Pat Farenga's Writing

The Foundations of Unschooling

My keynote speech to the Irish Unschooling Conference, May 2016, revised and edited for publication here.

 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?