John Holt (educator)

John Holt (educator)

John Caldwell Holt (April 14, 1923 - September 14, 1985) was an American author and educator, one of the best known proponents of homeschooling, and a pioneer in youth rights theory.


Soon after his graduation from university, Holt joined the United States Navy and served on board the USS "Barbero", a submarine that fought in the Pacific Ocean. During the war he came to the conclusion that nuclear weapons were the world's greatest danger, and only a world government could prevent nuclear war. After his three-year tour of duty, he got a job with the New York branch of the United World Federalists. Starting in the mail room, he became the executive director of the New York branch within six years. However, he became frustrated with the group's ineffectiveness, and he left the organization in 1952.

At the urging of his sister, Holt became a fifth grade teacher. After several years of teaching in Colorado, he moved to Boston. It was here that he met Bill Hull, a fellow teacher, and they decided to start a classroom observation project; one would teach, while the other would watch. The notes and journal entries Holt accumulated during hisfirst eleven years of teaching formed the core of two of his most popular books "How Children Fail" and "How Children Learn", as well as his less-known and more radical work, "Escape from Childhood: The Rights and Needs of Children". These three books detailed the foundational ideas of Holt's philosophy of education. He held that the primary reason children did not learn in schools was fear: fear of getting the wrong answers, fear of being mocked by the teacher and classmates, fear of not being good enough. This was worsened, he maintained, by children being forced to study things that they were not necessarily interested in.

It was 1964 when Holt published his first book, "How Children Fail". In this book, Holt asserted that the academic failure of schoolchildren was not in spite of the efforts of the schools, but actually "because" of the schools. Not surprisingly, "How Children Fail" ignited a firestorm of controversy. Holt was catapulted into the American national consciousness to the extent that he made appearances on major TV talk shows, wrote book reviews for "Life" magazine, and was a guest on the "To Tell The Truth" TV game show. ["The Old Schoolhouse Meets Up with Patrick Farenga About the Legacy of John Holt",] In his follow-up work, "How Children Learn" (published in 1967) he tried to demonstrate the learning process of children and why he believed school short circuits this process.

In neither book had he suggested any alternative to institutional schooling; he had hoped to initiate a profound rethinking of education to make schools friendlier toward children. As the years passed he became convinced that the way schools were was what society wanted, and that a serious re-examination was not going to happen in his lifetime.

Leaving teaching to publicize his ideas about education full time, he encountered books by other authors questioning the premises and efficacy of compulsory schooling, like "Deschooling Society" by Ivan Illich (1970) and "No More Public School" by Harold Bennet (1972) (which went so far as to offer advice to parents on how to keep their children out of school illegally). Then, in 1976, he published "Instead of Education; Ways to Help People Do Things Better". In its conclusion he called for a "Children's Underground Railroad" to help children escape compulsory schooling. ["The Old Schoolhouse Meets Up with Patrick Farenga About the Legacy of John Holt" ,] In response, Holt was contacted by families from around the U.S. to tell him that they were educating their children at home. In 1977, after corresponding with a number of these families, Holt began producing a newsletter dedicated to home education, "Growing Without Schooling". ["Growing Without Schooling Website",]

Holt's philosophy was simple: "... the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don't need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it." [] It was no great leap from there to arrive at homeschooling, and Holt later said, in 1980, "I want to make it clear that I don’t see homeschooling as some kind of answer to badness of schools. I think that the home is the proper base for the exploration of the world which we call learning or education. Home would be the best base no matter how good the schools were." []

Eventually, at the age of 40, he took up the cello, and in 1979 he wrote about his experience learning to play as an adult in his book "". []

Holt continued to hope for more expansive reform within education until his death in 1985.


After many years of working within the school system, Holt became disillusioned with it. He became convinced that reform of the school system was not possible because it was fundamentally flawed. Thus, he became an advocate of homeschooling. It was not helpful, however, to simply remove children from the school environment if parents simply re-created it at home. Holt believed that children did not need to be coerced into learning; they would do so naturally if given the freedom to follow their own interests and a rich assortment of resources. This line of thought became known as unschooling.

Holt's "Growing Without Schooling" (GWS), founded in 1977, was the nation's first home education newsletter. He also set up [ John Holt's Bookstore,] which made selected books available by mail-order; this brought in additional revenue that helped sustain the newsletter, which carried only minimal advertising.

In 1981, Holt's sole book on homeschooling, "Teach Your Own", was published, and quickly became the "Bible" of the early homeschooling movement.

In addition to favoring home schooling, Holt also espoused many of the principles now taken up by the Youth rights movement, including eliminating the voting age and allowing young people to sign contracts and obtain employment.

Effects on education

The writing of John Holt has influenced thousands of individuals and organizations, including Summerhill School, The Evergreen State College, Caleb Gattegno, National Youth Rights Association, and The Freechild Project. In 1985, John Holt died of cancer at the age of 62, having written 10 books that were very influential in the development of the homeschooling and unschooling movements.



*"How Children Fail"
*"How Children Learn"
*"The Underachieving School"
*"What Do I Do Monday?"
*"Freedom and Beyond"
*"Escape From Childhood"
*"Instead of Education" (1976; 2005 edition by Sentient Publications, ISBN 1-59181-038-8)
*"Teach Your Own"
*"Learning All the Time" (1989)
*"A Life Worth Living", letters of John Holt, edited by Susannah Scheffer


Further reading

*cite book| last=Meighan| first=Roland| year=2007| title=John Holt: Continuum Library of Educational Thought| publisher=Continuum| id=ISBN 0-8264-8404-2

ee also

*John Taylor Gatto
*History of Youth Rights in the United States

External links

* [ Wikiquote - Quotes by John Holt]
* [ Holt GWS] site has good information, including an interview with Holt by Mel Allen
* [ Book excerpt: Common Objections to Homeschooling]
* [ Article: The Needs and Rights of Children: Steps to Take]
* [ John Holt— links to interviews, quotes and book summaries/reviews]
* [ How Children Learn/Fail books review] by Layla AR (2008)

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