The beginnings of child-centred education in Spain

  • July 3, 2020
The beginnings of child-centred education in Spain

Anna Kathryn Kendrick's new book catalogues the origins and influence of the education reformers in early 20th Spain.

One early-20th Spanish pedagogue described the need for educational reform as a “Copernican revolution”: moving from an adult-centred view of the world to one which, like the earth around the sun, put the child back at its centre.

Anna Kathryn Kendrick

Anna Kathryn Kendrick’s first book, Humanizing Childhood in Early Twentieth Century Spain, was published earlier this year and in it she traces how Spanish neo-humanist education reformers drew upon international models to advance ‘catholic’ notions of holism and universality. It is based on her PhD in Spanish which she completed at the University of Cambridge. In the award-winning study Anna [2011], now Clinical Assistant Professor of Literature and Director of Global Awards at NYU Shanghai, demonstrates that the fight for an education in mind, body, and spirit had not only intellectual but also practical consequences which were to shape an entire generation before the Spanish Civil War. Gates Cambridge asked her about the book.

Gates Cambridge: What prompted your interest in this subject?

Anna Kathryn Kendrick: I came into my PhD with an interest in how cultural diplomacy fit into wider narratives of fascism, political alliances and wartime intellectual compromise. During my Masters, spending some time for language study in Berlin, I had discovered a series of journals at the Ibero-American Institute, established during the 20th century as part of Germany’s projects of outreach and post-imperial expansion, all stamped with swastikas, yet filled with thinkers debating — in Spanish, in Nazi Germany — questions of ethics and society. This conflation fascinated me, and spurred my PhD proposal.

By the time I arrived in Cambridge and began reading these German scholars in Spanish translation, and reading the works of Spanish intellectuals like José Ortega y Gasset and Miguel de Unamuno, I realised that what I was most interested in was not the wartime exchange, but rather why Spain was seeking out these links, models and scholarly partnerships with German intellectuals in the first place.

That led me to a wider story of Spain’s own early 20th century transformation. I wondered why questions of educational reform keep recurring in the texts I read, by figures who seemed far removed from the field of teaching. In an age of scientising, modernising tools, like the recently-invented intelligence test or movements like Gestalt psychology, how and why did teachers adopt these tools and ideas from abroad? How did they ‘hispanicise’ their teaching or turn it towards a cosmopolitan ideal? And why did childhood itself, and its aesthetics, so fascinate a range of avant-garde scholars, scientists, poets and artists — figures like the Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, the poet Federico García Lorca or the surrealist artist Maruja Mallo?

In seeking to create not only ideal Spanish citizens, but fully developed human beings, what visions of humanism were put forward and how might these have bridged or deepened existing ideological rifts in the years preceding the Spanish Civil War? All of these questions fascinated me and gave me a new frame to understand education itself, and the dialogues and debates surrounding it, as a powerful lens on societies in transition.

Gates Cambridge: What were the main drivers of this interest in a more holistic education?

Anna: I contend that new scientific ideals of holism — the organic system as other than the sum of its parts — read and translated from European scholars, including scientists and pedagogues, lent an objective, scientific sheen to what was ultimately a Spanish project of philosophical and existential renewal. The most well-known educational organisation, the Institución Libre de Enseñanza, based its work on a philosophical influence known as Krausism, which posed its own framing of the world and the individual as vital parts of a larger whole. When I encountered largely unknown teachers writing serious, informed treatises on childhood perception based on the works of figures like the German biologist Jakob von Uexküll it was clear to me that there was a powerful process of importation, transfer and reception at play, one which had much to do with education but even more to do with Spain’s own national imaginaries.

Educators drew on Spanish Catholic precedents of centuries past in making their case for a holistic spirit of education — plenitude in mind, body and spirit. Yet they concretely grounded these ideas in the vanguard of philosophical, psychological and biological theories imported from abroad. As happened in Germany during the early 20th century, where new movements like nudism, vegetarianism, expressionism or holistic sciences took hold, any of these impulses could be turned toward a more totalitarian view of the body, mind and society.

This was the dynamic that fascinated me in Spain, where a remarkable project of holistic educational renewal and experimentation sprung up across the ideological spectrum through the early 20th century.

Gates Cambridge: Why Spain at that time?

Anna: Spain lost control of its final colonies in the Spanish-American War of 1898, which set off an intense process of self-reckoning for a newly confined nation. While intellectuals had long protested the state of Spain’s education and research, considered to be far behind that of European neighbours and held back by Catholic dogmatism, it was not until after this perceived crisis that successive national and regional governments began investing in reforming the nation through education. A new governmental body began sending hundreds of teachers abroad, creating new laboratories, funding experimental schools, even bringing over figures like Maria Montessori, who started several influential schools in Barcelona and resided in Spain from 1915 until the Civil War in 1936.

