Gems from John Holt

Date of Issue: August, 1983


Earlier this year I visited for a few days some old friends who are not home schoolers and whose children have always gone to school. Spending some time with their schooled kids made me realize that the combination of school plus "peer group" (an odd way to describe a group of people who have nothing in common with you except being the same age) can do children a kind of harm that I had not previously thought of.

My objection to the social life of almost all schools, as GWS readers know, is that it is for the most part mean-spirited, competitive, ruthless, snobbish, conformist, consumerist (you are judged by what you can buy, or your parents buy for you), fickle, heartless, and often cruel. Most children come out of school with far less self-esteem, less sense of their own identity, dignity, and worth, than they had when they went in. I know this was true of me. Most children in school feel like losers and outsiders, and most will do almost anything that will, if only for a short time, give them the feeling of being insiders, truly "One Of The Gang." But I had generally felt and said that there might be a few children who were so good at all the things that schools and "peer groups" considered important, so completely winners at the school game, that socially, at least, the school experience might be more positive than negative for them.

My friends' oldest child, about to enter high school, seemed at first to be such a person. She was very good at schoolwork (though not in the least interested in it), and got A's in all her courses; was very athletic, outstanding in a number of sports; was good-natured, friendly, lively, funny, and very popular with both boys and girls; and was astonishingly pretty. She seemed genuinely happy, was fond of and nice to her parents, and was pleasant and friendly to me. Surely this one was one of those rare children who was getting good rather than harm from the social life of school. And yet, after living with her and her family for a few days, I began to feel that even to her the combination of school plus "peer group" was doing some real harm, perhaps harm of a rather subtle kind, perhaps harm that she may soon outgrow, but harm none the less.

What school plus "peer group" had done was to enclose her in a world that was so small and so cut off from every other kind of reality that she might as well have been living in a spaceship. In spite of being very bright, and having very bright parents, she was as nearly as I could tell almost totally ignorant of and uninterested in the world around her. By this I do not mean just that she was not up on the latest newspaper headlines - I tend to agree more and more with Thoreau that most of the "news," even if true, is not worth knowing. What I mean is that she was not interested in anything about the world she lived in except the handful of cute boys and girls who were her companions, plus perhaps friends, plus perhaps a few stars from the world of popular mass culture - singers, actors and actresses, etc. For her, these were the most real or perhaps the only real people As I have said, she seemed to love her kind and intelligent parents, who very much loved her. But she was not interested in them or what they thought and did, except perhaps as it impinged on her own spaceship life. Most healthy children are at least some of the time very curious about the adult world, and particularly any strange adults who appear in their families. But this child, though she answered very nicely the few questions I asked her, asked none of me and paid no more real attention to me than she did to her parents.

I have to make clear that, perhaps because she was such an outstanding winner in her little world, perhaps also because she was a happy and good-natured person (no small thing) she had never learned to think of adults as enemies, and so was not in the least afraid of them, or rude, hostile, or contemptuous toward them. But she never gave the slightest sign that she thought than any adults, including her very intelligent and remarkable parents, might he interesting, or might have anything to say worth hearing, or any knowledge of the world or experience of life worth learning. Adults, those shadowy figures, were obviously there, and since they had money and power they had to be coped with one way or another, something she was very good at doing. But there was nothing interesting or useful to be learned by watching or listening to them; they were in no way models for the adult life she herself would one day lead. Friendly and charming though she was, she seemed as truly alienated from adult life, the (to me) fascinating community she lived in, and indeed the whole "Real World" the schools talk about, as the most enraged delinquent punk rocker. And this seems to me a serious loss and deprivation for her, and one that will probably make her own adult life less interesting and more difficult, when one day, as she must, she alights on Earth from her little spaceship. - John Holt

Date of Issue: April, 1985

The issue starts with an untitled column by John Holt:

The March 25, 1985, issue of Newsweek carried a one-column story about homeschooling. It was generally accurate and favorable, and correctly gave the impression that the movement is growing in size and legitimacy. My one objection to the story is that they call me “the Guru” of the homeschooling movement. This is in some important ways mistaken and misleading. I won’t pretend that I have not been an important voice in the homeschooling movement, but the movement is by no means made up of Holt-followers: many homeschoolers do not think of me as a good guy, and many have never heard of me at all. This is all to the good. The whole strength of the movement and the reason why it has been such a remarkably effective instrument for social change is that it does not have a centralized leadership, and having none, is able to generate so much and so effective local leadership, people who learn not from some “guru” but from their own experience, and having learned, inform and support each other.


Two homeschooled children whom I have known for many years have just started to read within the last year. Both are twelve years old. Their experience should have much to say to homeschooling parents who are worried about late starting readers.

