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Interview with Author, Patrick Farenga - Home Education Magazine

Growing Without Schooling

Patrick has been president of Holt Associates Inc. and the publisher of Growing Without Schooling since Holt's death in 1985. Some of the books Patrick has written and edited about John Holt, learning, and homeschooling include:

  • Growing Without Schooling: A Record of a Grassroots Movement
  • The Beginner's Guide to Homeschooling
  • Teenage Homeschoolers: College or Not?
  • John Holt's Reading List
  • Sharing Treasures: Book Reviews by John Holt (edited w/Jane Holcomb)

His writings include many magazine articles and contributions to almost a dozen books by other writers.

Patrick Farenga lives in Medford, Massachusetts with his wife, Day, and three girls: Lauren (11), Alison (7), and Audrey (4), all of whom are homeschooled. Patrick has worked at Holt Associates since 1981, the year John Holt's landmark book on homeschooling, Teach Your Own, was first published. He started off as a volunteer, packing books, answering phones, filling subscriptions, and typing up John Holt's correspondence off tapes he dictated.

Patrick writes: "I spend the free time I have to myself to pursue playing piano (which I've done since I was 8 or 9) and tenor saxophone (since I was 26); using my Macintosh to create and play music, as well as play computer games. I enjoy giving piano lessons to my children, as well as to a few other children; I like playing with other people as much as I can, and am currently playing piano for our local homeschooling group's play. Of course I enjoy reading (I especially like fiction) and writing, but I do so much of that in the course of my work that it is hard to know what's work and what's pleasure in that area!"

Interview Starts Here

by Helen Hegener

 I'd like to start out by talking about John Holt. Can you tell us something about the man behind Growing Without Schooling?

Essentially, to me, John was a quiet, passionate man, who learned to trust what he observed rather than what others told him was occurring. He had a gentle sense of humor that he displayed often. He was a bachelor, though not by choice; he was unlucky in love. He loved to observe, talk with, and talk about, children. By this I don't mean studies of children, which he read, but what he loved to discuss were books and movies, fiction and nonfiction, about kids; family stories, teachers' stories, anyone's stories about kids. I remember him following a young toddler around our office one time, reporting into a hand-held tape recorder what she was doing.

He also loved music and not only played cello, as readers of Never Too Late and GWS know, but was also an avid audiophile. He loved to tape youth symphony orchestras - sometimes even rehearsals of the Boston Symphony Orchestra - and he'd come into the office the next day with a fresh recording and brag: "This sounds as good as a professional recording and I did it with just two mikes!"

John was a self-described "late bloomer" (he wrote his first book when he was in his early 40's) who drifted into education: he started off as a coach, cook, and tutor in a private school at his sister's suggestion, and eventually became enamored with teaching. He was considered especially good with "problem" students, many of whom would now probably be considered learning disabled, and he considered himself a particularly tough teacher and grader. He moved to Boston and worked in some very prestigious private schools, primarily teaching fifth grade (he was never certified in education and so couldn't teach in public schools). He and his friend and fellow teacher, Bill Hull, took their jobs very seriously and decided to investigate on their own why the kids they taught didn't really learn the material. Sure, the kids passed tests, but when asked simple questions about the material after the tests were over, very few remembered or could use the material. So they set off to find the answer to "Why do we teach, but they don't learn?"

Towards this end, they decided to team teach. John sat in the back of the classroom and watched the students while Bill taught. He wrote memos to Bill about what he was observing, and these became the core of John's first and most famous book, How Children Fail, first published in 1964. The observations Holt made in this book include how fear of failure and stress blocks learning for children in classrooms, how tests drive curricula and curricula drive teachers, and how this formula causes both students and teachers to reduce real knowledge -- the knowledge you remember and use throughout your life -- with apparent knowledge: the knowledge you forget soon after passing a test.

Holt saw early on that this situation is rooted in the overall school system, not in any particular classroom method, teaching technique, or education program. Holt clearly saw how the "teach 'em and test 'em" accountability methods reduce knowledge to the mere accumulation of information. The logic of this vision is to view children as empty vessels to be filled with information, tested for leaks, and then passed or failed according to the latest government and academic standards for allowable leakage. Holt successfully changed his own teaching methods as a result of this insight, and urged others to leave the "teach 'em and test 'em" model too.

But we haven't left it, in fact we're moving ever closer to national education standards.

Standards-driven education serves the standards-makers directly, but it serves most students, at best, indirectly. This disturbs some parents and educators, but it is accepted by most as the best, if not the only, way to determine and maintain a given standard for education, as if learning were as simple as fitting standard tab A into standard slot B.

