Navigation – Plan du site
Dossier thématique

Between imagination and reality: tracing the legacy of childhood as a utopian space in the free schooling and unschooling movements

Berit Brink

Texte intégral

It is our obligation, within the years to come, to make this dream more real.
Jonathan Kozol, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” 1972

  • 1 Paul Galloway, “Radical Redux”, Chicago Tribune, November 16, 1990, p.1+ [en ligne], consulted 31 M (...)
  • 2 See, for example, Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Be (...)
  • 3 The notion of childhood as an “authentic” and potentially revolutionary period was not new: in the (...)

1When UC Berkeley Free Speech leader Jack Weinberg warned the press not to “trust anyone over thirty”1 in 1964, his comment was quickly picked up by other media as emblematic of the counterculture’s anti-authoritarian attitude. While this was probably precisely what Weinberg wished to convey, the 1960s counterculture was not wholly averse to building on earlier ideas, as their ties with the Frankfurt School show. Indeed, several scholars have traced Frankfurt School legacies in the New Left, and have linked the latter’s rejection of “straight” society to the former’s Marxist cultural analyses.2 What is more, Weinberg’s statement could also be read differently: not so much as a rejection of adulthood, but, conversely, as an embrace of the spirit of youth. While this remains an under-explored element of countercultural thought, it is precisely the romanticization of childhood, coupled with the influence of Frankfurt School theorists like Herbert Marcuse that led to an idealization of childhood as a potentially revolutionary model. This glorification of childhood, I will argue, not only shaped the utopian visions of an alternative society underlying many of the countercultural protests of the 1960s, but also led a small subset of the counterculture to turn to public education as the true starting point for revolutionary change.3 This notion of a “magical” childhood has never really disappeared, and in fact, seems to be making a comeback in the wake of increased standardized testing.

2This paper examines how these leftist conceptualizations of childhood as a utopian space led to experiments in radical pedagogy, and considers to what extent this approach has been revived by the unschooling movement, a type of homeschooling that is entirely child-led. By examining the beliefs that drove the founders of the Free School movement, I will argue that severe distrust of the state, fear of technocracy, and the perceived loss of individuality led some parents and educators to believe that in order to raise a liberated generation that could potentially overthrow the existing social order, the free spirit of childhood had to be preserved. To do this, they founded democratic Free Schools that mainly focused on personal exploration and self-actualization.

3When homeschooling gained traction by the mid-1970s, however, it heralded a turning point in the conceptualization of progressive education: from that point onwards, the utopian drive to change education in order to change society morphed into a pragmatic approach characterized by a desire to change education to meet individual needs. In recent decades, the unschooling movement has been a particularly illustrative example of this shift, as I shall show, for despite its radical emphasis on the rights of children it appears largely indifferent to the social possibilities furnished by their child-led approach. In the end, then, I show that while the celebration of childhood has persisted, the increasingly individualized nature of alternative schooling jeopardizes the collective, utopian, socially progressive program that marked many of the Free Schools of the 1960s. This ideal, it seems, can only be salvaged if radical educators once again make the transformation of education a community effort.

  • 4 Lawrence Cremin, “The Free School Movement: A Perspective”, Alternative Schools: Realities, Ideolog (...)
  • 5 “Summerhillian” schools, so designated by Free School researchers such as Lawrence Cremin, were nam (...)

4Before I home in on the specifics of the Free School movement itself, it is necessary to define “free schools” in order to differentiate them from the broader category of “alternative schools,” and provide a brief outline of their central tenets. The Free School movement was a loose collection of alternative schools that grew out of the socially-progressive, liberal cultural atmosphere of the 1960s. While a variety of alternative schools popped up during this time, these so-called “free schools” took one of three main forms : free community schools, which often arose from the civil rights movements and focused on ethnic consciousness-raising and cultural awareness, so-called child-centered schools, and schools focused on social reform.4 In reality, it was difficult to maintain rigid distinctions between the latter two categories, because more often than not schools appeared to be a blend of both as they hoped child-centered education would eventually result in social change. My main interest here lies with the latter, the so-called Summerhillian schools,5 for they seemed to adhere most closely to the utopian ideals espoused by Frankfurt School theorists and Free School activists during the movement’s early days. These “Summerhillian” communities were governed democratically and shaped by children's own personal interests, erasing hierarchies between “students” and “teachers.”

  • 6 David Gross, “Culture, Politics, and ‘Lifestyle’ in the 1960”, Adolph Reed jr. (ed), Race, Politics (...)
  • 7 Under Freud’s influence, Marcuse began to analyze 1950s American society through the lens of repres (...)
  • 8 H. Marcuse, Eros, op. cit., 149.
  • 9 H. Marcuse, Eros, op.cit., p. 45.

5The countercultural interest in schooling was not as unusual as it might seem at first glance, for leftist critics like Herbert Marcuse already emphasized the connection between work and oppression, and freedom and play. The New Left, the socio-political branch of the counterculture,6 was partly indebted to Marcuse, so as leftist youth came of age and had children of their own, their radical ideas extended to childhood and childhood education.7 Of particular importance was Marcuse’s emphasis on the revolutionary possibilities of the imagination, which he valued mainly because of its refusal to “forget what can be.”8 Children, in particular, are unafraid to eschew conventions to pursue their own idiosyncratic ideas, so if the New Left wished to pursue a truly radical agenda, Marcuse suggested, it might be useful to remember childhood. Reflecting on childhood memories, he hoped, could help raise awareness about the costs of conforming to society’s expectations, so that “the recherche du temps perdu becomes the vehicle of future liberation.”9 This particularly appealed to those who were looking to transform society into a more meaningful community.

