The Underachieving School

(Pitman, 1969, Sentient Publications, 2005)

This is a collection of essays, book reviews, speeches and articles written by Holt in the late sixties. Some of its essays, especially "Schools Are Bad Places for Children" and "Making Children Hate Reading," are reprinted in language arts text books as examples of expository and persuasive writing. —Pat Farenga.


QUESTION: (from the editors of Education News, New York City) "If America's schools were to take one giant step forward this year toward a better tomorrow, what should it be?

ANSWER: "It would be to let every child be the planner, director, and assessor of his own education, to allow and encourage him, with the inspiration and guidance of more experienced and expert people, and as much help as he asked for, to decide what he is to learn, when he is to learn it, how he is to learn it, and how well he is learning it. It would be to make our schools, instead of what they are, which is jails for children, into a resource for free and independent learning, which everyone in the community, of whatever age, could use as much or as little as he wanted."—JOHN HOLT True Learning

True learning - learning that is permanent and useful, that leads to intelligent action and further learning - can arise only out of the experience, interests, and concerns of the learner.

Every child, without exception, has an innate and unquenchable drive to understand the world in which he lives and to gain freedom and competence in it. Whatever truly adds to his understanding, his capacity for growth and pleasure, his powers, his sense of his own freedom, dignity, and worth may be said to be true education. Education is something a person gets for himself, not that which someone else gives or does to him.

What young people need and want to get from their education is: one, a greater understanding of the world around them; two, a greater development of themselves; three, a chance to find their work, that is, a way in which they may use their own unique tastes and talents to grapple with the real problems of the world around them and to serve the cause of humanity.

Our society asks schools to do three things for and to children: one, pass on the traditions and higher values of our own culture; two, acquaint the child with the world in which he lives; three, prepare the child for employment and, if possible, success. All of these tasks have traditionally been done by the society, the community itself. None of them is done well by schools. None of them can or ought to be done by the schools solely or exclusively. One reason the schools are in trouble is that they have been given too many functions that are not properly or exclusively theirs. Schools should be a resource, but not the only resource, from which children, but not only children, can take what they need and want to carry on the business of their own education. Schools should be places where people go to find out the things they want to find out and develop the skills they want to develop. The child who is educating himself, and If he doesn't no one else will, should be free, like the adult, to decide when and how much and in what way he wants to make use of whatever resources the schools can offer him. There are an infinite number of roads to education; each learner should and must be free to choose, to find, to make his own. Children want and need and deserve and should be given, as soon as they want it, a chance to be useful in society. It is an offense to humanity to deny a child, or anyone of age, who wants to do useful work the opportunity to do it. The distinction, indeed opposition, we have made between education and work is arbitrary, unreal, and unhealthy. Unless we have faith in the child's eagerness and ability to grow and learn, we cannot help and can only harm his education. —1968


Dear Dr. Bliss:   ... I think children learn better when they learn what they want to learn when they want to learn it, and how they want to learn it, learning for their own curiosity and not at somebody else's order. I believe that learning would be greatly improved if we could completely or at least largely abolish the fixed curriculum in its present sense. I do not believe that testing and grading form any inherent or useful function in learning; in fact, they corrupt and impede the learning process. I am altogether opposed to any kind of so-called ability grouping in school. I think that in many more cases than not it is the act of instruction itself that impedes learning and nowhere else more than in the field of reading; in short, I feel that children would learn to read better and more easily if they were not taught. I think we need to find ways to get more people into the schools who are not teachers. I do not think it is helpful to have children spend all their time with people who have no other concerns than children. I would like to see streams of people coming into the schools who are there to talk about their outside life and work in the world. I would also like to see children encouraged and helped to use the resources of the world outside the school to further their learning. I believe that compulsory school attendance no longer serves a useful function, either to schools, teachers or students, and that it should be done away with or greatly modified. I think we have made education, which should be something that helps young people move into the world and do useful work there, into an enormous obstacle standing in their way, and I think we need to find ways to remove that obstacle. In short, I am opposed to all kinds of credential requirements as preconditions for doing work. I think we should remove every possible obstacle between any child and any gainful or useful contribution he wants to make to society. Everything we say and do tends to separate learning from living, and we should try instead to join them together... Sincerely yours, JOHN HOLT