The Peoples' Institute for Re-thinking Education and Development

John Holt - Interview

John Holt was a leading spokesperson for Growing Without Schooling. Some of his earlier books on school reform have been translated into Hindi; but his later, more radical, thinking has not been discussed much in India. In the following excerpts, adapted from Teach Your Own, (New York: Dell, 1981) by Robert Gilman, Holt describes why he gave up on trying to reform schools and started advocating that families liberate their children from schooling.


"It began in the late 1950s. I was then teaching ten-year-olds in a prestigious school. I was also spending a lot of time with the babies and very young children of my sisters, and of other friends. I was struck by the difference between the 10 year-olds and the 1 and 2 year-olds. The children in the classroom, despite their wealthy backgrounds were with few exceptions frightened, timid, evasive, and self-protecting. The infants at home were bold adventurers.

It soon became clear to me that children are by nature and from birth very curious about the world around them, and very energetic, resourceful, and competent in exploring it, finding out about it, and mastering it. In short, much more eager to learn, and much better at learning, than most adults. Babies are not blobs, but true scientists. Why not then make schools into places in which children would be allowed, encouraged, and (if and when they asked) helped to explore and make sense of the world around them (in time and space) in ways that most interested them?

I said this in my first two books, How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1966). Many people, among them educators, and parents, seemed to be very interested in and enthusiastic about the idea of making schools into places in which children would be independent and self-directed learners. It seemed to me that within a few years such changes might take place in majority of schools.

Yet from many experiences during this time I began to see, in the early 1970s, slowly and reluctantly, but ever more surely, that the movement for school reform was mostly a fad and an illusion. Very few people, inside the schools or out, were willing to support or even tolerate giving more freedom, choice, and self-direction to children. Of the very few who were, most were doing so not because they believed that children could be trusted to find out about the world, but because they thought that giving children some of the appearances of freedom (allowing them to wear different clothes, run around, shout, write on the wall) was a clever way of getting them to do what the school had wanted all along ÔÇö to learn those school subjects, get into a good college, etc. Freedom was not a serious way of living and working, but only a trick, a ÔÇÿmotivational deviceÔÇÖ. When it did not quickly bring the results they wanted, the educators gave it up without a thought and without regret.

At the same time, I was seeing more and more evidence that most adults actively distrusted and disliked most children, even their own. They also felt that the most important thing children had to learn was how to work mechanically, that is, when their time comes, to be able, and willing, to hold down full-time painful jobs of their own. The best way to get them ready to do this is to make school as much like a painful job as possible. As long as such parents are in the majority (and they exist in every social class) the schools, even if they wanted to, will not be able to move very far in the directions I and many others have for years been urging them to go.

As the question ÔÇÿCan schools be reformed?ÔÇÖ kept turning up ÔÇÿNOÔÇÖ for an answer, I found myself asking much deeper questions: "Were schools, however organized, however run, necessary at all? Were they the best place for learning? Were they even a good place?" Except for people learning a few specialized skills, I began to doubt that they were. Most of what I knew, I had not learned in school, or in any other such school-like ÔÇÿlearning environmentsÔÇÖ such as conferences or seminars. I suspected this was true of most people."


Based on these experiences, Holt began to make more contacts with families whose children were learning naturally outside of school. Seeing their need for mutual support and continuous interaction, Holt began publishing (in 1977) a small bimonthly magazine, Growing Without Schooling (2380 Mass Ave., Suite 104, Cambridge, MA 021 40, USA). The magazine continues to share writings by parents and children, interviews, book reviews, and in-depth discussions about how people learn, and how families can ÔÇÿunschoolÔÇÖ their children by using real-life, community resources.

Source: John Holt GWS