A Radical Ideology for Home Education: The Journey of John Holt from School Critic to Home School…

The current home school movement in the United States emerged from the social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s and typified the growing disaffection with the American public school institution and the accompanying increase in the demand for educational alternatives. Parental displeasure with the schools took many forms, such as radicals’ opposition to institutional regimentation, white resistance to the racial desegregation of schools in the South, and conservative Christian reaction to the growing secularization of public education. The existing scholarship suggests that the home school movement emerged largely as an embodiment of both radical reform from the left and conservative Christianity.
This study, based on a chronological treatment of primary sources, deals with the philosophical underpinnings of the home school movement from the tradition of the radical left, by examining the works of John Holt, the man perhaps most influential in providing an intellectual base for the radical segment of the movement. This discussion will help us understand, in part, the larger disaffection with public education in America and the weakening of the common school ideal which has captivated the American mind for more than a century. Specifically, this work gives us a more complete picture of one element of educational dissent in the U.S. and why a growing number of American children stay home to go to school.
John Holt and The Emergence of a Radical Ideology for Home Schools
John Caldwell Holt (1923-1985), the oldest of three children in a wealthy New England family, was reared in New York City and Connecticut. Holt spent his elementary school years in private schools in New York City and Switzerland, followed by high school at the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy, where he graduated the youngest in his class. Holt subsequently enrolled in Yale University’s engineering school[1] and upon graduation in 1943, aspired to be a physicist, but first received a commission as an officer on the submarine Barbero during the latter years of World War II (Allen, 1981; Farenga interview, October 20, 1994).
When the war ended in 1945, Holt became convinced by the dropping of the atom bomb that civilization was at risk, and he went to work for the New York State branch of the United World Federalists, an organization involved in the World Government movement. In 1952, bored and unchallenged in his duties, he left the organization for a year’s travel in Europe (Allen, 1981; Sheffer, 1990)).
When he returned to the U.S., Holt looked for meaningful work and considered taking up farming. His sister, who resided in Santa Fe, New Mexico, had noticed Holt’s positive interaction with her own children and encouraged her brother to consider teaching. Holt resisted the idea until she suggested the Rocky Mountain School, an experimental boarding school in Carbondale, Colorado (near Aspen), whose faculty and students grew their own food and helped maintain the school. Even if teaching proved distasteful, Holt reasoned, he could at least learn to farm. Because the school had no faculty openings, Holt worked and observed in exchange for room and board, eventually filling a fifth grade math, English, and French teaching position and developing a fascination with the learning process. After four years, Holt, at the age of 34, left Carbondale for Boston where he continued his teaching experiences at a succession of schools—Shady Hill School,[2] Lesley-Ellis School, and eventually at Commonwealth School. He was fired from all three positions because, among other things, he insisted that testing had detrimental effects on learning (Sheffer, 1990). Holt explained, “Schools were always a means to an end for me. I had to work in schools in order to answer my questions on learning and children’s intelligence. But I never identified myself as a schoolteacher” (Allen, 1981, p. 6). Although fascinated with children, Holt never identified with parenthood either, remaining single throughout his life (Allen, 1981).
Holt first gained national attention as an educational critic with the publication of How Children Fail in 1964, a book which helped usher in the radical school reform movement that began in the mid-1960s. He based the book on memos and letters to a teaching colleague written between February, 1958 and June, 1961 dealing with his teaching experiences in Carbondale and Boston. Holt’s main theme was the learning process and his belief that most school environments actually hinder true learning. Holt insisted that a large majority of American children fail in school in the sense that “they fail to develop more than a tiny part of the tremendous capacity for learning, understanding, and creating with which they were born and of which they made full use during the first two or three years of their lives” (Holt, 1964, p. xiii). He attributed this large-scale failure to an educational system consumed with disseminating a fixed body of information and distrustful of the interests of children. Thus manipulated by teachers and administrators, the children, in turn, become manipulators of the system in order to deal with the fear, boredom, and confusion fostered by a schooling process insensitive to their needs. Holt wrote that children “are afraid, above all else, of failing, of disappointing or displeasing the many anxious adults around them, whose limitless hopes and expectations for them hang over their heads like a cloud” (p. xiii). Specifically, Holt protested the curriculum forced on students which he regarded as irrelevant to their lives and which was increasingly geared to merely improving scores on standardized achievement tests. He was particularly perturbed with three “absurd and harmful” (p. 175) educational assumptions—first, that there is an essential body of knowledge that everyone should know; second, that a person’s level of education should be determined by how much of this knowledge he or she has mastered; and, third, that the duty of schools is to impart to students as much of this essential knowledge as possible. How Children Fail did not just criticize American education, however, but went on to offer a general prescription for school reform. Holt’s vision called for schools and classrooms that offered children a “smorgasbord” (p. 180) of learning opportunities which each child could pursue in his own way based on his own interests, with teachers offering direction only when asked by the student (Holt, 1964).
