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 …

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