Center for a Stateless Society
A Left Market Anarchist Think Tank & Media Center
Free School Choice

Jonathan Kozol. Free Schools. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1972).

Matt Hern. Field Day: Getting Society Out of School. (Vancouver: New Star Books, 2003).

During this year’s School Choice Week, this pair of books can bring some perspective exactly because they aren’t brought up by either side of the debate. Neither author writes in the tone of a policy-wonk report: one in white-hot anger, the other in an unpretentious conversational style.

So, what exactly are free schools? Despite a welcome trend of schools reviving the name in the new millennium — one of which has even gotten denounced by Glenn Beck (who seems to think it invented the term “learner-centered”) — the free schools of the 1960s and 1970s have fallen out of public consciousness. Never gaining the name recognition of Montessori, the co-option by the system of kindergarten, or the academic respectability of Rousseau’s Emile, they have been easy to ignore. Briefly, they were schools outside of the public and traditional authoritarian private systems, not only in the technical sense but in being deeply opposed to their aims, and “free” not in the sense of no cost but of student autonomy and social liberation.

Kozol’s book, written right before the original flurry of free schools peaked, makes it clear right off the bat that free schools are unlike public alternatives which,

cannot, for reasons of immediate operation, finance and survival, raise serious doubts about the indoctrinational and custodial function of the public education apparatus.  No matter how sophisticated or how inventive these “alternatives within the system” may contrive to be, they nonetheless must continue to provide, within a single package: custodial functions, indoctrinational functions, credentializing, labeling and grading services, along with more purely educational functions such as skill-training.  [Public alternatives] constantly run skirmishes on the edges of the functions and priorities of domestication; in the long run, however, they cannot undermine them.  The school that flies the flag is, in the long run, no matter what the handsome community leader in the startling Afro likes to say, accountable to that flag and to the power and to the values which it represents.

Indeed, Kozol has been so identified for decades with his subsequently calcified role as the go-to guy for explaining that “The Market is Not The Answer” (in the name of one interview) that it’s startling to realize how vehemently he denounced the public schools. On a single page, he refers to the public school as “that old, hated, but still-standing and still-murderous construction,” “the miserable and monolithic enemy,” and “that old haunted house that flies the U.S. flag.”

This is despite him having more respect for public alternatives working with underprivileged kids, despite their futile attempts to make ultimate change within the system, than for free schools that were accessible only to well-off students and evasive of the time’s social issues. (Add to this a disdain for the counterculture matching any conservative hippie puncher.) Kozol soon came to regret the hotheadedness of the controversial passage, with its casual reference to “a place of physical isolation in the mountains of Vermont” — exactly where some readers were running schools for poor kids — and a comparison to “a sandbox for the children of the SS Guards at Auschwitz.”  But his tough love did get many free schools to successfully address issues of economic and racial privilege.

The bulk of the book deals with the nuts and bolts of running a free school with a hardened assessment of the obstructionism the corporatist system is capable of and a by-any-means-necessary attitude towards strategy. There is a candid discussion of getting money from the large-scale philanthropy that Kozol is under no illusions about being tied into the very system the free schools hope to undermine. One of these means, in fact, is a form of vouchers, leading Marcus A. Winters to note that “So open to new ideas was he at that time that … he even hinted at a solution not much different from the one advocated by choice supporters today.” It’s “different” in the sense that current school choice isn’t initiated by Black Power parents suing the pants off of school districts for criminal negligence of their kids.

And between philanthropy and vouchers, there’s the most interesting proposal: small-scale businesses aimed at local needs of the free schools’ neighborhoods. These would be very deliberately aimed at earning a profit, allowing a source of income to put into running the schools to ease their reliance on philanthropy (with its strings and tendency to dry up) and tuition (with its pressure to raise above the level affordable to poor kids). He bluntly tells those who find such business (including franchising from chains like McDonald’s) unidealistic to get over it. This is very much in parallel to the suggestions for local businesses as a source for neighborhood economic self-sustenance in Neighborhood Power; there’s a forgotten intellectual current of the time that deserves to be revived.