  • 10 Paul Goodman, Growing up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society, New York, New York Rev (...)
  • 11 Ibid., p. 80.
  • 12 “This relation is the relation of the worker to his own activity as an alien activity not belonging (...)
  • 13 P. Goodman, Growing, op. cit., p. 54.

6Among those who became convinced that a radically free society starts with a radical change in schooling were several men who had come of age in the counterculture, notably Paul Goodman, John Holt, and Jonathan Kozol. Goodman, born in 1911 in New York, became passionate about education reform when he talked to a group of teenagers in Hamilton, Ontario. Frustrated by their listlessness, Goodman started working on a manuscript about U.S. education, which argues that the lack of meaningful work has resulted in mass indolence and disillusion of 1950s youth.10 His manuscript grew into the bestselling book, Growing up Absurd (1960), one of the movement’s main inspirations. Goodman’s concerns were spiritual rather than economic, however, as he lamented the “waste of humanity” caused by the drudgery of the system.11Echoing Marx12, he argued that the main problem resides in the fact that we no longer derives satisfaction from work, because it is no longer an extension of ourselves and our own passions: “It does not enlist worth-while capacities,” he wrote, “it is not “interesting”; it is not his, he is not “in” on it” and as a result, “the product is not really useful.”13

  • 14 Goodman was not just inspired by critical theory, but also by the writings of Alexander Sutherland (...)
  • 15 Paul Goodman, “No Processing Whatever”, Radical School Reform, eds. Beatrice and Ronald Gross, Simo (...)

7In saying this, Goodman’s concerns, like Marcuse’s, reflect fears of losing one’s individuality. Since the main problem is the system itself, Goodman proposes a range of alternative modes of education, which all center on direct engagement with society, less bureaucracy and standardization, and an approach to learning derived from personal interest and discovery, rather than from imposed curricula.14 The ideal school, Goodman wrote, is the city itself, because “a good community consists of worthwhile, attractive, and fulfilling callings and things to do, to grow up into.”15

  • 16 John Holt, “How Children Fail”, Radical School Reform, eds. Beatrice and Ronald Gross. New York, Si (...)

8As Goodman developed his own notions about meaningful education, so too did the teacher John Holt. His daily experiences in the classroom made him increasingly frustrated with the education system, which, like Goodman, he viewed as oppressive and generally non-conducive to learning. Influenced in part by A.S. Neill, founder of the aforementioned Summerhill School in the United Kingdom, Holt mainly took issue with the idea that learning is an activity separated from the rest of life, and usually forced upon us. Outlining what he perceived to be the problem with this setup, he wrote: “We cannot be made to grow in someone else’s way, or even made to grow at all. We can only grow when and because we want to, for our own reasons, in whatever ways seem most interesting, exciting, and helpful to us.”16 In 1964, Holt published How Children Fail, which, like Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, became an instant bestseller. After this publication, many others followed, and in 1977 Holt founded the homeschooling magazine Growing without Schooling that catapulted him into the position of homeschooling guru. Although Holt’s emphasis gradually shifted from Free Schooling to homeschooling, and finally, to unschooling, his ideas about the nature of learning resonated with those on the New Left seeking a balance between idealistic and pragmatic ways to transform society.

  • 17 Ron Miller, Free Schools, Free People: Education and Democracy after the 1960s, Albany, State Unive (...)
  • 18 “Ron Miller to Keynote AERO Conference”, AERO [en ligne], consulted 8 December 2017, URL: http://ww (...)
  • 19 R. Miller, op. cit., p. 8.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 8.

9After 1967, especially, this push for education reform led to the proliferation of Free Schools across the country.17 Like Goodman and Holt, among others, Free Schoolers were not just seeking slight adjustments to the education system, but a complete overhaul: by reforming schools, they hoped, they would reform the United States. Ron Miller, an American historian who is hailed by alternative educators as “one of the leading and most frequently cited pioneers in holistic education,”18 writes that “the free school phenomenon rested on the perception, shared by many thousands of young people, that ‘America had run out of dreams.’”19 This emphasis on the need for a systemic shift was part of what made the Free School movement distinctly countercultural, Miller suggests, because it stood in direct opposition to the ideals celebrated by the dominant culture, including “corporate capitalism and all that it entailed...the authority of the state...and even, ultimately, the personality type that seemed to be valued by modern mass society, the rational, well-adjusted citizen and consumer.”20 The latter gives some indication as to how Free Schoolers tried to reform American society: by giving children the responsibility for their own education they aimed to foster their individuality, which they hoped would translate into a generation that valued individuality over conformity. Whereas adults often feel guilty about personal desires that do not conform to social expectations, Goodman suggests, children have none of those qualms, so their originality might be harnessed as a strength. This, Goodman writes, means they might actually become “creators” of their own lives.

  • 22 Ibid., p. 292.
  • 23 Daniel Linden Duke, The Retransformation of the School, Chicago, Nelson-Hall, 1978, p.24.
  • 24 Duke, op.cit., p. 114, and Richard Neumann, Sixties Legacy: A History of the Public Alternative Sch (...)
  • 25 Neumann, Sixties Legacy, op.cit., p. 77.

