Chapter II. Mlle. Meunier

Submitted by GrouchoMarxist on April 25, 2012

Among my pupils was a certain Mlle. Meunier, a wealthy old lady with no dependents, who was fond of travel, and studied Spanish with the object of visiting my country. She was a convinced Catholic and a very scrupulous observer of the rules of her Church. To her, religion and morality were the same thing, and unbelief — or “impiety,” as the faithful say — was an evident sign of vice and crime.

She detested revolutionaries, and she regarded with impulsive and undiscriminating aversion every display of popular ignorance. This was due, not only to her education and social position, but to the circumstance that during the period of the Commune she had been insulted by children in the streets of Paris as she went to church with her mother. Ingenuous and sympathetic, without regard to antecedents, accessories, or consequences, she always expressed her dogmatic convictions without reserve, and I had many opportunities to open her eyes to the inaccuracy of her opinions.

In our many conversations I refrained from taking any definite side; so that she did not recognise me as a partisan of any particular belief, but as a careful reasoner with whom it was a pleasure to confer. She formed so flattering an opinion of me, and was so solitary, that she gave me her full confidence and and invited me to accompany her on her travels. I accepted the offer, and we travelled in various countries. My conduct and our constant Conversation compelled her to recognise the error of thinking that every unbeliever was perverse and every atheist a hardened criminal, since, I, a convinced atheist, manifested symptoms very different from those which her religious prejudice had led her to expect.

She, thought, however, that my conduct was exceptional, and reminded me that the exception proves the rule. In the end the persistency and logic of my arguments forced her to yield to the evidence, and, when her prejudice was removed, she was convinced that a rational and scientific education would preserve children from error, inspire men with a love of good conduct, and reorganise society in accord with the demands of justice. She was deeply impressed by the reflection that she might have been on a level with the children who had insulted her if, at their age, she had been reared In the same conditions as they. When she had given up her belief in innate ideas, she was greatly preoccupied with the, following problem: If a child were educated without hearing anything about religion, what idea of the Diety would it have on reaching the age of reason?

After a while, it seemed to me that we were wasting time if we were. not prepared to go on from words to deeds. To be in possession of an important privilege through the imperfect organisation of society and by the accident of birth, to conceive ideas of reform, and to remain inactive or indifferent amid a life of pleasure, seemed to me to incur a responsibility similar to that of a man who refused to lend a hand to a person whom he could save from danger. One day, therefore, I said to Mlle. Meunier:

“Mlle., we have reached a point at which it is necessary to reconsider our position. The world appeals to us for our assistance, and we cannot honestly refuse it. It seems to me that to expend entirely on comforts and pleasures resources which form part of the general patrimony, and which would suffice to establish a useful institution, is to commit a fraud; and that would he sanctioned neither by a believer nor an unbeliever. I must warn you, therefore, that you must not count on my company in your further travels. I owe myself to my ideas and to humanity, and I think that you ought to have the same feeling now that you have exchanged your former faith for rational principles.”

She was surprised, but recognised the justice of my decision, and, without other stimulus than her own good nature and fine feeling, she gave me the funds for the establishment of an institute of rational education. The Modern School, which already existed in my mind, was thus ensured of realisation by this generous act.

All the malicious statement — that have been made in regard to this matter — for instance, that I had to submit to a judicial interrogation — are sheer calumnies. It has been said that I used a power of suggestion over Mlle. Meunier for my own purposes. This statement, which is as offensive to me as it is insulting to the memory of that worthy and excellent lady, is absolutely false. I do not need to justify myself; I leave my vindication to my acts, my life, and the impartial judgment of my contemporaries. But Mlle. Meunier is entitled to the respect of all men of right feeling, of all those who have been delivered from the despotism of sect and dogma, who have broken all connection with error, who no longer submit the light of reason to the darkness of faith nor the dignity of freedom to the yoke of obedience.

