The journey of John Holt

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This reference is used to annotate "I would never send my kids to school" (2017) by Piotr Wozniak

"The Journey of John Holt from School Critic to Home School" summarizes the life story of John Holt with an emphasis on the evolution and maturation of his views about education.

Holt based his entire philosophy on the belief in the inner goodness of human nature. His observations lead him to unshakable conviction that nearly all children are born as good students of nature. By exposure to rich and positive environments, children naturally adapt to the surrounding world, develop empathy, strong ethics, and become good citizens.

In Advantages of compulsory education, I mention a popular opinion that without the school, society would turn into a jungle. This is a typical conservative view based on the fear of the corruptible human nature that needs to be rectified by society or the state.

The critics’ response to [Holts's book] "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)

Like Holt, after hundreds of hours of discussions with dozens of teachers, I became quite pessimistic about the possibility of reform from within the system. All teachers I spoke to show qualities that prove that the school system has improved a great deal over the last 50 years. However, improvements can also spell a danger for children. A fantastic teacher in early education can lubricate young minds for further progression through the narrowing path of coercive education. With each year, kids have less time, more work, less freedom, their hate of learning increases, and their progression into learned helplessness becomes a danger to their mental health. Even the best teachers cannot remedy the situation if they need to rush through the curriculum. Once they are part of the system, they are too busy to wake up to the imminent catastrophe. They soak in school mythology, and my discussions become a game of whac-a-mole. Sadly, the more I learn, the harder is my conversation with the representatives of the school system. This mirror's Holt's experience:

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)

I agree with Holt about the privileges of the childhood and the obligations of parenthood. By having children, parents enter into a contract, which stipulates basic care and shelter for their children. Children emerge involuntarily and should have the right to reject proposed contracts on their way to adulthood. This thinking is pretty alien to our society and western culture, however, this is also a thinking that fosters intelligence. Freedom of choice is a formula for best adaptation. This is a formula for genius and creativity. The limits on that freedom should be as scarce as described in Optimization of behavioral spaces in development.

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 …”

Holt based his writing on a deep understanding of the learning process. Many detractors would accuse him of insufficient research data, small samples, anecdotal evidence, far-fetched models, etc. Those accusations are often leveled at abstract thinkers who conjure models that go well beyond their time. Holt's reasoning was not that new. Many philosophers and educators in prior millennia came to similar conclusions. Today, the evidence from neuroscience stands in overwhelming agreement with Holt's key theses. In this book, I add lots of my own data collected with SuperMemo (see: Forgetting curve, Childhood amnesia, or Semantic learning).

The ancient problem of measuring knowledge is often used by detractors of free learning. How do we know that kids truly learn? How do we measure the progress? The answer is simple and deeply unsatisfactory. We cannot measure the cumulative quality of the semantic tree stored in human memory. We can only use the same old benchmark: measure human knowledge by what people can accomplish in their lives. The value of a piece of knowledge learned today, may shows its power five decades from now. It will sweep away all meaningless and forgotten details of a school test. Measuring knowledge is not much different from measuring goodness. Can we have a test for a good heart? Life itself is the ultimate test:

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)

Holt's evolution reminds me of my own. I have richer sources. Science has advanced. Holt did not live to see the explosion of homeschooling in America. I hope to see many of his ideals implemented worldwide. Most of all, I agree that compulsory education must end.

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)

Quoted excerpts come from the following reference:

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


Source: Home School Researcher

Date: 1999

Backlink: Advantages of compulsory education

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru