John Holt Review Series

John Holt's books reviewed for radical unschoolers of the 21st Century,
by Deb Lewis

A Life Worth Living; Selected Letters of John Holt

Edited and with an Introduction by Susannah Sheffer
Ohio State University Press/ Columbia, 1990
ISBN 0-8142-0523-2

A Life Worth Living is a collection of more than a hundred letters written by John Holt to nearly seventy different correspondents. The letters begin in 1945 when Holt is twenty-two years old and end in the fall of 1984. Susannah Sheffer has included helpful notes and facts about each of Holt's correspondents. She has written a wonderful Preface and Introduction and a brief and moving Epilogue. There is an Appendix to books mentioned by Holt, an Index for finding references to specific people and there are several photos including one of Holt at his desk amid stacks of overflowing paperwork and files.

There are many references to Growing Without Schooling and references to Holt's books. There are some letters to his editors about problems he's having with certain books or writing he's particularly pleased with. For readers of Holt's books these letters are especially fun.

All of the letters will delight Holt fans. Many of the letters are long and winding but all with the clear and sharp insight revealed in his books and interviews. Some of the letters are sad, some are funny, some angry, some express fear, and all of them reveal Holt as a man of great hope and conviction.

Holt wrote to an extraordinary group of people including A.S Neill, founder of the Summerhill School, Ivan Illich, author of Deschooling Society, James Herndon, author of The Way It Spozed to Be and How to Survive in Your Native Land and Judson Jerome, poet, and author of Culture Out Of Anarchy. The theme of this book is very much about Holt's life's work but we also get some idea of Holt's thinking about politics; democracy, civil disobedience, changing society, economy, ecology and technology.

About politics, in a letter to Noam Chomsky in 1972 Holt writes:

Sometimes when I play Walter Mitty games I can imagine that I might be persuaded to run for office if only I can be sure that I would lose -
(Walter Mitty, from the short story by James Thurber "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" and later the movie starring Danny Kaye, was a timid daydreamer who imagined himself in assorted exciting adventures.)

He also wrote to former students, aspiring teachers, parents and total strangers. He refers to writing to former President Nixon although, sadly, none of those letter are included. There is a letter to George McGovern, a letter to Kevin White, (then mayor of Boston, 1968-1984) and one fairly silly letter to Gloria Steinem.

While at first it may not seem this book is about unschooling I think radical unschoolers will find these writings further evidence that had he lived, Holt's progressive ideas about children and learning would have evolved to look much like the ideas radical unschoolers are living and talking about today.

A Life Worth Living spans decades of Holt's changing views about education, learning and the lives of children. From these letters and from Holt's other writings it's clear he was a forward thinking person eager to explore the possibilities of changing society and changing attitudes about children.

Holt believed children were uniquely suited to being human and what they needed most from adults was to be taken seriously and to be given time and freedom to make discoveries on their own. In a letter to Everett Reimer, August 28, 1970 Holt writes: "A child wants to do and does what advances him into the world, what enables him to grow out into it, to encompass in his own experience and understanding more of the world outside him, the world of geography and the world of human experience."

Reading this book I was impressed with Holt's dedication to his work, impressed with his busy mind and his willingness to really look at things that made him uneasy in the hope of learning something new from them.

And I was struck by how Holt's dedication was so like some of today's fine unschooling writers. So many unschooling parents writing on e-lists and forums are helping others in much the same way Holt himself did in the years he was publishing Growing Without Schooling. In one letter Holt comments on the number and importance of his correspondences. To Arthur Pearl, author of The Atrocity of Education Holt writes:

Most of the work I do in this office, including writing this letter to you, and including answering letters from thousands of people a year, I do not get paid for. I am able to do it only because my books happen to make money. But this work, for which I do not get paid, seems to me at least as useful and valuable, if not a great deal more so, than much or most of the "work" for which many people do get paid.

In 1972 Holt wrote this to A.S. Neill:

I am pleased you find my style readable. I work very hard to make it that way. Nothing annoys me more about the academic-intellectual community than their notion that an idea is important in proportion as it is obscure. I feel a moral as well as aesthetic duty to speak as plainly as I can.

I know I join a great many other people in saying that I hope you will be with us yet for quite a while. You have made a great difference in the thinking and living of many people. We'll certainly do all we can to keep the work going, and to keep alive the fragile notions of freedom and joy.

Though A.S. Neill died in 1973 and John Holt in 1985 at least some of the fragile (but still living) notions of freedom and joy can be found in Holt's work as documented in A Life Worth Living and in the further exploration and application of the unschooling philosophy.

Deb Lewis, June 2005


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