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A Life Worth Living and a Job Worth Doing
Patrick Farenga talks with Life Learning Magazine Editor Wendy Priesnitz about John Holt, unschooling, and life

Patrick Farenga talks about John Holt, unschooling, and lifePat Farenga worked closely with John Holt for four years, until Holt’s death in 1985. He is the President of Holt Associates Inc. and was the Publisher of Growing Without Schooling (GWS) magazine from 1985 until it stopped publishing in November, 2001. He has written numerous magazine articles and book chapters, and published and edited several books about home-based learning, including his own book The Beginner’s Guide to Homeschooling. As a sought-after expert on home-based learning, he has appeared on television and radio shows, including The Today Show, The Voice of America, CNN’s Parenting Today, and NPR’s The Merrow Report. He has also addressed audiences at numerous meetings and conferences around the world, including ones he has organized. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife Day; their three grown daughters learned without schooling for various parts of their educations. He now works as a writer, speaker, and education consultant, and is devoted to keeping John Holt’s work alive.

Wendy Priesnitz: I remember reading John Holt’s early books in teachers’ college in the late 1960s. In fact, I still have my original copy of How Children Learn dated 1967. It opened me to the idea that children have an incredible capacity for figuring things out themselves, which was contrary to what I was learning at teachers’ college. But he was talking mostly to educators and about schools. He was a school reformer, teaching in a private school. How did he get from there to giving up on schools altogether?

Pat Farenga: How Children Learn is an interesting place to start. John referred to it as being ahead of its time. Trusting children to learn was a pretty radical idea in the 1960s, when it was thought that children were a blank slate.

When he looked at his experiences in the classroom, and talked to his school reform contemporaries like Jim Hearndon [The Way it Spozed to Be], George Dennison [The Lives of Children], Herbert Kohl [36 Children] and Jonathon Kozol [Death at an Early Age], while he agreed with them about children’s sense of self and individuality being important, he felt there was a lot more to learning than schools.

What was different about him was that he didn’t let the institution [of school] cloud his vision of what was good for children. He didn’t agree that it was okay to sacrifice a few for the good of many. He said, “It doesn’t have to be a win or lose situation.”

“In the early issues of Growing Without Schooling, he said that most of his friends were ASPS – angry at schools but protecting schools. They saw the problems and dangers, but couldn’t make the break with the idea of school. That sort of double talk rankled John … His approach, when he realized that schools weren’t going to change, was to do something different.”

In the early issues of Growing Without Schooling, he said that most of his friends were ASPS – angry at schools but protecting schools. They saw the problems and dangers, but couldn’t make the break with the idea of school.That sort of double talk rankled John (and now it rankles me too). His approach, when he realized that schools weren’t going to change, was to do something different. He realized that one of the major educational problems is separating children from real life, that they need to see how maths and sciences are used in real life. So he began to think about ways to facilitate that...and homeschooling seemed like the right way to go.

The revisions to his earlier books reflect this growth in thinking. As his ideas developed, he didn’t excise his previous thoughts, he built on them. When he updated How Children Learn and How Children Fail in the 1980s, for instance, he drew a line down the side and said, “He’s the other John Holt; I thought that was a good idea at the time, but now the older John Holt knows this to be the case.” He didn’t need to protect his position by erasing his former thoughts and writings, like so many writers do. And the subtext of that is that he was proving by example that people can continue to learn.

Wendy Priesnitz: One of John’s strengths was his ability to communicate the pivotal difference between teaching and helping people to learn things. I know he was somewhat of an independent scholar, but what was his own education like? Was he a trained teacher?

Pat Farenga: He never studied education, although he taught at private schools for many years. He had a degree in industrial engineering. But he actually didn’t like to talk about his education. He realized that school is a sorting mechanism, and felt that bragging about where you went to school perpetuates that. It was important for him to acknowledge that there are more ways to be knowledgeable than school allows.

John Holt
By the time I became involved, his bio read something like: “Everything I’ve learned that has helped me in life I’ve learned outside of school.”

Just because he had written a bunch of books, some people would refer to him as “Dr. Holt,” even though he didn’t have even an honorary doctorate. This always amazed him because he felt that anybody who is industrious can pump out books (doing it well is, of course, another matter).

At one point, his agent suggested that he take a teaching position at a university. But he said, “No way!” He knew that if he did he’d have to research what they wanted, not what he was interested in. His research motivation, as he put it was, “I taught them, they didn’t learn, and I wanted to know why.” He wasn’t as interested in academic theory as he was in how do you make it work with individual children.

He did eventually become a visiting lecturer at Harvard and Berkeley, but that didn’t last long. At one point at Harvard when he was questioning [the idea of] school, the professors said to him, “But Mr. Holt, if people don’t go to school they won’t fit on the tracks.” And that was the point – he believed we needed new tracks.

Wendy Priesnitz: I’ve always found it interesting that even though he was a bachelor with no children of his own, John seemed to know so much about young children and could give such good parenting advice. Why was that?

Pat Farenga: He liked children and their foolishness. A few times I heard him get upset with children, and even once yell at a child, but he had lots of patience.

His sisters had kids, with whom he enjoyed spending time. When he traveled to speak at conferences, he preferred to stay in people’s homes, rather than hotels. And by the 1980s he had developed quite a network across the country of families with whom he could stay.

“One of his favorite things to do was to sit in parks and playgrounds in Boston and observe children. In later years, he said he felt he had to take a newspaper to hide behind because an old man watching kids in a park was automatically suspect.”

