Learning From John Holt
The lives of so many children, young people, and their families around the world have been changed and enriched by the plain-spoken, radical wisdom of John Caldwell Holt, an American author and educator, and proponent of the rights of children and youth. Even though he died thirty years ago this September, his legacy of respect for children and trust in their innate ability to learn is still very strong. There are many stories of how he has influenced people; this is mine.
I first came across John Holt’s books How Children Fail and How Children Learn when I was in teachers’ college in 1968, along with books by other school reformers and radical thinkers, from A.S. Neill, Jonathan Kozol, and Paul Goodman to Edgar Friedenberg and Ivan Illich. Their ideas excited me, but the one-year course was so intense that I didn’t have much time to think; I was too busy memorizing the theories of extrinsic motivation, knowledge compartmentalization, bulletin board decorating, and test administration, sparsely interspersed with a few weeks of practice teaching.
After I graduated and got a teaching job, I quickly discovered two things: 1) Teacher training had done little to equip me to help children learn and I was going to have to make it up as I went along, and 2) I was spending most of my time trying to motivate and discipline children who were bored with the out-of-context, secondhand information I was supposed to feed to them, and rebelling at the coercion that resulted. After less than one school year I, too, felt rebellious and bored, and terminated my career as a school teacher.
Then I did what I should have done while I was attending teachers’ college: I began my self-education about how people learn. I re-read all those books I’d collected. I thought about my own school career, which was stellar from the outside (i.e. I got great marks and was liked by my teachers) but, I began to admit, had been boring, alienating, and almost meaningless to my adult life. Indeed, I’d felt immense pressure to attend class when I would rather have done something else; in fact, I had received numerous “perfect attendance” certificates, which my father had framed and photographed. Teachers’ college? I went there, I realized, because my mother had always wanted to be a teacher, which explained why she was devastated when I quit teaching.
After that bit of self-examination, I decided that I needed to observe children close up, something I hadn’t done much of until then, ironically. I was the only child of older parents who had only babysat a couple of times, and neither teachers’ college nor teaching had allowed me to spend much time just being with kids. So I worked for a while in a daycare center, mostly just playing with the kids and occasionally spending time with the infants. I marveled at how those pre-school children were so alive, joyful, and curious. And, oh, the questions they asked! I also noticed how they were growing day by day in every way, even though “all” they did was play.
The lightbulb flickered on when I remembered what John Holt had written about adults getting in the way of children’s learning. I began to wonder about the usefulness of school as I had experienced it as a child, a teen, and a teacher. Had school gotten in my way? What would I be doing – aside from thrashing around trying to figure out what I actually liked to do – if school (and a whole variety of adults who thought they knew what was best for me) had kept out of my way, had trusted me to learn according to my own interests?
Around the same time, I met and married my husband Rolf, whose school experience had been as negatively eventful as mine had been calmly intimidating. He readily agreed with my developing notion that our yet-to- be-born children shouldn’t go to school. Our daughters were born a few years later and, from the beginning, learned as if school didn’t exist. Although it was known as “homeschooling” in those days, it would likely be called “unschooling” or even “radical unschooling” these days; since I dislike both those terms, Rolf later coined the term “life learning.”
A few years later, after much thinking and writing of my own, I picked up Escape from Childhood and discovered that John Holt had also moved beyond schools. That book affirmed what I had discovered about how our culture has low expectations of and respect for children – an injustice that I hoped to circumvent as our young family explored living without school. Those low expectations, I realized, resulted in compulsory attendance laws designed to coerce and manipulate children to learn and to “socialize.” That so-called “learning” was, of course, just memorization. And, however well-intentioned and seemingly benign, it was at the root of what I hated about being a teacher.
My confidence was bolstered by learning that John had also figured this out first-hand, largely through observation of children, rather than by reading other people’s work or taking courses at the academy. Years later, when I was asked by an academic which writers had led me to my interest in self-directed learning, I said that, aside from that influence from John Holt’s work, I’d figured it out for myself and that to have done otherwise would be incongruous. That response prompted a skeptical eyebrow raise from the academic. So I chuckled when I read John’s comment published in A Life Worth Living: The Selected Letters of John Holt: “There seems to me a suggestion . . . that in learning about the world, other people’s books are more important than observation. With this view I most emphatically and strongly disagree.”
