John Holt and the Origins of Contemporary Homeschooling by
Copyright 1999 Patrick Farenga. Reprinted with permission.
Published in PATHS OF LEARNING: Options for Families and Communities http://www.great-ideas.org
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Far from being a new idea, homeschooling has grown and developed over the centuries, and came into focus in the late 20th century as the forces of standardization and cultural homogenization took over schools and people sought alternatives to them. Homeschooling didn't emerge from the vision or work of any one person, and it is not the province of any one political party. By focusing on the work of author and teacher John Holt though, one can trace not only a personal journey from school reformer to unschooler, but also an intellectual and educational legacy that led to homeschooling that is little reported by conservative and liberal media alike.
The sixties and seventies were times of great ferment for new ideas about education. Some education and social critics, like John Holt, became popular writers by questioning methods of schooling. The battles over look-say reading methods versus phonics, training teachers to be gentle facilitators or drill instructors, whether to encourage hands-on learning or test-taking skills, were well-worn battles to these writers even in the sixties. Many school reformers, such as Herbert Kohl, noted that it is a wide variety of methods, materials, schedules, and techniques that help children learn, and that the teacher should have the freedom to use any combination of things and ideas to help students. Further, some writers, such as A. S. Neill and Holt, suggested that the student should have complete freedom to choose how, when, and from whom they wanted to learn. In the early sixties, Paul Goodman, in Compulsory Miseducation and Growing Up Absurd, argued that compelling children to attend school is not the best use of their youth, and that education is more a community function than an institutional one. This idea was developed and amplified over the years by many authors, but most forcefully by John Holt.
John Holt was a fifth grade teacher who worked in private schools. In 1964, his book How Children Fail created an uproar with his observations that forcing children to learn makes them unnaturally self-conscious about learning and stifles children's initiative and creativity by making them focus on how to please the teachers and the schools with the answers they will reward best, a situation that creates a fake type of learning. To paraphrase Holt, the only difference between a good student and a bad student is that the good student is careful not to forget what he studied until after the test is taken. His subsequent book, How Children Learn (1967), also became widely known. The two are still in print and together they have sold over a million and a half copies and have been translated into over 14 languages.
Holt went on to become a visiting lecturer at Harvard and Berkeley, but his tenure at both places was short-lived. Holt did not feel the school establishment was serious about change in the ways he wanted to go, such as changing the relationship of the child to the teacher and the school to the community. During this time Holt wrote two books about why he thought schools weren't working and how they could be made better: The Underachieving School (1969) and What Do I Do Monday? (1970). Holt was intrigued by the free school movement of the late sixties and supported it as a way to help children who weren't thriving in conventional schools. However, by the early seventies Holt developed reservations about free schools and proposed other ways to reunite living and learning.
In Freedom and Beyond (1972), Holt openly questioned and analyzed the free school movement, and in particular what educators really mean when they use the words freedom, discipline, authority, and choice. Most importantly, it is in this book that Holt decides that bringing more freedom into the classroom is not the solution to educational problems; he recasts the problem as a social one rather than a technical one. He writes:
Other writers at this time also proposed ways to alter compulsory schooling. Hal Bennett wrote an operator's manual in 1972 entitled No More Public School, which explains how you can take your child out of public school and educate him at home. In The 12-Year Sentence (1974), a collection of essays edited by William F. Rickenbacker, one of the writers proposed that gifted parents should be able to teach their own children if they wish. But it was Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society (1971) that most influenced Holt. After Deschooling Society appeared, Holt studied and corresponded with Illich at length, and was deeply influenced by Illich's analysis, particularly with his analysis that school serves a deep social function by firmly maintaining the status quo of social class for the majority of students. Further, schools view education as a commodity they sell, rather than as a life-long process they can aid, and this, according to Illich, creates a substance that is not equally distributed, is used to judge people unfairly, and -- based on their lack of school credentials -- prevents people from assuming roles they are otherwise qualified for.
By the late seventies Holt had given up on the possibility that schools would welcome and assist the sorts of changes he and others were suggesting. He sought ways to make these changes as individuals and communities, thus bypassing, rather than confronting, school resistance to these ideas. One tactic Holt wrote about was to fight for children's rights -- which he thought would not only help kids escape bad schools, but also help them escape bad social situations -- by granting children the full protection and responsibilities of US citizenship. Holt's Escape from Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children (1974) continues to stir passions on both sides of the argument, particularly now that some of the scenarios Holt discusses, such as giving children the right to choose their own legal guardian, the right to control their own learning, and the right to legal and financial responsibility, have come into our courts twenty- five years later. A concept that runs throughout Holt's work gets further developed in this book. Even though our institutions may not be the way we want them to be in order to bring about a better world, we can still act, in our daily lives, as far as we can, as if that world existed. For instance, we don't have to wait for the courts to grant children the right of privacy for us to act as if they have a right to privacy. In this book, Holt also expands on his theme that it is not what children are taught, but how they are treated, that determines the sort of adult they will become. Holt continued to develop these ideas and practices in his next book, which led directly to his work in homeschooling.
In Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better (1976), Holt not only described actual non-compulsory schools, learning centers, and informal learning arrangements in action, but also proposed
In this book, Holt proposed removing children from school legally or as an act of civil disobedience. While the education establishment barely recognized this particular book of Holt's, it struck a chord with some parents. Some wrote to Holt explaining that they were teaching their children at home legally, others that they were doing so underground. Some were rural families, some city dwellers, others were in communes. Intrigued, Holt corresponded with them all and decided to create a newsletter that would help put these like-minded people in touch with one another. In August of 1977, the first issue of Growing Without Schooling (GWS) was published, and the nation's, and probably the world's, first periodical about homeschooling was born. Holt wanted to help bring about a social change not by writing about it from a distance while employed at a university or at a think tank, but by being engaged in action with like-minded people. It is, I feel, important to note that Holt never believed that more than a very small percentage of parents would homeschool even if it were a widely accepted practice, which is why he never gave up trying to help schools change. In her editorial comments in A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters of John Holt, Susannah Sheffer writes (p. 11) that during the last years of Holt's life he was collecting material for a book about school reform, indicating that even though he had made conscious resolutions to stop trying to change what he could not change, he apparently never quite lost the hope that if shown the way more clearly we would do what needed to be done. Holt urged educators and parents to catch the spirit of unschooling, be inspired by the variety of approaches and methods homeschoolers show, and reconsider assumptions about schooling based on what ordinary parents, as well as some alternative schools, were doing with children. It is in this regard that Holt is so different from many education writers and school reformers. He never felt that only trained teachers should teach students. Holt never studied education in school, which he considered an advantage since his mind was thus not full of assumptions about what kids can and can't do. He was a practitioner who learned from what worked and what didn't, in his experience, and he felt very strongly that any concerned adult could do as well or better than he in this regard.
In this sense, his book Never Too Late: My Musical Autobiography (1978) is instructive, not only as a description of how an adult learns new things, in this case how to play the cello, but also as testimony against the view that one must become expert in something before one can truly love it and do it effectively with others. Holt (and we who heard him play!) knew he would never be in a league with Yo-Yo Ma, but that never stopped him from playing the cello. Likewise, Holt's support of homeschooling parents, many of whom have never been professional teachers, is inspiring. Holt often wrote that there is no need to duplicate institutional teaching and assumptions in non-institutional settings, and he therefore saw no need to make parents anxious about their abilities to learn from their children how to best teach them. As long as children and parents communicate clearly, solutions can be found for all situations, utilizing family and community resources.
For instance, Holt wrote in the second issue of GWS about how a welfare mother who doesn't know how to read can still teach her own kids by finding a child, relative, or friend who can teach them all to read. He cites various mass literacy programs used in a number of poor countries in which as fast as people learn to read they begin to teach others, as well as various schools whose policy of allowing older children to teach younger children to read has borne excellent results. He notes that reading, and teaching reading, are not a mystery. The schools, in teaching the poor (and the rich, too) that no one except a trained teacher can teach, have done them (and all of us) a great and crippling injury and wrong. Trained teachers are not trained in teaching, but in classroom management, i.e., in controlling, manipulating, measuring, and classifying large numbers of children. These may be useful skills for schools, or people working in schools. But they have nothing whatever to do with teaching -- helping others to learn things.
The growth of homeschooling often led to strange bedfellows, or mixed allies as Holt referred to them in GWS:
What is important is not that all readers of GWS should agree on [the reasons for a family to homeschool], but that we should respect our differences while we work for what we agree on, our right and the right of all people to take their children out of schools, and help, plan, or direct their learning in the ways they think best.
Twenty-two years after Holt wrote that, more and more writers about homeschooling keep creating new ways to define themselves, since they agree only with bits and pieces of various practices. Some are uncomfortable with unschooling, since Holt asks parents to respect children and allow them freedom to pursue their intellectual interests (although he never dictates that they do so), particularly when these interests veer away from school subject matter; some prefer to literally do home school, with the national anthem sung each morning, six hours of school work with a break for recess, and so on. Other parents consider most of Holt's ideas untenable, but like his life-long advocacy of using whatever works -- with parental discretion -- to help children learn. They refer to themselves as eclectic homeschoolers. Some will follow various curricula. Some purchase canned curricula and follow them to the letter; others purchase curricula and use them as broad outlines. Some homeschoolers work with private schools through the mail or the internet. Some prefer no label at all, daring you to capture the richness of their family life with a phrase.
