Free School Movement Essay

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The period of cultural and political upheaval during the 1960s included a passionate critique of schooling expressed in writings such as Summerhill (1960) by A. S. Neill, How Children Fail (1964) by John Holt, Death at an Early Age (1967) by Jonathan Kozol, The Lives of Children (1969) by George Dennison, and Deschooling Society (1970) by Ivan Illich, among others, and work by social critics like Paul Goodman and Edgar Z. Friedenberg. These critics argued that schools had become authoritarian institutions that repressed individuality, freedom, and the joy of learning, making education sterile and irrelevant both to students’ lives and the serious issues affecting society. While some educators sought to introduce progressive reforms (such as “open education”) into public schools (as described in Charles Silberman’s 1970 Crisis in the Classroom), thousands of students, young teachers, and parents withdrew from public education to launch independent alternatives that were commonly known as “free schools.”

While the exact number of such schools is difficult to determine, research suggests that between 400 and 800 of them were founded in the decade after 1962. They were small (forty students or fewer), often disorganized, and usually short lived. Yet by the late 1960s participants in these schools identified themselves as a coherent countercultural movement; they published various periodicals (such as This Magazine Is About Schools and The New Schools Exchange Newsletter), held regional and national conferences, and gave radical educators and students venues for putting their ideals of participatory democracy, opposition to hierarchy and commercialism, personal authenticity, and political activism into practice in intimate community settings.

Free school activists shared a core ideology. They emphasized the child’s “natural” or “organic” desire to learn and argued that school structures and routines (such as tests and grades, timed lessons contained by classroom walls, segregation by age) inhibit genuine learning. They believed that personal relationships, emotional expression, and active participation in community were as important to education as academic work. They gave students extensive choice in their learning, such as what to study and when; they generally made class attendance optional. They valued spontaneity and argued that curricula and teaching should be immediately responsive to the lived situation of a given place and time. They saw their schools as refuges from a materialistic, militaristic culture, as seedbeds of the new society that was then being described by the New Left and the counterculture.

Yet there were ideological fissures within the movement as well. Some activists, following Neill, primarily emphasized personal freedom and happiness, while others argued that in a society they considered racist, violent, and corrupt, simple withdrawal from society was morally inadequate and free schoolers needed to address society’s suffering directly. In Free Schools (1972), Kozol famously referred to the “romantic” free school, serving privileged White families, as being equivalent to “a sandbox for children of the SS Guards at Auschwitz.”

The movement declined rapidly after 1972, but approximately twenty to forty such schools have remained intact or have been started in recent years. The more progressive elements of the homeschooling movement (e.g., “unschoolers”) retain much of the free school ideology.


  1. Graubard, A. (1974). Free the children: Radical reform and the free school movement. New York: Vintage.
  2. Kozol, J. (1972). Free schools. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Mercogliano, C. (1998). Making it up as we go along: The story of the Albany Free School. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  3. Miller, R. (2002). Free schools, free people: Education and democracy after the 1960s. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  4. Silberman, C. E. (1970). Crisis in the classroom: The remaking of American education. New York: Random House.

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