10In practice, this meant American Free Schools were both democratically governed and centered on “spontaneous and joyful” learning, with no regard for grades, curricula, or formal instruction. It did so, however, with a larger social context in mind. Indeed, Ron Miller writes, the goal was “to make learning relevant and responsive to the lively social and political issues of the day.”22 Because qualitative and quantitative research on Free Schools is so scarce, and many Free School efforts were fleeting, it is difficult to pinpoint where the movement was started and how many Free Schools existed at any given point in time. This is further complicated by the fact that these schools, as a loose collection of efforts, did not have one uniform goal.23 Nonetheless, Daniel Linden Duke, a school reformer, and Richard Neumann, a scholar who has published extensively on alternative education, both mention Jonathan Kozol’s New School for Children, founded in Boston in 1966, as one of the very first “alternative” ones in the United States.24 Additionally, Neumann points out that despite the lack of a clear, single goal, virtually all ideas about progressive schooling that arose in the early twentieth century centered on self-directed learning and more democratic school governments. To Neumann, these idealist goals underscored that Free Schools were meant to do more than simply provide alternatives to mainstream education. “Free-school ideology,” he writes, “in repudiating the conventional school goal of enculturating students to corporate-industrial life and focusing on student self-direction toward development of authentic self or self-actualization, was an explicit critique of American culture.”25

  • 26 Sudbury Valley School, The Crisis in American Education: An Analysis and a Proposal, Framingham, Su (...)
  • 27 How the School is Governed”, Sudbury Valley School [en ligne], consulted 10 December 2017, URL: ht (...)

11While many Free School initiatives were short-lived, often due to poor organization, Sudbury Valley School (SVS), founded in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1968, is one of the few enduring Free Schools in the United States. One of its earliest publications, The Crisis of American Education (1970), underscores the critique of American culture Neumann perceived to be inherent to Free School ideology. By comparing their school’s philosophy to the Declaration of Independence, the publication makes it clear that the founders believe a school should mirror the structure of society. In their perception, that means plenty of personal freedom and responsibility, no arbitrary punishments, and full equality, regardless of age, race, sex, or class. Or, as the founders write: “[e]very person has an equal chance to obtain any goal.”26 Even today, the SVS website contains an entire page filled with essay excerpts that illustrate how the school is run, with an emphasis on equality and ethical development. In so-called School Meetings, in which every aspect of school operations are discussed, “each person, no matter what their age, is treated respectfully and equally, and also has an equal vote in decisions.”27

  • 28 J. Holt, “How Children Fail”, op.cit., p. 73.

12For many Free Schools, then, the aspect of democratic governing was – and still is – integral to the larger goal of student originality and self-actualization, as A.S. Neill and John Holt also emphasized. Indeed, as Holt writes in the article “How Children Fail,” (1969) excerpted from his book by the same name: “How can we foster a joyous, alert, whole-hearted participation in life, if we build all our schooling around the holiness of getting ‘right answers’?”28 Despite the multiplicity of goals in the alternative school movement, then, Free Schools seemed to cater to children as full human beings with rights, responsibilities, and valuable ideas, as characterized by the emphasis placed on democratic governing and uncoerced learning.

  • 29 Daniel Greenberg, “Classes”, Sudbury Valley School [en ligne], consulted 8 December 2017, URL: http (...)

13As with the schools’ goals, parental involvement differed from school to school, with some ethnic alternative schools emphasizing parental involvement to a greater extent than the Summerhillian communities that truly molded their philosophies around the self-development of children. Traditionally, SVS-parents are not directly involved in their children’s education. Teachers, likewise, did not (and do not) directly intervene in whichever topic their students are pursuing, unless they are asked to help out or participate. This is not due to indifference, as the SVS website hastens to clarify, but rather a sign of adults’ complete trust in children’s capacity to learn what they need to learn. The SVS page also emphasizes that the role of teachers is to facilitate and support this learning by offering guidance and suggestions if requested. As Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders of SVS, writes in Free at Last, which is referenced on the SVS site: “At Sudbury Valley, a class is an arrangement between two parties. It starts with someone, or several persons, who decide they want to learn something specific - say, algebra, or French, or physics, or spelling, or pottery. A lot of times, they figure out how to do it on their own. They find a book, or a computer program, or they watch someone else. When that happens, it isn't a class. It's just plain learning.”29 The website is filled with similar testimonies emphasizing the importance of placing one’s full trust in children’s ability to learn on their own.

  • 30 R. Miller, Free Schools, op. cit., p. 5.
  • 31 L. Cremin, “The Free School Movement”, op.cit., p. 206.
  • 32 Allen Graubard, “The Free School Movement”, Harvard Educational Review, vol. 42 no. 3, 1972, p. 351 (...)
  • 33 Ibid., p. 368.

