Click here to read excerpts from THE UNDERACHIEVING SCHOOL


(Sentient Publications, 2005)


Copyright 2005 By Patrick Farenga.


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 traveling 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.


— Patrick Farenga, co-author Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling

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