Unschooling and Creativity: Trusting Ourselves to Learn

Presented by Patrick Farenga at the Berklee School of Music Symposium for Interconnected Arts and Music Performance, Dec. 8, 2018.

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I want to thank the Symposium for Interconnected Arts and Music Performance for inviting me to address the issue of creativity and music from the perspective of learning outside of school. I have worked in the field of alternative education for more than 36 years, specifically with families who help their children learn without attending conventional schooling. My wife and I unschooled our three daughters, who are now ages 31, 29, and 26, and I worked at Growing Without Schooling magazine from 1981 until it ceased publication in 2001. I continue to write, speak, and consult with people around the world who want to encourage children’s self-directed learning.

From the moment we are born, we are all self-directed learners—all healthy babies learn to walk, talk, and socialize without formal lessons and, if they are allowed to continue to grow and learn in a safe environment with welcoming adults they also learn to read, write, calculate and investigate the world without being taught. It is hard for us to remember that children were part of the fabric of daily life in communities throughout the world from the beginning of humankind. It is only since around 1850, less than 200 years ago, that school became the primary place for children to learn and grow. Today, most people believe that school is a necessity not just for teaching the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but also for finding work worth doing and developing one’s abilities throughout their entire lives. This formula creates a situation where people are judged by how well they fit into school, rather than fitting the school to the student. For many students, this means they need to subdue their personal, intrinsic motivations for learning in order to reap the rewards of what school wants them to learn.

My friend and mentor, the late teacher and author John Holt, coined the word unschooling to describe how people learn if they don’t attend a school or use school methods at home.

A fifth-grade, private school teacher for many years, John Holt’s first books urged teachers to give children control over their learning in their classrooms. Over time, John sought other words to describe learning that happens naturally for people all the time, in contrast to learning motivated by school pressure. Homeschooling became the settled term for learning without going to school, but John didn’t like it because it implied that you should turn your home into a school and that’s where all the learning takes place.

Unschooling is a modern gerund, but the word unschooled is really quite old. The Oxford English Dictionary cites its first use in 1594 and defines it as:

1. Uneducated, untaught. b.) Not educated at school; not made to attend school.

2. Untrained, undisciplined. b.) Not affected or made artificial by education; natural, spontaneous.

3. Not provided with a school.

John Holt wanted to bring out the second, less popular meanings of unschooled: Not educated at school; not made to attend school; not affected or made artificial by education; natural, spontaneous. Over the years, as the public increasingly used the word “homeschooling,” Holt moved away from using unschooling in his writing and work and used homeschooling as the more generally understood term for learning without going to school.

Why talk about not going to school in a talk about creativity? Don’t you have to learn how to be creative in school? Don’t you have to learn all the rules before you can break them? Don’t you need a college degree to be creative, find a job, and be a success?

Despite the many products, teachers, and seminars that claim their materials and insights will make you creative there is no evidence that creativity can be taught. An article in Psychology Today sums the research up nicely:

“Creativity is not simply a set of skills. Creativity is not simply familiarity with a set of behaviors or facility with a set of pre-fab strategies. Creativity is not simply a body of knowledge. Creativity only manifests when a person with the right sets of skills and knowledge invents or finds an appropriate problem that cannot be solved using any existing approach, but which is amenable to solution by that person's unique set of experiences. You never know who is going to hit that jackpot. You only know that some people have embarked on the quest.”

More to the point of this symposium, British researchers studied musical creativity and found that musicians may be most creative when not actually playing an instrument. The Guardian newspaper reports, “By studying musicians and asking them when inspiration struck them, researchers found that breakthrough moments often happened when players were humming to themselves or tapping out rhythms on the table or imagining dance moves inspired by the music. ‘What we are finding is that even fairly mundane activities can feed in to the discovery of new insight, new knowledge and new means of expressing ideas in all sorts of ways,’ said John Rink, professor of musical performance studies at Cambridge University. ‘The potential is infinite … Developing a creative voice takes time,’ said Rink. ‘It takes experimentation, patience and there may be no predictable course of development that one can expect to follow. You never really know when creative insight will be achieved or how to get it, but prolonged consideration, trial and error, and concentration are all very much part of it … it is a lifelong journey. It never really ends.’”

Given the unpredictable and intensely personal aspects of creativity, is it any wonder that the factory model that schools are based on emphasize standardization and conformity, which are much more easily quantified and measured for grading purposes?

John Holt was, in his own words, a conventional teacher who taught in private schools in Colorado and Boston. But he saw, over time as he taught, that his conventional ways of teaching were not helping children retain meaningful lessons. Based on his experiences John wrote his first book, How Children Fail, and it has remained in print since it appeared in 1964. Essentially, John learned that schooling and education are not the same as learning in the flow of life. In fact, since most students forget what they learned after the test is taken and most teachers must keep the class moving forward, John called what goes on in the classroom a charade of learning. John became a bestselling author with that first book, but after working to change schools from within in the sixties and seventies, he decided to support people who wanted to learn outside of school and work with them to create different ways of helping children learn and grow. In 1977, Holt founded Growing Without Schooling magazine, and the modern homeschooling movement was now on record. Holt was an avid observer and thoughtful commentator about children and learning, and this passage from an article he wrote in Growing Without Schooling sums up his philosophy well:

“Babies do not learn in order to please us, but because it’s their instinct and nature to want to find out about the world. If we praise them for everything they do, after a while they are going to start learning, doing things, just to please us, and the next step is that they are going to become worried about not pleasing us. They’re going to become just as afraid of doing the wrong thing as they might have been if they had been faced with the threat of punishment.”

Intellectually this made sense to me as a single man, but it wasn’t until my wife and I had our first child, Lauren, that I realized how an intellectual understanding of how things work is totally different from a personal understanding of how the same things work. For instance, when Lauren was nearing two years old her favorite toy was a metal Slinky.

I always liked playing with a Slinky as a child—I was fascinated by how I could push it off the top step of our stairs and it would slink its way down. I also loved the feeling and sound of moving the Slinky from hand to hand, watching it jump in an arc from my right hand to my left. But no matter how often I shared my ways of playing with the Slinky, Lauren seemed unimpressed and preferred her own way: She would take the Slinky from me and put it in her mouth and then toddle around with it dangling in front of her.

My wife and I started to worry: Was Lauren not capable of using a simple toy the way it was intended? Did Lauren have a learning disability—Slinky Deficit Disorder? So one night, while I was cleaning up the kitchen, I found the Slinky on the floor. I thought about Lauren and decided I would put it in my mouth and walk around the kitchen like her—and the Slinky sounded like chimes in my ears!

What I perceived about her behavior was not conforming to what I thought she should be learning and doing with that Slinky, and I kept thinking, as a responsible parent, that I had to intervene and make Lauren use the toy the way it is shown in commercials and in their instructions. Fortunately, I was able to put myself in Lauren’s baby shoes for a bit and it made me grasp what John Holt was talking about.

Children learn because they want to, not because they want to please us.

I couldn’t make Lauren use the Slinky the way I thought it should be used, but fortunately I didn’t step over the boundary and MAKE her use it the way I wanted her to. I didn’t yell, or sulk, or make remarks that indicated I was disappointed that she couldn’t play with the Slinky like every other child I knew. I offered her another way, she said no, and since she was in no serious danger with her activity, I let her indulge in walking with a Slinky clenched in her teeth. Her Slinky project only lasted a couple of weeks, by the way. But it made an impression on me, and I’ve learned to be much more careful about judgments I make about why people act as they do based on just my own knowledge and a few observations.

Yet, adults do this all the time. We see a five-year-old throw a ball well and we think they should be an athlete; we see a 10-year-old finish reading a long novel and we think they are smart: We project upon children a lot of what we hope and desire for them, and this can warp our relationships about what children truly want to do and learn.

We need to be in less of a rush to get children launched into adulthood and instead enjoy and appreciate their childhood while they are in it. That’s a big reason homeschooling has grown over the years—school now takes a much larger amount of time and effort from families and children than it did twenty years ago. The school day has gotten longer and added more instruction while cutting recess, art, music, sports, theater, and other subjects that are not viewed as being important by educators, and we keep extending the number of years children must attend school, with some proposals for schooling to start at two years old and extending attendance until one is 18. There are even proposals for mandatory continuing education for adults—womb-to-tomb compulsory schooling.

