While Goodman himself described his politics as anarchist, his sexuality as bisexual, and his profession as that of "man of letters," Hayden Carruth wrote, "Any page of Paul Goodman will give you not only originality and brilliance but wisdom—that is, something to think about. He is our peculiar, urban, twentieth-century Thoreau, the quintessential American mind of our time."
Paul Goodman was an outspoken critic of contemporary educational systems as can be seen in his books Growing Up Absurd and Compulsory Mis-education. Goodman believed that in contemporary societies, "It is in the schools and from the mass media, rather than at home or from their friends, that the mass of our citizens in all classes learn that life is inevitably routine, depersonalized, venally graded; that it is best to toe the mark and shut up; that there is no place for spontaneity, open sexuality and free spirit. Trained in the schools they go on to the same quality of jobs, culture and politics. This is education, miseducation socializing to the national norms and regimenting to the nation's 'needs.'"
Goodman thought that a person's most valuable educational experiences occur outside the school. Participation in the activities of society should be the chief means of learning. Instead of requiring students to succumb to the theoretical drudgery of textbook learning, Goodman recommends that education be transferred into factories, museums, parks, department stores, etc., where the students can actively participate in their education. The ideal schools would take the form of small discussion groups of no more than twenty individuals. As has been indicated, these groups would utilize any effective environment that would be relevant to the interest of the group. Such education would be necessarily non-compulsory, for any compulsion to attend places authority in an external body disassociated from the needs and aspirations of the students. Moreover, compulsion retards and impedes the students' ability to learn."
After having been a strong advocate of the student movement during most of the 1960s, Goodman eventually became a staunch critic of the ideological harshness the New Left embraced toward the end of the decade. In New Reformation (1970), his tenth book of social criticism, he argued that the "alienation" and existential rage of 1960s youth had usurped all their worthwhile political goals (e.g., the Port Huron Statement), and that therefore their tactics had become destructive. The book further situated the drama of the tumultuous 1960s in the larger context of what Goodman called "the disease of modern times." In drawing this parallel between young people's socio-historical consciousness and their political activism, Goodman made an early contribution to the argument that the philosophical underpinnings of the New Left were largely informed by postwar disenchantment with Enlightenment conceptions of science, technology, truth, knowledge, and power relations.
For instance, after a hostile exchange with student radicals who had heckled him "heatedly and rudely" at a campus appearance in 1967, Goodman wrote, "Suddenly I realized that they did not believe there was a nature of things. [To them] there was no knowledge but only the sociology of knowledge. They had learned so well that physical and sociological research is subsidized and conducted for the benefit of the ruling class that they were doubtful that there was such a thing as simple truth, for instance that the table was made of wood—maybe it was plastic imitation.... I had imagined that the worldwide student protest had to do with changing political and moral institutions, and I was sympathetic to this. But I now saw that we had to do with a religious crisis. Not only all institutions but all learning had been corrupted by the Whore of Babylon, and there was no longer any salvation to be got from Works."
After a life of revolutionary revelry and social criticism, Goodman's likening of the youth revolt in the 1960s to the Protestant Reformation of 1517 made up the crux of his belief about American modernity in the late 1960s: "It is evident that, at present, we are not going to give up the mass faith in scientific technology that is the religion of modern times; and yet we cannot continue with it, as it has been perverted. So I look for a 'New Reformation.'"
Goodman participated at the 1967 Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, held in London and coordinated by South African psychiatrist David Cooper. The Congress aimed at "creating a genuine revolutionary consciousness by fusing ideology and action on the levels of the individual and of mass society." Goodman's views on politics, social psychology, and society could be usefully compared and contrasted with those of fellow attendees Herbert Marcuse and R. D. Laing, and with those of Norman O. Brown.
In 1968, Goodman signed the "Writers and Editors War Tax Protest" pledge, vowing to refuse tax payments in protest against the Vietnam War.
The freedom with which he revealed, in print and in public, his romantic and sexual relations with men (notably in a late essay, "Being Queer"), proved to be one of the many important cultural springboards for the emerging gay liberation movement of the early 1970s. He viewed sexual relationships between males as natural, normal, and healthy.
In discussing his own sexual relationships, he acknowledged that public opinion would condemn him, but countered that "what is really obscene is the way our society makes us feel shameful and like criminals for doing human things that we really need."
In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell quotes a paragraph from Goodman's essay "The Political Meaning of Some Recent Revisions of Freud" in politics as an example of bad English. The paragraph, says Orwell, "if one takes an uncharitable attitude towards it, is simply meaningless."