How are the children doing? Just fine. In less than a year that they have been reading, both have made rapid progress. Their parents have not given them reading tests and do not plan to, but from what I know of their reading I would say that one is reading at least as well as most third graders and the other a year or two beyond that. Not long ago one of them wrote me a very interesting and amusing letter which would have done credit to most ten-year-olds. I have no doubt at all that within two years and perhaps much less they will be reading as well as or better than most in-school children of their age, and since they began reading because they wanted to and when they were ready, they will enjoy it much more.

One thing that may surprise some people a little is that both are girls. Both have brothers and sisters, some of whom are excellent readers and students. This, by the way, is very common - in the many years I have known children I have almost never met or heard of a slow or late reader who did not have at least one brother or sister, younger or older, who read very well. More about this later.

Both girls, for all the years I have known them, have been energetic, active, affectionate, curious, happy children. Nobody knowing them would have suspected that they were non-readers, and indeed it was only after I had known them for quite a number of years that I began to realize this myself. They were not in any way frightened, shy, or withdrawn, but were very much at ease in many social situations and when in the company of people mostly older than themselves.

As far as I can tell, none of the parents of these girls ever worried about their not reading, except, of course, for worrying a little about what the schools might do if they knew. What their private thoughts may have been, I do not know, but these families are very good friends of mine, and I think it likely that if they had been concerned, they would have said something to me about it. (We get many such letters and phone calls.) If they had, I would have said to them what I say to all people with such concerns, which is, do not worry, the chances of your child growing up illiterate are about the same as the chances of her or him turning into a crocodile. But as far as I know, they never worried at all. In this they showed great courage, good sense, and faith in their children, and we should all do our best to follow their example.

What did these parents “do” about their children’s non-reading? Nothing. That is to say, they treated the girls just like their other children - welcomed them into their adult lives, shared their interests and concerns with them, and did all they could to encourage and support the many interests of the girls themselves.

What would have happened if these children had been compelled to go to school? We can answer that question with great certainty. They would have been called Learning Disabled, and like almost all children who have this label stuck on them, would have been put into special classes, would have been cruelly teased by most of the “normal” children, and would have lost most or all of their energy, confidence, and pleasure in life. In a word, most of their intelligence and character would have been destroyed. And, like virtually all children called Learning Disabled, they would in fact never have learned to read, and, like a number of adults I have known, would have gone through life trying to hide this, and when they could not, explaining (despite their “official” alibi, often with a blush of shame) that they were “dyslexic.”

Why did the girls wait so long before starting? I don’t know. I’m not sure they know, though if they do, I hope someday they’ll tell me. My guess is that they may have been intimidated by the example of the early and skilled readers in their family. Children like to compete, but only when they have a chance of doing well; when they see they are hopelessly outclassed, they stop. A slow-running child playing tag may take a few steps after a much faster child, but when she sees that she has no chance of catching her will soon look for an easier target, since to keep running after someone you have no chance of catching is not only shaming but silly. Children are realists; in a race in which they have no chance of winning or even doing well, they will soon drop out.

My picture is of someone who starts in a big race, sees all the others pull far ahead, and after a while simply stops running and sits down by the side of the road, saying to himself, “I’ll just wait here until all the others are so far out of sight that there is no longer any question of running against them, and then I’ll start running again, just for my own pleasure.”

Let me hasten to add here that if these two late-reading children did feel or fear that they were running in a hopeless race, it was not because of anything that their families did; it just looked that way to them. And children are in any case very likely to follow this tactic in fields that have nothing to do with reading; if an older child is very good at painting or singing or dancing or music, the younger is very likely to think, “OK, that’s her turf,” and take up something else. The example of a skilled older brother or sister can sometimes inspire, but it can just as easily intimidate.

I tell this story mostly to encourage the parents of late-starting readers. If some of these parents are under pressure from their schools to have their children tested or, worse, put into some special class, they may in some cases find it helpful to show this story, and other late-reading stories from GWS, to their school officials. But we can’t expect that such stories will persuade more than a tiny handful of schools, like the Friskole in Denmark, Summerhill in England, and one or two I have known in this country, to make it their policy not to try to pressure children into reading but to let them read if, when, and as much as they want. The number of these late-reading stories is bound to be very small, so small that it may take generations of homescholing to gather anything very convincing in the way of statistics. It is only among homeschoolers that we can expect children to be allowed to wait to start reading until they feel like it, and even among homeschoolers there may not be many who would let their children delay reading until the age of twelve without feeling they had to do something about it. In any case, these two children, plus one boy I knew when I was visiting the school in Denmark, are the only children I know of who, in a totally unpressured reading environment, did not start until they were twelve. No, come to think of it, I remember that Neill said that in the long history of Summerhill only one child left the school not knowing how to read, a boy who became a tool and die maker, work which requires great skill and pays very well.

