Freedom and Beyond

(Published by Dutton, 1972; Heinemann, 1995; HoltGWS, 2017.) Available in print, Kindle, and PDF formats.

Now available at

Now available at

Dr. Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn, on this new edition:

"Freedom, structure, discipline, authority, choice, poverty, meaning in life, and what all these have to do with education. These are the topics of this remarkable book by one of the greatest education philosophers of all time. John Holt is never simplistic. He sees and understands all sides of each issue and then, when he takes a side, he does so with great intelligence and clarity. The problems Holt addresses here are even more pressing, and his insights even more relevant, now than they were 45 years ago when the first edition was published. It's time to pay attention. It's time for good sense to prevail."

"John Holt’s brilliant and evocative 1972 Freedom and Beyond marks a significant turn in thinking about schools, when it began to become clear to many that ‘schools’ and ‘schooling,’ would be unable to hold the great forces of learning. In the DeVos era of federal legislation and control of education, Holt’s powerful and challenging words mean more than ever. What is the nature of freedom in education? What is the right relationship between structure and learning, and for whom, and when? And most importantly, to serve what ends? As always, Holt unshirkingly turns up the heat on these questions, and stirs, using stories of children to evoke these complexities. More relevant than ever, and an important read for any educator or parent." —Dr. Kirsten Olson, author of Wounded By School and Schools As Colonizers

Selections from the new edition of Freedom and Beyond

"When we define education as schooling, and put public educational resources into schools, the children who benefit most are the children who can stay in school the longest. These are, necessarily and in all but a few cases, the children of the well-to-do."

"In sum, a deschooled society would be a society in which everyone shall have the widest and freest possible choice to learn whatever he wants to learn, whether in school or in some altogether different way. This is very far from being a society in which poor kids would have no chance to learn things. On the contrary, poor kids, like poor people, and indeed all people, would have many more chances to learn things and many more ways of learning them than they have today. It would be a society in which there were many paths to learning and advancement, instead of one school path as we have now . . . a path far too narrow for everyone, and one too easily and too often blocked off from the poor."

"Business and industry, sensing the beginnings of a new public concern, are beginning to make soothing sounds about conservation and the environment. But anyone who follows these matters closely knows that this is mostly lies and public relations, aimed only at preventing exactly the kinds of supervision or control of industry that will someday be necessary. . . . In a very different kind of society, with a great deal of new knowledge, new technologies, and above all new attitudes, economic growth might be healthy or at least tolerable. Now, as we are, knowing no more than we know, it is destructive and suicidal."

"Even if what I have said about growth were not true, or even if we were as ignorant and unconcerned about the environmental costs of growth as we were twenty years ago, it would still be true that the kind of growth we have known for a generation and more, and most of this under national governments committed to the idea of fighting poverty through growth, has done very little to change the shape of the job pyramid. For all our trillion dollar a year GNP, we have not done away with unemployment, or increased very much the number of good jobs, jobs that people are glad to do. For most people in our society work is drudgery, what you have to do to live, perhaps a punishment for not having been smarter or done better in school. If this has been so little changed by the last generation of growth, there is little reason to suppose that it will be changed much by the next."

"It would be the most hard-headed political and economic realism for us to guarantee and provide to every American, man, woman, or child, an income on which he can live decently and comfortably, whether he has a “job” or not. He can then do whatever work he does, not out of fear of want, but because it interests him and seems worth doing. The much discussed, so-called Negative Income Tax might well be an easy and sensible way to do this. Then we can begin to open up all these corporate, professional, institutional, and occupational monopolies that make people’s lives so difficult and expensive, and so much out of their control. We can at the same time work on another fundamental and urgent economic task. As I have said, it clearly won’t help people much to raise their incomes if even then they can’t buy the things they need, or if the cost of everything they buy goes up faster than their income. How can we make, more efficiently, at less cost to the environment, more durably, less expensively, the goods and services that people really need? How might we redefine some of these needs so as to make it possible to meet them at less expense? More important yet, how can we make it more and more possible for people to make themselves many of the things they need?"

"When we try to apply on a large scale what works on a small, if we try, through schooling or otherwise, to move large numbers of people from the lowest job boxes up into higher ones, the result is to put poor people and working-class or lower-middle-class people in competition for jobs that are scarce and good jobs that are scarcer yet. This makes them each others' rivals and enemies, and prevents them from forging the kinds of political alliances that would make real large-scale change possible. It is grimly ironical and even tragic that our minority group poor should be most feared and hated by the very people whose friendship and support they must have if they are ever to make any real improvement in their lives. And it's a great for the rich when they can make the poor think their true and worst enemies are those who are even poorer."

"At the same time, we have set off an intense struggle between classes and social groups for these scarce educational resources. People’s concern with what they call “quality education,” meaning “I want my kid to stay ahead of your kid,” has probably made more difficult the already painful problem of racial tension, prejudice, segregation, and hatred. At least some people might have been willing and might still be willing to have minority or low-income people live near them if they did not feel that this would somehow hurt the life chances of their own children. This struggle among social groups for their fair share of these scarce educational resources is today one of our most bitter and divisive social problems. And within our present definition of schooling there is no way to solve it."

Available now in print and Kindle! PDF download here.

This is from the chapter, "On Discipline," from Freedom and Beyond. Since it first appeared in 1972 this particular section has been used in various textbooks as an example of division and classification for essay writing and analysis. For most readers, though, I hope the practical and emotional issues Holt explicates will resonate more than his craftmanship as a writer (though it certainly is something to appreciate).

Three Kinds of Discipline

A child, in growing up, may meet and learn from three different kinds of disciplines. The first and most important is what we might call the Discipline of Nature or of Reality. When he is trying to do something real, if he does the wrong thing or doesn’t do the right one, he doesn’t get the result he wants. If he doesn’t pile one block right on top of another, or tries to build on a slanting surface, his tower falls down. If he hits the wrong key, he hears the wrong note. If he doesn’t hit the nail squarely on the head, it bends, and he has to pull it out and start with another. If he doesn’t measure properly what he is trying to build, it won’t open, close, fit, stand up, fly, float, whistle, or do whatever he wants it to do. If he closes his eyes when he swings, he doesn’t hit the ball. A child meets this kind of discipline every time he tries to do something, which is why it is so important in school to give children more chances to do things, instead of just reading or listening to someone talk (or pretending to). This discipline is a great teacher. The learner never has to wait long for his answer; it usually comes quickly, often instantly. Also it is clear, and very often points toward the needed correction; from what happened he can not only see that what he did was wrong, but also why, and what he needs to do instead. Finally, and most important, the giver of the answer, call it Nature, is impersonal, impartial, and indifferent. She does not give opinions, or make judgments; she cannot be wheedled, bullied, or fooled; she does not get angry or disappointed; she does not praise or blame; she does not remember past failures or hold grudges; with her one always gets a fresh start, this time is the one that counts.

The next discipline we might call the Discipline of Culture, of Society, of What People Really Do. Man is a social, a cultural animal. Children sense around them this culture, this network of agreements, customs, habits, and rules binding the adults together. They want to understand it and be a part of it. They watch very carefully what people around them are doing and want to do the same. They want to do right, unless they become convinced they can’t do right. Thus children rarely misbehave seriously in church, but sit as quietly as they can. The example of all those grownups is contagious. Some mysterious ritual is going on, and children, who like rituals, want to be part of it. In the same way, the little children that I see at concerts or operas, though they may fidget a little, or perhaps take a nap now and then, rarely make any disturbance. With all those grownups sitting there, neither moving nor talking, it is the most natural thing in the world to imitate them. Children who live among adults who are habitually courteous to each other, and to them, will soon learn to be courteous. Children who live surrounded by people who speak a certain way will speak that way, however much we may try to tell them that speaking that way is bad or wrong.

The third discipline is the one most people mean when they speak of discipline—the Discipline of Superior Force, of sergeant to private, of “you do what I tell you or I’ll make you wish you had.” There is bound to be some of this in a child’s life. Living as we do surrounded by things that can hurt children, or that children can hurt, we cannot avoid it. We can’t afford to let a small child find out from experience the danger of playing in a busy street, or of fooling with the pots on the top of a stove, or of eating up the pills in the medicine cabinet. So, along with other precautions, we say to him, “Don’t play in the street, or touch things on the stove, or go into the medicine cabinet, or I’ll punish you.” Between him and the danger too great for him to imagine we put a lesser danger, but one he can imagine and maybe therefore want to avoid. He can have no idea of what it would be like to be hit by a car, but he can imagine being shouted at, or spanked, or sent to his room. He avoids these substitutes for the greater danger until he can understand it and avoid it for its own sake. But we ought to use this discipline only when it is necessary to protect the life, health, safety, or well being of people or other living creatures, or to prevent destruction of things that people care about. We ought not to assume too long, as we usually do, that a child cannot understand the real nature of the danger from which we want to protect him. The sooner he avoids the danger, not to escape our punishment, but as a matter of good sense, the better. He can learn that faster than we think. In Mexico, for example, where people drive their cars with a good deal of spirit, I saw many children no older than five or four walking unattended on the streets. They understood about cars, they knew what to do. A child whose life is full of the threat and fear of punishment is locked into babyhood. There is no way for him to grow up, to learn to take responsibility for his life and acts. Most important of all, we should not assume that having to yield to the threat of our superior force is good for the child’s character. It is never good for anyone’s character. To bow to superior force makes us feel impotent and cowardly for not having had the strength or courage to resist. Worse, it makes us resentful and vengeful. We can hardly wait to make someone pay for our humiliation, yield to us as we were once made to yield. No, if we cannot always avoid using the Discipline of Superior Force, we should at least use it as seldom as we can.

There are places where all three disciplines overlap. Any very demanding human activity combines in it the disciplines of Superior Force, of Culture, and of Nature. The novice will be told, “Do it this way, never mind asking why, just do it that way, that is the way we always do it.” But it probably is just the way they always do it, and usually for the very good reason that it is a way that has been found to work. Think, for example, of ballet training. The student in a class is told to do this exercise, or that; to stand so; to do this or that with his head, arms, shoulders, abdomen, hips, legs, feet. He is constantly corrected. There is no argument. But behind these seemingly autocratic demands by the teacher lie many decades of custom and tradition, and behind that, the necessities of dancing itself. You cannot make the moves of classical ballet unless over many years you have acquired, and renewed every day, the needed strength and suppleness in scores of muscles and joints. Nor can you do the difficult motions, making them look easy, unless you have learned hundreds of easier ones first. Dance teachers may not always agree on all the details of teaching these strengths and skills. But no novice could learn them all by himself. You could not go for a night or two to watch the ballet and then, without any other knowledge at all, teach yourself how to do it. In the same way, you would be unlikely to learn any complicated and difficult human activity without drawing heavily on the experience of those who know it better. But the point is that the authority of these experts or teachers stems from, grows out of their greater competence and experience, the fact that what they do works, not the fact that they happen to be the teacher and as such have the power to kick a student out of the class. And the further point is that children are always and everywhere attracted to that competence, and ready and eager to submit themselves to a discipline that grows out of it. We hear constantly that children will never do anything unless compelled to by bribes or threats. But in their private lives, or in extracurricular activities in school, in sports, music, drama, art, running a newspaper, and so on, they often submit themselves willingly and wholeheartedly to very intense disciplines, simply because they want to learn to do a given thing well. Our Little Napoleon football coaches, of whom we have too many and hear far too much, blind us to the fact that millions of children work hard every year getting better at sports and games without coaches barking and yelling at them.


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