Did Paul Goodman Change Your Life?

After my recently published article, “Teach for America: The Hidden Curriculum of Liberal Do-Gooders,” went semi-viral, thanks in no small part to Valerie Strauss, who republished it in its entirety at her Washington Post education blog, I received quite a bit of interesting feedback from readers. Some of it was negative (coming mostly from TFA alums), but most of it was positive. The most interesting correspondence I had, however, was with filmmaker Jonathan Lee, who created the new documentary Paul Goodman Changed My Life. My article was forwarded on to him, and he got in touch with me, because I conclude my piece with a reflection on Paul Goodman’s writings on education, which included his most famous book, Growing Up Absurd, and his less famous but I would argue equally important book, Compulsory Mis-Education. My concluding paragraph:

Goodman was not against education in the strict sense of the word. For him, the question of education was always of kind. In Goodman’s world, which I imagine as a sort of utopia, those who seek to institutionalize the poor are the enemies of the good. And teachers — real teachers, those who commit their lives (not two years) to expanding their students’ imaginative universes — they are the heroes. I can hardly imagine a better inoculation against the hidden curriculum of liberal do-gooders.

Lee got in touch with me because he hopes to promote his film among those historians and educators who might eventually consider screening it for students. So he sent me a DVD, which is awesome because I was regretfully unable to attend the brown bag session at our last conference when Lee was present to show clips of his film, and, alongside Casey Nelson Blake and Michael Waltzer, engage the audience in discussion of Goodman. I promised to watch the film, which was a pleasure, and to blog about it. So here I am.

Three things struck me about the film (other than watching it, which was, for me, a truly enjoyable intellectual and aesthetic experience; Lee is a masterful filmmaker.) (1) Goodman was the most unique of the New York Intellectuals, highlighted by his anarchism. (2) Goodman’s non-normative sexuality perplexingly mixed with his hyper-normative misogyny. (3) A case might be made that Goodman was one of the most underrated American intellectuals of the twentieth century, or, as the film’s promotional materials phrase it, “the most influential man you’ve never heard of.”

(1) One of the film’s interviewees discusses Goodman’s position among his more famous New York Intellectual brethren. He was definitely in that world. He went to CCNY, he attended the same parties, and he wrote for the same little magazines. Yet he was different. This mostly had to do with his politics. Unlike the other precociously smart CCNY Jews of the 1930s and 1940s, Goodman never joined the Communist Party or one of its Trotskyist offshoots. The interviewee is asked why not, and he flips the question on its head: Why did everyone else join the communists?

Goodman’s anarchism was not doctrinaire, of the syndicalist or primitivist kind. It was more a way of feeling politics. Dick Flacks nicely describes this in his contribution to an excellent if short Dissent forum on Paul Goodman Changed My Life, highlighted by an essay by Rochester graduate student and intellectual historian Michael J. Brown (winner of Dissent’s essay-writing contest “in which people under thirty were asked to name the most pressing social and political issue of our times and write a utopian essay that included practical proposals”—a seemingly paradoxical combination that Goodman often mixed with subtle deftness). A long passage from Flacks (which also speaks to my third point, regarding Goodman’s influence):

SDS, THE Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and other expressions of the New Left were anarchist without at first even knowing anything about the anarchist tradition. Paul Goodman’s use of anarchism was very instructive. To make change you join up with friends and neighbors and try to create alternatives that meet needs blocked by the big institutions. Or you demand new rules that can make life more livable directly—these modes of action are more practical and effective than appealing to authorities and institutions to bring the change.

Rather than spend primary energy to get the university to become a community of scholars, create your own—and by so doing you may affect the institution as well as making a practical difference. To oppose war, refuse to fight it. Goodman’s fusion of the utopian and the practical, in a series of essays during the sixties, provided substance for the impulses of resistance and the visions of a decentralization and community that defined the youth counterculture and the early New Left.

