Beyond Free Education: Community School

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We came to feel that ANY school AS SUCH—at any level and no matter how "free"—cannot be as natural, spontaneous, organic and life-integrative as we want our lives to be.

The Lorillard Children’s School was the most nourishing, wonder-ful, genuinely libertarian scene I had ever known . . . yet I left after just one year as its non-Director. For all of us (and I think I can generalize safely here) it was the best educational enterprise we had ever experienced–both as a community school institution and in our own personal growings–yet most of us who founded Lorillard and were its original staff have left.

We came to feel that ANY school AS SUCH–at any level and no matter how “free”–cannot be as natural, spontaneous, organic and life-integrative as we want our lives to be. Several of us have gone on to join with still others in founding an intentional community, hopeful that it will prove a better alternative for us.

Our brief experience in our community school since leaving Lorillard has reinforced the feelings we came to by the end of that first year there. And we’ve learned that others at experimental colleges and free schools are coming to similar conclusions. The transition–from schools to communities–is becoming increasingly common. What’s this transition about?

I’d like to talk specifically about The Lorillard Children’s School and the intentional community which, for a number of us, goes beyond the school.

Lorillard had two main roots. First, I had been working with seven or so students at Bensalem College in what we called the education group. Given the nearly absolute structural freedom of Bensalem, this group had been working throughout 1968-69 (just because they wanted to) on child education.

After several months of readings, discussions and visits to innovative places and programs we had generated a very full program of volunteer placements 3-4 days a week in various experimental children’s schools, weekly seminars, workshops, field trips, etc. Super important: We had–at the same time–gone through a good deal of self-selection in and out of the group and begun to develop a day-to-day life-way of personal openness, sharing and working through personal differences and problems. We lived close to one another, mostly in the same building. Learning about child education and dealing with our own growth were interrelated from the start. By Spring 1969, my let’s-do-our-own-school fantasy was feeling less and less unrealistic.

The second root of Lorillard was a group of parents in the surrounding community who had successfully operated a summer day camp and regular-school-year nursery school. They were focused on bringing together black, Puerto Rican and white families in a less authoritarian way of working with children than was common to the area’s public schools. Now they were interested in expanding upward into elementary grades. . . in doing a school.

One member of this group of parents, Helene, was a good friend and began working with the education group while another member worked in the parents’ nursery. When we learned of space available in a church only four blocks from Bensalem and right at the edge of nearby black and Puerto Rican areas, we were ready to move our school from fantasy to reality.

Financially, as with so much else, our guiding principles were madness and trust. We began with some support from Bensalem (in the form of salaries for myself and one other person), less than half of what we would need even barely to survive one year. If we failed to raise about $23,000 more, the staff would be out jobs and the parents and children who eventually came into the venture would be out a school. But surely, it seemed, it would have been a worthwhile experience even if we failed financially. In the end lots of people worked very hard, and the money was raised. Lorillard continues.

Whatever money came in went into the common pot. Each of us drew from it for our personal wants and needs as he saw fit. We all decided together about school expenditures. We cared deeply for one another and the school, and so gave and took without question or explanation.

Never once did the eight of us who were the original staff, nor the six others who eventually came to join us, get into a money hassle. And, as far as I can tell, no one ever abused the complete freedom we each had to take what we wanted. On the contrary, Hop and John P. went into debt rather than draw from the school for certain personal expenses, and Marge had lots of trouble allowing herself a new dress. Everyone bent over backwards to help make ends meet, and it felt great to be risking and trusting that way together.

We worked like crazy. We had to learn about environmental design, community politics, laws and mores of city and state bureaucracies, fund raising, parent education, the street, lots of subject matter we got into with the kids and–most important–a great deal about ourselves . . . all in addition to Cuisinaire rods, approaches to reading, child psychology and the rest of what normally goes into teacher education programs. The learning was alive and vital because we had enormous responsibility for everything. It was ours, and it mattered to us.

We operated without any rules. There were no formal duties, penalties, hierarchies or ways of enforcing anything even if somebody wanted to. Decision making was communal, by consensus. We never once took a vote or felt moved in that direction. We operated, rather, on the basis of personal encounter, dealing with our feelings as they emerged, working through our differences and confronting our angers, fears, frustrations and joys.