Meanwhile, more than two million children in the United States are currently being taught at home and in their local communities and the number keeps growing. Many who choose to homeschool begin by duplicating school in their homes, and while this works for some families, most families who homeschool eventually loosen their devotion to the school curriculum and start using their children’s interests and questions to explore the world—they become unschoolers.

High achievement in school doesn’t mean you are more creative or even generally smarter than those with less school achievements—it can also mean you’re just good at the game of school. We’ve conflated school degrees with creativity and intelligence, and this creates a sense of worthlessness for those who are not good at the school game. John Holt and other education reformers have noted how schooling actually constrains learning for many students. This summary of a longitudinal study of creativity, puts that comment in perspective:

“In 1968, George Land conducted a research study to test the creativity of 1,600 children ranging in ages from three-to-five years old who were enrolled in a Head Start program. This was the same creativity test he devised for NASA to help select innovative engineers and scientists. The assessment worked so well he decided to try it on children. He re-tested the same children at 10 years of age, and again at 15 years of age. The results were astounding.

Test results amongst 5 year olds: 98%

Test results amongst 10 year olds: 30%

Test results amongst 15 year olds: 12%

Same test given to 280,000 adults: 2%

“What we have concluded,” wrote Land, “is that non-creative behavior is learned.”

Years earlier than Land, based on his experiences as a teacher and observer of children, John Holt noted in his book How Children Fail, “School is the place where children learn to be stupid.”

More recently, in her book Wounded by School, Kirsten Olson wanted to know how high-achieving adults were positively influenced by their school experiences. What Olson learned is that these adults were successful in spite of their schooling! In her forward to the book, educator Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot writes: “In her first foray into the field—in-depth interviews with an award-winning architect, a distinguished professor, a gifted writer, a marketing executive—Olson expected to hear stories of joyful and productive learning … Instead, she discovered the shadows of pain, disappointment, even cynicism in their vivid recollections of schooling. Instead of the light she expected, she found darkness. And their stories did not merely refer to old wounds now healed; they recalled deeply embedded wounds that still bruised and ached, wounds that still compromised and distorted their sense of themselves as persons and professionals.”

School makes us focus on discrete disciplines on a fixed schedule: an hour of math, an hour of science, and so on. This works for professional, scientific management purposes, but for learning it is often deadly. An hour of math may not be enough for students who are into the topic, and an hour is way too much for students who are not into it. But it doesn’t matter to school officials: everyone must get an hour of math.

John Taylor Gatto, another schoolteacher and author who became an unschooling advocate, wrote that this displacement of intrinsic learning is not a bug in the system but a feature based on the industrial-production model schools use:

“Educated people, or people with principles, represent rogue elements in a scheme of scientific management; the former are suspect because they have been trained to argue effectively and to think for themselves, the latter too inflexible in any area touching their morality to remain reliably dependent. At any moment they may announce, “This is wrong. I won’t do it.” Overly creative people have similar deficiencies from a systems point of view.

“Scientific management is always on guard against people who don’t fit securely into boxes, whether because of too much competency, too much creativity, too much popularity, or what have you. Although often hired, it is with the understanding they must be kept on a short leash and regarded warily. The ideal hireling is reflexively obedient, cheerfully enthusiastic about following orders, ever eager to please. Training begins in the first grade with the word ‘don’t.’”

Another way our intrinsic motivations to learn and experiment get warped or destroyed by school is when the teacher–student relationship gets unbalanced. Ivan Illich, the author of Deschooling Society and other important books about modern culture, wrote, “The teacher–student relationship is a special one and should not occupy more than a small part of life.” But for some students, at all levels of education, their need to please the teacher, and the teacher’s encouragement of that need, can cause the relationship to become toxic, even abusive. The movie Whiplash is an example of how the need to please a popular music teacher can displace and ruin real learning and personal growth for a student.

John Holt wrote a book, titled Never Too Late, about his experiences as an adult learning to play the cello. In a section called “Learning without Lessons,” Holt writes: “The trouble with most teachers of music or anything else, is that they have in the back of their minds an idea more or less like this: ‘Learning is and can only be the result of teaching. Anything important my students learn, they learn because I teach it to them.’ Teachers make this belief clear by the way they teach, or talk about their teaching, or react—usually with anger—to the suggestion that their students might find out for themselves, and be better for finding out, much of what they are being taught. It is not enough for them to be helpful and useful to their students; they need to feel that their students could not get along without them.

“All my own work as teacher and learner has led me to believe quite the opposite, that teaching is a very strong medicine, which like all strong medicines can quickly and easily turn into a poison. At the right time (that is, when the student has asked for it) and in very small doses, it can indeed help learning. But at the wrong time, or in too large doses, it will shut down learning or prevent it altogether. The right kind of teacher can be a great help to a learner, particularly of music. The wrong kind can be worse than none.”

What Holt and similar educators emphasize is the value of relationships and feelings as we live and learn, not the value of certificates and trophies. How we feel about something is deeply important to our motivation to learn about it, but in school we are supposed to put aside our feelings about people and things and just focus on getting through the day’s curriculum. Illich ruefully noted how schools prepare children to be part of an impersonal workforce by making them alienated to their work in school.

The man-made, global competition to have the most educated nation, meaning the population that possesses the most college degrees, is currently being won by China, but the Chinese have a creativity problem: Their graduates are great at following their team leader’s instructions, but not so good at coming up with new solutions to problems. In an article, “How China Kills Creativity”, Jiang Xueqin writes, “But ultimately, the most harmful thing that a Chinese school does, from a creativity perspective, is the way in which it separates emotion from memory by making learning an unemotional experience. … Whatever individual emotions Chinese students try to bring into the classroom, they are quickly stamped out. As I have previously written, from the first day of school, students who ask questions are silenced and those who try to exert any individuality are punished. What they learn is irrelevant and de-personalized, abstract and distant, further removing emotion from learning. If any emotion is involved, it’s pain. But the pain is so constant and monotonous (scolding teachers, demanding parents, mindless memorization, long hours of sitting in a cramped classroom) that it eventually ceases to be an emotion.”

For more examples of how schools kill creativity, I urge you to watch Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk on YouTube: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

So, if creativity is unpredictable, can’t be taught and diminishes in school, what can we do to become creative musicians and people?

It turns out, I learned the answer from my daughter Lauren and her Slinky, only I didn’t recognize it until many years later: the way we nurture creativity is to play. Lauren discovered a creative way to play with a Slinky that I never thought of, but instead of seeing it as an innovative use of the Slinky I viewed it as a lack of understanding on how to play with the toy properly.

Dr. Peter Gray, in his research on self-directed learning among children, writes, “Albert Einstein, who apparently hated school, referred to his achievements in theoretical physics and mathematics as ‘combinatorial play.’ A great deal of research has shown that people are most creative when infused by the spirit of play, when they see themselves as engaged in a task just for fun. As the psychologist Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard Business School, has shown in her book Creativity in Context (1996) and in many experiments, the attempt to increase creativity by rewarding people for it or by putting them into contests to see who is most creative has the opposite effect. It’s hard to be creative when you are worried about other people’s judgments. In school, children’s activities are constantly being judged. School is a good place for learning to do just what someone else wants you to do; it’s a terrible place for practicing creativity.”

If you don’t learn how to be creative in school, then what makes people creative?

Neuroscience tells us that certain regions of the brain activate together during creative moments, but if and how creativity can be taught as a result of this information is not clear at all. An article about current brain research on creativity claims that “a crucial trigger of creativity is the experience of unusual and unexpected events.” My first reaction to this was, “It took a research study to establish this?”

Artists, intellectuals, and avid travelers have long known and written about how novel experiences excite the imagination: Is it any wonder that so many musicians, from Dvorak to Miles Davis, were inspired to compose music based on their travels? There’s only one way to experience unusual and unexpected events, and that’s to disrupt your routines and comfort zones, something that travel can facilitate. Of course, you don’t have to travel to experience unusual and unexpected events, as Lauren’s Slinky shows. Here are other examples.

