John Holt
Teach Your Own
Delacorte Press, 1981

From Chapter 11, Learning Difficulties


We can tell a good deal about the competence of a particular group of experts by the kinds of research they do or do not do.

In World War I we first began to see evidence that prolonged anxiety, stress, and fear can have great destructive effects on the human nervous system. The trenches were a kind of satanic laboratory of stress. More soldiers than ever before lived for much longer times than ever before in cold and wet, under the constant threat of death, often under continuous heavy bombardment. Under these conditions many suffered a disorder which doctors called "shell shock." Some became totally blind, or deaf, others became paralyzed, shook all over, lost all control over their muscles and limbs. The authorities first suspected faking, but it was soon clear that these soldiers were not faking. The only cure for these ailments, which in many cases looked like "physical" disorders, was to take these men out of stress, away from the front. After some time in a safe and calm place, they regained to varying degrees their sight, hearing, and use and control of their limbs. Many were even able to go back to the front.

In World War II this happened again. Many of the British troops who spent days on the beaches at Dunkirk, under continuous bombardment from both guns and planes, broke under this stress in exactly the same way. The doctors of World War II called their condition "psychoneurosis." The cure was basically the same - to remove the afflicted men from the scene of stress and danger.

In the years since then, all kinds of other evidence has begun to accumulate that stress can cause what seem to be physical disabilities. In my own work I began to see, not only among the children I taught, but in myself as I struggled for the first time to learn a musical instrument, that anxiety could make it much harder for the children, or myself, to think, to remember, or even to see. In "How Children Fail" I described how one day, under pressure, I totally lost for a short time the ability to see meaningfully. Five years later, in "The Lives of Children" (New York: Random House, 1969, George Dennison described in the most painful and almost clinical detail, the effects of stress and fear on one of his pupils.

So it was reasonable to suppose, when educators began to claim that some children might be having trouble learning because of "perceptual handicaps," that they might look for possible connections between such inferred handicaps and children's fears and anxieties. As far as I have been able to learn, very few of them have yet done so.

Not long ago I was one of many speakers at a large conference of specialists in "learning disabilities." Before more than a thousand people I reviewed the evidence for a connection between anxiety and perceptual or other learning disorders. I spoke of the medical experience of two world wars, and of my own experience as a teacher and as a beginning learner of music. The I asked for a show of hands response to this question: "How many of you have hear of - only heard of- not done- any research on possible connections between perceptual handicaps in children and their anxiety, however measured? How many have heard of any research to find whether and to what degree lowering measurable anxiety in children might lessen the incidence of perceptual handicaps?"

In that roomful of over a thousand experts in this field, only two people raised their hands. What the others may have known, I do not know. But only two raised their hands.

I asked what they knew. One told me of research I had long known about, done by a man who, at least until very recently, had no degrees in psychology and no standing whatever in the educational "establishment." He had found high correlations between children's anxieties and perceptual handicaps, and that lowering the anxieties did indeed greatly lower the incidence of such handicaps. (He also found that diet was very important.)

The other man who raised his hand did not speak. But later, he wrote me a letter. He is, and has been for some time, a professor of education at a leading university in the very city in which this conference was held. He too had suspected the kind of connection I talked about. He then had worked out a way of teaching reading that he thought might lessen this anxiety, had used this method to teach a group of students officially labeled "perceptually handicapped," and had found that after quite a short time in his class, in the opinion of their regular teachers, his students were much less handicapped than they had been before. This I would add, in spite of the fact that his classroom was nowhere as stress-free as others I have known, or as he himself might have made it if he had not been under pressure to show some fairly quick results.

There were other questions I have asked at other places and times, but did not think to ask there. When I first heard that boys were supposed to be four or five times as likely to have "perceptual handicaps" or "learning disabilities" as girls, I asked in a letter published in a national magazine whether any research had been done to look for possible connections between this four -or five-to-one ratio and the sex of the teacher. I have yet to hear of any. And it would surely be interesting to see what connections there might be between the incidence of "perceptual handicaps" in children and measurable anxiety of their teachers. But again, as far as I know, no such research has been done.

Meanwhile, we have every reason to be very skeptical of the expertise of people who fail or refuse to ask such questions.

One more note about the LD conference. On one of the many tables displaying books and pamphlets were copies of a newsletter published by one of the leading LD associations. Reading one, I came across a most extraordinary sentence, in an article by a former president of the association. In it she said that LD "professionals" should insist very strongly that the causes of these disabilities were always neurological. She admitted that there was so far very little evidence to support this idea. Then she added these remarkable words: "We must not take the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence." In other words, just because there is no evidence to support our theory doesn't mean that we shouldn't continue to push it.

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