To the Editor:
Samuel McCracken gives me high praise in his article on the libertarian movement in education [“Quackery in the Classroom,” June], and I can’t help but be grateful, but his piece as a whole is intemperate to the point of wildness, and seriously misrepresents the movement. He is terribly at fault in devoting all but two pages of a long article to attacking unimportant errors and attitudes, and in neglecting utterly the work of writers he himself seems to esteem: Edgar Z. Friedenberg, Paul Goodman, A. S. Neill. Sylvia Ashton-Warner, too, is included in the anthology McCracken uses as a framework for his observations, but her contribution to the libertarian movement is not mentioned. Nor does McCracken discuss Dewey, Tolstoy, or Whitehead, or the holistic tradition that comes to the movement through Goodman, or the psychoanalytic influence through both Goodman and Neill. Rather, he works himself into a lather over peripheral errors, vague threats to high culture, and the dreamy rejection of tradition by the young (whom I have always found, face to face, quite convertible on this score). His unwarranted attack on John Holt is of a piece with this preference for sarcasm and straw figures, for he tells us that Holt’s work contains “any number of exceptionally keen insights into the learning process,” and then rather than say what these are, and how they figure in the movement, passes on to some two or three minor points of Holt’s—on further, in fact, to their implications—which he then spends a great deal of time attacking. This is indefensible in one who bills his observations as “a review of the movement.”
I cannot say here all that McCracken should have said had he meant seriously to review the movement. He should certainly have mentioned that part of it which consists of a critique of our present system; and the part (the most interesting intellectually) that deals with the nature of perception, learning, and growth, and which draws upon Gestalt psychology and Gestalt therapy; and, finally, the part (larger and more varied than many realize) that consists of present activity, e.g., the forming of free schools, the political and legal attacks on the school bureaucracy, the joining of educational and community issues. That there are thousands of children, parents, teachers young and old (mostly young) involved in this movement, working for the most part earnestly, and often courageously, seems never to have crossed McCracken’s mind. These are the ones who make immediate use, for instance, of Holt’s keen insights. Where Holt writes and speaks in order to serve them and bring about change, McCracken reduces everything to a mere mental form, and then renders his own argument insignificant by refusing to engage the stronger voices.
My own experience with young teachers in the movement (I have talked by now with many hundreds) has been heartening. There are fantasists among them, and escapists, but (so I judge) relatively few. Many have been impressive, some remarkable, for goodness and strength of character, and many have understood that what they are engaged in lies right at the heart of social revolution, precisely as Kropotkin understood it. This sense of present work (and of human beings) is quite absent from McCracken’s review. I think if he were more familiar with the lived experience, he would not feel obliged to deplore the influence of theoreticians who are not, in fact, influential. He would discover that the writers he esteems (but does not deal with) are esteemed in the movement, and are dealt with. And he would certainly be chastened in his treatment of Holt, for he would see with his eyes what a more generous logic might have told him: that it takes a long time to assimilate, in action, Holt’s “exceptionally keen insights,” and that this process is not impeded by the ambiguity of a few of Holt’s anecdotes.
What McCracken is really writing about, it seems—or what he wants to write about—is the question of the transmission of high culture, and the present widespread (among the young) rejection of tradition. These are important subjects. But he should deal with them directly, then, and not subvert this other investigation for the sake of a few diatribes.
To the Editor:
Samuel McCracken did not even get my name straight. He is suffering sic-ness unto death. . . . That COMMENTARY should carry such a piece is analogous to Lindsay’s seconding Agnew’s nomination. At least Lindsay has publicly apologized for that.
Department of Education
New York City
To the Editor:
The movement for freedom and choice in education exists and grows in action as well as words. One cannot well understand the words unless he is part of the action.
The people in the movement are each other’s friends, colleagues, allies, and teachers. These implied factions and splits do not exist. When we argue, as we sometimes do, we learn from each other.
I have no differences that seem to me important with Paul Goodman. As for George Dennison, on everything in his book, he and I agree; where Mr. McCracken says we differ, as he could easily have found out, we agree most strongly of all.
People who talk of “defining” education are only talking about what they want. Most people define education as sculpture, making children what we want them to be. I and others in this movement define it as gardening, helping children to grow and to find what they want to be.
I do know of Noam Chomsky and his work; I consider him an ally.
Elementary (also secondary and university) education is indeed a nightmare. Those who think so ought to help those of us who are trying to change it.
To the Editor:
. . . Throughout Samuel McCracken’s excellent diagnosis of the season’s educational romanticism runs a line of small eruptions indicating that the doctor himself has contracted a touch of the plague:
- viewing elementary and secondary education as almost unrelieved nightmare;
- believing that the educational establishment might not be staffed by people some of whom themselves are observant parents;
- failing to detect much difference in the running of enlightened schools and enlightened prisons;
- supposing that the desperation of the “malady” is educational;
- charging high schools with promulgating shoddy orthodoxies;
- inclining to believe that the conspicuous failure is the public school’s. . . .
The army of teachers and administrators in the United States, or in the rest of the world for that matter, ranges from heroes to drudges. Some try, some don’t. Some don’t care. But some do! Contrary to the big and little lies, many of the ideas urged upon schools by the season’s innovators are old hats that turned out not to fit. Being in a classroom day after day with only small success is no fun. When Holt, or Dennison, or McCracken perhaps, does for overcoming reading disability what Jonas Salk did for polio, the army of educators, drudges, and bureaucrats will line up for a shot of the stuff. Even for a teacher, success is less depressing than failure. And who can really claim to see hate in a teacher’s heart that is not in his own eye?
New York City
Mr. McCracken writes:
I remain grateful to George Dennison, the author of The Lives of Children, and believe that his letter raises, as one might have expected, substantial questions. But I also believe that he has in part misinterpreted my essay, and that most of his objections, even if substantial, are irrelevant.
Mr. Dennison has read into my fairly offhand statement of intent—“I shall try, accordingly, to review the movement as much as the book”—a “billing” of the piece. The statement seems to me sufficiently hedged about so as not to promise to evaluate so complex a phenomenon in 15,000 words. A minimum attempt at a complete and just review would, in my opinion, require me to have done all that I have done, all that Dennison says I ought to have done, and much more. Having previously identified the need, and having had it confirmed by Mr. Dennison, I have now begun a book on the subject.
To attempt to meet Mr. Dennison’s specific objections: I believe I did take note of a number of John Holt’s keen insights, e.g., his analyses of children’s game-playing strategies, his understanding of the need to start at the level of children’s ignorance and confusion, his sensitive comprehension of the brutalization too often implicit in the best of schools, his persuasively argued attack on compulsory attendance. These insights, and others, as I have said, entitle him to considerable respect.
My disagreement with Mr. Holt is very largely based on his understanding of curriculum, and what I see as an unfortunate tendency-increasing with time—toward simplistic solutions to very complex problems, e.g., the open-admissions problem. I hardly consider the question of curriculum as “peripheral,” any more than does Mr. Holt, and I maintain that if he is to use the obsolescence-of-knowledge argument, the anecdotes with which he supports it ought to be accurate and relevant. A substantial portion of his support for the attack on curriculum seems to me simply false, and I cannot quietly assume that he must be right, whatever the ambiguity of his anecdotes.
That there are thousands of children, parents, and teachers involved in the movement crosses my mind pretty frequently, and that they are earnest, courageous, indeed impressive for goodness of strength and character, I freely concede. None of these qualities speaks to the correctness of the beliefs animating all that earnestness, courage, and goodness of character. The same encomiums might be made of thousands of people in, say, the Republican party, or even in movements Mr. Dennison would join me in deploring. That John Holt writes and speaks to serve these admirable people I am also willing to concede. But Mr. Holt’s altruism is hardly the question here, and as recent European history suggests, altruism is not always enough.
The precise nature of the crime of reducing everything to mere mental form escapes me. Is it aggravated Platonism? The evidence for my peccability seems to be that I do not write or speak as one having authority, like John Holt. Guilty, your honor.