Journey into Advocacy
In order that Rolf and I could both stay at home to facilitate our young daughters’ interest-led learning adventure, we launched a home-based publishing business and our first publication, Natural Life Magazine, in 1976. Along with many others in those early days of the modern homeschooling movement, we shared our adventure with John, mailing him some copies of the magazine and writing to him about our unschooling journey as it became interwoven with our business life.
At the same time, in an attempt to connect with other like-minded families, I also shared our family’s homeschooling status on my editorial page in Natural Life Magazine. Then, as a way of educating both school officials and other families about the legality of homeschooling, I launched one of the first national homeschooling support/advocacy groups. Those efforts were part of a wonderful period when a small but growing number of pioneering North American homeschooling families – many of whom became activists in their own provinces and states – came together in support and advocacy.
In early 1977, John told us about his plan to start a newsletter. He said that he found himself at the center of a growing homeschooling letter-writing network and that, since he was writing similar responses to a number of people, he thought a newsletter would be a good way to connect everyone and share ideas. He said he didn’t know anything about publishing and, since he admired Natural Life Magazine, he was asking us for advice. So, by phone, Rolf outlined the basics of print publishing and gave him some suggestions.
Growing Without Schooling
Not long after, we received the first issue of Growing Without Schooling in the mail. In Natural Life Magazine’s summer 1977 issue, I wrote:
We’ve just received a note from John Holt, author of Escape from Childhood and a number of other excellent books about the terrible way society and schools treat our children. He sent along the first issue of his four-page newsletter called Growing Without Schooling (GWS).
It is basically about ways in which people, young or old, can learn and do things, acquire skills, and find interesting and useful work, without having to go through the process of school.
Mostly, it promises to be about people who want to take or keep their children out of school, and about what they might do instead. It is an exchange, and much of this and future issues will come from readers sharing ideas, feelings, experiences, and needs.
Natural Life Magazine will continue to feature articles about the logistics of keeping your kids out of the public school system and schools in general. So GWS is a very welcome support and inspiration to those of us involved in our young children’s education.
John kept us informed about the newsletter’s development, and we published further announcements about it, since it was, at the time, the only publication of its kind. For its part, Natural Life Magazine had both Canadian and U.S. editions, and was sold on newsstands across North America. As a result of our coverage, and articles in other magazines like Mother Earth News, which published an iconic interview with John, GWS received a great deal of mail, many letters asking questions about homeschooling legalities. Since John and his small staff had a hard time keeping up with all the queries, they began to regularly bundle up some of those letters and mail them off to me for a response. Likewise, when I received queries that the people at Holt Associates were better able to answer, I referred them to the GWS office, lessening the burden of the deluge of mail on our family’s time and resources, and continuing the exchange of information and support with John and his staff.
John was, famously, a prolific letter writer. Sometimes, we’d receive from him a utilitarian note typed on a postcard; other times, he’d send a long and thoughtful letter about life, children, learning, self-reliance, alternative economics, or peace (all topics we were writing about in Natural Life Magazine). He discussed his frustration with people who were still trying to reform schools, who felt that homeschooling was elitist, and other criticisms by progressives that persist today. He also shared with me his frustration at not having enough time to do all the writing he’d like – more books, GWS, and letters – let alone to pursue his passion for music.
In spite of that frustration, John felt his work about education was very important in terms of correcting injustice in the world. In the first issue of GWS, he wrote that by starting the newsletter, he and his staff were “putting into practice a nickel and dime theory about social change, which is, that important and lasting social change always comes slowly, and only when people change their lives....” That resonated with me, because it was exactly what I had set out to do with our publishing business, and with my writing and advocacy. He went on to describe the incremental process of making change and his part in it, which was to help grow the minority who do not believe in compulsory schooling and who believe that children can be trusted to learn about the world “without much adult coercion or interference.”
As my advocacy role expanded after our family had a few run-ins with arrogant school board officials and uninformed social services people, I took strength from watching the GWS directory of individuals and groups swell in size as the homeschooling movement grew. The newsletter’s format anticipated today’s social media, where we can connect with others of like mind, share ideas and experiences, find inspiration and support, and commiserate when things go wrong. GWS also – most importantly, I think, in terms of the nickel and dime theory of making change – provided its readers with concrete examples of people of all ages, but especially children, learning by living (something we also do here in Life Learning Magazine).
