The New Education Between the Wars: a forthcoming film by Les Films du Poisson

Joanna Grudzinksa

In 1918 Europe emerged battered from a collective nightmare. The traumatic experience of WW1 created a collective pacifist dream. International workers' associations were springing up and the League of Nations established. Thinkers and intellectuals were looking for explanations: 'Who's fault is it?'

In France, Germany, Great Britain, Poland, the Soviet Union, Belgium and Italy a new kind of teacher answered that the fault lay in traditional education and its philosophy of submission, group selfishness and an absence of critical thinking. They were called Célestin Freinet, Paul Geheeb, Alexander Neill, Janusz Korczak, Anton Makarenko, Ovide Decroly and Maria Montessori. For these new educators, the peace of tomorrow would depend on the creation of a new breed of individual, thanks to education.

Original experiments flourished all over Europe. This was education without coercion, in which authoritarianism was replaced by the self-government of the community. Schools which took the individuality of each child into account, and encouraged a playful and inventive relationship with learning. Schools that thought about the body as well as the mind, and about the relationship with nature and art.

Adolphe Ferrière, a Swiss national, brought these experiments together in a movement of which he was the nerve centre, the New Education Fellowship. It was created in 1921, and would rethink education on an international scale and tackle the future of humanity. Meetings were held all over Europe, in Calais (1921), Montreux (1923), Heidelberg (1925), Locarno (1927), Helsingor (1929), Nice (1932) and Cheltenham (1936). The number of participants grew from 100 to almost 2000.

But the ideal of pacifist internationalism and the desire for a new era soon began to fade in the face of the growing authoritarianism that was sweeping the continent. In 1936, Germany and Italy were absent from the LIEN congress. The meeting scheduled for Paris in 1939 never took place. Ferrière watched in helpless desperation at the rise of European Fascism, which was wiping out his life's work. The efforts for peace had failed, sealing the individual fate of the educators and putting paid to their collective project. The dream crumbled as war loomed again.

Using rare archive footage, the film tells the story of this incredible struggle for human progress, which was built on and then shattered by 20th century ideologies. No similar educational experiment has since gone so far, driven by so many exceptional personalities acting in concert and on an international scale. For this reason - and because both then and now, education remains at the heart of any social and political project - this little-known story should be told today, when it resonates as strongly as ever.

Why make a film on the New Education today?

Between the wars, in a world in crisis, educators carried out some astonishing educational experiments throughout Europe, in the name of a belief in spiritual progress and the equality of individuals' intelligence. They tried to reorganize schooling to create a new kind of child, by drawing a link between teaching and the senses, the imagination, pleasure, and communal life. For example, different objects would be used for learning using the senses rather than the intellect; or writing would be encouraged to express the imagination or for exchange through the production of texts put together in journals destined for inter-school correspondence and printing. The rapport between teacher and pupil had to be radically overhauled by the application of anti-authoritarian, even libertarian principles. Co-education of the sexes, and the rapport between the body and nature were thought to be indispensable so that school could become a living laboratory for democracy, and so that educational communities could become self-governed republics.

Education had never leaned so much on its rapport with the political, and had perhaps never before shown itself to be such a profound and passionate issue as during that period. The educators tried to think about schooling in relation to the wider world and society, without becoming bound up in ideology. By revisiting their questioning and their discussions, we find some of the most pressing questions in our contemporary societies. What should schooling be? What values should it instill? What is its function? Should it shape future citizens, free beings, or workers? What should one do when the established system of rules has clearly failed? What action should be taken? How can one balance the principle of freedom and that of authority, the rights of the individual and the rights of society? By retracing the struggle of these education pioneers, I want to once again pose these ancient, and yet still fresh questions.

The inter-war period, although not strictly the starting point of New Education, illustrates the challenges that were being played out in a Europe that was in recession and in search of meaning. This provides some parallels with the period in which we are living.

Some films have already been made about these educators in their respective countries. It seemed key to us to make a film that considered the movement in its collective and internationalist dimension, beyond individual figures. That is where the historical interest in this adventure lies. It is this utopian drive - both on the ground and in political terms - evoking a desire to be united in a Europe that defies all nationalism, protectionism, exclusion and competition, that we hope to make resonate today.

In its wish for total and radical change, the New Education is very much a product of its age, shaped by the utopian ideals and political paradoxes of the inter-war years. From the middle of the 1920s, it was clear that this great enthusiasm existed in the shadow of imminent catastrophe. One question which still haunts us was asked by the educators: how does one apply educational principles which place primacy on the collective, without falling into the totalitarian pitfalls of collectivist policies? In its ambiguities, its meanderings and its impotence, the New Education sheds light on our history.

The film will have a chronological structure, because the story of the New Education is caught up in that historical moment and the particular tension of the inter-war years. The history of ideas here is inseparable from political history, and that's what makes it all the more fascinating: education is a reflection of the history of Europe between the two world wars.

The time period involved - 20 years - provides a hectic pace for the adventure. 20 years is not long to revolutionize schooling. Twenty years is above all the time for action on a human scale, 20 years in a man's life to bring about a revolution, 20 years of commitment.

The film will be in two parts. The first, from 1918 to 1929, will cover the foundation of the movement, its peak, and the first dissensions. The second, from 1930 to 1939, will recount the radicalisation of the movement with the rise of extremism in Europe, until its final dissolution.

