Educational Choice “on the Side of the Child”:
Liberalism and Libertarian Education


June 2006

Over the last few centuries states have taken on increasing responsibility for the education of children. This trend is often characterized as one of making formal education available to more children. The institutionalization of education has other ramifications, however. As states have made schools available to their entire populations, they have also made attendance compulsory, raising a number of questions about the rights and liberties of states, parents, and children as they relate to education.

In this paper, I will begin by exploring the dominant views on educational liberty in contemporary America. I will then explore the libertarian educational philosophies of A.S. Neill and John Holt, first with overviews and then with a more focused investigation of their views on freedom in education. Finally, I will draw upon the writings of Neill and Holt to analyze the concept of compulsory education, illustrating the depth of their critiques of schooling and the extent to which they challenge liberal and conservative ideas about the nature of education. As a historical conclusion, I will briefly summarize the influence of libertarian educational theory in America.

School Choice in America

In contemporary America, the most vocal parties on the so-called “school choice” issue have been adherents of the streams of thought best represented in American politics. Conservatives with a libertarian bent, for example, have argued that parents have the right to choose how to educate their children. The Cato Institute, for instance, has a Center for Education Freedom “founded on the principle that parents are best suited to make important decisions regarding the care and education of their children.” Terming educational choice “the fundamental right of parents,” the Center prescribes capitalist markets as the solution to educational problems, foreseeing “a future when state-run schools give way to a dynamic, independent system of schools competing to meet the needs of American children.”

Religious conservatives have also supported legislation that gives parents more control over where their children are educated. Many have enrolled their children in religious schools or homeschooled them in order to give them a pervasive religious education. Political organizations like the Christian Coalition of America favor government vouchers that pay part or all of private and religious school tuition for families that opt out of the public school system.

American liberals, on the other hand, have tended to support the public school system and the ideal of equal education for all to the exclusion of alternatives. They have generally argued that allocating public funding to private school tuition weakens the public school system. People for the American Way, for instance, states that it “has consistently opposed school vouchers and tuition tax credit programs that divert scarce education funding away from public schools.” Liberals often favor improving public schools, which are available to all Americans, rather than funding alternatives which will only be utilized by some.

Despite their respective adoption in this debate by Americans who call themselves conservatives and liberals, liberty and equality are both ideals of liberalism broadly defined. Debates over American education thus often appear to involve a conflict between two liberal ideals. To frame the debate in these simplistic terms, however, is to adopt a number of prior assumptions. Because educational choice in the United States involves several (sometimes overlapping) parties—not only parents and the state, but students, teachers, administrators, voters, and taxpayers—any educational policy must involve judgments not only about the balance between liberty and equality but about whose liberty and equality are important. (Furthermore, “the state” is itself not monolithic. Federal, state, and local governments all play roles in educational policy and funding, complicating the issue further.) These assumptions can be unearthed and questioned through comparison with rival theories.

Mainstream American political discourse tends to emphasize the rights of parents and the equality of children’s educations. Conservatives argue that parents ought to be choose how to educate their children, not that children ought to shape their own educations. Liberals argue that children should have equal educations, and often emphasize the socializing function of public schooling.

The voice of the libertarian left is less prominent in contemporary America than those of the liberal left and the conservative/libertarian right. In the last century, however, it has been from this political perspective that the educational innovations of the free school and unschooling movements have originated. The most prominent leaders of these movements, A.S. Neill and John Holt, thought and wrote about the same issues of freedom, democracy, and equality now addressed in the school choice debate. In divorcing responsibility for the education of children from the state, Neill and Holt developed complex relationships with the ideal of equality. Each also emphasized the freedom of children, rather than parents, presenting a perspective today’s debates often lack. These educators reached a conclusion previously proposed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: that the best education for a free person is one that integrally involves freedom.

A.S. Neill

In his children’s book The Last Man Alive, the Scottish educator A.S. Neill recounts a story he told to his students in 1938. Its characters are Neill and the children themselves, who are among the few to survive a green cloud that turns people to stone. In his preface, Neill describes his school and his attitude towards authority.

To readers who never heard of Summerhill School, I explain that it is a school where children are free in a self-governing system where the laws are made by general vote. The staff hasn’t, and never has had, any dignity: in real life, as in the story, I am just Neill without the Mister. Fathers reading this book aloud can substitute Daddy for Neill all the way; but only fathers who inspire no fear, fathers who are on equal terms with their children.

