December 02, 2002
John Holt

If I had to name a single person who made me interested in education to the point where I would one day decide to start an education blog, that person would be John Holt. This interview is a good start in understanding Holt's way of thinking.

What struck me most about Holt when I first read him was that he was just as opposed to the bogus liberation of "progressive" ideas as then mostly understood, as he was to what I have been describing in this blog as the "Prussian" approach.

… from many experiences during this time 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.

The trouble with the "progressives" of the 1970s was that, although strongly inclined towards contriving more freedom for children, they tended simultaneously to be opposed to freedom for adults. This was because most of them had a blind spot about capitalism, which is the economic system that free people will always contrive if allowed to, and which free children would also have participated in, if allowed to. Yet most of these progressives wanted children to be "free" only to challenge capitalism, never to participate enthusiastically in it. So, the progressives faced a choice. Was it to be freedom for both adults and children, or freedom for neither? They mostly chose: neither. They satisfied themselves with replacing the old curricular orthodoxies with new orthodoxies of the kind they preferred.

A doctrinaire pro-capitalist enthusiast like me faces a similar problem. What if children want, of their own free will and despite anything I say to them, to become fervent anti-capitalists, perhaps because of all those other things that others have said to them? What do I do about that?

I also ask: what happened to John Holt? And what has happened to his ideas? Do the de-schoolers, the un-schoolers, the home-schoolers still revere him, or do many of them have their doubts? Holt died about a decade ago, I believe. Does the internet offer any informed yet serious or even severe criticisms of his ideas?

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:55 PM
Category: Parents and children