Unschooling, Anthologized

This is a guest post by John Young, a teacher and homeschooler. He recently he contacted me about the Norton Reader, which he uses in his classes and that first introduced him to John Holt’s thoughts about education. Mr. Young mentioned to me that Norton was no longer using Holt’s article and he wrote this blog post about the situation, which I am happy to publish for you.—PF

While rare, a single experience can change an entire paradigm. I first read the words of John Holt when I was flipping through a three-decade old edition of The Norton Reader during my planning period as a twelfth-grade English teacher, and I alighted upon the words “How Teachers Make Children Hate Reading.” [This article can be found in Holt's book The Underacheiving School.—PF] Amused, I started to read. Once finished, utterly convinced.

I felt overwhelming gratitude toward the Reader. This was the first contact I had with such a delightful truth in twenty-eight years of life, a key to understanding what had been so challenging in my own childhood. I even went so far as to send a fan-mail thanks to the late Linda Peterson of Yale, for having retained Holt’s essay in the edition reissued in 2011.

The most recent edition of the Reader, however, has dropped Holt’s essay and one of the other nine essays under the subject of Education replacing it with two others. Most notable of the two is Lynda Berry’s “The Sanctuary of School”—a 1992 article from The New York Times arguing for increased educational structure and spending.

Barry spins a fine tale, using splendid literary techniques, portraying the aura of a school day with the same tranquility that a Romantic poet would paint a pastoral frolic.

“That feeling [of panic] eased the moment I turned the corner and saw the dark outline of my school at the top of the hill. My school was made up of about 15 nondescript portable classrooms set down on a fenced concrete lot [ . . . ] but it had the most beautiful view of the Cascade Mountains. You could see them from anywhere on the playfield, and you could see them from the windows of my classroom.”

Upon entering the hallowed halls of school, she is greeted by the friendly Mr. Gunderson, the janitor. “Hey there, young lady. Did you forget to go home last night?” In response, she felt “incredibly happy to see him.”

But the Romantics had a patronizing misconception about the noble savage, just as Berry idealizes the adult–child role in school. She portrays her young self as a peer, while in reality the equality of children and adults in the school system hardly exists. Since she equates school with quiet tranquility, she does a disservice to any child who has ever found school to be a source of frustration, failure, threats, and even horror. In fact, the relationships she depicts—the easy banter, safety, and camaraderie—are commendable, but are unrealistic for most students, since they are in a subordinate position. School also limits the amount of adult contact young people may otherwise have with adults, since no other venue in modern life is so lopsided in terms of age, with the possible exception of a retirement home.

Fittingly, Barry’s article was also anthologized in a McDougal Littell 8th grade textbook, replete with ties to teaching standards—before, after, and in every margin. These standards prompt the teacher (who in turn prompts the students) to follow the editor’s train of thought. Before reading, for example, the book instructs students to “discuss what you think are a school’s three most important tasks”—as though there could be any other answer aside from the “correct” one. In comparison, Holt’s essay truly invites divergent thinking, instead of canned responses.

The irony is that had it not been for an anthology, I never would have known the writings of John Holt, even though Holt agreed with Daniel N. Fader who wrote in Hooked on Books, “All educators are only too familiar with the school-text[book] syndrome, that disease whose symptoms are uneducated students and unread materials—unread not because of their good quality, but because of their bad format.”

The anthology holds a particular power—if nothing else, to preserve. Writers who lived more than a century ago only escape obscurity by having been preserved in an anthology. I would not go so far as Fader who largely eschewed textbooks, but the unschooling voice needs to be represented. This lack of representation, I would argue, is not the fault of the homeschooling movement—which has moved mountains in its time—but rather due to a “gatekeeper” intellectualism.

John Holt himself wrote:

“Our educational system, at least at its middle- and upper middle-class layers, likes to say and indeed believes that an important part of its task is transmitting to the young the heritage of the past, the great traditions of history and culture. The effort is an unqualified failure. The proof we see all around us. A few of the students in our schools, who get good marks and go to prestige colleges, exploit the high culture, which many of them do not really understand or love, by pursuing comfortable and well-paid careers as university Professors of English, History, Philosophy, etc.”

I emailed the editor of the latest edition of the Reader, Dr. Melissa Goldthwaite, inquiring about the swap. She kindly responded, “In choosing the readings that will stay and those that will be replaced, we survey teachers using The Norton Reader to find out which essays they currently teach and which ones they might teach in the future. Those pieces that are taught less frequently (or not at all) by those we survey tend to be replaced. We also ask teachers to list their ‘top five’ readings and try to keep those pieces that rise to the top of that list. In the reviews for the 13th edition, only 12.5% of those surveyed said they teach Holt's essay or asked that we keep it.”

The editors can hardly be blamed for suiting the needs of their readers. The cause was the lack of support from surveyed professors. Sad, considering the undeniably powerful growth of the homeschooling movement in the world; an increasing number of these professor’s clientele have been and are being homeschooled, and the percentage will only increase. Many of my students in the community college where I teach are homeschooled. While biased, I always speak in favor of their decision.

Dr. Goldthwaite did add that some essays dropped for one edition were later picked up again. Of course, while I hope that is the case with Holt’s essay in the Reader, I know that unschooling will continue to grow and the ideas of John Holt will be found in venues where they matter most. Considering the tremendous gains in the educational rights of children, I think it is appropriate that higher education and pedagogical programs at least entertain the voices of the homeschooling movement—those who argue in favor of freedom of education, self-selected work, and open-source creativity. The unschooling and homeschooling movement has earned it. We continue to move mountains.