Neill was the man who gave the free school movement its canonical expression in his 1960 book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. In Summerhill, Neill describes how he put his philosophy of education, which focused on freedom and happiness, into practice at his school. The book was in fact compiled by its editor, Harold H. Hart, from four of Neill’s earlier books, as well as some new material. The result is considered shallow by some critics. In order to adequately describe “the Summerhill idea” in this paper, I rely not only upon Summerhill but upon Neill’s other related books as well. Summerhill itself represents the later thoughts of a man who had been writing about education for 45 years, and is based largely on his experiences as headmaster of its namesake, which he founded in 1921.

Early Years

Alexander Sutherland Neill was born in 1883 and so was already in his late 70s when Summerhill was published. He was the son of a traditional schoolmaster, and was in fact among his father’s students in primary school. George Neill’s school was a loud and chaotic place, but, as Alexander wrote in his autobiography, “in the main a happy school.” Alexander was not a good student, and was more interested in machinery and invention than in books, priorities he held throughout his life. His transition from unsuccessful student to influential educator had a profound impact on his educational philosophy. In order to shed some light on the younger Neill’s development as an educator, a brief review of his professional life before Summerhill is in order.

Neill’s father—who, as he later wrote, “did not care for me when I was a boy”—made him get a job at 14 rather than going to boarding school as his siblings did. After Neill worked briefly as an office clerk and a draper’s apprentice and studied for the Civil Service exam but was unable to focus, his father made him his apprentice. This was a gesture inspired more by despair at Neill’s failures than by confidence in his teaching ability, and as a student teacher Neill was again a failure: after his four-year apprenticeship he received the second worst score of 104 candidates on a college entry examination for teacher training. Nonetheless, he was able to find work as an assistant teacher, and while teaching met a minister, Aeneas Gunn Gordon, who befriended and tutored him. Gordon kindled in Neill a new interest in academics, and particularly in literature.

Thus inspired, Neill entered Edinburgh University at the age of 24. He edited the university magazine, The Student, and graduated with an M.A. in Honors English. After college Neill worked for a while as an editor, then, when World War I began in 1914, took a job as a schoolmaster in the village of Gretna.

Politics and Educational Theory

Neill began to develop his views on politics and education while at college. He began his written critique of the educational system with editorials in The Student entitled “The Cursed Exam System” and “In Which we Criticise our Professors.” Neill developed socialist political views while at college as well, in part due to the influence of H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Henrik Ibsen. These views took the form of a somewhat cynical utopian socialism: Neill was clearly an anti-capitalist, but found British socialists “bureaucratic” and frequently quoted Ibsen’s anti-democratic maxim that “The Majority never has right on its side.” Among his utopian influences was William Morris’ News from Nowhere.

Once he became a schoolmaster, Neill’s pedagogy quickly became radical as well. It was at Gretna that Neill wrote his first book, A Dominie’s Log. This 1915 book chronicled his attempt to develop an educational philosophy from scratch as he taught, for he believed that “there has been no real authority on education, and I do not know of any book from which I can crib.” Neill quickly established his goal: “I want these boys and girls,” he wrote, “to acquire the habit of looking honestly at life.” Other aspects of his philosophy soon followed. Neill developed some of the educational theories and practices he later implemented at Summerhill during this period; in particular, he began to have class periods during which students could do as they wished, and attempted to abdicate his authority as teacher.

The basic principles of Neill’s thought are manifestly political; his ideals are often simply the politics of the libertarian left applied to children. Neill opposed authority, for instance, and thus the authority of teachers. He opposed oppression, and thus the oppression of schoolchildren. He valued happiness, and thus children’s happiness. He was skeptical of traditional notions of morality, particularly sexual morality, and eventually came to argue that children should not be shackled by them. (Neill was particularly concerned with sexual freedom, and attributed many of society’s flaws to the “masturbation prohibition.” In his foreword to Summerhill, supporter Erich Fromm expressed some “reservations” about Neill’s fixation on sex, writing that “the author is steeped in the assumptions of Freud; and as I see it, he somewhat overestimates the significance of sex, as Freudians tend to do.”)

Neill did not claim that his primary goal was to educate well in an academic sense. Indeed, he opposed the idea that the quality of education should be judged by the academic success of students, writing that “my own criterion of success is the ability to work joyfully and to live positively.” This criterion too fit into Neill’s broader philosophy, for he held that “that the aim of life is to find happiness” and that “education should be a preparation for life.” Neill’s philosophy was thus hedonistic but not shortsighted; he believed that the best preparation for a free and happy adult life was a free and happy education.

