John Holt, 1923 - 1985

By Pat Farenga


This originally appeared in the program to The Learning In Our Own Way Conference, August, 2005.


This year marks the 20th anniversary of John Holt’s death. Since then, interest in his work and ideas has grown. In his first book, How Children Fail, he observed that his efforts as a teacher often hindered his students from learning. His next book, How Children Learn, observed how children, prior to attending school, “do not need to be made to learn, told what to learn, or shown how. If we give them access to enough of the world, including our own lives and work in that world, they will see clearly what things are truly important to us and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than we could make for them.” Today, this is an unusual line of thinking. The “hovering parent” has reined in the free-range child. Yet, since more of his books are in print now than when he was alive, one can conclude that people continue to grasp Holt’s essential philosophy and embrace it.

Nationally, homeschooling has grown. In 1985, perhaps 25,000 children were being homeschooled. Today, the Federal government states that at least 1.1 million are being homeschooled. “Unschooling,” the word and concept Holt created in 1977, is likewise being adapted and expanded. When Holt coined the word “unschooling” he meant that parents should not duplicate school in their homes. The learning he describes didn’t have to take place at home nor need to resemble conventional schooling to help children learn.

Most education reformers feel we need to create change from within the school system. Holt tried to do that throughout his life. Towards the end of his life he concluded that schools were not going to move significantly towards individualized learning. It would involve too much change. So, John Holt worked to make sure that parents knew that they have a constitutional right to choose homeschooling.

Unlike conservative homeschooling advocates, John Holt never argued to stop school funding. Indeed, he expected most families would continue to choose sending their children to school. Holt never suggested that everyone should homeschool. He urged parents who were happy with their schools to support them. Holt wanted homeschooling to be a joyful choice for families, rather than a dogmatic imposition. He favored school choice. He proposed in his work that schools and homeschoolers could peacefully co-exist.

Holt's radical zeal mellowed as he grew from sixties school reformer to homeschooling elder. In his final years John Holt sought to work with people who wanted to create something different for children. He did not spend time arguing about whose ideas about education were better. Two years before he died Holt wrote to a friend, “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.”

Holt sensed that the educational changes he sought for schools would not happen: making schools smaller, more individualized learning places; reducing testing to as little as possible; fostering human relationships over competition for grades and school prestige. Rather than becoming frustrated with the lack of change, John Holt sought other ways to help people learn outside of schools. In a time of educational conformity that is supported by both liberals and conservatives, Holt’s work calls on us to trust ourselves and our children to live and learn uniquely, in and out of school.