The response of the educational and academic community to How Children Fail was ambivalent and included much sharp criticism (Featherstone, 1968; Hentoff, 1965; Gross, 1965; MacCampbell, 1964), but this did not hinder Holt’s sudden initiation into public life. While he became a popular lecturer, he also continued to visit schools and began to build a network of like-minded reformers through personal meetings and correspondence. Later, in 1968, Holt wrote to a former student, “I am meeting a lot of people in education who seem to be thinking in very much the ways I am, or at least seem to be ready to start thinking that way” (Sheffer, 1990, p. 37). This new-found circle of friends included British reformer A. S. Neill (Summerhill) and Americans George Dennison (The Lives of Children), Felix Greene, and James Herndon (The Way It Spozed to Be) (Sheffer, 1990).
In 1967, three years after the publication of How Children Fail, Holt penned its sequel, How Children Learn, in which he moved from the negative examples offered in the first book to descriptive examples of children going through positive learning experiences on their own. Using observations of mostly preschoolers between August, 1960 and June, 1965, Holt described a variety of learning styles and explained how children’s instinctive experimentation leads to learning. Holt’s intent was twofold: first, to argue for the dignity of children and, second, to contend that they have an astounding natural propensity for learning by themselves. Rather than forcing preconceived teaching strategies onto children, Holt argued, adults should seek to “better understand the ways, conditions, and spirit in which children do their best learning” and then to “make school into a place where they can use and improve the type of thinking and learning natural to them …” (Holt, 1967, p.viii). Holt believed that,
man is by nature a learning animal. Birds fly, fish swim, man thinks and learns. Therefore, we do not need to ‘motivate’ children into learning. … What we need to do … is bring as much of the world as we can into the … classroom; give children as much help and guidance as they need and ask for; listen respectfully when they feel like talking; and then get out of the way. We can trust them to do the rest. (Holt, 1967, p. 189)
By insisting that children are inherently good and curious and develop more positively apart from intrusive authority figures, Holt placed himself squarely in the Romantic tradition of Rousseau, Tolstoy, Dewey, and A. S. Neill. A friend of Holt later suggested that it was not that Holt had been influenced by his ideological predecessors, but that he had, through independent observation, reached the same conclusions (Sheffer, 1990).
With How Children Learn, Holt solidified his position as a leader among those calling for radical school reform, a group which included, among others, Herbert Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, and Edgar Friedenberg. But while gaining the admiration of his fellow “romantic critics” (Sheffer, 1990, p. 3), as they were sometimes called, he continued to offend some in the educational establishment.[3]  In spite of the sometimes harsh criticism, the popularity of How Children Fail and How Children Learn propelled Holt to national stature as a school reform advocate. As a result, his popularity as a lecturer heightened[4] and he became a frequent contributor to magazines, writing articles and book reviews for such publications as New York Review and Life (Stevens, 1970).
Holt’s third book, The Underachieving School (1969), was a compilation of some of his shorter works that had appeared in Today’s Education, Harper’s, Life, New York Times Magazine, Redbook, The PTA Magazine, and other publications. While Holt had assumed the dominant role of observer in How Children Fail and How Children Learn, he became primarily an advocate in this work. In it, Holt attacked the educational practices of testing, grading, fixed curriculum, and ability grouping as harmful to children. He also cited the immense pressure on students to attend college, the prevalence of teachers who talk too much, and the failure of inner-city schools to educate students. Therefore, Holt argued, since schools are rife with harmful practices, children should not be compelled to attend them. Holt agreed with radical British reformer A. S. Neill, whom he had visited at Summerhill twice in the late 1960s, in that the chief end of education should be the creation of happy people. The best decision American schools could make, Holt believed,
. . . would be 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. (Holt, 1969, p. IX)
By the time Holt’s fourth book, What Do I Do Monday?, was published in 1970, he was considered by many to be the chief spokesman for the radical school reform movement. Holt and others in the movement, such as Herbert Kohl (The Open Classroom) and George Dennison (The Lives of Children) had begun as harsh critics of American education, but later moved to the position of offering specific suggestions for making schools “more open, more sensitive, more responsive, more personal, [and] more flexible” (Stevens, 1970, p. 6). With What Do I Do Monday?, Holt entered this arena of offering practical, “how-to” information to teachers for improving classroom instruction in math, science, language, and other subject areas. For example, he described several physical tasks which children could perform while learning to measure speed and strength. Through these and other teaching strategies, Holt attempted to bring work and play together and demonstrate how children can benefit from active participation in the learning process (Holt, 1970). Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd had influenced Holt’s thoughts about meaningful work and the importance of not dichotomizing work and play (Sheffer, 1990).
