The History of Free Schools
Free Schools, Free People: Education and Democracy After the 1960s
- During the tumultuous years within and surrounding the 1960’s, an unparalleled uprising of popular dissatisfaction challenged many of the deeply established values and practices in American society, including the core values underlying industrial capitalism, the authority of government and academic institutions (university, high school, and primary), and racial segregation.
- Liberated by the voices of radical social critics of the times, a massive movement of university and high school students, African Americans citizens, and alienated and dissatisfied young people, called for a greater social commitment to freedom, justice, equality, and democracy (in its true sense) in a modern world that they believed was becoming increasingly authoritarian, standardized, and exploitative.
- During this time they demonstrated in the streets and on college campuses, published underground newspapers, and began to develop an alternative lifestyle—a counterculture.
- Although the explosion of protest and displeasure of the sixties failed to bring about the social change (the revolution) they had hoped for, it did manage to leave a complex legacy of cultural change that continues, to this day, to pose radical alternatives to the prevailing political, economic, and social forces of the modern and increasingly technological world. Some of the elements of the sixties movement changed the American culture considerably. Environmentalism, the women’s movement, and new attitudes towards racial and cultural diversity, and human rights were influenced by the ideals of radical social justice workers, protesters, and visionaries of that time.
- It is important to note that these cultural changes were not accepted by most: they were generally welcomed only by those who referred to themselves as progressive. The contention between these groups has been described by some as a “culture war.”
- Resistance to the countercultural ideals has taken many forms, “from well-funded conservative foundations and think tanks, to Bill Clinton’s impeachment saga, to the juggernaut of corporate globalization.” One arena that the dominant culture has remained a strong hold on, and has managed to completely suppress radical change, is the institution of schooling in our country.
- The protest movements of the sixties included a lively, idealistic, and for a brief time, a widely spread movement advocating a radical democratic vision of education. Unfortunately this movement disappeared quickly, and outside of a small, marginal of dedicated visionaries, its ideals have been completely abandoned. “Ironically, the critique of public schooling helped provoke later developments, such as the homeschooling movement, voucher plans, and charter schools, which often reinforce traditional educational goals and beliefs even while seeking new forms for their expression, as well as a powerful backlash in the shape of the crusade for higher standards and stricter accountability.”
- Between 1960 and 1972, a nonconforming educational ideology emerged from the countercultural movement and sparked a complex re-examination of the practices and effectiveness of public schooling. Educators, high school students, and even some parents took a closer more critical look at their schools. Many of them were so disappointed by what they found that “they fled from public education entirely.”
- Beginning in the early 1960s, and ever more after 1967, thousands of Americans became involved in “free schools” –small educational communities that were free from state control and the values of corporate capitalism.
- Free schools brought together small groups of families and idealistic educators who believed that learning should be spontaneous, organic, intimate, and joyful—specifically not controlled by instructional methods, textbooks, curricula, or severe rules of behavior.
- The free school movement should be distinguished from other forms of alternative education because the free school philosophy was overtly countercultural; it sought to educate children according to set of morals, attitudes, and beliefs in direct opposition to those of the dominant culture. Free schools attracted people who consciously rejected the defining institutions and practices of American society (i.e. corporate capitalism, competition, traditional work ethic, advertising, and authority of the state). This small population of people believed education should not serve the interests of the state or the economic system, instead they thought education should be wholly devoted to the happiness of the individuals who lived, loved, played, and grew within each intimate community (when I say community, I am referring to free schools).
- A small number of free schools were started by a variety of anarchist and romantic educators (Thoreau and Alcott to mention a couple) in the United States between the early nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries. But their ideals of freedom, authenticity, and happiness had not sparked a considerable educational movement until a group of writings published between the 1960s and the mid- 1970s harshly attacked the oppressive practices of modern schooling and proclaimed that radical change was required. These writings constitute the core of free school philosophy.
