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

July 19, 1987|ALLAN PARACHINI | Times Staff Writer

POINT ARENA, Calif. — 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."

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