It helped that some of us had had experience with encounter groups, Gestalt therapy and related approaches. Once a week whoever wanted to–generally most everybody–went to a Gestalt-encounter group led by a fine professional who helped us get at some of our deeper difficulties.

The style which developed permitted no easy refuge in theories, abstract commitments or rules, but demanded personal and fairly constant contact. That the process had developed organically over a full year and had clearly worked reinforced the trust on which it was based. Sure; it was excruciatingly painful at times and far less convenient and secure than having a rule book or hierarchy or majority rule to fall back upon. But, with the difficulty and vulnerability came a sense of much growing and being more real.

One of our more serious initial differences had to do with degree of organization-and-responsibility. John M. was constitutionally hostile to meetings, and Marge to schedules. Helene and Cindy worried and railed about responsibility, concern for learning and coordination.

We had many a trauma over such things those first months but our commitment to one another and to being out front held fast . . . changes came in their time. John, Marge and all of us came to appreciate the need for getting together to work things out and for coordination. And Helene, Cindy and all of us learned a lot about relaxing a little.

We struggled through a great variety of meeting frequencies and times, finally settling (more or less) into three meetings per week: One for business, one for Gestalt-encounter and one for talking about kids, projects and ways of teaching/learning. Of course, everything was flexible, and as needs emerged they got dealt with. And in all this there was the strong, growing feeling of being a family.

(If what I’ve written so far sounds idyllic, it is no less true and, remember, I’m outlining Lorillard’s beginnings and its greatness. I’ll get to its miseries and limitations soon enough.)

I’ve talked a lot about the staff before talking about how we were with kids because the latter derived directly from the former (it always does). We began with 33 children, 3-7 years old and we were committed to expanding the upper age limit by at least a year each year. We established an environment with lots of things for kids to play-destroy-learn-explore-build with.

We had woodworking materials, blocks, water and sand, a rope swing, a homemaking and dress-ups corner, a huge climbing structure made of scavenged tree trunks and boards, arts and crafts materials, books and a quiet reading corner, manipulative games-puzzles, etc., some animals and science equipment, lots of space for running-making-noise-or-being-quiet, the Botanical Gardens and Fordham’s pool, the neighborhood and its people and stores and lots of New York City to explore.

The staff was there–generally–to support, provide materials, be interested, leave alone, bring in interests and skills, suggest, prod, confront, question and play . . . but not to force or push.

We only intervened forcibly, by and large, to prevent physical or psychological damage (though we had our differences in deciding when that point had been reached). We did our best not to lay on the kids ex cathedra judgments and shoulds. Instead, we attempted to be honest with them about our feelings and perceptions. With our upset and anger–for example–our goal was immediate and full expression rather than held-in, festering resentment masked thinly by resort to rules, Procedures or moralisms. Similarly with love, boredom, excitement, etc.

The children, at first suspicious and adult-cue centered, came to trust and relax with us. The adjective most commonly used by visitors who liked what they saw at Lorillard was “relaxed,” with “comfortable” and “full of life” runners-up.

These, then, were some principle ingredients of our school: A highly enriched environment, freedom and caring adults with some honesty, interests and skills. We wanted learning and growing to emerge naturally and spontaneously in response to actual interests rather than programs; child-centered rather than teacher-centered.

We soon discovered, however, that even establishing an environment involves implicit programming. We began with strong differences here. At the extremes, we-do-our-thing-and-let-the-kids-do-theirs warred with we-should-be-responsible-and-insure-that-good-learning-occurs.

Over time, Hop and Sherry-so opposed to programming-came to appreciate (as we all did) the value of observation, suggestion, continuity and thoughtfulness about ways of helping children learn when they’re ready for that to happen. Cindy came to see more (as we all did) just how much kids do with freedom, developing their own non-programs.


Without compromising our commitment to non-coercion, we moved generally through the year toward more active roles in relation to the children: Making materials and projects available, questioning, pointing out, suggesting, etc.