- The most significant of these works was A.S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, which was published in 1960. Neill’s account of his British libertarian school “inspired the founding of the earliest endeavors of the free school movement in the United States; the Summerhill society was the first network to give that generation of radical educators a forum for expressing and exchanging ideas.” The writings of Paul Goodman, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, and George Dennison were other influential works of the times.
- After 1967, the fervent educational critique found in these texts, joined with the emergence of the counterculture, led to a “rapid increase in the number of free schools being established across the United States.” By 1969, the people who were involved in these schools began to recognize that they were part of a major grassroots movement. At this time, numerous newsletters and clearinghouses were established, both regional and national.
- Some universities, foundations, and public school systems acknowledged “the existence of a national educational crisis that demanded some form of drastic educational innovation.” Holt and Goodman were called in to testify before an educational committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. Still, by 1972 the free school movement began to weaken. This happened partly because the radical educators, social justice workers, and young people involved in the counterculture, had already spent the bulk of their rebellious energy and found they had little energy left for “gradual social renewal.”
- American society as a whole rebuffed the radical critique, using various strategies including military and police force, political opposition, and sublimation of countercultural energies into more manageable forms (i.e. “alternative” public schools). Nevertheless, the free school movement, despite its short lived success, had a lasting impact on educational politics in the U.S.
- As the free schools continued to disappear, the homeschooling movement was brought to the forefront. Although the two leaders of this movement, Ivan Illich and John Holt were romantic, radical democrats, as well as “the early champions of deschooling”, the homeschooling movement has “primarily attracted extreme social and religious conservatives who reject the authority of the liberal state.”
- Free school ideology represented a unique education movement that cannot be lumped with other expressions of educational disputes. Within the distinctive context of the 1960s counterculture, the free school movement involved a political and cultural critique that widely accepted that mainstream public education would not and could not be radically transformed.
The Origins of The Free School Movement
- “The free school phenomenon rested on the perception, shared by many thousands of young people, that America had run out of dreams…The great vision of opportunity and wealth for all, the magnificent ideal of freedom—these dreams could no longer hold America together.” This description captures the sense of disenchantment that gave rise to the counterculture and to free schools in particular.
- For those who sought a fuller, deeper sense of meaning than that of which material wealth could provide were particularly dissatisfied with the culture of the 1950s. “…When the creative conflict of social visions and political ideals is replaced by values of efficiency, rationality, standardization, and managerial expertise, then democracy has given way to technocracy—a social order that maintains stability and control by fitting human resources into appropriate, predefined institutional niches.” The counterculture of the 1960s, free schools included, then became a rebellion against the victory of technocracy over the ideals of democracy.
- The resistance against technocracy was not just a political movement, but also a search to fill the “the vacancy of the heart” caused by an increasingly materialistic and “overly complacent society.” As local enterprises gave way to “national corporations manipulating a mass market, human relations became increasingly less personal and more functional, and even individual identity was shaped less by the need for self reliance and more by opportunities to act in the role of consumer.”
- The young people of these times were unable to find a meaningful sense of self in a mass consumer culture. This change in society represented a switch from organic to artificial forms of community. The free school movement “identified its roots precisely in this transformation.” In earlier times, children were educated through their community and continual contact with adults. They now found themselves living in a world that separates work from play, school from the “real world”, and “childhood from personhood.” Schools had suddenly become artificial institutions created by adults for children.
- An organic culture offers a rich sense of meaning to new generations by involving young children in its activities; an artificial culture isolates its youth, therefore producing a sense of alienation.
- In a 1967 article, two popular social critics of the time, Marshall McLuhan and George Leonard, revealed the inhuman nature of the emerging “mechanical age.” They wrote: “It was this civilization’s genius to manipulate matter, energy and human life by breaking every useful process down into functional parts, then producing any required number of each.” Their fear rested with a concern that human beings would no longer be individuals with unique personalities, styles, and needs, but instead as “interchangeable parts in a rationally designed and hierarchically controlled system.”
