at the Modern School and its last principal. At the end of her tenure, only 14 students remained at the school; the post-war period brought a more conservative zeitgeist and there was less interest in alternative education.
Members of the Stelton Children’s Theatre perform in Newark, New Jersey in 1916.
Carl Zigrosser, the editor of The Modern School magazine, a publication associated with the school, wrote: “There is no reason why a child with a decided bent toward music or art should drudge along with mathematics, or a child intensely interested in machinery and mechanics should stumble through languages.”
In 1920, Elizabeth Ferm took over as co-principal of the school and introduced interpretive dancing, among other artistic activities.
Members of the Modern School staff hold a meeting outside the schoolhouse in 1920.