Though Neill’s earliest educational thought was highly independent, and though he read little of others’ theories on education until well after his own had cemented, he did give a great deal of credit for his ideas and techniques to one other educator, Homer Lane. (Neill sometimes gave Lane too much credit. For example, Neill attributed the phrase “on the side of the child,” often associated with him, to Lane, but he had himself written that he was “on the side of the bairns” before meeting Lane.) Lane ran The Little Commonwealth, a school for juvenile delinquents that practiced self-government, a concept which Neill adopted for Summerhill. Lane was also a practitioner of Freudian psychoanalysis who introduced Neill to the world of psychology.

As Neill’s interests shifted from politics to psychology, he made an effort to understand the psychology of the children with whom he worked. He concluded that children are born good and corrupted by society, agreeing with both Lane and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who had begun his work on education, Émile, with the statement that “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil.” This marks a sharp break from the view that formal education is necessary for the socialization of children. In its most radical forms, which Rousseau approaches, this view suggests that children should ideally be isolated from the world. Neill took a more moderate view, arguing that children would be more free if protected from adult influence, but that contact with other children was a good thing. His great confidence in the virtue of the free child was reinforced by Lane who, he wrote, “gave delinquent children the freedom to be themselves, and they became good.”

Much of Neill’s work consists of advice on child-rearing for parents, but here I draw primarily on his educational philosophy and his implementation of it as he describes it. (As Neill believed that adults generally corrupt children, his child-rearing advice can be summarized as “leave your children alone.”) Though Neill died in 1973, Summerhill is still running. I nonetheless refer to the operations of the school in the past tense because my source on them are decades old and—even though the school seems to cleave to Neill’s philosophy—policies may have changed.

John Holt

During the 1960s, a number of teachers began writing about educational philosophies that focused on children’s freedom. Among the most original was John Holt, an American teacher who became first an influential critic of American educational institutions and then an advocate of homeschooling. Holt was born in 1923, forty years after Neill. His own education was both elite and traditional: he attended Exeter Academy and an Ivy League university. He held that “a person’s schooling is as much a part of his private business as his politics or religion,” and never identified his undergraduate alma mater. Holt served in a submarine during World War II, then began teaching at elite private schools. With his first book, How Children Fail, he began to build a reputation as a commentator on schooling who cared deeply about children. Holt was known as a practical thinker and school reformer, so he surprised other educators when he began to write more theoretically with Freedom and Beyond in 1972. Holt died in 1985.

Politics and Educational Theory

Holt is sometimes described by more mainstream, institutionalist scholars of education as “a conservative libertarian,” or words to that effect, but this characterization reflects only a narrow understanding of his political interests. Holt described himself as a “decentralist” and said that he “leaned in the direction of anarchism.” His politics were both conservative and libertarian, but not in the common American senses of the words.

Holt was conservative in that he believed that the idea of “progress” was dangerous. He was particularly concerned about the environmental and social effects of economic growth, which he thought “dehumanizes and trivializes people.” Holt was also a libertarian in that he saw a free democratic society without concentrations of power as the solution to America’s problems. His ultimate concern was that capitalism and political centralization were linked and—in the names of “science, bigness, efficiency, growth, progress”—were leading to a more hierarchical society and eventually to fascism. Holt began, but never published, a book entitled Progress: The Road to Fascism, which he said would describe an alternative “society of much smaller scale institutions, smaller scale tools with very drastic limits on the uses of energy and growth.” He saw his educational work as a form of resistance to a centralization of power that threatened both democracy and freedom.

Holt was thus conservative and libertarian in substantial ways, but his opposition to capitalism makes clear that his ideology was not that implied in American politics by the phrase “conservative libertarian.” Furthermore, Holt’s views outside the realm of political economy generally had more in common with the American left than with the right. Holt became a pacifist at the end of World War II after serving as a submarine officer. He then worked as an organizer for the World Federalists—an organization promoting world government—for six years before becoming a teacher in private schools in 1953. Holt’s pacifism was a major force in his life during the Vietnam War, when he didn’t pay taxes and assisted draft resisters. He campaigned for George McGovern’s bid for the presidency in 1972 and wrote a controversial New York Times Magazine essay in 1970 that supported protesters in Berkeley.

