The Legacy of John Holt: A Man Who Genuinely Understood, Trusted, and Respected Children will be available as an original paperback and Kindle digital edition in August 2013. Please subscribe to the newsletter or visit this site to learn when it will be available in bookstores and online.
From “Music Comes Naturally and Technique Can Come Later” by Vita Wallace
I remember waiting for John to arrive at our house in Ithaca in time for a late supper—the excitement of anticipation and sneaking an elbow noodle from the macaroni salad now and then. Nancy played the viola, I was beginning to read music, and our father was beginning to study the cello; it must have been John’s idea for the five of us to play the Mozart “G Minor Piano Quartet.” Was it ever too hard for us! Except perhaps for Ishmael. I’ve just performed it for the first time and I had the wonderful experience of “learning it from memory,” because we must have listened to it over and over again. Back then, however, even though I had a special part with only one note per measure, I was completely lost and just sat there next to Nancy on the chest that was our coffee table, listening to Ishmael spinning out strings of pearly notes. Ishmael shot ahead of the rest of our family musically and soon he and John were working on the Beethoven “A Major Cello Sonata.” The opening melody of the first movement brings John right back to me, warm and searching. . . .
. . . Perhaps John was on the couch the time he helped me with fractions because his cancer was already making him weak, but he had always liked naps. I remember bouncing around the house in New Hampshire full of the excitement of having him there, restraining myself with difficulty from running into the guest room and waking him up. He could also fall asleep sitting up, right in the middle of a conversation, which I thought was very funny. He told me that once he fell asleep standing on the court in the middle of a basketball game! John was also sweetly vulnerable in another way. In reading his letters and his book Never Too Late (1978/1991), I’m struck by the number of times he says he’s burst into tears listening to music, reading a book, or looking at a view. I remember him crying while reading us a poem in Ithaca, “Not Marble Nor the Gilded Monuments” by Archibald MacLeish (1985). I thought the poem reminded him of a girl he was in love with years before, but I may not have understood what was going on, because Ishmael says that John was reading us the poem in order to let us know that though he would die soon, a part of him would remain with us. No wonder he was crying! . . .
From “King of the Renegade Philosophers,” an interview with Nelson, Strobe, and Kirk Talbott and Alec Clowes.
Bud: Well, the camping trips go back to when my mother and father spent their honeymoon at this camp up at mile 41, which was the early centerpiece of our trips. Then after that we spread out. That’s right, Alex. You were on the first trip and maybe that was the first trip for John Holt.
Alec: That trip is vivid in my memory—we arrived and had to hike about a mile or a mile and a half from the railroad whistle stop into the Pine lakes and then paddle in our canoes to the cabin. We arrived at the cabin and we had to shake out the mattresses where mice had set up housekeeping. That evening, or one of the early evenings, we watched a magnificent display of the aurora borealis. The sky turned bright green. John, at that time, was not married to his cello. He was married to a flute and stood out at the end of a dock and started playing. I remember John and the loons competing with one another to fill that sky with sound. It was a remarkable thing. It was magical.
Bud: I remember that very well.
Alec: I think I was 10 years old. That was not the very first trip you made up there because that was the one with Berrien. So it was either 1956 or 1958—somewhere in there.
Bud: I remember that the two of you were gung ho to shoot a squirrel with a pistol.
Alec: Strobe, do you remember that little adventure? Out of sight of John, who made scathing remarks, we did get a squirrel, and we tried to cook it. I think we wound up eating raw squirrel.
Kirk Talbott: John was really kind and would look me up and go out to dinner with me when I was at Yale. John played the cello and William Sloan Coffin played the piano over brandy or some drinks in the evening a couple of times. John was starting to get into worms. He would grow worms on his patio in Boston. He was always doing these crazy things, along with weight lifting. He was one strong son of a gun. Carrying those canoes though, he would get his shirt off and be sweaty and start swearing up a storm. He’d throw a canoe and a Duluth pack on his back and charge through the woods.
Bud: We had these twerpy little kids—Alec Clowes and Strobe—so we had to have an ox in the way of John Holt to carry the canoes.
Strobe Talbott: Bud, I think you were pretty good at finding the niches on our packs and putting the next can of baked beans or whatever into them until I felt like I was going to get driven into the ground. That’s what I remember. I started out at the railroad headed to the lake and I think I barely made the first step.
