Holt, John (1923–1985)
HOLT, JOHN (1923–1985)
John Caldwell Holt was a teacher, educational critic, and early spokesperson for the home-schooling movement. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of well-to-do parents, he was formally educated in private schools in the United States and abroad. He described himself as a "good student in supposedly the best schools." At Yale University, Holt studied to be an industrial engineer, but found no intrinsic connections between his studies and the world around him. He soon left to join the navy at age twenty, serving for three years aboard the submarine U.S.S. Barbero during World War II. Holt later identified his time on this submarine as yielding the first genuine, purposeful educational experiences of his life.
In 1946, immediately following his tour of duty, John Holt found work in New York with the American Movement for World Government, and later with the United World Federalists–an organization devoted to stopping the proliferation of atomic weapons. Between 1952 and 1953 he traveled throughout Europe before settling briefly with his sister in Taos, New Mexico. Holt joined the faculty at the Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, despite his complete lack of preparation for or formal knowledge of teaching. Years later Holt characterized himself while at this school as a "perfectly conventional schoolmaster" who flunked numerous students.
After four years of teaching school, John Holt had surmised that students did poorly because they learned to believe that schooling expected them to do poorly. Given this working hypothesis, in 1957 he returned to Massachusetts to teach younger students, hoping to influence them before they learned to expect such failure; he would teach elementary and secondary students for the next ten years.
John Holt found himself struck by the natural learning instincts of children. His perceptions and beliefs rested comfortably with those of earlier "child-centered" educators and philosophers like Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1782–1852), Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776–1841), Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), and at times, the Progressive educator and pragmatist John Dewey (1859–1952). In his first book, How Children Fail (1964), Holt argued that schools maximized compliance and "good work" at the expense of traits like curiosity and creativity. This position remained solid in How Children Learn (1967), in which he made a point of criticizing large class sizes as he believed that children learned best alone or in small groups.
Holt left classroom teaching in 1967 to pursue writing and lecturing. He was among a small but widely read group of neo-or contemporary "romantic" critics of schools (a group that included Jonathan Kozol, George Dennison, James Herndon, Herb Kohl, and later, Ivan Illich). After two years lecturing at Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley, and elsewhere around the world (while continuing to write and publish about educational reform), Holt's perspective on both the purpose for and source of needed school reform began to shift. This shift is attributed, in no small part, to his decision to learn more about the thinking of Ivan Illich (who would soon publish his popular Deschooling Society ) and his visit to Illich's Intercultural Center of Documentation during the late 1960s. In 1969 Holt became the president of John Holt Associates, Incorporated.
Holt continued to criticize American public schooling, though with the publication of Freedom and Beyond in 1972 he had abandoned any hope that teachers, school personnel, or parents and community members could enable such change. Still searching for ways to promote deeply personal, transformative teaching/learning situations like those he experienced in the military, Holt had decided that such encounters would and could never occur within schools as formal, social institutions. Holt returned to his original focus on the learner, ceasing his passionate critique of the social contract inherent in public schooling and calling, instead, for individual families to "teach your own." In 1977 Holt created a newsletter called "Growing Without Schooling" and published Instead of Education, in which he encouraged readers to forego efforts toward changing schools and to embrace his notion of "unschooling" (acknowledging, yet distinguishing himself from, Illich's "deschooling" concept).
Holt had turned a crucial corner as an educational critic. Consequently, his educational works represent the best and worst elements of child-centered Progressive ideals of the late twentieth century. By the late 1970s he had become a conservative libertarian, dismissing any relationship between the responsibilities of the state and the family with respect to young people's education. "Growing Without Schooling" became a support group by mail for the nation's pioneer home schoolers, and Holt became their leader. His longstanding respect for natural learners resonated with increasing numbers of parents who, with Holt's personal encouragement, support and published tales of unschooling success, became the core of the early-twenty-first century burgeoning home-schooling movement in the United States.
Criticized by his former circle of Progressive colleagues, Holt had little interest in such philosophical discussions, spending his remaining days encouraging and helping families through his publication Teach Your Own (1981). In his final years, Holt promoted home schooling in numerous popular print forums, including Harper's, Life, Look, Mother Earth News, Ms., The Progressive, Psychology Today, Redbook, Saturday Evening Post, Time, USA Today, and The Wall Street Journal. Begun before his death, Holt's final book, Learning All the Time (1989), was completed posthumously by members of its very audience–Holt's home-schooling colleagues.
See also: Education Reform; Home Schooling.
Holt, John C. 1964. How Children Fail. New York: Pitman.
Holt, John C. 1967. How Children Learn. New York: Pitman.
Holt, John C. 1972. Freedom and Beyond. New York: Elsevier North-Holland.
Holt, John C. 1974. Escape from Childhood. New York: Elsevier North-Holland.
Holt, John C. 1976. Instead of Education. New York: Delacorte.
Holt, John C. 1981. Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education. New York: Delacorte.
Holt, John C. 1989. Learning All the Time. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Debra M. Freedman
J. Dan Marshall