In early 1970, Holt made the first of several visits to Ivan Illich’s Center for Intercultural Documentation (CIDOC) in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Illich, a former Catholic priest, had lived and worked in Puerto Rico and other poor Latin American countries and had come to the conclusion that the schools in these countries served no purpose but to keep the rich in power and the lower classes in ignorance and poverty. Subsequently, Illich became interested in educational reform in prosperous countries. At CIDOC, Illich and his colleagues discussed modern institutions, particularly the school, and held seminars on Illich’s concept of “deschooling.”  Illich argued that the school reform movement was misguided in its attempts to improve schools and suggested instead that schools and the notion of schooling should be abolished. By “schooling,” Illich meant the idea of education as a commodity to be acquired, distributed (too often unequally), and used to control access to jobs, skills, and knowledge. In effect, Illich believed, modern schools are a major vehicle for the perpetuation of social class distinctions; he envisioned a society without them. Holt was profoundly influenced by Illich’s work and wrote: “My short visit to CIDOC has made me feel much more strongly than before that our worldwide system of schooling is far more harmful, and far more deeply and integrally connected with many of the other great evils of our time, than I had supposed” (Sheffer, 1990, p. 56). Holt considered one of those evils to be war, particularly American involvement in Viet Nam, and opposed it through membership in pacifist organizations, temporary refusal to pay federal taxes, and active support for George McGovern’s campaign for president against Richard Nixon. He also came to view educational credentialism as an evil and advised college students to forego degrees. Holt saw Illich as a prophet and himself a tactician with the ability to make Illich’s vision a reality (Sheffer, 1990).
So, by 1971, Holt had concluded, along with Illich, that in spite of nearly a decade of talk in educational circles about reform, schools in America had changed very little and there seemed to be little hope that substantive improvement would ever come. Holt later lamented:
Teachers are not very brave about change. I used to think 75 percent of the teachers I met were allies. . . . Now I figure that it was closer to two or one percent. . . . I discovered that I couldn’t talk to teachers about any kinds of changes, however small . . . without their saying: `Why are you criticizing us?’  They believe that everything they’re doing is right and anything that goes wrong is not their fault. They are hermetically sealed to any change. (Allen, 1981, p.7)
In Freedom and Beyond (1971), Holt, having given up on school reform, turned his focus from education in classrooms to education in society as a whole. He echoed Ivan Illich’s call for the “deschooling” of U. S. society and the formation of a new educational order wherein “nobody would be compelled to go to school” and “in which there [would be] many paths to learning and advancement, instead of one school path as we have now—a path far too narrow for everyone, and one too easily and too often blocked off from the poor” (Holt, 1971). As alternatives to the formal, institutional public schools, Holt pointed to the emerging open schools and free schools[5] and hypothesized the formation of community learning centers available to all ages and serving individual needs and interests. Only in this way, according to Holt, could children escape the degradation of compulsory education and begin to exercise their own freedom of choice in pursuit of a meaningful education based on their own curiosity (Holt, 1971).
Freedom and Beyond elicited both laud and suspicion from critics.[6]  Holt’s descriptions of children in learning situations continued to captivate readers, while his proposed educational alternatives for disadvantaged children drew considerable interest and praise from fellow reformer Nat Hentoff (1972). Hentoff went on, however, to suggest that Holt had “not yet done nearly enough hard thinking to be able to show how . . . individual and community needs would be met through deschooling” (Hentoff, 1972, p. 64).