By the way, Alec mentioned scathing remarks. One of the great things about John was his sense of humor. I do not think I have ever known a naturally funnier human being, although, of course, he was also a human being capable of the most serious contemplation and he had a huge intellect. And very sentimental in a lot of ways, but also contrarian. In fact, sometimes his contrariness and his sense of humor went together. You know, he loved to sort of debunk sacred cows, such as Shakespeare. For some reason it sticks in my mind. I remember conversations around the campfire at night where he made the case that Shakespeare was way over-rated as a literary figure. The kind of stuff that would have us scratching our heads, but then he would make the case, you know. An iconoclast, and he fell in love with Iceland at one point. I do not know if he ever went there.
Pat: He did.
Strobe: He decided he had had it with the United States and Iceland was the place to live. Does anyone remember that?
Alec: I do, but that was much, much later. I think that that was during the period of the Vietnam era where he was really fed up with the country.
Pat: I think that’s right. But John decided there were more possibilities, more loopholes as he told me, in the United States for living and learning as he wanted, so he decided not to become an expatriate. Strobe, you stayed with John when you were translating Khrushchev Remembers (1970). Can you tell us a little about that?
Strobe: Well, I put it this way. My wife and I—let’s see that was 1970, she wasn’t yet my wife but she was visiting me in 1970 when I was in Boston and John offered to have us come over and stay at one point and his apartment was such a mess that she did not want to spend the night there. What I remember is paper, dust, barbells, and musical stuff. Just total, total, mayhem. And we went . . .
Alec: Real bachelor’s pad.
Strobe: I’ll say—and very uninviting for the female of the species.
Alec: Subterranean, if I remember Strobe, on Chestnut Street. You had to walk down into it. It was rough and gloomy.
Strobe: We always had fun with him. He would always let us take him out to dinner and—I stress—let us take him out to dinner. I do not think John Holt ever picked up a tab.
Bud: You know that apartment. The recollection I have of that apartment was just before he died. He really went back to that apartment to die.
Strobe: Is that right? I thought he moved in with some friends, didn’t he?
Pat: Yes, he had friends take care of him while he was receiving treatment.
Bud: And a woman from England came over.
Pat: Yes, Leila Berg.
Bud: To take care of him. It was very heart-rending experience for me to see him there and realize that he was going. I had never heard of this woman before, but John picked up people that appreciated him, I think, all his life.
Strobe: Including kids, which of course is a very important part of the story. If you guys are including pictures in this book, I have got two—I have one of John playing the cello and my son Devon, who was then maybe two, playing on a little kiddie flute. But he was just wonderful with kids and they just related to him so powerfully. . . .
From "John Holt and the Politics of Homeschooling" by Larry and Susan Kaseman
In writing directly about the politics of homeschooling, John made it clear that parents have a basic right to homeschool their children. This was especially important because in the late 1970s if a family mentioned homeschooling, a common response was, “Is that legal?” John acknowledged that the state has a right to ensure that children do not grow up to be a burden on the state. But he also pointed to existing laws and court cases that support parents’ right to homeschool. For example, he cited cases in which courts have ruled “Parents have a right to educate their children in whatever way they believe in” (Holt & Farenga, 1981/2003, p. 211). He also pointed out that homeschooling was not illegal under existing laws. John’s ideas were particularly important because he was the first to develop publications for a national audience that stated that parents have a right to homeschool and that homeschooling works.
Through GWS, his book Teach Your Own (first published in 1981 and updated in 2003), and other writings, John provided parents with references to helpful statutes, court cases, critiques of conventional schools, and other materials they could use to support their right to homeschool. But even more important, John explained how parents could find such materials themselves, including outlining manageable steps for learning to use a law library. (Remember that neither John nor his readers had the benefit of the Internet.)
In describing how he found and used such information, John showed how parents can interpret this material for their family’s use. He sent the clear, strong, necessary, and inspiring message that our interpretations as ordinary citizens are as valid as the interpretations of school officials, attorneys, and others. In fact, we need to interpret this material ourselves because other people don’t have the information, perspective, understanding, and motivation that we do. The fact that our interpretations may (and often do) differ from so-called experts certainly doesn’t mean that we are wrong. In fact, John often pointed out that public officials are generally biased in favor of schools and against homeschoolers, which is all the more reason we need to be skeptical of their interpretations and develop our own. Don’t rely on what officials tell you the law requires, John wrote, read statutes and court cases and interpret them yourself.
John applied his warning to even supposedly neutral interpreters, such as people who write summaries of court cases. For example, in Teach Your Own he urged homeschoolers to read the text of court cases themselves rather than relying on the abstracts.