Thelonious Monk said his first piano was a player piano: “I saw how the rolls made the keys move. Very interesting. Sounded pretty good to me. I felt I did not want to waste this person’s gift, so I learned to use it.” Author Robert Doershuck writes about Monk practicing at home with, “a mirror [had been] mounted on the ceiling over the piano to reflect the rise and fall of the piano hammers, the shifting of the dampers, as he played. The visual balance, as well as the sounds, pleased him.” The visual, tactile, and sound qualities of the piano attracted young Thelonious to play it, not parental or school demands. I must also mention, it was his sense of relationship and respect for the person who gave his family the piano that also made him desire to learn more about it. I suspect deep learning and creativity arise more from these moments of human kindness than from no excuses, high-pressure school environments. And though Monk did study formal piano technique and repertoire, he noted that he began teaching himself how to play “as soon as they rolled the old upright into the door.” Further, it was Monk’s sister who first got the piano lessons, not him. That didn’t stop him from listening to his sister’s lesson, observing how she played, and learning to read music. Monk said, “I learned how to read before I took lessons, watching my sister practice her lessons, over her shoulder.”

The combination of self-teaching and a multidimensional approach to music are hallmarks of Monk’s work, but that is also how so many young people learn when they are not forced into competitive learning. Children—all of us—are learning all the time from our environment, our thoughts, and our actions, and our creativity is stirred by all those elements.

Prodigies, like Mozart and Joey Alexander, are not common, but creativity is.

Everyday people are creative. Creativity in music doesn’t automatically mean you are creative in the kitchen, or with computer code. Genetics and environment are not destiny: in my many years of helping families homeschool I’ve encountered many unmusical parents—meaning parents who didn’t play instruments or listen to music avidly—who nonetheless had very musical children. I’ve also encountered highly musical parents whose children prefer carpentry or science for their careers.

For instance, Nancy and Bob Wallace were homeschoolers and neither considered themselves musical. When they moved into a rented house there was an old piano there that their son Ishmael fell in love with it. His younger sister, Vita, also developed a passion for music, though her instrument soon became the violin. It is important to note that neither child just played music all day; doll and toy play, games, outdoor activities, visits with neighbors, also filled their days. Neither went to school until they entered music school in their teens. Both are now adult classical musicians living and working in Manhattan.

I recently spoke with two young jazz musicians who were unschooled for all or part of their schooling. Miro Sprague came from a musical family (“There were lots of hand drums in our house” he noted), and his dad gave him a recording of Kind of Blue one Christmas that he fell in love with. Miro tried to figure out how to play those tunes on the piano, and the concept of improvisation really impressed him from this album, and he wanted to know how he could do improvise, too.

School didn’t fit Miro’s personality: he describes his younger self as having a stubborn, wanting to do things his own way temperament. But he didn’t get seriously into music until he left conventional school. From the beginning, Miro said school gave him the feeling of “Why should I be learning what these people dictate what I should learn? I learn, just at my own pace… it didn’t make sense to me.” When he was in seventh grade he asked his parents if he could leave school and attend North Star, a self-directed learning center for teens near his home in Western Massachusetts. Becoming a homeschooler and enrolling in North Star gave Miro a lot more time: “My passion was ignited and I was able to go for it and spend a lot of time just playing. At first I taught myself, then my dad gave me a self-teaching piano book. Then he recommended I take lessons. I was resistant to that because of my school experience, but the piano teacher lived up the road and I started lessons with him after six or seven months of being at home. He gave me little composition assignments at our second lesson.” After a year with this teacher, Miro was playing 6 to 8 hours a day and he wanted to study with a serious jazz piano teacher. Eugene Newman, at the VT Jazz Center in Brattleboro, became his next teacher, and Miro’s parents drove him across state lines every week for his lessons. Miro didn’t return to school until he entered the Manhattan School of Music as an undergraduate. After he graduated, he attended the Thelonious Monk Institute at UCLA and now works as a full-time jazz musician and composer.

Claire Dickson, who never attended elementary or high school, is a senior at Harvard, double majoring in music and psychology. Like Miro, she comes from a musical family and was encouraged, but never pushed, to learn music. Claire discovered her passion for singing when she was young: she liked the physical feeling and emotional outlet vocalizing gave her. When she was 12 she discovered Ella Fitzgerald and vocal improvisation and was deeply moved. She eventually asked her parents for formal voice lessons. A few years later, Claire was singing in jazz clubs around Boston while others her age were cramming for exams. For Claire, music is a part of her life, but not her whole life. She said, “I always want to have the option of narrowing my focus and not have the environment narrow it.” As a composer, Claire is open to inspiration from everywhere, and enjoys co-composing with a colleague. She notes how she uses voice memos on her phone to record ideas she gets as she walks; she finds this encourages her flow state and maintains her playfulness without making her think about what she is recording.

Both Claire and Miro note the incredible value of time that they were given by being homeschooled. We’ve all heard that it takes about 10,000 hours of doing something before you become truly adept at it. Claire emphasized to me: “It is important to take advantage of the time and space of not being in school. You need to use the school when you need to, instead of it using you.”

Miro said, “Not being in a conventional school I had a lot more time. My passion was ignited and I was able to go for it and spend a lot of time just playing.”

In today’s world, we think every great discovery must be attributed to a school or a scholar and that to live a creative life one needs a foundation grant, a patron, or to become independently wealthy. Let me share a few more stories to remind you of what ordinary people are capable of creating without going to school.

Here is the great pianist Mary Lou Williams, quoted on a record album jacket, Jazz Women: A Feminist Retrospective:

“I have to give my mother credit here. She used to tell the story that I was a nervous child. To keep me out of mischief, she held me on her lap while she played an old fashioned pump organ that she had at home. One day my hands beat hers to the keyboard and I picked out a melody. She was so surprised she dropped me on the floor and ran to get the neighbors to come and hear me. That was the beginning and from that time on (I was three) I never left the piano. She never let a teacher near me. She had studied and all she could do was read. She couldn’t improvise on her own at all. So instead, she did a very good thing. She had professional playing musicians come to the house and play for me. …. Some days I’d stay at the piano twelve hours. I didn’t stop to eat or anything—sometimes I’d drink just a glass of water.”

George Coleman is an iconic tenor saxophone player. In an interview, it was noted: “Coleman began his journey in Memphis, Tenn., in 1935. He took up alto and was already gigging as a teenager with B.B. King in the early ‘50s. He learned basic music theory in high school but was essentially self-taught: for knowledge, he turned to Memphis musicians such as arranger Ozzie Horne, piano modernist Bob Tally and stride pianist Eugene Barlow, among others. “The stuff that guys were learning at Berklee,” says Coleman, “I knew when I was about 17 or 18 years old.”

Please don’t think that just jazz musicians from the old days learned without, or in spite of, school. As I noted earlier, many successful people feel school was a constraint on their intellectual and creative development. Here’s an example from astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was invited to give a commencement address at his elementary school but refused. In a New Yorker profile he recalled telling the administration:

“I am where I am not because of what happened in school but in spite of it, and it probably is not what you want me to say. Call me back, and I will address your teachers and give them a piece of my mind.” A more important education came from his parents … Tyson’s mother gave him a pair of folding opera glasses, which provided his first magnified look at the night sky. In middle school, he bought a telescope with money that he earned by walking neighbors’ dogs—"It was the golden age of dog walking, because you didn’t have to clean up after them," he recalls—and studied the sky from the roof of his apartment building. In his bedroom, he arranged glow-in-the-dark stars in the shape of constellations.”

Gunther Schuller was the head of the New England Conservatory during the 1960s and 1970s and a noted jazz musician. Schuller didn’t get interested in music until he was 12. In his speech at the New England Conservatory Centennial Dinner, he addressed himself to this point:

“Forgive me for becoming autobiographical for a moment, but I do it only to make a point. I stand before you as one of the original dropouts. I do not have any degrees, and I do not have even a high school diploma. Now I’m not advocating this necessarily as a road to higher education, and I am aware of the fact that times have changed tremendously in the twenty-four years since I left high school. But I have the feeling I would not have been a very good music student in, for example, the rigid programs which allow for almost no electives, which some of our schools demand.”