- The radicals of this time came to believe that “educational institutions had allied with the increasingly mechanical system and disregarded or suppressed their search for meaning” and critical questions about the nature of society as a whole. This conclusion gave rise to the free school movement, which was in every sense responding to the “alienating character of the bureaucratic, machine-like system of schooling.”
- “The rise of the civil rights movement was arguably the single most important factor in the transition from the self-satisfied cold war culture of the 1950s to the decade of disillusionment, dissent, and activism that followed.” The civil rights movement created an opportunity for cultural examination and critical questioning of the current values that constituted American society.
- The free school movement partly resulted from, and was influenced by, social, intellectual, and political tensions of the time, as well as from the long established body of social and cultural critique that was taking place. Many of the first free schools were essentially nothing more than places where people could vent about these very issues. To a large extent the free school philosophy rested on the “intellectual and moral claims” of the civil rights movement. Because of this it becomes important to understand the African American struggle to fully comprehend free school ideology.
The Civil Rights Movement
- The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was founded in 1909, and had been working diligently through the courts for legal victories over racial discrimination. The NAACP challenged racial segregation in public schools, which led to the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education. This ruling overturned “the legal sanction for racial separation in public schools.” This was a crucial victory and a turning point that forced segregationists into conflict with the federal law, and made civil rights an important national issue. With this ruling came more pressure for the U.S. regarding African Americans. At this time, black veterans returning home from war were “no longer willing to passively endure the denial of equal rights.” This new attitude enraged the white segregationists in the South, who in turn responded with violence. With this, “the national conscience began to become aroused; both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower made cautious moves—against the opposition of powerful southern politicians—in support of civil rights legislation.”
- Meanwhile, African American leaders familiarized themselves with new sources of examination and activism, including “the spiritually rooted pacifism of Gandhi.” In 1942, James Farmer and Bayard Rustin were working for the religious pacifist group, Fellowship of Reconciliation. They expanded their work for racial justice and equality by organizing the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). They led what was thought to be “the first organized civil rights sit-in in American history.” It took place at a restaurant in Chicago. In 1947, CORE sponsored desegregated interstate bus rides, “pioneering a tactic that would prove explosive fourteen years later.” By the 1950s, Gandhi’s victory in liberating India from colonial rule through nonviolent resistance attracted the interests of African American ministers such as James Lawson, who actually traveled to India to learn the principles of Gandhi’s methods. He returned to the United States and inspired a new generation of social and political activists, including those who founded the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in 1960.
- The nationally recognized leader of the civil rights movement, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rose to national and even international prominence after his leadership in the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott that took place between 1955 and 1956. During his speech that helped to launch his campaign, King expressed that African Americans would no longer sit by passively accepting the injustices of racism, segregation, and inequality. In the years that followed this powerful and widely known speech, thousands of people, young and old, white and black, staged sit-ins and demonstrations. They rode on buses, marched on Washington, engaged in persistent political challenges on a small and large scale, conducted voter registration campaigns and freedom schools.
- The civil rights movement expressed a moral, spiritual, and religious vision of society that was guided by the ideals of justice, human dignity, and brotherhood. It also “reintroduced the traditional American democratic practice of civil disobedience.” “It was a Black-led, multiracial quest for democracy in America, for the healing of a nation, for the freeing of our spirits.”
- Participation in the civil rights movement enabled white activists to stand on the outside of commonly accepted values of their culture, including discrimination, segregation, racism, individualism, and consumerism. The civil rights movement also “legitimated civil disobedience and gave the counter culture effective methods to express dissent: it taught young people that real social change could happen if they would act directly on behalf of their moral beliefs.” Through their participation in demonstrations they rediscovered that a living democracy requires more than periodic voting—it demands active participation in the community based on a commitment to values. “Learning this lesson, the silent generation of the 1950s became the activists of the 1960s.”