I won't labor this point with lists of famous high school and college drop-outs, famous homeschoolers and autodidacts, books and records of literate societies and epochs that never had compulsory schools for all children or schools as we know them at all, such as America before the revolution, Periclean Greece, or Elizabethan England. I won't launch into a litany of successful alternative school graduates, nonconformists, and school underachievers who managed to contribute to our national and personal well being through achievements in science, literature, religion, law, war, and so on.

But given the weight of these current and past achievements of the educationally uncertified, we have somehow decided, without any debate to my mind, that these avenues of achievement, these different paths for growing up and becoming a citizen, must be closed off in the name of national standardization. There is not only one way to achieve excellence, but the education system we are expanding will not allow other ways. This type of system is not humane, flexible and vigorous with feedback possible from a variety of sources; instead it is a mechanical, brittle, and draining system with feedback primarily from its test scores.

The more we individualize our children's' education, the less we have in common with the frameworks of topics to be covered that the "wise people" have decided all schoolchildren must know. I'll teach to the test if my child must do so to achieve something she wants, such as getting into a college that requires the SAT, but until that moment looms I see no point in duplicating school's scope and sequence in my home.

I have no objection to teachers using tests to help improve their teaching methods and aid students, if that is their preferred way of teaching. However, testing is not used in this manner at all any more. It is not a private matter between teacher and pupil, but as a public prod to force kids to do what educators want.

Further, I think homeschoolers are getting ready to hoist ourselves on our own testing petard the more we emphasize better test scores as a reason to homeschool. Many homeschoolers buy into testing as a way to prove they are as good as schooled kids, only to lament later that they must spend so much time preparing for tests that they can't practice music, sign language, start unusual projects, etc. because they don't have enough time. This is exactly the classroom rat-race Holt observed as a teacher in the sixties, and his observation holds: the more you play the game of schooling, the less you actually learn about yourself and the world. Test scores, class rankings, and being told what, when, and how to learn become the sole motivators for learning.

Further, competition for grades and class status creates a double-bind for students and teachers alike: the imperative to cover material, make good grades for the sake of ourselves and the school, study test-taking skills, all clash with our human drive to personally discover something fulfilling about our work and lives, to freely wander down most intellectual paths, to change our minds and our careers, to learn in myriad ways throughout our lives. Personal, and to many teachers, professional, intellectual interest is delayed, sometimes atrophied, by satisfying the academic, and, increasingly, the economic imperatives, to meet all the schools' requirements for proper certification of one's schooling. Very few teachers will have the time, or the incentive, to meet most children's personal requirements: the child's general education requirements, as determined by a board of "wise, impartial, and fair-minded, etc." men and women, are far more important. So parents and teachers are pressured by these high-stakes tests to spend much more time teaching to the requirements of the tests now than ever, and, in a way, who can blame them? There is so much more at stake for the child: in the past a child might fear a swat on his butt from his parents for doing poorly in eighth grade math, but now the child is told to fear that his or her future earning power is at stake - or so people are led to believe.

Fortunately, the real world offers us second-chances, different opportunities and ways to learn and grow throughout our lives. It amazes me that only 20 - 24% of all Americans hold a four-year college degree. What is the remaining 80 - 76% of the population to do - roll over and give all the good jobs just to those who can afford to go to college? If we keep emphasizing school credentials, which are based primarily on test scores, as the preferred "tickets" to high wages, we are creating deeper class divisions, more inequality, not a more democratic society.

We need to remind each other that learning is not the same as schooling. I avoid test score comparisons as much as possible in my speaking and work. Instead I emphasize what homeschoolers, and by extension anyone, can do without traditional test scores and transcripts: portfolios, letters of recommendation, resumes, keeping accurate records of accomplishments in one's chosen field are just some of the ways we can use instead of reducing all human activity to alpha-numeric data. I emphasize how forging a life worth living is more important than getting good test scores, how learning shouldn't be a one-shot, take-it-or-leave-it proposition for children or adults.

As homeschoolers we need to find ways to reach out to teachers and parents who don't want to see childrens' 12 years of compulsory schooling reduced to skills training for big business. Nurturing the human capacity to learn through love and intrinsic motivation is as important to life -- to me, more important -- as "learning for earning." Art, religion, music, science, math, literature, and so on have made significant strides throughout human history because of our intrinsic motivations for learning, not in spite of it! Shutting off all the avenues to these subjects and reducing them to one toll road is the blight of educational hubris. By "educational hubris" I mean as Ivan Illich defined it in Deschooling Society in 1972 (to paraphrase): "doing what God himself cannot do: namely, manipulate others for their own salvation."

