Rad Ed, Part 2

I read on. John Holt, Paul Goodman, Jonathan Kozol and others had published incisive critiques of American education. Their works joined a growing and appropriately loose (Paul Goodman would've called it "shaggy") movement that was attempting to redefine human consciousness and that was welcome to the wave of radical thought and action that took off in the sixties. As I moved deeper into these writings I was buoyed by the same feeling I had while reading Summerhill: I am not alone.

It engulfed me. In graduate school I would go in the evenings to the graduate library, but instead of boning up on Aristotle's Poetics, I would read all the back issues of This Magazine Is About Schools, a journal of the Free School Movement. Of course, I was also totally immersed in American education as I moved toward a Ph.D. candidacy and a college teaching career. When I did get my first job at a liberal arts college that was also quite liberal, I joined a group of my new young colleagues in founding a cooperative (the days had arrived when every new venture had the word "coop" appended to it, a phenomenon that survives in the food coops found in hipster neighborhoods) day care center.

I took my turn as a coop teacher, though with preschoolers "wrangler" might be a better word, in our school, loosely based on Summerhillian principles. One morning, a colleague, a Harvard Ph.D. who is today a distinguished psychology scholar, and I entertained the children with our rendition of "Walking with my Baby down by the San Francisco Bay", with me strumming the guitar and he toot-tooting the melody on the kazoo. The children cried. We decided to keep our day jobs.

Then a "strike" (I never understood what that meant) provoked by the Kent State incident led the college, which at that moment was being led by the radical students, to call for courses in "Radical Studies", and I proposed one on Radical Education, or, as we called it, Rad Ed, a name suitable for a surfer dude. The course was over enrolled so we met in a large college lounge to cover the field I've mentioned here. Sometimes we got experimental. I brought a pair of "boffing swords" purchased through the Whole Earth Catalog. These had foam blades that allowed the combatants to whack the shit out of one another harmlessly. As it turned out, my parents were visiting and my dad had come to my classes. Game for a new experience, he faced me in a duel where we vigorously exchanged painless blows, working out God know what father-son hostilities. We had fun.

The sixties were closing as the seventies rolled along. Our day care center outlived my stay at the college job by a number of years but eventually closed. By the mid seventies, in a new teaching job, I got involved with a woman who taught at an alternative school, but a year into our relationship that school closed. Later in the decade, at a visiting faculty gig at a very progressive college, where the founding principles were those of an earlier education critic, John Dewey, I had a student who was very bright but very indulgent, and whose trove of knowledge lacked any kind of structure. "You went to a free school, didn't you?", I asked. "Yes", he replied, "how did you know?" "You have absolutely no discipline."

Neither have I. Perhaps my joy at reading Summerhill, watching the Free School Movement blossom, and letting the river rock me like a cradle was simply a temporary validation of my flaws, either moral, as my non-Summerhillian education had taught me, or a mental disorder, as psychology may eventually discover. Either way I'm too old for compromises. This is the only consciousness available to me and it tells me the better part of human nature works as A. S. Neil said in his book. He saw people divided in two camps. Pro-life, which had nothing to do with later abortion debates but meant affirming life impulses. And anti-life, which meant repressing them. I know a bit of the latter, though mercifully not as painfully as many. And I didn't learn a fucking thing from it. Zero. Oh, I may have caught something to help me pass a test, but right after it was, poof!, gone. Whatever I know and benefited from and benefited others came from my own curiosity, my own life energy in its flow.