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Happy Birthday John Holt – “Patron Saint” of Unschooling

April 14th, 2012 at 9:38

John Caldwell Holt was born on April 14, 1923, part of the “GI Generation” and interestingly the same year as my mom and my partner Sally’s parents, plus the same place (New York City) as her parents. There is just the briefest reference to his young life in his Wikipedia biography, but somehow he developed a profound humanist critique of the rules of engagement between adults and youth in our society, one challenging our whole conception of human development and education, including how they are reflected in the social institution we call “school”. The further evolution of his thinking led him to become perhaps the progressive “patron saint” of homeschooling and the inventor (or at least the framer) of the concept of “unschooling”.

On a more personal level, you could call Holt our son Eric’s “savior”. Holt’s truly radical ideas about human development had a profound impact on my partner Sally and me. Those ideas gave us the major justification in 1999 for pulling our son Eric out of school in eighth grade, possibly saving him from a train wreck of an educational experience in his teen years from which he might never have recovered.

In doing the research for this piece and rereading some of Holt’s work, I am struck by how much I have become his kindred spirit. Struck by how much the ideas he champions (so outside the mainstream of conventional wisdom about human development) have inspired me to write and blog about my own take on the truths of how human beings develop and human society evolves.

Holt, World War II & World Government

Like my own dad, Holt completed college and then joined the military to fight in World War II. He served in the U.S. Navy on a submarine in the Pacific. According to his Wikipedia biography…

During the war, he concluded that nuclear weapons were the world’s greatest danger, and only a world government could prevent nuclear war. After his three-year tour of duty in the Navy, he got a job with the New York branch of the World Federalist Movement. Starting in the mailroom, he became the executive director of the New York branch [the United World Federalists or UWF] within six years. However, he became frustrated with UWF’s ineffectiveness and left it in 1952.

I think this formative experience as a young adult is an important insight into Holt’s character. The World Federalist Movement was launched in 1947 in parallel with the creation of the United Nations, which advocated for the UN to have a stronger mandate toward becoming more of a world government. If nothing else, I think this shows Holt’s idealism and connection to the political left and its vision of moving beyond nationalism and militarism toward a more humanistic society.

Holt as a Teacher

According to the Wikipedia article, after parting with the UWF Holt was convinced by one of his two sisters to become a teacher. From reading his work, particularly his thoughtful observations about the children with whom he interacted, a portrait of a sensitive and caring soul emerges, and I can see why his sister would think teaching a good next step for him.

Holt did his first four years teaching fifth grade in a small private boarding school in Colorado. It was a particularly insightful experience for him because, unlike most teachers who interact with their students only in the classroom, he had the opportunity to observe students outside of school as well, living the rest of their lives. He was struck by how differently some kids behaved inside versus outside of school…

When I started, I thought that some people were just born smarter than others and that not much could be done about it. This seems to be the official line of most of the psychologists. It isn’t hard to believe, if all your contacts with students are in the classroom or the psychological testing room. But if you live at a small school, seeing students in class, in the dorms, in their private lives, at their recreations, sports, and manual work, you can’t escape the conclusion that some people are much smarter part of the time than they are at other times. Why? Why should a boy or girl, who under some circumstances is witty, observant, imaginative, analytical, in a word, intelligent, come into the classroom and, as if by magic, turn into a complete dolt?

Holt also had the opportunity to spend a lot of time with the babies and young children of his sisters and friends. Again, he was struck by how confident and self-directed the young children were versus the mostly frightened, timid, evasive, and self-protecting kids in his fifth grade class. He became determined to figure out what was going on. What was it about the school environment that seemed to be disabling so many kids?

How Children Fail

Holt moved to Boston and got a teaching job at another private school. In discussing his observations with a colleague, Bill Hull, they decided to start a classroom observation project, where one of them would teach while the other observed. What Holt observed and documented in his journals shocked him, but provided an answer to his earlier questions about why so many kids seemed so less capable in school than in the rest of their lives, including before they were old enough to go to school.

Here is a summary of the findings he documented in his first book How Children Fail published in 1964 after eleven years of teaching…

* Children in school abandon their natural inclination to be “thinkers” in favor of being “producers”, moving away from exploration and focusing instead on pleasing teachers and being right at all costs.