Like Neill, Holt was concerned more with the quality of people’s lives than with academic success. In a letter to Susannah Sheffer, who eventually became in a sense his successor as a leader of the unschooling movement, Holt wrote, “A life worth living and work worth doing—that is what I want for children (and all people), not just, or not even, something called ‘a better education.’” Holt was not concerned only about the quality of individual lives, but about community as well. Indeed, his interest in unschooling—the educational freedom of individuals—developed from an interest in deschooling, Ivan Illich’s term for “the disestablishment of the monopoly of school,” or the educational freedom of society as a whole. Holt’s argument for unschooling as a form of resistance to institutionalization in education paralleled Illich’s argument against the placement of educational resources overwhelmingly in the realm of compulsory education.

Though Holt later said that Neill had not influenced his work, one stream of Holt’s thought was directly inspired by Neill and Summerhill. Holt’s writing on the issues raised by Summerhill began with a chapter of the anthology Summerhill: For & Against, compiled by Neill’s American editor Harold H. Hart. It continued in Freedom and Beyond, which he originally considered calling Summerhill and Beyond, and which marked the beginning of his theoretical work.

The Educational Politics of Freedom

Freedom is perhaps the most important conceptual element of both the free school and unschooling movements. These movements define themselves by their opposition to institutionalized schooling, in which they identify the great fault of restricting children. At the same time, they raise questions about the relationship between the freedom of children and the freedom of parents.

A.S. Neill became interested in children’s freedom when he taught at Gretna. “I am against law and discipline,” he wrote. “I am all for freedom of action.” The parallels between Neill’s political and educational philosophies are clear in his ambiguity, for though he was writing about the classroom, Neill could just as well have been writing about the politics of adults. The obvious implication of allowing freedom in schools—and one of the major reasons why adults who favor freedom elsewhere oppose it in schools—is that children might choose not to study. Neill accepted this as an implication, writing that “I force no bairn to learn in my school.” This is a provocative sentence. If children go to school and do not learn, what purpose is the school serving? Is not the entire purpose of school to educate—to teach students?

There are a number of ways to address this question. One is to answer that education is the purpose of schools, but that education—whatever that may be—depends on freedom as a prerequisite and is useless without it. This position comes close to that of Rousseau, but also that of Neill’s friend Bertrand Russell, who founded the progressive Beacon Hill School soon after Neill founded Summerhill. Russell believed that students would learn more if they learned voluntarily, but wrote that “I should see to it that they were bored if they were absent during lesson-time.”

Neill’s answer is both more radical and more interesting. He thought that the value of freedom was greater than that of education, or at least of education defined so narrowly as to include only that which is taught. He didn’t claim that one must sacrifice knowledge for freedom, however; instead he asserted that “if the emotions are free the intellect will look after itself.” Unlike Russell, who clearly disapproved of his students skipping classes, Neill trusted that children have a better idea than adults do of what they should learn, and that the correlation between the things that interest children and the things useful to them is high. (Interestingly, even though Neill’s writings on freedom form a theory of education, they rarely deal directly with the methods of pedagogy. The teachers at Summerhill generally taught using traditional methods, and Neill wrote that “we do not have new methods of teaching because we do not consider that teaching very much matters.”)

Neill claimed that Summerhill provided empirical support for his belief that children can learn well without being told what to do. In his books, he occasionally mentions his students who went on to academic success as professors of mathematics and history, but is most interested in describing those who challenge traditional notions of success. These include, for instance, a boy who was a student at Summerhill for twelve years and never attended a lesson, instead spending his time “in the workshop making things.” He went on to work as a “camera boy” in a film studio, which he enjoyed so much that he tried to work on weekends. Neill claims that in contrast his only failures were those who found nothing to interest them at Summerhill, and these were uniformly students who came there already teenagers, already corrupted by a traditional education.

The Nature of Freedom

The claim that a school such as Summerhill is free of course raises the question of the nature of freedom. The definitions and characteristics of freedom have been a central topic in the writings of twentieth century progressive educators. At the core of Neill’s theory of freedom is his distinction between freedom, which everyone should have, and license, which no one should. “Freedom,” he writes, “is doing what you like so long as you do not interfere with the freedom of others.” License is “interfering with another’s freedom.” Neill was constantly frustrated by two categories of parents: those who read his books and objected to freedom on the grounds that free children would be destructive, and those who raised their children according to their understanding of his philosophy, but in fact allowed them license as well as freedom. He wrote of Summerhill that “a child is free to go to lessons or stay away from lessons because that is his own affair, but he is not free to play a trumpet when others want to study or sleep.”

