The pioneering institution that revolutionised education in Spain at the end of the 19th century is 143 years old. It was extremely influential in the lives of key figures in our culture such as Clarín, Ortega y Gasset, the Machado brothers, Juan Ramón Jiménez, Lorca, Dalí and Victoria Kent.
In Spain in the 1870s, a group of professors, including Francisco Giner de los Ríos, Gumersindo de Azcárate and Nicolás Salmerón, were expelled from the main university campus in Madrid for defending academic freedom and refusing to apply official dogmas in religious, political and moral matters. This group founded, on 29 October 1876, the Institución Libre de Enseñanza (ILE), a private educational institution inspired by Krausist philosophy designed to foster the spirit of critical thinking and freedom in learning in a Spain in which, as they themselves proved, was not very well regarded.
Under the direction of Francisco Giner de los Ríos, the project involved other intellectuals such as María Zambrano, Joaquín Costa, Augusto González de Linares or Maruja Mallo, to open first a centre for university education and, later, for primary and secondary education, as well as institutions such as Student Residences and Students Residences exclusively for female students.
The institution carried out the unprecedented task of cultural and pedagogical renewal, where literature, art and nature became fundamental pillars. In its statutes it declared itself “alien to any religious interest, ideology or political party, proclaiming the right to academic freedom, the inviolability of science and respect for individual conscience“.
The ILE was conceived as a space where classes were not only a place to give and receive lessons, but also to teach and learn to “seek, to reflect, to solve, to compose, always personally”. They were pioneers in promoting work outside the classroom through excursions, often through the Gredos and Guadarrama mountain ranges, and visits to museums, considered an essential part of a person’s intuitive development process and which today are experiences carried out by all Spanish educational centres. In addition, the garden, the vegetable garden, the playground and the weather station available to the students symbolised the idea of a well-rounded education.
Intellectuals involved in the ILE
One of the most outstanding aspects of the ILE method on was the role of the teacher: “Give me the teacher and I will leave you the building, the facilities, the organization, the programs…, everything else,” said Giner de los Ríos. The teacher should not be a bureaucrat with a life appointment, but had to show true altruistic service, eager for stimuli and skills for research and dissemination of knowledge. They should conceive the educational relationship as a total relationship and present themselves as a mediator for the students’ learning, instead of taking advantage of the figure of the teacher as a holder of the truth against the passive and neutral student.
Francisco Giner de los Rios was opposed to textbooks and preferred to instill curiosity and motivate students to carry out research: Not to teach things, but to teach how to do them. The approach was to train Spaniards, who as adults would transform the country with a modern, liberal, tolerant and secular personality. And so it was. Leopoldo Alas (Clarín), Julián Besteiro, Manuel and Antonio Machado, Juan Ramón Jiménez, José Ortega y Gasset and Gregorio Marañón passed through its classrooms.
Another testimony of the ILE’s innovative energy are the numerous international collaborators of the Bulletin of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza (BILE), from renowned figures such as Bertrand Russell, Charles Darwin, Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Miguel de Unamuno, María Montessori, León Tolstoi, Gabriela Mistral, Benito Pérez Galdós and Emilia Pardo Bazán.
From 1876 until the civil war in 1936, ILE became the centre of gravity of an entire era of Spanish culture and the channel for the introduction in Spain of the most advanced pedagogical and scientific theories that were being developed outside Spanish borders.
After the death of the man who inspired the project, in 1915, the Francisco Giner de los Ríos Foundation was created (June 14, 1916), with the task of watching over the patrimony of the Institution and continuing to uphold the educational philosophy initiated by its founders.
The decisive milestone of the institution would have been the opening of the Faculty of Philosophy and the Arts in Madrid, but the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936 and Franco’s victory put an end to the project.
The Residences of the ILE
The influence of Giner and the ILE was instrumental in getting the government to undertake a series of legal, educational and social reforms and to create a series of public bodies such as the National Pedagogical Museum and the Board for Advanced Scientific Studies and Research, on which the Centre for Historical Studies, the National Institute of Physics and Natural Sciences and the Student Residence depended.
The latter, created in 1910, was the first cultural centre in Spain to foster dialogue between the arts and the sciences. Its residents included the poet Federico García Lorca, the painter Salvador Dalí, the filmmaker Luis Buñuel and the scientist Severo Ochoa. Manuel de Falla, Pedro Salinas, Eugenio d’Ors and Rafael Alberti were also regular visitors. Among the personalities who came to its halls were Albert Einstein, Paul Valéry, Marie Curie, Igor Stravinsky and John M. Keynes.
Five years later, the Residencia de Señoritas (Residence for Female Students), the first official centre to promote university education for women in Spain, opened its doors. During the twenty-one years it was open, it educated an exceptional group of highly qualified women, who managed to change the social model traditionally associated with women.
From its students came great professors such as Juana Moreno, Carmen Castilla, Carmen Isern, political figures such as Victoria Kent, or specialists in Law such as Matilde Huici and Josefina Carabias. Zenobia Camprubí, Gabriela Mistral, Victoria Ocampo, María Martínez Sierra, Clara Campoamor and Concha Méndez also participated in the institutions activities.
More than 140 years after the inauguration of the Institución Libre de Enseñanza, many of the postulates and those of the many intellectuals who wandered its corridors are still valid in the Spanish educational system and its legacy is a great example of how Spanish history can contribute to our country’s reputation in the world.