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Paul Goodman (1911–1972)

Social and educational critic Paul Goodman was referred to by his biographer, Taylor Stoehr, as a "prophet." Revered by the youth movement in the 1960s, his ideas on education and youth were extremely appealing to many people on the political left.

Goodman was born in New York, and raised amid the urban, Jewish intellectual community. He graduated from City College of New York in 1931. Goodman earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, but moved back to New York and lived with his wife Sally until his death. His major works on education were Growing Up Absurd, Community of Scholars, and Compulsory Mis-Education, but he also wrote many articles that dealt with de-schooling, alternative education, mini-schools, and free universities.

The publishing of Growing Up Absurd in 1960 brought Goodman to the public as a social/educational critic. The book was rejected seventeen times before a publisher accepted it, after Norman Poderhotz serialized it in the then leftist Commentary. Goodman spent the last twelve years of his life teaching courses at universities in New York, speaking on campuses throughout the country, and as a visiting professor at San Francisco State University and the University of Hawaii. Goodman never held a tenure track appointment. Growing Up Absurd was adopted in education and sociology courses throughout the country. The book was read as a condemnation of the alienation and oppression in American society and schools, and was a forerunner to the educational criticism of John Holt, Herb Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, and Edgar Friedenberg. For sixties activists, as well as liberal educators, the book provided an analysis of the wrongs of American society and education.

Goodman published Compulsory Mis-Education and Community of Scholars as a single volume in 1962. The books were assigned reading in education courses and initiated thoughtful educational criticism. Compulsory Mis-Education became somewhat of a blueprint for de-schoolers as well as for the alternative school movement in the late 1960s and 1970s. Critical of education from kindergarten through the university, the work led seamlessly into Community of Scholars, which emphasized Goodman's endless quest for community while criticizing the status quo. Goodman spent much of his time in his final years bringing his philosophy on education to college campuses. He was actively antiwar, but he warned student activists of the danger in "action for the sake of action." He continued to write, mostly about educational criticism.

Decentralizing Power, Taylor Stoehr's biographical work on Goodman, is a collection of Goodman's writing on social and educational criticism. The general theme of the work is community life. Goodman's initial discussion of the issues and problems of youth analyzes the youth movement–both idealism and alienation–with the latter being predominant. He speaks of power-beating community, coining the phrase "school monks." The theme of community is also prevalent in his important essay on children's rights. Goodman laments the lack of community and gently criticizes both Maria Montessori and A. S. Neill for educational practices that ask children to become adults too quickly.

At the same time, he lauds Neill's school, Summerhill, for delaying socialization and protecting the wildness of childhood. Goodman discusses schools as therapeutic communities, where children can escape from bad homes and bad cities. Goodman also offers a plan to abolish high schools and to replace them with apprenticeships, academies, youth houses, and therapeutic free schools–in fact, it is a deschooling plan that preceded Ivan Illich's book, Deschooling Society.

Although Goodman was philosophical, and asked searching questions about people's relationship with the world, his educational proposals were practical and simple. As a teacher, his classroom was an interactive laboratory. His proposals asked that education allow the same for young children, adolescents, and adults.


GOODMAN, PAUL. 1960. Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth in Organized Society. New York: Vintage.

GOODMAN, PAUL. 1962. Compulsory Mis-Education and the Community of Scholars. New York: Vintage.

STOEHR, TAYLOR. 1994. Decentralizing Power: Paul Goodman's Social Criticism. New York: Black Rose Books.


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