john holt – trust

john holt bw

penning the term (or renewed definition of) unschooling.

what is unschooling?

Children do not need to be made to learn to be better, told what to do or shown how. If they are given access to enough of the world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to themselves and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world then anyone else could make for them.

many of following quotes from Escape From Childhood: The Needs and Rights of Children

The requirement that a child go to school for about 6 hours a day, 180 days a year, for about 10 years, whether or not he learns anything there, whether or not he already knows it or could learn it faster or better somewhere else, is such a gross violation of civil liberties that few adults would stand for it. But the child who resists is treated as a criminal.             

The anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability both to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know.

It might seem a paradox that our society, which perhaps more than any that ever existed is obsessed with the need to control events, nature, people, everything, should feel more than any other that things are out of control. But it is not a paradox; like a drowning man we clutch frantically at any fragments of certainty we can make or reach.

One reason we need and use children for this purpose is that many of us are so starved for human contact and affection.

the miniature police states of our schools are more and more using strong drugs such as Ritalin on those children who do not, or will not, fit smoothly into its regime. How far is it from the compulsory dosage of psychoactive and dangerous drugs—and let us be clear about it, it is compulsory and the drugs are dangerous

No one is more truly helpless, more completely a victim, than he who can neither choose nor change nor escape his protectors

For the other to reject his help begins as ingratitude or a foolish mistake; it soon becomes a sin and a crime.

The trouble with one person defining himself as a helper of others is that unless he is very careful he is almost certain to define them as people who cannot get along without his help.

They know that only rich children can afford to go to school in old or shabby or rough or informal clothes. Rich children almost always live in a rich neighborhood and go to a school where all the children are rich like themselves. Since the school knows they are rich, they can wear any clothes they want.

We cannot assume, just because we hear someone say, “I am doing this to help you,” that what he does will be good. It may very well be bad. The good intention does not of itself excuse or justify the act.

The only remedy is to give to everyone the right to decide if, and when, and by whom, and for how long, and in what way, he will choose to be helped.

Young people have to be trained, in part by what we tell them, mostly by how we treat them, to think of themselves as irresponsible, incompetent, ignorant, foolish, no-account.

I wish I could hire lab help as bright, curious, eager and quick to learn, and energetic as those ten-year-old kids. By the time they do come to me, when the law finally allows them to work, they have had most of the energy, curiosity, confidence, and willingness knocked out of them.

The very words “precocity” and “precocious” sound like the names of diseases. They betray our feelings that most children could not possibly have done such things and that a child who could and did must have been something of a freak. Many are so used to a sentimental and condescending view of children that when they hear of a child of four speaking Latin and Greek they feel a kind of horror. Yet there is nothing remarkable about this, even now; children who have regular contact with people who speak several languages will learn all these languages as easily as most children learn one.

 suspect that such children who get very good at music do so not so much because people are forcing them to practice—millions of children are forced to practice who never get any good—but because they are surrounded by people who love music and make music and above all because no one around them thinks that it is impossible for young people to be musically skillful.

He doesn’t know or care whether I like it or not, he is not walking for the approval or happiness of me or even for his parents beside him, but for himself. It is his show. Don’t try to tum him into an actor in your show. Leave him alone to get on with his work.

That child isn’t trying to be cute; he doesn’t see himself as cute; and he doesn’t want to be seen as cute. He is as serious about what he is doing now as any human being can be, and he wants to be taken seriously.

But by the innocence of children we mean something more—their hopefulness, trustfulness, confidence, their feeling that the world is open to them, that life has many possibilities, that what they don’t know they can find out, what they can’t do they can learn to do. These are qualities valuable in everyone. When we call them “innocence” and ascribe them only to children, as if they were too dumb to know any better, we are only trying to excuse our own hopelessness anddespair.

These notions are mostly nonsense. Children are not particularly happy or carefree; they have as many worries and fears as many adults, often the same ones. What makes them seem happy is their energy and curiosity, their involvement with life; they do not waste much time in brooding.

But we should not think of these qualities or virtues as “childish,” the exclusive property of children. They are human qualities. We are wise to value them in people of all ages. When we think of these qualities as childish, belonging only to children, we invalidate them, make them seem things we should “outgrow” as we grow older. Thus we excuse ourselves for carelessly losing what we should have done our best to keep. 

