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Free Schools, Free People: Education and Democracy After the 1960s


Free Schools, Free People: Education and Democracy After the 1960s

Miller, Ron. NY: State University of New York Press, 2002. Paperback, 220 pages, $22.95. ISBN: 0791454207

Ron Miller's slim history of the 1970s American free school movement is the first work on a shockingly under-researched subject. Apart from a fair sized number of highly self-reflexive books published at the height of the movement, nothing else has been published until now. For this reason, Miller's book is invaluable to anyone curious about free schools as he compiles an exhaustive bibliography, even capturing the handful of related theses and dissertations, and makes the first bold move at analyzing the free-school phenomenon.

The free school movement was a student and parent-initiated effort to build small alternative schools where students participated equally in governance if not ran the school themselves as well as enjoyed complete control over curriculum. Miller estimates between 400 to 800 such schools opened between 1967 and the late 1970s. The context for the movement was the larger social unrest of the 1960s, which included widespread efforts at education reform that targeted all levels of education. It is tempting but perhaps a bit hasty to characterize the free school movement as the radical element of these reform efforts, although certainly the existence of these experimental schools queried the broader dialog. Often run on the barest of resources (one California-based grade school held classes in a public park while a free high school in New York squatted an abandoned dry cleaners), free schools fell victim, as most utopian projects do, to their own ideology. Within the movement itself there were heated debates over the degree of freedom students should be afforded, how to resign the disconnect between students' interests and what might be considered essential knowledges and skills such as literacy, and whether small isolated alternative schools were serving the larger project of education reform, or merely hiding from it. Miller attempts to redeem the free school ideology, which he argues is still relevant and characterizes as "a politics of authenticity which insisted that social change must address existential wholeness as well as social reform" (76).

What gets lost in Miller's history however, are the racial tensions that drove the American education reform movement. Miller positions 1960s white student activism as occurring parallel to, inspired by, and in step with the civil rights movement rather than as a response to the extraordinary disruption of white American society caused by desegregation. By making race a peripheral rather than central issue, Miller does a disservice to key voices within the free school movement, most notably Jonathan Kozol. Author of Death At An Early Age and Free Schools, Kozol launched scathing attacks against free schools that catered to white middle class children, once comparing them to "a sandbox for the children of the S.S. guards at Auschwitz" (Kozol, 11). Miller defends the free school movement from Kozol's critiques by appealing to the work of two other education reformers: John Holt and John Dewey and suggests that prominent 1960s issues such as civil rights and opposition to the war receded as social reformers sought "holistic" change in new approaches to education. In doing so, Miller effaces the issue of race and paints Holt's philosophy as seemingly universal in nature, a vision of reform that saw beyond mere identity politics. While Miller makes efforts to avoid some of the traps of the standard 1960s narrative, his encomium for Holt relies on overly simplified dichotomies such as "laissez-faire individualism" versus "organic" self-realization and democratic community versus "technocratic society" (94, 107).

I agree with Miller that the 1970s free school movement is still relevant however I would argue it's relevancy rests on the legacy of narratives that pit the well-intentioned activist against the faceless system. Miller's history unfortunately perpetuates rather than problematizes such narratives. Nevertheless, Miller has brushed the dust off a treasure of texts and started what will undoubtedly be a worthwhile inquiry into post-1960s notions of education, freedom, and self-hood.

Kathleen McConnell

Works Cited

Kozol, Jonathan. Free Schools. NY: Bantam Books, 1972.