(2) I won’t spend much time on Goodman’s non-normative bi-sexuality, which mixed too easily with his sexism, except to say that his marriage reflected this seeming paradox. He had an arrangement with his wife that allowed him to have sex with as many people as he desired, which seemed to be a lot, since his daily schedule was to wake up in the morning and write, then cruise the bars for men in the afternoon, before returning home to his family for dinner. Such an arrangement was not mutual, as his wife made clear in an interview. To Lee’s credit, he doesn’t gloss over Goodman’s large and complex faults.

(3) My third point is the most interesting to me. How influential was Goodman? To what degree did his ideas shape a generation, or perhaps better framed, to what degree did Goodman’s ideas reflect the spirit of the Sixties? The film includes audio footage of Susan Sontag reflecting on Goodman. She claims he is perhaps the only person in the twentieth century who came close to Emerson as an American renaissance man of letters. Although this is probably overstated, it is irrefutable that Growing Up Absurd was perhaps the most-read book on college campuses during the high Sixties. In the film, educator Deborah Meier reminisces about the huge impact it made on her and her friends (even though, in her more recent reading, it came across as dated and sexist in its honest lack of interest in women and girls). I would argue that Goodman indeed is perhaps the quintessential Sixties intellectual. His antinomian disdain for the borders constructed by institutions, including both corporations and government bureaucracies, and by cultural norms, sexual and otherwise, speak to the larger countercultural ethos that did so much to reshape the mainstream cultural ethos.

I have long thought Goodman the quintessential voice of the Sixties. Which is why I included an analysis of his educational thought in the last chapter of my book, Education and Cold War, a chapter that explored the explosion of new ways of thinking about education in the 1960s. Below is a chunk of that chapter. Read it and then be the judge. Is Paul Goodman “the most influential man you’ve never heard of”? (I realize that if you’re reading this blog, you’ve likely heard of Paul Goodman, but you are not representative.)

Growing Up Absurd, assigned in college classes across the country, was a synthesis of a large body of work published in the 1950s that critiqued what Goodman termed the “Organized System,” the bureaucratic and corporate straitjacket analyzed by William Whyte, David Riesman, Vance Packard, and C. Wright Mills. But in opposition to these previous commentators, Goodman, in the words of historian Kevin Mattson, joined his fellow leftist Mills in making “clear that what often appeared as cultural problems — conformity and alienation — had political roots and demanded serious social reform.” Goodman argued that it was “curious” that the two most analyzed phenomena of the time — the “disgrace of the Organized System” and the problem of disaffected youth — were treated as separate entities except by youth rebels themselves. Goodman combined these two popular strands of social commentary — a critique of the bureaucratic society with an analysis of juvenile delinquency — and argued that the former caused the latter.

Goodman’s disdain for the corporate-organized society tied together his various intellectual interests. For example, his Gestalt theory of psychology posited that, in order for people to overcome their sense of alienation, they must reject the social structures that impeded self-awareness or self-actualization. In other words, the pursuit of an authentic self was not merely narcissistic: it required political transformation. This commitment to political reform also grounded his writings on youth culture and education. Goodman said he was motivated to write on the topic of education after one particularly sad conversation with a group of teenage boys. When he asked the boys what they wanted to do when they grew up, they shrugged their shoulders and unanimously answered, “nothing,” a response that brought to his eyes “tears of frank dismay for the waste of our humanity.” Goodman believed that “the simple plight of these adolescents could not be remedied without a social revolution.”

Goodman’s educational philosophy, as he often made explicit, was not far removed from Dewey’s pragmatism: Dewey’s democratic theory of education was consistent with Goodman’s thoughts on autonomy and decentralization insofar as Dewey believed schools should permit children to be boisterous and physically active in pursuit of meaningful, authentic learning. Goodman agreed with the Deweyan theory that society should adjust to the innate demands of young people rather than vice versa. However, Goodman recognized and was harshly critical of the ways in which Dewey’s thought had been co-opted. “Dewey’s pragmatic and social-minded conceptions,” Goodman lamented, “have ended up as a service university, technocracy, labor bureaucracy, suburban togetherness.” He was sensitive to the fact that those who propagated the despised “Organized System” — those like James Conant who sacrificed the individual to the “cult of efficiency” — were prone to invoke the authority of Dewey in defense of their project. Goodman blamed Conant alongside a multiplicity of educational actors: “timid supervisors,” “bigoted clerics,” “ignorant schools boards,” and, last, but certainly not least, the “school-monks,” his label for “the administrators, professors, academic sociologists, and licensees with diplomas who have proliferated into an invested intellectual class worse than anything since the time of Henry the Eighth.”