Three decades later, Hern’s book overtly refers to, quotes, and builds on Kozol’s, especially the concern about schools becoming only an option for the privileged (although Hern is more charitable to see this tendency as inadvertent).  But far from being the typical liberal Kozol fan, Hern makes quick work of Kozol’s reformist assumptions:

One could read a book like Savage Inequalities and interpret the stories as a call to government to correct these inequities and, with massive resource infusions, ensure equal institutional opportunity. But when you’re in a hole you should stop digging. Schools and the state are inextricably linked and schools are both reflecting and reinforcing a vision of society. As institutions they reinforce the social disparities around them.

And Hern’s critique of establishment reformism goes beneath the strategy to dissect the underlying assumptions: the Procrustean social control implicit in the very idea of uniform curriculum, the social necessity of warehousing kids. Yet Hern makes his radicalism much harder to dismiss by putting it in the down-to-earth style of Paul Goodman and his muse Colin Ward. Whereas Kozol open his book with line-in-the-sand confrontationalism, Hern asks the reader to just relax and give him a chance if they’re a family member of an unschooler.

(And yes, there is the whole irony that Hern hails from Canada, a country whose nationalization is identified by both admirers and detractors with “socialization.” But Hern has a native decentralist tradition to draw on, from social credit to anarchist history doyen George Woodcock. Hern points out compulsory schooling was only established nationwide during World War II. In fact, it’s surprising that in discussing Canadian public alternatives that allow for substantial student power — sometimes out of desperation to keep funds attached to kids that can homeschool — there’s no mention of the SEED school whose students included an obscure science fiction writer and blogger by the name of Cory Doctorow.)

After an introduction briskly establishing a firm opposition to not only school, but reforms led by either corporations or government, “The Politics of Deschooling” sketches the rise of compulsory schooling (with its roots in the unabashed authoritarianism of Plato, Napoleon, and Fichte ignored) and the anarchist resistance exemplified by William Godwin, Leo Tolstoy and Francisco Ferrer. In a time when anarchism is virtually institutionalized as an extracurricular hobby, it brings home the unique insight of the real tradition. Compulsory schooling is excoriated for its inevitable paternalism and inequality.

In all this, Hern is not afraid to point out the monetary stakes involved, where the scale of subsidy is something there’s a vast vested interest in preserving. Even though the vast majority of funds go to administration, “Asking teachers’ unions about schooling is like asking Enron about energy policy.” Hern is skeptical towards charters and vouchers (unless the system is already decentralized to a far greater extent) because there is a huge pressure for them to simply get on the gravy train. Privatization schemes “always include state and elite direction.” Adding them within the existing framework can easily be a worst-of-both-worlds which “off-loads the responsibility, leaves control in corporate hands, allows for profit-making on the back of social services and refuses to democratize any core power.” As Mary Leue forthrightly puts it: her “Free School never would have been accepted for charter funding. Never.”

In short, “School people are concerned that charter schooling and voucher systems are undermining the essential supports of compulsory schooling, while deschoolers are concerned — and convinced — that they won’t.”

In the middle chapters, “Free to Learn” critiques the assumptions of compulsory school control as “natural” and asks what what free activity is like (with equality between children and adults being merely a special case of how, paraphrasing Gloria Steinem, “equality means treating people differently”). “A Schooled Culture” takes the culture wars to task for arguing over the contents of the canon while not questioning its very existence. (Hern respects conservatives’ honesty about their aims with creating a canon and their appreciation for kids’ ability to pick up facts.  In looking at their lists of stuff to learn by rote, “all the information on it seems like useful stuff for people to know… Hell, I would like it if I knew all that was on those lists, even the third-grader ones.”) In conclusion, “The End of Compulsory Schooling” looks not to any one magic bullet, but the gradual crackup of the system from the pressure of a multitude of alternatives, looking at which existing alternative schools and homeschooling networks could form the model. In between the very conversational chapters are actual conversations with people ranging from public alternative reformers to free-schooling anarchists.