She believed with honest faith. She had been taught that between the Creator and the creature there is a hierarchy of intermediaries whom one must obey, and that one must bow to a series of mysteries contained in the dogmas imposed by a divinely instituted Church. In that belief she remained perfectly tranquil. The remarks I made and advice I offered her were not spontaneous commentaries on her belief, but natural replies to her efforts to convert me; and, from her want of logic, her feeble reasoning broke down under the strength of my arguments, instead of her persuading me to put faith before reason. She could not regard me as a tempting spirit, since it was always she who attacked my convictions; and she was in the end vanquished by the struggle of her faith and her own reason, which was aroused by her indiscretion in assailing the faith of one who, opposed her beliefs.

She now ingenuously sought to exonerate the Communist boys as poor and uneducated wretches, the offspring of crime, disturbers of the social order on account of the injustice which, in face of such a disgrace, permits others, equal disturbers of the social order, to live unproductive lives, enjoy great wealth, exploit ignorance and misery, and trust that they will continue throughout eternity to enjoy their pleasures on account of their compliance with the rites of the Church and their works of charity. `The idea of a reward of easy virtue and punishment of unavoidable sin shocked her conscience and moderated her religious feeling, and, seeking to break the atavistic chain which so much hampers any attempt at reform, she decided to contribute to the founding of a useful work which would educate the young in a natural way and in conditions which would help them to use to the full the treasures of knowledge which humanity has acquired by labour, study, observation, and the methodical arrangement of its general conclusions.

In this way, she thought, with the aid of a supreme intelligence which veils itself in mystery from, the mind of man, or by the knowledge which humanity has gained by suffering, contradiction, and doubt, the future will be realised; and she found an inner contentment and vindication of her conscience in the idea of contributing, by the bestowal of her property, to a work of transcendent importance.

Chapter III. I Accept The Responsibility

Once I was in possession of the means of attaining my object, I determined to put my hand to the task without delay. It was now time to give a precise shape to the vague aspiration that had long haunted my imagination; and to that end, conscious of my imperfect knowledge of the art of paedagogy, I sought the counsel of others. I had not a great confidence in the official paedagogists, as they seemed to me to be largely hampered by prejudices in regard to their subject or other matters, and I looked out for some competent person whose views and conduct would accord with my ideals. With his assistance I would formulate the programme of the Modern School which I had already conceived. In my opinion it was to be, not the perfect type of the future school of a rational state of society, but a precursor of it, the best possible adaptation of our means; that is to say, an emphatic rejection of the ancient type of school which still survives, and a careful experiment in the direction of imbuing the children of the future with the substantial truths of science. I was convinced that the child comes into the world without innate ideas, and that during the course of his life he gathers the ideas of those nearest to him, modifying them according to his own observation and reading. If this is so, it is clear that the child should receive positive and truthful ideas of all things, and be taught that, to avoid error, it is essential to admit nothing on faith, but only after experience or rational demonstration With such a training the child will become a careful observer, and will be prepared for all kinds of studies.

When I had found a competent person, and while the first lines were being traced of the plan we were to follow, the necessary steps were taken in Barcelona for the founding of the establishment; the building was chosen and prepared, and the furniture, staff, advertisements, prospectuses, leaflets, etc., were secured. In less than a year all was ready, though I was put to great loss through the betrayal of my confidence by a certain person. It was clear that we should at once have to contend with many difficulties, not only on the part of those who were hostile to rational education, but partly on account of a certain class of theorists, who urged on me, as the outcome of their knowledge and experience, advice which I could only regard as the fruit of their prejudices. One man, for instance, who was afflicted with a zeal for local patriotism, insisted that the lessons should be given in Catalan [the dialect of the province of Barcelona], and would thus confine humanity and the world within the narrow limits of the region between the Ebro and the Pyrenees. I would not, I told the enthusiast, even adopt Spanish as the language of the school if a universal language had already advanced sufficiently to be of practical use. I would a hundred times rather use Esperanto than Catalan.

The incident Confirmed me in my resolution not to submit the settlement of my plan to the authority of distinguished men who, with all their repute, do not take a single voluntary step in the direction of reform. I felt the burden of the responsibility I had accepted, and I endeavoured to discharge it as my conscience directed. Resenting the marked social inequalities of the existing order as I did, I could not be content to deplore their effects; I must attack them in their causes, and appeal to the principle of justice-to that ideal equality which inspires all sound revolutionary feeling.

