John Holt – A man WAY before his time

31 Mar

Not so new views on children, childhood, schools, and education.

I’ve been reading a slew of books written by John Holt. What I found most interesting was the dates these books were published. Every book so far has been published before the 80’s. Yet everything he writes about has virtually remained unchanged. The system is still not working for most people. Children are still being forced to submit to the wiles and whims of a system that doesn’t understand them (or rather, doesn’t care to understand them because they know better.)

“At first I did not question the compulsory nature of schooling. But by 1968 or so I had come to feel strongly that the kinds of changes I wanted to see in schools, above all in the ways teachers related to students, could not happen as long as schools were compulsory.

From many such experiences I began to see, in the early ’70s, 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 really wanted and 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 old clothes, run around, shout, write on the wall, etc.) was a clever way of getting them to do what the school had wanted all along–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 “motivational device.” When it did not quickly bring the wanted results, the educators gave it up without a thought and without regret.” ~John Holt, Teach Your Own

As I am reading these books, my first thought is amazement that I never heard of this man while I was going through my teacher training. Then I stop myself and almost laugh at the ridiculousness of this thought. Why in the world would any education certification program discuss the writings, experiences, and research of a man who spent a lifetime working in the education system to find out that it was all irreparably broken? If we had talked about these writings while I was in college studying to be a teacher I would have never gone on with the program. As it was, I experienced almost everything he discussed and left public school education without a backward glance.

The system is broken.

I’m in the middle of Teach Your Own right now. It is basically a primer and an encouragement for taking that first leap into unschooling/home schooling. Right there in the introduction he tells the story of a woman at the beginning stages of trying to plan an alternative school for her children and her community. I am not kidding… it was like reading my story in a book written 50 years before my time! The story was exactly the same.

“She and a friend had decided that they couldn’t stand what the local schools were doing to children, and that the only thing to do was start their own. For many months they had been looking for parents, for space, for money, and had made almost no progress at all.”

That’s the story of Pomegranate Gardens! UNBELIEVABLE! And he gave her the advice that, luckily, my husband and I figured out all on our own… don’t got through the mess of trying to meet regulations,  find willing parents and students, and money, and buildings. It’s just not going to happen. Just teach them at home.

In a way it is sad though. The world needs a school like Pomegranate Gardens. And you know what… when the world is ready for it, I’ll be here ready to welcome them. But most people are not willing to gamble their child’s future like this. Even though they know deep down that the school system is failing, that their children are suffering, that the whole thing is just so broken and wrong. It doesn’t matter. Maybe they think their children need to be ready for the harsh realities of life. Maybe they think children need to suck it up and learn to do pointless and menial work, because that’s what life is. Maybe, I don’t know. But it seems to me to be a vicious and never-ending cycle of despair.

A lack of meaningful work

No, I’m not talking about your job. But maybe I am. Maybe if you had had an opportunity as a child to find what was important to you, you would be living a totally different life. Who knows. How different would our world be if we were all doing work we loved and felt was important?

When we are talking about schooling though, we often hear about the troublemakers. Those kids (and they are growing in number) who cause problems and angst in the classrooms for teachers and students. But these are not stupid kids. These are kids who find school to be meaningless and irksome. In one of his books, Holt talks about a group of kids in an after school program. The lady running the programs talks about how these three boys are the hardest working, strongest, most diligent, most reliable children of the group as long as they are given work that they can view as important. If they feel they are being shunted out of the way with simple busy work, then they revert to the troublesome bothersome boys that everyone expects them to be.

Holt quotes Dean Paul Roberts of Denver at the first graduation of the Colorado Rocky Mountain School (I’ve heard this quote attributed to JFK too, who knows, maybe JFK was quoting Roberts).

“To a group of students that included some very unhappy, mixed-up, and self-hating young people, he said: (1) accept yourself, (2) forget yourself, (3) find something to do and to care about that is more important to you than you are…. In telling the students to accept and then forget themselves Dean Roberts was saying something that they, preoccupied, obsessed as they were by how they looked to others, and usualy how bad they looked, had to take seriously. For he was one of the homeliest people any of us had ever seen…. Of course, to accept and forget oneself is not easy to do even when one tries, which is why the other part of his advice is so vital–to find something to do, to care about, to throw yourself into, that is more important than you are.” ~Escape from Childhood

I wanted to make a change – not be changed by the system.

If only schools really prepared us for this. Prepared us for a life full of meaning and satisfaction. This is not too much to ask for. Holt gave up on reforming the education system in the 70s. I became a teacher at the turn of the century hoping to change the world. Mentor teachers smiled condescendingly on me saying “I used to be idealistic too”. I lasted three years.

I watched “A Law Abiding Citizen” not too long ago which talks about the same thing, only with the justice system instead of the education system. Jamie Fox’s character is a lawyer and near the end of the movie he is talking about his career and his choices and says that he became a lawyer to change the system. But then as time went on he made one compromise, then another deal, and then another compromise, and before he knew what happened, instead of changing the system, the system had changed him.

But it’s never too late to stop that train. Make a change right now. I am home schooling my kids right now. It’s great. I don’t have to perpetuate the cycle anymore.

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