The best talk to a graduating class I have ever heard or read, and perhaps the only really good one, was given by Dean Paul Roberts of Denver at the first graduation of the Colorado Rocky Mountain School. To a group of students that included some very unhappy, mixed-up, and self-hating young people, he said: (1) accept yourself, (2) forget yourself, (3) find something to do and to care about that is more important to you than you are.

Most of the time, the unhappy person, young or old, needs a world big enough so that he may find there something to do that will make it possible for him to accept and forget himself.

it has to be real and hard—it can’t be a project cooked up to amuse them or keep them out of trouble and it can’t be something that she could easily do withouthelp.

But instead of trying to make sure that all children get only those experiences we think are good for them I would rather make available to children, as to everyone else, the widest possible range of experiences (except those that hurt others) and let them choose those they like best.

we all need this, so much that the lack of it is making us sick.

Given real choices, people will choose for themselves better than others will choose for them. What is much more important, every human being is likely to know better than anyone else when he has made a mistake, when a choice he has made is working badly. Given a chance to correct that mistake, he is more likely to do so than someone else.

in the long run the keepers wind up costing us more than the kept.

On the other hand, one reason why teenagers seem to be so preoccupied with such things is that we do not allow them to be preoccupied with much of anything else. We have made a cult, a way of life, and (for adults) a profitable industry out of adolescence.

It is hard to imagine welding equipment in most American elementary school classrooms, and indeed as long as schools are compulsory and therefore subject to all kinds of lawsuits if children get hurt, it is easy to understand their not allowing welding.


All I am saying can be summed up in two words: Trust Children. Nothing could be more simple, or more difficult. Difficult because to trust children we must first learn to trust ourselves, and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.

No human right, except the right to life itself, is more fundamental than this. A person’s freedom of learning is part of his freedom of thought, even more basic than his freedom of speech. If we take from someone his right to decide what he will be curious about, we destroy his freedom of thought.

At one point in the book, John says something along the lines – that if ed-reform is going to happen, it needs to be political. Then he lays out 3 things he believes need to happen to create the political culture of democracy/equity. Based on the rights of children – but so too on anyone’s rights, he’s just declaring there be no age set on these three things:

1. opportunity to vote

2. opportunity to work for money

3. opportunity to manage your own learning

Great – great read. Thank you to Pat Farenga.

escape from childhood

book links to amazon

This idea that children won’t learn without outside rewards and penalties, or in the debased jargon of the behaviorists, “positive and negative reinforcements,” usually becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we treat children long enough as if that were true, they will come to believe it is true. So many people have said to me, “If we didn’t make children do things, they wouldn’t do anything.” Even worse, they say, “If I weren’t made to do things, I wouldn’t do anything.”It is the creed of a slave. ― John Holt, How Children Fail

It is as true now as it was then that no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives.” John Holt


a vote of no confidence


(via Matt Hern‘s Everywhere All the Time: A New Deschooling Reader):

Aaron Falbel - who knew both Holt and Illich – has a great write up (in Matt’s book) at the request of Illich to try to explain the difference between learning and education. bits of it: (p. 62-64)

I realize that education is a difficult word to pin down – some people may use it in the way that i use the world learning. But I believe that John Holt is right in saying that most people use education to refer to some kind of treatment. (Even self-education can reflect this: a self-administered treatment.) It is this usage that I am contrasting with learning, and this idea of people needing treatment, whether carried out in schools or homes or wherever, that I wish to call into question.

Learning is like breathing. It is a natural, human activity: it is part of being alive A person who is active, curious, who explores the world using all his or her sense, who meets life with energy and enthusiasm – as all babies do – is learning. Our ability to learn, like our ability to breathe, does not need to be improved or tampered with. It is utter nonsense, not to mention deeply insulting, to say that people need to be taught how to learn or how to think. We are born knowing how to do these things. All that is needed is an interesting, accessible, intelligible world, and a change to play a meaningful part in it.

If the air is polluted, then it can become difficult to breathe. ..Today our social environment is thoroughly polluted by education – a designed process in which one group of people (educators, social engineers, people shapers) tries to make another group (those who are to be educated) learn something, usually without their consent, because they (the educators) think it will be good for them. In other words, education is forced, seduced or coerced learning – except that you can’t really make another person learn something that he or she doesn’t want to learn, which is why education doesn’t work and has never worked.

