In the early ’70s, 1973 to be exact, when my mother was 13 years old, she enrolled at the Carcross Community School, an alternative boarding school up north in the Yukon Territory. Despite its location and near-total isolation, the community was part of a radical education movement sweeping North America. Like hundreds of other free schools across the continent, Carcross emphasized unmediated experience above instruction and authority. Governed by a democracy that put students and teachers on equal footing (some even dated), the school’s goal was to inspire students to participate in the running of their own lives. Academic subjects were taught rather informally. The math teacher was said to have settled the distasteful issue of grades by throwing darts at a board marked with appropriate letters.
My mother’s tales of her time at Carcross became distilled for me over the years into two vivid images. The decision-making process required endless meetings, as the quest for unanimity always does; one afternoon my mother and a small gang of pranksters, the Wooden Plank Committee, refused to say a word, pulling their cheeks wide, spoofing the convocation for a laugh. Hunting wasn’t a regular activity, in contrast to the assemblies, but this didn’t stop Mom from recalling the affair of skinning a giant, freshly killed caribou in gory detail, leaving me with the indelible image of a fallen beast surrounded by wild, long-haired children.
The school had its limitations and hypocrisies, yet these and other tales were always recounted with great fondness. And Carcross’s educational ethos left a tremendous mark on my mother, in her glimpse of the theories and practice of radical pedagogy—a current seemingly forgotten in North America by the time my siblings and I reached school age in the 1980s.
Because the Yukon offered little entertainment or opportunity beyond this odd school, it wasn’t long before my mother hitchhiked to Winnipeg, where she eventually met my father, who as a small child had been subjected to strict elementary schooling in Bermuda. Grandpa worked as an immigration officer for the United States, and by the time he was transferred with his family to Canada Dad was years ahead academically, enough to win the title of Manitoba’s official math “whiz” in a competition. He enrolled in university at the tender age of 14, lingering as an undergraduate for over a decade, avoiding the draft and indulging his two passions: music and chemistry.
After I was born we moved to the States, first to Tucson, Arizona—about as far from the Yukon as a person can get—so my dad could work on a PhD in pharmacology. I remember some happy kindergarten afternoons spent playing in a sandbox. The next year, when I was enrolled in a class split between first and second graders, the teacher suggested I move up a year in math. Though my parents were game, the principal informed them that this would be unacceptable; every teacher for the rest of my academic career would have to accommodate me, and that was too much to ask. After that meeting, I never had to go to school again. I still recall my surprise and sense of good fortune. It wasn’t that I hated school, but it was a bother, each day duller than the one before. Beyond that, I don’t remember what my mother assures me of—that over the next few weeks she tried diligently to continue a school curriculum at home, instructing me according to lesson plans while I, obstinate, refused to follow along. I must have assumed I won the battle. In reality my mother simply let it go. She had met a group of homeschooling families hanging out at a local park who showed her the magazine Growing Without Schooling and introduced her to books by John Holt. The parents were intelligent and easygoing, their kids curious and creative.
Those families in the park passed on a framework and vocabulary for an educational philosophy my parents held intuitively. Neither Mom nor Dad had been subjected to the conventional climb from kindergarten through twelfth grade and on to college. My mother’s countercultural upbringing and my father’s nerdy precocity colluded to keep us at home. So, unlike the vast majority of our peers, my siblings and I slept late and never knew what day of the week it was. We were never tested, graded, or told to memorize dates, facts, or figures. We were “unschoolers.”
When my mom was doing her stint stalking caribou, books about radical education were in wide circulation. First and most famous was A. S. Neill’s Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, an account of the legendary antiauthoritarian boarding school in England, which sold more than three million copies between 1960 and 1973—an astounding figure. Then there were Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Miseducation (1964), John Holt’s How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967), Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age (1967) and Free Schools (1972), Carl Rogers’s Freedom to Learn (1969), George Dennison’s The Lives of Children (1969), and Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society (1970), to name the most influential. In those early days Growing Without Schooling, the magazine started by Holt and published well into the 1990s, came in a brown paper wrapper, as though its pages might be as objectionable to the postmaster as pornography.
These publications were part of a top-to-bottom movement to devise new philosophies of and forums for learning. First there were the “freedom schools” that had been part of the civil rights movement. Next were the hundreds of “free schools” founded across the country committed to child-centered and democratic education. Finally, there was the widespread campus unrest against the corporate multiversity, which then became part of the movement against the Vietnam War and culminated in the massive student strikes that shook the nation—coupled with the establishment of open universities, where idealistic students and faculty sought to liberate learning from the tyranny of accreditation.
Today, the prospect of a book like Summerhill—one that paints a sympathetic portrait of kids who refuse to attend classes, do schoolwork, or obey authority—reaching an audience of millions seems absurd. Instead we have well-meaning studies like Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting and The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. These and countless other recent books and articles rightly criticize the current emphasis on testing and tracking, our insistence on “enriching” kids as though they were bags of flour, and our single-minded obsession with climbing to the top of the meritocracy no matter how rigged and meaningless it is to begin with. But in the end they make no rousing or imaginative suggestions for other ways to live and learn. After-school tutoring is OK—just do it in moderation. Ditto for SAT prep classes, sports, and other “extracurricular” activities. These books advise parents to stay on the well-trodden path of standardized schooling, but to travel it a bit slower.