14While parents and teachers never lost their idealism, they did lose some of their radicalness. Indeed, the goal of overhauling society through education seemed to slip as years went by. Slowly but surely, the vision of a utopian society inspired by childhood slowly morphed into the preservation of childhood for individual children. Although Free Schoolers were influenced by the progressivism of John Dewey as well as the humanist psychology of Jean Piaget, Ron Miller notes that, ironically, “a major legacy of Free School ideology is a significant social movement deliberately and strenuously opposed to Dewey’s social vision,”30 as it gradually became more focused on the individual than on society at large. This discrepancy could perhaps be partly explained by Larry Cremin’s indictment of the Free School movement as “notoriously atheoretical [and] ahistorical” with the result that many Free Schools are “reinventing the pedagogical wheel.”31 An early study of the movement, made by educator and Free-School activist Allen Graubard in 1972, seems to confirm the gradual drifting away from social reform as a primary goal, in favor of a thoroughly child-centered emphasis. In 1972, he notes, thirty-nine states had at least one Free School, but the vast majority of Free Schools was located in California and the Northeast of the United States.32 Graubard’s analysis makes it clear that the kind of Free Schools popular among those on the New Left quickly seemed to trade the childhood revolutionary model for an emphasis on personal expression that only those unaffected by the major social issues of the time, notably systemic poverty and racism, could afford. Indeed, Graubard notes, these schools seem to lack the kind of community engagement educators such as Paul Goodman originally envisioned. Indeed, he observes that they have “a definite ‘apolitical’ quality” and “deliberately look inward.”33 With this shift in emphasis, then, the childhood revolutionary model seemed to take a backseat.

  • 34 Peter Gray and David Chanoff. “Democratic Schooling: What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge o (...)
  • 35 Ibid., p. 195.
  • 36 Ibid., p. 197.
  • 37 Jeffrey A. Collins, “Sudbury Model of Education”, Sudbury School, 12 September 2011 [en ligne], con (...)

15This shift seems to be underscored by Peter Gray and David Chanoff’s 1986 study of the Sudbury Valley School’s (SVS) legacy. While Gray and Chanoff’s study has its limitations – both authors are closely involved with SVS, and their sample size consists of a mere 69 former students – it does offer some insight into the long-term effects of a Free School education.34 Of the 69 students Gray and Chanoff surveyed, just over 50% had either completed a Bachelor’s degree, or was still working towards one. A further 25% intended to go on to college, but had not yet started a program.35 Perhaps more interesting than the formal levels of education reached by Sudbury is that many chose to “pursue a career in the arts or start their own business.”36 A 1992 study carried out by Sudbury Valley School itself corroborates this, as it found that 42% of surveyed graduates had become entrepreneurs or were otherwise self-employed.37 These numbers clearly illustrate the students’ individuality and creativity, but reveal little about their social engagement.

  • 38 H. Marcuse, Eros, op. cit., p.195.

16Of course, creative endeavors and social engagement are not mutually exclusive: it is certainly possible that their businesses render a service to others or that their artistic exploits are rooted in their communities, for example. Yet, while this is conceivable, these entrepreneurial survey responses are nonetheless a far cry from the utopian ideal of raising a generation whose creativity might reorganize labor in such a way that all members of society might profit, as Marcuse envisioned.38

  • 39 R. Miller, Free Schools, op. cit., p.3.
  • 40 See for example the introductory “about”-page on the Sudbury Valley School website, which states: “ (...)
  • 41 Jeremy Redford, Danielle Battle, and Stacey Bielick, “Homeschooling in the United States: 2012 (NCE (...)

17While the Free Schools of the 1960s sprung from a utopian drive to radically change society in such a way that “every child, and every teacher, was free to think, feel, dream, and engage in interactions according to their own authentic needs and passions,”39 this ideal seemed to fade over time. Educational change became a goal in and of itself, rather than a means to an end, as the utopian goal of transforming society through education was gradually replaced by the ideal of personalizing education for each individual child. This shift away from politics was not just reflected by SVS40 but also by the explosive rise of home education in the late 1970s, at the very moment Free Schools started to lose momentum. Although a significant chunk of homeschoolers chose (and still chooses) to homeschool for religious reasons,41 former members of the counterculture were also among those who embraced home education in the 1970s, mainly because they believed, like Goodman and Holt, that traditional schooling impeded internal motivation, creativity, and curiosity, and would obstruct the development of an authentic self. Like the original Free Schoolers, they wished to furnish their offspring with an education that left ample room for self-development. Instead of creating a communal space in which this could be done, however, they simply did so at home, thus excising the revolutionary social content that had informed the original Free School movement.

  • 42 Kellie Rollstad and Kathleen Kesson, “Unschooling, Then and Now”, Journal of Unschooling and Altern (...)
  • 43 See, for example, Sara, “Protecting Childhood”, Happiness is Here, 29 July 2014 [en ligne], consult (...)
  • 44 See, for example, Peter Gray, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Chil (...)

18Initially, a small segment of homeschoolers called “unschoolers” seemed to be reviving the original, childhood-inspired Free School-legacy. In 1977, John Holt coined the term “unschooling” in his newsletter Growing without Schooling. Like Free Schoolers, these unschoolers believed that children are capable of learning independently, and that forced teaching hurt their intrinsic motivation, and they, too, believed that alternative education could help build an alternative society. As Kathleen Kesson, a parent who counts herself among the first unschoolers, writes: “I was swept away by the possibility of creating whole new structures from the ground up: alternative architecture, agriculture, politics, education, diet, lifestyles – you name it; it was all up for grabs.”42 Finally, like Free Schoolers, unschoolers also tend to romanticize childhood as a magical era that needs to be protected from the drudgery of formal education,43 and encourage ample time for play.44

  • 45 K. Rollstad and K. Kesson, « Unschooling, Then and Now », op. cit. p.46.
  • 46 Erich Fromm, Foreword”, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child-Rearing, A.S. Neill, London, Hart (...)