As I noted earlier, it is difficult to hold on to original thinking and remain creative in a society that demands obedience to authority and rewards standardization and mass production. Thelonious Monk didn’t get truly appreciated until towards the end of his life, and the same is true for any number of creative people: Van Gogh, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Alan Poe, Henry David Thoreau, Galileo, or from the last half of the 20th century, musician Nick Drake, comic book artist Jack Kirby, and sci-fi author Philip Dick. All these people struggled to create their works and earn a living and it wasn’t until after they died that they actually earned recognition, and royalties, for their works. Most creative people care if someone positively recognizes their work, but they continue to create even if fame and fortune avoids them. They aren’t creating because they want to please a teacher or an audience—they create because there is something inside them that must be articulated and until they do so to their satisfaction, they are compelled to try, over and over.

Which brings us back to our common ground: we were all babies once, we were all beginners at our instruments once—we were all self-motivated to try to do something, over and over. In his book, Never Too Late, John Holt describes the technical aspects of learning the cello as a middle-age adult, but he also delves into the emotions and ideas that music brings up for him as he learns the cello. Even though he was learning on his own, with some private lessons, John kept comparing himself to his fellow musicians and found himself lacking.

“A voice in my mind began to say, ‘What’s the matter with you? There’s nothing but quarter and eighth notes, you ought at least be able to play them right.’ Of course, these thoughts only made me play worse. After a short while I took hold of myself, and began to say to that scolding voice in my mind, ‘Shut up; what difference does it make what they can do, or what I ought to be able to do? I am doing the best I can, and that is all I can do.’ After silencing that scolding voice, I said to my playing self, ‘Don’t worry, do your best, you’ll get better.’

“… Once again the voice began to tell me that the music was easy and that I ought to be able to play it. Once again, I had to remind myself that ‘ought’ has nothing to do with it; if it was hard for me, then it was hard, that was all there was to it.”

Later in this chapter, John realizes how silly it was for him to berate himself for not playing what others could play easily:

“The baby learning to walk does not reproach himself every time he falls down. If he did, he would never learn to walk. . . . What I am slowly learning to do in my work with music is revive some of the resilient spirit of the exploring and learning baby. I have to accept at each moment, as a fact of life, my present skill or lack of skill, and do the best I can, without blaming myself for not being able to do better. I have to be aware of my mistakes and shortcomings without being ashamed of them. I have to keep in view the distant goal, without worrying about how far away it is or reproaching myself for not being already there. This is very hard for most adults. It is the main reason why we old dogs so often do find it so hard to learn new tricks, whether sports or languages or crafts or music. But if as we work on our skills we work on this weakness in ourselves, we can slowly get better at both.”

I always enjoy how John views learning holistically: by practicing our music we can also develop our personal growth—but we must consciously work at both. If you mindlessly spend an hour running through music exercises your fingers may get a workout, but did your brain and spirit get into the practice session too? Or were you going through your exercises with part of your mind thinking about dinner, or your next gig? You need to bring your focus and emotions to what you are doing in order to truly grow and understand yourself.

So, what does unschooling show us that can help those in school or who want to be more creative?

First, we need time to ourselves to nurture our own thoughts, experience things we want to explore or do, and to develop skills that further our personal goals. Make space in your life for your own thoughts and experiences to take root and grow. Carve out the time for self-reflection—such as daily walks or meditation—but self-reflection is also spontaneous and can occur at any time, so learn to recognize it when it happens. Like so many things in life, the more you do it the better you get at it—and self-reflection is a great way to learn from your mistakes.

Second, get away from your instrument and seek novel and unusual experiences: books, movies, museums, travel, crochet, bocci, barefoot running. You never know what might inspire your music: think of young Thelonious Monk watching the player piano keys move on their own, or looking at the mirror over his head as he made the piano hammers move: did the physical combinations of the hammers inspire Monk’s harmonic approach? All we know is that these things were important to Monk and he mentions them when asked about his piano playing. This is an interesting point about self-directed learning: only the learner can explain why they took a particular journey to learn something, and sometimes they can’t explain how or why they learned something anyway! Learning is also unconscious, subliminal, which is more evidence that we are learning all the time, not just when a teacher instructs us.

Related to getting away from your instrument are personal relationships. You might think that creative people only have a strong relationship to their art and don’t need or want others’ support, except as admirers. This is a stereotype of the creative genius, of course, and it was applied to Thelonious Monk often: He was described in the press as the high priest of bop, a lonely iconoclast, lost in his musical thoughts. If you learn about Monk’s life, you realize he fought against significant prejudice for being black, outspoken, and for the way he played piano; he also advised and befriended many people and musicians—notably, Bud Powell—and participated in benefits and protests to advance the civil rights movement throughout the 1950s and 60s. His wife, family, and friends were vital to keeping Monk from falling into despair, especially towards the end of his life when mental illness hit Monk hard. The romantic stereotype of the creative genius is a far cry from reality, especially for people of color. Do not neglect your personal relationships in pursuit of your creative muse; many artists gain inspiration and insight from their personal relationships, which, as all lovers and friends know, can also trigger creativity caused by unusual and unexpected events.

Finally, don’t let your schooling get in the way of your creativity. A good teacher teaches us how to teach ourselves. For instance, a good teacher won’t just tell you to relax when you play, they will tell and show you how to relax. We do sometimes need teachers when we want to learn something, but let me repeat that quote from Illich: “The teacher–student relationship is a special one and should not occupy more than a small part of life.”

John Holt echoes this throughout his work, especially in Never Too Late, where he writes,

“Most of all, I need the experience of playing for a critical listener, to get over any stage fright I might feel about that, and to learn to play my best under pressure—just as in sports. But even while giving me this help, the teacher must accept that he or she is my partner and helper and not my boss, that in this journey of musical exploration and adventure, I am the captain. Expert guides and pilots I can use, no doubt about it. But it is my expedition; I gain the most if it succeeds and lose the most if it fails, and I must remain in charge.”

Unschooling and letting the learner remain in charge of their learning is hard for many parents and teachers to appreciate, because it requires our trust and hope in the learner. Trust and hope are in scant supply in today’s increasingly transactional society. In his second book, How Children Learn, which celebrated its 50th year in print in 2018, John Holt wrote:

“All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words—Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple—or more difficult. Difficult, because to trust children we must trust ourselves—and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted. And so we go on treating children as we ourselves were treated, calling this ‘reality,’ or saying bitterly, ‘If I could put up with it, they can too.’

“What we have to do is break this long downward cycle of fear and distrust, and trust children though we ourselves were not trusted. To do this will take a long leap of faith—but great rewards await any of us who will take that leap.”

I hope the stories and research I shared with you today give you more confidence to trust yourselves to be open to life and aware of all your learning, not just the learning you get credit for in school. As many unschoolers and self-taught musicians do, you can use school as needed to mold your own creations, instead of school treating you as a lump of clay to be molded.

Thank you.

Pat Farenga speaking at the Irish Unschooling Conference, Dublin, Ireland, May 7, 2016.

Pat Farenga speaking at the Irish Unschooling Conference, Dublin, Ireland, May 7, 2016.

Awakening Ourselves to New Possibilities in Education

An article I wrote for the Irish Unschooling Conference newsletter, April 2016.

There are some things that are universally true, such as all humans need healthy food, clean water, and good shelter to stay alive. Then there are things that we think are universally true, such as we must compel children to learn in school or else they will not function well in adult society. However, the education system that people all around the world are taught to believe in and support with their taxes, minds, and bodies is not vital to human existence, though you could never tell that from the intense marketing, social anxiety, and politics that surround school today.

There have been cultures and societies that made great advances in art, philosophy, and science without any schools as we know them now: Periclean Greece, Elizabethan England, and Colonial America before the revolution are three examples. In those times most children and adults learned from their parents, each other, and their local community. Perhaps an itinerant teacher would visit the village or town for a few weeks, but such schooling is nothing compared to modern-day education systems where every minute of the school day is measured and delivered to children in ever-increasing doses.

It is a modern-day heresy to say that schooling is not the same as education and that people can learn things in their own ways instead of attending school. But it is true, though a truth I didn’t fully understand until I started working with John Holt at Growing Without Schooling magazine in 1981. Like everyone my age, by going through the process of schooling I internalized all sorts of attitudes about grades, competition, doing meaningless or half-understood tasks, the importance of obedience to arbitrary authority, and so on that I only questioned later in my life. And, like most, I thought school just needed major improvements that would occur through more resources and smarter management. Working at Growing Without Schooling changed my view of that and made me realize that education reform is a way to misdirect the social reforms that are needed to improve peoples’ learning abilities, such as safe housing, healthy food, and salaries and wages that stabilize family finances.

John Holt once felt that schools could be improved but after years of advocating for changes in the classroom he decided that was not the right way to create better education. In his book Freedom and Beyond, Holt wrote:

Not long ago I would have defined the problem of educational reform as the problem of somehow getting much more freedom into our schools. If we could find a way to do that, we would have good education for all children. Now the problem seems larger: if schools exist we naturally want them to be better rather than worse. But it no longer seems to me that any imaginable sum of school reforms would be enough to provide good education for everyone or even for all children. People, even children, are educated much more by the whole society around them and the general quality of life in it than they are by what happens in schools. The dream of many school people, that schools can be places where virtue is preserved and passed on in a world otherwise empty of it, now seems to me a sad and dangerous illusion. It might have worked in the Middle Ages; it can’t work in a world of cars, jets, TV, and the mass media. Moreover, it seems clear from much experience that most adults will not tolerate too great a difference between the way they experience their own lives and the way their children live their lives in school. Even if the schools give up the idea that they should be preparing children for society as it is, and try instead to prepare them to live in or make a better society, they will not be allowed to go very far in that direction.

John Holt increasingly felt that the majority of adults don’t like or enjoy being around children and decided that rather than argue with the masses he would speak to those who were likeminded instead, and promote an alternative and give support to parents and other adults who wanted self-directed education for children. Giving children all the time they want to play, answering their questions respectfully, and having patience with their developing personalities and abilities are things every adult could do and John wanted to let people know that they didn’t have to wait for schools to change in order to help their children learn: you can do it yourself. Though a radical idea in 1977 when Holt first published Growing Without Schooling magazine, John was aware of people who homeschooled their children many years before then. One of them contacted John through GWS and I want to share her story.

Maire Mullarrney homeschooled her eleven children in Dublin during the 1950s and 1960s and she wrote about it in her book Anything School Can Do You Can Do Better, published in 1983. Some of her children had horrible experiences in school, which would have been worse had Maire not intervened and removed her children from the beatings they were receiving. Though she only taught them at home until they were eight or nine, she wished she taught them at home longer.

Maire and her husband had no formal teaching experience but were secure in their abilities to help their children learn and, influenced by Maria Montessori’s work, they were equally secure in their children’s abilities to learn on their own. Maire writes:

It should be evident form the first part of the book that I found staying home with interested children much more fun than either of the jobs I had beforehand.. It was the learning together that gave zest to the days …

After some eighteen quiet years of child-watching I had come to realize that school was a time-wasting and inefficient attempt to enable one generation to share knowledge with the next. When the elders felt the need to subdue the young by beating and humiliating them that went beyond mere inefficiency. It had not dawned on me that sharing knowledge was only a minor purpose of the system …

My friend Mario Pagnoni, an early author in the homeschooling world, often said all you need to homeschool successfully is love and a library card. So I find it is ironic that today, with books, libraries, computers, Internet, television, movies, plays, music, cellphones, tablets, and all our other means of communication, we still think children won’t learn anything unless a teacher feeds it to them out of a curriculum approved by the teacher’s superiors. Why do we feel so unempowered about our abilities to learn when our opportunities to consume information have increased so much? Can too much information have the paradoxical effect of stupefying us? How can we watch our children learn to walk, talk, and reason on their own as they grow from infancy into teenagers and not see that they are learning as much, if not more, from their environment, the things they do, the people they encounter, and the emotions they feel as they do from a formal lesson in a classroom? Indeed, as Holt and many other teachers and researchers have noted, school teaching often inhibits or prevents genuine learning.

Some people, when they’ve had enough failure with school, rather than double-down and push harder on it as the institution desires, question why they should do so. They consider other possibilities by questioning what’s going on: Are schools the best way to help all children learn and grow? Is there another way?

Maire Mullarney felt powerless to change schools from within and her family could not wait for schools to get better, so she took control as best she could and taught her children at home without ANY support from places we now take for granted, such as the Internet, public programs, or private schools and tutors. Other parents around the world did this throughout the early to mid-twentieth century too, and those who left a written record indicate their children did well as adults as a result of their nontraditional educations, not in spite of them.

There is plenty of research that supports informal learning, self-directed education, children learning on their in groups and since the 1980s the documented success of homeschooling continues to grow its numbers. Unschooling, a word coined by John Holt to mean learning that doesn’t take place at home nor resemble schooling, continues to grow in acceptance by conventional higher education and in general popularity. Slowly, some educational institutions are realizing that letting children grow up in a freer, more playful environment than school, particularly during their elementary school years, is more important than schooling. New possibilities for teaching and learning abound in the world, but in school they are constrained by rules and assumptions that deny agency to students and cause a charade of learning that more and more intensive testing only exacerbates, since what is answered correctly on a school test is soon forgotten once the test is over.

If school doesn’t seem right or isn’t working for your children, you can teach them yourself, just as Maire Mullarney did in the 1950s. You have the right to do so in Ireland and in many other countries. Except, unlike Maire and those who homeschooled in the previous century—like my family—you have the benefit of mass media, professional and public services, and local and online support. Don’t think you have no possible choices besides sending your child to school: What’s stopping you from trying homeschooling and unschooling?


Article for the current online version of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Homeschooling and John Holt's Vision


The Challenges Homeschooling Presents to Social Science Research

How to Get an Education at Home

Written for John Taylor Gatto’s The Exhausted School and presented by Patrick Farenga at Carnegie Hall, New York City, on October 25, 1991.

My dad, mom, John Gatto, and me (Pat Farenga) in John Gatto's dressing room after  The Exhausted School  event at Carnegie Hall.

My dad, mom, John Gatto, and me (Pat Farenga) in John Gatto's dressing room after The Exhausted School event at Carnegie Hall.


There is a revolution going on in education, but it is not happening in schools. It is happening in the homes of American families in every state. It is happening every time a family decides to help its children learn at home instead of sending them to school. Fourteen years ago there were roughly 10,000 children being homeschooled; now there are upwards of 600,000 children learning at home [PF: 1.5 million in 2007 and still growing as of 2010]. If you and your children are not pleased with your schools and you are tired of waiting for them to change, then you can do something now and join the growing ranks of people who homeschool.

It is impossible to generalize about the "typical" homeschooling family anymore than you can about the "typical" family whose children attend schools. Homeschoolers include traditional, middle-class two parent households, single parents, low-income families, families with parents or children who have physical disabilities, and two income families. Some homeschool solely for religious reasons; some homeschool solely for pedagogical reasons. Many homeschool for mixtures of both reasons, and many others homeschool simply because they enjoy being with their children and watching them learn. Some homeschoolers live in rural communes; others live in midtown Manhattan. Some homeschooling parents have only high school diplomas, others have doctorates. It is not necessary to have a teaching certificate to homeschool effectively. None of these examples are conjectural; families homeschooling under these and other conditions have been writing to us at Growing Without Schooling [PF: We ceased publication in 2001 after 143 issues.] with their stories for over fourteen years. All sorts of people homeschool, and you can too.

You might think that homeschooled children are limited by their parents' expertise, experience, and knowledge. If we view teaching as the filling up of an empty bottle with the teacher's knowledge then this concern makes sense. With only one or two people pouring into the child's "bottle" it makes sense that the child will only learn what they pour in. However, homeschooling allows you to depart from the "bottle" model of school learning and follow a different concept of how children learn.

My friend, the late John Holt, wrote about how people learn throughout his ten books about education. He spent the better part of his life demonstrating that we can trust children to learn all the time. John observed that for children under school age, living and learning are interconnected, but once they enter school, the two are separated. Learning is supposed to take place in special buildings called schools, and living takes place outside of school. But from the moment children are born they learn from everything they have access to, not just from special teachers and places. Children learn to walk and talk with little or no formal teaching from us parents. Several studies have noted that homeschooled children consistently test at or above grade level when compared to their schooled age-mates, regardless of the degrees attained or teacher certification of their parents. Washington, Alaska, and Alabama are three states that have studied and reported this. This proves not only that we can trust our children to learn, but that we can trust ourselves to be effective teachers for our children.