One of his favorite things to do was to sit in parks and playgrounds in Boston and observe children. In later years, he said he felt he had to take a newspaper to hide behind because an old man watching kids in a park was automatically suspect. In Teach Your Own he tells a story about gathering leaves in a park for the compost pile he kept on his condo balcony (much to the disgust of his neighbors). A group of young boys saw him, asked what he was doing and began to help him. They helped carry the leaves home and he showed them about composting and the worms. Nowadays, sadly, that couldn’t or wouldn’t happen. But he liked to put himself in positions where he could be with children – not in a teaching position, but observing and talking with them.

Wendy Priesnitz: When John coined the word “unschooling,” what did he mean by it?

Pat Farenga: He used it to describe what families were doing at home with their kids during school hours. He created it in order to avoid giving the impression that families were really creating miniature schools in their homes, as the word homeschooling connotes. I see it not as a method, but an attitude towards learning and children, a way of life.

In a chapter called “Living With Children” in Teach Your Own, John makes it plain that [what he’s talking about] is not a matter of leaving children alone. He admits they can be wild and unruly, but believes they want to get better and says let’s work with that. Nowhere does he make a moral judgment – kids are good or kids are bad. He says they are “born kind” and that they are good at learning.

"He created [the word unschooling] in order to avoid giving the impression that families were really creating miniature schools in their homes, as the word homeschooling connotes. I see it not as a method, but an attitude towards learning and children, a way of life."
Wendy Priesnitz: Since you started at Holt Associates, the homeschooling movement has gone from being started by largely left-wing intellectuals, to being embraced by the religious right, to being quite mainstream.

Pat Farenga: Yes, it even has a bit of cachet about it now, doesn’t it?

Wendy Priesnitz: Where do you see it going in the future?

Pat Farenga: Homeschooling is so big now that the movement can afford to divide and factionalize. And I have mixed feelings about that. It’s nice to see the field getting bigger, but it’s moving from a family farm to agribusiness!

I can’t predict the future; nobody can. But it will change. And there will be op-
portunities and dangers.

The Internet and distance learning could be a good thing for homeschooling. But only if people realize that the nonlinear aspects of the Internet are far more interesting than the linear ones. But right now, I see the same boring old crap there – just taking text books and running them through the pipeline. A communication medium should be putting people in touch with each other rather than with commodities.

In a consumer society, when the vast majority of people want the degrees and are willing to pay for them, we may be our own worst enemy. People seem to think you can never have too much education. In fact, that mentality has already hit the homeschooling movement. People are now saying they want to homeschool because it’s academically superior, so their kid can get into Harvard.

But I think a real disillusionment is coming. As college gets more and more expensive, people will start questioning why they need all this education. Homeschoolers are already doing that.

"Homeschoolers – and unschoolers in particular – know that they don’t need a degree to make their learning worthwhile. They want to learn because they’re interested. They want, as John wrote, 'a life worth living and a job worth doing.' And this, for me, is the hope of homeschooling."

Homeschoolers – and unschoolers in particular – know that they don’t need a degree to make their learning worthwhile. They want to learn because they’re interested. They want, as John wrote, “a life worth living and a job worth doing.” And this, for me, is the hope of homeschooling.

So on one hand, I think things are going to hell in a handbasket. But I have hope. Even with the school-at-homers who go to the conventions and buy up all those materials. The hope is that the stack of materials will be sitting there a month or two later because they listened to their kids!

Wendy Priesnitz: How did you get involved with Holt Associates and GWS?

Pat Farenga: It was 1981. I had a Masters in English and wanted to teach. My girlfriend (now my wife Gay) was in Boston, so I wanted to teach there. But there were no jobs. So I was working in a bookstore. John Holt’s office was right next door to the bookstore. And he read books like I eat pasta – two or three a day, so he came into the store a lot. I had no idea who he was but one of the cashier’s husbands was volunteering for Holt Associates. I was fed up with retail work, so I started volunteering there too, typing up labels as a way of learning word processing. John and I introduced ourselves and he said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Teach.” He looked at me, shook his head and said, “Pat, you’ve got it wrong. Your not going to work with children; you’ll work on them.” He said if I was interested, to read some of his books and then we’d talk.

I couldn’t get into Teach Your Own at the time – and never really appreciated it until after John died. But I read some of his other books and the more I talked with John, I had to reflect on my own school experiences. He realized from his experience in the World Federalist Association in the 40s and 50s that you don’t change the world (or people’s minds) with great arguments. And it wasn’t “a great argument” from him that made me realize the smoke and mirrors of school. I realized that idea in school is that I wouldn’t learn anything if it wasn’t forced on me. And that, said John, is the creed of a slave (even though we live in a democracy).

Wendy Priesnitz: Why did you decide to stay on after John died? Was it an easy decision?

Pat Farenga: It was a major decision. John and I talked about it for a year before he died. I didn’t know what I was getting into! It certainly wasn’t for the money, which has always been a struggle. In my heart, I felt that was where I should be, and it spoke to my head because it made sense.

A longer version of this interview was published in Life Learning Magazine in 2002, the year that Life Learning Magazine began publication and a year after Growing Without Schooling ceased publication. You can learn more about Holt Associates; Pat Farenga, his writing, and his speaking engagements, including a webinar series he is currently offering; as well as watch some old John Holt videos and read back issues of GWS at www.johnholtgws.com.

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