The film will be exclusively based on rare archives of this period, which will be investigated in various European private and public funds and in most cases dug out for the first time for the film.

The New Education movement was an extraordinary educational laboratory: the journals, the publications, the films shot in the new schools, the many photos taken by the educators constitute some exceptionally rich material.  The age of the New Education was also the age of modernity for the medium of cinema, and that of the continual use of photographic equipment. The movement documented itself for propaganda reasons, but also for instructive purposes. The visual material is therefore astounding: publicity films for the new schools, educational-exercise films, souvenir photos, advertising postcards. The New Education existed as a lifestyle which aspired to become widespread.

We see pupils splashing in the rivers around the Summerhill school, in class at the school in Vence, in the dormitories with Ferrière. These images act simultaneously as 'discourses' and illustrations of scholastic practices. Watching them is fascinating, whether they are propaganda, mirage, idealisation or documentation. They are in black and white, with no sound. They can be read in many ways, allowing them to be used from several angles in the structure of the film: events in the educators' lives, illustrations of their teaching concepts, traces of the movement's ambivalence, surviving images of a generation which was destined to partly disappear during the Second World War.

From the middle of the 1920s, it was clear that this great enthusiasm existed in the shadow of imminent catastrophe. One question which still haunts us was asked by the educators: how does one apply educational principles which place primacy on the collective, without falling into the totalitarian pitfalls of collectivist policies? In its ambiguities, its meanderings and its impotence, the New Education sheds light on our history.

The ambition of the film is to bring this story to life in a vivid and fully-fleshed manner, to reconstitute the power and emotion in its aspirations, its clashes and its questioning, whilst at the same time putting the subject in perspective and making it resonate in the present day.

The movement's instigator and tireless propagandist of the New Education, Adolphe Ferrière, will be the main narrator of the story. Guided by Ferrière, the film will trace two main narrative strands: on the one hand, the practical experiences of educators, treated in a non-hagiographic way, each placed in a local and national context; on the other, the shared adventure of the Fellowship, from its initial dream to its implosion. Amidst all this stands the figure of Ferrière, the federating force of the movement, whose commitment and profound questioning allow us to weave the strands of this velvet revolution.

Ferrière was a trained educator but he could not work in a classroom because he was deaf. Instead he decided to list, classify and collate all his professional experiences; he travelled throughout Europe visiting schools and meeting educators, keeping a detailed diary of everything he learned. Ferrière's two journals - his 'big' and his 'little' journal - but also his many publications and correspondence, give accounts of his travels in the inter-war period, his reports on the Fellowship's congresses, his personal and introspective thoughts, and his hopes and fears concerning the New Education and European politics. Adolphe Ferrière injected all his passionate personality into the Fellowship.

Through his eyes we will get a vivid, intimate and reflexive outlook onto the adventure of the New Education Fellowship, which was in many aspects a one man's dream. We will draw the portrait of a man who saw himself as the leader of a movement that would rethink education on an international scale and thus tackle the future of humanity (!) but who was also constantly racked by doubts and had his convictions rattled by the difficulties he experienced in dealing with the education of his own son, Claude.

Ferrière's outlook will be used alongside the writings of the other educators and archive material that will allow us to retrace their actual experiences - each played out in its own local and national context - and also the turbulent adventure of the Fellowship and the many conflicts that divided them.

We will reflect on the diversity of educators' experiences and the eloquent interlacing between their individual fates and the fate of Europe. We will see the changes in the political climate in Europe between the wars, how the ideal of pacifist internationalism and the desire for a new era began to fade in face of the growing authoritarianism that was sweeping the continent and how each of these educators came to deal with it. Maria Montessori was first courted by the Italian Fascists, before being censored. Makarenko underwent the opposite trajectory: he was criticised and exiled before being hailed by the Communist authorities at the time of his death. Freinet, a Communist, was rejected by the conservative population of his village in the south of France, the clerics and aristocrats fearing the power of his ideas. He had to lead a clandestine existence in the hills during the second world war. Korczak continued his mission into the war years and chose to follow the Jewish children of the ghetto in death.

The archives from the inter-war years will help to contextualise the narrative and to place the story in wider history. But additional, more obscure archives, either private or anonymous that will also be dug out, will allow us to reconstitute the climate of the period, to show images of traditional education in the early 20th century and to capture the particularly rich careers of each of the educators and their individual personalities.

This visual material will be supported by the incredible proliferation of written material. The educators kept journals, which were both intimate and scientific, testimony to a constant back-and-forth between theory, practice and introspection. They also published a great many books and articles, notably in the New Era review, the organ of the New Education Fellowship which chronicled the movement over 20 years. This wealth of material bears testimony to their experiments and thoughts, their individual destinies, and the way a history of ideas is created.

Joanna Grudzinska is of Polish origin, and has directed several short films presented in various festivals and a feature-length documentary, "KOR", which screened at the festival Cinéma du Réel in 2010. She currently runs a course at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Lyon and is developing a first fiction feature.

Over 15 years of activity, Les Films du Poisson, founded by Yaël Fogiel and Laetitia Gonzalez, has displayed a strong commitment to an exacting kind of cinema, which has earned both popular and critical success and won a string of international awards - five César awards (notably for Best First Film and Best Producer), Best Director and Caméra d'Or in Cannes, as well as Jean Vigo and Louis Delluc Awards. Since 2006, under the guidance of producer Estelle Fialon, the company has strongly developed its production of documentary films, for both television and the cinema.

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