Interview With John Holt, In Context Magazine, 1984

Growing Without Schooling

Children may be more capable of competent self-directed learning than we give them credit for.

An Interview With John Holt, by Robert Gilman

This interview was done about a year before Holt died. Here is a taste of what you will read:

Robert: What you’re saying doesn’t leave much room for the sort of professional intervention that teaching has represented. If someone was in teaching but wanted to move in the direction you’re describing, is there anything that they could do?

John: I have many times talked to teachers who wanted to teach in alternative schools, or I’d meet some young guy who’d say, "I want to work with kids," so I say, well, what do you know that is so interesting that kids of their own free will will come up to you to learn how to do it. Usually they don’t have any answer at all. My reply is, you don’t want to work with kids, you want to work on kids, do things to them or make them do things that you think would be good for them.

The place to start is with something that really interests you, and then make yourself available to help others get to really do it also. There’s a guy named John Payne in Boston, a very good jazz musician, plays sax, flute and clarinet, a very gifted jazz musician. Within the last few years he’s started a little school, and most of his pupils are adults. He says if you want to play a musical instrument, forget everything you ever heard about talent. He has organized his students into what he calls the John Payne Sax Choir and they play gigs in nightclubs in places around Boston. The routine when the choir is playing is that these 30 or 40 people – all odd shapes, sizes, men, women, the youngest kids will be down around 9 years old – work up these arrangements (with John Payne’s assistance) and they fix it so that somebody who’s just starting has got very easy notes to play and the more experienced players have the hard parts. They adjust the arrangements to the skill of the players, and he and his professional jazz quartet play behind them to provide the rhythm section. He also divides the students up into small ensemble groups when they get a little better, so they’re actually doing a solo. My office friend Pat Farenga has been a jazz pianist for a number of years, and this last year he decided he wanted to play the sax. He took it up, and he’d had only 5 weekly lessons before his first appearance with the choir performing in public in a place where people come in and buy a drink and pay money to hear him! It’s just marvelous.

The philosopher wants to empower us while the expert wants to stand over us and make us dependent on him. A true teacher – and we’re all teachers, the human animal is as much a teacher as it is a learner – basically likes showing people who want to know, here, do this and do this. The essence of teaching is working yourself out of a job, getting a person to the point where they don’t need you. The home schooling movement is, of course, a marvelous paradigm of that, and that’s why it generates self-reliant learners, teachers and leaders.

Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning

Minding American Education: Reclaiming the Tradition of Active Learning by Martiin Brickman.

Martin Brickman (Teachers College Press, 2003) has written a wonderful history of the alternative vision of a lineage of American thinkers who challenged conventional education to be more than sitting down and taking tests. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, John Dewey, John Holt, and George Dennsion, are among those featured. From the book:

Edgar Friedenberg makes the crucial point that engagement with specifics and greater freedom to learn are actually more thought provoking and sustaining than are traditional methods: "Our insistence that concrete experience form the basis for education opened Romantic critics to the charge of being anti-intellectual, which was frequently and vituperatively made. Conventional schooling, I would argue, is far more weakly rooted in the intellect than alternative schooling, since it depends so heavily on conventional wisdom and officially certified facts."
Holt wrote the most effective critique of the ways our schools do business not through sweeping indictments of capitalist society and the "system," but by describing in detail self-defeating actions of both teachers and students in the classroom. No one at the time—or since, for that matter—has successfully refuted his data and analysis, so there was every reason to believe that in a rational world his critique would be heeded. That his book had not permanent effect on educaiton in the way that, say, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring affected agriculture or Ralph Nader's Unsafe At Any Speed affected auto safety suggests the extent to which education has become a system that cannot learn about itself.

The John Holt Archive at the Boston Public Library

I placed much of the material Holt Associates used to create various materials and books about John and his work with the Boston Public Library in 2011. It is now available to the public. John Holt's correspondence, articles, newspaper clippings, and audio cassettes can be found here: John Holt Archive at the Boston Public Library.