In 1988 dad was offered a job at the University of Georgia. The family piled into our VW van and we set off for the American South, a distant land pretty much bereft of unschoolers, though our better-known counterparts—the fundamentalist homeschoolers—could be found in abundance. Desperate to meet people, we went once to a homeschool playgroup, where the parents lined the kids up for a religious version of Red Rover. I remember standing in a row, clasping the sweaty palm of some stranger, while another child raced toward us, arms out like she was being crucified. Send Jesus right over! We never returned and weren’t missed. Unlike our religious counterparts, our parents weren’t trying to limit our exposure to worldly activities with their potentially corrupting points of view. Instead, we always said the world was our classroom. In theory at least, nothing was off-limits.
We differed from homeschoolers in essential ways. We weren’t replicating school at home. We had no textbooks, class times, deadlines, tests, or curricula. Were we fascinated by primates? By rocks? By baseball cards or balloon animals? If so, it was our duty to investigate. My parents eschewed coercion and counted on our curiosity, which they understood to be a most basic human capacity. This is really what the whole debate over compulsory schooling is about. Do we trust people’s capacity to be curious or not?
This trust isn’t always easy to muster. The older I get the more astonished I am that my parents had it in such abundance when most of us mete it out as though it were a scarce resource; whereas I suspect the more we dispense trust to others the more we see how deserving most people are of it. After all, have you ever met anyone who isn’t interested in something? Sometimes other people’s interests aren’t fascinating to you, sure—but people always have interests. Have you ever met someone who was incapable of learning? John Holt, who coined the term unschooling, summarized his view this way: “The human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.”
As the oldest of four siblings, I often wrangled my younger sisters and brother into grandiose projects, convincing them to star in elaborate homemade movies or surreal puppet shows. When we weren’t in production on some bizarre spectacle, we spent afternoons exploring the creeks and woods behind our ramshackle house, planting gardens that rarely flourished, or pretending we could talk to the landlord’s horses, which were kept in neighboring fields. Some days we read books, made music, painted, or drew. Other days we argued and fought over the computer. Endless hours were spent watching reruns of The Simpsons on videotape, though we had every episode memorized. When we weren’t inspired—which was often—we simply did nothing at all.
Our solitude, to paraphrase Thoreau, was not trespassed upon. What a gift! What kind of respect for intellectual or artistic immersion is signaled by a world in which the sound of a bell means that the work at hand, no matter how compelling or urgent, must be put aside, and something else started? How deeply can anyone enter a subject in fifty minutes unless the material is broken down into component parts too small to communicate any grand purpose? At home our fits of inspiration could stretch to fill up days or months. We set our own standards of excellence, which were often impossible to meet. Yet failure in intellectual and creative pursuits felt honorable as opposed to humiliating. Adults never lorded their possession of right answers over us, or shamed us when we lacked certain skills, or ranked us against one another. It shocks me to this day that we live in a world where this basic courtesy is rare and precious.
For my family, unschooling worked. We are all literate, can count well enough to balance a checkbook, and have had, or will have, the opportunity to pursue higher education. This is as true for my siblings, who remained autodidacts through high school, as for me, who volunteered to attend a public high school for three years. And we’re not exceptions. Even the mainstream has been forced to acknowledge the success of the progressive homeschooling movement (and its much larger and more prominent Christian conservative counterpart). Kids schooled at home do better on standardized tests, are typically marvelously well behaved, and get along well with others, including grown-ups, because they haven’t been indoctrinated into the ageism at the heart of compulsory education. Ivy League universities hunt out home learners, even those who stayed self-taught through the high school years, because they tend to make motivated, inspired, advanced, and independent college students.
At different junctures, my siblings and I all tried public school, curious to know how our peers lived. I briefly went to fourth grade, for example, where the trifling emotions associated with immaturity—greed, envy, fear, conformity—overpowered the inspiring and desirable attributes of childhood: compassion, curiosity, imagination, playfulness. I was tormented for not having Keds and not owning deodorant. (I was 8! Did I really need it?) My sister Sunaura still shudders at her memory of a traumatic two days spent riding the school bus and being trapped in special education, isolated and inconsolable because the school refused to “mainstream” her because of her wheelchair. Alex briefly attended sixth grade, where he was finally beaten up for calling the two boys who always picked on him “Homo sapiens.” We concluded that staying home was a gift, a stroke of good luck. We were spared heckling (I was bucktoothed and bookish; my sister was disabled; my brother looked like a girl); meaningless consumer pressure (I didn’t like Keds, but I wanted them so people would stop making fun of me); and untold hours—make that years—of insulting boredom.
Boredom: that’s the big one. It’s boredom we were released from. Everyone knows that school is about the management of boredom, the administration of mental fatigue. On the one hand, it acclimates children to clerical-technical piecework so that as adults they can work long hours at jobs they will more than likely describe as uneventful, mind-numbing, soul-destroying, or something that must simply be done and stoically endured. But school also inculcates boredom as an attitude, a habit, a way of being in the world, as all they’re really entitled to feel. It’s an ethos, one that lingers in adult life. I’m always stunned when people say, “Weren’t you bored at home?” Do these people remember being in school? Schools are factories of ennui, restlessness, lethargy, monotony, tedium. Think of the pencil chewing, the mindless doodling, the desperate passing of notes, the desire to disappear, the obligatory raising of hands and answering of questions, the trying to look busy when you’re about to doze off, the wish to be anywhere in the world beyond the window.
