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Closing Time for Open Ed?

Free the Children: Radical Reform and the Free School Movement

by Allen Graubard
Pantheon, 306 pp., $7.95

Recently a conference on “Alternatives in Education” was advertised in The New York Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and, I am sure, in other papers and journals throughout the country. A student who paid $250 plus room, board, and transportation could earn three points of college credit. On the same day the Sunday Times “Arts and Leisure” section ran an ad for two lectures (at three dollars a piece) on “The Open School System: Does It Work?” These are of course only minor indications of the growing industry that is selling “open” and “alternative” education. Houghton Mifflin has invested nearly a million dollars in producing “Interaction,” a “student-centered” language curriculum. There is an “alternative school consortium” at the University of Indiana, not to mention the many consultant groups of itinerant veterans of the English Infant Schools, who, for a fee, will help a school or school system to produce open classrooms and alternative schools. I have counted thirty-five new books on the subject of “alternative education” in the past two years.

But this activity only confirms my impression that much of the excitement and energy of a few years ago has disappeared from the alternative and free school movements. In Berkeley for example most of the people who were actively working in alternative schools both inside and outside the public school system are licking their wounds and doing other work or are planning to continue but in more modest, less romantic ways.

I left “Other Ways,” in Berkeley, one of the first “public alternative schools,” two years ago. The pressure of teaching, raising money, and dealing with a hostile administration was, I thought, leaving me no room to become a better teacher. I felt if I didn’t quit I would become cranky and harassed, a hustler or a politician only pretending to be working for open education, because unable to do so. For the school bureaucracy had proved rougher, more resilient, and cleverer than any of us had expected. The adults at our school (myself included), in spite of a common belief in “openness” and cooperation, often acted in selfish, competitive, and destructive ways toward each other and the students. We placed the school at the center of our lives and then began to realize that school was only a small part of the children’s lives and that we were using them as a means for our own re-education.

At the same time, we saw the open classroom approach being adopted by many administrators within the public schools as a new technique for keeping students quiet and occupied, for making school and classrooms slightly more pleasant, without changing the lines of power and authority. The students still, of course, must attend the schools, must submit to the adults who staff them, must stay all day within the school building, and, perhaps worst of all, must choose their program from the narrow options the adults describe. The open classroom has become for many a new educational package that allows the students a bit more choice, but usually in a highly controlled way. Schools using these new methods frequently remain rigidly run places where the same old discipline problems arise.

What happens when the students refuse to take advantage of any of the choices offered in the classrooms, or when a teacher who claims to teach the “open classroom method” turns out to be scornful of blacks or skeptical about the mathematical abilities of girls? The open classroom “package” won’t automatically and magically solve the political and social and human problems that turn up in schools. I have seen public school teachers who make this discovery become more harsh and vindictive than other teachers for whom traditional teaching works reasonably well. The bitterness and disappointment, however, rarely lead to self-criticism or a reconsideration of the ideas of open education.

The same is true of many free school people. The free school movement sometimes elevated the young to the role of saviors of the old, and indeed of society itself. The teachers would be inspired by their students if only they would let the kids alone. But it didn’t work that way; the young people interpreted the hands-off attitude of grown-ups as helplessness or rejection. Some of the children reacted by looking after one another, and their work was often lively and serious; but they reacted also by being nasty and competitive, ruthless and irresponsible. Once again, many adults failed to analyze what they themselves were doing wrong. They became angry, and decided to be tougher in class, rejecting the idea of the free schools out of hand. In American education (as elsewhere), a common reaction to criticism is to feel unloved and put down. When this happens it becomes all the more difficult to devise new ways of teaching. If teachers cannot face their own failures, miscalculations, or foolishness, they are not likely to improve matters.

It seems necessary to recall now that the advocates of free schools and those who worked out ideas for the open classroom were wrong about many things, but not about everything. It will be sad if we now reject their work altogether and swing back to authoritarian ways of dealing with young people. What is needed is the kind of self-criticism that produces new energy, ideas, and methods rather than the sense of futility and guilt which many people in the free school movement now feel.

