Free Schools, Free People
By Ron Miller (State University Of New York Press)

This first historical account of the free school movement of the 1960s documents the formation of hundreds of small, independent schools across the United States that marked a turning point in American education. Miller explores the intellectual and cultural climate of the 1960s that gave rise to the radical democratic educational vision behind those schools. He revisits and interprets the works of the major authors of the time such as John Holt, A. S. Neill, Paul Goodman, and George Dennison. These authors—and the thousands of educators, parents, and young people who took part in the free school movement—passionately advocated for students’ intellectual and psychological freedom, and for their autonomy and individuality in a society they saw as increasingly standardized and corporately managed.

Free Schools, Free People is one of very few scholarly studies to treat John Holt—who went on to inspire the rise of the home schooling movement—as a significant educational theorist; Miller considers Holt’s books as well as more obscure writings to establish Holt as an especially thoughtful advocate of democratic education. Yet he subjects Holt and his peers to critical scrutiny by comparing their vision to John Dewey’s social democratic theory. Dewey’s ideals did influence the educational radicals of the 1960s, but only indirectly for the most part, and the ways in which they took his thinking further reflect the growth of technocracy in American society in the years after Dewey’s death.

Although free school ideology was renounced during the conservative restoration of the 1970s and 1980s, and the once popular literature is now largely forgotten, Miller argues that the radical critique is especially relevant in today’s educational climate, in light of the standards movement, high stakes testing, school violence and its suppression, and corporate influence over the curriculum.