YTread Logo
YTread Logo

John Holt interviewed in Pullman, WA

John Holt interviewed in Pullman, WA
INTERVIEWER: JOHN HOLT: Well, I got out of the Navy in 1946, and began sort of paying attention to what was going on. And there has been one succession after another of sort of national school crises ever since then. I think if you went through the files of Time and Newsweek, you would find about once every five years, there's been a cover story about the crisis in the schools. In about 1947, a famous progressive educator named Willard Goslin, who was a superintendent in Pasadena, got fired. It was a big uproar. And this was a rejection of progressive education. We went "back to the basics" in 1947. We went back again in the 1950s when Sputnik went up. Nobody knew anything. – "Alright. We've got to get really serious." And the National Defense Education Act was passed. We we're going to really pour that money in, and upgrade the schools. And then in the early 1960s, we discovered people still didn't know any math. So the School Mathematics Study Group was started up, and funded with many millions of dollars. The National Science Foundation got into the act. And then, in the late 1960s, still a school crisis. Charles Silverman wrote "Crisis in the Classroom" about the ghastly things happening all over the country. Around 1973 we went back to basics. That movement is over 10 years old! Everybody talks as if it started yesterday. And I have no reason to believe that these crises weren't going back into – you know – I was a...
john holt interviewed in pullman wa
kid in the thirties, so I don't know. But Fred Hechinger, who's a very conservative educator, and a staunch supporter of public schools, said in a New York Times piece sometime in the last year or two that the poor kids have been flunking out of schools, and getting kicked out, and pushed out ever since the turn of the century.

John

Goodlad, in his new book "A Place Called School," says teachers in schools are doing basically what they've done ever since the turn of the century. Nothing much has changed. There was no "Golden Age" when everybody was learning all this stuff. The poor kids were always raising Hell and leaving early, and so forth. I think the schools are probably marginally worse for reasons, some of which are their own fault, and some which are not their own fault. But I don't think this is a substantial amount. And as I say, there never was a time when everybody was rushing through, coming out good readers, good writers, good at all that stuff. It never happened. INTERVIEWER: Let me just – That's excellent. I've been – In other words, your contention, in a way, is we're just going through another one of these cycles. It's a periodic phenomenon. And in a way, I suppose it speaks well for the concern we have for America's children – the concern by parents for their children – in the sense that they are constantly worrying and evaluating the schools, even if it doesn't say much for their sense of...
john holt interviewed in pullman wa
history. JOHN: No, but usually the complaint is that the schools haven't been tough enough. The reason that none of these crises, none of these uproars lead to any improvement is because they don't understand what the trouble is. The position I will state is one I've been saying for twenty years or more. It was a minority position then, and probably will remain a minority position. But what I contend and assert is that kids come into – babies come into the world extraordinarily curious, eager to learn, extraordinarily resourceful and competent at learning – that they are – in the most literal sense of the word – scientists. They do exactly what scientists do. They use the scientific method in making sense of the world around them. And then they get to a certain age, which may be as young as three, but in any case the age of school, and this process is turned off by adults who think they are now going to direct and control the learning of these children. They treat them like empty receptacles into which they are going to pour whatever learning they think they ought to have. And the child's curiosity, the child's independence, the child's confidence in herself as a learner, as an explorer, is undermined and eroded and destroyed. And after – oh, it may take a couple years – you get these bored, apathetic, "I don't know" – the kinds of kids you see in schools. But I saw this. I mean, I wrote How Children Fail about an exclusive...
john holt interviewed in pullman wa
high-powered Cambridge private elementary school in the year 1958. It was at that time that I wrote in my journal, and in the book How Children Fail, that school is a place where children learn to be stupid. And the process that makes them stupid – at least stupid in school – is other people trying to control their learning. INTERVIEWER: Well, I know this is a terrible oversimplification, but what is it you advocate?? JOHN: I said then, "Let school be a place in which children can continue to explore the world in the ways that are most interesting and productive for them. Let us give them them help if they ask for it, and answer their questions – put within their reach – make accessible to them as much of the world and its materials and resources and skills and people as we can. But let's not try to decide how they are going to use those materials. Let the child make the curriculum." INTERVIEWER: How does that work in ... ? How does one apply that theory? JOHN: Well I know many homeschooling families that are applying it. I have known a couple of schools that apply it. To talk in the context of a homeschooling family, this means that a family will have books, records, tools – depending on the kinds of things they're interested in – the kinds of things they do. But whatever the parents do, their life is accessible to the children. The children aren't locked in the house. The parents take them where they go. They very often are involved in the...
