John Holt on What Are a Deschooled Society and Alternatives to Schooling?

I'm excited to share this excerpt, and more to come, from my new edition of John Holt's Freedom and Beyond. Written in 1972, this book explores the questions we take for granted about education, particularly why freedom and choice are so hard to implement in schools, and also explores the purposes and functions of modern schooling and whether school is the best place to execute all those functions.

Here is John Holt, five years before he founded the unschooling movement with his publication of Growing Without Schooling magazine, writing about his vision of public education and personal development.

. . . let me try to make clear what I mean, and what I do not mean, when I talk of a deschooled society and alternatives to schooling. Some people take a deschooled society to mean a society exactly like ours, but with school attendance noncompulsory. Others take it to mean a society without any schools, or indeed any planned and organized learning arrangements at all. Neither is even close to what I have in mind. A “schooled” society is not just a society full of schools, or one in which many people for many years have to go to school whether they want to or not. It is not just a society in which the state, which has not yet made everything its business, has made education its business—and indeed as far as many people are concerned, its monopoly. It is, of course, both of these things. But beyond that it is a society in which most of the tools and resources of learning are locked up in schools. It is a society in which it has been made very difficult to learn or do many things outside of school, and almost impossible to get official credit or recognition for having learned or done them.

In a schooled society you have to go to school to learn something. But even there you cannot learn just what you want to learn. You can only learn what they want to teach, and in the order and manner in which they want to teach it to you. Most of what they teach is strictly placed and locked in what Ivan Illich calls a graded curriculum, a sort of ladder of learning. This ladder is very hard to get on and off. As a rule, a learner may not take a step on that ladder unless he has taken many steps before it (all in school) and unless he is willing to take (again in school) many steps after it. Suppose you find that a school is teaching something you want to learn, and you go there, money in hand, and say, “I want to come here for a year (month, week, day) and learn that.” They will tell you, “No, you can’t do that, you have to learn or prove that you have already learned (in school, of course) many other things first, and you will also have to learn many other things besides. Where are your prerequisites? How do we know you are good enough to learn here? What previous schooling have you had” (not “What have you done, what do you know?”)? “Where are your transcripts, your diplomas? Are you a candidate for a degree? Which one? And so on . . .”

Suppose you are a student at a school and want to learn something they are not teaching. One day you find that some other school is teaching it. You say, “I want to go to this other school and learn this thing they are teaching. Will you give me credit for it?” In almost all cases, their answer will be No. The other school probably wouldn’t let you learn the thing they are teaching anyway. They would say, “If you want to learn something here, you have to be one of our students and learn all the other things we are teaching.” Learning, in short, comes in packages—four-year packages, sometimes twelve-year packages. You may have a choice of packages, but you always have to buy a whole package, or get nothing. A strange procedure. Obviously it has more to do with merchandising than with learning.

This we want to change. Conversely, by a deschooled society we don’t mean a society without any arrangements and resources for learning. Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society, Everett Reimer, in School Is Dead, and I in this book, among others, have suggested what some of these resources and arrangements might be, and others will add many other ideas to the list. We don’t even mean a society without any schools. Some things—languages, music, dance—may be better learned in a school than in any other way, or may even require a school. If some people like schools and learn well there, let them by all means go to schools. If some people think they cannot learn anything unless they pay a teacher to teach it to them, let them by all means find and pay their own teachers. But in a deschooled society nobody would be compelled to go to school, neither by the law nor by the threat of joblessness, poverty, discrimination, and exclusion from society—all of which are in force today. No one would be punished or disadvantaged for not liking schools, not finding them good places to learn, and not learning there, or for wanting and trying to learn in other ways. No one, whether for lack of money, previous schooling, or any other reason, could be denied access to the opportunity and resources to learn or try to learn whatever he wants to learn. No one could have his right to learn made to depend on his first being able to pass some sort of test. Thus, it is fair and sensible to say that anyone who wants to drive a car must first pass a driving test, to show that he can in fact drive it. But it would not be at all fair or sensible to say that he must pass a test before he can even try to learn to drive. 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.