The 1960s leftist rationale for education choice is rising from the dead

Doug Tuthill

As I talk with parents and educators who are struggling to create safe and effective learning options for their students, I’m taken with how many are revisiting the left-wing education reformers of the 1960s. Names like John Holt, Ivan Illich, A.S. Neill, and Paulo Freire are coming up so often that it feels like I’m back in graduate school.

It appears the 1960s leftist rationale for education choice is making a comeback.

A student columnist at my high school newspaper in 1971 introduced me to the radical ideas of educator John Holt.  Holt inspired me to make improving public education my life’s work.

After working as an elementary and middle school teacher in the 1950s, Holt concluded that schools undermined children’s natural desires to learn, so he began promoting a form of homeschooling he called unschooling. Holt described the relationship between unschooling and student learning in his two most famous books, “How Children Fail (1964), and “How Children Learn (1967).

Unschooling aims to tap into children’s natural curiosity and desire to learn through authentic life experiences. Holt saw schools as artificial environments that undermine children’s natural desires to learn through exploration and play. Some of the current surge in homeschooling and micro-schools reflects Holt’s idea that learning should occur in more natural environments.

A recent New York Times column on educating children during this pandemic referred to the recent growing popularity of Ivan Illich’s concept of deschooling. Like Holt, Illich also felt that schools were artificial environments that stifled children’s innate desires to explore and learn. As the Times columnist observed:

“Deschooling’s core principles — that education should be self-directed rather than compulsory, that human growth and curiosity cannot be quantified and that children learn best in natural environments and mixed-age groups — have gained some recognition in recent years. But the idea of truly communitarian, noncompulsory, family-centered approaches to education were largely limited to the radical fringe of pedagogy. A lot has changed in six months.”

A.S. Neill’s 1960 book, “Summerhill,” is enjoying renewed popularity with families creating learning pods, micro-schools, and homeschool cooperatives. Consistent with Holt and Illich, Neill believed education should be centered on each child’s innate internal motivation to explore and learn. He created the Summerhill School in England to implement his beliefs that schooling should be less coercive and more democratic and child centered. Neill believe that schooling should be customized to fit the child instead of molding the child to fit the school.

Many education reformers today were directly or indirectly influenced by the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. His 1968 book, “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” was, and continues to be, must reading for anyone wanting to understand the politics of government-mandated education. While Holt, Illich, and Neill wrote about how the coercive and stressful nature of schooling negatively impacts students, Freire built on this analysis to explain how governments often use schools as instruments of social control and political oppression.

Freire promoted a liberation or critical pedagogy that empowers students and families to take control of their education and use it to attain greater political and economic freedom. While most parents exercising education choice today have not read Freire’s work, their motivations for asserting greater control over their child’s education increasingly reflect Freire’s ideas on the dangers of centralized, command and control public education systems.

Like many education choice advocates, I support the more democratic, child-centered approach to education that Holt, Illich, Neill, Freire, and others were promoting in the 1960s. But scaling up an education system capable of meeting the unique needs of each child is a daunting task, which is why most schools today still employ a one-size-fits-all, assembly line approach to teaching and learning.

This horrific pandemic has given families and micro-communities a unique opportunity to assume more control over how their children are educated. We need to give these families and their communities the support they need to be successful. Perhaps the hopes of the 1960s idealists will be realized and a more natural, child-centered way of educating our children will soon become the new norm.

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