- The civil rights movement had a direct influence on the increase of free schools in our country. Len Solo, one of the founders of the Teacher Drop-out Center (TDOC), which was the main hub of the free school network, “attributes the outpouring of public dissent among dissatisfied educators to the example of the movement for racial injustice...” Another strong influence that helped bring about the free school movement was Freedom Summer (1964) that took place in Mississippi. This is where dozens of Freedom Schools were organized, in which 200 volunteers (mostly young, white, upper class) taught 2,500 African Americans about their heritage and their rights as American citizens.
- The freedom school phenomenon was important for many reasons. First, it showed that “African American people themselves initiated a strong critique of their schooling.” They also provided a specific, coherent pedagogical approach to education, one that would be mirrored in the free schools of the time. The freedom schools purpose was not to instill particular values on the participants; rather their purpose was to “encourage the asking of questions, and hope that society can be improved.” The sole intention of the freedom schools was to encourage and show people that they could question the current situation and that they could take action about their situation. In sum, the civil rights movement gave the “radical educational critique a powerful moral and political base without which the free school movement might not have been conceivable.”
Free School Ideology: Voices of Educational Dissent
- During this time, a small group of writers—some classroom teachers, others social scientists—produced a body of literature that defined the free school ideology. They inspired many with their writings, including dissatisfied teachers and alienated students, who eventually left public schooling for free schools. “The writers articulated their experiences and showed that alternative forms of education were possible.” From a historical perspective, these writings explain the hopes, values, and ideas that motivated thousands of U.S. citizens to turn against the public education system.
- There was one social critic of the 1960s, in particular, who had a tremendous influence on the free school movement. Some believe that Paul Goodman was actually “the founder of the radical education movement of the 1960s.” The book that established his reputation in the world of alternative education was, Growing up Absurd. In this text he argued that “young people are made to conform to a society that does not represent fully human values but is essentially a mechanical system that has lost all genuine culture, human scale community, a sense of quality, and meaningful, useful work.” In all of Goodman’s books he applied his radical political views to the topics of education, schooling, and youth, and provided a sound philosophical framework for free school ideology. Goodman called for “decentralization of political and economic institutions, and the creation of intimate , participative communities, because he believed that in order to thrive the human psyche requires authentic, meaningful contact with other people.” His main objective was to expose the rigid structures of educational institutions and show that they were essentially inauthentic and irrelevant to the “organic” needs and desires of humans. He was a harsh critic of the technocratic society and this was clear in his writings.
- Goodman believed that education and life should be spontaneous. He thought this was an essential element of a “full and meaningful life.” He claimed that the current educational system as well as mass media were training youth that life is a routine to be followed, that it is depersonalized; that there is no place for spontaneity, free spirit or sexuality.
- Goodman, like many other educational critics of the time, was a “self-described” anarchist. “He traced his democratic beliefs back to Jefferson and nineteenth-century American populism.” As the youth movement exploded in the 1960s, Goodman welcomed it with excitement and open arms. Goodman believed that cultural renewal was possible, in part, through progressive education, which he defined as, “the attempt to naturalize, to humanize, each new social and technical development that is making traditional education irrelevant.” He was implying that education is not a specific, structured technique; rather it is an approach that enables young people an opportunity to engage in the world organically and meaningfully. He truly believed in children’s inherent abilities to make meaning out of experience.
- Goodman believed “progressive education” consisted of several key principles: “To learn theory by experiment and doing. To learn belonging by participation and self-rule. Emphasis on individual differences…. Community of youth and adults, minimizing authority.” Goodman argued for the reduction of school bureaucracy and “individual school size,” and suggested the best school environment for urban children would be “storefront learning centers” from which students would be involved in the “real world and participate directly in society’s affairs.” Above all else, he condemned the formal, abstract structure of schooling that worked against authentic learning experiences. Goodman’s educational ideology provided a coherent foundation for the free school movement.