Afterword to The Hebrew Edition of Learning All The Time

Homeschooling In Israel

By Yonat Sharon


John Holt's ideas resonated with many people who read his works. Those who tried to apply these ideas inside the school-system have often met objection, disregard, or merely superficial changes that only cover up the same old deeper patterns. But outside the school-system, in family settings, many found this way of learning both effective and fun, and discovered that it is the schoolish way of teaching that leads to objection from children, to them disregarding lessons, or to merely superficial learning.
Homeschoolers can let learning rise from daily activities: fractions can be learned from cooking, biology from gardening, physics from playing with Legos or sand, English [as a second language] from video games, art from decorating the home, history from the news, and countless other subjects that come up as normal people live an active life. Holt coined the term "unschooling" to describe this way of educating—letting learning be a natural part of life. It is not copying school into the home so that parents replace teachers and instruct their children. Unschooling means freeing our minds from the mental system of the schools by recognizing learning that arises from life experiences, without a timetable or curriculum.

When we start doing things this way we soon find out that it affects not only the way we educate our children, but also other areas in parenting and in life. Just as we learn to recognize learning even when it happens outside a classroom and without textbooks, we start finding friends for our children even in people who were not born the exact same year as our children, or finding work without job descriptions (unjobbing). The basis of Holt's ideas is the view that there isn't and shouldn't be a separation between learning and life. So it is no wonder that adopting this way for teaching, we discover that it is not only a way of educating but a way of life.

In Israel

A decade ago there were only a handful of homeschooling families in Israel, most of them in the Galilee or the greater Jerusalem area. Little by little other families joined them, many choosing homeschooling right from the start and not sending their children to any external system, even day care. Today (2003) There are several hundred homeschoolers in Israel—religious and secular, poor and affluent, in the city and in the country, from the northern border down to Eilat. Over time, the children of the veteran families have grown and the first ones are approaching the legal-age in which they will be drafted to the army. We all watch them with interest to see how they approach this stage of their life.

Most homeschooling families base their actions legally on the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty and on supreme court rulings. Other families ask the Ministry of Education for exemption from the compulsory schooling law (and need to renew the exemption every year).

In many areas in Israel there are regular meetings of homeschoolers for social opportunities, common activities, and mutual support. Country-wide connection of the homeschooling community is supported by the Beofen-Tiv'ee ["naturally" in Hebrew] newsletter, conferences, and virtual community at

There are several Israeli Internet sites about homeschooling:
*—questions and answers about homeschooling.
*—the main virtual gathering place for Israeli homeschoolers.
*—general information and a discussion group (an Israeli site in English).
*—Education From Home, the site of Ari Noyman who is doing a Ph.D. about homeschooling.

The Story Behind The Book Translation

Ever since I read this book, I knew it should be translated and published in Hebrew. I made my opinion clear every chance I had, like old Cato who finished every speech with "Cartago must fall!" until his Roman fellowmen heeded his words and destroyed Cartago to the ground. My words did not have the dramatic effect of Cato's, but little by little mothers from the homeschooling and alternative education community started translating parts of the book and sent me their work. Several friends also consented to my requests and joined the translation project in their free time.

Editing texts in such different levels of translation and unifying the writing styles of the different translators required the skills of a professional editor, so I enlisted Mike Livneh, a knowledgeable and experienced editor, and - lucky for me - my father. To smooth the last rough edges and ensure high quality, I sent the book for review to several friends who work in books or education or both, and they generously helped to improve it.

One small yet important task remained: publishing. Volunteers weren't enough for that, since this involves a considerable expense. Luckily, Ilan and Anat Shen-Levi of Prague Publishing agreed to publish the book, seeing its value and not just its price.
The book you are holding is a result of the joint effort of all these people, who donated their time and energy to turn good intentions into reality, with the only payback being the feeling that they found what Holt wished for everyone: "a work worth doing".