In short, John’s suggestions to parents for dealing with political, legal, and legislative matters paralleled his approach to ways we can help our children learn: Recognize that you have the right to do it and shoulder the responsibility yourself; recognize ways in which you are better equipped to do this than others and have confidence that you can do it. The two messages together are more powerful than either one on its own.
John’s strategies were well thought out, sensible, and practical. Let’s not spend time and energy trying to overturn compulsory school attendance laws, he advised. In the unlikely event that we succeeded, supporters of compulsory school attendance laws would quickly reinstate them.
John also modeled effective ways to communicate information to officials and the general public. He proceeded thoughtfully, respectfully, politely, but firmly. He explained key points in common-sense language many people could understand, whether or not they supported homeschooling. He addressed people’s concerns. He assured concerned legislators that the number of homeschoolers would never be very large because few parents want to spend that much time with their children, a statement that has proven to be right on target. When people expressed concerns about parents who aren’t well educated themselves and are keeping their children out of school to exploit their work, John effectively cited the old legal maxim “Hard cases make bad law.” In other words, focusing on worst case scenarios results in “laws that are long, cumbersome, difficult or impossible to enforce, and far more likely to prevent good people from doing good work than bad people from doing bad” (Holt & Farenga, 2003, p. 323). However, in addressing such concerns, John didn’t shy away from sharing his perspectives on the problems with, limitations of, and damage done by conventional schools.
John’s key principles are very important today. Here are some of them . . .
From "The Nickel and Dime Theory of Social Change" by Wendy Priesnitz
I first came across John Holt’s books How Children Fail (1964/1982) and How Children Learn (1967/1983) when I was in teacher’s college in 1968 to 1969, along with books by other school reformers. The ideas excited me, but the one-year course was so intense that I didn’t have much time to think; I was too busy memorizing the theory and writing exams, interspersed with a few weeks of practice teaching. After I graduated and got a teaching job I quickly discovered, somewhat to my surprise, that I was spending most of my time trying to motivate children who were rebelling at the coercion and bored with the out-of-context, secondhand information. After less than one school year I, too, felt rebellious and bored, and terminated my career as a schoolteacher.
Then I did what I should have done while I was attending teachers’ college: I began my self-education about how people learn by observing children. I remembered what John Holt had written about getting in the way of children’s learning. Around the same time, I met and married my husband Rolf, who agreed with me that our yet-to-be-born children wouldn’t go to school. A few years later, after much thinking and writing of my own, I picked up Escape from Childhood (1974/2013) and discovered that, as I had, John Holt had moved beyond schools. That book affirmed what I had discovered about how our culture has low expectations of and respect for children—an injustice that I hoped to circumvent as our young family explored living without school. In addition, I was encouraged that John, like me, figured this out first-hand, through observation of children, rather than by reading other people’s work or taking courses at the academy. Years later, when I was asked by an academic which writers had influenced my thinking about self-directed learning, I said—to his horror—that I’d figured it out for myself because to have done otherwise would be incongruous. So I chuckled when I read John’s comment in A Life Worth Living: The Selected Letters of John Holt (1990): “There seems to me a suggestion [. . .] that in learning about the world, other people’s books are more important than observation. With this view I most emphatically and strongly disagree” (p. 55).
In order that Rolf and I could both stay at home to facilitate our young daughters’ self-directed learning adventure, we launched a home-based publishing business and our first magazine, Natural Life, in 1976. As did many people in those early days of the modern homeschooling movement, we shared our adventure with John, mailing him some copies of the magazine and writing about our homeschooling journey. At the same time, in an attempt to connect with other homeschooling families, I also shared our family’s homeschooling status on my editorial page in Natural Life Magazine (www.naturallifemagazine.com). Then, as a way of educating both school officials and other families about the legality of homeschooling, I launched the Canadian Alliance of Homeschoolers—the country’s first support/advocacy group. Those efforts were part of a wonderful period when a small but growing number of pioneering North American homeschooling families—many of whom became homeschooling activists in their own provinces and states—came together in support and advocacy. It also led to a huge number of speaking requests for John; along with other local families, we brought him to Toronto to help spread the word about this revolutionary notion for educating children.
In early 1977, John told us about his plan to start a newsletter. He said that he found himself at the center of a growing homeschooling letter-writing network and that, since he was writing similar letters to a number of people, he thought a newsletter would be a good way to connect everyone and share ideas. He said he didn’t know anything about publishing and, since he admired Natural Life, he asked us for advice. So, by phone, Rolf outlined the basics and gave him some suggestions. . . .