Remembering John Holt
It was having children of my own that first made me think about education and schools and teaching, (or was it first schools and then education and much later teaching, —I’m still today hard pressed to say which came first) although I began to teach years before becoming a father myself. And was it, I asked, was it as they say that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach? Probably so in my own case.
I taught because I had had a very liberal education, and had read a lot of good books, and was ready to talk about them, although my reading was mostly in the humanities and little in the STEM subjects, in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, which if I had read instead miReght have enabled me to do, and not just to teach.
I began teaching because as I quickly learned my own education in the humanities was of little value or interest outside of the school or college classroom where kids were if not compelled at least expected to sit there and listen to me, not for what I could do, for what I could show them, but for the little I knew from my own recent classroom and lecture experience about the content of some of the so- called great books.
With children of our own my wife and I started to think a lot about schools for them, and we right away didn’t much like those that we saw, and began to keep our kids at home at a time when there was little or no home schooling movement, other than that of just one extraordinary individual, John Holt.
And as it turned out in order to go on doing so, in order to keep them at home, we had to start a school of our own. This was in the late sixties and early seventies, the heyday of the radical education reformers, most of whom would do away with schools entirely, or start free schools where there was no compulsion. These were thinkers and writers like John Holt of course, but many, many others, Ivan Illich, A.S. Neil, Paul Goodman, and Dan Greenberg, almost a neighbor who began his own A.S.Neil like school in Sudbury, Massachusetts.
Now these men (they were all men, and perhaps that’s why they never did much influence the educational establishment) were wonderfully engaging writers and thinkers and I read them all and found in what I read more than enough support for going ahead with our own, borrowing the term that we first encountered in Berkeley, CA, “free school.”
That was nearly 50 years, half a century ago. The radical reformers then are now, if not dead, all of the past, and one encounters them only in the history books. They had a brilliant message but were not listened to and the schools are pretty much the same today as they were then. That is the true tragedy of the schools, good advice was always there but never listened to.
However, there is still talk of reforming the schools. In fact this talk has never stopped. Those running for office never fail to have their own agenda of school reform. It’s a constant, and like death and taxes it may never go away.
There seem to always be those who tell us that this or that reform is what is needed, the Standards Movement, school choice, No child left behind law, a longer school day and smaller classrooms, Teacher Evaluations, and now most recently the Common Core.
But it’s all only talk. Nothing essential ever changes. The same problems are there now as at the start. But things may even be worse, because now there is no one out there saying as did Holt, Illich, Goodman et al. in the sixties, that the schools ought to be shut down and that we ought to begin again.
If there are those of us who think that the schools ought to be closed, that Horace Mann’s at the time in the 1840s admirable experiment with universal compulsory education had gone wrong, was wrong to start with, we keep the opinion to ourselves.
But John Holt is as right today as he was when he answered the question posed to him by Education News some 50 years ago: “If America’s schools were to take one giant step forward this year toward a better tomorrow, what should it be?
Here is Holt’s answer to the question:
“…to let every child be the planner, director, and assessor of his own education, to allow and encourage him, with the inspiration and guidance of more experienced and expert people, and as much help as he asked for, to decide what he is to learn, when he is to learn it, how he is to learn it, and how well he is learning it.
It would be to make our schools, instead of what they are, which is jails for children, into a resource for free and independent learning, which everyone in the community, of whatever age, could use as much or as little as he wanted.”
Too bad today that those in charge don’t listen, still don’t hear what he was saying.