For us boredom was something to be passed through: it was a pit stop along the road to becoming engaged. “When you’re bored, you’re boring,” my mother would say. We squandered some time at home, too, making mud pies, bickering, riding bikes in circles, but how bad was that? For three years I published a newsletter about animal rights and environmentalism, an undertaking that prepared me for my adult work better than almost anything else I’ve done. Sunaura fell in love with painting when she was 12 years old and devoted year after year to mastering her craft, an investment of time denied most artists until they enter graduate school. My parents took my brother’s interest in video games seriously; he taught himself how to animate and program, do 3-D modeling and design, before going on to intern at a firm in New York City when he was 16—which helped him realize he didn’t want to work in the field professionally, something he may not have found out until after college if he had followed the orthodox path.
For me, though, as the oldest kid in our limited circle, and one with an ambitious, even competitive streak, I started to worry. Somehow I had imbibed the idea that unschoolers should be both different from the mainstream and yet superior according to all conventional standards. What doors would be closed to me, I wondered, if I did not get a college education? What ultimately became of grown-up unschoolers, anyway? I really had no idea. While I now know attending high school is not a prerequisite for university enrollment (and that, given soaring costs, going to college isn’t the best choice for everyone), I feared being labeled a dropout, marked by some scarlet letter signifying my lack of a diploma. So I hedged my bets and told my parents to sign me up for public high school, where I received, if not exactly a classical education, at least a cultural one.
At age 13 I enrolled in ninth grade. I was impressed by how swiftly I came to identify with my public school peers, feeling just as disaffected and trapped as I figured they must feel. I had to remind myself I was choosing to be there. My parents would not have been horror-stricken if I’d stood up in the middle of a monotonous lecture and bolted from the classroom, marching straight down the hall and right past the police officers at the gate. In fact, they would have been pleased. My parents would have welcomed me home with open arms and understanding nods: School’s a real drag, they would agree, it’s like prison.
When I first got to school I presumed that the other students would be envious of my upbringing. Most were aghast at the idea of learning at home. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I was home all day, they would exclaim, or, I wouldn’t want my mom for a teacher. A handful of kindred spirits got it immediately—they were the ones trying to cultivate at school what I had experienced at home: These were the kids who failed classes not out of ignorance or indolence but in resistance to the sheer inanity of it all, the ones who stealthily read books like Catch-22 during rote grammar lessons. I, however, was reading less. Over the course of the three years I attended high school I read fewer books than I did in the month before I enrolled. All told, I read what was assigned in textbooks, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Things Fall Apart, and a book by Nancy Reagan’s astrologer for an AP political science course.
Public school was a sociological experiment, an existential adjustment, an extended lesson in procedure, routine, and social convention. Only briefly, during those ill-fated few months of fourth grade, had I asked for permission to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. The academic subjects were a breeze. I was years ahead in math, science, English, and history, and a year behind in Spanish. I confess there was a certain pleasure in handing over responsibility—in shifting from the ambiguity of unschooling, where there are no clear metrics for success, to the authoritarian structure of school, where I knew when I was doing well by the system’s own strange logic. I got kudos daily, not for my thinking, but for my diligence—and like all “good” students I came to see myself reflected in the marks I received.
In high school, I have to admit, my social life improved. I was fortunate to have skipped the awkward years of middle school, and I was deemed acceptable by the various social hierarchies upon arrival. I found the friends I had wanted, not to mention a few committed teachers who inspired me, but not the nurturing intellectual community I craved. So I held out for life after graduation, convinced college would be different. At 16 I abandoned high school to attend classes at the University of Georgia, and then the next year I headed to Brown University. I was going to the most liberal school in the Ivy League, a place where everyone assured me I would belong!
The first day at Brown, the administrators assembled the entire freshman class in a large auditorium. You all are the smartest and most capable of your generation, they told us. This is the best place to be, and you are here because you are the best. My heart sank. Obviously that wasn’t true. We were there because we’d been darlings of the system, in one way or another, and had been willing to accept its terms in exchange for various rewards. We had hustled for As, padded our résumés, and written obsequious college essays, eagerly climbing our way to the top of a ladder that was fixed all along. Why start a noble undertaking with a lie? The high school I had recently emerged from was segregated by race, the majority of black students funneled into “remedial” and “regular” classes while a white minority was labeled “gifted” and kept busy with college prep.
As the semester at Brown progressed I felt even more isolated than I’d been in high school. One cold northern afternoon I was complaining of my unhappiness to my best friend from Georgia, a friend who was not a student, who was raised in housing projects, who didn’t know his father and whose mother was in prison, who never finished high school but is now a technology programming wizard, a former CTO of a big corporation and an author of several books having to do with computer programming—an unschooler by necessity and inclination. I expressed my attachment to the idea of getting a degree in physics and he said, “Why? It’s not what you do when you’re not in class.”
