‘Free School’ Pioneer Awaits New Revolution : Herbert Kohl, Educator-in-Exile, Predicts a Swing Away From ‘Back to Basics’ Movement

Times Staff Writer

When Herbert Kohl wrote “36 Children,” a book that helped shape the alternative education movement of the 1960s, he was a young teacher struggling with fifth-graders in the heart of Harlem.

It was a heady time. Kohl and a few other philosophers proposed a massive liberalization of the public education system. “Free” schools and “open” classrooms--part of a revolution in instruction that gave even first-graders a say in how they should be taught--soon followed.

Kohl, in fact, coined the term open classroom in a book by that name in which he described his prototype for a radically altered public school system. It included curriculum reform, even advocacy of the elimination of curricula, per se. There was also the new math and the new science and the demise or drastic curtailment of such standard rites of passage as memorizing multiplication tables and learning rules of grammar.

New Methods


In their place, Kohl called for teaching techniques that pertained to children’s everyday lives. For example, fractions might be taught as they related to cooking. Standard reading texts would be replaced by books chosen by the children themselves. Grammar would not be taught as a separate subject but would be absorbed almost intuitively by pupils.

By late 1967, even Time magazine had taken note, reporting with some alarm that a sort of left-wing mafia--including Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, Robert Coles, John Holt and Edgar Friedenberg--rampaged in public education. When he saw the article, Kohl recalls, the first thing he did was call the others and suggest they get acquainted.

But that, as they say, was then; this is now.

American schooling today is largely dominated by the terms back to basics and the excellence movement whose proponents range from U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett to California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig.


Alternative education has been in unrelenting retreat for a decade. For all of the publicity that greeted it in the ‘60s and ‘70s, many contemporary educators now say that its schools produced an education product little different from their conventional counterparts.

To find Kohl today, a visitor slowly drives through this little coastal village three hours north of San Francisco, turns onto a back-country road and looks for a white post at the end of a rocky driveway leading into a redwood and pine forest.

Kohl has been here eight or nine years--he’s lost track, just as he has of the number of books he’s written, which now total, he says, between 15 and 20.

Figuratively, Kohl sees himself as akin to Fidel Castro in the years in which the future Cuban ruler holed up in the Sierra Maestra mountains of Oriente Province, waiting for the right time to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista. And as Castro eventually triumphed, Kohl insists that the time for renewal of his revolution may soon be at hand. He predicts a backlash against the conservative education trends of the last decade and a longing for the humanist philosophy that drove the open education revolution of the ‘60s.


Still Fighting

In the meantime, Kohl has neither lost his fire nor tempered his ideology. In recent months he has:

- Contended that New Hampshire schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe died aboard the space shuttle Challenger taking “the ultimate field trip,” on which she “died pointlessly in a $1.2-billion machine.” He said McAuliffe was the victim of misdirected “hype” by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that seeks to teach “a whole generation of kids and young people in the U.S. to believe it’s OK to have poverty on Earth while you go and colonize the Moon and the stars.”

- Written a scathing review in the Nation of “First Lessons,” a booklet by Education Secretary Bennett that finds American elementary education to be “in pretty good shape.” Kohl said he detects in Bennett’s reasoning hidden ideological agendas intended to make children’s values and outlook conform to conservative politics. It’s true, he concedes, that one person’s social science is another’s propaganda.


- Taken on Bennett and Honig for playing roles--albeit different ones--in forcing students whose behavior or values may be eccentric by conventional “standards” out of the schools. This drift, Kohl has suggested in his own writing and in interviews, may not be unrelated to recent problems with rising youth suicide rates.

“Bennett doesn’t say (that you should) teach children to think and challenge,” Kohl said. “He wants to produce creative scientists and rigid moralists. You can’t do it. Honig falls a little bit for that line, but he’s a much more literate person. I’ve always been pretty much of a maverick.”

Late on a recent afternoon, Kohl has returned home from teaching 25 or so children at the Acorn School, an alternative program operated here by a parent-run collective for the Arena Union Elementary School District. It’s a pleasant little school where the children all call Kohl “Herb.” He refers to the classroom as “my palette” and says teaching is a form of performance art.

He still faithfully applies the principles he developed.


The movement, he says, took the philosophical position that the traditional authoritarian structure of schools, with students the lowest class, was counterproductive. Moreover, what was taught should be made directly relevant to students’ everyday lives. There would be discipline, but it would be developed from within a group of children, not imposed.

“In an authoritarian classroom, annoying behavior is legislated out of existence,” Kohl wrote in “The Open Classroom.” “In an open situation, the teacher tries to express what he feels and to deal with each situation as a communal problem. It is important not to equate an open classroom with a ‘permissive’ environment.”

Kohl sits at an old table in his kitchen--a room sheathed in rough redwood planks with a large picture window over the stove that looks out on the forest. He takes a sip of white wine. “I am, by the way,” he says, “unambiguously left wing.”