Above all, we were concerned with the quality of children’s lives and our own lives. How did we deal with anger, shyness, need for attention, aggressiveness, excitement, dependency, racial feelings, joy and so on? We wanted the children and ourselves to express feelings more freely, to deal with conflicts more openly and independently and to be less afraid in reaching out with curiosity, affection or hostility. (This was–above all–for the children, whom we wanted to be out from under the shadows of adult judge-executioners).

More than in any other school I know, we spent our energies observing, talking about and dealing with things like Missy’s strong drive toward domination, Roger’s hostility and difficulty handling affection, Elena’s clinging, Magali’s taunting for attention and Victor’s fear of anything strange.

Where many other experimental children’s schools are aimed at getting kids to learn faster, better and more enjoyably we were confident that kids learn as they are ready to; as they need to; as things are available in their experience. We felt that attention was needed most in matters of personal growth: The atmosphere of the school, trust, relaxation, openness, self-reliance, warmth and joy. This was the core of what Lorillard was about for both the children and the staff.

Two more things about The Lorillard Children’s School:

First, we began with staff control in consultation with parents, rather than with parent or joint control. We had observed enough other experimental situations to know that parents again and again have proven the most conservative force in free schools. Where parent control has been tried, schools have usually moved backward from initially free directions.

In interviewing applicants (we hardly turned anyone away), we were never concerned with the children–except in extreme cases–for they are rarely the problem. Rather, we were concerned to find parents at least open to, if not strongly supportive of, a free school approach. And there–particularly in recruiting our 40% black and Puerto Rican enrollment–we had difficulty from the beginning.

We opted, then, for staff control . . . clear that our paramount commitment was to a different way of being with children and one another . . . a way that often needed protection from the parents themselves. Our goal was to work with parents as much as we could, hoping that enough of them would get the “feel” for this new way as we moved over time toward joint parent-staff control. In a moment I’ll talk about how this did/didn’t work out and proved a critically weak spot.

Second, our staff changed and grew by a unique process of self-selection. Anyone who wanted to join the school was invited to come for an open-ended stay: An hour or a year or a lifetime, depending upon how things meshed. There were no forms or regular screening processes except contact and more contact with real people in real situations, including lots of honest feedback in both directions. If we clicked with one another, the person stayed longer and eventually grew-osmosed onto the regular full-time staff.

Six people joined us this way during the year. Dozens more came, found the process too difficult (it was at times painful for us, too), didn’t click with what they found or otherwise felt moved to leave. We never decided “no” at someone, took a vote or any other such thing. We were out front with our reactions and it was up to each individual to make his decision. In this way the staff, which began as a group that had grown together organically over considerable time, continued to grow gradually and organically.

Unfortunately, the very fact that we were a school meant that enrollment did NOT come about through a similarly personal, gradual, organic process. People came largely because the public schools were felt to be terrible and this school was bound to be at least something of an alternative. Beyond that, parents were an extremely heterogeneous group who disagreed among themselves and with the staff on many basic things.

In the first family that withdrew, Eula and Bob dearly loved the school but couldn’t cope with the tension in their daughter, Karen, created by the difference between her highly disciplined home life and our far freer school atmosphere. Other parents stayed and continued to press for more discipline, prohibition of children’s cursing, greater emphasis upon academics, more positive instruction, etc.

More than this, the parents came from very different backgrounds (that had, in fact, been one of our initial goals), and shared very little of their daily lives, perceptions and orientations with one another or the staff. With several notable exceptions (for example, we wound up having three parents on the staff), parents did not–could not–partake of an organic, self-selecting, daily sharing, working-things-through-process such as the staff experienced.

Here was no group of close friends shaping day-to-day a common experience as part of their overall life-way . . . but rather, BY VIRTUE OF BEING A SCHOOL IN THE CITY, a well-enough-intentioned group of heterogeneous people pulling and tugging at one another and the staff.

The gradual shift to joint parent-staff control did take place as planned and promised. It was a joy and a drag. There were parents who were spurred to read and think about education as they never had. Some recognized that far more was involved: That what we were doing really meant a revolution in our way of life. It was a joy to be with them, help them work through their sticking-spots, learn and get invaluable help from them.