"But I'm not good at math," you may be thinking. "How could I be a good homeschooling parent?" First, homeschoolers use a wide variety of resources and learning materials. Some feel more comfortable beginning with a fairly traditional curriculum, and many different ones are readily available. Other families follow a less conventional approach, learning according to their own time tables and taking advantage of individual learning. Many parents find homeschooling greatly stimulates their own thinking and creativity and provides them with new learning opportunities.

Homeschoolers also think very hard about friends, relations, neighbors, and co-workers who have expertise in areas their children want to explore. We hear many stories about how non-family members offer considerable help with a child's home education. One child decided she wanted to learn more math than her mother was familiar with. Her mother found a math tutor for her. Another story is about how a boy learned a great deal about computer programming from adults he met at his church and through Scouts. Amber Clifford, a sixteen-year-old homeschooler from Missouri, wrote to us about her interest in archaeology, something her parents know nothing about. "I was able to do the reading and studying on my own, but my parents helped me find the resource people that I needed and took me to the places that I needed to see. We're in a town with a university, so when I was interested in fossils, my mother called the geology department and got the professor to talk to me. I didn't know how to go about finding someone, and she did, so this is where she was really helpful to me."

Some of you may feel that the children I am describing are special, that homeschoolers are taking the best and most motivated children out of school and leaving school with the dregs. The fact is that many of the children now flourishing in homeschools were not flourishing in school. Some parents began homeschooling children who had been labeled "learning disabled" in school, and they watched their children lose their LD behavior. Other homeschoolers have children for whom school was not challenging enough, and they teach them at home using materials and experiences that match their needs. Some homeschooled children are late readers, not learning to read until they are ten or so. Grant Colfax, a homeschooled. child who graduated from Harvard and is now in medical school, didn't learn to read until he was nine. Woodrow Wilson, who was homeschooled, learned to read when he was eleven. Children like Colfax and Wilson develop other talents and skills while they are young, and when they do learn to read they do so without special difficulty. In school these late readers would be immediately segregated and treated for these academic deficiencies, and they would be held back from other learning opportunities until they could read at their grade level. It is simply not true that all homeschoolers would be winners in school anyway.

Despite the diversity of methods and reasons for homeschooling, there is one thing each and every homeschooler has in common: they all asked, "How will your children be socialized if they don't go to school?"

Homeschooling allows children to participate and learn in the real world. It allows them to mix with much younger and much older people, take courses as they want or need them, and apprentice with people they can learn from in the community. Homeschoolers play with their friends in their neighborhood and make friends with other homeschoolers. A young homeschooler in Pennsylvania wrote to us about their experience volunteering at a home for disabled kids; a family from California wrote to us about their son's work in a soup kitchen. Many families write to us about how their children participate in community theater, give music lessons to younger children in their neighborhood, share hobbies with fellow enthusiasts of all ages. Homeschoolers have apprenticed at historical societies, veterinarian's offices, architecture firms, nature centers, and many other places. Serena Gingold, a homeschooled youngster from California, wrote to us about her involvement in local politics: "I've written letters to the editor about my opinions. You really learn a lot about opinions when you publicly voice your own. I've also been publicly criticized, and my county fair projects were censored because they were 'too political' (actually because I was too political for a kid). One letter in the paper criticized me for being a kid and having opinions! People always say I should go to school so I learn about the real world, but I'm living in the real world!"

Certainly group experiences are a big part of education, and homeschoolers have plenty of them. Homeschoolers write to us about how they form or join writing clubs, book discussion groups, and local homeschooling support groups. Homeschoolers also take part in school sports teams and music groups, as well as the many public and private group activities our communities provide. For example, Kristin Williams of Michigan recently wrote to our magazine, Growing Without Schooling, about how they meet many different types of people. "We're a black family living in a racially and economically mixed neighborhood," she writes. "...We don't really go out looking for people who are different from ourselves. Many come through the family: a cousin has an Arab-American girlfriend, another had a Japanese mother-in-law, another is married to an Afro-Canadian, one to a Polish- American, still another to a Jamaican and one to a Nigerian." She writes how through church, 4-H club, and neighbors they have encountered and enjoyed many different types of people. At home they play tapes of foreign music, listen to overseas shortwave radio broadcasts, cook ethnic foods, go to international fairs and multi-cultural worship services. Homeschoolers can and do experience other people and cultures without going to school.

The flipside of socialization is solitary reflection. Homeschooling allows children to have some time alone, time to pursue their own thoughts and interests. Children, like adults, need time to be alone to think, to muse, to read freely, to daydream, to be creative, to form a self independent of the barrage of mass culture. A British man once remarked to me how amazing it was to him that Americans expect schools to socialize their children. "I always thought the social graces were taught at home," he said. This observation is supported by a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This study tracked how childhood experiences - in and out of school - affected adult development over a 36-year period. The study concluded that the only factor that showed a significant effect by itself on children's social maturity and their later social accomplishment as adults was "parental warmth and affection."

You may find that you teach your children at home for just a semester, for a year, or forever. The choice is yours, not school's. The entry or reentry of homeschooled children into the classroom appears to be no different than for those who transfer into a school from another district.

Homeschooling works because schooling is not the same thing as education. School is not the only place to learn, to grow up. Universities and colleges recognize this fact whenever they admit homeschoolers who have never attended school. Homeschoolers who never attended, or rarely attended, any schools are currently students at Harvard, Boston University, Rice University, and the Curtis Institute of Music, to name a few. In addition, homeschoolers who decide not to go to college are finding adult work without special difficulty. Some of the homeschoolers I know who fall into this category are currently employed in the fields of computers, ballet, theater, movies, aviation, construction, and overseas missionary work.

Consider these famous people who were homeschooled for some or all of their school years: Authors William Blake, Charles Dickens, Pearl Buck, Agatha Christie and Margaret Atwood; social and political figures Benjamin Franklin, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Samuel Gompers, Charles Lindberg, Florence Nightingale; artists Andrew Wyeth, Yehudi Menuhin, Sean O'Casey, Charlie Chaplin, Claude Monet, and Noel Coward; inventors Thomas Edison and the Wright brothers. One of the world's richest men, the man for whom this hall is named, Andrew Carnegie, was homeschooled until he was nine. He was coaxed into attending school after that, but by the age of thirteen Carnegie left school and never went back. School attendance is not the only way to become a successful, sociable adult.

Vita Wallace, a homeschooler from Pennsylvania, wrote these words when she turned sixteen and officially graduated from homeschooling: "The most important thing I think I have gained through my education is that I know what I love to do. I think if I had gone to school I wouldn't have had time to find out. I know it's awfully confusing for people when, after graduating from thirteen years of schooling, they still don't know. I've been able to make friends with all kinds of different people - people younger, the same age, and older than I am; my teachers, colleagues and students; my neighbors young and old; my parents' friends, my brother's friends and teachers; and most important, my brother. He's been my best friend all along, and I am so glad we didn't go to school if only for the one reason that we might not have been able to be such bosom buddies otherwise..."

Homeschooling is not a panacea to all our educational problems, but it is part of the answer. It is a proven option for any of you who wish to try it.


Can a Christian Be an Unschooler?

This article originally appeared in Growing Without Schooling, Issue 106, Aug/Sept 1995, p. 34. 

Once in my travels across the country I was at dinner with some homeschoolers and one of them remarked to me, "You know, John Holt was right. I don't know of anyone who homeschools more than two or three years without throwing their curriculum out the window and developing their own by following their kids' interests. What we need is a Christian John Holt."

I thought to myself at the time, "What's so awful about the real John Holt? Why must John's rich and flexible ideas about education be claimed by someone else before they will be heard?" These questions re-emerged for me after I read an interesting article written by Mary Hood titled "Can a Christian be an Unschooler?" She frames many of the issues surrounding this question which I want to address.