The gravest error of the “school monks” was that they wanted to further inflict their methods of socialization upon teenagers because they wrongly attributed the growing number of juvenile delinquents or “beats” to the “failure of socialization.” He wrote:

Growing up is sometimes treated as if it were acculturation, the process of giving up one culture for another, the way a tribe of Indians takes on the culture of whites: so the wild babies give up their “individualistic” mores and ideology, e.g., selfishness or magic thinking or omnipotence, and join the tribe of Society; they are “socialized.” “Becoming cultured” and “being adjusted to the social group” are taken almost as synonymous.

This socialization process, which he described as “‘vocational guidance’ to fit people wherever they are needed in the productive system,” troubled Goodman in means and ends. He both loathed the practice of adjusting children to society and despised the social regime in which children were being adjusted to — “our highly organized system of machine production and its corresponding social relations.” For Goodman, socialization was the problem, not the solution, and was doomed to failure because it prepared “kids to take some part in a democratic society that does not need them.”

Goodman’s Populist critique of corporate society was powerful but flawed in the way that he romanticized pre-corporate America, a time and place when men supposedly exercised their “capacities in an enterprise useful to society.” The worst evils of the Organized System, in Goodman’s eyes, were its emasculating effects. “The present widespread concern about education is only superficially a part of the Cold War, the need to match the Russian scientists,” he contended. “For in the discussions, pretty soon it becomes clear that people are uneasy about, ashamed of, the world that they have given the children to grow up in. The world is not manly enough.” Goodman explained the rowdiness of adolescent males as a by-product of their need for authentic male behavior:

Positively, the delinquent behavior seems to speak clearly enough. It asks for what we can’t give, but it is in this direction we must go. It asks for manly opportunities to work, make a little money, and have self-esteem; to have some space to bang around in, that is not always somebody’s property; to have better schools to open for them horizons of interest; to have more and better sex without fear or shame; to share somehow in the symbolic goods (like the cars) that are made so much of; to have a community and a country to be loyal to; to claim attention and have a voice.

Goodman limited his analysis to boy culture because their future prospects were dimmer. “A girl does not have to, she is not expected to, ‘make something’ of herself,” Goodman argued. “Her career does not have to be self-justifying, for she will have children, which is absolutely self-justifying, like any other natural or creative act.” The boys, on the other hand, were being asked to run “the rat race of the Organized System.” The timing of his gendered argument was unfortunate, particularly since it was made just a few years before Betty Freidan’s The Feminine Mystique, in which she contended that women were the true victims of middle class conformity. That being said, Goodman’s overall critique of the education system was not limited by his idealized conceptions of male culture, particularly his arguments against compulsory education — what he called the “universal trap” — that he made in a collection of essays published in 1964 by the title, Compulsory Mis-education.

Goodman believed that compulsory education was not only wasteful, but did positive damage to adolescents. It was, in his eyes, partly responsible for an “upsurge of a know-nothing fascism of the right.” “I am profoundly unimpressed,” Goodman wrote, “by our so-called educational system when, as has happened, Governor Wallace comes from the South as a candidate in Northern states and receives his highest number of votes (in some places a majority) in suburbs that have had the most years of schooling.” Goodman’s left-wing critique of the schools mirrored Max Rafferty’s right-wing analysis, not so much because they both asserted that education was helping prepare the way for totalitarianism, but because they attacked what Goodman termed the “fascist vital center” from their opposite flanks. Rafferty might have found much to agree with in Goodman’s argument that the compulsory educational system was a “vast vested interest that goes on for its own sake, keeping millions of people busy, wasting wealth, and pre-empting time and space in which something else could be going on. It is a gigantic market for textbook manufacturers, building contractors, and graduate schools of education.”