His off-the-cuff comment shook me to my core. Why had I felt compelled to enroll in an Ivy League school, to excel by the standards of conventional education and choose a “difficult” major, instead of making my own way? What was I afraid of? My parents thought Brown was a joke; they never seemed impressed by my acceptance by the educational elite, only relieved that I got financial aid. Years later my dad said he was happy I got that “silly Ivy League thing” out of my system. Looking back I think that I must have, as a kid, simply absorbed the skepticism of strangers, who would sometimes insult my family by quizzing me and my siblings on our alphabet or counting to ten. I had seen articles in Growing Without Schooling about homeschoolers who went to Harvard and, out of competitiveness or insecurity, must have decided that I should do the same. I dropped out of Brown at the end of that year when I realized that unschooling is not something you do until you are 18 and enroll in college or start a career. Unschooling is a lifelong commitment, an ethos—kind of the way boredom can be, though it’s boredom’s opposite.
Often when I talk to people about these issues they say: Unschooling worked for you, but admit it won’t work for everyone. It’s a common and troubling response. On the one hand, it implies that my family is exceptional, that we’re “gifted,” to use public school parlance; so it’s a sort of compliment. On the other hand, it implies that most people are not gifted, and that they need to be guided, molded, tested, and inspected. What makes us so sure most people couldn’t handle self-education? The former public school teacher and education critic John Taylor Gatto put it this way in 2004: “After a long life, and thirty years in the public school trenches, I’ve concluded that genius is as common as dirt. We suppress our genius only because we haven’t yet figured out how to manage a population of educated men and women.”
A fellow progressive homeschooler of my generation, Emily Nepon, went to work in the 1990s at Growing Without Schooling, the magazine of utmost importance to the unschooling community, when she was 19. In the days before the internet, GWS was the only thing connecting families like mine to other far-flung self-educators, a source of moral support for isolated parents and pen pals for lonely kids. But Emily’s experience there was disillusioning. “I think they totally abandoned the political vision John Holt had in favor of the liberalish parents’ rights movement,” she told me when I interviewed her. “As an institution they totally abandoned any opportunity to make connections with any other grassroots movement or any other of Holt’s politics besides the idea that kids don’t have to go to school.”
Her time behind the scenes with one part of the older guard of the movement confirmed some gut feelings she had about the intersection of self-education and privilege. “The alternative education movement hasn’t allied itself with the education reform movement or the radical teacher movement, with saving the kids in the system. And most people’s kids are in the system, so that’s what’s relevant. And most people’s kids are poor, so they aren’t in that bubble of people who can stay home and give their kids music lessons. You don’t have to have wealth to do it, but it’s not a common choice for those who don’t. The homeschooling movement hasn’t set out to have a language that reaches out to these people.”
In his book Free Schools, published in 1972, the great education critic Jonathan Kozol makes a provocative case against progressive education becoming yet another exclusive realm of the privileged. “Starting an isolated upper class free school is a great deal too much like a sandbox for children of the SS guards at Auschwitz.” Free Schools, however, is not just a critique but a practical guide, one aimed to inspire and instruct teachers and parents to found free schools in urban and suburban communities. The book is based on a now forgotten history: the enormous contribution made by African-American activists and teachers to the alternative education movement. If the postwar radical education movement got its start anywhere, it was in Mississippi during 1964’s Freedom Summer, which saw the organization of dozens of Freedom Schools. Kozol’s contention, to simplify, is not that radical pedagogy is bad for people of color or for the poor, but that these are, in fact, the very populations in urgent need of alternatives. The problem is not that some children are saved from the public school system, but that the ones who really need to be aren’t.
In the face of public school deprivation, when thousands of kids lack textbooks or even clean bathrooms, the dream of democratic education strikes many as hopelessly frivolous, self-indulgent, insensitive. This is a world, according to one of Kozol’s later books, where the children of an all-black school in East St. Louis receive a public education worth $8,000 a year, while the children of Lake Forest, a predominantly white suburb of Chicago, receive $18,000. For many, practical concerns trump radical critique: theoretical conversations about the psychic effects of compulsory education seem spurious when the bottom line is gross, and often race-based, inequity. Others have argued that by sending children to private schools or keeping them at home, parents passively reinforce social segregation, allowing public schools to fall into even greater disrepair by their absence. Proponents of democratic education should change the system from within instead of abandoning it.
With these criticisms in mind I arrived at the Albany Free School on a sunny late spring afternoon a few years ago, summer break close on the horizon. Housed in an appealingly decrepit building that was once an old parochial school in a racially and socioeconomically mixed downtown neighborhood, it’s the oldest independent inner-city alternative school in the country. When no one responded to my knock, I tentatively pushed open a heavy door and headed up the stairs. A 4-year-old with a shocking electric-yellow mohawk whizzed passed me on a rusted tricycle. Looking around I realized that if newness or cleanliness had been the criteria by which I was judging my surroundings, they would have failed miserably. In the main room, where the youngest children played, the wood floors were old and scratched. I noticed a beaten-up piano, some large wooden tables, piles of blocks, vats of tempera paint, a handmade climbing structure, and not much else—nothing shiny or electronic. Every toy looked played with, the art supplies obviously well used, the walls smudged by colorful fingerprints. The place was falling apart, not from an absence of attention, but from too much of it.