Neill placed great value on this freedom of action, but he thought another sort of freedom even more important. In addition to exercising the outer freedom of doing what one likes, Neill believed that one should strive to be “free internally, free from fear, free from hypocrisy, from hate, from intolerance.” If children are in fact born good—and by good both Rousseau and Neill meant not only virtuous in the modern sense but virtuous in the medieval sense, strong and courageous—then the uncorrupted child will be free internally as well as externally.

Neill often viewed freedom as an ideal somewhat separate from education, but he also related the two concepts sometimes. Indeed, both he and Holt sometimes echoed Homer Lane when describing an important but somewhat complex link between freedom and education. “Freedom cannot be given,” wrote Lane. “It is taken by the child.… Freedom involves discovery and invention, neither of which, by their nature, can be embodied in any system. Freedom demands the privilege of conscious wrong-doing.”

Lane makes a number of rather enigmatic claims here. He is perhaps more easily understood if he is interpreted as describing a particular sort of freedom that operates in education, rather than providing a universal analysis of freedom. In this case, Lane here argues that the rigidity of an educational system is antithetical to discovery and thus to true learning. In order to truly understand the world, one must be able to experiment with it, and thus sometimes to make mistakes. If children learn best when free, they also learn best when unguided, when allowed to fail sometimes. The sort of freedom described by Rousseau and Russell, in which a child is given freedom but guided as to how to use it, is to Lane not freedom at all but merely the illusion thereof.

Both Lane and Neill believed that true freedom also depends on self-governance. One of the most unusual aspects of Summerhill was its General School Meetings, at which teachers and students alike voted on “laws,” most of which then applied to both students and teachers. The meetings were also the jury that heard the cases of those who broke the laws. Neill developed a number of good arguments for giving democracy a role in schools, including the educational value of actually debating and governing, but the reason to which he devotes the most attention is the relationship between democracy and freedom. “You cannot have freedom,” he wrote, “unless children feel completely free to govern their own social life. When there is a boss, there is no real freedom.”

Neill believed for much of his life that “the future of the world is obviously one of socialism of some kind,” and thought that the educational hierarchy of schools involved many of the same injustices as the economic hierarchy of capitalism. Indeed, as he became more skeptical about whether a democratic socialist society was possible, he expressed his skepticism in terms of similarities between the structures of schools and nations.

Only the people, led by the people, can succeed. Politically that is the greatest problem in Socialism. Bureaucracy will arise, and the bureaucratic class will draw away from the people, and democracy proper will die. The situation in the school is the same in miniature. Teacher = Bureaucrat: Pupil = People. A class society again.

Holt began his writings on freedom from a similar position, arguing that true freedom depends not only on absence of restraints on speech, religion, association, and so on, but on absence of hierarchy. He wrote that “a large part of our problem is that few of us really believe in freedom” in this sense. Holt became convinced that school reformers who tried to bring more freedom into schools, himself included, couldn’t really substantively improve education as long as society as a whole was unfree, because education does not take place only or even mostly in schools.

Neill was able to create a truly free environment in a boarding school only because he had the ability to form a community as well as a school. This success, though, could not be replicated at day schools within existing communities unless the community as a whole could be freed. Furthermore, even schools like Summerhill can only impact some children as long as their parents live within a hierarchical society, because “most adults will not tolerate too great a difference between the way they experience their own lives and the way their children live their lives in school.”

Children and Adults

Despite this rather cynical view of parents, Holt thought much more highly of them than did Neill. Indeed, the nature of the relationship between children and adults is the point of greatest divergence between the philosophies of Neill and Holt. Neill wrote that “children are not young adults; they are a different species.” He believed that adults corrupt children and that children should be protected from them, and thus approved of the school’s effect of separating children from their families. “It is better to send a child to a bad school,” he wrote, “that to educate it at home.”