parents' work if their work makes this possible. They know their parents' friends. They are taken seriously as people. They are talked to. Their concerns are listened to. When their parents meet with other adults, the children are not banished to another room. They are admitted to the world. They are treated the way children were treated before modern childhood was invented. They're simply a part of the world that their parents live in. And, as I say, they see, they ask questions, they get interested in things, in which case the parents – To use a very simple case, if a child likes dinosaurs, then we help them find books about dinosaurs – or chemistry, or rockets, or volcanoes, or computers, or violins, or whatever it is the child may be interested in. INTERVIEWER: What do you think the implications are of the fact that we turn out kids the way we do? In other words, has it made or society more or less, let's say, sensitive – intelligent? What are the implications of what we are doing now? JOHN: The implications are extraordinary sinister in my opinion. I think the society is, on the whole, not intelligent, not well-informed. I suspect they are – I think, historically – and this is a thing you can only guess about – there may never have been a population of people that was so largely ignorant about the world they lived in. I think it has made a society – and this is true of all modern societies – not just our own – which is totalitarian in...
spirit, ripe for a man on horseback, if the right one came along. Throughout my adult lifetime, people have been doing an experiment, which is to take – which is to copy the Bill of Rights down on just piece of plain – type it on a piece of ordinary paper, and set up a stand out street somewhere with a clipboard, and invite people, as they go by to read the Bill of Rights and to sign it. Most people, the overwhelming majority – 80-90 percent – don't recognize it, don't know what it is. And a large majority reading it think of it as something subversive. They say, "What is this? Some kind of communist ... ?" Most of them won't sign it. The Constitution of the United States would not be ratified tomorrow if the people had to ratify it. A majority of people think that people should be considered guilty until proven innocent. A majority of people – and this happens over and over again – will respond to polls by saying the police ought to be able to use torture to gain confessions. We are, in spirit, a highly - We're all set up for it. It's a kind of accident of history. And the fact that the Constitution and the laws and the courts do so stand there in the way, that has, I think, prevented us from having a much more autocratic government than we have. INTERVIEWER: Yet – And yet have schools changed that much over the last four hundred years? I mean isn't the same system of schooling used now approximately as it has been since the...
time of Shakespeare – kids having to sit down and ... ? JOHN: Oh, no, no, no. There was nothing like it. School, in the modern sense, is 100, 150 years old. There was nothing like it in Shakespeare's time. There were a very few schools for a very few kids. They didn't go there for very long. There were a relatively small number of things they studied. But school, in the modern sense, as a sort of total learning institution – universal, compulsory – covering supposedly all the branches of language, this is - it was an invention, actually, of Frederick the Great of Prussia or Bismarck. It's a nineteenth-century invention. We had schools in the colonies, but they were pretty modest in their reach. Children would study the Bible a little, and maybe learn reading and writing. But a great many Americans did not send their kids to school. And we were almost totally literate. In pre-revolutionary and early post-revolutionary times, we were practically a totally literate country. Part of the ideology of school is that the schools produce literacy. This is poppycock. We were a great deal more literate in the late 18th century than we are now. INTERVIEWER: How do you explain that then? Do you think it's because they were taught at home? JOHN: Yeah. Yes. And their parents – (Television has something to do with the difference in now and then.) – their parents were literate. The printed word was important They didn't have many books. The Bible was certainly...
one of the most important books – though not the only one. But reading and writing were important for early Americans. And because it was important for the adults, it was important for the kids. And kids learn very easily what they see us doing. INTERVIEWER: Given certain practicalities, or certain inevitabilities, the school system, I don't think, is going to be dismantled – obviously. JOHN: No. Quite right. INTERVIEWER: However there are, I should say, various currents of reform that slosh back and forth, and move around, etc. In practical terms, a lot of people are very concerned about standards in the schools. Some people are probably concerned in the wrong way. Some people are, I think, very perceptive about this. How, do you think, in practical terms, in society today, the schools could really be improved, and what would you like to see that would be, sort of, a best possible solution? JOHN: Yes, I can answer that very quickly. They ought to be smaller – much smaller. Two hundred is big enough – even for a high school. I taught in a school where they'd say, "Oh we can't offer this, we can't offer that!" Nonsense! I taught in a high school – in a private school – but a high school in Boston with about a hundred students, and they had a far wider range of offerings – and at a higher level – than almost any public school. And indeed - But I don't have to point only to the private sector. A woman taught in a one-room schoolhouse...