* Children learn to see failure as dishonorable and humiliating, rather than an important step in constructing meaning and real learning.

* Being afraid of mistakes, children never try to understand their own mistakes and will not try to understand when their thinking is faulty.

* When teachers praise children, they rob them of the joy of discovering truth for themselves.

* In mathematics, children learn algorithms and develop only a superficial understanding of numbers, and cannot apply their learning to real situations.

* Teachers (Holt included) generally cram students for year-end tests and the material learned is forgotten shortly after the tests because it was not motivated by interest or does not have practical use.

As to that last point, Holt once quipped ironically that the good students are differentiated from the bad students because they forget the material after rather than before the test.

The provocative and controversial conclusion of How Children Fail was that children’s academic failure was not despite the efforts of schools but because of those efforts. He saw compulsory education as fundamentally coercive and noted that…

The idea of painless, non-threatening coercion is an illusion. Fear is the inseparable companion of coercion, and its inescapable consequence.

This conclusion ignited controversy and notoriety for Holt, in a decade (the 1960s) when other conventional ideas of inequality between people were openly being challenged. He made appearances on major TV talk shows and wrote book reviews for Life magazine. Others were speaking out for the rights of black people and for the rights of women. Holt was speaking for the rights of young people to be treated with respect and dignity, like adults were striving to treat each other.

How Children Learn

In his follow-up book, How Children Learn, published in 1967, Holt tried to draw lessons from his observations on how young people really learned, and how school short-circuited that process. Children learn most effectively by their own motivation and on their own terms, and find most teaching that they have not requested just as patronizing as adults do. Given that, teachers and parents should provide instruction only when kids request it.

Still trying to salvage the teaching profession, which he continued to be a member of, Holt argued that teachers should not pressure children to learn in a way that is of no interest to them, that teachers should evaluate which type of multiple intelligence students’ possess and teach and assess them individually on that basis.

Wrote Holt…

All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.

It is interesting to ponder why Holt came to these conclusions while so many of his fellow teachers did not. Did he have a uniquely high sensitivity to what made people, particularly young people, tick and was able to see inside their souls? With his keen observational skills, was his opportunity to observe children at a range of ages (before and during their school years) plus in and outside of the classroom (in every facet of their lives) unique? Or perhaps being an overly sensitive person and lacking a “thick skin”, his own buttons were being pushed and he projected his own discomfort on the education system as a whole?

It is also sobering to ponder how radical the idea of “trusting children” was and still is today! Many people today would still argue that such trust is naïve and even dangerous.

New Paradigms for Education & Learning

After many years of working within the system as a teacher, and having made these observations that challenged (at least in his thinking) the very core of the externally driven instructional process, Holt became completely disillusioned with the whole concept of compulsory education in school. He ended his teaching career in the late 1960s to devote himself to promoting his radical ideas about youth development, youth rights, and the rules of engagement between youth and adults in society.

Other radical thinkers were beginning to challenge the conventional educational paradigm. In 1968 Daniel Greenberg and others set up the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts (patterned after the Summerhill school in England) where the students completely directed their own learning, participated in the democratic governance of the school, and where the adult staff were not even referred to as “teachers”. Ivan Illich, an academic and Roman Catholic priest, in his 1971 book Deschooling Society, put forward a thesis that the regimentation of the learning process in schools was leading to a regimentation of society in general.

By the late 1970s, Holt had come to the conclusion that reform of the education system was impossible and it needed to be completely replaced by a new paradigm. He wrote…

The human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.