If matter is one, uncreated, and eternal — if we live on a relatively small body in space, a mere speck in comparison with the innumerable globes about us, as is taught in the universities, and may be learned by the privileged few who share the monopoly of science — we have no right to teach, and no excuse for teaching, in the primary schools to which the people go when they have the opportunity, that God made the world out of nothing in six days, and all the other absurdities of the ancient legends. Truth is universal, and we owe it to everybody. To put a price on it, to make it the monopoly of a privileged few, to detain the lowly in systematic ignorance, and — what is worse — impose on them. a dogmatic and official doctrine in contradiction with the teaching of science, in order that they may accept with docility their low and deplorable condition, is to me an intolerable indignity. For my part, I consider that the most effective protest and the most promising form of revolutionary action consist in giving the oppressed, the disinherited, and all who are conscious of a demand for justice, as much truth as they can receive, trusting that it will direct their energies in the great work of the regeneration of society.

Hence the terms of the first announcement of the Modern School that was issued to the public. It ran as follows:


The mission of the Modern School is to secure that the boys and girls who are entrusted to it shall become well-instructed, truthful, just, and free from all prejudice.

To that end the rational method of the natural sciences will be substituted for the old dogmatic teaching. It will stimulate, develop, and direct the natural ability of each pupil, so that he or she will not only become a useful member of society, with his individual value fully developed, but will contribute, as a necessary consequence, to the uplifting of the whole community.

It will instruct the young in sound social duties, in conformity with the just principle that “there are no duties without rights, and no rights without duties.”

In view of the good results that have been obtained abroad by mixed education, and especially in order to realise the great aim of the Modern School-the formation of an entirely fraternal body of men and women, without distinction of sex or class — children of both sexes, from the age of five upward, will be received.

For the further development of its work, the Modern School will be opened on Sunday mornings when there will be classes on the sufferings of mankind throughout the Course of history, and on the men and women who have distinguished themselves in science, art, or the light for progress. The parents of the children may attend these classes.

In the hope that the intellectual work of the Modern School will be fruitful, we have, besides securing hygienic conditions In the institution and its dependencies, arranged to have a medical inspection of children at their entrance into the school. The result of this will be communicated to the parents if it is deemed necessary; and others will be held periodically, in order to prevent the spread of contagious diseases during tile school hours.

During the week which preceded the opening of the Modern School I invited the representatives of the press to visit the institution and make it known, and some of the journals inserted appreciative notices of the work. It may be of historical interest to quote a few paragraphs from El Diluvio: The future is budding in the school. To build on any other foundation is to build on sand. Unhappily, the school may serve either the purposes of tyranny or the cause of liberty, and may thus serve either barbarism or civilisation.

We are therefore pleased to see certain patriots and humanitarians, who grasp the transcendent importance of this social function, which our Govern ment systematically overlooks, hasten to meet this pressing need by founding a Modern School; a school which will not seek to promote the interests of sect and to move in the old ruts, as has been done hitherto, but will create an intellectual environment in which the new generation will absorb the ideas and the impulses which the stream of progress unceasingly brings.

This end can only be attained by private enterprise. Our existing institutions, tainted with all the vices of the past and weakened by all the trivialities of the present, cannot discharge this useful function. It is reserved for men of noble mind and unselfish feeling to open up the new path by which succeeding generations will rise to higher destinies.

This has been done, or will be done, by the founders of the modest Modern School which we have visited at the courteous invitation of its directors and those who are in its development. This school is not a commercial enterprise, like most scholastic institutions, but a paedagogical ex- periment of which only one other specimen exists in Spain (the Free Institution of Education at Madrid).

Sr. Salas Anton brilliantly expounded the programme of the school to the small audience of journalists and others who attended the modest opening-festival, and descanted on the design of educating children in the whole truth and nothing but the truth, or what is proved to be such. If is chief theme was that the founders do not propose to add one more to the number of what are known as “Lay Schools,” with their impassioned dogmatism, but a serene observatory, open to the four winds of heaven, with no cloud darkening the horizon and interposing between the light and the mind of man.