Holt came to disagree with this position, arguing that people develop continuously, not discretely, and that “we do not, like some insects, suddenly turn from one kind of creature into another that is very different.” He also thought that children should be allowed, though not required, to integrate into the dominant adult society. In order to make this possible society must eliminate “the institution of childhood,” the most central tenet of which is that “children” are categorically distinct from “adults.” Holt defines this institution as

all those attitudes and feelings, and also customs and laws, that put a great gulf or barrier between the young and their elders, and the world of their elders; that make it difficult or impossible for young people to make contact with the larger society around them, and, even more, to play any kind of active, responsible, useful part in it; that lock the young into eighteen years or more of subserviency and dependency, and make of them… a mixture of expensive nuisance, fragile treasure, slave, and super-pet.

In the book in which he develops his critique of the institution of childhood, Escape from Childhood, Holt argues that children should be treated first and foremost as people and granted the same rights society grants to older people. His challenge to traditional views of childhood is rooted in the claim that, while there is one category of people who experience childhood as a valuable and happy part of their lives, there is also a category of people who find it dangerous and painful, either because they do not have families or because they are “exploited, bullied, humiliated, and mistreated by their families.” Furthermore, there is an intermediate category of children whose childhood “simply goes on too long,” who become rebellious because they long for independence from their parents. The most oppressed children might want to escape their families or caretakers altogether, while others might simply want to live independently sometimes.

This is not possible, however, because our society has a rigid conception of childhood that requires people to rely on parents and the state in various ways—including to make decisions about their education, social life, and environment—as they mature. Decentralist Holt predicts that many young people would live happier lives if legally granted a number of rights adults already have, including the rights to vote, work, own property, travel, hold legal and financial responsibility, “control one’s own learning,” and drive. Holt also argues for “the right to choose one’s guardian” and, for people of all ages, the right to a guaranteed minimum income from the state, which he argues is necessary for independence in a society with more people than jobs. Young people would not each exercise all of these rights, but each would have the protection of the state if she decided to live on her own, for instance, or to leave school and become an apprentice. The rights Holt describes are complexly interrelated, and he devotes his book not only to arguing for them but to explaining the ways in which they are interdependent.

It is in this book, his most radical, that Holt most clearly distinguishes his political position from both liberalism and conservatism. He writes that the power of parents over children should be limited, disagreeing with conservatives, but he also favors diminished state power, disagreeing with liberals. The contrast between Holt and American liberalism is most stark in his rejection of compulsory education, which he describes as a violation of fundamental human rights.

Compulsory Education

The strange thing about public education in contemporary liberal societies is not that it is available but that it is compulsory. Compulsory education is in a way merely the other side of the universal education coin, for in order to ensure that everyone attend school one must require them to do so. It is nonetheless something of an anomaly in liberal societies in which citizens generally resist compulsion in order to remain free. A society of free adults can compel their unfree children to attend school.

There are multiple ways in which education can be compulsory. Students can be compelled to attend a specific school, or there can be a choice of several schools. If there are several, parents might choose which school their child should attend—making the parents as well as the state a force of compulsion on them—or the student might choose. The phrase compulsory education could even have a meaning distinct from that of compulsory schooling and mean simply that one must learn somehow, though given that people universally learn without being compelled the term would become meaningless.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides a concrete example of how the concept of compulsory education is discussed. It states the following on the topic of education in article 26.

Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory.… Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

The nature of the right to elementary education in the Declaration is somewhat strange. It is the only right that involves compulsion; indeed, this is the only use of the work compulsory in the document. (There are two uses of the word compel, both of which frame it negatively. One, in the preamble, cautions that when human rights are not protected by law, “man” may “be compelled to have recourse… to rebellion.” The other, in article 20, states simply that “no one may be compelled to belong to an association.”) This right to compulsory education is an oft-repeated component of international law, and in each document in which it appears—the Convention against Discrimination in Education, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child—it is the only compulsory right.

The Declaration also provides parents with a “prior right” to determine their children’s education, but this right is restricted to determining the “kind of education,” and thus does not allow parents to decide that their children will not be educated. Neill points out that in the world of British party politics liberals tend to oppose this right of parents, while conservatives tend to support it, leaving the socialist Neill with strange bedfellows.

The Labour Party is against private enterprise in business and in schools; and when again in power, it may well sat about abolishing private schools altogether. One result would be the end of pioneering in education. A teacher is a State school can experiment with methods of teaching history or maths, but he cannot experiment with methods of living.… It is ironic to say that Summerhill is safer under a Tory government than under a Labour government. So, in my own interests, I should really vote Tory; for as long as Eton and Harrow exist, Summerhill is safe.