Humility and Patience
In spite of John’s huge influence on so many families via his role at the helm of this revolution, I found him to be a remarkably humble man. I remember sharing with him my surprise and concern that most people who contacted me for homeschooling information wanted me to tell them what to do and how to do it, to provide them with a set of rules and procedures (and curriculum, of course) that would replace those of school. My goal was different, I told him; I wanted to help people develop the strength and self-reliance to live and learn without all of that third-party interference.
John had similar concerns. And he expressed his own discomfort with the idea that people would cling to his words as to those of a celebrity or hero, and how incompatible that was with the way families have to take control of their own ideas in order to homeschool. He saw himself as a leader among many, and he wanted to empower others to become leaders too, rather than followers.
That lack of conceit – accompanied by his plain- spoken writing style, the anti-academic, pro-child nature of his subject, and his infectious love for children and open mind about what would make their lives better – has ensured that John’s work endures. Looking back, I am impressed and inspired by the way he balanced his highly original thinking and writing, and his self-description as a “man of letters,” with his disdain for the academy (and the early dismissal of his work by academics). A few years ago, when I was nominated for an honorary degree (which I ultimately didn’t receive), I delighted in the discovery that he had refused such an “honor” from Wesleyan University decades before, stating that colleges are among “the chief enslaving institutions” in America.
But John’s focus was children. His legacy was his certainty that children can and should be respected and trusted to learn, rather than being subjected to compulsory treatment by an institution. In the early days, that is what homeschooling was about. As the home- schooling movement has grown and fractured into many different camps, some of the focus on respect and trust has been lost, and some major coercion of children is now done in homeschooling’s name. In addition, a whole industry has developed to provide specialized homeschool curriculum, complete with mandated projects, schedules, tests, texts, and other resources to be used by teaching parents.
I do not think that is what John had in mind when he suggested that parents Teach Your Own (1981). Closer to what he envisioned is the term “unschooling,” a term that he introduced to convey the need to move away from the trappings of school. As he told it, he was looking for a word that didn’t make people think about school at-home and heard a 7-UP commercial that referred to the soft drink as the “Un-Cola.” In the second issue of GWS in 1977, he wrote simply that they would use unschooling “when we mean taking kids out of school.”
That vague definition should make it clear that the meaning of the word wasn’t cast in stone; indeed, he hoped it would evolve. In a piece Pat Farenga wrote for GWS shortly after John died in the fall of 1985, he pointed out, “One message John brings out in every book, and every day at work he brought it out in our conversations about the day’s events, is that everything is open to question. We should be critical of John’s writing as he was of others’ writing, but when we find something in it that withstands our examination, we should grab ahold of it, treasure it and nurture it, as John did to so many other people’s work.”
In 2013, Pat created and published the book The Legacy of John Holt: A Man Who Genuinely Understood, Respected, and Trusted Children, to which I contributed. In his essay in the book, Aaron Falbel, another of John’s colleagues (and the husband of Susannah Sheffer, an early GWS editor) writes, “…if John Holt were alive today, I think he would be saddened by the efforts of some people who try to turn his term ‘unschooling’ into some sort of a system, into a set of rules that must be followed. John trusted parents to learn from their experience with their children. He didn’t say, ‘If you’re going to call it unschooling, you’re going to have to do it my way.’ He wanted them to figure out what was right for them, for their whole family.”
From that open-minded but principled foundation, the notion of self-education or open-source learning has developed and is currently taking hold at the post-secondary level, fueled by technology and the economy. That appears, in turn, to be fueling a new interest in the idea of living and learning with children in the freedom that John envisioned – and is slowly, by nickels and dimes, revolutionizing not only education, but children’s lives.
Wendy Priesnitz is Life Learning Magazine's editor. This essay, published in Life Learning Magazine in 2015, is an expanded version of a chapter in the book The Legacy of John Holt (2013).
How Children Fail, 1964, 1982, 1995
How Children Learn, 1967, 1983, 1995
The Underachieving School, 1969
What Do I Do Monday? 1970, 1995
Freedom and Beyond, 1972, 1995
Escape From Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children, 1974, 1981, 2013
Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better, 1976, 2003
Never Too Late,1978, 1991
Teach Your Own, 1981
Learning All the Time, 1989, 1990
A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters of John Holt, 1991 (edited by Susannah Sheffer)
Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling, 2003 (revised by Patrick Farenga)
The Legacy of John Holt: A Man Who Genuinely Understood, Respected, and Trusted Children, 2013 (edited by Patrick Farenga)