There was Iris, saying she never spoke at meetings and such, who was delighted to find that at Lorillard meetings she felt so much less reserved; Dave, whose warmth came through more and more as the year went on; Ronnie, whose defensive belligerence gave way to such openness and affection-giving-and-taking; Clara, who overcame her shyness so much and joined the staff; and many more.

And it was a drag. Nicki, a staff member who commuted two hours each day to work for nothing at Lorillard, burst into tears at one of our parent workshops at the parents’ constant criticism, tugging and lack of appreciation. I became defensive and strained as turned-off staff stopped coming to parent-staff administrative meetings. I felt little positive support and much hassle. Families moved away, new families came in and everything had to be freshly explained, built from scratch.

Operating by consensus on the basis of honesty, caring and sensitivity is a fragile and difficult business at best: It requires having a basic cohesion, common commitment and a fairly stable group whose growth is organic and gradual. It was no one’s fault–but simply a condition of being a city school–that these conditions could not apply.

Two things turned the staff off most: Constant tugging and pulling by people who were in very different places and the institutionalization of Lorillard as a school. To be with children from 9 A.M. to 3 P.M. five days per week and see them go off to radically separate and different situations for the remaining time, felt often hopeless and always amiss. We wanted to be with children in ways that integrated with their home and total life contexts. We had, instead, the feeling of clashing, working against, pushing uphill. It was dispiriting.

The 9-3 syndrome seemed so terribly artificial and, at times, absurd. The times we went to the country with the kids and parents for a few days seemed so much more natural and right. So our interest grew in the possibility of a more total, less fragmented communal living/learning situation.

Being a school meant, too, an atmosphere of expectations about RRResponsibility for teaching and learning. The staff felt pressured (and not all of it was external). We had to come in, things had to happen, contact was scheduled, responsiveness to children became a duty. Our labor of love began to feel like a job.

We started out knowing we didn’t want to be a school like others, and so the very word “school” became repugnant (one of the worst things a staff member like Sherry used to say in moments of desperation: “My god, we’re becoming a SCHOOL!”). What we discovered as we went along was that there was something very basically amiss with being a school of any kind . . . something essentially wrong with the very notion of school.


More and more of the staff found it increasingly difficult to be there. We were upset at the pulling and tugging and upset when we felt out-of-it or “not doing enough”. We had set up an institution which contained expectations that no longer felt right. Without the screen of formal roles, duties and such, our upsets, moods and needs came through and affected the school strongly day-to-day.

We felt increasingly that we didn’t like removing children from our total lives and the lives of their parents and placing them in specialized environments for a good chunk of their lives . . . not as a matter of choice, but as a given. We didn’t want to be adults running a special place for kids: A special world with lots of expectations about specialized functions. That felt artificial and phony compared to what began to emerge as an alternative vision.

We wanted a place for people–adults and children–where each would have lots of freedom to be or not be with others; where children could relate to adult activities (and vice-versa) since it would be an adults’ as well as children’s world. We wanted a place where contact and learning would be natural, sporadic and not much worried about since there would be lots of things happening all the time as adults and children went about their work and play.

We began to see that such a thing cannot happen as much as we would like in an enterprise run in good part for (and increasingly by) others with whom little daily life is shared; among whom there is little intimate knowledge and love; from whom mostly hassle comes; and who have their own separate and very different life-ways. (I have difficulty writing this, remembering many with whom much knowledge, sharing and caring developed. I hope they will not feel slighted.) It cannot happen in a school, with all the expectations and fragmentation a school must involve.

The success of The Lorillard Children’s School was, and continues to be, enormous. It proved for many of us–and for others who came to visit from Michigan, Brooklyn and points between–clear demonstration that a radical alternative to more conventional education is possible and viable. For many of us, several parents and certainly all the staff, our lives have been changed and enriched immeasurably. And the kids: We saw Chris move with less fear, Mordecai fill with bubbling laughter, Roger give and take more affection, Victor move out from his mother. . .

For a number of us, one of Lorillard’s greatest successes was that it inspired us to more and gave us courage. We had taken risks. Communal finances, consensus decision-making, organic self-selection, encounter and vulnerability, learning in the context of loving an enterprise and its people . . . all this and more had worked.