Our children are being prepared for the 20th century by a group of educators and politicians who favor the dubious concept of linking education with the economy. Dubious because if our education is so bad, and education and the economy are so intimately linked, why then are our current measures of the economy so good? Further, there is debate among some educators that there is no academic decline at all, that it is a "manufactured crisis," as one book is titled.

You have to wonder about education research when some professionals can look at the data and conclude we're doing better than ever and others look at it and say "The country is going to hell. We need tougher standards." If hard, high-stakes educations make for good economies, why are the economies of North Korea and Russia in such bad shape? The computer revolution in business occurred without any direct assistance from elementary and secondary schooling: most adults using computers in the seventies and eighties taught themselves or did so with employer supplied training; further, the trend is to make computers even easier to use, not harder.

Nonetheless, a lot of what we hear as a rationale for increasing our investment of time and money in schooling is to teach our elementary and secondary school children to be computer literate... Indeed, people are now required to have high school and college degrees for positions that didn't require them 10 or 20 years ago. There is no end to this educational commodification of our lives: I recently learned that there is even serious discussion about licensing parents among some academics and policy-makers!

Pedagogical hubris. That's where the problem lies: a select group of educators and politicians -- culminating in the bipartisan education summits that became the Republican Goals 2000 and then the Democratic America 2000 -- have simply decided not to tolerate educational diversity. Their plans encroach on every child, every family, and the sad fact is they don't need to: we don't need our choices to only be "no education," "privatized education," or "totalitarian public education." There are ways for Americans to live and let live with educational policy, I believe, but that means allowing a wide variety of learning options throughout our lives.

Can you comment on some of the recent articles we've seen on homeschooling, such as those that appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, etc. - do you feel they do a good job representing homeschooling to the public?

It is hard to find homeschooling stories that go deep, but some have, like David Guterson's wonderful article in Harper's several years ago, and they've been a breath of fresh air. I wish we could see more articles like that, which discuss the qualitative aspects of learning at home, which explain the differences between homeschooling and regular schooling, and which avoid pitting homeschoolers against the schools with the "our test scores are better than your test scores" argument. Homeschooling is not without its problems, of course, but neither is school, so both sides need to ratchet the rhetoric down and tolerance up.

The media often contacts you about articles on homeschooling - do you see any differences in the questions they're asking now as compared to what they were asking five years ago?

Questions from the media have certainly changed: in the early 80's it was "But is homeschooling legal?" By the mid-eighties it was, "But what about academics and college: aren't these kids being deprived of a good education?" Now that homeschooling is legal in all 50 states and many other countries, and now that the academic record for homeschooling is established, the common question is "But what about socialization?"

The media has generally been even-handed in covering homeschooling, but they are very predictable. Most stories follow the same pattern: "The school bus goes past the Farenga's home, but their three girls aren't on it..." This is followed by some sentences explaining why the Farengas homeschool, this is usually followed by some homeschooling research statistics, and this is followed by some "balancing" coverage of skeptical school officials claiming that these children are not being well-educated by these unlicensed parents, ending with an equivocal statement like, "It may not be for everybody, but homeschooling is an option you might want to examine."

What made John Holt decide to start GWS - he was already a celebrated teacher and author - wasn't he jeopardizing a good reputation with what were fairly outlandish ideas for the time?

When you ask, "Wasn't John jeopardizing a good reputation with what were fairly outlandish ideas for the time?" I think that assumes that lots of people did or believed what Holt recommended; nothing could be further from the case. What John wrote surprised and rang true for many people and made him a celebrity, but it didn't really change schools since he never had a "good reputation" within the schools. John was always an outsider, even when speaking to schools. The reasons John could see how homeschooling could work and embraced it so soon was that he was sick of talking about changing schools when all that meant was creating "better curricula" and "tougher standards."

His third book, The Underachieving School (1969, out of print) is a collection of his essays, the last essay in it being his letter of resignation from his visiting professorship at the school of Education at the University of California, Berkeley. John possessed the courage of his convictions, and he acted on his thoughts. He felt schools didn't want to change in any significant ways, didn't want to open themselves up to different learning situations, different teaching opportunities. I think John was always a maverick in education circles, and he had nothing to lose in terms of teaching positions, power, and influence by criticizing the institution he worked in. He considered himself an independent scholar, not a university researcher. There is a wonderful letter in A Life Worth Living where Holt's editor for the original version of How Children Fail urged John to work in a university somewhere and John responds by noting that the work he is interested in doing was too open-ended to gain traditional research funding, and that as a professor he would be doing research that the university wanted him to do and not what he directly wanted to study. John thought of many ways to "crack open" the school system besides just innovative teaching techniques.

