Restoring the Spirit

Restoring the Spirit

“OUR PUBLIC officials are not much concerned about the ‘waste of human resources’…. But … the big causes of stupidity, of lack of initiative and lack of honorable incentive, are glaring,” noted Paul Goodman—a half-century ago—in Growing Up Absurd. “Our society cannot have it both ways: to maintain a conformist and ignoble system and to have skillful and spirited men to man that system with.”

That word, “spirited,” is where I rest the heart of our case. Spirited students require spirited teachers, of course. And we are killing off the spirit in the most deliberate way—fifty-five years after Goodman published these words.

We have a chance now to recapture the language of change and invest it with Goodman’s spirit—before the new “reformers” destroy the remnants of Goodman’s dream. It’s hard to distort Goodman’s ideas, which was part of the strength of his language—and its value for us again today lies in the power of his description of the emptiness of growing up.

Of course, on occasion we will wince—as Goodman’s words were quite clearly largely addressed to boys and men. Did he mean it that way? Quite possibly.

All we need to do is add “women” and we can take almost any page of that great treatise on raising the young in the fifties and translate it easily into raising the young in the twenty-first century. As we enter a new age of low wages and unemployment, Goodman’s relevance is striking. “What’s missing?” he asks. And he answers for our time as well as his: a community worth growing up into. “The actual result”—but not intent, says Goodman—of progressive education was to “weaken the academic curriculum and foster adjustment to society as it is.” Surely he is right. So too the twenty-first-century reforms The more radical goals of the progressive education movement were compromised until they served the opposite purpose that John Dewey had in mind—strengthening its intellectual content and producing students who found it hard to adjust. So too the radical reforms of our day have compromised the egalitarian goals they claim drives them. Goodman ends on a cautiously optimistic note—in 1957—in support of the “crazies.” But “the organized system is very powerful” and our aspirations, like theirs, may serve to widen the intellectual gaps not close them in the name of equity!

Our “common wealth,” he says, must be devoted to cultivating “freedom and civilization”—they aren’t inevitable if we don’t consciously nurture them when our children are young. Goodman would be horrified to watch this relentless march into orderly conformity, schools organized as boot camps and test-prep academies, searching for methods to instill “right answers” into our young in the name of equity. We need to revive Goodman’s spirited defense of a spirited citizenry.


Deborah Meier, starting in 1965 as a kindergarten teacher, went on to create innovative public schools that served all children in New York City and Boston until her retirement in 1998. She is a longtime editor of Dissent and the author of many books, including The Power of Their Ideas.