Kohl, Herbert R.

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KOHL, Herbert R.

(b. 22 August 1937 in New York City), progressive educator, author, and social activist who, beginning in the 1960s, promoted reform of teaching methods and school systems to encourage all children, regardless of their race or social environment.

Kohl, the only child of Samuel Kohl, a building contractor, and Marion (Jacobs) Kohl, a homemaker, was brought up in a two-family house shared with his Yiddish-speaking paternal grandparents. He graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1954, where he had been president of the Student Organization and the New York City Inter-City GO (General Organization) Council. While still in high school, Kohl tutored a teacher's son and participated in a public forum on school reform. At Harvard he majored in philosophy and mathematics, graduating in 1958 Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude. He then studied at University College, Oxford, from 1958 to 1959 as a Henry fellow, and at Columbia University Teachers College as a Woodrow Wilson fellow, earning an M.A. in 1962, with further graduate work in 1965 and 1966. In 1963 he married Judith Murdock, a weaver, teacher, and writer; they had three children.

After substitute teaching in two public elementary schools from 1961 to 1962, Kohl embarked on his full-time teaching career when he was assigned in September 1963 to Public School 103 in East Harlem, New York. His book 36 Children (1967) is his record of how he and the African-American children in his sixth-grade class mutually struggled to teach, learn, and survive in that first year. The book reveals Kohl's immersion in the systemic obstacles that hinder effective learning, particularly for "ghetto kids." Although many of Kohl's actions and ways of earning trust, including involvement with families and the community, met with bureaucratic criticism, 36 Children, with its many samples of student writing and art, gained him praise as an innovative educator. The following year (1963), Kohl observed, "The need to shape learning on the basis of the complex interaction of academic content and current social reality was forced on me … as I voyaged with my students through school boycotts, freedom schools, protest demonstrations, and the assassination of a president."

Although perceived as threatening to entrenched authority and traditional methods, Kohl's book The Open Classroom: A Practical Guide to a New Way of Teaching (1969) also gained national recognition. In it he guides and supports teachers to develop an open environment and "workable alternatives to authoritarian power." The book is written in Kohl's conversational and pragmatic style, which includes his own misgivings and errors. During this same period, from 1962 to 1968, Kohl set up a storefront learning center in East Harlem, worked as a research assistant at Horace Mann–Lincoln Institute, and helped reorganize a Manhattan high school. In 1966 and 1967, as cofounder and director of the Teachers and Writers Collaborative in New York City, he proposed strategies for teaching writing so that teachers and students alike would become more open to learning. In 1968 Kohl began writing a column for Teacher magazine and won a National Endowment for the Arts grant for his essay "Teaching the Unteachable," which was published first in the New York Review of Books and later as a book.

Kohl moved to Berkeley, California, in 1968, and acted as visiting assistant professor of English education at the University of California, as a kindergarten teacher, and a consultant on curriculum and alternative schools. With support from the Carnegie Corporation, Kohl served as teacher and director from 1969 to 1972 at Other Ways, an alternative public high school. It failed because, in Kohl's words, "the adults were not able to live their ideas." The desire to develop children's abilities in the face of complex and adverse social conditions has been Kohl's lifelong struggle, not just an issue of the 1960s. To this end, in 1972 he established the Center for Open Learning and Teaching, a multicultural center that prepares candidates to become California teachers. Teaching from kindergarten to graduate school, participating in seminars, establishing workshops, giving speeches across the country from New York to Alaska, and writing, Kohl continued to be involved in issues of social justice, writing, theater, and poetry as essential to children's lives.

In the late 1960s Kohl and his wife met Myles Horton, founder of the Highlander Folk School in Monteagle, Tennessee, a school for adults that first focused on trade unions, then civil rights. The Kohls assisted Horton with his autobiography, The Long Haul (1970), which won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. The Kohls also collaborated on View from the Oak, a book about ethology (the study of animal behavior, especially animal perception), which won the 1977 National Book Award for children's literature. Kohl's other publications from the 1970s and 1980s include Reading: How ToA People's Guide to Alternative Ways of Teaching and Testing Reading (1973), Growing with Your Children (1978), and Growing Minds: On Becoming a Teacher (1984). In 1984 the family lived in London, where Kohl was director of software development for Scientific Magazine. He became program director of the Fund for New York City Public Education under an Erin Diamond grant (1992–1996), and following that (1997–1999) he was senior fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York City, part of the Soros Foundation Network.

Having learned at the beginning of his teaching career in the 1960s that "survival is always an issue for an innovator," Kohl believes in Martin Luther King, Jr.'s idea of maladjustment. He discusses this concept, as well as "not-learning" and "hope-mongering," in the five essays of "I Won't Learn from You": And Other Thoughts of Creative Maladjustment (1994). The Discipline of Hope: Learning from a Lifetime of Teaching (1998) also combines Kohl's personal experience and theories to inspire teachers to provide "schools of hope … places where children are honored and well served." Since 1977 Kohl's activities have been based at the Coastal Ridge Research and Education Center in Point Arena, California, an 11.5-acre site on which Kohl and his wife also live. This learning, research, and retreat center also serves as a progressive education think tank. Kohl also directs the Center for Teaching Excellence and Social Justice of the University of San Francisco's School of Education, an advanced teacher preparation program dedicated to training "progressive reform-minded teachers" for America's inner cities.

Innovative educator, champion of social justice, and prolific author, Kohl has extended the community-based educational and civil rights issues of the 1960s throughout his life. Stressing the inherent learning ability and dignity of every child, he has sought to change educational and social systems to eliminate racism and a sense of failure, encouraging instead trust and hope for both young people and teachers. Having taught at all levels and in urban ghettos, Kohl has applied his experience to the development of open classrooms, teacher training programs, writing and theater projects, and just policies. His philosophy, methods, and writing share the joy and struggle of teaching.

In Thirty-Six Children (1967), Kohl conveys his emotional and professional growth as a beginning teacher along with that of his thirty-six sixth graders in East Harlem. The preface and five essays in "I Won't Learn from You": And Other Thoughts on CreativeMaladjustment (1994) integrate material on Kohl's childhood and adolescence in the Bronx with his philosophy of teaching. The Discipline of Hope (1998) also includes observations on Kohl's personal and family life and teaching experience in support of his axiom of the necessity of hope in education. Current Biography 1965–1968 lists dates, publications, and discussion of some of Kohl's books.

Rachel Shor