in New Jersey – wrote a book about it years ago called "My Country School Diary". And there are very few of these giant schools who have what this woman, on a tiny budget, was able to offer her students. They're too big. They ought to be 200, 100, 50, less than that. The model for the school should have been – ought to be – the family, not the factory. But it adopted the factory model, and it's in love with it to this day. Teachers ought to have a kind of autonomy. Teachers ought to be the boss of their own classroom – which is to say, not just the disciplinary boss, but they ought to decide what's taught, how it's taught, what tests will be used. I mean they ought to be the academic bosses of their own classroom. If you ask why able people are not attracted to teaching or don't stay, that's the reason. It has very little to do with money. I've known hundreds of able people who have quit teaching. And money was never more than a very secondary reason. In fact, the people who love teaching and are good at it – private school teachers – will teach for much less money than the public schools offer. So a wider variety. There ought to be a huge variety of schools. And so the parents - If the parents want a school where kids wear a coat and tie, and sit up like little soldiers, okay, well, there's a school down the line in which they can do that. And if they want a school which is run some other way, they can do that. So if...
parents aren't happy with what's happening in a school, okay, we take their children out and send them somewhere else. But the idea that huge systems can be somehow be manipulated, organized to please everybody, or almost everybody just leads to endless quarrels about what is to be done and what is not to be done. INTERVIEWER: In talking to parents, do you find there are a lot of them - when you are able to sit down and explain your viewpoints - who agree with you? JOHN: No, these are minority views. Now, I think a substantial number of homeschoolers agree with me. But this is already sort of a highly selected group within the population. These are people who - to a degree rather rare in society - really like and appreciate their children, like their daily company, pay a kind of sustained and serious attention to what they do, find fascinating - as I do - their growth, their learning, the ways in which these little people explore the world. If you like that, it's the most interesting and marvelous thing in the world – and these people do. So it's not hard for them – or at least a lot of them – to hear what I am saying about children as autonomous and self-motivated learners. And even those who may begin skeptical will soon see in the lives of their children evidence to support that. So they're ready to move in that direction. But in the general public, no. The general public – like the majority of schools – is deeply committed against freedom –...
deeply committed to the idea that children won't do anything good unless somebody makes them. INTERVIEWER: What do you think they – Excuse me, I'm just going to turn this down on the back. I think that's why I'm getting a hum. What brought about this rather curious idea, as you express it? JOHN: How did I come to think all this ... ? INTERVIEWER: No. Where do you think this idea - JOHN: About the innate sort of badness, laziness of children? INTERVIEWER: Yeah. That's right. This theory of children. JOHN: It comes out of Calvinism, out of Northern European Protestantism, and partly, that is to say, this view of children is almost unique to the Northern European Protestant civilizations. Your Mediterranean countries, your Catholics – There's no notion in Catholicism about a kind of inherent badness of children, although I think Northern European Catholicism perhaps picked up some of the same strains. This has not been true of human cultures generally. There no generalized distrust of children in most human cultures. But it has come in in ours. Then I think there are other things. Conditions of modern life make it very hard to raise children. They're enormously expensive. Where they used to be an asset to families, they are now a huge burden, and a burden that gets heavier and heavier as kids get older. The teenager is a worse problem than the five-year old. They are the frustrations of modern life. I was very much influenced by Erich Fromm's...