Holt responded to Hentoff’s charge, not by focusing on the deschooling issue, but by suggesting a redefinition of childhood itself. His “hard thinking” in this vein resulted in a sixth book, Escape From Childhood, published in 1974. Holt owed its inspiration to Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd (1960) and Peter Marin’s “The Open Truth and Fiery Vehemence of Youth,”[7] two works which Holt said, “first gave me the thought that modern childhood might not be a good idea” (Holt, 1974, pp. 9-10). Holt also acknowledged that he had “learned much” (p. 10) from historian Philip Aries’ Centuries of Childhood (1962). In Escape From Childhood, Holt continued his earlier arguments against the artificial separation in education of life from work, showing that the family appeared only recently in history and that late twentieth century childhood itself was an artificial, middle class fabrication. “[T]here is much evidence,” Holt claimed, “that the modern nuclear family is . . . the source of many people’s most severe problems” (p. 46). In fact, Holt suggested, many modern families are merely “miniature dictatorship[s]” (p. 48) and, like schools, teach children to submit to absolute authority. “It is training for slavery,” Holt said (p. 48). But Holt qualified his denunciation of the modern family:
I do not claim that young people were happier before modern childhood was invented, or that in some ways it did not improve the lives of some children, or that even now it is always and everywhere bad for everybody. All I am saying is this, that it doesn’t work well for many people, and that those people . . . ought to be allowed to try something else. (pp. 38-39)
Escape From Childhood put forth the case that modern childhood, though it originally intended to shield children from societal exploitation, actually degraded the child to the role of “expensive nuisance, slave, or super-pet” (p. 18). Holt argued that childhood goes on too long and that children should be initiated into adult life much sooner. Consequently, Holt reasoned, parents should be willing to relinquish authority over their children much sooner, since children are quite capable of assuming the responsibilities of “adult” life in spite of the popular myths of childhood’s beauty and innocence. Holt argued in favor of abolishing the modern institution of childhood, which he considered more of a prison than a garden, by making available to any child who wanted it, of any age, all “the rights, privileges, duties, and responsibilities” enjoyed by adults (p.18). Holt’s list of rights included the right to vote, to work for money, to own property, to direct one’s education, to travel, to choose one’s guardians, to use drugs, to drive, and to engage in sexual activity—in general, the right to do “what any adult may legally do” (p. 19).[8]  Holt saw his fight for children’s rights, along with the Women’s Liberation Movement, as part of a larger struggle between the powerful and the powerless in U.S. society (Sheffer, 1990).
The critics’ response to Escape From Childhood was predictable. While one saw Holt’s advocacy as “absorbing,” “sensible,” and “astonishingly cogent” (Levine, 1974), Robert Nordberg (1974), a Catholic educator and professor of education at Marquette University, sarcastically replied, “[S]o welcome, Junior, to the brave new world where you have a guaranteed income . . . sex with anybody . . . and the teacher may not burden you with anything that doesn’t strike your fancy. You will grow up to be an amoral, ignorant monster . . .” (Nordberg, 1974).
In 1976, seemingly undeterred by his detractors, Holt wrote Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better. This work reiterated his alliance with Illich’s deschooling ideas and his resolve that the institution of schools could not be reformed. Holt wrote:
Education, with its supporting system of compulsory and competitive schooling, all its carrots and sticks, its grades, diplomas, and credentials, now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and ‘fans,’ driven more and more . . . by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve ‘education’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and let people shape themselves. (Holt, 1976)
It was not, Holt said, that schools failed, as he had initially thought, but that they accomplished precisely what they set out to do—that is, keep children out of adult society, teach them to submit to authority, accept boredom, and categorize them into winners and losers in anticipation of their adult years. So, Holt insisted, the very nature of compulsory schooling necessarily eliminated the promise of real learning, especially for the poor, by building a wall between living and work. If U. S. society could, in fact, be deschooled, then the student would be responsible for his own education and no longer dependent on the teacher. Holt argued that this would also benefit the teacher in that he or she could then be free to develop the natural authority that comes from expertise rather than relying on coercive authority which prevails in institutional schooling. But Holt’s purpose was not to suggest that existing schools could be reformed by implementing new teaching strategies, rather he sought to propose ways that children could learn apart from schools, such as through libraries, resource exchanges, and the realization of natural curiosity (Holt, 1976).
The idea of education taking place outside of schools had been a major theme of Holt’s writings for years, along with his advocacy of children’s rights. So, it was not altogether surprising that he began to seek out parents who were actually taking the step to teach their children apart from the institution. Although Holt remained suspicious of parental authority, he believed the home could potentially offer a much greater degree of autonomy to children than the school (Farenga interview, October 20, 1994). In June, 1977, Holt wrote to an acquaintance who later engaged in home education: “I find myself writing letters . . . to a number of people, a growing number, many of whom are now beginning to write letters to each other, and it seemed to me that a newsletter would be a way in which we could all exchange our ideas and experiences. I’m quite excited about this, have lots of ideas for things to put in it, think it could be useful to many people” (Sheffer, 1990, p. 199). The publication Growing Without Schooling (GWS), a bi-monthly newsletter, grew out of this idea and became the focus of Holt’s work from 1977 until he died in 1985. GWS’s stated objective was to help individuals find alternatives to school, and so represented one of Holt’s contributions to what he felt would be lasting social change and the realization of Illich’s vision of a deschooled society. GWS included stories, news, and information about parents and their children who were actively engaged in educational activities outside of school. It also offered news about the home school movement, pen-pal listings, a home school family directory, reviews of recommended resources, and an ongoing dialogue among readers regarding common issues facing home educators (GWS, 1977; Sheffer, 1990). Holt told his readers in the first issue: “In starting this newsletter, we are putting into practice a nickel and dime theory of social change, which is that important and lasting social change always comes slowly, and only when people change their lives, not just their political beliefs . . .” (GWS, 1977, p.1). Along with the newsletter, Holt began a mail-order catalogue, “John Holt’s Book and Music Store,”[9] which featured his own books and others which he recommended. At the same time, he grew close to many home schooling families through correspondence and personal visits (Sheffer, 1990).
The willingness of parents to share their home school experiences in Growing Without Schooling provided Holt with the inspiration and raw material for his final, complete book before his death in 1985, called Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path For Education (1981). Convinced that children are born to learn and that schools hinder the process, Holt simply suggested that parents avoid schools altogether by withdrawing their children and providing alternative education at home. The title, addressed to parents, showed Holt’s reluctance to grant full, immediate autonomy to children, but did reflect his belief that children would largely be more free at home than in school. Holt began this work with a rationale for removing children from school, repeating previous charges against the system of compulsory education while introducing a new culprit, the peer group. In the home, he said, children could acquire basic academic and life skills, free from grades, competition, and the “mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, snobbish . . .” peer society prevalent in schools (p.45). He then introduced through positive testimonials that had appeared in Growing Without Schooling a number of parents who were actually teaching at home. The message was that even parents with limited schooling could provide their children with a learning environment conducive to intellectual, emotional, moral, and social growth. Holt then addressed the obvious problem of dealing with authorities and compulsory school attendance laws along with the challenge of implementing an educational program at home. Summarizing court cases and legal strategies for circumventing state compulsory school attendance statutes, Holt concluded that parents are within their rights to educate at home. The author then informed would-be home schoolers of ways to teach at home, from correspondence courses to the idea of designing their own curriculum (Holt, 1981).
Holt “caught flak” (Farenga interview, October 20, 1994) from feminists who felt that Teach Your Own was suggesting that they should give up all the gains of the Women’s Movement and go back home to teach their children. Holt was not bothered by their objections, however, asserting that home education was not for everyone and that many women found great freedom and fulfillment by staying at home rather than pursuing a career (Farenga interview, October 20, 1994; Sheffer, 1990). In a letter to feminist Gloria Steinem, Holt voiced his support for the movement, but exhorted her to establish a dialogue with women, such as his sister, who enjoyed being home. He wrote: “I think the `Women’s Liberation Movement’ is of enormous importance and I hope it grows and succeeds. . . . [but] I don’t think it will have much chance of doing either unless it can . . . speak effectively to a large group of women [who] unashamedly admit to being ‘a housewife’” (Sheffer, 1990, p. 105).
Regardless of the criticisms of home education, Holt believed that “in time the home schooling movement will do more to change schools than anything I ever did when I spent most of my time talking to schools. Only when enough people give them a vote of no confidence will schools begin to think seriously about change” (Allen, 1981, p. 7). Holt died of cancer in September, 1985,[10] and never saw the influence of home education on the schools that he had predicted, and the full extent of his influence on the movement remains unclear.
Evaluation and Conclusions
The life and works of John Holt raise some fundamental questions about the human experience that philosophers, theologians, and educators have debated for centuries. While time and space limit our ability to pursue these questions in whole or in any great detail, it would be beneficial to briefly examine at least the following three.
First, Can children make correct decisions about education and other life issues without significant adult intervention? This question, of course, is enveloped in the larger question regarding man’s inherent nature. That is, does he naturally tend to behave rightly, truthfully, justly, et cetera?  Or does man tend naturally toward selfishness, license, and moral convenience?[11]  As Pascal phrased it, is man an angel or a beast?  Holt reasoned from the Romantic tradition, perhaps best exemplified by Rousseau’s Emile, which assumed the innate goodness of children and the corrupting influences of adult institutions on children. If only they could be left alone, Holt wrongly concluded, children’s goodness and curiosity would lead to correct decisions and eventually produce a truly democratic society peopled with happy, self-directed, self-educated individuals.
Holt’s views on the nature of man stand in direct contradistinction to those held by many social conservatives of both religious and non-religious persuasions. One of history’s great ongoing anthropological debates pits Holt’s Romantic tradition against Calvin’s contention that man (including children) is so hopelessly corrupted, that only an act of divine grace can remediate the condition. Both sides recognize the presence of evil in the world, but point to different sources as the problem, and consequently different remedies. Those who, like Holt, embrace man’s innate goodness blame evil institutions and corrupting environments for man’s anti-social and criminal behavior. Consequently, the remedy for bad thinking and behavior in children is replacing a corrupt environment with a healthy one.[12]
Calvin and his ideological successors, both Protestant and Catholic, reject as naive the environmental solution to evil. While positive environments may be desirable and helpful, they do not address the root human problem, which is spiritual and requires a spiritual solution, not a change in environment. Tinkering with educational environments to promote ethical behavior is, at best, only temporarily useful and ultimately merely cosmetic. The present state of affairs in government schools suggests that state run education fails even as a cosmetic.
Second, Should children have the same rights as adults? This question, closely related to the first, concerns the role of children in the family and in society. Holt’s view of the institution of the family was ambivalent at best, thus strong traditional families appear almost optional in Holt’s scheme of things. Families did, however, represent a less oppressive environment than did schools. Though wary of parental authority, Holt saw homes as potentially less destructive of children’s rights than government-mandated schools, and considered parents a key to providing appropriate learning environments for their children. Perhaps Holt bowed to the realities of American life, and because of the need for parental involvement in the act of home education, he came to see parents as a key to the movement.
Whatever his eventual compromise, Holt was at heart a true radical in matters concerning childhood and children’s rights. While Holt’s ideas on childhood should not be shunned merely on the basis of their extremity (sometimes extreme answers are the right ones), they should be rejected because they are inane (children voting, driving, and choosing their own guardians?!). Holt’s arguments for children’s autonomy, though admittedly flanked by some vague qualifications, smack of a kind of optimistic existentialism that deifies the human will and regards as dehumanizing any attempt to require anyone to do anything. Holt’s advocacy is reminiscent of a spoiled adolescent, demanding his parents love and money while denying they have any rightful authority over his life. The child left alone without significant, responsible adult intervention, will not become a happy, self-directed, self-educated individual, contributing to the realization of a truly democratic society, but he will, as Holt’s critic put it, “… grow up to be an amoral, ignorant monster …”
Third, Should the government operate schools and compel parents to send their children to them? This two-fold question is perhaps the most controversial and provocative raised by Holt. Especially after his exposure to the ideas of Ivan Illich, Holt came to see the institution of the school as inherently evil, destructive of children’s innate learning abilities, a tool of the rich to oppress the poor, and with no hope of reform. He joined with Illich in calling for the “deschooling of society.”  The central issue involves the proper jurisdiction of the state and whether that jurisdiction should extend to the education of children. Are children mere creatures of the state, or are there other jurisdictional powers such as parents or God that have legitimate interests in the lives of children?  Who is responsible for the education of the young—the state, parents, or, as Holt claimed, children themselves?  Does government have a legitimate interest in ensuring an educated citizenry and, if so, how should the interests of government and the rights of parents in the nurture of their young be justly balanced?
While the dismantling of government-run school systems might be an attractive option to some, Holt’s reasons for suggesting such a thing are not so attractive. If the legitimacy of public education is to be debated, it should be done so on the immediate basis of parental rights and ultimately on theological grounds, not children’s freedom. It is obvious that parents bear the primary responsibility of meeting the needs of their children; it is equally obvious that this parental responsibility includes educational decisions and that governmental involvement in the educational arena can quickly become a usurpation of parental prerogative.
Thomas Jefferson, though an ardent proponent of public education, established grounds other than parental rights on which the legitimacy of government education might be disputed. In his efforts to disestablish the Anglican church and establish religious liberty in Virginia, Jefferson argued that free men should not be forced to subsidize through their taxes religious ideas they held to be abhorrent. With the overwhelming predominance of naturalism/secularism in public education, coupled with the judiciary’s misguided application of the separation of church and state doctrine, one might legitimately argue that religiously-minded men should not be forced to subsidize through their taxes the anti-religious worldviews embraced by government schools. State legislatures and the general public, however, have shown little if any inclination to undo the public schools, so the discourse now turns to the compulsory attendance issue.