For instance, one of John's most controversial books is about childrens' rights. Among many reasons for thinking seriously about children's rights was John's thought that at least to possess the right to determine one's own education could be a wedge to allow kids to have more say in what, how, when, and where they learned. We have kept Escape From Childhood: The Needs And Rights Of Children (1974), his book about granting children the same rights adults enjoy under the US Bill of Rights, in print for over a decade now. It still raises the hackles of both conservatives and liberals, since it is a clear-headed, sometimes shocking, analysis of what would be possible if we pursued this course of action. Nothing is perfect, and certainly there would be problems with granting children these rights, as Holt often noted; but at least they would help solve some of our current problems even if they gave us new problems. At least we could move on to a new set of challenges.

Freedom And Beyond (Heinneman, 1996; originally published in 1972) and What Do I Do Monday? (Heinneman 1996; originally published in 1970), were written during the period Holt was beginning to consider alternatives to school rather than just alternative schools. Both these books have been recently reissued and they speak directly to educators concerned about helping children learn without coercion and fear of failure as the prods for academic success. What Do I Do Monday? is full of helpful tips for people seeking innovative ways of doing things in schools, excellent analysis of why grades are not needed, and what we can do instead: John felt What Do I Do Monday? was a book homeschoolers in particular would find useful.

We have also reprinted Instead Of Education: Ways To Help People Do Things Better. When that book appeared in 1976 Holt showed that he was on the road to something different than just more schooling to help people learn in our society. Soon after that book, in August 1977, John founded Growing Without Schooling Magazine. In 1981 he wrote Teach Your Own, which clearly marks his journey from classroom teacher to critic of education.

When John started GWS and wrote Teach Your Own, homeschooling had a gray legal status in all the states, at best. We have now worked out a deal with Education Otherwise in Great Britain to print an abridged version of Teach Your Own: we cut out three chapters that dealt primarily with US laws about homeschooling and which have become outdated - homeschooling is now legal in all 50 states. We hope that this new edition finds even more readers than the original version, since there are so many more homeschoolers now, many of whom don't understand that there is history and precedent for not turning your home into a school - unschooling, as John termed it. For anyone considering homeschooling, and unschooling in particular, Teach Your Own should be required reading, if only to see what else is possible besides fixed curricula, unit studies, and other techniques for managing learning. All these techniques have their place, as Holt often acknowledged, but none is essential.

John was working on his eleventh book, Learning All The Time (Addison-Wesley, 1989), when he died, and it is a fascinating, fitting finale to his work. His editor used previously unpublished material that John had in GWS and in his files to flesh out the sections that John hadn't finished, and I think it is a masterful patchwork of John's final thoughts about learning. I can't read any of these books without hearing his voice in my head. Holt spoke, at least in those years, exactly like he wrote: with care, precision, and gentleness. John did remark to me a few times that he was certainly more militant about his views and how he presented them in his younger years than he was as an older man.

If someone would like to learn more about John's work, what would be the best resources?

The best biographical sources about John are his "musical autobiography," Never Too Late (1978, Addison-Wesley); A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters Of John Holt, edited by Susannah Sheffer (Ohio State Univ. Press, 1991); and a neat character study by Mel Allen that appeared in Yankee magazine in the early eighties and which we still have copies of for sale.

Further, just about any book Holt wrote contains a piece of himself and reflects his thinking and feelings at that time, since his thinking changed so much over time. The John Holt who wrote How Children Fail in 1964 is a different man from the one who wrote Teach Your Own in 1981. As Ivan Illich puts it, "Holt is the first radical to move from a critique of the classroom, to a critique of school, to a critique of education itself."

Holt's first two books reflect his experiences as a classroom teacher and critic of schools: How Children Fail (1964) and How Children Learn (1967). Both were revised by Holt in the early eighties in light of his experience with homeschooling. The revised editions are definitely the ones to read. They contain all the original text, with Holt's later comments - thousands of words of new material - marked separately in the text. They are wonderful, living illustrations of John's position that we change, develop, grow and learn throughout our lives, and that professional schooling is just a small part, and in many instances a confusing, unhelpful part, of that process.

Our recent book, GWS: A Record of A Grassroots Movement, contains the first 12 issues of GWS, which were edited directly by John, and largely written by him. They are proof and inspiration that ordinary people can figure laws out, petition a state legislature, build a coalition, etc. Those early issues are a great tonic to the folks who don't know what to do when homeschooling legislative or court issues arise. GWS: A Record of A Grassroots Movement also contains much writing by John that is not anywhere else, and nearly all of it is directly about homeschooling, responding to homeschoolers' concerns, such as being a single parent, learning high school chemistry at home, etc. I was amazed by the number of issues Holt grappled with so cogently then, and which still befuddle homeschoolers today.