Escape from Freedom, which came out in the late 40s or so. It was an attempt to explain Nazism, and, I think, a correct attempt. The hypothesis was that people who feel essentially powerless in their own lives look for symbols of power – symbols of authority with whom they can identify, so to speak. I think modern society makes most citizens feel powerless, helpless – today, more than ever, with the nuclear threat over our heads, – and therefore people look for opportunities to exercise such control over other people as they can. And children are the natural targets of this. INTERVIEWER: What we call Western civilization in the sense of humanist literature and history, etc. – JOHN: Mmm hmm. INTERVIEWER: – does have a civilizing influence, I suppose. At least it enables you to put your life in context – JOHN: Yes. INTERVIEWER: – a knowledge of history –that sort of thing. JOHN: Yes. INTERVIEWER: Isn't that sort of thing rather difficult to teach in a home environment? I mean, it's not that kind of thing that a kid is likely to pick up on his own. JOHN: Oh, I think he's more much likely to. INTERVIEWER: Oh, really? JOHN: Oh, no, I think school is absolutely devastating to the culture – to the high culture – what might be called the high culture. These words are tricky. But at any rate. High culture Is the province of an extremely small number of people in our society, and most of those, people who make their living off of it. I mean, how many...
people read Shakespeare outside of English teachers and actors? How many adult Americans read Shakespeare for pleasure? Or put in whatever classical author you like. Very, very few. You can't just - If you want to put on Shakespeare plays, you've got to have a festival, you've got to have it in a very attractive place, or you've got to have some kind of highly gimmicky production – Hamlet in modern dress. I live in a highly intellectual city – Boston – home of all kinds of universities, lots of small theater companies. Theater companies may put on one Shakespeare play a year, and it's always taking its future into its hands - you know – it's always a little bit of a gamble. Again, unless they can advertise that there's something rather special about this production, Shakespeare doesn't draw – even – unless, somehow or other, dressed up, gimmicked up – even in a city like Boston. No, Shakespeare survived 200 years before he became a part of the school curriculum. I remember when I was at school – at secondary school in the 1930s – my English teacher was an Englishman– quite an elderly one who had started his teaching in England, I think, early in this century. He said that until the 20th century, English was not a part of the curriculum in English schools. And when it was first introduced, it was treated - it was looked on with great scorn. The curriculum was the classics, mathematics, and the natural sciences...
"English?" people said, "Why do you need English in the school? English is our native tongue." He said, "it was rather nice being an English teacher. It was like being an art teacher, because nobody took you seriously. You could do what you liked." So Shakespeare survived – and in very good health – for 200 years without the ministrations of schools. I don't know whether it would take another couple of generations to do him in all together. INTERVIEWER: You contention is then that - Let's talk about, say, the great works of literature for the moment, or what are generally considered to be great works of literature. JOHN: Yes. INTERVIEWER: Do you think they would survive and flourish in a nonacademic environment through their own merits? JOHN: They did. They did. For how long have human beings been reading Homer? They did. INTERVIEWER: How about history? How about study of history? I mean, that's necessary for us to put things in context, right? JOHN: That's highly questionable, because historians themselves disagree right straight across the board about the meaning of history and its - So, I mean, the argument that it is necessary to study history – or as much history as is studied in school – in order to understand the world – or that studying it makes you understand the world seems to me extremely suspect. On the other hand, I think history is interesting But if history survives and endures, it's because the act of...
inquiring into the past – and what happened, and why it happened – is inherently fascinating to a certain number of people. In fact, I think it's quite fascinating, generally speaking, to kids. I would say schools turn kids off to history. Kids love to hear what Grandpa and Grandma did, or what things were like earlier. And the whole idea of people walking around in different clothes, or of living under very different conditions is inherently romantic and mysterious. And it's sitting in front of badly written textbooks, memorizing dates that make kids think that - and this in all countries – that history is something they're not interested in. I remember reading in the French magazine – one of the big ones - Paris Match or whatever it was - an article – perhaps ten years ago – about young French kids. Now the French school system is often held up to us as some kind of model. "Oh boy, they'll really tough over there. Everybody learns." It's mythology. Large numbers of French kids don't read any better French, or speak or write any better French than Americans speak or write English. And this particular article was looking into French kids' attitudes about their past and their history. (And they have much more history, in a way, than we do.) And the conclusion was that they're almost entirely indifferent – cynical. I remember them quoting one child. He said, "Verdun, je connais pas," You know, this great battle...
in World War I. "Oh, I don't give a damn about that. What's that to me?" I think we have an almost entirely ahistorical generation of kids who feel that nothing that happened much more than ten years ago had any importance. Now this is partly the mass media and the pop culture. But it's partly that schools that coerce and control and manipulate teaching spoil everything they touch. I have musical friends – a lot of classical musician friends. And they're always saying, "Gee, we need bigger audiences?" We've got to get more music into the school.