As homeschooling has grown, so has the market for selling a variety of methods, philosophies, products, and services to homeschoolers. Some families prefer to develop communal resources rather than buying them; they join together to form homeschooling co-ops and learning centers in people's homes or to share facilities, costs, and teachers for group instruction. The idea that we need to have one best way for all children to learn is effectively refuted by the diversity and growth of the homeschooling movement. But this was hardly enough for Holt. In 1983, he wrote, "A life worth living and work worth doing that is what I want for children (and all people) -- not just, or not even, something called a better education" (A Life Worth Living, p. 266).
Holt presided over the slow but steady increase in subscribers to Growing Without Schooling, and in 1983 revised his two most popular books, How Children Learn and How Children Fail. Holt felt the revisions were needed in light of his work with homeschoolers. The changes made both books significantly different from their original printings, and Holt kept the original text alongside the newer text so that the reader can see the differences. Both books are worth reading on their own of course, but they also serve as demonstrations of Holt's philosophy that living and learning are interrelated, that we learn more from our mistakes and successes than from tests and instruction, and that it is never too late to learn more about ourselves and the world in which we live.
In the late seventies and early eighties, Holt would often speak about homeschooling to small groups of parents. Often Holt would get a speaking engagement at a large university and when he was done there he would travel to speak to local homeschoolers in smaller venues, such as parks, homes, and small hotels. By the mid-eighties, large-scale (1000 or more attendees) homeschooling conferences began to spring up across the nation, but Holt would not be able to address them. In 1985, John Holt died of cancer at the age of 62. His final book, Learning All the Time: How Small Children Begin To Read, Write, Count And Investigate The World, Without Being Taught, which contains a lot of writing that Holt did for GWS, was published posthumously in 1989.
The history of homeschooling is still being written. Homeschooling continues to spread across the United States and other countries; as of this writing, GWS contains listings for homeschooling support groups in Canada, Ireland, England, France, Australia, Spain, South Africa, New Zealand, and Japan. Homeschooling is legal in all 50 states. One recent benchmark of homeschooling's growing popularity is that Newsweek (October 5, 1998) ran a cover story about it with the headline, "More Than A Million Kids And Growing: Can It Work For Your Family?"
Some will argue that I assign Holt too big a place in the history of homeschooling, since others have influenced more people to actually undertake homeschooling than did Holt. I don't dispute that others influenced the growth of homeschooling as much as, if not more than, Holt, particularly among religiously oriented homeschoolers. But John Holt does not only speak to the choir of would-be and current homeschoolers, political parties, or education theorists. His work speaks to adults and children in school as well as out; it addresses larger social concerns beyond school, and continues to inspire thousands of people from all walks of life.
1. Unschooling was Holt's neologism for describing what families were doing at home with their kids during school hours. He created this word in order to avoid giving the impression that families were merely creating miniature schools in their homes, as the word homeschooling connotes. However, Holt used unschooling and homeschooling interchangeably in his writing, and eventually felt that homeschooling, for better or worse, was the term most people would use when discussing the idea that one can learn without going to school.
2. In Instead of Education (p. 19), Holt uses the spelling S-chool to denote "[t]he schools for educators, which get and hold their students by the threat of jail or uselessness or poverty," and s-chools to denote "[t]he schools for do-ers, which help people explore the world as they choose."
Bennett, Harold. 1972. No More Public School. New York: Random House.
Holt, John. 1989. Learning All the Time: How Small Children Begin to Read, Write, Count And Investigate the World, Without Being Taught. New York: HarperCollins.
Holt, John. 1995. Freedom and Beyond. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Sheffer, Susannah, ed. 1990. A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters of John Holt. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press.
Holt, John. 1989. Instead of Education. Cambridge, MA: Holt Associates.
Rickenbacker, William F., ed. 1974. The 12-Year Sentence. LaSalle,
Patrick Farenga worked closely with the author and teacher John Holt for four years, until Holt¹s death in 1985. He is the President of Holt Associates Inc. and was the Publisher of Growing Without Schooling magazine (GWS) from 1985 until it stopped publishing in Nov. 2001.
Farenga and his wife homeschool three girls, ages 18, 15, and 12. In addition to writing for GWS for twenty years, he has authored and presented many articles, books, chapters, speeches, and workshops about homeschooling. His latest book is Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling (Perseus, May 2003).
Farenga also appears in local and national newspapers, television and radio shows as a homeschooling expert. Farenga has addressed audiences about homeschooling and the work of John Holt throughout the United States, Canada, England, and Italy.
Farenga now works as a writer, speaker, and education consultant. He can be contacted through the website www.holtgws.com.
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