19While protecting children’s individuality thus remained the focal point for both the original Free Schoolers and unschoolers, their priorities differed: while original Free Schoolers and the earliest unschoolers feared the socio-political consequences of conformity, contemporary unschoolers mostly appear anxious about the ways in which this loss of individuality might affect their own children.45 With this development, changing society seems to have become an afterthought. Put differently, the original Free Schoolers were not merely protecting childhood, but also a utopian vision. Nowhere does this utopianism become more apparent than in Erich Fromm’s foreword to A.S. Neill’s Summerhill publication, which argued that mainstream schooling normalizes authoritarian governing.46 The original Free Schools were erected with the goal of raising a generation that would be able to break through this veiled manipulation and think for itself, establishing a freer society in the process. When the drive for alternative education was relocated to the home, this vision was essentially cast aside, or receded to the background at best.

  • 47 See, for example: Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, New York, (...)

20Perhaps this change can be partly explained by the different status of technology in contemporary society. For the counterculture, concerns about the mechanization of society – including education – were by no means overblown: it is well-known that the current U.S. school system was developed in the early twentieth century in response to industrial demands and that present-day public schools still follow this managerial efficiency model. Nowadays, this is mainly reflected by the proliferation of standardized testing in an attempt to track each child’s learning from an early age. Generally speaking, however, technology is largely embraced by parents, students, and educators across the spectrum, the occasional technological defeatist perspective excepted.47

  • 48 See, for example, José Luis Vilson, This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Educati (...)
  • 49 L. Cremin, “The Free School Movement”, op. cit., p. 207-208.

21What is more, while several teachers and parents have voiced their concerns about the ways in which the current education system chips away at qualities like creativity and critical thinking,48 unschooling does not seem to be a sustainable alternative. For while unschooling constitutes a way out of the standardized-testing morass, it is unclear how critical thinking will develop when a child’s education is entirely child-led. Larry Cremin already raised concerns about this in 1978, arguing that “it is utter nonsense to think that by turning children loose in an unplanned structure, they can be freed in any significant way. Rather, they are thereby abandoned to the blind forces of hucksters, whose primary concern is neither the children, nor the truth, nor the decent future of American society.”49 Pointing especially to the influence of the media on children’s lives, Cremin feared that the lack of guidance from parents or teachers would actually result in children unable to think for themselves.

  • 50 Redford, Battle, and Bielick, “Homeschooling in the United States”, op. cit., p. 8.
  • 51 P. Gray and D. Chanoff, “Democratic Schooling”, op. cit., p. 193.
  • 52 According to the most recent research done by the National Center for Education Statistics, 83% of (...)
  • 53 K. Rollstad and K. Kesson, “Unschooling, Then and Now”, op. cit., p. 51.

22A further issue with unschooling that raises doubts about its sustainability as an alternative to public education, is its relative exclusivity. Alternative education and homeschooling are generally only accessible to higher-income families, as the most recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics shows50, and which Gray and Chanoff already pointed out in 1986.51 Likewise, while no numbers on the racial distribution of unschoolers exists, it is not too much of a stretch to assume that since the vast majority of homeschoolers is white,52 the majority of unschoolers (grouped under homeschoolers) likely is, too, despite anecdotal evidence to the contrary.53

  • 54 M. Horkheimer, The Eclipse of Reason, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1947, p. 156.
  • 55 See Henry A. Giroux, America at War with Itself, San Francisco, City Light Books, 2016, p. 99-136; (...)
  • 56 R. Miller, Free Schools, op.cit,. p. 60.

23While unschooling is a seemingly natural heir to the legacy of the Free Schooling movement, then, it appears to have lost its radical imprint. In order to salvage this, it needs to return to the original vision of a childhood utopia – a utopia that extends beyond the comfort of one’s own family. This element of social criticism seems to become all the more urgent now, in 2018, as technocracy has become a more significant reality than Marcuse and fellow Frankfurt School theorist Max Horkheimer could have predicted. “By making the watchword of production a kind of religious creed,” Horkheimer writes in 1947, “by professing technocratic ideas and branding as 'unproductive' such groups as do not have access to the big industrial bastions, industry causes itself and society to forget that production has become to an ever greater extent a means in the struggle for power.”54 Now, those “unproductive” groups lacking access to the modes of production and thus to the making of meaning, are primarily the poor and people of color, as some scholars have recently argued.55 In this context, investing in the community, like the original countercultural and critical-theory-inspired Free Schoolers envisioned, should once again become a priority if social change is the end goal. Miller, too, affirms this when he points out that the enduring success of some Free Schools stems from the fact that “its entire community [is] so intimately [involved] in the life of the school.”56 The ideals of self-expression and creativity paramount to Free School ideology, then, can come to fruition only by forging an alliance with the community from which arises.

  • 57 Jonathan Kozol, “Savage Inequalities: An Interview with Jonathan Kozol”, Educational Theory, vol. 4 (...)
  • 58 Richard Poirier, “Kozol the Builder and Kozol the Scourge”, The New York Times, 5 March 1972, p.130 (...)
  • 59 Jonathan Kozol, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Racism in the Countercultur”, Ramparts volume 11, (...)

24While the celebration of childhood as a sacred or magical time has endured in the Western world, Free Schools long failed to consider how they might safeguard this magic for all. The answer, it seems, might be found in precisely the kind of community engagement originally envisioned by Goodman and radical far-left educators, such as Jonathan Kozol. Kozol, an inner-city school teacher who was briefly associated with the Free School movement, quickly came to view Free Schools growing out of the counterculture as self-indulgent and counterproductive to true reform. Focusing merely on curricula, he argued, was a luxury issue.57 Instead, he suggested, real Free Schools, should take responsibility for changing the community at large, as the original “freedom schools” aimed to do during Freedom Summer in 1964. These freedom schools, created by black communities in the South at the initiative of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, sought to address racial inequality by educating black children on issues directly pertaining to their own lives, such as African-American history. They were largely community-run, although often with the help of student volunteers from the North. A 1972 New York Times review of Kozol’s book Free Schools (1972) makes it clear that Kozol wished to emulate this model because a Free School “can only become ‘free’ when it creates around it a community of conscience about these and other injustices and a will to struggle against them.”58 In 1972, he wrote that he believed Free Schools had a choice to make: to remain schools concerned with “self-serving innovation [and] intellectual self-exploration,” or “to join with vigorous passion in the transformation of this nation” by directly involving communities in building schools from the start, and not just as an afterthought. This, he believed, would not just be empowering, but necessary if the needs of underprivileged communities were to be met.59

  • 60 Christopher Emdin, For White Folks Who Want to Teach in the Hood…And the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality (...)

25Contemporary urban educators seeking reform suggest a similarly expansive approach to teaching, not in the least by encouraging teachers to become involved in the community life of their schools.60 Such initiatives seem to indicate that a new visionary push for reform will likely have the most far-reaching effect if it comes directly from communities themselves, rather than from external alternative education movements such as unschoolers. This is not to say that unschooling is worthless, but rather that it deviates significantly from the socially critical philosophy espoused by the first Free Schoolers, despite some of its outward similarities.

  • 61 J. Kozol, op. cit., p.32.
  • 62 Jean Anyon, Marx and Education, New York, Routledge, 2011, p. 57-58.

26With the rapid effacement of individual needs and desires, as well as the cooptation of personalized learning by the state, individualizing education alone no longer seems a sustainable way to realize the “childhood utopia” original Free Schoolers envisioned. In order to revive this ideal, Free Schools will need to move from hoping that emphasizing their students’ individuality will have a ripple-effect throughout the community, to structurally addressing needs in that community. Kozol warned that hoping for a ripple-effect was wishful thinking, and Jean Anyon also writes that reform policies that do not take the school’s social context into account have little chance of succeeding, because the poorest neighborhoods often lack jobs and other resources, and housing and commutes are expensive.6162

  • 63 Sudbury Valley School, Admissions [en ligne], consulted 8 December 2017, URL: http://sudburyschool. (...)
  • 64 The Chicago Free School, FAQ [en ligne], consulted 10 December 2017, URL: https://chicagofreeschool (...)
  • 65 Astra Taylor, “Unschooling”, N+1 Magazine Winter 2012 [en ligne], consulted 10 December 2017, URL: (...)

27In recent years, contemporary Free Schools such as SVS, Chicago Free School, and Brooklyn Free School have been making an effort to become less exclusive. For example, SVS tuition for 2017-2018 is $7,525 (with an additional child costing $6,020), but they do offer financial aid, although it is not clear how much.63 Chicago Free School and Brooklyn Free School both have a sliding scale tuition based on family income, in order to encourage cultural and racial diversity within their schools.64 While it is likely that someone like Kozol would still have his misgivings about this trend, these attempts to attract a more diverse student body do indicate contemporary Free Schools are changing. A 2012 article in literary magazine N+1 about the Albany Free School seems to hint at this as well: the author emphasizes that younger teachers have been more explicitly committed to teaching social justice issues.65 It seems, then, that the Free School movement is experiencing a pendulum motion, as it swings away from a near-exclusive emphasis on self-actualization and returns to the promises of its founding.

  • 66 H. Marcuse, Eros, op. cit., p. 160.

28In light of the current social and political climate of the United States, marked by sharp inequalities and increasing rates of racial animosity, aiming for a more utopian society might seem naïve. On the other hand, perhaps holding on to such a vision is precisely what is needed in this context. When Goodman complains that Americans have become so weary of the status quo that they “have ceased to be able to imagine alternatives,” he hits the nail on the head: the community-wide action required for a true return to the promises of the original Free Schools are daunting, but one might be willing to undertake it if one “refuses to forget what can be,” as Marcuse wrote. To cling to the possibility of such radical change, even in the face of a hostile political climate, would mean to truly harness the spirit of the 1960s, when an interplay of critical theory, the New Left, and the counterculture forged a realm in which it was not just possible to rethink education for one’s own children, but for an entire society. “The insistence that imagination provide standards for existential attitudes, for practice, and for historical possibilities appears as childish fantasy,” Marcuse wrote.66 Yet, this “childish fantasy,” when embedded in a practical approach to community development, is precisely what could truly alter the way society educates children and prepares them for citizenship, 50 years after 1968.

Haut de page

Notes

1 Paul Galloway, “Radical Redux”, Chicago Tribune, November 16, 1990, p.1+ [en ligne], consulted 31 May 2017, URL: http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1990/11/16/page/131/article/radical-redux/ .

2 See, for example, Susan Buck-Morss, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute, Hassocks, Harvester Press, 1977; Raphael Schlembach, “Negation, Refusal and Co-Optation: The Frankfurt School and Social Movement Theory”, Sociology Compass, vol. 9, no. 11, 2015, pp. 987–999; Christopher Swift, “Herbert Marcuse on the New Left: Dialectic and Rhetoric”, Rhetoric Society Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 2, 2010, pp. 146–171.

