Tom MacWright

I read Free at Last by Daniel Greenberg on


I have mixed feelings about this one.

I enjoyed the experience of school and had a relatively traditional education. Good public schools with a few years of Catholic middle school thrown in. Never felt like I learned well in lectures, and never felt comfortable with the dynamic of testing. But I appreciated the time to focus on learning and getting to know people and grow as a person, without all the distractions of jobs and other responsibilities. And I appreciate education’s role in society, as a common experience and a potential class equalizer.

Free at Last is about a “free school,” in which students and teachers are unscheduled, ungraded, and free to explore their interests. This book was written by one of the founders of the school and is so hyperbolically positive on the school that it can only be read as a sort of advertisement for the system. In every way, the school is either excelling, or overcoming difficulties. The book is filled with short stories that mostly serve as parables to demonstrate how well the school’s system works. The school really does seem promising, but I wish there was another book I could read that was not so intertwined with the school’s success: I just can’t really trust this one.

That, and while this book repeatedly claims that the school is non-political, there obviously are politics here. In particular, it’s all an expression of a New England brand of libertarianism individualism that aligns with Emerson’s Self-Reliance. The school is all about freedom in the libertarian sense: as long as two people agree without anyone being forced to do anything, it’s all good. The school grows organizing bodies, like a Judicial System, but only after trying a fully flat organization. Its student groups are called Corporations.

Like many high schoolers, I loved Thoreau and Emerson. Their rugged independence felt spectacular and empowering. But two decades later, their privileged anarchism looks less and less revolutionary or even meaningful. I’ve grown skeptical of the socioeconomically fortunate’s attitudes about freedom: the freedom to do business, or skip class, or walk naked in San Francisco, to send each other Bitcoin without getting taxed or identified. I guess those are freedoms… luxury freedoms, ones that I just can’t seem to prioritize that highly. Speaking of which, in a weird few paragraphs, the author discusses how the 60s were a time of unspecified “controversy” in schooling that led people to seek a school like Sudbury, but those people were disappointed that the school wasn’t politically-active enough. I’m guessing that this is referring to school integration?

Anyway, I don’t know. There are some cool ideas in here, and it sounds like a lot of students legitimately have a good education and experience at this school and schools like it. The political undercurrents felt under-discussed to me, as they often do with this flavor of politics which masquerades as a lack of politics. I’m interested in the elements of this approach being tried in the rest of education, but less interested in the explicit anti-institutionalism discussed, and sort of disappointed by the lack of historical and cultural context around the school’s approach to education and governance. Maybe the school just made a better laboratory for ideas about education than it did an example for a widely-scalable replacement for modern education.


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    • Publisher: Self-published