Where we stand now, with thanks to John Holt

Maya just finished reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I am reading it now.  This is a book I’ve always known about but never read.   It is set in 1912 Brooklyn and follows a young girl named Francie Nolan as she comes of age.   Her family is poor and the book is a chronicle of her life from day to day.   I had not thought to mention it here, except that there is a rather scathing description of the local school that Francie begins to attend at the age of 7, along with her 6 year old brother.   The book was written in 1942 by Betty Smith and draws heavily on her own upbringing in the poor immigrant area of Williamsburg Brooklyn.   Here is the author’s description of what going to school was like:

“Francie, huddled with other children of her kind, learned more that first day then she realized.  She learned of the class system of a great Democracy.  She was puzzled by her teacher’s attitude.  Obviously the teacher hated her and others like her for no other reason that that they were what they were.  Teacher acted as though they had no right to be in school but that she was forced to accept them and was doing so with as little grace as possible.  She begrudged them the few crumbs of learning she threw at them.”

This passage caught my particular attention in light of the fact that I just finished reading the Selected Letters of John Holt,  A Life Worth Living in which he often talks at length about schools and teachers and how he came to the conclusion that school reform of any kind was futile.   The only solution is to do away with schools and the power they hold over children.    Because Holt is far more eloquent on this topic than I could ever hope to be, I am not going to attempt to paraphrase him.   Here then are some of his thoughts on schooling, schools and teachers:

From a letter dated 9/25/1970 to Kevin White, then Mayor of Boston:

“When we define education as formal schooling, and encourage children and their parents all over the country to get into the competitive consumption of schooling, to see who can keep their children in schools the longest, we bring about a situation in which there is necessarily not enough to go around.   The more people who have a given educational credential, the less value that credential has in guaranteeing them access to employment and status.  When everyone in this country has a high school diploma, the diploma will be worthless, and the cry will be that you have to go to college to get a good job. [italics are mine]   When everyone goes to college the Bachelor’s Degree will in the same way become worthless, and everybody will be told that they have to go to graduate school to get a good job.  It is a never-ending rat race, and we have got to begin to think of ways to get out of it.”

From a letter dated 12/28/1970 to Max Rafferty, then California State Superintendent of Public Instruction:

“Perhaps the trouble with the traditional notion of the Body of Knowledge is that it makes knowledge dead where it should be alive, and that it divides it up into parts where it should be a whole… The other thing I would like to say is that there is nothing in books but print.  There is no knowledge in books; the knowledge only comes when I have read the print and, in my mind, changed or added to my view of how things are.   We like to say that we get knowledge from books; it would be more accurate to say we make knowledge out of books.”

From a letter dated 9/30/1971 to Pam Dant, a former student of Holt’s:

“In any case, regardless of what people like me say, I think schools are in serious trouble.  On the one hand, they are being rejected in larger and larger numbers by the students themselves.  On the other hand, they are beginning to be questioned by more and more of the adult members of the population.  We have here an 80 plus billion dollar a year industry which is not really producing anything that anybody wants – neither courageous, confident, life-loving human beings, [nor] even, on the other hand, docile and skillful workers.  Nothing in the future is certain, but one thing seems to me as certain as any, and that is that 25 or even 10 years from now schools will not be anywhere near as prominent in American life as they are now.”

(How I wish this was the case!)

From a letter  dated 8/30/1973 to Neil Postman, author of Teaching as a Subversive Activity:

“Why do schools not teach critical thinking (assuming, which I am not sure of, that it can be taught?)  Because they don’t know how to?  Because they never thought of it?  No.  Because they don’t want to.  Their assigned task is quite the opposite — to convey a set of conventional beliefs, attitudes, and values.  Can this be changed?  Perhaps, but not in and by the schools.  No use asking school people to reform the schools.  Might as well ask soldiers to become pacifists.  The schools, like the Army, are what they are because of what they do, and are given to do, and told to do.  To change this is a political task (which like all political tasks has an educational component).”

From a letter dated March 23, 1974 to Sir Richard Acland of St. Luke’s College in England.

“I am not very keen on visiting schools, even the very best.  I do a lot of this, and it troubles me.  My hosts, who are very proud of what they are doing, take me around, waiting for the magic words to fall from my mouth, ‘It Is Good.’  What I am usually thinking is, ‘What is all this in aid of, anyway?  What does what is happening here have to do with the future lives of these children or young people, or the society in which they must live?’   And I reflect, if the children are older than about 10, that in a properly ordered society they would not, most of the time, be in a school at all — there would be more interesting, real and useful things for them to do…  I don’t want to visit any more good schools… What seems to hover in the air is the thought, ‘See, this is what all schools could be like, if we teachers and teachers of teachers just do our job right.’  No.  Not so.  I insist that the institution is by and large not humane because its functions are not humane.  Its function is to prepare the great majority of people in modern society to do work not worth doing and on the whole live lives not very much worth living, and to believe that this is the best of all possible worlds, and that they deserve what they get.”