For myself, I had been thinking about, reading about, visiting and even giving courses on intentional communities for five years. The experience of Lorillard made it absolutely clear to me that this was indeed what I wanted to try in my own life: That much of what I had long dreamed about was workable and even more rewarding than I had dreamed. And so, ten of us–eight adults(four from Lorillard) from 19 to 45 years old, and two children 2 1/2 and 5–recently began an intentional community 110 miles from New York City. One of our goals is a different way of raising children–being with, teaching, leaving alone, learning from and sharing a life-way exploration–naturally and organically, as we live together and deal with our daily life needs and impulses. We are exploring communal child-rearing (a far richer concept and practice than teaching) in a flexible, experiential way as an integral part of exploring who we are ourselves and how we live. Let me see if I can describe and give some feeling for what we’re about.

We have no especially-labelled persuasion (Marxism, vegetarianism, Walden-II-ism, religion, primitivism or whatever), and no plan to fulfill. Finances are communal as much as people like–in practice, virtually all. Everyone puts in what he earns (or what we earn in our developing communal enterprises) and takes from the pot as he sees fit. We are moving toward a simplier life-way, spending less, doing more for ourselves with what is at hand, making greater use of inner resources and depending less on our side diversions, eating more healthily (the meals are great!), gardening organically and doing our best to be aware of ecology and do well by our planet.

Increasingly, we are raising the children communally though the primary focus on their parents remains. Similarly, we are given to non-exclusiveness and multiple relationships while still tending to focus on primary pairings.

We don’t have any rules, assignments, work-rotations, schedules and such but deal with needs together as they arise, paying close attention to our feelings rather than theories. We value spontaneous-ritual, work-play and joyful madness.

Some important background data. Each of us contributed what he could to the purchase of the land and initial operating funds. Our resources have continued to come not from any one person-nor even a majority from one person–but from many. Not in this nor in any other way does the life of the community depend upon or revolve around any one or two individuals.

Our group came together on the basis of interweaving relationships-in some cases going back many years-and in many cases involving previous living and working together. We moved to our farm only after we had spent a good deal of time together as a group, mostly on weekend work projects, encounter and Gestalt therapy sessions, playing together and much more. Lots of self-selection in and out of the group took place before we took possession of our 37 acres. Only half the people involved in those months of preparation and exploring actually came to settle our land. And, of course, the previous Lorillard experience was critical.

All of us have had previous experience using encounter group and Gestalt therapy approaches in dealing with personal and communal problems and growth (as was done at Lorillard). At the heart of what we’re about is a strong commitment to working on radical personal and social change with the help of these approaches.

We find lots of structure repugnant and resist any attempt by anyone to impose anything on anyone else. But that doesn’t mean there are only two choices: Authoritarian structure and chaos.

We are highly libertarian but we do come together to coordinate, to make consensual decisions and to develop day-to-day structures which remain flexible, personal and experimental. Similarly with leadership. Despite our bad experiences with imposed pre-structures and engineered leadership in our society generally, we reject only that structure and leadership which is in fact unwanted. We do not reject that which emerges spontaneously, feels OK and remains flexible, non-coercive and our own.

We’re concerned, too, with outreach. Baking and selling bread at the weekly auction in town, participating in a local crafts fair, meeting and spending time with neighbors and beginning to run workshops in personal and social change are some of the things we are starting to do. We expect to be doing more as enterprises emerge.

Economic sharing, communal decision-making and working together have proved virtually no sweat. And, as the whole work-play distinction tends to blur, strikingly much of the work is a joy. Our pockets freed of little appointment books, watches, wallets, keys and other such stuff–days freed of appointments, schedules, duties–there is instead time and space and things that need doing by whoever feels up for them . . . a sense of options day-to-day. Everyone is pitching in, working hard, not working hard, working it out when a need isn’t getting met, not sweating it . . .

