Founded in 1901 by free-thinker Francesc Ferrer i Guàrdia, the school's stated goal was to "educate the working class in a rational, secular and non-coercive setting". In practice, high tuition fees restricted attendance at the school to wealthier middle class students. It was privately hoped that when the time was ripe for revolutionary action, these students would be motivated to lead the working classes.
La Escuela Moderna, and Ferrer's ideas generally, formed the inspiration for a series of Modern Schools in the United States, Cuba, South America and London. The first of these was started in New York City in 1911. It also inspired the Italian newspaper Università popolare, founded in 1901.
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