(never worked for authentic learning, it’s worked to gain efficiency, it has an A+ for what it set out to do)

It is ironic that education, carried out by well-meaning people hoping to produce or enhance learning, ends up attacking learning. But this is precisely what happens, despite all the good intentions. In the climate of education, learning is cut off and disembedded from active life. It is

divorced from personal curiosity

and is thus profoundly


Learning shrivels as it becomes the result of a process controlled, manipulated, and governed by others.


John Holt (Pat Farenga blog – site):

john holt site

The event features four speakers: me, speaking about homeschooling and unschooling; Cevin Soling, a filmmaker (The War on Kids) speaking about why schools cannot be reformed; Peter Bergson, founder of Open Connections in PA, speaking about community support for learning; and Peter Gray, author ofFree to Learn (Basic Books, 2013), speaking about the importance of play.


Find Peter‘s and Pat‘s and Cevin‘s talk.


legacy of jh

book links to amazon

authors include: Kirsten Olson, Jerry Mintz, Pat Farenga


notes from book

notes from legacy of jh

Holt, for me, felt like discovering a true colleague, a brother, a mentor and a teacher. Here (at last) was a teacher with a vision broad enough and radical enough to keep me in graduate school, to convince me that other perceptive observers had surveyed the educational establishment long before me and understood what was wrong, and that perhaps a time might come again when the simple brilliance of his words and perceptions would be understood and appreciated

the ways we engage in evasion and self-deception when we are not doing something we need to do

once John Holt has entered your system and has given voice to many of your own perceptions—only more clearly, more eloquently, more truthfully than you have formerly allowed yourself—(becoming an education radical is a lot about giving one’s self permission to be truthful), Holt will become a part of you

In issue 60 of Growing Without Schooling magazine, an unpublished letter of John Holt (1971) reads, One might say that one of our important life tasks was to find our true teachers, to make our own university [. . .] Certainly to find one of one’s own teachers, someone from whom we think we can learn something really important, is one of the really great pleasures of life. 

a philosopher’s capacity to connect small, seemingly insignificant actions to a much larger and more important point of view about social change and social transformation.

now is the moment

What we can best learn from good teachers is how to teach ourselves better

The gap I had felt between my work and my hobby had disappeared

opposite of success as teacher.. leader..success is not being needed anymore

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:

There was, he maintained, no way to coerce children without making them afraid, or more afraid. Fear is the inescapable companion of coercion and its inescapable consequence.

But from the children’s point of view, their behavior is intelligent because it minimizes stress. They give up on thinking school will ever make much sense. The point is to survive each day with as much dignity intact as possible:

All of this seems to me to fit very closely with what Illich is writing about. The liberation of learning—actually that’s my phrase—from the confines of schools. 

Government funding for a school like this was unique to Denmark then. Any ten parents who wanted to make a learning environment where desks were not in rows, could get the necessary educational financing

p. 50-51

a new variety of government-sponsored playgrounds. During the German occupation, kids played spontaneously in vacant lots and created games out of anything at hand.

maker/scrap playgrounds

The idea for these playgrounds travelled to London where the Blitz provided unlimited resources. City planners noted an interesting development; wherever these playgrounds appeared, vandalism in the nearby neighborhood ceased

p. 121 – aaron falbel:

in the last weeks of his life john spent eight days with us at our home in maine. something happened one day that gave me a glimpse of the very heart of his life. he was so weak he could only walk a few steps at a time and with canes it was beautiful weather. i took him driving to see the views from certain hills – long views of wooded slopes, fields, streams, our large river, and several ponds. again and again he said, “how beautiful it is” he was sitting beside me in the front seat. we drove on and he began to talk about his work. “it could be such a wonderful world,” he said, “such a wonderful place.” his body began to shake and he dropped his head, crying uncontrollably – but he kept talking through the sobs, his voice strained and thin. …

it's not as if

they’re going to wreck it.


via Pat.. here’s John on the Phil Donahue show in 1971:


John and origins of homeschooling:

holt and origins of homeschooling



Since we canʼt know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is
senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people
who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn
whatever needs to be learned.” –john holt

as found in keri’s how i discovered by secret powers


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