And the children. Sharing the burden of dealing with needful, demanding, mess-making kids makes it more possible for any one of us to say “no” or “yes” more readily. Less guilt, less responsibility and less one-man burden means more genuine response-ability, yesness and joy. The children receive more attention from more adults more genuinely than children commonly do. At the same time, they’ve been much starved for peer group contact and we’re looking forward to being joined by others with more children. Meanwhile, we go ahead getting used to talking over the problems and frustrations we experience in dealing with the kids, helping one another, confronting one another, learning . . .

Both the kids and the adults are experiencing some very new things here. The kids are continually in relation to the adult world–a new sort of adult world at that–for the first time. They’re learning to be more independent, to develop their own world and at the same time to relate more to ours. They’ve been having a rough time with it and so have we . . . also getting a lot out of it and slowly settling down.

A striking, simple fact: We literally never worry about “are the kids learning enough?” and such. Such talk, and the agonizing self-torture (“am I doing enough?”) that goes with it, has never even come up here. It’s clear enough that the kids are more and more involved in adult activities and learning lots in the process.

Roger likes to help me as I go about handyman-work and I enjoy explaining to him how the drill works and why a crescent wrench can’t be used where a pipe wrench is needed. Stephanie insists upon helping Helene with milking the cows and she (and all of us) are about to see what it’s like when a calf is born. Tuning the cars, working with the tractor, feeding the chickens and our new brood of fourteen ducklings, gardening, haying, mending fences, baking bread, dancing, cooking . . . all these have become opportunities for the children to learn with us, to help and to see us in relation to one another.

Often at Lorillard there was a sense among the staff that we were “trapped” in school; that not enough “natural flow” outward occurred unless we planned for it. Even then there was something artificial about a trip to a museum or a different kind of neighborhood. Here, Roger comes along when I go to the welder’s, and he and Stephanie join us on a trip to the mill, to the local auction, to the lake for a swim or to our bread selling stand at the farmers’ market.

At still another level, the kids are part of our experiments with a new life-way. They often sit in on our business and encounter sessions. They see us struggle with our own feelings, deal with our differences, worry about neighbors’ sensitivities, love and hassle, meditate and celebrate. There are experiments for them with greater self-regulation in things like bedtime, food, dress and language. There is lots of space for them to explore, be alone or just with one another in–and develop–their own worlds . . . as well as lots of opportunity for relating to the adult world.

In all this the skills, knowledge and growing that come for the kids and for the adults do not have to be planned and worried about so much. They come as a natural part of living a rich, varied and demanding life together and caring for one another. Given all this, it’s increasingly all right that there are times when one or more of us is out of it and Irresponsible . . . and times when we’re right there for one another.

Here are some phrases from things I’ve written to friends recently; a word-montage:

. . . eating together, spending our days together, working, meeting, playing, confronting, loving, hassling, caring . . . I’m an incredibly lucky guy, and there are tears for the wonder of it . . . And the difficulties, meetings, hassles, and miseries. . . Judy and Helene playing cello and piano pieces. Arthur in the garden. Group gathering to help deal with some tension between Hop and John . . . Gestalt-encounter, communal decision-making and responsibility, play, music, dancing, quiet times, massage, meditation, bread-baking, organic gardening, household repair, meal preparation, milking, automotive mechanics, nutrition, communal child-rearing, multiple relationships, non-possessiveness, ecology, community relations, economics . . . Only a short while. Such deep and radical changes in pace, sounds, economics, foods, spontaneity, and integration of life, richness. So much. Such a beginning.

Some words of conclusion. I hope my pointing out what I think are the limits inherent in schools, free or otherwise, is not taken as a put-down and that my deep feelings of appreciation also come through. As an alternative to public schools and others, free schools are a great step in the right direction. The Lorillard Children’s School continues to be a great place for kids and adults and I hope it has a long life ahead. I have much admiration for those who work to make such alternatives available and I’ll continue to lend help where I can.


Still, for myself and increasing numbers of others, the limits of free schools have become increasingly and painfully clear. Schools as such are a poor substitute for rich family and community life . . . both for children and for staff. Free schools succeed in being great usually insofar as they become non-schools.

Beyond schools, then, there lie other alternatives worth our exploring. The one I am most interested in is fairly new (and old) to me and my culture: Small scale, self-selecting, organic communities in which children and adults live, work, play, experiment, hassle, learn and grow together.

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