The Origins of Self-Directed Education

(Above photo: Alexis Ferm and children in the wood shop at the Stelton Modern School, circa 1920-22)

“What you will know must come from your own experience, not from the experience of your teachers or your mother or father.” -Alexis Ferm (Avrich, The Modern School Movement).

A crucial part of the history of Self-Directed Education (SDE), the writing of Alexis "Uncle" Ferm (1870–1971), has long been buried and forgotten, but the opportunity to document and share this inspirational writing is now possible— with your help. The story of Alexis Ferm shows not only the historical roots of one of the oldest SDE communities in the modern world, but also what this SDE community looked like in practice.

We have a press, PM Press, interested in publishing Ferm’s writing, but we need to raise a modest amount of money in order to get through the meticulous labor of editing and transcribing Ferm’s words. Your contribution will help ensure that this important history, the writing of Alexis Ferm, is documented and accessible to educators, children’s rights advocates, and historians.

Our intention is to raise funds so that we can transcribe Ferm’s work over the summer of 2019. We will then edit it into a book in the fall, and have it to the publisher by the start of 2020. Please consider making a contribution to help support this worthy project! Your generous donation is tax-deductible. Contributors of any amount will appear in the credits of the published book.

To those of us interested in the roots of modern Self-Directed Education practice, this story is hugely important. Help us fund this project to bring this story to a wider audience, and share the wonders of Alexis Ferm and his work.

About the Editors

Alexander Khost is a children’s rights advocate living in Brooklyn, New York. He is the Editor-in-Chief of Tipping Points (, the online magazine for the Alliance for Self-Directed Education. He is also the Secretary and Treasurer of Friends of the Modern School ( He works in the self-directed center, Brooklyn Apple Academy, and previously co-founded the junk playground, play:groundNYC.

Özlem Arkun is living in İstanbul, and writing for different anarchist publishers, including having written for the past seven years at Meydan Newspaper. Being a part of the Collective 26Atelier (an anarchist free learning space, and as a mother, she is especially focused on topics such as play, education, children’s rights and anarchist pedagogies. Currently she is actively working on opening a junk playground in Turkey.

About the Publisher

PM Press ( is an independent, radical publisher. It was founded in 2007 and has since then published some of the most influential books on anarchism and Self-Directed Education as well as hundreds and hundreds of other books, pamphlets, CDs, and DVDs.

Some of their titles include:

* The Paul Goodman Reader edited by Taylor Stoehr
* The Future Generation: The Zine-Book for Subculture Parents, Kids, Friends & Others by China Martens
* Teaching Rebellion: Stories from the Grassroots Mobilization in Oaxaca by Diana Denham and the C.A.S.A. Collective
* Anarchist Pedagogies: Collective Actions, Theories, and Critical Reflections on Education edited by Robert H. Haworth.

The front page of Alexis Constantine Ferm’s diary (circa 1893)

Why Is Alexis Ferm's Writing Important?

Many educators and parents today, frustrated with score-based, formulaic schooling, are seeking better, more holistic, ways of raising children. The work and inspiration of Alexis Ferm will provide important insights into achieving their goals.

And since the start of compulsory schooling about two hundred years ago,  many have offered alternative methods of child rearing and education. And while some educator's models pre-date that of Alexis Ferm, his was the first to turn such philosophy into actual methodology of what is today called Self-Directed Education (or at the time what would have been called liberatory education).

Ferm left a formidable hand-written legacy of his methods and beliefs.  This includes many journals, a personal diary spanning decades, and even  a fictionalized autobiography of his own poverty-stricken childhood in Brooklyn NY.  This raw collection provides an invaluable guide to the development and foundation of Ferm’s education philosophy.  Unfortunately, this rich resource is mostly unpublished and hidden from the larger community. It is our goal to correct this loss of valuable insights.

With the help of previous research (mostly catalogued at the Special Collections and University Archives at Rutgers University) and some published writing by others on Ferm, we have recorded nearly all of Ferm's writing into digital format with the intention of publishing it. However, it is going to take many hours of transcription and editing to accurately catalogue his writing, most especially his handwritten work, of which there are many pages.

We have calculated an approximate number of hours to do this transcription and feel that we can get the majority of Ferm's writing accurately transcribed in about two to three weeks working full-time. If we pay ourselves a modest wage, $2,500 will collectively be enough to cover our cost of living during that time.

Alexis and Elizabeth Ferm

More on Alexis Ferm and His Methodologies

“He was warm, dignified, and highly skilled, and always had a crowd of children working with him. He never told you what to make, but when you came to him with an idea, he was always encouraging and helpful. I remember his helping me once to make a wheelbarrow. When we finished he asked, ‘Do you realize how much you have learned of arithmetic and geometry?,’ and he explained how that was so. He was a warm and good man.” -Abe Bluestein, reflecting on his childhood at Stelton with his teacher Alexis Ferm (Avrich, Anarchist Voices)

The historian Paul Avrich wrote of Alexis, "Like Tolstoy and Thoreau, a friend remarked, he strove for 'simplicity in life.' A nature-lover and vegetarian, he hated warfare and killing and remained a lifelong pacifist and nonresistant."  Elizabeth (“Auntie”) Ferm, Alexis' wife for 46 years "awakened an interest in education" for Alexis and the two opened The Children’s Playhouse, the first self-directed school in New York City in 1901, the same year Francisco Ferrer opened the famous Escuela Moderna (Modern School) in Barcelona. The school moved to Brooklyn and then Manhattan before closing in 1913. The two ran the school for years without pay to enable working class children the financial possibility of attending the school.

In 1920, the Ferms began as Directors of the Stelton Modern School, the longest running Modern School of the 20th century and certainly one of the most influential colonies in United States history. The writer Amanda Kolson Hurley described it as “a suburb, a community of people who moved out of [New York City] for the sake of their children’s education and to enjoy a little land and peace” (Hurley, Radical Suburbs).

Shaindel Ostroff lived at Stelton, where her daughter also attended school. She wrote of it, “The school was the whole thing. We came there because we wanted our children to have a modern education, not the American public school education. Freedom in education, living with playfulness, creativeness—with freedom.”

The Ferms spent much of their remaining years working and living at Stelton. Elizabeth passed away in 1944. Alexis continued on at the school until his retirement in 1950. Alexis “Uncle” Ferm passed away on June 16, 1971 at the age of 101. In his New York Times obituary, he was given the title “pioneer in education.” The Stelton school where Alexis dedicated over twenty years of his life was described as a school that “had attracted world attention, with visitors from many countries inspecting its work. It antedated by [a] year or so the famed Summerhill experiment, which it somewhat resembled except that it was based on a more rigorous and Spartan philosophy of self reliance.”

Photos courtesy of Special Collections and University Archives, Rutgers University Libraries
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Alexander Khost 
Brooklyn, NY
Friends of the Modern School Inc 
Registered nonprofit
Donations are typically 100% tax deductible in the US.