As I show in my work, Spanish teachers’ interest in what was then called New Education — including everything from children’s art to project-based learning — manifested both in international connections and interregional alliances, uniting a segment of teachers, artists and intellectuals who shared a vision of the child as the heart of a new society, and who brought an aesthetics of childhood to bear on their own scientific, artistic and literary practice.

Gates Cambridge: Can you give an example of one or two of the practical consequences?

Anna: An emphasis on health, movement and vitality: open-air schools such as Barcelona’s L’Escola de Mar, opened in a grand seafront building in 1922, and put the focus on children’s active relationship to their environment. That meant, for instance, holding lessons about the sea, shipping or marine biology at the seaside. Similar schools in forests or gardens sought to break down the fourth wall of the classroom, bringing children into nature and arguing that their learning came not from intellectual lessons, but activity and experience: learning by doing.

Women’s leadership in Spanish society: because education and child-rearing were considered areas in which women had particular insight, they were also areas where women could, perhaps, more easily advance into leadership roles. Figures like Rosa Sensat, Justa Freire or Regina Lago represent a vanguard of scholar-educators who studied abroad, ran schools or girls’ sections with highly developed, thoughtful pedagogical practices and published research widely.

Gates Cambridge: Can you give some examples of how these ideas have been carried forward today in some of the discussions we have now about well being and child-centred education?

Anna: Your latter point is precisely it: child-centred education. One early-20th Spanish pedagogue described the need for educational reform as a “Copernican revolution”: moving from an adult-centred view of the world to one which, like the earth around the sun, put the child back at its centre.

This change in directionality had practical implications for the relationship between children and teachers. Reformers sought to create an atmosphere of mutual respect, guidance, exploration – even pedagogical “love”, a potentially controversial-sounding term today, but one which was theorised deeply by several figures I study, such as Miguel de Unamuno and the Catalan philosopher Joaquim Xirau. Essentially, this philosophical — and to my reading, highly spiritual, transcendent — vision understands education not as the overpowering of another mind, but an all-embracing love that recognises its inherent aptitudes and virtues. Such education ideally seeks to encourage development and bring individuals toward plenitude; it accepts faults and humbly seeks grace and virtue in the other.

Gates Cambridge: Do you think the current disruption to education around the world will result in innovations with regard to holistic education?

Anna: I hope so! “My” reformers responded to a sense of stagnation, rote learning and blind adherence to quantitative measures they identified in fin-de-siècle education. Even before COVID-19, many of these same questions continue to be asked: how can art, music and sport help a child develop, beyond test scores and intellectual virtuosity? What is true education? Now, I can’t help but think that our current reliance on remote learning and digital education — and our inability to administer standardised tests! — will lead to similar frustrations and desires: to immerse children in the natural world, to seek other forms of assessment, to understand childhood as a period with its own internal rhythms and needs, perceptions and reactions, that we have only just begun to understand.
Gates Cambridge: How has your book been received?

Anna: I recently had a lively interview with Historias, the Spanish history podcast, run by my colleague Foster Chamberlain, and am looking forward to sharing this work with the community of Spanish historians.

While my book launch in New York was cancelled due to COVID-19, I was delighted to be able to present the book in Cambridge with fellow Gates Cambridge Scholars David Jiménez Torres and Parker Lawson at a fascinating seminar series on Spanish intellectuals that Parker co-convened in November.

My hope is that my book will act as a bridge between Hispanic studies and the history of education. More broadly, I’ve set out to provide a model for literary and cultural scholars to re-evaluate discussions of science, education and humanism in the early 20th century. The reconfiguration of childhood that characterised the ‘century of the child’ (as the writer Ellen Key called the 20th century at its very start) was not a passing fancy or fascination but rather a central aspect of international collaboration, cooperation and intellectual development.

Gates Cambridge: Will you/are you following up on the book?

Anna: This year, I have been at NYU’s Center for the Humanities, starting a new project that takes Spain’s caves of Altamira as a lens onto the fascination with prehistory that runs through intellectual and artistic discourse in the early and mid-20th century. It starts from questions I began to raise in this book: about the origins of creativity, art and the mind and the entwinement of art and politics. While my fieldwork has been postponed due to COVID-19, I’m enjoying working through some of the archives and books I managed to collect before so much changed.

*For more information, read Anna’s blog here. The picture is taken from the book’s cover.

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