Alexander Sutherland Neill
- A.S. Neill’s voice rang across the United States during the 1960s, and for many, it “defined the educational rebellion.” He opened Summerhill, a boarding school, outside of London during the 1920s. In 1960, an American publisher visited Neill’s school and decided to publish a compilation of Neill’s writings. He titled this work, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. The books message spoke directly to alienated youth, progressive parents, and educators who were disenchanted with conventional schooling. “Once the cultural critique gained momentum, Summerhill became a bible of educational protest…”
- A.S. Neill was one of the key figures in the educational protest movement. His philosophy was very simple. In fact, it was so simple that some intellectuals would not accept it. Neill’s view was that “a child is innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing.” This position completely denied the “role of adult direction” that almost all accepted educational theories, “have accepted as a normal aspect of the social context of learning.”
- Like Goodman, Neill was also a critic of technocratic society and the demands placed on the youth within educational institutions. Similarly, he claimed that “modern society sacrifices happiness for mechanical, intellectual achievements…”
- As mentioned above, Neill had simplistic goals surrounding education. Neill valued spontaneity above all else. What he meant by spontaneity is that children should have the freedom to be spontaneous in their discovery of knowledge. He thought this was the only way to “educate the whole personality.” Second, he believed that happiness “[was] the primary aim of life.” Neill demonstrated in his book that “students at Summerhill, free from adult coercion and the fear that goes with it, were uncommonly happy.” His third main point, which stemmed from the first two, was an emphasis on self-government. Summerhill was governed by a general meeting, in which every child, regardless of age, had one vote.
- Neill’s most radical departure from conventional schooling was his attitude regarding competition and success. “He wanted his students to be happy rather than successful in the world’s terms, if this meant losing their sense of selfhood.”
- A.S. Neill spoke directly to the counterculture. “By identifying technocratic society as evil and pronouncing the repressed energies of the psyche and body as wholly good, Neill gave dissident educators, young people, and even parent’s full permission to reject their culture and its schooling.” As Neill approached the end of his long, happy and successful life, he remarked that his work would be carried on by John Holt.
- In 1964, John Holt became established as a radical educator/writer and an educational critic, when his book, How Children Fail, was published. He taught in progressive schools in Colorado and Massachusetts, but discovered that even these environments were in “opposition to children’s natural ways of learning.” He declared “most children in school fail.” He continued, “Except for a handful, who may or may not be good students, they fail to develop more than a tiny part of the tremendous capacity for learning, understanding, and creating with which they were born and of which they made full use of in the first two or three years of their lives.” For the next twenty years, Holt returned to this theme over and over again. He attempted to seek ways in which he could help educators and parents “sustain young people’s tremendous capacity for learning.”
- Holt wrote many articles and books during these twenty years and they became increasingly radical, as he became more and more discouraged about the prospect of changing the educational institutions in our country. Eventually he made the move from helping educators to supporting alternative methods of schooling. Holt also “promoted the then-outrageous notion, first suggested by Ivan Illich around 1969-70, of complete deschooling.” In 1977, Holt established, Growing Without Schooling, a newsletter which became an important catalyst for the rise in popularity of the home education movement.
- Holt was also a major contributor to the free school movement. By 1969, Holt had traveled to hundreds of schools, around the country, where he gave talks on radical education. He corresponded with parents, activists, educators, political leaders, and other writers of the time. Holt became a primary contact for people who were looking for schools or wanted to start a school. Holt believed to a large extent that conventional schooling was “a place where children learn to be stupid.”
- Holt argued, “What children really learn [through traditional schooling] is practical slavery. How to suck up to the boss. How to keep out of trouble, and get other people in…Set into mean-spirited competition against other children, he learns that every man is the natural enemy of every other man.” As an alternative to this competitive nature of education, Holt asserted that education should revolve around each learner’s individual experiences and interests. He thought humans learn best when we, not others, determine what we are going to learn, when and how we are going to learn, and for what reason or purpose we have decided to learn. Over the years, Holt’s philosophy became increasingly radical and he began to focus entirely on student-centered learning. His position echoed that of A.S. Neill’s, in which education should be centered on each individual learner’s interests.