One other question, which some readers may have in their minds. Do I think that there is something that the parents of these twelve-year-old beginning readers might have done to get them to start earlier? My answer is No - and I think they would have been wrong to try. Anything they did along those lines could only have undermined the children’s sense that their parents trusted them, and so undermined their confidence in themselves, and so done harm rather than good. In any case, all such questions miss the whole point of this story - if children who start reading when they feel like it soon read just as well as or better than most people, what difference does it make when they start?

So, if you have, now or in the future, children who start reading later than most, tell us about them - and don’t worry. - John Holt

From: Growing Without Schooling #80:
Date of Issue: April, 1991


Some questions that teachers asked John Holt in 1968, and his answers:

Q. How are children (raised in non-traditional ways) going to fit into society?

A. The question implies by its very words that society is a fixed, unchanging thing into which people must fit, like keys into keyholes. The assumption is false for two reasons. First, and this is the reason that Jefferson urged public education, it is the duty of a citizen in a free country not to fit into society, but to make society. Secondly, our society is changing so rapidly that no one can any longer be prepared to fit into it. A person who even thinks of his job as "fitting" will to that extent be at a hopeless disadvantage. What we must have is curiosity, resourcefulness, imagination.

Q. How are children going to learn self-discipline if they are not made to do things?

A. Interestingly enough, more than a few students have asked me this question themselves. They often say, "If I weren't made to do things, I'd never do anything worthwhile." When I hear this, what I answer is, "In the first place, I don't believe you. In the second place, if it were true that after years of schooling you had found nothing that was sufficiently worth doing, so that you would do it without being made to, then this is the worst indictment of your schooling that I can imagine." The fact is that a great many children, even when under heavy pressure from school, spend a great deal of time and concentrated effort on activities of their own choosing. I must add that in my opinion, a great many of the things which schools generally call a waste of time I do not consider a waste of time at all - things such as talking with one's friends. The talk I had with my friends during my own schooling was with very rare exception more valuable in my education than almost anything I heard in class.

Q. Won't children be sorry later if we don't make them study this, that, or the other?

A. Sometimes people say to me, "I was made to study such and such, and didn't like it, but now I am glad." Possibly. On the other hand, they might have come to it anyway, or they might have discovered something else for themselves that might have given them more pleasure. The argument doesn't prove anything. Nobody can do all things in one lifetime and whatever we do, and however much we enjoy it, there may always remain the possibility that we might have enjoyed other things as much or more. This is not an argument for trying to run other people's lives for them. The fact is that most children do not learn to like the things they have their noses rubbed in, and that when we with misguided good intentions try to make a child do something in the hopes that he will like it later, the most probably result is that he will hate it. What is even more to the point is that children must be given the opportunity to try what they will do, since it is only by making choices and finding out that some of them are bad that we ever learn to choose wisely. Furthermore, it is only when we are free to like something or not to like it that we ever find out what we really like - something that too few people know.

Q. Won't children waste all their time playing?

A. This question shows how much we are still victims of the Calvinist-Puritan notions about work and play. We can sum up these notions as follows: work is what you don't like to do, but do because you have to, and doing it is good for you. Play is what you like to do, and doing it is bad for you. These distinctions are nonsense. Nobody who is really living, really involved in what he is doing, makes any such distinctions. Ask a person who is truly alive and deeply involved with life whether what he is doing at any moment is working or playing, and he will say, "I don't know." As Robert Frost says at the end of his poem, "Two Tramps In Mud Time," only when work and play are one is the deed ever truly done for heaven and future's sakes.

Q. How do you get a child to evaluate himself and his work without doing it in comparison with the progress of other children?

A. What Billy X. wants to know is not whether he is doing something better than or as well as Jimmy Y., but whether he is doing it better than he did it yesterday. When children are very young, learning to walk, talk, and acquire many other skills, they are very much aware of their own progress without being continually compared to other children. What they do, as they learn, is compare their own performance with the competence models that they see all around them, adults or older children. And this is what any serious learner does at any age. I am a writer. I want my writing to be as good as I can make it, and to get better. I don't need to have people around me telling me that I am better or worse than other writers. Such people, if there were any, would be of no use at all. What I need to know is how I can improve, and I can best find this out by comparing my work with the work of other writers I admire. In the same way, learning to play a musical instrument, I learn to compare the sounds I make with the sounds I hear made by good musicians. In short, the standards against which children measure their performance must indeed come from the outside world, from people more skilled than they are, but the actual comparing must be done by the children themselves.

Note from Sandra in 2014:

In 1986, Growing Without Schooling was still publishing, and many back issues were available. Web pages weren't yet readily available. This is the way new unschoolers got a first intro to John Holt if they didn't own books. John Holt had just died, and though the magazine was still coming out, others were writing.

The info above was sent out along with eight or so other e-mails to people who requested more unschooling information on the AOL homeschooling boards. The set was called "The Unschooling Barrage."

more by John Holt

More of the Unschooling Barrage from 1995, 1996

Unschooling Quotes