Mary Hood feels that John Holt's ideas are rooted in the work of Rousseau; I respectfully disagree. In nearly all of John's work he emphasizes that the root of his ideas about learning is his direct observations of children and his own learning experiences. This, plus lack of training as a professional teacher, form the basis for his deep trust and understanding of parents and children and of the possibilities for learning outside of school. The most that I think can be said is that Holt's conclusions on certain issues were similar to Rousseau's, but to claim that Holt's ideas are rooted in Rousseau's establishes an unfair bias against Holt for many readers, since it is immediately noted that the ideas of Rousseau are not Biblical in origin. In any case, again, it would be simply inaccurate to think that Holt himself felt that his work grew out of Rousseau's.

Hood goes on to contrast Calvin's idea about harshly disciplining children to force them down the right path with Rousseau's idea that natural man was born good and was deabsed by contact with the outside world. She then posits John Holt squarely on the side of Rousseau. Frankly, I find nothing in John Holt's writing to support this claim.

John never wrote that children are naturally good. However, he did often write that they are natural learners (Learning All the Time, p. 159, for example). In How Children Learn he wrote, "What I am trying to say about education rests on a belief that, though there is much evidence to support it, I cannot prove, and that may never be proved. Call it faith. This faith is that man is by nature a learning animal. Birds fly, fish swim; man thinks and learns." To the criticism that all Holt advocated was leaving children alone, let me give a full quote to assure the context of this often misunderstood idea:

    Life is full of ironies. I wrote How Children Learn hoping to help introduce the natural, effortless, and effective ways of learning of the happy home into the schools. At times I fear I may only have helped to bring the strained, self-conscious, painful, and ineffective ways of learning of the schools into the home. To parents I say, above all else, don't let your home become some terrible miniature copy of the school. No lesson plans! No quizzes! No tests! No report cards! Even leaving your children alone would be better; at least they could figure out some things on their own. Live together, as well as you can; enjoy life together, as much as you can [My emphasis -- PF] Ask questions to find out something about the world itself, not to find out whether or not someone knows it.

    (Teach Your Own, p. 229)

John is saying leave children alone rather than give them unasked-for teaching. He is not advocating ignoring children as an educational precept. Parents and other concerned people are certainly part of the equation of unschooling: Live together... enjoy life together...

Nowhere in John's 10 books do I recall seeing any philosophical statement that children are naturally good and would grow up better if they had no contact with the outside world. In fact, John wrote often and passionately about how adults can help children learn by participating with other people, young and old, in activities in the real world. John also had his eyes open to the fact that people can be willfully bad: "Human society has never until now had to come to grips with the source of human evildoing, which is the wish to do evil..." (John was referring to the dropping of napalm and white phosphorous on men, women, and children in peasant villages in Vietnam. The Underachieving School, p. 117). Finally, John did advise people in his talks and writing to try as much as possible, to think and expect the best of children and to give them second chances, indeed as many chances as you can; is this not scriptural?

Using a spectrum from Rousseau to Calvin, Hood locates Holt right next to Rousseau; then she writes that she actually feels more comfortable with someone in the middle, Charlotte Mason. However, I think from my reading of Holt that he is far more in tune with Charlotte Mason's ideas about good and evil than he is with Rousseau's! Mary describes Mason's position this way: that children were born neither good nor bad, but with tendencies towards both, and that our role as adults was to provide gentle guidance to those in our care.

According to Mary Hood's article, what differentiates a relaxed Christian homeschooler from an unschooler is that:

    ...inside, where it counts, I have an underlying structure, clearly defined goals, and a firm Christian value system. We have a Christian family structure in our household, and our kids know that there are limits to their behavior. They don't run around flipping the TV on whenever they want to, and they don't call us by our first names... ...So can a Christian be an unschooler? I guess the answer is yes and no. I prefer the term relaxed. You can't be an unschooler and a Christian if that means you think the children are going to be perfect little flowers. You can't treat the family as if it was a total democracy if you believe in the Christian family structure. You can't let discipline go down the drain in the name of respecting children...

The unfortunate stereotype of unschoolers being unstructured, undisciplined, and doormats to their children is strongly implied here, and like all stereotypes is wrong and unfair. Further, the term unschooling means many things now that it didn't mean when John coined the word to describe learning without going to school. When pressed for a definition of unschooling, I now reply "Allowing children as much freedom to explore the world as you can comfortably bear as their parent." However, for John Holt unschooling was simply a better word than homeschooling. If you look up "unschooling" in the index of Teach Your Own it says "See homeschooling."

More to the point, though, unschooling is an educational approach, an attitude towards learning. It refers to the ways in which we use books, materials, and experiences to learn and grow. The type of underlying structure you have inside yourself, your goals, value system, discipline, whether you watch TV or call parents by their first names, whether you use a patriarchal, democratic, or any other type of family structure, are not unschooling issues; they are parenting issues. Whether unschoolers or not, every parent must deal with these issues.

John Holt certainly offered advice about discipline and other parenting issues—sibling rivalry, kids testing the limits of their parents, and so on. Since homeschooling, no matter how it's done, does involve questions of how to live happily with one's children, it makes sense that John discussed these questions and that our readers often discuss them now. Indeed, I know of no homeschooling publication that can talk about teaching children at home without bringing up parenting issues at some point. The two are indeed related. But that doesn't mean that they are always identical, or that practicing a certain homeschooling style—for example, not using a packaged curriculum -- necessarily means taking a certain position on family and parenting issues.

I want to end by noting that I agree with nearly all of what Mary Hood writes about children and learning. I respect that she learns from Holt's work and can take what she needs from it, leave what she doesn't like, and build from there. I just want to correct common misconceptions some Christians hold about Holt's work. Where Mary Hood and I differ is on matters of personal faith and parenting, which are very important matters but also very private and personal matters. Homeschoolers can agree on matters of how children learn and can even share a similar homeschooling style without agreeing on all of those personal issues; Christians can be unschoolers.

Mary Hood's book is The Relaxed Home School.


John Holt

By Roland Meighan, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007. Volume 5 in The Continuum Library of Educational Thought. Series editor: Richard Bailey

Foreword by Patrick Farenga

John Holt is a rare writer about education because he brought about changes not only in schools, but also in our homes. Holt was a major influence on the school reform movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and then, when he decided most people did not want schools to change in the progressive, learner-centered ways he advocated, he became a major influence on the modern homeschooling movement. Equally remarkable for someone working in the field of education, Holt wrote all his books in a deliberately accessible style for the general public and he did this as an independent researcher, without affiliation to, or the support of, any university or public or private institution. When How Children Fail became a national best-seller in 1964, Holt was encouraged by a friend to enter the world of academia instead of becoming an independent critic. Holt responded, in a letter quoted in A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters of John Holt (Ohio State Univ. Press, 1992):

I am trying to find out why the capacity of so many children for perceiving, and learning, and thinking, declines so rapidly as they grow older, and what we could do to prevent this from happening … I am very firmly convinced that a university tie would hinder my work far more than it would help it … I can think of a number of projects that I have carried out in past years, in my own classes or with individual children. From these I have learned a great deal. None of them would have been considered a research project as a university ordinarily understands the word. … I explore the intelligence of children by creating situations and then seeing how they respond to them and what they make of them. I am truly exploring, and an explorer does not know, when he starts into a bit of unknown country, what he is going to find there. But this is not how most of what passes for educational research is done, or how research proposals are written up…… For the time being, it seems a matter [working for a university—PF] of spending a large part of my time doing things their way in the hope that they will allow me to spend some of my time doing things my way. I can’t see it; life is too short, and I believe that I can learn far more and even have more influence working as I am.

Holt’s clear-headed vision about his work in this letter show an almost prescient knowledge of his later transformations of thought and opinion as a public intellectual, education writer, school reformer, political activist, and a founder of the homeschooling movement. His independence of thought and descriptions about not just the techniques, but the emotions attached to teaching and learning continue to surprise readers, as well as to influence parents to homeschool their chiildren. His books have now been translated into over 20 languages, and they continue to generate adherents and controversy.

