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September-October 2011 Selected Content

Special Feature - Helen Hegener

John Holt and Growing Without Schooling

In April, 1984, I met John Holt at the first homeschooling conference held by the Family Learning Network, in Spokane, Washington. We were just getting Home Education Magazine off the ground at the time, publishing our fourth issue, and as a member of the Family Learning Network I was delighted with the opportunity to meet and spend time with this inspiring author, who was widely appreciated as founder, editor, and publisher of the first publication on homeschooling, Growing Without Schooling, affectionately known as GWS. Observing children was one of John Holt's favorite activities; his abiding respect for their innate learning abilities was strong and guided his work at GWS. In GWS #1, published in August, 1977, John shared his vision:
This is the first issue of a newsletter, about ways in which people, young or old, can learn and do things, acquire skills, and find interesting and useful work, without having to go through the process of schooling." He added, "Mostly, it will be about people who want to take or keep their children out of school, and about what they might do instead, what problems come up, and how they cope with these.

Patrick Farenga, who worked with John Holt for many years, and who has been an extremely effective homeschool advocate in his own right, has shared some wonderful early photos of John from the Holt Associates/GWS archives. We're presenting them in this photo feature with some favorite quotes and excerpts from John's writing. Commenting on a video taken at the above-mentioned Family Learning Network conference in 1984, Pat wrote that he hoped it would "show John as the quiet, plainspoken but deeply thoughtful man he was." Pat continues, "This short segment also shows Holt's deep empathy with children, a quality that is sorely lacking in all our discussions of education today. John's analysis of how children struggle with pronouns is radical when you consider how few current day teachers would recommend, as John does, to leave the children alone and let them figure it out for themselves."

The video ends with these words from John:

There is no way to meddle with or speed it up [i.e. the process of children learning--PF] without doing damage to them... I've been saying this to the schools for over twenty years and got absolutely nowhere. So I'm saying it to what I take to be a more serious audience, with a stronger commitment to success, namely homeschoolers. I don't necessarily expect that everyone's going to walk out of the room thinking that I'm right. But I want you to be sensitive to the kinds of experiences which will confirm this for you. So if you see your kids doing some of these things, you think, 'Maybe John is right.' I don't particularly ask you to take it on faith but I do ask you to do what I did, which is to observe your children learning with these ideas in mind.

John also described putting into practice what he termed "a nickel and dime theory about social change, which is, that important and lasting change always comes slowly, and only when people change their lives, not just their political beliefs or parties." This was heady stuff for people who had always been expected to attend school in one form or another, whether public, private, parochial, alternative or other options. School was part and parcel of life, accepted and unquestioned until John Holt and a handful of like-minded colleagues began writing books such as Holt's now-classic titles like How Children Fail (1964), How Children Learn (1967), Instead of Education (1976), and many others. And then in 1981, drawing material from the pages of Growing Without Schooling, he produced Teach Your Own, published by Delacorte Press, and destined to become the handbook for an entire generation of homeschooling parents. A few excerpts:

I have used the words "home schooling" to describe the process by which children grow and learn in the world without going, or going very much, to schools, because those words are familiar and quickly understood. But in one very important sense they are misleading. What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children's growth in the word is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn't a school at all.
The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of the activity of learners.
We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that. And we are not likely to become the majority in my lifetime. This doesn't trouble me much anymore, as long as this minority keeps on growing. My work is to help it grow. *** 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 kids 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.
In starting this newsletter we're putting into practice a nickel and dime theory about social change, which is, that important and lasting social change always comes slowly, and only when people change their lives, not just their political beliefs or parties. It is a process, that takes place over a period of time. At one moment in history, with respect to a certain matter, 99% of a society think and act one way; 1% think and act very differently. Some time later, that 1% minority becomes 2%, then 5%, then 10, 20, 30, until someday it becomes the dominant majority, and the social change has taken place.

Cello Reflections. Pat Farenga thinks this photo is from the early 1980s, and notes, "I wonder if someone can identify the home or the person reflected in the mirror behind John?"

In September, Holt Associates Inc. announced that all 24 years of issues of Growing Without Schooling, spanning from 1977 through 2001, were available for free public access at its website,

"Now, when teachers and tests are getting all the attention in education reform, the complete issue archive of GWS is more evidence for the public to consider that learning is a result of the activity of learners; it is not necessarily a result of teaching," says Patrick Farenga, president of Holt Associates Inc. The Holt Associates/Growing Without Schooling site also contains significant amounts of new information about John Holt and his work, including never-before-released video footage of Holt, photographs, and newly digitized audio files of interviews and lectures by Holt where he discusses how schools could be improved.

© 2011, Helen Hegener


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