In 1642 and 1647, Massachusetts Bay set colonial precedent by passing educational laws requiring townships to establish tax-supported schools. Massachusetts remained in the forefront of educational development after the Revolution. The first free, public elementary schools (referred to as common schools), appeared in Massachusetts, while Bostonians founded the first free, public high school in America in 1821. Massachusetts was the first to establish a state school board with a state school superintendent (1836) and the first state to pass a compulsory school attendance law (1852). Ironically, a littler over 100 years later, John Holt moved to Boston and began to question, then attack, some of the established practices concerning government involvement in education, particularly the idea of compulsory attendance. In calling for educational alternatives based on personal freedom, Holt and other like-minded reformers helped spawn the free school movement. Jonathan Kozol, citing the failure of public schools, established one of the first free schools in Boston in 1966.
The social flux of the 1960s and 1970s brought about significant criticism of government-run schools and growing calls for educational alternatives. This environment eventually produced not only free schools, but also a burgeoning Christian school movement and ultimately thousands of home schools. Fortunately, state legislatures, forced to deal with growing numbers of home educators, recognized that education can occur in settings outside of public schools, even in homes. But these legislatures, in rewriting state compulsory school attendance laws in order to accommodate home education, were not motivated by Holt’s wrong-headed call for children’s rights,[13] but by the more reasoned notion of parental rights. For this state of affairs, parents involved in their children’s education can be grateful.
During the tumultuous 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, John Holt stepped forward as an advocate of children and eventually education in the home. Generally speaking, Holt’s educational ideology represents one of the two major philosophical strains which comprise the intellectual base of the present home school movement in the U.S. Holt exemplifies the ideology of freedom, popularized by the radical school reformers of the 1960s and 1970s and embraced by much of the counterculture. The second strain is the ideology of conservative Christianity, which far overshadowed the radical element within the home school movement, at least, it appears, through the decade of the 1980s. But that is another story for another day.
Allen, Mel (1981). The education of John Holt. [Reprint of article appearing in Yankee magazine, December, 1981]. (Available from Holt Associates, 2269 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02140).
Farenga, Patrick (1994, September 29). Telephone interview with author (Unrecorded).
Farenga, Patrick (1994, October 20). Telephone interview with author (Unrecorded).
Featherstone, Joseph (1968). New kind of schooling [Review of How children fail]. New Republic, 158, 27-31.
Gross, Ronald (1965). [Review of How children fail]. Book Week, February 7, p. 5.
Growing Without Schooling, 1977, Issue #1. (Available from Holt Associates, 2269 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02140).
Hentoff, Nat (1965). Processing and packaging our children [Review of How children fail]. Commonweal, 82, 386-387.
Hentoff, Nat (1972). [Review of Freedom and beyond]. Saturday Review, 55, 64-65.
Holt, John (1974). Escape from childhood. New York: Dutton.
Holt, John (1971). Freedom and beyond. New York: Dutton.
Holt, John (1964). How children fail. New York: Pitman Publishing Corp.
Holt, John (1967). How children learn. New York: Pitman Publishing Corp.
Holt, John (1976). Instead of education: Ways to help people do things better. New York: Dutton.
Holt, John (1989). Learning all the time. New York: Addison-Wesley.
Holt, John (1978). Never too late: My musical life story. New York: Delacorte Press.
Holt, John (1981). Teach your own: A hopeful path for education. New York: Delacorte Press.
Holt, John (1969). The underachieving school. New York: Pitman Publishing Corp.
Holt, John (1970). What do I do Monday?  New York: Dutton.
Levine, Gerald (1974). [Review of Escape from childhood]. New York Times Book Review, May 9, p. 4.
MacCampbell, J. C. (1964). [Review of How children fail]. Library Journal, 89, 4526.
Menges, Robert J. (1968). [Review of How children learn]. Teachers College Record, 69, 800-804.
Nordberg, Robert B. (1974). [Review of Escape from childhood]. Best Sellers, 34, 133.
Ravitch, Diane (1983). The troubled crusade: American education, 1945-1980. New York: Basic Books.
[Review of Freedom and beyond]. (1972). Choice, 9, 1018.
Sheffer, S. (Ed.) (1990). A life worth living: Selected letters of John Holt. Columbus, Ohio: Ohio State Univ. Press.
Stevens, L. B. (1970, November 29). Soft thinking by the first school reformer [Review of What do I do Monday?] New York Times Book Review, p. 6.