Thanks to all the volunteer translators:
Yol Portugali Kushnir, who worked on the project from the beginning and continued to translate right to the end;
Yael Ran, who translated whole chapters as if she originally wrote them;
Dr. Yifat Fireman, who's attention to details left nothing to be corrected;
Talia Shiloah, who's effort and serious attitude brought a steady improvement in quality;
Noa Bareket, who managed to translate a complete chapter in spite of difficult time constrains;
Dr. Avner Kasher, who reported to mission right away, and did it quickly;
Ronit Sela, who did a wonderfully professional work;
And Noa Gal, who actually ignited the project, and then came back like a good fairy just when I felt it was stuck.

Thanks to all the reviewers who contributed corrections, comments, and insights: Dr. Basmat Even-Zohar, Gila Horesh, Roy Sharon,  Nohar and Orr Shalit, Bracha Fabian, and Raheli Mendelson.

Thanks to Mike Livneh who edited the book with patience, rigor, and openness.
And thanks to Ilan and Anat Shen-Levi for agreeing to publish the book.

Yonat Sharon
September 2003

John Holt 1923–1985

John Holt was a teacher. Teaching, for him, involved learnin—learning about children and learning about learning. When he taught math, he learned how children learn math. Every lesson was also a research experiment and observation, and so was break-time, and life in general. John Holt was a relentless researcher.

His field studies on learning and teaching were published in his books How Children Fail and How Children Learn. The books soon became best sellers and made Holt one of the central and most influential people in American educational discourse.
Holt, like other educational thinkers in the sixties and seventies, worked to reform the American educational system and was one of the leading figures in the freeschooling movement. For years he participated in educational initiatives, traveled all over the US, lectured, counseled, and helped in every possible way to make schools better places for children.

And he learned from that too. And his conclusion from all his years of study about reforming the school system was to stop: Stop attempting to change the schools, stop trying to heal the system. He reached the conclusion that the problem in the school system is not something that could or should be fixed, because it is embedded in the foundations of that system, in the assumptions on which the very idea of schooling is based—the perception that children are a mold for us to shape:

"Organized education operates on the assumption that children learn only when and only what and only because we teach them. This is not true. It is very close to one hundred percent false."

Holt suggested to completely abandon the molding education, and called for creating alternatives. Not educational alternatives, but alternatives that will come instead of education;  Not improvement in schools, but complete liberation from it: unschooling.
This call was heartedly echoed by families from all over the US - they chose to break free from the dependence on schools and give their children the freedom to learn in the family and community circles. The homeschooling movement, that included only a few thousand families in the sixties, has grown up to about 3-4% of American children today.

Holt was excited to see how homeschooling children learn naturally to read, write, math, science, art, and any other subject they are interested in. For him, the contact with homeschoolers was another opportunity to learn more about learning and to polish his insights from his many years as teacher and educational reformer.
The book you are holding is the result of Holt's decades of study and research in learning. It was inspired by Holt's acquaintance with many homeschooling families, and has inspired many other families who got acquainted with Holt through his words. For them, Holt was a teacher—he helped them find their way.

Yonat Sharon
August 2003

Introduction to Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better

Patrick Farenga's introduction to the 2004 edition of
Instead of Education:  Ways to Help People Do Things Better by John Holt

This is a time for zeal in education reform, and it knows no bounds. Newsweek reports, “More than a third of the state legislatures have passed laws mandating testing that emphasizes achievement in basic skills.” Cries for, “’More, tougher tests!,’ ‘Higher standards!,’ and ‘Back to Basics!’” are being made all across the political spectrum. All political parties agree that education is in need of serious overhaul, but they still urge their people to support the cause of public schooling, value a four-year college education, and work hard to purchase more and more years of schooling for their children. The time is 1976, but it could easily be today.

