Paul Goodman Essay

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Paul Goodman was a poet, novelist, psychoanalyst, social critic, and educational innovator whose critique of American schools, Growing Up Absurd (1960), was a bible for educational radicals during the 1960s. Goodman condemned American schools for repressing children’s creative instincts while leaving them incompetent to do anything worthwhile as adults. Combining a countercultural lifestyle with New Left political ideals, Goodman became a guru to youthful 1960s rebels.

Goodman was a complex man who reconciled seeming contradictions in his personal life and his political ideas that often baffled both critics and followers. He was an anarchist who promoted large-scale government social programs, a socialist who called for market-oriented reforms, and a radical who looked to liberals as natural allies and called himself a “Neolithic conservative.” He was an avant-garde artist devoted to the classics, a cultural pluralist who advocated a core cultural canon, and an openly gay man who confronted homophobia while counseling his followers to practice pragmatic politics. Goodman sought to combine utopian ideals with practical proposals, trying to resuscitate old ideas by applying them to new situations, building on the old to make something radically new. He sought ways of making revolutionary change within an evolutionary framework.

Goodman claimed that anarchism—which he described as a program of universal human rights implemented through locally controlled participatory democracies—represents the best ideals of humanity from the stone age to the present day. He portrayed history as the struggles of ordinary people trying to develop ever more sophisticated cultures while retaining the simple political virtues of small-scale, cooperative Neolithic communities. Goodman condemned the neurotic will-to-power of individuals and elites for deforming society and warping history. Citing colonial New England towns as an example of locally controlled, participatory democracy, he argued that anarchism was the underlying premise and promise of the American way of life.

Goodman’s educational ideas followed from his political commitments. Citing John Dewey’s progressivism as the best twentieth-century version of his ideals, Goodman promoted free expression through dedicated craftsmanship and individual liberation through social cooperation. Goodman was a devotee of the Great Books—he received a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago with a dissertation on Aristotle’s Poetics—but advocated an inclusive, evolving cultural canon for a multicultural American society. He was a proponent of open classes and open, locally controlled schools, combining this view with an apprenticeship model of education based on medieval guilds that encouraged individual innovation within traditional standards of excellence.

Although his writings were well received, Goodman labored for most of his life in relative obscurity and poverty, often complaining that he was “the most widely unknown writer who is so highly esteemed by only a few.” Then, from the mid-1960s until his untimely death in 1972, Goodman enjoyed a period of celebrity as the “Father of the New Left.” When the New Left declined in the late 1960s, Goodman complained that New Leftists had focused too much on personal liberation and too little on social and intellectual competence—they did not understand that anarchism was not an excuse for selfish individualism but a vehicle for self-disciplined socialism. But he tempered his disappointment with an overriding belief that no democratic revolution is ever lost, only postponed.

Goodman’s other best-known works include Empire City (1942, 1946, 1959), a five-volume novel satirizing social repression in America; Communitas (1947), a manual on decentralized city planning with his brother Percival; Gestalt Psychology (1951), a theoretical analysis and practical handbook on liberation psychotherapy with Frederick Perls and Ralph Hefferline; People or Personnel (1964), essays in social criticism and participatory democracy; and The Open Look (1969), a collection of poetry.


  1. Weltman, B. (2000). Revisiting Paul Goodman: Anarcho-syndicalism as the American way of life. Educational Theory, 50(2), 179–199.

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