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Mitchell, E. (2007). Educational Antidisestablishmentarianism. PHILICA.COM Article number 74.

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Educational Antidisestablishmentarianism

Ethan Mitchellconfirmed userThis person has donated to Philica (Independent Researcher)

Published in edu.philica.com

This paper reviews the literature in defense of compulsory schooling and critical of consensual education. The conversation, centered in the early 1970s, may have renewed relevance as today’s unschooling movement grows. Major themes include the treatment of liberty, both within schools and in the broader society, and structural questions about how to create an effective learning environment.

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            Since the middle of the 19th century, educational policy in the United States has mandated that all children of certain ages attend schools.  Liberal educational philosophies have reiterated that this coercion of young learners is both of educational benefit to them as individuals, and is of social benefit to the nation as a whole.  That well-established position was attacked in the 20th century by a range of projects and authors that placed crucial emphasis on the freedom of the learner.  These educational philosophies have taken a wide range of forms and vocabularies, and have not always harmonized with one another.  Nevertheless, they share a core position that I will term "consensual education."  In response to these philosophies, antidisestablishmentarians raised a number of criticisms of consensual education in its various forms.  In this paper, I will attempt to catalog those criticisms, so that they are neither lost nor embellished in our memory.

At one extreme, consensual education appears as a practical and specific project: A.S. Neill's school (Summerhill) and the many other "free schools" that it inspired[1].  At the other extreme, it appears as a totalizing Utopian theory: Ivan Illich's "deschooling," and similar proposals by Paul Goodman and Everett Reimer.  There are many points in between, all readily identifiable as variations on a theme, though they differ greatly different in focus and discourse.  For that reason, I would like to propose the relatively fresh term, "consensual education" to describe the genera I am discussing.

            In what I am describing as consensual education, the freedom of the learner is considered to be pedagogically efficacious, as well as (perhaps) normatively desirable.  The authors of consensual education tend to make three common expressions of this belief.  Psychologically, they argue that learning occurs best when the learner is passionately interested about the subject matter, and a voluntary or even governing participant in the learning context.  Socially, they argue that the presence of students who are brought into the classroom by coercion is detrimental to the educational environment.  And politically or organizationally, they argue that the infrastructure and formulas needed to maintain coercive school establishment run at cross-purposes with education, and that this is intentional or at least represents a systemic agenda.

            Arguments for liberation of the classroom often overlap with or parallel discussions of how education might produce political liberation beyond the classroom.  While it is possible for these two tendencies to go hand-in-hand, they do not always do so.  For example, in his book Free School, Kozol expresses considerable contempt for schools that offered a consensual pedagogy but had, in his view, a repressive political outcome[2].  Illich, in turn, argued that Kozol's politically focused schools were pedagogically indistinct from the public schools he was rejecting[3].  But all of these schools identified as "free schools," and used very similar vocabularies of self-explanation[4].  In this rather confusing definitional space, it is possible for authors like Lichtenstein to analyze the literature without ever mentioning the concept of learner freedom[5].

            It is not hard, however, to find a common claim at the heart of the educational theories espoused by-let us say-Jean-Jacques Rousseau, A.S. Neill, Paul Goodman, Everett Reimer, Ivan Illich, John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, and Grace Llewellyn.  The ramifications of that claim into a larger political program vary considerably from author to author.  Yet all of these voices either propose to disestablish schools as we know them, or at least propose individual courses of action that would, if emulated, lead to the disestablishment of schools.

            Of these authors, there is little question that Neill, Goodman, and Illich engendered the most intense levels of public debate, which was focused in the early 1970s[6].  The logomachy soon petered out, and the schools were still standing.  By the end of the decade Keesbury-commenting on the silence-declared that radical education had been a complete failure, and proceeded on to a necropsy of the genre[7].  This seems to have been premature. 

            A major educational trend in the last two decades has been the rising number of homeschoolers.  In the 1970s, homeschooling was a tiny, illegal, underground movement in much of the United States.  By the turn of the century, it had been legalized in all states, and a 2003 government survey reported that there are 1.1 million homeschoolers, a little over 2% of the student population.  Of these, a subgroup homeschooled in order to achieve something like consensual education.  This subgroup, often referred to as "unschoolers," is difficult to measure precisely, but such surveys as we have suggest a plausible figure of no more than 25% of homeschoolers, and-much more tentatively-no less than 4%[8].  Even taking the lower figure, there must be vastly more consensual learners now than there were in the 1970s, when consensual education was the province of theorists and a handful of tiny experiments.  Indeed, the population of unschoolers is large enough that they are beginning to form new institutions, which may resemble free schools built from below, or may take on some new form.  But they have not engendered any noticeable popular or scholarly commentary.

            This leaves us with a kind of displaced praxis.  Unschooling today represents the largest practical experiment in consensual education that American society has ever embarked on.  Yet the theoretical discussion of consensual education occurred primarily in the 1970s, and to all intents and purposes has stopped.

I believe it would be a great waste of effort not to recapture the arguments made by antidisestablishmentarians during the period that consensual learning was a matter of widespread public discussion.  If we fail to do this, we run two risks.  First, educators might fall into a naive assumption that the criticisms of consensual learning were utterly compelling, and provided some conclusive evidence about the necessity of schooling.  Second, unschoolers may forget the many insightful and even sympathetic points raised by educators faced with the prospect of consensual learning.

            In all events, a summary of these arguments seems to have become a desideratum in contemporary discussions of unschooling.  I have been asked if such a thing existed on three occasions in as many months.  The arguments that follow are concatenated from several sources.  Two of these are anthologies of the "pro and con" format popular in that era: Summerhill: For and Against and After Deschooling, What?  To these I have appended a number of books, journal articles, book reviews, and a government report, all of which deal with consensual learning critically.  These sources predominantly discuss the work of Neill, Goodman, and Illich, although there is some mention of Rousseau, Reimer, and Holt as well.  I am sure that this is not a completely comprehensive list of the scholarly responses, but I have looked far and wide for other sources, and the redundancy of arguments in the sources I have found would suggest that all the prominent arguments are captured here.

            Some semantic notes are in order.  I am using the phrase "consensual education," and "learning" to refer to a process and "consensual educators" to refer to its advocates.  These phrases do not exist in the literature and I am choosing them precisely because they do not tie the discussion to one author or another.  The term "free school" refers here to an institutional setting that facilitates consensual learning.  The reader should be aware that there are other meanings of "free school" in the literature[9].  Some authors contend that free schools are not, properly speaking, schools at all[10].  Moreover, we wish to discuss learning outside of institutions as well as within them.  Thus I am using Goodman's medievalism studium generale to refer to the contextual space of learning within a society, whether it is institutional or not.





            Nearly a third of the critics argued that the successes of any experiment in consensual education were not a result of their pedagogy, but of "heroic" teachers.  The teachers were extraordinarily charismatic, intuitive, energetic, and resourceful.  Children might identify strongly with such hero-figures, and thus become motivated.  But this was, implicitly, irreproducible and unsustainable.  We cannot predicate an educational system on the assumption of super-human personnel[11].

            The heroism of teachers could also backfire.  In a ghetto, for example, an archetypical "heroic teacher" was a white college student from a wealthy background, who was presumably giving up more lucrative opportunities because of their deep political commitment to teaching in a free school.  But such a figure had almost nothing in common with the working-class minority students at the school, and it was very difficult for them to establish a rapport[12].  Again, such heroic teachers might become self-aggrandizing, like early capitalists[13].  As LeShan put it: "geniuses can't teach other people to be geniuses."

            In a similar vein, the successes of individuals who were not exposed to traditional education are irrelevant.  They are, again, heroic figures, who have risen above their objective deprivation to succeed where others would not have.  "The great mass of humanity over the centuries" could not effectively succeed in the same environment[14]. 


Social Change and Revolution

            The discussion of consensual education occurred within the broader context of the Civil Rights movement, the New Left, campus radicalism, and opposition to the Vietnam War.  Various Marxist, anarchist, and democratic conceptions of social revolution were being much debated, and appeared as normative imperatives in the writings both of consensual education (especially Illich and Goodman) and many of their critics[15].

            Goodman was explicitly an anarchist and a critic of New Left Marxism; Illich is a more gnomic author but appeared similarly aligned[16].  Marxist critics attacked their vision of social revolution along well-established lines, which often strayed a great deal from the topic of education.  They viewed the "revolution" entailed by consensual learning to be no revolution at all, as it was based on an inadequate criticism of property relations under capitalism.  In particular, consensual educators over-emphasized consumption (as opposed to production) as the economic driver of culture.  They did not use a dialectical epistemology, and they did not appreciate the economic roots of imperial expansion, seeing this instead as a cultural issue[17].

            Other, less doctrinaire authors echoed the sentiment that a mass movement for consensual education was ambiguously described[18], impossible[19], or irrelevant without a broader revolution against capitalist institutions, within which it might be a low priority[20].  In particular, the experience of China and Cuba, which had been "deschooled before the revolution" was taken to show that deschooling is not sufficient criteria for revolution[21].

            In the wake of student uprisings in1968, it is unsurprising that several authors commented on the relationship between revolutionary college students and the idea of consensual education prior to college.  These associations, however, ran all over the map.  Those authors who viewed the "student rebels" in a positive light saw them as philosophically allied with consensual learning[22].  Bettelheim and Hechinger both took a dim view of the student rebels, but where Hechinger equated them with consensual learning, Bettelheim saw them as diametrically opposed to it.

            Kozol and Goodman both envisioned free schools as creating idyllic enclaves that generated political apathy, at least in a revolutionary sense[23].  Goodman writes:   "It is not hard to envisage a society in the near future in which self-reliant and happy people will be attendants of a technological infrastructure over which they have no control whatever, and whose purposes do not seem to them to be any of their business…Alternatively, it is conceivable that an affluent society will support its hippies like Indians on a reservation[24]." Several other authors argued that free schools were too isolated from the outside world, without ramifying this observation politically[25].