For Goodman, if compulsory schooling was democratic, then democracy must have been synonymous with “regimentation.” “The educational role is, by and large,” Goodman intoned “to provide — at public and parents’ expense — apprentice-training for corporations, government, and the teaching profession itself, and also to train the young, as New York’s Commissioner of Education has said, ‘to handle constructively their problems of adjustment to authority.’” It was in school that people learned that life is routine, depersonalized, and “venally graded.” And it was in school that teenagers learned that, in life, it is best to abdicate authority to one’s superiors. This was what Goodman labeled “mis-education” or “socializing to the national norms and regimenting to the national ‘needs.’”

Goodman theorized that literacy was once imperative to democracy because people created their own social existences instead of being asked to adjust to an already-existing social order. “By contrast,” he asked, “what are the citizenly reasons for which we compel everyone to be literate? To keep the economy expanding, to understand the mass-communications, to chose between indistinguishable Democrats and Republicans?” Because a technocratic and managerial elite made all of the life and death decisions — decisions about the economy and war — the only justification for mass literacy was that people could be more efficiently propagandized. From Goodman’s point of view, mass illiteracy was better by comparison.

In opposition to [James] Conant and others who favored staying the nation’s current educational course, Goodman called for a fundamental transformation:

The dangers of a highly technological and automated future are obvious: We might become a brainwashed society of idle and frivolous consumers. We might continue in a rat race of highly competitive, unnecessary busy-work, with a meaningless expanding Gross National Product. In either case, there might still be an outcast group that must be suppressed. To countervail these dangers and make active, competent, and initiating citizens who can produce a community culture and a noble recreation, we need a very different education than the schooling that we have been getting.

In order to be educated, young people had to be de-schooled or de-programmed. This was his call for “real” progressive education, education that would represent human rather than mechanical values.

Goodman had no problems with progressive education per se, which he defined as “the attempt to naturalize, to humanize, each new social and technical development that is making traditional education irrelevant.” Rather, he complained that progressive education “was entirely perverted when it began to be applied” because “Americans had no intention of broadening the scientific base and taking technological expertness and control out of the hands of the top managers and their technicians.” Goodman complained that the “democratic community became astoundingly interpreted as conformity, instead of being the matrix of social experiment and political change.” By differentiating between the theoretical intentions of Dewey and the ways in which progressive education had come to be practiced, Goodman set himself apart from his contemporaries who also critiqued the schools:

The recent attacks on Deweyan progressive education, by the Rickovers and Max Raffertys, have really been outrageous — one gets impatient. Historically, the intent of Dewey was the exact opposite of what the critics say. Progressive education appeared in this country in the intellectual, moral, and social crisis of the development of big centralized industrialism after the Civil War. It was the first thoroughgoing analysis of the crucial modern problem of every advanced country in the world: how to cope with high industrialism and scientific technology which are strange to people; how to restore competence to people who are becoming ignorant; how to live in the rapidly growing cities so that they will not be mere urban sprawl; how to have a free society in mass conditions; how to make the high industrial system good for something, rather than a machine running for its own sake . . . That is, progressive education was the correct solution of a real problem that Rickover is concerned with, the backwardness of people on a scientific world. To put it more accurately, if progressive education had been generally adopted, we would not be so estranged and ignorant today.

For truly progressive education to take hold, education had to become less demarcated, more informal. With his own childhood in mind, Goodman desired that the city itself replace the school building. He also wanted unlicensed adults to have more influence over the lives of children, in order to diminish the separation between childhood and adulthood characteristic of modern life “and to diminish the omnivorous authority of the professional school-people.”

Goodman’s ideal school was Deweyan in the best sense: the curriculum was organized around interests innate to intellectual development; the boundaries between learning and doing were erased. For those like Goodman, progressive education so defined was one plausible means to a less stifling, less technocratic society geared towards Cold War imperatives. However, unlike Goodman, most progressive educators were committed to an American liberalism that suffered from its all-encompassing commitment to waging the Cold War, which rendered secondary those aspects that drew many to it in the first place, namely its humanizing components.