3 The notion of childhood as an “authentic” and potentially revolutionary period was not new: in the eighteenth century, Romanticists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau recognized in children an unbridled curiosity and openness they wished to protect from adult ideas about education and work, an idea which was revived by communist circles in the 1920s and 1930s who conceptualized childhood as a utopian space that could serve “as a model for the liberation of society as a whole.” See Julia Mickenberg, Learning From the Left: Children’s Literature, the Cold War, and Radical Politics in the United States, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2005, p. 33.

4 Lawrence Cremin, “The Free School Movement: A Perspective”, Alternative Schools: Realities, Ideologies, Guidelines, eds. Terrence E. Deal and Robert R. Nolan, Chicago, Nelson-Hall, 1978. p. 203-210, p. 204.

5 “Summerhillian” schools, so designated by Free School researchers such as Lawrence Cremin, were named after Summerhill School in Suffolk, England, a boarding school founded by A.S. Neill in 1921. Summerhill claims to be the “original free school,” and does not coerce children into learning in any way. Lessons are optional, timetables only exist for teachers, and originality is valued above all else. Additionally, the school is run democratically, by students and teachers alike. See A.S. Neill, “Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child-Rearing”, Oxford, Hart Publishing, 1960.

6 David Gross, “Culture, Politics, and ‘Lifestyle’ in the 1960”, Adolph Reed jr. (ed), Race, Politics, and Culture: Critical Essays of the 1960s, Westport, Greenwood Press, 1986, p. 99-117, p. 108.

7 Under Freud’s influence, Marcuse began to analyze 1950s American society through the lens of repressed desires, which led to the publication of Eros and Civilization in 1955. In this work, he argues that “the performance principle,” the pragmatic principle that every activity must lead to a product, alienated people further from their labor and repressed their natural desires See Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud, Boston, The Beacon Press, 1955, p. 45. This argument, which, in some ways, was echoed by other members of the Frankfurt School, served as an impetus for turning to education as a potentially revolutionary terrain. See also Roger Neustadter, “The End of ‘Childhood Amnesia’: The Utopian Ideal of Childhood in Critical Theory”, Mid-American Review of Sociology, vol. 16, no. 2, 1992, p. 71-80.

8 H. Marcuse, Eros, op. cit., 149.

9 H. Marcuse, Eros, op.cit., p. 45.

10 Paul Goodman, Growing up Absurd: Problems of Youth in the Organized Society, New York, New York Review of Books, 1960, p. 38.

11 Ibid., p. 80.

12 “This relation is the relation of the worker to his own activity as an alien activity not belonging to him; it is activity as suffering, strength as weakness, begetting as emasculating…” See Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor”, Marxists, par. xxiii, [en ligne] consulted 20 June 2017, URL: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm.

13 P. Goodman, Growing, op. cit., p. 54.

14 Goodman was not just inspired by critical theory, but also by the writings of Alexander Sutherland Neill, founder of Summerhill School, who wrote in his 1960 book Summerhill: “[A] school that makes active children sit at desks studying mostly useless subjects is a bad school. It is a good school only for those who... want docile, uncreative children who will fit into a civilization whose standard of success is money.”

15 Paul Goodman, “No Processing Whatever”, Radical School Reform, eds. Beatrice and Ronald Gross, Simon and New York, Simon & Schuster, 1969, p.98-106, p.103.

16 John Holt, “How Children Fail”, Radical School Reform, eds. Beatrice and Ronald Gross. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1969, p. 25.

17 Ron Miller, Free Schools, Free People: Education and Democracy after the 1960s, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2002, p. 3.

18 “Ron Miller to Keynote AERO Conference”, AERO [en ligne], consulted 8 December 2017, URL: http://www.educationrevolution.org/store/ronmiller-aero/.

19 R. Miller, op. cit., p. 8.

20 Ibid., p. 8.

21 P. Goodman, Growing, op.cit. p. 292.

22 Ibid., p. 292.

23 Daniel Linden Duke, The Retransformation of the School, Chicago, Nelson-Hall, 1978, p.24.

24 Duke, op.cit., p. 114, and Richard Neumann, Sixties Legacy: A History of the Public Alternative Schools Movement 1967-2001, New York, Peter Lang, 2003, p.74.

25 Neumann, Sixties Legacy, op.cit., p. 77.

26 Sudbury Valley School, The Crisis in American Education: An Analysis and a Proposal, Framingham, Sudbury Valley School Press, 1970, p. 29.

27 How the School is Governed”, Sudbury Valley School [en ligne], consulted 10 December 2017, URL: http://www.sudburyvalley.org/05_onepersononevote.html.

28 J. Holt, “How Children Fail”, op.cit., p. 73.

29 Daniel Greenberg, “Classes”, Sudbury Valley School [en ligne], consulted 8 December 2017, URL: http://www.sudburyvalley.org/05_lifeatschool.html#05.

30 R. Miller, Free Schools, op. cit., p. 5.

31 L. Cremin, “The Free School Movement”, op.cit., p. 206.

32 Allen Graubard, “The Free School Movement”, Harvard Educational Review, vol. 42 no. 3, 1972, p. 351-372, p. 357.

33 Ibid., p. 368.

34 Peter Gray and David Chanoff. “Democratic Schooling: What Happens to Young People Who Have Charge of Their Own Education?”, American Journal of Education, vol. 94, no. 2, 1986, p.192.

