John Holt Review Series

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

Teach Your Own

John Holt
Delacorte Press, 1981
ISBN 0-440-08539-X

Teach Your Own was published in 1981 and reads like some of the really meaningful discussions on unschooling lists and forums on-line today. Holt has written commentary around and expounded on ideas in letters from parents who were reading and writing to Growing Without Schooling magazine, which he began publishing in 1977. Teach Your Own will give anyone familiar with the unschooling lists a sense that John Holt would have loved these on-line discussions. E-mail lists are very much like what John Holt was doing all those years ago via snail mail.

In 2003 Pat Farenga revised and republished Teach Your Own as "Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling". I've read both and while the original has some now out dated material I much prefer it to the "revised and updated" version which omits two good chapters and condenses three others into one.

Several of the chapters in Teach Your Own aren't much relevant to our time and our unschooling freedoms but they are still important chapters in that they give the reader a sense of what early homeschooling was like, what uncharted waters homeschoolers were plunging into and how much courage and determination it took for them to do what they could to make life better for their kids. While most unschoolers now won't have serious problems with school officials, reading those chapters might offer encouragement in those (hopefully) rare cases where families find themselves under the scrutiny of overzealous school superintendents.

Chapters 4, "Getting Them Out" and 5, "Homeschoolers at Work", which are left out of the Farenga make over, include some wonderful letters from parents. While these letters are peppered with school speak that some unschoolers might find irritating they are clearly the beginnings of what today is being called "radical unschooling." A letter in Chapter 5 from Art Harris says, in part:

We simply left our oldest boy alone. He read, sometimes eight to ten hours a day. He watched TV, went to a fair number of movies. With no adults around to order him, to test him or spoon-feed him, he delved in metallurgy (his interest in cycling got him into this), nutrition (on his own he became a vegetarian), architecture. In fact, you name it, chances are he was into it—geology, Zen, meteorology, etc.
. . . .
Sometimes a radio or TV host would discuss a book with an author on tour. More often than not the host had not read the book, but (to the surprise of those who feel TV kills reading) our son often went to get it from the library, even if that meant paying 25 cents for a reservation.
In another letter Albert Hobart writes, in part, about his son Robert:
He learns a lot from television. Among his favorite programs are Crockett's Victory Garden, Wild Kingdom and Jacques Cousteau's expeditions.
I think I especially liked these references to television because some of the most interesting discussions on todays unschooling forums are about learning and TV. These letters in Chapter 5, written more than twenty four years ago, could have been written today at UnschoolingDiscussion or unschoolingbasics.

Chapter 6, "Living With Children," is about the nature of children and how we can and should respect them and be straight and honest in our dealings with them. Holt references Jean Liedloff's book The Continuum Concept and a June 1979 article in Psychology Today called "Good Samaritans At Age Two?" in which the findings of a study reveal that very little children are compassionate and nice. I'm a little sad that all these years later there are still parents who don't choose to believe it.

And for those Holt fans who have wondered what his ideas might be about Radical Unschooling as we know it today, I include a quote here about bedtimes:

I can't help noting that no cultures in the world that I have ever heard of make such a fuss about children's bedtimes, and no cultures have so many adults who find it so hard either to go to sleep or wake up. Could these social facts be connected? I strongly suspect they are.
In regard to the capabilities of children Holt writes "Susan Price from Vero Beach, Florida astonished and delighted me with this letter about her children." And yet another letter from her goes on to explain how her very young son learned to use the stove and cook at age two.
The stove. What could have become my first battle with Matt. He learned to turn the burners on. I said no, dangerous. Effect, naturally: fun, interesting, do it all the time. So I slapped his hand, slightly, grabbed him up, me in tears, was he, I don't even remember, holding him on the couch, what to do, what to do. Slowly it dawned on me. There wasn't a damned thing dangerous about him turning them on. I was always with him, could keep the stove cleared, his hand was way below the flames. What was I afraid of? If people knew, of course. So I let him turn them on, watched, kept my mouth shut. He turned them all on, went over to the table, stood on a chair and looked at them (he was so far below the flame he couldn't see them standing by the stove). How old was he? Less than sixteen months. Did this for a while, then a couple of times the next day, and that was all, never "played" with them again except to turn one on when he saw me getting a pan out to cook something in. Or after Faith was born to turn them on for himself, when he wanted to cook something. No, one other time when he was much older and his friend was over he thought it was funny to turn them on and see how afraid his friend became.
In Chapter 9, Serious Play, Holt looks at the importance of a rich fantasy life for children and urges parents to encourage fantasy play and stories. Holt writes:
Children's fantasy is useful and important to them for many reasons, but above all because it is theirs, the one part of their lives which is wholly under their control. We must resist the temptation to make it ours. We must also resist the equally great temptation to think that this part of children's lives is less important than the parts where they are doing something "serious"- reading, or writing, or doing schoolwork, or something that we want them to do."
There are more good unschooling letters in Chapter 10, Learning Without Teaching. Holt recounts a story of playing stick ball with an eight year old friend and how really proud he is of himself for *not* offering any unsolicited coaching.

It is in Chapter ten (page 229) Holt writes the often quoted lines, "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 children 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. Ask questions to find out something about the world itself, not to find out whether or not someone knows it."

Chapter 11, Learning Difficulties, is a wonderful chapter. Here, Holt makes a strong connection between anxiety, especially anxiety caused by school and school pressures, and learning difficulties. For parents who've been told by the school that a child has learning difficulties or for any parent who doesn't understand the need for deschooling, this is an incredibly important chapter.(Excerpts linked below.)

In Chapter 12, Children and Work, Holt writes about the importance of finding meaning in life. He writes, "People get smart by giving constant attention and thought to the concrete details of daily life, by having to solve problems which are real and important, where getting a good answer makes a real difference, and where Life or Nature tells them quickly whether their answer is good or not."

Several chapters at the end are about court cases, legal and legislative strategies. It's fairly dry reading but there are good points in there. While I think the number of families dealing with the courts over homeschooling issues is considerably smaller than it was twenty four years ago, some of the points made in these arguments might come in handy as a defense against meddling family members. And there is a chapter about schools which also touches on teacher training that I found of little interest since my son isn't in school. If there are readers still hopeful about school reform (I am not) they may find more in that chapter than I found. It's all good, clear Holt writing though, and worth the time of reading it, but the very best of this book is the letters in the middle chapters and in Holt's ideas about them.

Deb Lewis

You can read excerpts from Chapter 11 on visual perception, problems discerning left and right, or effects of anxiety.

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