[1]In the early 1970s, Holt came to view educational credentialism as a major social problem and educational experience a private matter, and from then until his death in 1985, he refused to discuss his academic background—particularly his attendance at Yale. Even now, his successors at Holt Associates, Inc. are hesitant to release this information (Patrick Farenga, letter to author, September 9, 1994). It is offered here with the stipulation that Holt’s distaste for public touting of educational standing be understood by the reader.
[2]At the Shady Hill School, a private, progressive institution, Holt worked with William Hull and David Armington who had been favorably impressed by the informal environment of the British infant schools in Leicestershire County, England after a visit in 1961. Even after he left Shady Hill, Holt met frequently with Hull and Armington to discuss education and children’s thinking (Ravitch, 1983).
[3]One of Holt’s detractors was Robert J. Menges (1968) of the University of Illinois, who pointed out in the Teachers College Record that Holt’s conclusions would never satisfy educational researchers since he did not “speak from a coherent theoretical position” (p. 800) and offered “only a series of anecdotes by one observer” as evidence with “not a control group in sight.”  “Indeed,” Menges noted, “how can one state with any confidence just what these children learned?” (p. 802). Holt, who regarded himself more as an anthropologist or ethnographer than a laboratory scientist, countered such criticism by citing the validity of careful observation in learning about children and the impossibility of mustering a true control group when individual children’s backgrounds are so varied (Farenga, letter to author, September 9, 1994).
[4]In the fall of 1968, Holt taught a course called “Student-Directed Learning” at Harvard in which he gave no grades and required no assignments. He taught a similar course at Berkeley the following winter quarter. One Harvard student wrote to Holt, “Those [students] who found some direction for themselves speak fondly of your course, while those who couldn’t handle the freedom remain bitter” (Sheffer, 1990, p. 48). Holt countered that students, “like all subject peoples,” learn to engage in “emotional blackmail” by blaming the teacher when things go wrong (Sheffer, 1990, p. 50).
[5]Holt visited many free schools in the U.S. and participated in the dialogue surrounding this movement which stressed, among other things, student-directed learning. Later, however, Holt became disillusioned with the free school movement, partly because it largely failed to live up to its ideal of freedom (Holt, 1981).
[6]One reviewer considered Freedom and Beyond “disappoint[ing],” “clumsy,” and “contradict[ory],” but recommended it “simply because Holt is too important to be overlooked” (Review, 1972, p. 1018).
[7]Marin’s article had appeared in the January, 1969 issue of Center Magazine, a publication of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (Sheffer, 1990).
[8]One of Holt’s close associates later said that Holt did not believe that children should be totally free of adult influence and that Holt had acknowledged that children need some parent or caring adult to look after them and guide them through the process of assuming greater autonomy over their lives. In regard to children’s rights, Holt saw government-decreed compulsory school attendance laws as more the threat than parental authority (Farenga interview, October 20, 1994). Nevertheless, Escape From Childhood did reveal Holt’s considerable disagreement with strong parental authority.

[9]Holt’s interest in music, particularly the cello, is recorded in his 1978 book Never Too Late: My Musical Life Story, wherein he wrote: “If I could learn to play the cello well … I could show by my own example that … whatever we want to learn … we probably can learn; that our lives are not determined and fixed by what happened … when we were little, or by what experts say we can or cannot do” (Holt, 1978, p. 185).

[10]Upon his death, Holt left an unfinished manuscript begun in early 1982. It was published posthumously in 1989 under the title Learning All the Time. Parts of it had appeared previously as articles in The New Boston Review, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Progressive. Holt had described the largely anecdotal work as “a demonstration [italics Holt’s] that children, without being coerced or manipulated, or being put in exotic, specially prepared environments, or having their thinking planned or ordered for them, can, will, and do pick up from the world around them important information about what we call the Basics” (Holt, 1989, p. xv).
[11]A third option proposed by Locke, Skinner, and others is that man possesses no natural, innate inclinations and simply behaves as his life experiences to date dictate.
[12]This environmental solution to misbehavior and crime was a basic tenet of Horace Mann’s common school movement in nineteenth century Massachusetts, which accelerated and expanded to become the nationwide experiment in universal public education. This movement advanced the misguided notion that the advent of  public education would signal the demise of the public prison system (or at least a dramatic reduction in the prison population), since a child who attended the state supported school—that is, a good environment—would not commit crimes. While Holt and Mann might agree on the nature of man, they would obviously disagree on what constitutes a “good environment.”
[13]The author does not discount legitimate children’s rights, but sees some of Holt’s proposals as excessive.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply