THE RADICAL SCHOOL CRITIQUE IN ITS SOCIAL CONTEXT: A STUDY OF SELECTED RADICAL WRITERS

WILLIAM EUGENE SHEERIN, Fordham University

Abstract

This study focused on the works of five writers who advanced a radical critique of education, and of American public schools in particular, during a period which lasted from the late 1950's into the mid-1970's. The five critics selected for study were Paul Goodman, Edgar Friedenberg, John Holt, Herbert Kohl, and Jonathan Kozol.^ Major writings or each of the five were analyzed so as to identify key points of agreement and disagreement, and to determine the fundamental import of the critique as a school of social, philosophical, and educational thought. Attention was given to the roots and antecedents of the critique, to the assumptions which undergirded it, and to its implications for educational theory and practice.^ As a body of thought, the radical school critique evidenced a considerable commonality of interpretation and opinion. The critique emerged not simply as a rejection of contemporary educational arrangements as sterile and oppressive, but--more fundamentally-as part of a wide-ranging repudiation of capitalist institutions and values in general, and of the American social order in particular.^ Like many of the social critics of the 1950's, the radical school critics decried what they saw as the increasingly vapid, materialistic, and conformist quality of American life, while, like the New Left activists of the 1960's and early 1970's, the radical school critics saw continuing racism, war, and poverty as indications of serious deficiencies in the national character.^ From a philosophical standpoint, the critique embraced an eclectic blend of perspectives from earlier thinkers ranging back to Rousseau, Locke, Plato, and Aristotle, though the critics often failed to cite philosophical sources. To a great extent the critics shared Rousseauan notions that society corrupts the fundamental goodness of man, and the traditional education destroys rather than builds upon the natural curiosity and interests of the learner. Like the American pragmatist philosophers, and like John Dewey especially, the critics saw truth as more a process than a product, and education as a progressive reconstruction of experience merging individual growth and social betterment. With the existentialists, the radical school critics shared the conviction that man must take heroic action in an uncertain world, that he must resist the growth of an ever more intrusive order, and that honesty and authenticity in such a struggle are more important than achieving final victory--though the critics stopped short of accepting the existentiallist world-view of ultimate futility and absurdity.^ The educational ideas of the radical school critics reflected ideas advanced earlier, especially by the proponents of progressive education during the first half of this century. The radical critics' emphasis on addressing the interests and needs of the child, on eliminating coercion and competition, on stressing social competency, on confronting real life problems in the classroom, on making the curriculum more flexible, and on using the school as a tool of progressive social reform--all echoed themes introduced by the progressives decades earlier. In its weaknesses and its disputes, as well, the radical critique mirrored the progressives' difficulties in reconciling individual and societal needs, in balancing instruction in basic skills with pursuits of individual interests, and, especially in developing a mass base of public support which could sustain them through times of prolonged social and political adversity.^ While the radical school critique succeeded in focusing public attention on certain political and pedagogical issues regarding education, in the final analysis, it failed to create a broad-based constituency for the radical vision as a whole, and--like the New Left and like the progressive education movement of earlier years--the critique ultimately faded as an active presence on the American scene. ^

Subject Area

Curriculum development

Recommended Citation

SHEERIN, WILLIAM EUGENE, "THE RADICAL SCHOOL CRITIQUE IN ITS SOCIAL CONTEXT: A STUDY OF SELECTED RADICAL WRITERS" (1981). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8109070.
https://fordham.bepress.com/dissertations/AAI8109070

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