Holt had his ear to the ground and felt during the seventies that a significant number of people were practicing or seeking ways to help children learn that were not supported by the school establishment, but which Holt advocated and sought to support.  If anything, the situation has intensified since Holt described it, and his solution, in Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better in 1976. The number of years spent in school and the number of tests our children must pass have all increased since then. The cost of four years of college is now a mountainous debt to many, and the value of a high school diploma is trying to be shored up by educators through “high stakes testing” as I write in 2003. Feeling that arguing against these trends was futile since most adults feel school should be difficult for children, Holt decided to offer concrete options to those who wanted to explore them. In doing so, Holt was also able to foresee and nurture the homeschooling movement in detail before any one else. He used his powers of observation, passionate and wide-ranging reading, New England Yankee inclinations, and friendships and travels that put him in touch with thousands of schools, politicians, activists, teachers, students, children, parents, and writers in the course of his life. Yet many people are not aware of the work of John Holt.

John Holt was a conventional fifth-grade private school teacher during the fifties, but, to paraphrase him, he kept wondering, “I teach, but the kids aren’t learning. What’s going on?” Eventually Holt finds his answer and describes it at length in his first and most popular book, How Children Fail. Holt determines he, as teacher, is more-often-than-not getting in the way of children's’ learning. Rather than nurturing learning, the teacher’s presence and questions often inhibit learning in children, making them think more about what the teacher wants rather than the actual subject at hand. When Holt changed his teaching to reduce stress and interference with the children, he, the school, and parents noted better results. However, as described here and in his other books, parents and teachers asked that he make his classes less enjoyable for the children because learning, like the real world, “just isn’t all fun and games.”  When he realized the depth of support for this view among school officials and parents, Holt then figured out how he could help learners without using schools. Holt  felt for many years that living and learning are ripped asunder by our concepts of education; Instead of Education is his attempt to demonstrate ways and reasons to reunite them.

Holt reflected a great deal about the purpose and goals of compulsory schooling. He  studied this subject with Ivan Illich and other scholars in the seventies, and he filtered these ideas through his own experience. Holt moved from classroom reformer, to school reformer, to social reformer, because he realized more and more that schooling is not the same as education, nor is education the same as learning. Holt’s definition of education and his disdain for conventional schooling can be harsh. Holt’s prose is deliberately provocative, a plainspoken analysis of education written for a mass market audience, not a fussy, academic paper written for policy-makers.

"I choose to define it here as most people do, something that some people do to others for their own good, molding and shaping them, and trying to make them learn what they think they ought to know. Today, everywhere in the world, that is what “education” has become, and I am wholly against it. People spend a great deal of time—as for years I did myself—talking about how to make “education” more effective and efficient, or how to do it or give it to more people, or how to reform or humanize it. But to make it more effective and efficient will only be to make it worse, and to help it do even more harm. It cannot be reformed, cannot be carried out wisely or humanely, because its purpose is neither wise nor humane."

Though Holt rejects education as terminally ill, he still provides many examples of schools and teachers that he approves of in this book. He found hope in the individual examples of schools and groups working with children, and he urges parents and teachers who wish to create more humane schools to do so if they can. However Holt’s eyes were on a different goal: not just alternative schools, but alternatives to school.

After arguing why we need to change our concept of education, Holt then explicitly outlines other ways to help people do things better.  The sorts of laws, attitudes, and learning situations needed to bring about this change are examined throughout Instead of Education. He cites many current (circa 1976) examples, but they aren’t hard to imagine for us in the 21st century because they are commonly used by homeschoolers today: eschewing school schedules for personal learning schedules; enrolling in independent study programs; taking individual courses at different schools and community colleges; using community resources such as pools and playgrounds for meetings and group play, attending learning centers, museums, concerts, lecture series at colleges and libraries; creating new local resources, such as learning exchanges and local environmental protection groups. Holt described these and many more such places, and why and how they could be supported in the near future, in this book.

