FREE SCHOOLS, FREE PEOPLE
by Ron Miller

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CHAPTER 3

The Legacy of John Holt
(footnotes omitted)
 
Anyone who works for a just, peaceful, humane and decent world for all people, a world without needless suffering, exploitation, degradation, or cruelty, is my ally.
 

-John Holt...........

 
John Holt was one of the key figures in the free school movement. His writings suggested to thousands of readers that American education was seriously flawed, and his efforts gave many groups the inspiration or contacts they needed to launch or sustain alternative schools. Moreover, Holt was a sensitive, inquisitive observer and social critic whose journey from fifth-grade teacher to free school activist to homeschooling advocate reveals a great deal about the whirlwind course of events during the 1960s and early 1970s. Holt was an accurate barometer, as well as shaper, of the rapidly evolving radical educational ideology of the time. In addition, Holt provided a coherent analysis of schools, teaching, and learning that is at least as relevant to the problems of the present time as the work of many other, more widely recognized theorists. Holt's work deserves a closer look because it has been almost completely ignored by mainstream educational scholarship. If it is useful to reappraise, after twenty years of neglect, the cultural critique raised by the free school movement, then it is useful as well to consider Holt's important contribution to that critique.
 
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH
 
Born in 1923, John Holt was educated at Exeter Academy and an Ivy League university which, throughout his public career, he refused to name. He later reflected that this elite education had deprived him of the opportunity to learn practical skills. (Significantly, many educators involved in free schools had received a similarly privileged education, and like Holt, they found that it did not address the important practical, as well as moral, issues of their time.) Holt was a generation older than the student dissidents of the 1960s, and his response to the events of that decade was moderated by experience and maturity. In temperament and lifestyle he has been described by associates as being "conservative." Nevertheless, he had developed an unusually acute social conscience during the years of cold war culture, and "he was sometimes more profoundly radical than somebody who had the trappings of the sixties' culture."' He had served as a submarine officer during World War 11, but was horrified by the introduction of the atomic bomb. In a letter written shortly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the 22-year-old Holt demonstrated the humanitarian concern that would later characterize his educational thought. "We have been threatened a long time that the day would come when man would have to change his ways or be eliminated from this planet. The day is here and he has not started to change yet."
 
Holt attempted to facilitate this change by joining the World Federalists (an organization promoting the notably un-American notion of world government) in 1946, and working as an organizer and lecturer for this group until 1952. He then turned to education, becoming a teacher at a private progressive school in Colorado between 1953 and 1957, and at similar schools in the Boston area between 1957 and 1967. Significantly, he claimed that "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." Although Holt had not received training in education (or, perhaps, because of this fact), he proved to be an uncommonly gifted observer of children's diverse styles of learning and development.
 
Working with a colleague, Bill Hull, Holt began documenting his observations and came to the conclusion that routine school procedures primarily worked against, rather than with, children's natural ways of learning. He realized early on that his perspective challenged conventional wisdom. In 1963 he wrote that "The questions that concern me, in the words of a member of the Harvard School of Education, [are] 'not respectable.' Neither are my views on intelligence, or the enormous intellectual potential of all children, or almost anything that I know of." According to Susannah Sheffer, Holt was fired from one of the progressive schools where he taught for suggesting innovations that were simply too radical. In 1964, Holt published his emerging critique in How Children Fail, and very soon found himself "catapulted into public life." According to one friend, "Mounds of mail flooded in. Papers were in piles all over his apartment floor.... People hungered to talk to him, ask him questions, tell him how they felt about themselves and their kids. He traveled thousands of miles in those days ... and he made hundreds of good friends."
 
