Pedagogically displeased

While Barcelonans have given the city’s reins to politicians steeped in the values of shared decision making, where radical non-authoritarian principles are entrusted with liberating us from privilege and inequality, Barcelona education looks in the opposite direction. Think of school buildings and you think institutional grey; think of formal learning, and you think how no other sector of Barcelona society (not culture, not urban planning, not social services) has so consistently underperformed, leaving residents endemically displeased.

The mystery is how Barcelonans can be so anxious about innovation, so quick to take up new causes, when they themselves were educated to sit still and fill in the blanks. Even worse, they wish this same evil upon their children. Fearful of being too footloose and fancy free, they submit their offspring to the same dire system or worse, hoping for some absurd advantage. If mom went to an unappreciated public school (where she learnt tolerance and equanimity), time to send junior off to a concertada run by a still-pervy religious order, pretending to follow the public curriculum to get government money. What underlying secret lies behind such contradictory behaviour?

A huge chunk of Barcelonans (and indeed Catalans) openly disavow their educational experiences. You would understand it if it were just those educated under Franco, or those sent off to the reviled internados, those inquisitional live-in schools they still like to make horror movies about.

But no: in a city electing minorities, it’s a majority opinion. Rarely can anyone be heard praising their schooling, with only the odd teacher saved from the conflagration. There’s not even a decent second market for textbooks, which makes you suspect they are cathartically burnt in Sant Joan bonfires. Like anything causing its original owner undue suffering, used textbooks are voodoo cursed.

Considering Barcelona’s longstanding passion for rethinking anything and its proud defiance of authority, the state of education is unspeakably antithetical. It is even more surprising considering one of the greatest educational reformers the world has ever known, Francisco Ferrer i Guardia, built his legacy in the city. His free-thinking principles, rejecting oppressive grades and privileging individual development, were expressed in the first Modern School, opened on carrer Bailen in 1901. Like fellow libertarian anarchists of the time, he understood education to be a lifetime process, where adults too, and especially the working class, would reinvest newly-won leisure time in learning (and not consumption). Literally scores of anarchist ateneus, union halls and worker’s clubs promoted similar values, and were similarly persecuted.

Unjustly accused of having instigated the Setmana Tràgica protests in 1909, he was executed, his then-universal fame bringing protests from the world over. Modern Schools, including the one in New York, where Man Ray studied, were a testimony to his importance. Ferrer i Guardia was one of the most influential thinkers in Catalan history.

Precisely because he was not an isolated case, but perfectly contextualized in pre-Franco Barcelona, the persistence of what Ferrer and others raged against is so bewildering. There are no more than a handful of schools even giving lip service to radical pedagogy in Barcelona. No one dares raise its banner (not counting the new ateneus, in their own bric-a-brac way). It is not even clear the new city government, so indebted to its values and its spirit, will even bother trying to put any of what it meant in place. If only for the sake of hearing some future generation of Barcelonans raving about what a wonderful time they had at school.

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