35 Ibid., p. 195.

36 Ibid., p. 197.

37 Jeffrey A. Collins, “Sudbury Model of Education”, Sudbury School, 12 September 2011 [en ligne], consulted 15 June 2017, URL: http://sudburyschool.com/content/sudbury-model-education.

38 H. Marcuse, Eros, op. cit., p.195.

39 R. Miller, Free Schools, op. cit., p.3.

40 See for example the introductory “about”-page on the Sudbury Valley School website, which states: “In our environment, students are able to develop traits that are key to achieving success: They are comfortable learning new things; confident enough to rely on their own judgment; and capable of pursuing their passions to a high level of competence.” Becoming “contributing members of a free society” is mentioned later, almost as an afterthought. “The Sudbury Model,” Sudbury Valley School [en ligne], consulted 23 June 2017, URL: http://www.sudburyvalley.org/01_abou_01.html.

41 Jeremy Redford, Danielle Battle, and Stacey Bielick, “Homeschooling in the United States: 2012 (NCES 2016-096)”, National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington D.C., p. 135 [en ligne] consulted 24 October 2017, URL: https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009081.pdf.

42 Kellie Rollstad and Kathleen Kesson, “Unschooling, Then and Now”, Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning, vol. 7, issue 14, 2013, p. 28-71, p. 39.

43 See, for example, Sara, “Protecting Childhood”, Happiness is Here, 29 July 2014 [en ligne], consulted 12 March 2017, URL: https://goo.gl/bstA27.
Jennifer McGrail, “Q&A: Deciding to Unschool and My Hopes for My Children”, The Path Less Taken, 14 November 2013 [en ligne], consulted 16 June 2017, URL: https://goo.gl/L4febG.

44 See, for example, Peter Gray, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, New York, Basic Books, 2013.

45 K. Rollstad and K. Kesson, « Unschooling, Then and Now », op. cit. p.46.

46 Erich Fromm, Foreword”, Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child-Rearing, A.S. Neill, London, Hart Publishing Company, 1960, p.7.

47 See, for example: Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, New York, W.W. Norton and Company, 2011, and Jean M. Twenge’s iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood – and What That Means for the Rest of Us, New York, Atria Books, 2017.

48 See, for example, José Luis Vilson, This Is Not a Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and Education, Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2014; Valerie Strauss, “Teachers Refuse to Administer Standardized Tests”, The Washington Post, 4 April 2014, [en ligne] consulted 18 June 2017, URL: goo.gl/ywyNka.

49 L. Cremin, “The Free School Movement”, op. cit., p. 207-208.

50 Redford, Battle, and Bielick, “Homeschooling in the United States”, op. cit., p. 8.

51 P. Gray and D. Chanoff, “Democratic Schooling”, op. cit., p. 193.

52 According to the most recent research done by the National Center for Education Statistics, 83% of homeschoolers is white. See Redford, Battle, and Bielick, “Homeschooling in the United States”, op. cit., p. 8.

53 K. Rollstad and K. Kesson, “Unschooling, Then and Now”, op. cit., p. 51.

54 M. Horkheimer, The Eclipse of Reason, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1947, p. 156.

55 See Henry A. Giroux, America at War with Itself, San Francisco, City Light Books, 2016, p. 99-136; Jason Stanley, “The Emergency Manager: Strategic Racism, Technocracy, and the Poisoning of Flint's Children”, The Good Society, vol. 25 no. 1, 2016, p. 1-45.

56 R. Miller, Free Schools, op.cit,. p. 60.

57 Jonathan Kozol, “Savage Inequalities: An Interview with Jonathan Kozol”, Educational Theory, vol. 43, issue 1, 1993, p. 55-70, p. 55.

58 Richard Poirier, “Kozol the Builder and Kozol the Scourge”, The New York Times, 5 March 1972, p.130 [en ligne], consulted 12 June 2017, URL: goo.gl/QkxzJr.

59 Jonathan Kozol, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone? Racism in the Countercultur”, Ramparts volume 11, issue 6, 1972, p. 57.

60 Christopher Emdin, For White Folks Who Want to Teach in the Hood…And the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education, Boston, Beacon Press, 2016, p. 44-60.

61 J. Kozol, op. cit., p.32.

62 Jean Anyon, Marx and Education, New York, Routledge, 2011, p. 57-58.

63 Sudbury Valley School, Admissions [en ligne], consulted 8 December 2017, URL: http://sudburyschool.com/admissions/tuition.

64 The Chicago Free School, FAQ [en ligne], consulted 10 December 2017, URL: https://chicagofreeschool.org/frequently-asked-questions/ and Brooklyn Free School, Sliding Scale Tuition [en ligne], consulted 10 December 2017, URL: https://www.brooklynfreeschool.org/sliding-scale/.

65 Astra Taylor, “Unschooling”, N+1 Magazine Winter 2012 [en ligne], consulted 10 December 2017, URL: https://nplusonemag.com/issue-13/essays/unschooling/.

66 H. Marcuse, Eros, op. cit., p. 160.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Berit Brink, « Between imagination and reality: tracing the legacy of childhood as a utopian space in the free schooling and unschooling movements », Strenæ [En ligne], 13 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 mai 2018, consulté le 22 juillet 2018. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/strenae/1795 ; DOI : 10.4000/strenae.1795

Haut de page

Auteur

Berit Brink

De Boelelaan 1105
1081 HV Amsterdam
b.brink@vu.nl

Haut de page
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals