John Holt, Secretary of Education? In Memory of George McGovern

There are some moments in history when hindsight allows to see that if other things had occurred history would be different. For instance, learning that George McGovern died this week, I was thinking about his legacy and how different America would be if McGovern had defeated Richard Nixon, who characterized McGovern as a radical and whose use of dirty tricks during the election eventually cost him the presidency. The New York Times obituary noted:

The Republicans portrayed Mr. McGovern as a cowardly left-winger, a threat to the military and the free-market economy and someone outside the mainstream of American thought. Whether those charges were fair or not, Mr. McGovern never lived down the image of a liberal loser, and many Democrats long accused him of leading the party astray.

Mr. McGovern resented that characterization mightily. “I always thought of myself as a good old South Dakota boy who grew up here on the prairie,” he said in an interview for this obituary in 2005 in his home in Mitchell. “My dad was a Methodist minister. I went off to war. I have been married to the same woman forever. I’m what a normal, healthy, ideal American should be like.

“But we probably didn’t work enough on cultivating that image,” he added, referring to his presidential campaign organization. “We were more interested in ending the war in Vietnam and getting people out of poverty and being fair to women and minorities and saving the environment. It was an issue-oriented campaign, and we should have paid more attention to image.”


But another issue dear to McGovern is overlooked in all the discussion of his liberal politics: before he entered politics he was a college history teacher with a strong interest in education. I knew from speaking with John Holt that McGovern was very interested in Holt’s work and ideas, so I asked him to write an introduction to the 1988 edition of How Children Fail. Here’s what he wrote, in part:

As a member of Congress especially interested in the issues of education, I exchanged correspondence with John Holt when the first edition of How Children Fail was shaking the educational world in the mid-1960s. He exerted a strong influence on my thinking about educational matters. Indeed, as a presidential nominee in 1972, I carried John Holt’s book in my briefcase on the campaign trail. I knew the book well, and my familiarity with its insights gave me the capacity and confidence to speak forcefully and meaningfully on educational concerns. I remember drawing on John Holt’s wisdom in a major campaign speech in New Jersey before a huge convention of the National Education Association.

It is sad to note that children continue to fail in America’s schools—perhaps on an even larger scale than when John Holt first wrote of these matters. But a visit to schools in any part of the national will reveal the same uninspired children and lack of attention to what is being taught of which John Holt wrote a quarter century ago . . . (PF: McGovern is writing this in 1988.)

. . . Obviously failure on such a large scale is not to be laid solely at the feet of our teachers. Rather, such a failure embraces the home, the neighborhood, and the whole community. The finest of all teachers are not able to compensate entirely for the failings of home and community.

. . . The author believes that one of the basic needs of children is to be in the company of adults who are willing and able to listen to the individual child revealing and discussing his or her own concerns, hopes, anxieties, and fears. Too many teachers dislike and distrust children and are themselves fearful of an honest and free-ranging dialogue with their students. Too many teachers are comfortable only with dull and routine ways of conducting their classrooms and ignore the interests and questions of children.

“It is not the subject matter that makes some learning more valuable than others, but the spirit in which the work is done. If a child is doing the kind of learning that most children do in school, when they learn at all—swallowing words, to spit back at the teacher on demand—he is wasting his time, or, rather, we are wasting it for him. This learning will not be permanent or relevant or useful. But a child who is learning naturally, following his curiosity where it leads him, adding to his mental model of reality whatever he needs and can find a place for, and rejecting without fear or guilt what he does not need, is growing in knowledge, in the love of learning, and in the ability to learn.”

These convictions of John Holt form the centerpiece of this book and they are worthy of our careful reading and consideration today.


George McGovern understood what John was attempting to do in his work as a teacher and with his writing; I wonder what would have happened to the course of American education with a leader who grasped these concepts and acted upon them? However, after McGovern lost the election John Holt began to stop hoping political leaders and big institutions would help make his ideas about education happen. Instead, he appealed to citizens and parents to support and enact the changes he sought and the ever-growing homeschooling movement proves that this was a path worth blazing.