From a letter dated April 16, 1976 to Gerald Walker of the “New York Times” who had asked Holt to write an article regarding doing away with compulsory schooling requirements:

“To make schools truly non-compulsory, and to give young people a true choice of whether to attend the or not, we must do much more than abolish compulsory attendance laws.  We must take from the schools altogether the power they now have to grade, rank, and label their students, to make judgments about them which will follow them throughout their lives and to a very large degree determine what they can do and become.  Where society demands that people show competence before being allowed to do something, as in driving a car, we must test that competence directly… And we must separate very sharply the teaching of skills from the testing and certifying of them… Beyond this, I must argue very strongly that the difference between obedient and disruptive children in school is not that the former ‘want to learn’ and that the latter do not.  The testimony of a great many teachers as well as students over the past ten years or so has made it clear that with few exceptions the schools do not give a damn whether their poor and minority group students learn anything or not.  Not only do they make relatively little effort to teach them, but what they do teach has at best little or no connection with the needs, experience, or curiosity of these children, and is at worst biased against them or downright false.  The schools, in short, teach poor children almost nothing that would help them understand the causes of their poverty or ways in which they might end it. … Tests and experience have shown over and over again that there is almost no correlation whatever between what people are taught or even learn in school and what they do in society.”

From a letter dated May 2, 1977 to Judson Jerome, poet and professor whose children became the first Holt knew to be learning outside of school:

“I don’t believe in schools.  It’s not just that I don’t believe they are reformable.  I don’t believe they are needed.  I don’t believe there were a good invention in the first place.  I think the very idea that what we learn outside of regular life is better and more important than what we learn [in it] is mistaken, harmful, discriminatory, class prejudiced, etc.  I don’t believe that most learning is, or must be, or need be, or even can be the result of teaching.”

From a letter dated November 21, 1977 to John McDermott:

I used to think, when I ran around giving inspirational speeches to teachers, that I was helping to change teaching and education.  I believe I understand much more clearly [now] what my function is as a lecturer to educational conferences — that is, the reason for which these people hire me.  I have spoken of the primary and secondary purposes of schools.  Secondary purposes are all those things about democratic values, cultural tradition, communication skills, critical thought, best that man has thought and done, etc.  The primary purposes are (1) to keep kids out of the adults’ hair, (2) to grade, rank and label them, (3) to prepare them for life as mass producers and consumers.  Most teachers don’t even like to think about those primary purposes.  Some teachers understand that they exist, but think that they can carry out the secondary purposes anyway.  The hard fact is that the primary and secondary purposes cannot be carried out in the same institution, they are altogether incompatible.”

From a letter dated July 19, 1978 to Mabel Dennison, one of the founders of the First Street School:

“…I think that a considerable part of what children need is to be left alone, not only left alone by adults, but left alone by other kids, except perhaps for a special chosen friend or two.  Another important part of what they need is the opportunity to associate, as freely as they wish, and more or less as equals, with a range of adults who are busy with serious work — work other than looking after kids.  The more I think of the idea of making a life’s work of looking after children or doing nice things for children, the more terrible, empty, manipulative, corrupting, etc., it seems to me, no matter how nice the people may be who are doing it.  I feel that the world is full of interesting, important, and indeed urgent things to do, and that we ought to be busy doing them…and welcoming children to do them with us so far as they wish and in whatever ways they can.”

Twenty six years after Holt’s death in 1985, where do we stand?  I hope we are somewhat better off than in Betty Smith’s description of public schooling in 1908, but I’m not sure about that.   At least the brutality she described was overt; the kids knew where they stood.  Now things tend to be much more insidious in nature, and the prejudices that still plague us are disguised or blamed on the kids.     On the positive side,  there are 2.5 million homeschoolers in the U.S. at latest estimates.   150,000 or so of those are unschoolers/life learners.   As a friend recently pointed out, there are families unschooling their kids today who have never read any of John Holt’s books.   Which is both disappointing and encouraging – disappointing because Holt is the father, so to speak, of the theory behind modern unschooling, and encouraging because it means the idea has become mainstream enough that people are aware of it even without Holt’s works.

We still have a long way to go.   Case in point is this week’s Sunday Times Magazine, which devotes a majority of the issue to the topic of school reform,  with no mention of homeschooling/unschooling as an option for parents.  And so it goes.  I wish there were voices like Holt’s out there today, but since everything he wrote could have been written yesterday, I’m thankful that at least we still have his.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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