For instance, Holt’s vision of homeschooling, or “unschooling” as he preferred to call it in the early years of the movement, was not about doing school at home with one’s siblings and parents. Instead, it was about learning in and outside the home, in places and with people that do not resemble school at all. Holt viewed learning as an abundant, natural, human endeavor that gets warped or turned-off by imposing years of unasked-for teaching upon the learner. He envisioned not just families, but entire communities becoming places for life-long learning. Indeed, Holt’s writing continues to inspire people to create co-operative learning centers, and develop other forms of community-based activities for children and adults, defying the charge leveled against homeschoolers that they are only interested in their own children and circumstances. However, to use a current analogy from the world of high technology, most educators refuse to acknowledge Holt’s “open source” approach to education and insist on their “proprietary” approach to making children learn what they think they need to know month-by-month, year-by-year. Often, it seems that these rival visions of education are irreconcilable. Fortunately, Roland Meighan has written this wonderful exposition of John Holt’s work that provides us with a sensitive understanding of how these visions of education can, indeed, be reconciled.

Meighan summarizes Holt’s work in clear prose that Holt himself would have enjoyed, and Meighan puts Holt’s work in the context of our current times. Most professional educators and politicians dismiss Holt’s work as “romantic” and impractical because of the radical changes it could make to compulsory schooling.  However, as Meighan points out, Holt’s ideas about teaching and learning are important and practical and they continue to be implemented and adapted by a variety of homeschooling parents and independent alternative schools. Read this book not only to learn about John Holt’s work, but about what you can do in your own life to personalize and make education meaningful not just to yourself, but for others as well. In this age of regressive, formulaic compulsory schooling, Roland Meighan’s book shows us how Holt’s work is truly radical, that is, it goes back to the root of education, and how people outside the school system can influence and change education in ways that reformers inside the school system can not.


Foreword to John Holt's The Underachieving School

For readers of a certain age all I have to do is write, “The United States of America, 1969” and all sorts of images, sounds, and thoughts enter their minds. For those unfamiliar with the period known as “The Sixties” there are more than enough histories and memoirs to become familiar with it and all will help you grasp the feeling of impending radical change, coupled with frustration with the pace of change, that is present in the essays in this book.

John Holt had a particular place in the uproar of the sixties: he was among the foremost advocates for free schools, student rights, and education reform. His previous books, How Children Fail and How Children Learn catapulted him from his job as a fifth-grade private school teacher to a national speaker and consultant about how to improve schools. He was “in demand” as a public speaker and appeared on national media to talk about his ideas and how our schools could be changed into better places for children to learn in. While travelling around the country Holt visited hundreds of schools, speaking to both faculty and students about their experiences, noting and thinking about what he was learning.

Towards the end of The Underachieving School Holt notes how he would be a visiting lecturer in education at Harvard University and at the University of California – Berkeley in the next year. Holt was also an outspoken critic of the Vietnam war and an enthusiastic supporter of student organizations. It seems that he was so busy speaking, observing, and organizing during this period that he didn’t have the time write a new book. However, his writing was very much in demand and appeared in some of the most popular publications of the sixties, as well as in radical publications that Holt wanted to help gain more readers. The best of these articles were chosen by Holt for this book. The variety of places Holt’s voice was heard in the sixties is impressive: Redbook, The New York Review of Books, Life Magazine, The NY Times Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Book Week, The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, Broadside 2. The essays cover an incredible range of issues and, in a few instances, foreshadow where Holt’s thoughts would take him in the seventies when he became one of the most famous advocates for homeschooling.

John was at the top of his profession, so to speak, during the late sixties. His first two books were bestsellers and his services were in demand: Library Journal reviewed The Underachieving School and proclaimed, “This book may stir up almost as much debate as John Dewey’s Democracy and Education.”  The issues Holt wrote about then are still hot topics today and there is a “the more things change the more they stay the same” feeling that comes over you as you read this book. I think it is difficult to improve on any of Holt’s critiques of testing, compulsory schooling, prestige colleges, extrinsic versus intrinsic motivations for learning, the rat race, racism, poverty, teacher education in these brief, stinging essays. For instance:

"…Here and there are schools that have been turned, against their will, into high-pressure learning factories by the demands of parents. But in large part, educators themselves are the source and cause of these pressures. Increasingly, instead of developing the intellect, character, and potential of the students in their care, they are using them for their own purposes in a contest inspired by vanity and aimed at winning money and prestige. It is only in theory, today, that educational institutions serve the student; in fact, the real job of a student at any ambitious institution is, by his performance, to enhance the reputation of that institution…
…The pressures we put on our young people also tend to destroy their sense of power and purpose. A friend of mine, who recently graduated with honors from a prestige college, said that he and other students there were given so much to read that, even if you were an exceptionally good read and spent all your time studying, you could not do as much as half of it.Looking at work that can never be done, young people tend to feel, like many a tired businessman, that life if a rat race. They do not feel in control of their own lives. Outside forces hurry them along with no pause for breath of thought, for purposes not their own, to an unknown end. Society does not seem to them a community that they are preparing to join and shape like the city of an ancient Greek; it is more like a remote and impersonal machine that will one day bend them to its will."

Holt had an ability to present his analyses with striking candor and reason. The essay “Making Children Hate Reading,” has been reprinted many times since it first appeared. And “Teachers Talk Too Much,” which originally appeared in The PTA Magazine, has just as much relevance today:

… Most discussions [in classrooms] are pretty phony, anyway. Look through any teacher’s manual. Before long you will read something like this: “Have a discussion in which you bring out the following points…” Most teachers begin a discussion with “points” in mind that they want the students to say. The students know this, so they fish for clues to find out what is wanted …
… The teacher’s questions get more and more pointed, until they point straight to the answer. When the teacher finally gets the answer he was after, he talks some more, to make sure all the students understand it is the “right” answer and why it is …

Holt’s optimism about how schools would change appears in these essays, but what is also evident is his openness to new ideas. Unlike most school reformers, who feel we must only work to change the school system from within, Holt was thinking about other possibilities in case that didn’t work. One can see the outline of his support for alternatives to school for children, not just for the alternative schools he enthuses about in The Underachieving School. I was most struck by the passages that show him considering keeping children out of school altogether. In “Not So Golden Rule Days” Holt claims how compulsory attendance laws are outdated and suggests that

… if in the opinion of a child and his parents the school is doing him no good, or indeed doing him harm, he should not be required to attend any more frequently than he wishes. There should be no burden of proof on the parents to show that they can provide facilities, companionship with other children, and all the other things the schools happen to provide. If Billy Smith hates school, and his parents feel that he is right in hating it, they are constitutionally entitled to relief. They are not obliged to demonstrate that they can give him a perfect education as against the bad one the school is giving him. It is a fundamental legal principle that if we can show that a wrong is being done, we are not compelled to say what ought to be done in its place before we are permitted to insist that it be stopped.

Indeed many of the arguments Holt made then are continuing to be made by school reformers today. Today’s arguments are backed by even more research and data than Holt cited in 1968, yet these voices are still not taken seriously by school authorities. We now have more tests than ever for American school children, our child suicide rate is the highest in the developed world, drug and alcohol abuse among our youth is a major problem, disaffected youths have directed their violence at schools at ever younger ages, yet we act as though these problems would all go away if only our students got better instruction and grades in reading, writing, and arithmetic. John Holt realized that school and society, living and learning, are all of a piece and he wanted to reunite them.

Ron Miller, in his book Free Schools, Free People: Education and Democracy After the 1960s, writes, “Although this outburst of protest and dissent failed to bring about the “revolution” that many envisioned, it left a complex legacy of cultural change that continues, to this day, to pose radical alternatives to the dominant economic, political, and social forces of the modern world.”

Holt’s response to the demise of the revolution was not to run away, but rather to run towards what he was envisioning for education.  “Back to Basics” became the rallying cry for schools in the seventies and eighties and Holt decided that school reform failed because most people simply did not support the reforms they were proposing. Holt realized most people did not want schools to change in any meaningful way and he began to seek other avenues to help remove obstacles to children and “any gainful or useful contribution he wants to make to society.” He became an outspoken advocate for children’s rights and he sought, and found, other models for education besides conventional schooling. This search culminated in his book Instead of Education: Ways to Help People do Things Better (1976; reprinted 2004), which, in turn, led directly to Holt’s full support of the homeschooling movement in 1977. 

Teenage Homeschoolers: College or Not?