Libertarian Liberals: When the Left Was (Sometimes) Right

Article excerpt

The revolution--the one foretold in so many platforms, political speeches, and books of the 1960s and early 1970s--didn't really happen. Of course things changed, but not exactly as promised. Though several important social and intellectual trends can be traced to this period, the era still produced more talk than action. A key example was the birth, among some members of the New Left, of a sometimes promising antibureaucratic education movement.

No radical group was complete without an education arm in those days. The Black Panthers set up weekend classrooms to deprogram children of the racism they imbibed from the public schools during the week, while Bill Ayers, a cofounder of the Weather Underground, worked to set up "alternative schools." The campaign to take on The System and its schools also enjoyed the services of a handful of intellectual spokesmen whose written works outline a case against education bureaucracy that remains brilliant in many small ways, if repulsive in several big ones.

Drawing on earlier criticism of the organization society and its alienating effects, social critic Paul Goodman, already famous for his subversive Growing Up Absurd (1960), condemned the school system in toto with a slim volume called Compulsory Mis-education and the Community of Scholars (1962). Meanwhile, the rebel Catholic priest Ivan Illich took up the cause of Puerto Rican poor people on his way to writing his education manifesto, Deschooling Society (1971). Illich would later propose a constitutional amendment summing up his iconoclastic critique of institutional education: "The State shall make no law regarding the establishment of education." But Illich represented the beginning of the end of the Left's interest in a laissez-faire approach to education.

History has not been kind to Illich or Goodman. Diane Ravitch dismissed their work in her history of education reform, The Troubled Crusade, as a literary sensation. And the Left hasn't exactly kept the flame burning. Although included in Richard Posner's recent list of six hundred prominent public intellectuals, Illich has lost almost all of the stature that once led the New York Review of Books, and even some mainstream publications like the Saturday Review, to treat him as a modern-day oracle. In 1989 literary essayist Anatole Broyard, a one-time booster, wrote in the New York Times that he'd purged his library of Illich's works. Goodman is best remembered perhaps as an early example of the Left's continuing problem with anti-Americanism, as the progressive thinker Richard Rorty portrayed him in Achieving Our Country (1999).

Yet many of Illich's and Goodman's arguments foreshadowed criticism later taken up by school choice advocates on the Right, where until 1996 the Republican party platform still called for abolishing the Department of Education. And today, both the Left and the Right harbor pockets of antibureaucratic resistance and support for arrangements that aspire to take power away from the state, or what the New Left used to call The System.

A Roman-Collar Rebel

According to the antibureaucratic Left, there was little wrong with American society that wasn't the fault of The System. Illich's Deschooling Society put a slightly different twist on this argument, alleging that there was almost nothing wrong with The System that wasn't the fault of the schools. One critic commented that he wasn't against schools, "but once a certain threshold of institutionalization is reached, schools make people more stupid." That threshold, for Illich, came soon.

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A Viennese-born Catholic priest and theologian, Illich had some first-hand experience with bureaucracies. In fact, he was being groomed for service in one of the world's oldest, headquartered in the Vatican, when he was transferred to a Hispanic parish in New York City in 1952 for what was supposed to be a training exercise on the way to big things in the church hierarchy. …