- Holt’s ideology contained a strong political dimension. During the height of the anti-war and counterculture movement (1968-72), “Holt demonstrated that his concern about education reflected a broader critique of modern society.” Similar to many other writers and educators involved in the free school movement, Holt was mainly concerned with the “displacement of democracy by the rise of technocracy.”
- At first, he was mainly concerned with ineffective teachers and techniques, but came to believe that educational institutions were playing an “integral part in the management of a hierarchical society.” He concluded that the current educational system “was in the business of turning people into commodities, and deciding who goes where in our society and who gets what.” He likened public education to a machine, where humans make up the parts that keep the machine running smoothly. He was not the first educational critic of the 1960s to compare educational institutions and technocratic society to a machine.
- In 1973, Holt wrote a letter to Illich, in which he claimed, “that all social institutions are machines whose parts are human beings, Like all other machines, they depend for their swift, smooth, sure functioning on the reliability, precision and interchangeability of these parts…It is the function of education in the modern state to turn people into serviceable parts for their institutional machinery.” The quote above was a clear and concise definition of technocracy, as it was understood by social critics of the time.
- Holt and other authors who were associated with the free school movement believed that conventional forms of schooling did not serve young people’s natural curiosity, authentic growth, or individual interests. Instead, they thought they were intended to mold young people into “compliant servants of the corporate state…”
- This is important. Unlike many of the other educational critics of the, Holt expressed an actual fear that fascism was on the rise in our nation. He did not believe educational institutions could ever nourish young people’s full development into cheerful, creative, and autonomous persons. Consequently, in the early 1970s Holt became so disillusioned with school reform efforts that he began advocating for learning outside of conventional schools/institutions. This is where he coined the term, deschooling. I would love to go into this in more depth, but as it does not necessarily pertain to the free school movement, I will save it for another time.
* The authors, social critics, and educators mentioned above, contributed a great deal to the free school movement as well as what would become the free school philosophy, but it is important to note that Holt, Neill, and Goodman were not the only critics to influence the movement. Others included, Edgar Z. Friedenberg, Jules Henry, and George Dennison.
Free School Ideology
- There were several core themes that recurred consistently in the writings of Neill, Holt, Goodman, and other writers that were connected to the free school movement. These common themes identify a unique educational theory that “reflected the struggles and ideals of the 1960s counterculture.”
- The primary belief was “humans are naturally curios and, if given support and love in a rich environment, they will continuously learn and grow.” This core idea led to many other free school values, such as, “ schools must be small so people can have close, face to face contact” because schools “are places for personal relationships.” Schools should be democracies, in which the participants are equally and directly involved in the decision making processes. They should “provide for many alternatives, ones that involve real choices that are meaningful to students.” Schools should not be compulsory. Students must be free to choose and grow in their own directions. Schools should provide a large range of learning situations, and should hopefully meet the needs of each student. “Schools should be places where there are adults who deeply care for children…; schools should be communities, places where there is a true sense of belonging, togetherness, caring, and sharing.”
- Each of the beliefs above reflected the desire to provide young people love and support rather than viewing students as “raw social or economic material to be molded into some preferred form.” Free schools sought, above all else, to be environments that supported community, purpose, and human meaning. This was the heart and soul of free school ideology. Coincidentally, many of the free schools accomplished this by practicing participatory democracy. The successful free schools of the time were those that had developed effective democratic practices regarding decision making.
- Currently, there are only a handful of free schools that have survived since the 1960s and it is believed, “that they have endured to the present because each involved its entire community so intimately in the life of the school.” Everyone becomes empowered when they participate in a democratic governing system, where each person has a voice.