Free Schools
review by Frank Lindenfeld

Free Schools, Free People: Education and Democracy after the 1960’s

By Ron Miller (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002).

In this well-documented book, Ron Miller takes us back to the heady 1960s era with its movements that chal-lenged racial injustice, class inequality, and the Vietnam War. Stimulated and nurtured by these movements and by the developing counterculture, a wave of alternative institutions—food co-ops, communes, worker collectives, alternative newspapers, free universities and free schools swelled and crested. Many of the free schools lasted only several years, though some still continue—e.g. Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, along with a few public alternatives such as the High School in the Community in New Haven, CT.

Miller traces the cultural context and the ideology of the free school movement. The ideology arose out of a radical disenchantment with American society, technocratic values, oppressive economic institutions, and major political parties dominated by the wealthy. Influential writers on education during that era included Paul Goodman, Ivan Illich, A.S. Neill (Summerhill), John Holt, and Jonathan Kozol. As Kozol put it in his 1972 book, Free Schools, the public school exists “to turn out manageable workers, obedient consumers, manipulable voters and if need be, willing killers.” Miller devotes an entire chapter to the evolving thought of John Holt, who eventually became an advocate of de-schooling and home-schooling, as well as a thoughtful chapter on “Education and Democracy”, to which I return below.

Free School Values

Free schools, at their best, have been exemplars of egalitarian, participatory democratic learning communities of children and adult mentors. The anarchist slogan “question authority” was popular. Free schoolers were against credentialism, and against domination in all of its forms. They believed children developed and learned best in an empowering atmosphere. And they believed in experiential learning, rather than merely learning from books and expert authorities. Children are naturally curious: in their own time they will learn what they need without being told what to do. The role of staff was to act as models, guides, mentors and leaders, and not as authority figures. Decisions were generally made in meetings of staff and students, one person, one vote. The schools were usually small—20-60 students and 3-10 staff and volunteers. There were no compulsory classes, age groupings, pre-set curricula, or grades. Supporters of free schools did not believe this model was suitable for all children, only that such alternatives work for many kids, while public schools are sorely deficient as well as oppressive.

Free Schools, Free People helped me reflect on my own role in starting free schools in the 1960s, notably Summerhill West in Los Angeles. In the cultural climate of the time, building our own institutions seemed quite possible. If the public schools did not adequately meet our needs, we would build free schools. People would begin deserting the mainstream, oppressive institutions to take part in the alternatives. As a parent, I wanted something better for my children, so I helped organize a free school with other parents and educators with values similar to mine. We accepted children of all ages, and provided a non-coercive learning atmosphere with a young, nurturing staff. For a time, we had boarding arrangements for many of the older students. The students wanted to come to school; they probably learned as much and more than they would have in public school, without coercion. Older students who wanted to attend college found little difficulty in being accepted. At our school meetings, some of the four year olds sat on the laps of teenagers. Everyone had a say. The complaint from a number of the kids that the meetings got into too much boring detail led to the delegation of a number of tasks, and the emergence of some degree of formal structure.

Our school began in Los Angeles, and later moved to northern California. The biggest problem, which finally forced the school to close, was lack of money. Teachers subsidized the school by taking low salaries, and numerous volunteers supplemented paid staff. Free schools like ours did charge tuition, though on a sliding scale and with scholarships, so as to keep from becoming merely private schools for upper middle class kids.

Education, Democracy and Free Schools

In his chapter “Education and Democracy,” Miller contrasts free school ideology with that of the social democrats. The free schools argued for secession from the public school system to enable their participants to engage in a participatory democratic process in small school communities. We knew that trying to transform the public schools might be a long process. We did not want to wait years, however, for our kids to have access to a more open, non-authoritarian educational environment.

But if progressive parents desert the public schools, doesn’t that make it even more difficult to provide decent public education for poor and minority children? Perhaps, though it seems to me the answer to this lies in a dual strategy of continuing political struggle and building alternative learning communities. At Summerhill West we encouraged anti-war and anti-draft activities, and continued the wider political struggle to transform the public educational system. Two of the staff, for example, were part of a third party slate vying for seats on the Los Angeles school board. Despite the lack of campaign funds, we were able to garner about 6% of the votes.

The free school (and New Left) ideal of participatory democracy and community differs from the social democratic vision of using state power to promote equality, social justice, and civil rights. An example of the latter was President Eisenhower’s sending federal troops to enforce racial integration at Little Rock High School in 1957. The free school movement opposed racism and segregation, and was strongly influenced by the civil rights movement and the southern freedom schools. (Nevertheless, most free schools had few minority students). The free schools did not advocate using state power to force people to be free. We kept alive the idea that education should be empowering, that children grow and learn best in a non-coercive, supportive atmosphere that emphasizes cooperation and mutual aid.

The notion of non-coercive learning communities is more relevant today than ever. Many of us are appalled at the blatant materialism, commercialism, nationalism and militarism that are part of public school indoctrination. (School systems now sign exclusive agreements with Coca Cola, and show Channel One “news” with its built in commercials). Contemporary voucher plans and charter schools often reflect a conservative, elitist, racist agenda. Public funds could also be used to support a new wave of free schools, however. We might emulate the Danish folk school model where groups of, say, 15-20 families could receive no-strings public funding on a par with per-pupil funding of public schools.

Frank Lindenfeld is sociology professor emeritus, Bloomsburg University. He was an activist in the 1960's free school movement. Contact: .

Include the citation below and GEO Newsletter grants permission to copy, use, and distribute this article.
Permission not for commercial or for-profit use.

©2001 GEO, P.O. Box 115, Riverdale, MD 20738-0115