• U.S.

Education: Not So Loudmouthed and Foolish

3 minute read

Herbert Kohl lives in Berkeley, Calif. He wears blue jeans and T shirts decorated with Indian warriors, and he sports bushy, unkempt hair. When he talks excitedly about the plight of American education—which is often—Kohl paces and gestures intently, scattering books, pens and manuscripts in his path.

“People think that there was such a thing as the ‘good old days’ in public education in America,” he says. “Well, I quote ‘Moms’ Mabley [the late comedienne]: ‘People talk about the good old days. I was there; where was they?’ ” Kohl, 39, looks and sounds like a throwback to the radical ’60s. He is. Back when Berkeley was big and counterculture was a catchword, Socialist Kohl emerged as a militant young spokesman for so-called “alternative” education. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Harvard in philosophy and mathematics, Kohl taught sixth grade for two years in a Harlem school. He then published 36 Children (1968), both a compendium of creative writing from his supposedly unteachable students and an attack on the conventionally strict, structured classroom. Over the next few years, he helped pioneer the “open classroom” concept, in which students and teachers eschew traditional lessons and form a “community” rather than a class.

Making Things Work. Now, a decade and nine books later, Kohl still believes firmly in alternative education —but with several differences. Says he: “We had rhetoric in the beginning, and sometimes we’d go in and stomp all over people who didn’t seem to agree with us. Now we are not so loudmouthed and foolish as we used to be.” Today’s unconventional educators are also “more concrete.” In the old days, the radical alternative movement was so busy fighting traditional educators that it never devised its own basic teaching strategies. Says Kohl: “I am interested in the specifics of making things work.”

Kohl, who has three children of his own, now spends much of his time at the Center for Open Learning and Teaching in a Berkeley storefront, where he helps teachers design their own open-class curricula. The center has provided 43 teachers with elementary-school credentials. Kohl has also churned out yet another how-to manual. Titled On Teaching, it counsels teachers in the art of subverting traditional schools by creating open minischools—composed of several experimental classrooms—in their midst.

Despite his abundant enthusiasm, Kohl acknowledges that alternative schools are no longer seen as the great salvation of education. “Over the past two or three years, a lot of the free-schoolers have been coming back to the school systems,” he says. “They’re tired of the isolation.” In Berkeley, once an avant-garde center boasting a number of experimental schools, the new concepts were swamped in a flood of federal money and attendant bureaucracy. “All of a sudden, everybody was an alternative school,” Kohl ruefully recalls.

Still he can point to some progress, such as a year-old California law that allows any group of 30 or more parents to obtain state funding for an alternative school in their community. Surprisingly, Kohl even welcomes the “back to basics” movement, which has worried parents demanding that their children be taught not experimental courses but basic reading, writing and math. “They’re fed up with what the schools are offering,” he says. “From our view, that’s good for us.” So, too, from his perspective, is the current money crunch, in which schools are “feeling the squeeze from all sides.” Says he: “What’s a better condition for change? As long as you have something to put in when it’s over.”

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