Libertarians can learn much from Kozol and Hern: the necessity of grappling with power inequalities, the importance of community, the limitations of a vulgar consumerism that treats everything in the world as a product, and the crucial importance of specific real, living examples. They can also learn about the dangers of capture of attempts to create markets by the existing state apparatus, despite ironically developing a theory of regulatory capture that understands it.

But on the other hand, left-libertarians can answer Hern’s concerns.

The only one of Hern’s conversation partners to come from a free-market perspective is John Taylor Gatto, who talks past Hern’s qualms that lead him to assert that going “from the nightmare of compulsorized state schooling into the arms of free-market liberty is not to move very far.” But if, “In a society that it deeply inequitable, a free-market system is not really free at all,” it’s not really market either. Hern’s challenge that “Alternatives to school should view themselves as being at the heart of communities, as reflecting and creating the neighbourhoods around them, as permeable, democratic counterinstitutions explicitly about developing local power.” is a letter-perfect description of what all of Karl Hess’s alternatives aimed at when he was coauthoring Neighborhood Power. Or as Michael Strong put it:

When forced to use a label, I would describe myself as a “left-communitarian-libertarian.” My ideal goals for the world – peace, prosperity, happiness, and sustainability for all – are very much the goals of the left. I believe that many of the pathologies that we see in modern society (and I do think that contemporary society is mostly pathological) can only be cured by means of deeper communal attachments. And I think that membership in communities can only be voluntary, not forced (thus the libertarian streak). Forced, geographical “communities,” from zoned public schools to nation-states, are not communities at all. Coercion poisons everything that is beautiful about community.

And American individualists, from Josiah Warren to the single tax colonists to the individualist anarchists and single taxers involved in building Ferrer schools in the United States, have always been community builders extraordinaire.

The era of free schools was also one of forgotten left-libertarian alliances, from Joel Spring working with the libertarian movement (even if he later regretted it due to its later plutocratic takeover), to Ivan Illich being the featured contributor to a new left-oriented magazine by the Cato institute (earning the admiration of John Holt, who also tried to argue them into protectionism), and the Murray Bookchin — whose social ecology formed the basis for many of Hern’s ideas — chilling with Karl Hess at the Libertarian Party convention.

Finally, when Hern understands that “Mass compulsory schooling is always to the detriment of local knowledge, because it relies on a universalizing logic” it should be emphasized that no structure is better attuned to such “local knowledge” than undistorted markets.

With the last decade’s hardening of centrist orthodoxy (Waiting for “Superman” etc.) and center-left retrenchment around public schools, the crumbling of the system Kozol predicted and Hern hoped for hasn’t happened quite yet. (Kozol noting a decade later that “The language of bravado and rebellion that prevails throughout the book appears a bit out of alignment with the stark political realities of the 1980s” has got to be the understatement of the Reagan era.)

The wave of dissident teachers of which Kozol was a part — and who had come to fame by rejecting the system that betrayed them — are either remembered as reformers (like Herbert Kohl, none too happy about Obama’s education czar Arne Duncan’s co-option of his book 36 Children) or simply forgotten (like James Herndon, who had scathing volumes about his experiences in both poor and affluent schools). Eventually Kozol gave up on being charitable to those who had his own former anti-system view (stating he’d “atoned” for it). George McGovern went from carrying around John Holt’s writing on the campaign trail to supporting No Child Left Behind.

But “something has survived” from the original wave of free schools — not just individual schools hanging on in hard times, but a mindset ahead of its time that could break through the stale debates on school choice.

Citations to this article:

Markets Not Capitalism
Organization Theory
Conscience of an Anarchist