Allen Graubard’s book Free the Children seems to me just the sort of criticism we now need. Graubard was a professor of philosophy at MIT as well as a teacher at the Santa Barbara Free School, a useful combination of theoretical and practical experience. Graubard is not an embittered man. He wants to air the mistakes and misconceptions of the free school so that we can try to build a decent society for ourselves and our children.

Graubard believes that people in the free school movement (and I would include many people who have worked in “alternative” public schools as well) expected too much from the schools, the students, and themselves, and therefore were bound to fail: “What was aimed at was beyond one’s power, because to achieve all the goals for the school and the children and the adults would entail radical transformation in other areas of social life.” And “It is a mistake to think that free schools can be new culture in that the people there are finding many new ways of living or even of making a living.”

Not only do racism, sexism, competitiveness, greed, self-hatred invade even the “purest” free schools, but all schools, even the best ones, become boring to children. Most people want to leave school and get into the world. So some adults who tried to make the small free school into a community found themselves rejected by most of the students they were trying to rescue.

The dream of living in a state of purity within a corrupt culture is surely hollow; it is also dangerous, for it can lead not only to boredom and apathy but to suicide or revolt. Free schools are notorious for their divisiveness, for their high mortality rates, and for their utopian dreams and rhetoric. Yet as Graubard says, “Alienation is a societal creation and can’t be escaped in free schools, communes, or Gestalt Therapy sessions.”

To illustrate his point Graubard takes a close look at a number of free schools, their schedules and curricula, the staff and students, the ways people are hired and fired, the relations with parents and local communities. He sorts out the fantasies from the achievements of some of the schools. He understands how much the adults in free schools learned and how much they needed students to help them. There are no simplifications, only careful portraits of different schools and analyses of their successes and failures. For example, Graubard describes the Santa Barbara Community School, which attempted to “develop a model for a free high school which could use the surrounding community and nearby university as learning resources.” I learned something about this school three years ago when all of its students and teachers (including Allan Graubard, who was then teaching) came north on a visit to Berkeley and San Francisco. The students took side trips by themselves along the way and weren’t constantly supervised by hovering adults. They seemed kind to each other, relaxed if a bit aimless. Everyone seemed to be having a pleasant, mildly educational trip, which was delightfully free of “behavioral objectives” and “educational evaluation.”

At that time Other Ways, lacking a building, was holding classes in Tilden Park. The group from Santa Barbara spent some time with us and got along well with our somewhat more harsh and loose style. Although the visitors obviously were accustomed to making their own decisions, and to dealing with uncertainty and moderate disorder, the students, like ours at Other Ways, seemed hungry to learn more than the staff could offer. They seemed bored.

When Allen, and I talked about our two schools and the difficulties we’d had, the similarities were striking. We both spent a long time planning our classes, considering everything from a school with no explicit structure at all to one with traditional class schedules. We finally arrived at an idiosyncratic and constantly evolving plan for a school that would have lecture classes, student-run classes, seminars, community projects, individual tutoring—whatever at the moment seemed to make sense. We had learned that a staff of teachers who liked kids and believed in a free atmosphere, but at the same time knew little or had few skills to offer, would only bore the kids. Often these teachers tended to become obsessed with gossip about minute details of daily school life. The kids needed to move out into the world, to have a wider range of sexual choice than the small school provided, to learn not only from people who could professionally talk and teach, but from others as well. There was no way to protect them from the realities of sex, race, and politics, and they had to learn how to deal with them not merely in the protected environment of the school but out on the streets.

In his book Graubard discusses all of these matters. He calls for “educational reform with a political perspective,” for a school reform that realizes that school is only institution among many that must be transformed. “My firm view,” he writes, “is that attempts at truly humanizing the public schools must run up against the fundamental social realities—the sickness of American society,” and he concludes that what is necessary now is “a serious, unglamorous, gritty, and long-term commitment to continue to organize, teach, start schools, work with public school reformers, criticize our own efforts, talk to people—all with modest expectations for the short term.”