Let's talk about you a little, Patrick. As a popular homeschooling writer and speaker you're often on the road, appearing at conferences all over the country; does all your traveling help or hinder your work at Holt Associates?

I think it helps my work at Holt, but it hinders my work with my family. You have to remember that John Holt was on the road far more than he was in the office. My model for getting the word out about homeschooling was first watching John do these engagements around the world; in fact I eventually booked John's engagements, scheduled talk shows, and handled all the other details of his lecturing.

Income from his books was enough to support him for a while, but John always made his living primarily by speaking to colleges and universities, educational institutions, secondary and elementary schools. There was something about his message that resonated with these folks even if they wouldn't act upon it in the ways John urged. Then, in 1981, speaking engagements to universities and other large educational audiences trailed off considerably: it was the year Teach Your Own was published. Fortunately John's schedule got fuller than ever from groups of parents and alternative educators interested in homeschooling; unfortunately they didn't pay as much, or anything besides travel expenses.

Nonetheless, John pursued these engagements right up until his death from cancer in 1985. John would try to set up lots of small local speaking engagements for free in an area whenever he could get a university to pay for his plane ticket and honorarium. He spoke at legislatures as an expert when it was vital, but he preferred to help people learn to do testifying themselves since he knew he wouldn't be around forever and he didn't want folks to think that the legal system was any more mysterious to navigate than the school system. After all, these systems are there to serve the public, so the public needs to know how to operate them rather than the other way around.

This is the hardest thing I've had to do at Holt Associates after John died: learn to fill his role as spokesman for these ideas and continue to run the office. Traveling is hard on my family, but it also serves a practical function: we are not a non-profit company, so the business needs the money I make speaking and selling books at conferences, as well as the publicity these engagements provide. We have a very small advertising budget and we have to be creative about how we get the word out about ourselves. We have found selling books at conferences where we are invited to speak to be effective.

So far, Susannah (the editor of GWS since 1987) and I continue to be booked around the country. Not as often as John was, but enough to remind me what a sacrifice John made with his time by traveling as much as he did after he founded GWS. But it does take a toll: I'll be gone every weekend for the next 6 weeks, missing all sorts of family events...

So I'm not personally happy to be traveling so much, but I think it is very important that I'm out there, putting a face and voice to ideas that many people think can't be done. I'm struck by how often complete strangers write me a note thanking me for something I said or did at a conference; that sure helps take some of the sting out of traveling. I asked John once how he kept talking to all these groups when they didn't follow-up on anything he said; he replied that he viewed his work at this time in his life as putting pebbles in people's shoes, so that one day, when they got tired of walking down the same paths, they might take their shoes off, shake them, and say, "What is this pebble doing in my shoe and why does it make me uncomfortable?"

This August marks the 20th Anniversary of the first issue of Growing Without Schooling - and Holt Associates has a party planned! Please tell us about it!

We have put on our own GWS conferences in the past, but never one this size. We decided that homeschoolers who share points of view with us haven't really had an opportunity to celebrate our commonality, to congratulate ourselves on our considerable success in creating alternatives to school for everybody over the past 20 years. Other groups lay claim to this and that victory quite loudly every year, but we tend to be low-key and encourage modesty in our victories. However, you only have one 20 year anniversary, and it seems like a good time to "strut our stuff" for the media and ourselves.

I've met most of the speakers whom we've invited at various conferences around the nation over the years--indeed, I can look forward to bumping into the Colfaxes and Gatto on the road a few times a year now--but folks like you and Mark, and many of the other speakers, presenters, and panelists we are inviting, don't often speak at conferences together. We only know each other and our accomplishments through the pages of magazines, on-line communications, gossip, etc. We hope that by putting all these interesting folks up in a nice hotel, creating an inviting atmosphere, and choosing topics that go beyond "How to use this product for successful homeschooling," we will create a memorable conference.

Further, we've never had a celebration specifically for John Holt and GWS, just memorial services to mark John's death. This conference puts us all together in one space to celebrate John Holt, GWS, and all our work at the national and local levels. We want to allow people a real chance to network, rather than be lectured to constantly, so Friday and Saturday nights are being structured to encourage free-flowing discussions among all participants. Most importantly, we want to provide an enjoyable atmosphere where parents and children can play and learn together.

July-August 1997 - Articles

This interview was conducted via email and edited by Helen Hegener.


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