As far as I can tell from the reviews I read of the original edition, he was dismissed, at best, as a dreamer by critics and academics, for suggesting that children can become well-educated without attending schools and formal programs. But Holt did more than dream in this book. He suggests strategy, tactics, and resources to create “an Underground Railroad” to help children escape from compulsory schools, and he urges parents to keep their children out of school legally or in defiance of the law.  Though he spends time in Instead of Education describing public and private businesses and institutions that work well for learners, Holt also spends much time describing how people can learn without any such support.

Holt understood just how pervasive the modern concept of education had become. Today schools, colleges, athletic and arts programs, TV shows, drug and auto manufacturers, hospitals, funeral homes, and malls everywhere advertise programs to educate us about our needs and their services. “Curricular marketing” is a big concept in business today, a system for treating relationships with customers as measurable corporate learning opportunities. Certification programs exist for everything from palm reading to resume writing; some operated by the government, most by private accrediting agencies. We are a credential-mad, diploma-laden culture, slowly turning the world into a classroom, a situation Holt dreaded.

"It is clear now, as it was not at first, why Illich reacted with such horror to my saying that we should push the walls of the school building out further and further. That seemed at the time a good enough way to say that we should abolish the distinction between learning and the rest of life. Only later did I see the danger that he saw right away. Think again about the global schoolhouse, madhouse, prison. What are madhouses and prisons? They are institutions of compulsory treatment...
A global schoolhouse would be a world, which we seem to be moving toward, in which one group of people would have the right through our entire lives to subject the rest of us to various sorts of tests, and if we did not measure up, to require us to submit to various kinds of treatment, i.e. education, therapy, etc., until we did. A worse nightmare is hard to imagine."

The private school and homeschooling movements have grown by remaining independent of the bureaucracy, mandatory testing, strict curricula, and teaching methods of conventional schools, and they are thriving. The explosive growth of homeschooling, in particular, shows how Instead of Education’s ideas are sound about how children can learn without going to school or following conventional schooling patterns. The wide variety of curricula, methods, and ideologies that comprise the homeschooling movement are testament to both Holt’s hopes and fears, however. It is good to have such a wide choice, but the pressure to select from conventional products and their schedules increases with more people and products entering the marketplace, and the inclination to do-it-yourself becomes marginalized. To use terminology from recent research, “independent homeschooling” may be giving way to “enrolled home study students.”

As I write this introduction, educators are still viewing higher standards and more testing as the holy grails of school reform, the same reforms we are presented with after another national report proclaims “Our Nation At Risk” or “No Child Left Behind.” Technology and social conditions have changed our homes, work places, and lives for better and worse, in the course of the past 160 years. Education, its concepts, purposes, laws, and general operation in our schools, remain largely the same now as they did in the late nineteenth century. The concepts of grade level; self-contained classrooms; learning upon command; breaking the fabric of knowledge into units of study, dividing art from science, history from literature; focusing on competitive grades as measurements of academic achievement, the places, people, and rules of study, and, in particular, school’s compulsory nature, remain largely unchanged since the days of Horace Mann.

Forcing people to do things is rarely the best way to help them learn and become a team player. By most accounts, the U.S. military has raised the caliber of its troops by only taking volunteers; the compulsory army recruit is considered now only in dire times. Yet our schools cling to their power to force attendance despite all evidence that kids can learn elsewhere. Some criticize Holt for his conviction, described in this book, that his submarine service is a model of a good learning society, because, of course, military service was compelled in World War Two. “How could a good learning society be compulsory in nature?” argue the critics. However, Holt’s example is instructive. He volunteered to join the Navy, and the submarine service in particular, thereby proving his point about how people will seek worth work doing even if it is difficult, rather than being compelled to do so.

Holt saw and worked to create a learning society in our culture, a society that welcomed its young into daily life whenever possible. He withstood lots of criticism from his former school reform allies, and many teachers, who could not believe he had given up on schooling and education. But as this book makes clear, Holt never gave up on schools or other places where people can learn, just on our conventional notions of school and education. Instead of Education is a major step towards what Holt described later in 1983, “ A life worth living, and work worth doing—that is what I want for children (and all people), not just, or not even, something called “a better education."