For those who undertake this work James Herndon’s How to Survive in Your Native Land is an invaluable and ingenious guide. The book is full of the grimy, silly, boring, and occasionally inspiring details of daily life in a public school. It also describes the writer’s struggle to survive in an institution that he knows is absurd and yet the only alternative his students have to going to jail. There is little romance and much wisdom in this book.

Herndon, the author of The Way It’s Spozed to Be, has been teaching at a junior high school in Daly City, a white, lower-middle-class suburb of San Francisco, for the last thirteen years. I remember visiting his school. The students were mostly white, and they looked more oppressed than any I remember from Harlem. The black kids I taught in New York were full of energy and defiance, and often came up with brilliant and stylish statements about themselves and their lives. The students in the school in Daly City seemed crushed. Herndon’s own class looked the same as the others—the girls with their wilting “bouffants,” the guys forcing themselves to be tough. But they were all running through the halls, cursing, spitting, shouting, playing, pretending to smoke, sticking their impertinent heads in the teachers’ lunchroom, always under the pretext of performing some mythical errand for Mr. Herndon. Some kids were working on a map of Egypt or San Francisco or of Never-Never Land. Some were writing, some gossiping. A crowd gathered around Jim and me, anxious to join our conversation. I don’t remember what we were talking about but I had the distinct feeling that we were not in school. We were talking just as we would anywhere.

While Jim was still with his class I visited the lunchroom, where Jim was a constant topic of conversation. “Herndon’s kids are at it again.” Jim and his class were the house eccentrics, but they had learned to survive under an uneasy truce in Daly City. For some of the teachers, at least, Jim wasn’t just a mad character; the younger teachers began to imitate him or tried to work with him, for it occurred to them that he might be doing something valuable. One teacher admitted that when Herndon’s students had been in her own class, she’d given up on them, but that he had opened her eyes to their capacity to learn—for learn they did. They could read and write and talk with a grasp of language far beyond anything they had been able to do before. Still, for her, Jim had to be an odd case of a maverick teacher using odd methods. Otherwise the implications of his work would be dangerous, would require her to make wrenching changes.

Herndon is not very handsome or especially charming. He doesn’t perform in class or attempt to dazzle his students. However he does like to be with them most of the time and he takes them seriously. That doesn’t mean that he takes all their behavior or their petty defiance seriously. It simply means that he cares about the children in an uncomplicated and direct way. They understand this and feel protected by him. They can watch him in school and learn if they care to. Above all, they can ask him for help without feeling judged or shamed by their ignorance or thinking that he will deceive them. For most of them, this is perhaps a unique experience.

My visit to Jim’s class was puzzling, and in some ways disturbing. I am an incurable academic and like to see the visible evidence of learning and study. Coming from New York, I’m used to the appearance at least of activity. Jim has more time, is more patient when he tells or listens to stories and jokes. He understands how children discover themselves and gives them time and space for this. Jim is the same in school as he is at home or in a bar or at a conference; in that respect he is unique in my experience, for every teacher I know, including myself, puts on some sort of act in school.

Herndon’s way of teaching is not very different from that of the classical storytellers. He tells a joke or an anecdote, often about his own experience, and the listener often can learn something from it. He is a good listener himself because he feels he is learning something, expanding his repertoire. Most of all, he tries to come to terms with experience without destroying it.

In much of How to Survive in Your Native Land Herndon tells stories, funny, sad, moving ones, in his own true and modest voice, about himself, his family, the kids in school, the dog he met in Smiley’s Bar and Bait Shop in Bolinas. He also has much to say about the stupidity of teachers as well as about their decency.

Sometimes an exasperated or cynical tone creeps into Herndon’s writing; but when he sees something new or when a child does a graceful or unexpected thing, he springs to life. His ability to get back to work with young people and to sustain himself after defeat should be valuable to other people involved in the free and alternative school movements. Unless we all begin again, wiser now, and more politically aware, we will find all the energy and work of the last ten years filed away, another experiment that failed.

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