A group of 4- and 5-year-old girls across the room caught my eye as they struggled to carry old-fashioned school desks—heavy metal-and-wood ones with the chair and tabletop attached—up from the basement. They filled containers with soapy water and, for the better part of an hour, meticulously cleaned the dusty surfaces, doing their best to make them gleam. “We’re having real school tomorrow!” they happily announced to the steady stream of students and teachers who wandered by. Mike Guidice, a skinny and stylishly tattered 24-year-old already in his fourth year of teaching, told me the kids had developed an obsession with public school. They wanted to know what it was like. To oblige, he volunteered to teach “real school” for the next three days, even promising to trade his ripped T-shirt and jeans for a button-down shirt and tie. The children, in contrast, were unable to bear the anticipation, and requested that real school begin straightaway. A few minutes in, one of the girls suddenly stood up and ran in the direction of the bathroom. “Hey!” Mike shouted. “You have to raise your hand and ask permission.”
“And you need a hall pass,” another young teacher suggested from across the room.
Suddenly everyone wanted to go to the bathroom. “But you have to get in line,” Mike barked. And so, for the next thirty minutes, the children were consumed by the fine art of line-walking. They had never done such a thing together before. They stood nose to hair and tried to move forward, knocking into each other and stepping on heels, and bursting into laughter.
I left that afternoon wondering if real school had continued the next day. When I returned a week later, I found out it had not. The girls got tired of walking in line around the same time the grown-ups tired of telling them to do so. And so they went back to being just a regular free school again.
The Albany Free School was founded in 1969 by a woman named Mary Leue. Born in 1919 in Massachusetts and a 1940 graduate of Bryn Mawr College, Leue is one of those people who seemingly can’t help but defy convention: a white woman who joined the Black Panther Party in her mid-forties, a self-professed anarchist with an avid interest in various forms of therapy, especially Reichian, a lay midwife, and a pedagogical maverick. She was determined to start a free school that was free in both senses of the word—adhering to democratic principles and accessible to poor children. It is said that before she started her venture she asked A. S. Neill what he thought of her idea of starting an alternative school in the inner city, and Neill’s answer was not encouraging: “I would think myself daft to try.”
Leue remains a passionate advocate of democratic education, a writer, and an agitator. Ignoring Neill’s words, she stuck with her vision, accepting instead the challenge posed by Jonathan Kozol in Free Schools. She followed much of his advice, putting a premium on financial independence even if that meant working without an adequate budget. By not building a large bureaucracy and becoming overly reliant on student fees, she wagered, the school could open its doors beyond just the children of the middle class. Four decades later the Albany Free School caters to the residents of Albany’s South End, a predominantly African-American and Latino area that’s home to a growing number of immigrants and refugees from other countries. Approximately half the students come from the inner city, one fourth from uptown neighborhoods, and the remainder from outlying suburbs and towns. Operating on a sliding scale for tuition, no family is turned away for lack of funds. Some parents give only what they can, which may be as little as twenty dollars a month; the average pays around $160. Nearly 80 percent of the students would be eligible for a free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch in the public school system.
In her unpublished memoirs posted on her website, Mary Leue outlines some of the obstacles the free school faced in its early days as it struggled with the issue of diversity. “We’ve always had a limited appeal to upwardly mobile families of whatever class, for the same reason—that they fear that their children will not enter the high-income-level group they see as essential to acceptance in American society.” Leue was deeply troubled that most local parents dismissed the school and were extremely skeptical of its program, or lack thereof. “We had only begun to learn that poor black parents are the most exacting of all groups in judging the potential usefulness of a school in money and status terms, and so shunned ours as ‘dirty hippie.’” In the end, however, Leue’s dedication and determination on this issue paid off, in part because the public school system became increasingly inhospitable to students who require special attention. The Free School’s waiting list expanded as mainstream curriculums got more regimented. In a sense, the Free School has come to serve as a sort of safety net for “problem children” in the Albany area. Of course, this is not always an easy role to fill, since children with difficult home lives understandably bring their troubles to class. At the time of my visit the staff had just dismissed a student for the first time in the school’s history. The boy, 10 years old and extremely large for his age, was angry and aggressive, intimidating and hitting his classmates without provocation. His peers knew his home life was tough, but their empathy didn’t deter him from terrorizing them. The whole community—teachers and students—held a meeting and, after discussing the issue at length, voted to have him leave.
There’s another way the Free School has connected with a broad community: by providing affordable, often free, preschool for children as young as 2 years old. “Yeah, the school fulfills the need of cheap daycare,” Mike Guidice, the 24-year-old teacher, told me during one of our talks, “which may seem lame, but it’s honest—and as long as we are not hanging out there too hippie-dippie we will attract people who need this service. That’s a real need that’s filled, and then all the other stuff happens.” When countercultural endeavors connect with real needs, like childcare, a project—no matter how seemingly anarchistic or out there—has the potential to appeal to people from all walks of life. “I was part of all these communities that were founded on an aesthetics or a musical genre,” Mike continued, referring to his days in the punk rock scene. “Here I realized that community is raising your kids together or sharing your meals. It doesn’t matter what clothes you wear. The more a collective project—a car, a meal collective, a school, whatever—speaks truly to what a community needs, the more people across different boundaries come around it. And I think that when community projects really work—which is pretty indescribable, I can’t just tell you the right ingredients—they are a lot easier to start than they are to quit.”