Leftist homeschoolers following Holt’s philosophy of unschooling have found themselves in a similar political situation, allied with religious conservatives who want to indoctrinate their children and wealthy families who hire private tutors. The very idea of a “prior right” of parents, however, is in opposition to Holt’s agenda. It implies that children should be controlled by parents, that they can be thought of like property. It is an implication of the institution of childhood.

Holt argues for a right entirely contrary to the internationally-recognized right to compulsory education. He opposes “not just compulsory schooling but compulsory Education”—being “made to learn what someone else thinks would be good for you”—by arguing that compulsory education would necessarily involve an official canon of knowledge worth learning even if it took place outside of schools. Compulsory education stands in violation of a human right never written in law, a right so deep that Holt speculates the framers of the American Constitution did not imagine it might be violated.

No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought. We say, in effect, you must think not about what interests you and concerns you, but about what interests and concerns us.

Schooling infringes on “the right to decide what goes into our minds.” It infringes on this right not only a little bit but drastically; as schooling consumes an ever greater portion of Americans’ time, we have less and less time to follow our own interests. An educational system in the hands of experts does not exist in addition to self-education; as Ivan Illich argued, educational resources are monopolized in schools, but our time as learners is monopolized by schools as well. It was the former teacher Holt who wrote the following impassioned sentences.

Schools seem to me among the most anti-democratic, most authoritarian, most destructive, and most dangerous institutions of modern society. No other institution does more harm or more lasting harm to more people or destroys so much of their curiosity, independence, trust, dignity, and sense of identity and worth.… It is in school that most people learn to expect and accept that some expert can always place them in some sort of rank or hierarchy. It is in school that we meet, become used to, and learn to believe in the totally controlled society.… The school is the closest we have yet been able to come to Huxley’s Brave New World, with its alphas and betas, deltas and epsilons—and now it even has its soma. Everyone, including children, should have the right to say “No!” to it.

In writing this, Holt was consciously repudiating not only mainstream theories of education and children’s rights but the ideas of other radical educators, including Neill. Holt realized that he was placing himself on the fringe of the fringe libertarian education movement, but despite his harsh rhetoric argued not for revolution but for gradual social change. Holt advocated unschooling as a political cause as opposed to an individualist cause—he believed that unschooling was something that “many others, not rich nor powerful nor otherwise unusual” could discover through books and the examples of those already engaging in it, and “could do if they wanted, without undue risk or sacrifice.”

Influence of Libertarian Educational Theory

As education became more institutionalized, centralized, and mandatory over the course of the twentieth century, the anti-institutional libertarian left produced educators who argued that children should have greater freedom in non-coercive environments. Though libertarian theories of education were presented by several notable figures, including Homer Lane, Bertrand Russell, and Ivan Illich, A.S. Neill and John Holt were the most prolific writers on the topic and achieved the greatest prominence in the field of education.

Recently conservative libertarians have adopted many of the educational ideas pioneered by libertarian leftists. A leading figure in the conservative adoption of unschooling is John Taylor Gatto, a New York State Teacher of the Year who, upon quitting his job in 1991, submitted an essay to The Wall Street Journal that began,“Government schooling is the most radical adventure in history. It kills the family by monopolizing the best times of childhood and by teaching disrespect for home and parents.” Gatto’s essay ended by promoting “real free-market choices, variety that speaks to every need and runs risks.” Though he brushed aside Holt’s anti-capitalist and arguably anti-family conclusions, as well as Neill’s attack on the concept of respect, Gatto adopted Holt’s arguments about the negative consequences of schools. “If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living,” he wrote, “let me know.”

At the same time, the decentralist, anti-“progress” ideas that Holt applied to education are being applied to topics such as globalization and environmental sustainability by Holt’s anarchist successors. Among unschooling advocates it is Grace Llewellyn, another former teacher and the author of the bold Teenage Liberation Handbook, who most shares the place of Neill and Holt in the libertarian left, writing that it is “strange and self-defeating that a supposedly free country should train its young for life in totalitarianism.” Other educators who borrow from the ideas of Neill and Holt are often close to the mainstream of American liberalism.

The impact of Neill’s ideas has largely been through teachers at traditional and alternative public and private schools who have been inspired by him to restrict their students’ behavior less. The impact of Holt’s ideas has spread across the ideological breadth of the homeschooling movement. Both have brought into the field of education a focus on the importance of freedom that continues to provide valuable contrast with today’s dominant educational philosophies and practices.