In the 50 years since he was born in New York City, Kohl has taught and done community organizing on educational issues in New York City, and moved to Berkeley for a brief stint on the UC faculty and a longer period as proprietor of an open high school there. Married to his wife and sometime co-author, Judy, for 25 years, Kohl has raised three children--two are in high school and one in college.


Kohl’s life, as he recounts it, is an unremitting sequence of intensity and burnout: the pressures of a controversy over control of a community school in New York followed by a year’s leave to recharge his batteries in Europe. Then Berkeley, followed by a year off in London to recover from the emotional toll of Berkeley politics.

He moved here in the late 1970s, partly just to get away but also because he has a sense that his day may yet come again, and that a backwater in Mendocino County may be a better staging area than some urban educational combat zone.

He is still very much a radical. Of grammar, for instance, he says: “Teaching it is not necessary. What’s more important, literacy, should come from spoken language. You should teach people to speak well and to write. In case you want to be a linguist, it’s OK to teach grammar, or if a person makes egregious mistakes. But in a formal way, it’s a waste of time.”

Basic rote skills like memorized multiplication and division may be irrelevant, Kohl still insists, because “most mathematicians use a pocket calculator.”


‘Simple, Automatic Stuff’

In all, he says, “what’s called basic skills is a bunch of very simple, automatic stuff that fills up too much time and plays no role in kids’ lives except in the context of school.”

Some people contend that the openness in education advocated by Kohl and his kindred spirits in the ‘60s and ‘70s is responsible for generally dreary levels of achievement in reading, writing and mathematics among today’s young people. To Kohl, there is an irony in that attack. The revolution, he says, was thwarted, blunted and derailed in its time and is now blamed for a failure it didn’t cause.

“The open education movement,” Kohl observed, “never affected more than 5% or 6% of the system. When people say (the perceived failure of education to teach fundamental skills) is the fault of openness and progressiveness, the point is it can’t be. If they had ever given us a chance to make massive and fundamental change, I would accept the blame if we had failed. But we never had the chance.”


Kohl may be ensconced in the redwoods of Mendocino County but within education and its political power structure, he still excites controversy.

Through a spokesman, Education Secretary Bennett refused to discuss Kohl, saying:

“If he (Kohl) ever was influential, it would be a decade or more ago, when goofiness in education was much more in vogue. He’s pretty much of a flake.”

But Chester Finn, Bennett’s assistant secretary for research and development--and the person generally acknowledged as the principal author of Bennett’s elementary education white paper--was more expansive.


“Well, there are not a lot of left-wingers who are visible in the field of education and he (Kohl) is certainly one of the few,” Finn said in a telephone interview from Washington. “He’s got a few good ideas. An equally satisfactory term would be: ‘far out.’ ”

Like some other observers, Finn finds it ironic that there are common elements in the ideological extremes represented by Bennett and Kohl. For instance, both Kohl and Finn blame intransigence and refusal to change within the education system for an inability for improve the schools.

“If you had to generalize about (the education radicals of the 1960s), they all said there was something rotten about American education,” Finn said. “I think that was true. But I’m not sure any of them had the right prescription.

“Now, in retrospect, I also think that’s when American education started to go to hell in a hand basket. At the time, it all seemed quite exciting, however. I guess I think his diagnosis and prescription are almost completely wrongheaded. I think they (children) need more of what he wants them to have less of, and I guess that’s probably true of the secretary.”


It’s clear there’s absolutely no common ground between Kohl and the current U.S. Department of Education. With California Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, there is something closer to, at least, respect. Honig says he and Kohl don’t diverge in basic philosophy much, even though their differences in application and approach are wide.

Ethical Standards

“This whole idea of giving huge choices to kids without the structure is really disconcerting,” Honig said in a telephone interview from Sacramento. “The excellence movement is a response to that. I think the school does have certain moral and ethical responsibilities in the sense that it sets standards for things--smoking, or grades or overall expectations.

“If you allow kids to smoke in school and not do the work, are you really helping them in their lives? I think that’s the philosophy that killed us in the ‘60s. You need them to be part of the social whole.” Honig thinks the ‘60s “education mafia” ignored what Honig perceives as a fundamental reality: Children want structure and a lot of the other things Kohl has condemned.


Honig also believes schools should act as forums in which American ideals are championed--a concept Kohl equates with brainwashing. Kohl argues that stacking curricula to emphasize the basic correctness of American ideals sets the stage for youngsters to conclude they are being given only slanted information.

Honig says he and Bennett see it a lot differently. “I think kids should hear about democracy. That’s not oppressive; that’s just education. You teach them the political and cultural wisdom that helps them make choices. Kids should encounter (that).”

And of Kohl’s approach in general, Honig said, “I think 95% of the parents in the population are hostile to it. We had a great test of it: the 1960s. I don’t think we were very happy with what happened.”

Port Arena’s Acorn School is the laboratory Herbert Kohl uses these days. It’s a tiny little clapboard structure on the grounds of the one conventional elementary school in the Arena Unified Elementary School District. The interior has been chopped up into a number of tiny rooms and one larger one where a group of about 30 5- to 10-year-olds gathers, without conventional grade divisions, for collective instruction.


In order to fulfill district requirements, students at Acorn get technical grades at the end of the year and take standardized tests required by the State of California. But generally speaking, Kohl said, he evaluates students’ progress more subjectively--in collaboration with the students themselves and their families.

At or Above Grade Levels

To prove the point that his methods are competitive in the area of basic skills, Kohl called children from the schoolyard--some selected at random by a visiting reporter--and commanded them to find a book and read. One by one, they did so, picking works of literature at or above their grade levels. Kohl does not use traditional basic readers, a practice increasingly common in mainstream education as well.

Kohl explains that one of his basic premises is that, in the present educational system, there is little time left for children to act like children. “We want them to be mechanical adults right away,” he said. “I resent a lot of things that pass for behavioral or learning objectives.


“ ‘Time on task’ is a term they (educators) use a lot right now. These kids are on task right now . They’re playing. They’re on task for being kids. They’re supposed to be children, not miniature adults.”

In the kitchen the night before, Kohl had been thinking about how to know when children have achieved skill levels adequate for what they would do with the rest of their lives.

“I wouldn’t even call what is happening today a preoccupation with test scores. I would say it is an obsession,” Kohl said. “I’m not against standards. I just think there are many ways to achieve them. When you set them as rigidly as people like Bennett and Honig are trying to set them, you lock the teacher into achieving the standards (for the test) rather than teaching so the kids can come up to the standards.”

He turned to a bookshelf and pulled out two hilariously diverse works: an obscure science tome called “Human Diversity” and “Wildwater--the Sierra Club Guide to Kayaking and Whitewater Boating.” “Human Diversity,” he suggested, should be something 12th-graders can read and comprehend. “Wildwater” would be a good test for fifth-graders. “My standard,” he said of the fifth-grade test, “would be that you can read this and not drown.”


It is the kind of remark that makes Bennett and Finn call Kohl flaky, which in turn brings a smile to Kohl’s lips. “I am flaky, by the way . . . really much more so than they think,” he said. “Ten years ago, we were called romantics. Our hearts were in the right place and we were most likely wonderful with children, but romantic to believe that fundamental change can take place.

“I think they (Bennett and Finn) are hard-edged, hard-nosed and dangerous. To them, it’s a matter of business: ‘How do we put our dollars in and get the maximum number of kids out?’ I wonder about all the kids who don’t come out and the kids who do in terms of how they come out.”

Rita Walters, president of the Los Angeles Board of Education, laughs with a little embarrassment and concedes she has momentarily confused Herbert Kohl and Jonathan Kozol, whose philosophies are widely confused.

“Kohl took the humanist philosophy and the child-centered approach,” Walters said. “I was very impressed.”


To Walters, Kohl is right when he argues that change may be in the air in education, that a renewed debate may be about to start. “Maybe it’s for the wrong reasons, the issue of making the U.S. more competitive,” Walters said, “but education once again is coming to the forefront of the public policy debate. The question I see is whether we get to where we want through a more rigid approach or through the more humanistic approach. I hope we can do it Kohl’s way. It would take nothing short of a revolution.”

Although Kohl’s philosophies still command respect in diverse quarters, some of the parents of his former students express ambivalence about the educational experiment in which they participated. John Fitzgibbons, an art criticism instructor at Cal State Sacramento, put a son and daughter through Other Ways, Kohl’s Berkeley alternative high school. “Herb,” he said, “is a first-rate teacher who overwhelms with love, attention and challenge.” But in the end, Fitzgibbons said, it was not clear whether Other Ways’ education product differed significantly from more rigid schools.

‘New Way of Coping’

“We all kind of gave up on the whole adventure after a few years,” Fitzgibbons said. “But I have no disillusionment because what Kohl was trying to do was to teach teachers a whole new way of coping.”


When Kim Jamieson took over as superintendent of the Arena Unified Elementary School District, he came with a fascination for working with Kohl because Jamieson had laced his own doctoral program with heavy amounts of Kohl’s philosophy. Recently, the district got a new round of standardized test scores, showing that the kids at the Acorn School achieve about on a par with those at the more structured, conventional school nearby. But that probably means nothing, Jamieson said.

“It’s difficult to say what Herb’s impact has been here,” Jamieson said. “If you looked at some of the best alternative programs compared with traditional programs, you might come out with the balance tipped to the alternatives.”

But Jamieson is clearly aware of a longstanding question about alternative education: whether it in effect skims cream from the top of the milk in terms of available students, involving brighter kids whose parents are more apt to take a direct, keen interest in their schooling--factors greatly significant in any school, traditional or radical.

The dilemma of public schools in general, Jamieson said, is that they have no alternative “but to take the wheat with the chaff.”


Still, Jamieson said, he remains as intrigued by Kohl as he was earlier in his career. “I was a would-be radical teacher when I got out of college in 1969,” Jamieson said. “I read ’36 Children’ and many of Herb’s books. He can be contentious and difficult at times, but I knew his heart is always in the right place.”