Mike Berry, who goes by his last name at the school, was a first-year teacher when I met him. A muscular fellow in his mid-thirties with short hair and a black T-shirt, he was a personal trainer in Seattle before moving to Albany with his daughter. Unlike some of the young teachers or interns, who stay for a year or two and move on, Berry was hunkering down for the long haul. On my second visit to Albany he took me on a tour of the grounds, explaining the history. The school owns numerous buildings on two parallel blocks, most of which were bought for next to nothing in the early ’70s, when the neighborhood was even poorer than it is today. “This was such a shitty part of town,” Berry explained, “some of the buildings didn’t even exist. They were just shells, nothing but bricks.” The school’s staff learned to do construction on the job, handling all the renovations themselves. Today there are still some abandoned lots, overgrown and unloved in stark contrast to the places bought and cared for by the Free School community with their colorfully painted windowsills and doors—peeling pink, blue, and yellow trim—and occasional murals. Many of the properties have adjoining backyards; over the years the land has been cared for and cultivated, and I counted almost a dozen gardens growing practical stuff like carrots and kale interspersed with flowers, all organic and bountiful, as we strolled. Berry pointed out a large chicken coop—placed not that far from the city sidewalk—which he made with the help of the students. The chickens, he told me, are excellent additions to city life: not only do they produce fresh eggs, but they also eat pests, including aphids and cockroaches, and their nitrogen-rich waste is a free source of fertilizer.
Pitching in to weed the vegetable beds or feed the chickens are fine examples of how the Free School staff turns necessity into virtue, creatively stretching their meager resources while embracing self-reliance and simple living. They grow a surprising proportion of their food in the urban gardens and have organized a car collective, with around a dozen people co-owning a minivan. Perhaps even more impressive is the credit system they have devised. Individuals involved with the school pool their money, enabling them to distribute loans at very low interest rates when people need them.
After the tour I sat down in the backyard next to a man who looked to be in his late fifties, his graying hair tied back into a short ponytail. A toddler, new to the school, wailed intermittently in his lap. Chris Mercogliano joined the Free School staff in 1973 and was, at the time of my visit, its codirector and figurehead, though he still earned the same pay as a novice teacher. Chris told me of the two principles that have guided the school since its founding. One: act first, ask permission later. And two: do everything on a shoestring. “We’ve never had money,” Chris said. “And you can’t get used to having a large budget if you never have any money in the first place.” This philosophy, in tune with the 1960s, kept the school going for over three decades, but Chris confessed that it is not as suited to contemporary times. Today, with a student body that numbers just over sixty, the gap between income and expenses has become too significant to ignore. The school’s cost per child per month is $215, which is substantially more than the average family pays. The school operates with an annual budget of around $100,000 (closer to $150,000 if you count the kitchen program) and is kept afloat by extensive fundraising and rental income from a handful of buildings the community bought for next to nothing decades ago. Perhaps most remarkably, the six full-time teachers (plus one part-timer) formally work for no salary. Instead, they are given a small living stipend, which comes to about $11,000 a year for well over forty hours of work a week. This means many of them have second jobs. Administrative tasks are done by an all-volunteer staff. “The school is now stretched to the limit,” the Free School’s website warns on a page discussing the impending financial crisis. “Today’s world is different from the ’60s and ’70s. Young people, no matter how dedicated, want to earn a real income (and often need to earn good salaries to pay off student loans). It is harder every year to keep teachers who are tempted by public school teaching positions—for which they are well qualified—where they can earn starting salaries of over $30,000, plus significant fringe benefits.”
For the time being the Free School, struggling to stay afloat, continues against the odds, all the while living up to its unofficial adage, “Never a dull moment, always a dull roar.” To my ears it sounded a lot like unschooling, but in a group setting. Each day unfolds according to its own unique logic. At any point, a dozen different projects are underway. Students, who range in age from 3 to 14, can be found writing, making movies, or studying history or foreign languages. They may be taking part in the daily reading and math classes offered for those who desire more guided courses of study. But just as likely they will be playing games, hanging out and interacting, all the while learning what the Free School considers to be the most important lesson of all—how to express themselves.
A high premium is placed on honesty and emotions at the Free School, an emphasis rooted in Leue’s dabblings in Reichian therapy. Being able to express oneself honestly and directly, one of the Free School teachers, Bhawin Suchak, told me, is the first step toward being able to truly participate in a democracy. “That is what the ‘Free’ in the Free School means to me,” he explained. “You are free to be yourself. We are not going to tell you who to be or how to be. But you also have to listen. A core value is respecting each other’s feelings and voices.” Students share responsibility with teachers for school policy and planning through the weekly all-school meeting, where students and teachers have equal votes. The kids also learn about mediation and compromise through the school’s remarkable system of council meetings. Generally, teachers avoid getting embroiled in every petty squabble or dispute the children have throughout the day, instead encouraging them to work through problems on their own or through small-group mediation. However, when conflicts appear unresolvable, individuals have the right to call a meeting. The aggrieved student races up and down the stairs and through the halls, alerting the entire school, which congregates immediately in a large circle in the basement. Three students, of any age, volunteer to run the meeting in accordance with Robert’s Rules of Order. The disgruntled children take the floor and work out their conflict with minimal adult intervention.
The Free School, then, encourages students to participate in running their own lives, trusting that they will learn responsibility, problem solving, and self-governance in the process. The teachers are there, ready to provide encouragement and good counsel, but their aim is to facilitate proceedings, not lead them. Reflecting on this arrangement, I couldn’t help but see the community as a microcosm of an American society that had failed to come into existence, one in which more counter-institutions survived the ’60s and ’70s, and baby boomers like Chris Mercogliano could regularly be found working alongside young adults and children, sharing decades of experience, organizational know-how, and hard-won wisdom. Instead of starting from scratch, young people could contribute to something proven and durable, standing on an established foundation as they map the future. Today, places where young idealists can find mentorship and guidance from movement veterans are all too rare. Instead of creating institutions that span the generations, we insist the young make everything over anew. We keep ourselves confined to our peer group well into adult life even in political circles; it’s as though we never truly leave public school with its strict categorizations by birth year.
Nonetheless, a few people made passing comments about the delicate relationship between the school’s older guard and some of the young people in the community. The latest wave of teachers and interns, for example, has been keen to address issues of race and privilege, pushing to find new ways to increase the diversity of the staff and student body. “A few years ago,” Bhawin recounted, “one of our students told me he hadn’t heard of hip-hop until he was in the sixth grade, which is crazy”—and, he pointed out, indicative that the school was becoming worryingly insular. I also overheard various people speak, half-jokingly, of a divide between the young anarchists and the old liberals. I broached the subject with Mike Guidice, who seemed to have a foot firmly in each camp. On the main floor, as the mayhem of small children swirled around us, Mike told me that the major hurdle he faced as a young activist was a lack of historical awareness or sense of political continuity. “My attitude was fuck older people. Fuck New Agey people from the ’60s.” Mike was practically spitting out his words. “My culture isn’t as forgiving as it was to my parents’ generation. I feel like my parents and the ’60s generation were spoiled. We don’t feel that novelty they felt. Nothing is new.” The legacy of the social movements of the ’60s, Mike said, weighed down on him and his friends as “this crippling, immobilizing force.” The Free School community changed all that. “Meeting people who have been doing it for more than thirty years, meeting people who were involved with the movements of the ’60s, seeing someone who has been doing this work for thirty years and who saw me when I came in and made space for me—I was wearing my politics on my sleeve, anything I could do to say, ‘I am different from you.’ That’s not what I grew up with!”
Before he began working at the school, all of Mike’s energy was channeled into political activism. “I was meeting with people from the radical political scene that exists in every city, the type of people who go to meetings and tell everyone they’re wrong. Kind of young, angry, ‘I am pissed off, I am an anarchist’ types.” Mike’s seemingly caustic description barely disguised his affection. “So I collected about six of them and I wanted to start an intentional community.” Together they founded the Ironweed Collective, essentially an urban commune, in a large, slightly dilapidated blue house a short block away from the Free School. All involved were unaware of the school’s existence. In Ironweed Mike wanted to create something radically different from Levittown, Long Island, the famous suburb where he was raised, his father a long-distance trucker and mother a school bus driver. “I was a kid mad at my parents, I was a kid pushing boundaries and restrictions. I just thought where I lived really sucked, and I dropped out at the beginning of eleventh grade. I went and got my GED really quickly.” After traveling around for a while Mike returned to Long Island and enrolled in community college, where he joined the student environmental group. “That was how I got involved in politics. I had been antiauthoritarian but hadn’t been aware of the organized left.” A short spell working for the state legislature in Albany eventually turned him toward more grassroots organizing: “I wanted projects with more tangible goals and to work with people rather than policy.”
Ironweed was getting off the ground when Mike walked past the Free School and noticed a flyer for an internship posted on the door. He wandered in and was offered a job on the spot. When he accepted, the school’s directors asked him to join a weekend meeting. “I show up at this dimly lit basement apartment and there are all these weeping 40- and 50-year-olds talking about their childhoods.” Mike stuck around for a bit, hanging back, and left as soon as he could make a polite exit. “So I get back to my crew of friends, who are all sitting around eating dumpstered bagels or whatever, and I was like ‘That was the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen!’” But he joined the teaching staff anyway.
When I visited Ironweed it was approaching its fifth birthday and was shifting from being a public space to more of a private, residential one. “We are becoming more clear about the mission of the house—the point is to provide low-income housing to people who are trying to work toward positive social change. After a while we started to feel like we didn’t want to run an info shop or a direct-action group. We started to see the value of community and sharing food and our heartaches and we just started living together.” Ironweed, Mike believes, underwent this transformation mainly as the consequence of the rape by a neighborhood stranger of a young woman who lived in the house. “It brought to the surface more of our dirty emotional stuff. We had been existing in this info-shop, politics, bullshit bubble,” Mike said. “I mean, I can’t have a meeting about how we are going to slowly destroy capitalism when this terrible thing is sitting on all of our minds. When our community—the Ironweed community—turned to the Free School community and asked how do we deal with this, they invited us to circle, which is more or less a group with a talking stick. We needed to work out our shit.”