If I understand Mr. Dennison correctly, he next chides me for deploring the influence of theoreticians on the ground that they are not really influential. There is some difficulty with reconciling this claim with the Holt whose insights have such effect in the world of the “lived experience.” Theoreticians, it would seem, run the risk of counter-theoreticians. Publish and be damned, as someone once said.
I presume that the “lived experience” with which I am not familiar is that of the movement itself, rather than of life. My familiarity with the experience, while somewhat more than nil, is hardly enough to serve as the basis for an article on the experience. That is why I did not write an article on it. Greater familiarity with the movement in situ might well increase my respect for Mr. Holt’s insights, insights I have already found valuable. Whether it would alter my attitude toward his total philosophy of education is another question. My limited contact with the deeds of the movement has not inclined me more easily to accept its words. (Incidentally, generosity, or the lack of it, is not the quality I would associate with logic.)
I am writing about (among other things) the transmission of culture and the rejection of tradition, subjects I am more convinced than Mr. Dennison are central to education. But it was, after all, John Holt who first raised the issue of cultural transmission. What Mr. Holt is writing about, it seems—or what he wants to write about—is learning theory, especially the temporal and spatial environments in which learning can take place. These are important subjects. But he should deal with them directly, and not subvert this investigation for the sake of a few diatribes. The Lives of Children remains a superb example of how the investigation may proceed without the diatribes.
Mr. Holt’s implied dictum—that before one can criticize the revolution, one must join it—would be, if valid, a useful defense against attack. But unless he expects critics to go undercover for the purposes of research, I am at a loss to understand how he imagines that anyone can earn the right to criticize him. I for one am not yet ready to go out into another cold, having waited long enough to come in out of the one I’m in now.
Mr. Holt’s characterization of the movement as one for “freedom and choice in education” wraps it in a mantle of intent which no one is likely to criticize; the problem, of course, is the extent to which such options are compatible with the goal of education. At an extreme, the exercise of an option not to be educated removes freedom and choice from the universe occupied by education.
After re-reading my essay apurpose, I am still unable to discover any implications of the factionalism which Mr. Holt assures us does exist. I do remark that I respect Paul Goodman (which is hardly to say that I agree with him) and suggest that I find George Dennison as he appears in The Lives of Children a more stimulating thinker and persuasive writer than Mr. Holt himself. I’m sorry about that, but I insist on exercising the consumer’s option: I’ll be damned if I’ll buy the whole movement in a package, even with Mr. Holt’s assurances that it’s one big happy family.
Throughout Mr. Holt’s letter runs the indication that the educational establishment has affinities with its disestablished mirror twin. As anyone who has ever criticized the public schools well knows, that establishment’s favorite epithet for the outside critic is “enemy of public education.” Which is to require us outsiders to buy the package or nothing. The tactic has served the educationists admirably, and I am sorry to see it adopted by one school of its critics.
It was, of course, unforgivably careless and rude of me to have misspelled Professor Weingartner’s name. (Apparently, I misread it when first I read, and have, ever since, in the interests of efficiency, neglected to pass beyond the -gart-.) I am heartily sorry for having offended, but am not aware that any really crucial argument hung on the spelling.
I am distressed by Professor Weingartner’s easy equation of a partisan political act (seconding the Agnew nomination) with the maintenance of public discourse (publishing my essay), and would be disturbed by such a confusion even were I an Agnew fan. At any rate, I take it that the only item in the essay with which Professor Weingartner wishes to take issue is my spelling of his name, which I quite agree is atrocious. I am therefore delighted (not to say astounded) to find us otherwise in full harmony.
Inasmuch as my essay rates with Mr. Kohn 87.5 per cent of a cheer higher than democracy did with E. M. Forster, I am diffident about exposing him to my eruptions once again. But I must say that I maintain my dismal view of the state of education, based as it is on a good many years’ observation and rumination. It is just the dreadful status quo which makes the romantics plausible prescribers.
But Mr. Kohn is quite right to say that even in an army staggering blindly through the night to it knows not what destiny, there are bound to be quite a few good soldiers. No one could wish more than I that they could bring those batons out of the knapsack.