Homeschooling & Unschooling

Holt was convinced that kids did not need to be coerced to learn, that given the freedom to follow their own interests and a rich assortment of resources would do so naturally, a line of thought that came to be called “unschooling”. Holt’s 1981 book, Teach Your Own, put forward this vision of an education “based at home” that became the “bible” of the early progressive homeschooling movement. The chapter headings from the original edition (rearranged and reworked in later editions) and a brief description of the content give you a sense of the book’s comprehensive scope…

1. Why Take Them Out – Framing major reasons for homeschooling, including the limitations of schools, the wish of parents to take full responsibility for their children, and acknowledging the full civil rights of children

2. Common Objections to Homeschooling – Providing responses to major objections to homeschooling, including the areas of socialization, embracing diversity, the dangers of “unqualified” teachers, logistics, and how children manage to learn what they need

3. Politics of Unschooling – Responding to more societal issues raised by homeschooling, including issues of economic privilege, poverty, and giving all people in society access to an equally good education

4. Getting Them Out – Addressing legal and logistical issues that parents may encounter pulling their kids out of school

5. Homeschoolers at Work – Giving examples of what a kid’s unschooling curriculum might look like

6. Living with Children – Exploring the nature and needs of children and new rules of engagement to acknowledge their inherent worth and dignity

7. Learning in the World – Addressing the reasons for and the logistics of giving kids access to as much of the real world as possible

8. Living and Working Spaces – Thoughts on creating venues for homeschooled kids to come together for shared activities

9. Serious Play – Addressing the importance of giving kids the space and privacy to fantasize and play

10. Learning without Teaching – Addressing how kids naturally learn by doing, by wondering, by figuring things out, and often in the process resist teaching when well-meaning adults try to force it on them.

11. Learning Difficulties – How homeschooled kids and their parents best address learning difficulties and disabilities, and the important differences between the two

12. Children and Work – Addressing the need for a young person to find their calling rather than just get a good education and find a high-paying job

13. Homeschooling and the Courts – Looking at examples of court challenges to homeschooling and the legal arguments that have been used successfully to defend the practice

Holt made it clear that homeschooling should not be about parents simply replacing teachers directing their child’s learning process. His was the more radical notion that in order to homeschool successfully a parent needed to be able to have an authentic relationship with their child, more like a peer than a superior. In Chapter 2 he wrote…

We can sum up very quickly what people need to teach their own children. First of all, they have to like them, enjoy their company, their physical presence, their energy, foolishness, and passion. They have to enjoy all their talk and questions, and enjoy equally trying to answer those questions. They have to think of their children as friends, indeed very close friends, have to feel happier when they are near and miss them when they are away. They have to trust them as people, respect their fragile dignity, treat them with courtesy, take them seriously. They have to feel in their own hearts some of their children’s wonder, curiosity, and excitement about the world. And they have to have enough confidence in themselves, skepticism about experts, and willingness to be different from most people, to take on themselves the responsibility for their children’s learning. But that is about all that parents need. Perhaps only a minority of parents have these qualities. Certainly some have more than others. Many will gain more as they know their children better; most of the people who have been teaching their children at home say that it has made them like them more, not less. In any case, these are not qualities that can be taught or learned in a school, or measured with a test, or certified with a piece of paper. (Page 55 of the PDF)

I see Holt’s radical reframing of the relationship between parent and child, adult and youth, as a logical extension of the ideas of civil rights and human rights growing out of the 1960s.

Holt’s Legacy

Holt died in 1985 at age 63. He bequeathed his quest to transform education and his lifetime of work to protégé Patrick Farenga, who I have had the pleasure to get to know at several Alternative Education Resource Organization conferences. You can learn more on Pat’s website.

I think Holt is still the “patron saint” of the homeschooling movement to many parents and others in the progressive community. He framed the movement broadly as applying full human and civil rights to children, not just as an alternative venue for school. He represents a continuing thread in our culture carrying forward ideas of more egalitarian rules of engagement between adults and youth from his philosophical predecessors, including A.S. Neill, Homer Lane, Will Durant and Bronson Alcott.

Certainly his ideas were critical in my own development as a parent, and the opportunities we finally gave our son Eric and daughter Emma to leave school and chart their own developmental course. Read more about the paths my kids charted in that regard in my piece “Unschooling rather than Highschooling”.

So happy birthday John! I hope wherever your current venue, your development proceeds unabated!

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2 Responses to “Happy Birthday John Holt – “Patron Saint” of Unschooling”

  1. Kate Says:

    Learned so much from your article. Appreciated the read.

  2. Cooper Zale Says:

    Thanks Kate… would love to read more of your thoughts if you’d care to share.

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