            Many writers suggested that advocating freedom and consent in learning intensified the contrast with coercive institutions in the rest of pre-revolutionary society.  This concern can be phrased in several ways.  A Utopian studium generale that accommodated student freedom may simply not prepare students for life in a non-Utopian, non-accommodating society[26].

            Other writers, less concerned about students adjusting to the current society, warn that consensual learning did not provide students with the tools for social struggle.  In particular, they are concerned that experimental free schools did not undergo a struggle to create "free space" (Rossman's term), and so there was no learning process around that struggle.  But any extension of free space, and any widespread or rapid threat to the educational establishment, will entail struggle, repression, and possibly violence[27].  These critics argue that consensual learners did not have the motive, group solidarity, or philosophical basis to enter into such struggles[28].  Kozol wrote that consensual learners will not "sacrifice one moment of the golden afternoon" to struggle for social justice[29].  Even if they wished to, they would have lacked the necessary intellectual tools and credentials[30].  Finally, they may simply have been too disorganized: Pearl argued that all social change must occur in an institutional context[31].

            Finally, Barrow argued that consensual educators as a whole have been ambivalent on this issue: it is unclear if they were arguing that consensual education will help students adjust to society, or help them change society[32].



Re-Entrenching Inequality

            Deschooling, several authors contested, would be bad for the poor, who were alleged to oppose it[33].  Consensual learning as a type of laissez-faire might undo the redistributive economics of democratic education, creating new concentrations of power and privilege or maintaining the status quo[34].  By shifting to a local scale, consensual learning tended to create a race- and class-homogenous studium generale, and allowed educators in privileged communities to abandon the rest of society; Kozol described a typical free school in Vermont as "a sandbox for the children of the SS guards at Auschwitz.[35]."  On a world scale, deschooling "in its most anarchistic sense" would ossify the unequal levels of development between nations[36].

            These concerns are exacerbated and extended if consensual education is especially costly.  Added expenses might be incurred as economies of scale are lost, or if small free-schools are expected to have "an implausibly wide range of ‘relevant equipment' or resources at their disposal.[37]"  Potentially, all the successes of free schools could be attributed to the high socio-economic status of the students[38].  However, free schools seemed to run on very narrow financial margins[39], and thus were also criticized for being unsustainably financially vulnerable.  Moreover, decision-making around finance depended on the adult community-both in the conventional and alternative models-and adults might have different and internally conflicting goals for the studium generale [40].


            A good many authors saw the fundamental thesis of consensual learning as an error.  Freedom may not be intrinsically valuable[41], or may not be valued by children[42].  They argued that children have no experiential background to make educational choices, especially in terms of envisioning what they would find useful or fulfilling years hence[43].  The "hidden curriculum" of schools was an intentional effort to provide children with intellectual tools and patterns of thought that they would not seek out on their own accord[44].  If children are left to study only what they want, they will learn prejudices[45], impulsively switch topics[46], or simply do nothing and waste their potential (27,13).   Finally, the suggestion that lessons are optional inferred that they are unimportant, and that students were valueless because adults had no expectations of them (7, 21)

            A more moderate version of this critique was the idea that while certain skills can be learned in a consensual environment, other indispensable skills could not be.  The major focus here was literacy, whose importance was denigrated by several of the early consensual educators[47]. Their position was very widely condemned, and did not appear so much in later writings on consensual learning.  In addition to its direct utility, Ashton-Warner pointed out that reading and writing have therapeutic and behavior-modifying effects which are of value in schools[48].

            Beyond literacy, there are other skills that society needs to reproduce-and that subgroups of society need for their own empowerment-but which arguably cannot be learned in a "spontaneous and ecstatic" fashion[49].  These include systematic and logical thought, mathematics, medicine, classical languages, and law[50].  The studium generale cannot afford to leave open the possibility that such skills will not be reproduced.

            Still a third group of authors, more optimistic about the potential of consensual learning, were concerned about its scope and practice.  Perhaps consensual learning is adequate or even desirable for most students, but there is some group for whom it would be disastrous[51].  A particularly common criticism in this regard was that consensual learning posits essentially negative, divisive freedoms-there is little emphasis on mutualism and solidarity[52].  Students are not presented with adequate guidance, or actively drawn into new interests, which could be accomplished without coercion[53].  Moreover, they may not be encouraged to persist in the face of intellectual setbacks, a trend that Kozol terms the "Cult of Incompletion[54]."  Without direction and guidance, the choices of a consensual learner resemble someone watching television, flipping from one channel to the next[55].

            Finally, some authors who supported the idea of consensual learning nevertheless warned that it carries great psychic risks.  It demands a great level of self-respect, and-failing that-might plunge the learner into depression, alcoholism, or insanity[56].


Psychology of Learning

            Psychological naturalism has often been a weak point in antinomian philosophies, and the case in education is no different.  Neill and Holt made many explicit claims about children's "natural" behavior and morality, and we can hear at least some echo of that in Illich and Goodman.  This position has been criticized philosophically and logically by many authors[57].  It has also been attacked empirically-studies have shown personality differences in infants from birth[58].  More specifically, Darling argued that a naturalistic approach tends to reify socially established gender roles in free-schools[59].

            Neill's psychological theories, and especially his reliance on Freud, were attacked or dismissed by several authors[60].  Ames, among others, thought that Neill placed too heavy an emphasis on parenting as the root cause of all psychopathology.  

            There were also some specific criticisms around the understanding of emotions by consensual educators.  Student happiness as a goal-in-itself was rejected by several critics.  Social engagement or the transfer of intellectual tools might be more direct or more legitimate goals of education[61].  Perhaps happiness is obtained only indirectly, through trying to achieve something else.  Again, several authors noted that Neill's idea of achieving freedom from fear is overstated.  We cannot be free from fear in this world-presumably Neill meant freedom from anxiety[62].  Yet even this claim might be overstated: anxiety and anger are part of the ongoing processes of intellectual discovery and self-questioning, and also part of the struggle to establish and maintain a free studium generale.  We cannot get "beyond" them[63].

Discipline and Rules

            Disciplinary standards at free schools were a subject of considerable discussion and some criticism.  Several authors had specific criticisms of Neill's comments on discipline[64].  More generally, the lack of clarity around discipline and rules was described as a potential source of conflict[65].  Even where rules are clear, differences in rules from one context to the next (the free school, the community, students' homes) can cause confusion and further conflict, and might lead to the school becoming a "dark refuge" for vice behaviors that are not permitted anywhere else[66].  Finally, Ames viewed the presence of respect for rules and authority, and the use of rewards, as important to children's psychological development.

            A number of critics believed that consensual education had overemphasized the freedom of children and students vis-à-vis parents and teachers, especially around disciplinary concerns.  Rather than aim for a false equality of rights, we should aim for some appropriate distribution of rights.  Further, it was argued on the basis of surveys and anecdotes that young people desire an asymmetrical relationship with adults[67].  Other authors, (including Neill's editor) believed that consensual educators were advocating for an appropriate distribution of rights, but had done so in ambiguous language, and were easily misunderstood[68]


            The permissive attitude towards sexual experimentation (especially at Summerhill) was deeply troubling to some critics.  From a moral and religious vantage, the children were at risk of developing a perverse sexuality.  They would commit sins, being unable to distinguish between good and evil.  Ultimately, such attitudes are tantamount to an attack on the family[69].

            From a sociological standpoint, it was assumed that Summerhill "encourages uninhibited sexual activity."  This was variously viewed as pathological, or simply unhelpful.  Children should not become sexually active until, at the very least, they are emotionally mature enough.  Adults have a responsibility to educate children about the sexual mores of the wider culture, even if they expect children will ignore those rules.  A permissive sexual environment in higher education might cause married couples to separate[70].

            Finally, sexual experimentation places the adult caregiver in a hypocritical situation.  If a student at a free school had become pregnant, it would have been disastrous for the school's reputation.  Yet it would have been almost equally disastrous to provide contraception to sexually active students.  By condoning sexual activity without offering contraception, Neill seemed to be admitting that the values of his school were unsupportable in the wider society.  Again, by asking that students refrain from intercourse because of its potential economic implications-not its moral implications-the headmasters of free schools were rejecting conventional morality[71].



            The claim that students, not teachers, are the primary agents of learning has been criticized from various directions.  Teaching (or motivating students to learn new things) remains possible, even if some students learn things outside the classroom[72], and even if it could be shown that such teaching is a rarity[73].  After all, if one concedes that it is possible for teachers to indoctrinate students or crush their spirits, then they must have the influence to affect children positively as well[74].  Perhaps teacher-directed learning is less efficient than student-directed learning, but there is no evidence that this is the case[75].

            Consensual education makes extraordinary demands of the teachers, both intellectually and emotionally[76].  In particular, consensual education demands a genuine emotional attitude on the part of teachers that cannot be a mere pragmatic strategy[77].  Love and respect cannot be faked to any useful effect.

            Some authors have criticized the actual teaching quality and classroom methods in free-schools, as if the teachers, satisfied at having created a liberated environment, "pretend to abdicate…the power which they do possess and continue to exercise" as expert knowledge providers[78].  Moreover, in primarily addressing educators, consensual learning shifts responsibilities away from parents and the community, which need to share them[79].

            Consensual educators are also said to present a false degree of indifference between the merits of various subjects (Bach and Elvis are equivalent).  Variously, consensual educators advocate the worse subject over the better one.  In either case, these presentations are insincere and possibly dangerous.  Kozol wrote: "It is, too often, the rich white kids who speak three languages with native fluency, at the price of sixteen years of high-cost, rigorous and sequential education, who are the most determined that poor kids should make clay vases, weave Indian headbands, play with Polaroid cameras, climb over geodesic domes[80]."


Testing and Success

            Testing and certification were defended as necessary in schools so that we can measure progress (of students and schools).  They also occur outside of schools, e.g. in sports, and so they cannot be thought of as a school-specific problem[81].

            Professional success, in a conventional understanding of the concept, matters[82].  Such standards have empirically been shown to be trans-cultural[83].  No one thinks that a street-cleaner is "just as good as" a doctor.  Moreover, professional success is especially vital for poor and oppressed populations[84].  Radicals' tendency to disregard or minimize the importance of career success as an outcome measure is short-sighted[85].


Lack of Privacy

            Students and teachers alike in free schools may lack privacy.  This impairs their ability to study, especially if there are other students engaged in disruptive (and perhaps attractive) activities.  Moreover, it forces all issues to become personal ones, all communication to be affective.  There is no separation of private and public selves[86].


Collective Decision-Making

            Free schools, as alternative institutions with a strong emphasis on freedom, present a range of challenges in terms of self-government.  Firestone was especially critical of these, noting that free schools tend to implode within 18 months, largely because of what he viewed as unsustainable governmental styles.  In particular, Firestone noted the use of consensus process; the lack of strong hierarchies; the ‘politicization' of what should have been simple administrative issues; and group decision-making around trivial matters[87].  Moreover, Firestone was critical of the communication flow within free schools, which he saw as providing enough information to produce anxiety and conflict, but rarely enough for the group to make informed decisions.   He describes this style of communication as intense, personality-based, and affective.  Kozol echoed these criticisms, and believed that an unworkably high level of democracy was imposed on children by adults in a kind of vicarious political fantasy[88].




The plan to deschool is mystical; counter-factual; it cannot be criticized because there is no such example[89].  Those empirical studies that are cited (especially by Goodman) are over-used and obsolete[90].

            Again, the idea of consensual learning is not new.  It is at least as old as Rousseau, and has presumably been long since disproved and rejected.  Anyone who is interested in it is simply out of touch with educational theory[91]. 

Insofar as consensual education tries to free children from work, and encourage play, it does not advance us towards the goal of integrating work and play.  Moreover, children describe much of their play as "work" when questioned[92].

Neill raised the possibility that liberated children grow taller than their schooled peers; Ames doubted this to be the case. 



Some Roads Not Taken

            It is very easy to err in back-dating one's arguments.  For example, American conservatives today tend to oppose the use of racial quotas or preferences in college admissions.  But they have not always done so.  It would be facile to apply this argument trans-historically to determine the "conservative position" on quotas for Jewish students in the first half of the 20th century.  By the same token, antidisestablishmentarian arguments in education have changed over the years, and some of them simply were not present in the era we have been focusing on.

What follow are plausibly arguments against consensual learning, which have emerged in informal and popular discussions since the 1980s.  Notably, however, these arguments do not appear in any of the sources referenced above.  I include them because I think it is historically interesting to see what arguments were not made.

            The most important "missing" argument is any empirical claim that schooling causes, or even correlates with, measurable positive outcomes.  There is, for example, an ample literature on education-income correlation, which existed already in the 1960s.  Such data is not really sensitive enough to be of great use in this discussion, but it is striking that no authors-on either side of the dilemma-make any use of it.  Indeed, there is almost no reference to any quantitative outcome analysis in the entire literature of consensual education, for or against.  Such studies are not easy to produce in a way that would be likely to have rhetorical value, even if they demonstrated the desired points.  Presumably the critics of coercive education did not have the means to try, and the defenders of the establishment did not feel so threatened that they saw it necessary.  This situation still obtains today.

            Following upon this absence, the most notable missing argument is that consensual learning, by annihilating schools, would harm the livelihoods of a great many teachers (and presumably administrators).  Even if those teachers found new jobs in some newly formatted studium generale, they would experience considerable disruption.  This argument has had immense influence in discussions of school vouchers, primarily since 1990.  In appealing not only to the fear of economic disruption, but more particularly to the sympathetic archetype of the "noble teacher," it parallels an existing rhetoric around the military.  Just as a criticism of war becomes an "attack on our troops," a criticism of schools becomes an "attack on our teachers," with similarly passionate arguments ensuing.

            It would be easy, today, to assume that this defense of teachers has always been a major argument in educational reform, but in fact it does not appear in any of the sources above.  I believe that we can locate the reason for this in the perceived loyalties of the schools' critics.  With the exception of Holt, all of the consensual educators were themselves teachers, and were, moreover, deeply allied to a culture of academics, even if they were trying to revolutionize it.  Paradoxically, a figure like Illich who manifestly wished to eliminate the teaching profession was revered by countless teachers, and understood as being fundamentally sympathetic to what they were doing.  The voucher advocates in the 1990s did not demonstrate such loyalties, and were perceived as mounting an attack on teachers' jobs motivated not by educational goals, but economic ones.

            Finally, a number of criticisms of unschooling have appeared that could not easily have existed in the 1970s for want of experience.  These include the logistical difficulties of resource provision and transportation for a diffuse, rural studium generale; the use of  de-institutionalization to censor topics such as evolution and sexual education; and the possibility of wasted student efforts due to poor overviews of available resources or schools of thought.  Again, there are adult discomforts with unschoolers themselves: the breakdown of age barriers in interaction, especially with teenagers; and the tendency for unschoolers to have interests, vocabularies, and affective cues that are unexpected on the basis of their age.  With very slight exceptions, there is no hint of these concerns in the literature above[93].




            It is not my intention in this article to provide or even reference theoretical responses to the theoretical criticisms above.  Nor can I do justice to the complexities and problems of the empirical evidence that might confirm or refute these criticisms in this paper.  As Punch has commented, it is difficulty to come by reliable outcome studies of conventional education, and even harder where radical education is concerned{94}[94].  I would, however, like to typify the criticisms, and speak to how they relate to unschooling today, particularly as unschoolers begin to create alternative institutions.

            The most popular criticism of consensual education-heroic exceptionalism-is certainly fallacious at least in its structure.  It is possible that the successes of free schools and unschoolers are solely due to exceptional individuals overcoming an intrinsically bad learning environment.  But in the absence of some actual review of the independent variables, the same argument could equally be applied to schools.  Moreover, it is a suspiciously tactical line of reasoning, since it posits, in effect, that any prominent representative of consensual education is, by definition, heroic and thus irrelevant.

            Moving past this red herring, the core criticisms raised with consensual education have to do with transactions of liberty.  Liberty can be demanded, given, received, and returned-but these things may not necessarily follow on each other.  Society may bestow freedoms on students that they do not step forward to use.  Again, students may roister in the freedom society has given them, and yet feel no obligation to return the favor.

            Transactions of liberty have been dealt with at great length by political philosophers discussing the adult population.  If those discussions have not produced consensus, they have at least produced a number of well-developed positions, liberalism, conservatism, revolutionary Marxism, anarchism, and so forth.  Yet the extension of these positions into the sphere of young people happens uneasily, and re-opens old rifts within each of these groups.

            While many of the critics believe that consensual education is either unworkable or anathema, others make arguments that could be taken as suggestions.  Moreover, if we look at the "special" case of consensual education that does not claim to be a universal or vanguard movement, we can salvage a great many more suggestions. 

What we are left with are, for the most part, comments on the structure of the studium generale.  It is evident that consensual education to date has not simply focused on consent, but has also presented specific scholastic structures, sometimes in sharp opposition to traditional schools, sometimes mirroring them.  Many of the criticisms above speak to concerns about those structures: the scale, governance, financing, metrics, and self-presentation of the institutional resources available to consensual learners.

Some of the specific criticisms above are obsolete, or specious, or else appear to be empirically incorrect.  But to the appreciable degree that consensual education is based on positive and normative claims about the value of liberty, there are many concerns raised here that it must address.  And at some point, it must address these concerns in the rhyme and meter of statistics rather than the free verse of theory. 


Ackermann, Nathan (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 224-249.

Ames, Louise Bates (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 64-83.

Ashton-Warner, Sylvia (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 194-203.

Barrow, Robin. (1978) Radical Education, a critique of freeschooling and deschooling.  John Wiley and Sons.  New York.

Bettelheim, Bruno (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 98-119.

Darling, John (1986) "Child-Centered, Gender-Centered: A Criticism of Progressive Curriculum Theory from Rousseau to Plowden."  Oxford Review of Education, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 31-40.

Fairfield, Roy P. (1973) "Need for a Risk Quotient" In Gartner et al. pp. 118-128.

Firestone, William A. (1976)  "Ideology and Conflic in Parent-Run Free Schools" Sociology of Education, Vol. 49, No 2, April, pp. 169-175.

Fromm, Erich (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 250-263.

Gartner, Alan; Colin Green; Frank Riessman, editors.  (1973) After Deschooling, What?  Harper and Row, New York.

Gintis (1973) "Toward a Political Economy of Education: A Radical Critique of Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society."  In Gartner et al. pp. 29-76..

Goodman, Paul (1962) Compulsory Mis-Education, Vintage, New York

Goodman, Paul (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 204-223.

Greene, Maxine (1973) "And it Still is News"  In Gartner et al., pp. 129-136.

Greer, Colin (1973) "All Schooled Up" In Gartner et al. pp. 77-84.

Gross, Ronald (1973) "After Deschooling, Free Learning" In Gartner et al., pp. 137-160.

Hart, Harold, editor(?) (1970) Summerhill, For and Against, Hart, New York

Hechinger, Fred (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 34-47.

Hurn, Christopher J. (1978) The Limits and Possibilities of Schooling; An introduction to the sociology of education.  Allyn & Bacon, Boston.

Illich, Ivan (1971) Deschooling Society, Harper & Row, New York.

Jerome, Judson (1973) "After Illich, What?"  In Gartner et al., pp. 104-111

Keesbury, Forrest E.  (1981)  "Radical Education: What Went Wrong?"  Peabody Journal of Education, Vol 58. No 4.  July, pp. 213-217.

Kirkendall, Lester A. (1971) [Untitled Review] The Family Coordinator, Vol. 20, No. 4, October, pp. 418-419

Kozol, Jonathan (1972) Free Schools, Houghton Mifflin, Boston

Leiner, Marvin (1975) [Untitled review] The Hispanic American Historical Review, Vol. 55, No. 2, May, pp. 379-381.

LeShan, Eda (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 120-139.

Lichtenstein, Peter M.  (1985) "Radical Liberalism and Radical Education: A synthesis of Illich, Freire, and Dewey."  American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Vol. 44, No. 1, January, pp. 39-53.

Lister, Ian (1979) [Untitled Review] British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3, October, pp. 259-261.

Lister, Ian (1989) "Review: Education and Schooling in Post-Industrial Society," British Journal of Sociology of Education, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 501-506

Ministry of Education (1949) Report by His Majesty's Inspectors on the Summerhill School, Leiston, Suffolk East, Inspected on 20th and 21st June, 1949.  In Neill, pp. 75-85.

Montagu, Ashley (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 48-63.

National Center for Education Statistics (2003) Homeschooling in the United States.  Department of Education.  NCES 2006-042

Neill, A.S. (1960) Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing.  Hart, New York.

Papanek , Ernst (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 156-173.

Pearl, Arthur (1973) "The Case for Schooling America" In Gartner et al. pp. 112-117.

Pitts, James P.  (1972) [Untitled review] Journal of Black Studies, Vol 3, No. 1, September, pp. 111-116.

Postman, Neil (1973)  "My Ivan Illich Problem."  In Gartner et al., pp. 137-147.

Punch, Maurice (1974a) "The Sociology of the Anti-Institution" The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 25 no. 3, September, pp. 312-325.

Punch, Maurice (1974b) "Some Problems of Research and Evaluation in Alternative Education"  Paedagogica Europaea, Vol 9. No. 2, pp. 101-118

Rafferty, Max (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 10-25.

Rosen, Sumner.  (1973) "Taking Illich Seriously" In Gartner et al. pp. 85-103.

Rossman, Michael (1970) [Untitled] In Hart, pp. 140-155.

Waks, Leonard J. (1976) "On the Political Conception of Free Education," Curriculum Inquiry, Vol. 6 No. 1, Autumn, pp. 73-82

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[1] Summerhill was not the first such free school, but it was by a wide margin the most famous, and Neill's reluctance to speak about his own influences has helped position him in the role of inventor for many readers.

[2] Kozol (1972)

[3] Illich (1971), and see discussion in Greer (1973)

[4] See Waks (1976) for a discussion of this definitional problem.

[5] Lichtenstein (1985)

[6] The key texts in question are Neill, (1960), Goodman (1962), and Illich (1971).

[7] Keesbury (1981)

[8] NCES (2003).  The NCES surveys have not asked about unschooling directly; nor have comparable surveys from the Homeschool Legal Defense Association.  To do so in fact is difficult, since there is a paradoxical emic / etic distinction in play: many (etically defined) unschoolers use the term "unschooling" as a kind of idealized asymptote, and do not use it to describe themselves.  In all events, this back-of-the-envelope calculation stems from the relatively well-grounded assumption that no families who list religion as a reason for homeschooling are "unschooling."  In the other direction, the three examples of "other reasons" cited as a primary reason to homeschool in the NCES survey are all unschool-related.  Cutting that figure (8.8%) in half might give us a ballpark estimate of the minimum.

[9] Waks (1976)

[10] Rafferty (1970), Hechinger (1970)

[11] Punch (1974a), Kirkendall (1971), Hurn (1978) p. 237, and see Wober (1974) on Illich as a prophet figure, LeShan (1970), Bettelheim (1970) and Hechinger (1970) on Neill as a saint-hero.

[12] Hurn (1978), p. 236, and Kozol (1972)

[13] Fairfield (1973)

[14] Rafferty (1970), Ames (1970), Barrow (1978) on Goodman

[15] Rosen (1973), especially, discusses the way these revolutionary claims raise the stakes of the argument.

[16] Greer (1973), takes Illich to task for the incompleteness of his attack on the state

[17] Lichtenstein (1985), and especially Gintis (1973).  Hurn (1978), pp. 258-259  argues that both the radicals and the orthodoxy assumed too great a convergence between the agenda of the capitalist state and the practice of schools.

[18] Wober (1974), Firestone (1976), Postman (1973),Pearl (1973)

[19] Postman (1973), Hurn (1978) p.9 , Hechinger (1970), Wober (1974) especially in Africa.

[20] Jerome (1973), Pearl (1973), Greene (1973), Leiner (1975), Rosen (1973).

[21] Leiner (1975), Gintis (1973), Rosen (1973) echoes this and also claims that industrial capitalism in the United States arose prior to schooling.

[22] Rossman (1970), LeShan (1970)

[23] Goodman (1970), 28 pp. 11-12 etc.  Similar comments in Greene (1973) and Greer (1973)

[24] Goodman (1970)

[25] Ackermann (1970), LeShan (1970), Goodman (1970), Hechinger (1970), Punch (1974a)

[26] Papanek (1970), Rafferty (1970), Hurn (1978)

[27] Jerome (1973), Fairfield (1973), Rossman (1970), Gintis (1973)

[28] Gintis (1973), Kozol (1972) pp. 10-12 and see a similar comment in Fairfield (1973).

[29] Kozol (1972) pp. 10-11.

[30] Barrow (1978) p. 113, Kozol (1972) pp. 38-39

[31] Pearl (1973)

[32] Barrow (1978), p.99

[33] Postman (1973)

[34] Jerome (1973), Pitts (1972), Barrow (1978) p. 106-107

[35] Kozol (1972), pp. 10-11, and see Barrow (1978), p. 102.  Hechinger (1970) agrees that free schools could not exist at a scale beyond the local.

[36] Pitts (1972), also Wober (1974) and Rosen (1973) in some degree

[37] Barrow (1978) p.103, Fairfield (1973), Wober (1974), Rafferty (1970), 32.

[38] Rafferty (1970)

[39] Firestone (1976),30

[40] Hurn (1978) p.235, Barrow (1978) p.105, Firestone (1976)

[41] Barrow (1978), p.109

[42] Ames (1970)

[43] LeShan (1970), Barrow (1978) pp. 72-73,103, 122-125

[44] Barrow (1978), pp. 108-109

[45] Pearl (1973), Lister (1989).

[46] LeShan (1970)

[47] Rafferty (1970), Ames (1970), and Firestone (1976) all identify literacy as the irreducible skill that prevents consensual education from being feasible.  See also Montagu (1970), Barrow (1978), Ashton-Warner (1970), and Hechinger (1970).

[48] Ashton-Warner (1970)

[49] The phrase is Kozol's.

[50] Rafferty (1970), Kozol (1972), pp. 59-61, Rosen (1973)

[51] Wober (1974), Barrow (1978) p. 125, LeShan (1970).  Fairfield (1973) highlights the dropout rate in the Peace Corps as a comparable example.

[52] Papanek (1970)

[53] 30, Papanek (1970), and a similar comment in Barrow (1978), p. 126

[54] Kozol (1972), LeShan (1970)

[55] Pearl (1973)

[56] Bettelheim (1970), Fairfield (1973).

[57] Ames (1970), Barrow (1978), Papanek (1970), LeShan (1970), Gintis (1973)

[58] LeShan (1970).  Strangely, LeShan, who disdains a naturalist philosophy for children, defends a very similar Maslovian naturalism for adults.

[59] Darling (1986), and see a similar discussion in Barrow (1978) pp. 73-74.

[60] Barrow (1978) p.73-79, Ames (1970), LeShan (1970).  I would like to note Ames' mention of studies by Piaget and the Gesell Institute on children's apprehension of cause and effect-an ancillary point, but any use of empirical data is unusual here.

[61] Rafferty (1970), Ames (1970), LeShan (1970).

[62] Rafferty (1970), LeShan (1970), Papanek (1970).

[63] Rossman (1970)

[64] Ames (1970), Papanek (1970), Ackermann (1970).

[65] Hurn (1978) p. 236.

[66] Papanek (1970)

[67] Bettelheim (1970), Ames (1970), Ackermann (1970), Hurn (1978) p.236

[68] Fromm (1970), Firestone (1976), Bettelheim (1970), Hechinger (1970).

[69] Rafferty (1970)

[70] Fairfield (1973), Rafferty (1970), Ames (1970), Bettelheim (1970)

[71] Rafferty (1970), Ames (1970), Punch (1974a).

[72] Kozol (1972), p.33

[73] Barrow (1978), p.112,115

[74] Montagu (1970), Papanek (1970)

[75] Barrow (1978) p. 112, 115

[76] LeShan (1970), Ministry of Education (1949), Ackermann (1970)

[77] Ackermann (1970)

[78] Kozol (1972) p. 58, LeShan (1970), Ministry of Education (1949)

[79] Ackermann (1970), although Lister (1989) is also doubtful of parental teaching abilities.

[80] Kozol (1972), Goodman (1970), p.33, Hechinger (1970)

[81] Barrow (1978) pp. 116-119, Punch (1974a)

[82] Ashton-Warner (1970)

[83] Wober (1974)

[84] Kozol (1972), pp. 38-39, 59-61

[85] Barrow (1978), p. 122-125

[86] Firestone (1976), Goodman (1970), Ministry of Education (1949), Ames (1970)

[87] Firestone (1976), see also Ministry of Education (1949) in this last regard

[88] Kozol (1972) pp. 21-22

[89] Postman (1973), Pearl (1973), Wober (1974).

[90] Barrow (1978) p. 107-108.

[91] Greene (1973), Rafferty (1970)

[92] Ackermann (1970) and Ames (1970), respectively.

[93] Lister (1989) raises a concern around "forbidden knowledge," but he is writing much more recently than any other author here.

[94] Punch (1974b).


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