Because he was "one of the first to see through educational jargon and theory and to write about what life in school was really like for hildren and teachers," Holt received letters from parents discouraged or even distraught about their children's experiences in school throughout his career. In addition, he tapped into an emerging undercurrent of discontent with American education. Although his critique did not acknowledge the sociological analysis of Paul Goodman or C. Wright Mills, or the political critique of the Port Huron Statement, Holt's book appeared during a pregnant moment in the rise of cultural dissent in the 1960s. The year 1964 witnessed Freedom Summer and the Free Speech Movement, and the cause of civil rights had moved to the forefront of the national agenda. With a rising awareness of the possibilities of "freedom," the time was ripe to revisit educational questions that had been raised by progressive educators earlier in the century but suppressed by cold war ideology in the 1950s. Holt did not refer to the progressive education tradition; his observations were based entirely on his personal experiences in teaching. Nevertheless, Holt's objections to conventional education echoed those of Francis Parker and John Dewey seventy years earlier. Like them, he was interested in learning as an organic process, and came to see that schooling failed to recognize or nourish this process.
 
At first Holt did not speak to radical dissidents, but to liberal parents and idealistic teachers. In 1965 he published articles in mainstream publications such as Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Redbook, the New York Review of Books, the New York Times magazine, and PTA Magazine. Over the next few years he spoke to hundreds of groups and gatherings, published more articles and books, and found himself involved in a grassroots movement that sought to rebuild American education on entirely new premises. Because of his extensive traveling and correspondence, as well as his bold critique of conventional educational practices, Holt became the key link in the emerging network of free schools.
 
During the height of political and cultural struggle in the United States, between about 1968 and 1972, Holt became more explicit about the Political dimension of his educational critique. According to Sheffer, "The more that America and society in general seemed to be going in wrong directions in so many ways, the more it began to seem absurd to him to worry only about classrooms." A pacifist since the end of World War II, Holt was deeply troubled by the war in Vietnam, which he called "obscene," and like thousands of young people, he was radicalized by the American government's foray into imperialism. For several years he refused to pay taxes, and he actively supported draft resisters. (Bill Ayers recalls that Holt even helped him when he was a fugitive with the Weather Underground.) Yet his focus remained on education. He wrote at one point that he felt "the work I do in education is more valuable, even in terms of ending war, than any witness I might make in going to jail."
 
By the early 1970s this work involved questioning the institution of schooling as such, and until his death in 1985 Holt was primarily concerned with supporting families who attempted to educate their children outside of school altogether. Indeed, the moral vision and tireless effort that had placed Holt at the center of the free school movement now made him a national spokesman and catalyst for the rise of the homeschooling movement. He continued to travel, speaking to groups of parents and educators. He continued to reach a wide audience, appearing as well on television talk shows. His newsletter Growing Without Schooling, and his organization Holt Associates, provided encouragement and resources to thousands of "unschooling" families and have continued to do so in the years since his death.
 
Holt was not a scholar or theorist, but a moralist and reformer. His views arose primarily in response to his own experiences rather than to intellectual influences. Although he was an avid reader and wrote numerous book reviews, he rarely credited other authors with shaping his ideas. He did, in fact, acknowledge that J. H. van den Berg's The Changing Nature of Man, a critique of scientism, had "stimulated and advanced my thinking," which I take as evidence that he would have given credit to others had they similarly influenced him. Holt occasionally quoted authorities when they supported his thinking, but he rarely cited them as sources for it. Remarkably, he told one reviewer in 1969 that he had not even read John Dewey. It is safe to say, then, that Holt's view of education did not spring from a philosophical analysis of pedagogical ideas but directly from his experience and deeply felt response to the moral and cultural challenges of his time.
 
In the published collection of his letters Holt frequently revealed profound distress over the failure of modern society to uphold what he felt were decent and humane values; on more than one occasion, according to the biographical narrative in this book, Holt openly broke into sobs when he reflected on modern culture's inhumanity and wasteful destruction of the beauty of the natural world. In various passages of his writing he qualified his predictions or hopes for the future by saying "if civilization survives" or "if we have a future." He keenly felt the possibility that humanity in the twentieth century was on the verge of terrible catastrophe, and his educational critique must be appreciated in this context. Holt exemplified what David Purpel has called the educator's responsibility to be a "prophetic voice" in a suffering world!

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