FREE SCHOOLS, FREE PEOPLE
by Ron Miller
 
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
 
Ron Miller has written or edited six previous books on the history and philosophy of educational alternatives, most recently Caring for New Life: Essays on Holistic Education (2000, Foundation for Educational Renewal). He has founded two journals, Holistic Education Review (now Encounter: Education for Meaning and Social Justice) and Paths of Learning, and was co-founder of the Bellwether School near Burlington, Vermont. He is on the faculty of the Off-campus Teacher Education Program at Goddard College.
 
PREFACE
 
Most scholarship on education in American culture focuses on public schooling. Historians, sociologists, and policy analysts have been primarily concerned with the social and political forces that shape public education. Researchers have concentrated on instructional techniques, decision-making practices, issues of behavior management, and school climate within the context of publicly funded, state-operated schools. This emphasis is understandable, given the massive resources committed to public education and the numerous political conflicts that surround the allocation of these resources. The vast majority of young people in the United States attend public, not private, schools. Moreover, since the time of Thomas Jefferson, the American experiment in democratic government has been linked in many people's minds to the success of public schooling.
 
However, a critical interpretive study of American culture has much to learn from dissenting educational movements in American history. Public schooling has reified particular notions of "education," "teaching," "learning," "knowledge," and other important domains of personal and social life at the expense of other possibilities. Public and professional discourse on education generally assumes that "education" means the transmission of a politically sanctioned "curriculum," requiring the efficient management of students' behavior and objective assessment of their academic achievement. These assumptions reflect a particular worldview, which might be termed "modernist" or (as in this study) "technocratic," and so long as the assumptions are taken for granted, the worldview is accepted tacitly and uncritically. Of course students should be separated into grade levels and ability groups; of course they should study clearly defined subjects and read officially approved textbooks; of course they should receive Ritalin if they cannot sit still or be retained if their test scores are inadequate-all these practices make perfect sense, from within a worldview that sees the natural world, and human abilities, as exploitable resources at the service of a vast economic enterprise. However, by viewing educational practices from the perspective of radical or "romantic" dissidents who reject the reified assumptions of public schooling, it is possible to step outside the modernist-technocratic worldview and explore other ways of understanding nature and human nature. It becomes possible to raise critical questions about the cultural matrix (what anthropologist Clifford Geertz called a "web of meaning") that ultimately gives rise to the economic, political, and educational systems of American society.
 
I am interested in the free school movement of the 1960s because it raised these questions so explicitly and so poignantly. For a few short years, American culture was shaken to its foundations, as wave after wave of protest and critique called into question previously sacrosanct assumptions about the nature of the good life in the modern world. The possibility of full-scale cultural transformation was greatly diminished by a popular and political backlash, and in the thirty years since the end of the 1960s the worldview of modernism has tightened its hold ' not only on American culture but on an emerging global monoculture. This is dramatically evident in educational policy and practice, with a seemingly invincible movement toward state-mandated standards, rigorous testing, and a pervasive emphasis on management and control.
 
I am personally committed to a worldview that is more humanistic or holistic, a worldview that honors the spiritual, ecological, and existential dimensions of life and does not subsume human existence under a consuming economic materialism. My previous work, both scholarly and practical, has focused on the development of a holistic definition of education, and I have defined "holistic education" broadly, including not only the small number of "new age" or "new paradigm" thinkers of recent years who coined the term but also previous generations of educational dissidents who rejected the notion that education means solely the harnessing of human energies to the corporate economic system. The writers and teachers who conceived what I am here calling "free school ideology" did not often explicitly address spirituality, and their ideas have often been neglected in "new paradigm" versions of holistic education, which find mystics like Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessorl more congenial. Even in my own earlier work I was quick to portray educators like John Holt as more "libertarian" than "holistic" because of their apparent emphasis on an egoistic notion of freedom. But as I hope this study will make clear, neither Holt nor most of his colleagues were merely libertarians; their critique of authority and hierarchy aimed to reclaim the possibility of personal authenticity that lies at the heart of all holistic conceptions of education. Holistic educators do not all agree on what constitutes the "true self," but we do all agree that the competitive, materialistic, self-aggrandizing persona of the modern worker/consumer/voter is certainly not it! This, essentially, is what the free schoolers were trying to tell American society.
 
This study refers frequently to the "existential" quality of experience, particularly in contrast to "technocratic" definitions of human possibility. The opposition of these terms contains the core of my argument. Like the advocates of countercultural ideologies in the 1960s, I believe that human life is fulfilling and meaningful only when it embraces the embodied, emotional, moral, ecological, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions of experience that arise organically in our day-today lives. Human beings are multifaceted organisms, and our lives are whole and integrated only when all these dimensions are recognized and given some avenue of expression. By "existential" I refer to a conscious recognition and valuing of this organic experience-a deliberate search~ for meaning (purpose, identity, aspiration, a guiding set of ideals ... ). I am saying that meaning arises most fully from a person's conscious and active engagement with other people, with history and culture, and with the natural world. This quality of engagement is what the existentialist philosophers meant by authenticity. "Technocracy," on the other hand, is a conception of human possibilities that seeks to discipline and limit experience to make it conform to the routines of the assembly line, the bureaucracy, and procedures dictated by the machine and the clock. The individual is valued as a functional component of an impersonal, efficient system that is managed by experts and elites.
 
I think it is evident that modern educational practices serve technocracy, not existential authenticity. As Thoreau put it at the dawn of the modern industrial era, schooling "makes a straight cut ditch of a free meandering brook," a sentiment that other anarchist and romantic dissidents, especially the free schoolers of the 1960s, echoed through the years. This is an apt metaphor: the difference between a mechanically formed ditch and a naturally occurring brook precisely reflects the difference between technocracy's emphasis on control, technique, and abstraction, and a countercultural interest in existential freedom and organic wholeness. Technocracy's ditches are artificial-they are rationally planned, efficiently executed, and objectively evaluated-while the free-flowing waters of human life bubble and gush spontaneously, bringing aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual novelty to refresh and renew experience. Free school ideology sought to reclaim these life-giving waters.
 
The opening of several hundred free schools-educational sites completely independent of the public school system-represented a remarkable outburst of radical educational dissent. Between the mid-1960s and early 1970s thousands of young educators, parents, and students themselves explicitly rejected the assumptions, alms, and methods of conventional schooling and embarked on experimental attempts to reclaim authenticity, freedom, and wholeness. The literature of radical educational critique in the 1960s effectively deconstructed solidly entrenched assumptions about the nature of teaching, learning, and knowledge. Although the resurgence of mainstream cultural values rapidly banished this critique to obscurity, it remains potent and relevant to the educational challenges of an emerging postmodern culture.
 
Many of the transformative values of the 1960s, from gender and race relations to environmental consciousness to a heightened interest in spirituality, holistic medicine, and organic agriculture, are gradually working their way into the culture despite fierce resistance from conservative quarters. However, education lags far behind these developments, largely because federal and state governments and corporate interests have deliberately used educational institutions to promote a modernist discourse concerned with economic growth, global competition, and individual material success. The 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk by President Reagan's National Commission on Excellence in Education, followed by other widely publicized reports issued by influential agencies and foundations, strongly reinforced technocratic approaches to schooling at the expense of radical democratic alternatives. The religious Right, as well, has focused much of its cultural critique on perceived liberalization in education. Consequently, even as the medical profession, to take one example, began to accept acupuncture, biofeedback, and meditation, and books by holistic doctors, humanistic management gurus, and Buddhist meditation teachers have reached the best-seller list, educational policies retreated (perhaps one could say recoiled) from humanistic alternatives that emerged during the 1960s and 1970s. Authors who were respected and even fashionable for a brief historical moment (the subjects of this book) have been almost entirely forgotten, replaced by such traditionalists as E. D. Hirsch, William Bennett, and Chester Finn. Nevertheless, if there is an evolving cultural trend toward postmodern values, then education cannot indefinitely lag behind other social institutions. If the personalist, radical democratic critique expressed during the 1960s continues to inform protests against technocratic global capitalism, then sooner or later the free school literature will be rediscovered. This study is my modest contribution to that rediscovery.
 
I acknowledge from the start that I am sympathetic to the aims of the radical educators. This book is not intended to be a disinterested scholarly account but a provocative appeal to reconsider ideas that I believe are neglected. However, this is no mere polemic, either (as is much of the free school literature): I hope to provide a substantive historical and intellectual foundation for an educational ideology that for too long has simply been dismissed as "romantic." I have attempted to read the literature and original sources of the free school movement fairly and critically, and I deliberately bring in a broader perspectiveDeweyan progressivism-to look at this ideology on terms other than its own. Still, my method is primarily phenomenological: I want to understand free school ideology as an expression of values, beliefs, and experiences that were lived by a particular group of people at a particular moment in history. Undoubtedly, this ideology was shaped in part by social and demographic factors such as socioeconomic class, age, ethnicity, and the like, but its content cannot be reduced to these causes. In this study I am not concerned so much with sociological facts as with the existential meaning of a radical educational vision that once moved thousands of people.
 
I have tried to achieve a workable balance between passion and scholarship, although I am aware that readers may or may not be satisfied with this balance according to their own perspectives on the issues involved. If my.objectivity and critical analysis fall short of some readers' expectations, I hope they will bear in mind that my aim is not to dissect the subject matter but to rescue it from an undeserved obscurity. I wish to place it back on the table for public discourse, so that scholars might critique it seriously, educators might find inspiration for resisting the tide of standardization, and citizens might be informed that there are, indeed, alternative ways of conceiving the meanings of education, teaching, and learning. I am convinced that the moral idealism and democratic vision of those who promoted the free school movement can show us a way out of the sterile authoritarianism that permeates our educational policies today.
 
I would like to thank Dr. Bruce Schulman, director of the American and New England Studies Program at Boston University, and Dr. Richard Gibboney, professor emeritus of education at the University of Pennsylvania, for guiding me through this project. Dr. Schulman made it possible for me to complete my doctoral work in American Studies after a twelve-year hiatus during which my status was, as we say, "abd." I asked to return to BU after being encouraged by Dr. Polly Young Eisendrath to complete this unfinished business in my life. I had quit the program when my original dissertation, written in 1986-87, was deemed unsuitable for academic purposes; interestingly, though, it has since become my most successful and influential book, What Are Schools For? Holistic Education in American Culture. Although this study, my second dissertation, did make the grade academically, I hope that enough of my passion has come through to make it an interesting and useful book as well.
 
The major collection of original free school materials is the New Schools Exchange papers in the Manuscripts and Archives department of the Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University. Tom Hyry arranged my visit there, and the entire staff was most helpful. Patrick Farenga and Susannah Sheffer, who have kept John Holt's vision and his organization Growing Without Schooling, thriving in the years since Holt's death, assisted my inquiry into his work and permitted me to quote from documents and publications in their care. Dr. Len Solo shared his extensive collection of documents from the Teacher Drop-Out Center, which he later donated to the progressive education collection at the University of Vermont library. I am grateful to Dr. Solo and to others who agreed to be interviewed for this study: Patrick Farenga, Susannah Sheffer, Jerry Mintz, Mary Leue, Jack Spicer, Allen Graubard, Madelin Colbert, and Bill Ayers. Don Glines and Joe Nathan provided useful insights through the mail. Tate Hausman, a student at Brown University, contacted me while writing his senior thesis on the free school movement, and shared many of his findings, including tapes of interviews he had conducted.
 
Last but not least, I am very grateful to my wife, Jennie, and to our sons Justin, Daniel, and Robin, for their encouragement and for understanding my need to burrow in the library and in my office for hours at a time. The questions and struggles discussed in this book have remained very much alive for Jennie and me as we've tried to provide our boys an authentic and nurturing education. I believe the questions are vital and the struggle is worth the effort.
 
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