Holt, John Caldwell

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HOLT, John Caldwell

(b. 14 April 1923 in New York City; d. 14 September 1985 in Boston, Massachusetts), critic and reformer of the U.S. educational system, whose books How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967) won him a national audience.

The only son of Henry Holt, an insurance executive, and Elizabeth Crocker, Holt grew up amidst wealth. His education took place in exclusive private schools: Le Rosey in Switzerland, Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (1936–1938), and, later, Yale College (1939–1943), from which he graduated with a B.S. in industrial engineering. During World War II, Holt served as a junior officer on a U.S. Navy submarine in the Pacific and won a combat ribbon.

After returning to civilian life in 1946, Holt moved to New York City. Soon afterward, he went to work for the United World Federalists, a group devoted to establishing one world government. He quit abruptly in 1952, however, due to the fear that the group might become a target of rising anticommunist sentiment. Holt traveled in Europe for about a year, then worked as a teacher in a succession of schools.

At Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, Colorado (1953–1957), Holt taught high school English, French, and mathematics, and coached soccer and baseball. He soon grew weary of what he later described as the school's neglect of students who performed poorly, so in 1957 he took a job as a fifth-grade teacher at Shady Hill School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Holt's style of teaching, which emphasized understanding over rote memorization, earned him a dismissal in 1959, whereupon he went to work at Lesley Ellis School in Cambridge. Once again, he taught fifth grade, but he also concerned himself with redesigning the entire elementary mathematics curriculum in line with his idea that students should not merely memorize but truly learn. He also began to teach reading to students in the first and second grades.

Holt gained national prominence with the publication of How Children Fail in 1964. The book, on one level a chronicle of his experiences at Shady Hill and Lesley Ellis, is in fact a withering critique of the entire U.S. educational system. Teachers and school administrators, Holt maintained, cared more for the appearance of learning rather than for actual learning. Thus, they were content to force students to commit abstract facts and figures to memory, then regurgitate these on tests—a system that, in Holt's view, was quite literally mind-numbing. "It is a rare child," according to one passage in How Children Fail, "who can come through his schooling with much left of his curiosity, his independence, or his sense of his own dignity, competence, and worth."

The book won acclaim from many educators for its brutally honest appraisal of education in the United States, and Holt found himself in demand as a lecturer, and even as a consultant to school systems. At the same time, he continued to teach, taking a position as a high school English teacher at Commonwealth School in Boston.

How Children Learn (1967), as its title suggests, is something of a companion piece to Holt's earlier work, this one focusing on hopes for the future rather than condemnation of past abuses. In the book, Holt called for smaller classes, for individualized instruction, and for greater student control over the learning process.

His fame and influence now at its peak, Holt in 1968 served as visiting lecturer at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and in 1969 as visiting lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley. Also in 1969, he founded an educational consulting firm, Holt Associates, and published The Underachieving School (1969).

Even as he became more established and influential, Holt's views on education became more radical. By the early 1970s, schools had attempted some measure of reform, but for Holt the pace was too slow, and he began calling for what he described as a "de-schooled society in which learning is not separated from but is integrated with the rest of life." What this meant, in sum, was the complete eradication of the existing educational system.

After 1969, Holt's success permitted him to quit teaching, but for the remaining sixteen years of his life he stayed very busy, as he described it, "writing, reading, lecturing, playing the cello, working on large issues confronting society." He also wrote a number of books: What Do I Do Monday? (1970), Freedom and Beyond (1972), Escape from Childhood (1974), Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better (1976), Never Too Late: A Musical Autobiography (1978), Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education (1981), and Learning All the Time (1989).

From 1977 to the time of his death in 1985, Holt published a newsletter, Growing Without Schooling, which had more than 5,000 readers. He also contributed regularly to magazines on education and home schooling. True to his beliefs about personal education, he continued to teach himself new skills: French and Italian at the age of thirty, skiing a year later, cello at age forty, water skiing at forty-seven, horseback riding a year after that, and violin at age sixty. He never married. Holt died of cancer and is buried in Boston.

In evaluating Holt's contribution, it is necessary to do so with the awareness that much of what changed in U.S. education during the 1960s was not an improvement. At the beginning of that decade, the average American student could easily discuss, or at least recognize or identify, topics from classical antiquity, whereas by the end of the 1970s, few students even had a grasp of twentieth-century history and culture. How much of this regression was a result of radical theories such as Holt's, or perhaps the misapplication of those theories, is open to question.

On the other hand, Holt's critique of education was unmistakably a blast of fresh air at the time, and one might well argue that the greatest problem with education in the United States is that schools have not applied his ideas thoroughly enough. Certainly Holt, in the latter part of his career, found himself with a new and growing group of supporters who, like him, challenged the very legitimacy of the U.S. educational system. These new rebels were not teachers but parents, and their politics was not leftist but conservative; like Holt, however, members of the home schooling movement sought to flee what they perceived as the sinking ship of U.S. education.

Holt's own works—most notably the autobiographical How Children Fail (1964; rev. ed. 1982), and Never Too Late: A Musical Autobiography (1978)—provide the best possible starting place for a study of the man and his ideas. Also extremely useful is Susannah Sheffer, ed., Selected Letters of John Holt (1990). Analyses of Holt's effect on U.S. education can be found in Diane Ravitch, The Troubled Crusade: American Education, 1945–1980 (1983); Urban Education 19 (Oct. 1984): 227–244; and Mothering 61 (22 Sept. 1991). An obituary is in the New York Times (16 Sept. 1985).

Judson Knight