“It was at this point when I saw how my actions were motivated by my emotions,” Mike explained, acknowledging that the Free School’s emphasis on psychology was influencing his worldview. “I started to see my righteous political strength was motivated by my anger, by emotions—which is not to say it was wrong, not at all. Yes, we live in an imperialist culture that breaks down people’s relationships and homogenizes everything. I think being mad is an awesome place to start, and I encourage kids to get there. Really conceptualizing the problem and realizing this really sucks, really raging flipped-out mad. That’s a powerful place to be. It’s an infectious, powerful emotion.
“I think the problem with groups—with anarchist groups—is that they don’t recognize that that anger is not completely tied to what they’re angry at. They say they are angry at capitalism, but maybe they are really angry about having been alienated youth.” The two, as Mike sees it, are distinct and yet intimately related, our competitive economic system exacerbating feelings of isolation and malaise. Mike said that people often become aware of this as they get older, but use this realization as an excuse to trivialize and disavow their past political outrage.
“At the same time all of this is happening with the Ironweed Collective, I am working at the school where there are all these 40- and 50-year-old people doing this heavy emotional work with the kids.” For Mike, part of his shift had to do with recognizing the depth of the Free School’s social critique. “There has always been a political element to the school,” he says. “But at first I couldn’t see it. I thought this was a cool job and then I go home and do my activism. And then after about six months or a year I realized I didn’t have to go home. There was a change in my politics. I went from the pinnacle of my political action being marching in the streets and smashing shit, to just being with children . . . I am just now starting to understand the intersection of my antiauthoritarian politics and the school.”
In her book Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit uses the phrase “politics of prefiguration” to describe the kind of work that groups like the Albany Free School do. One tiny corner of the world—one small community, one co-op, one school—models a different way to run things, embodies principles we want to see more of: democracy, egalitarianism, compassion, creativity. “Activism, in this model, is not only a toolbox to change things but a home in which to take up residence and live according to your beliefs,” Solnit writes, “even if it’s a temporary and local place, this paradise of participating, this vale where souls gets made.” A “vale where souls get made” perfectly describes what the Free School means to Mike Guidice. “I think the kids graduating from the Free School are interacting on an emotional plane,” he told me. “[And] that undermines authority, because authority generates fear, mistrust. No one trusts each other, so they need laws, judges, courts, prisons. The Free School, at its root, stops that stuff before it starts. The Free School is letting loose people who know how to empathize! They aren’t afraid of their own feelings or others’—we don’t need a rule, we just need to work it out. It’s a different account of justice and fairness, where we usually have the courts, rules, and procedures. This is how I reconcile all those political views I have, ideas about a lack of centralized authority, lack of a state. Well, this is how that world would look for me.”
Many people, liberal and conservative alike, are deeply offended by critiques of compulsory schooling. Every day we’re told that schools hold the key to equalizing opportunity, that the proper credentials will allow poor and marginalized people to participate fully in society, and that education provides the only legitimate path out of poverty. The question is a difficult one. Are schools social levelers or do they reinforce the class pyramid by tracking and sorting children from a young age? Presumably they do both.
The philosopher William Godwin, writing at the end of the 18th century, was one of the earliest critics of compulsory schooling. “Before we put so powerful a machine under the direction of so ambiguous an agent, it behooves us to consider well what it is that we do. Government will not fail to employ it, to strengthen its hands, and perpetuate its institutions,” he wrote in Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Real education, in contrast, was something believed by Godwin to be intensely personal, an act aimed toward wisdom and virtue, truth and justice—in other words, toward free consciousness—that placed the learner, and the learner’s passion, firmly at the center: “The boy, like the man, studies because he desires it. He proceeds upon a plan of his own invention, or which, by adopting, he has made his own.” Schools, according to this view, were merely sites for the reproduction of official ideology, something the philosopher had no patience for, since “God himself has no right to be a tyrant” and the state even less so. “He that loves reading has everything within his reach,” Godwin once said. Who needs school when the written word allows us to all go head-to-head with history’s brilliant minds?
His wife, the feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft, disagreed. In A Vindication of the Rights of Women she sought to rebuke Rousseau, who insisted that girls should be raised only to please men and care for children, and extend his arguments regarding the independent exercise of reason to the fairer sex. Private tutelage, Wollstonecraft argued, was not enough; her famous pamphlet made the radical proposal that boys and girls should be compelled to attend school together, “for truth must be common to all.”
Over two centuries later, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft represent two still-powerful poles of opinion on the matter of mass education. As a white man Godwin possessed privileges that empowered him to reject state schooling; whereas the opportunities denied women were important enough that Wollstonecraft risked social stigma to advocate inclusion. Today there are plenty of young people whose homes, barren of books, bereft of supportive parents, leave little within their reach; these students are the ones thrown a lifeline, no matter how frayed, by school’s introduction to common truth.
Growing up, I experienced unschooling as a compromise, the more appealing of the two extremes available in Georgia given my family’s modest budget: staying at home and teaching myself, or going to public school and having my spirit crushed. What I really wanted—what I still want, even now, as an adult—is that intellectual community I was looking for in high school and college but never quite found. I would have loved to commune with other young people and find out what a school of freedom could be like. But for some reason, such a possibility was unthinkable, a wild fantasy—instead, the only option available was to submit to irrational authority six and a half hours a day, five days a week, in a series of cinder-block holding cells. If nothing else, we should pause to wonder why there’s so rarely any middle ground.