From "L"

From Growing Without Schooling 4.

L writes about his son, saying, in part:

My wife and I did not begin with the notion that our son would not go to school. We named him Neil, after A.S., true, but assumed he would find an alternative school at age five. What we did begin with was…a conviction that we would help him in any way possible to realize his potential....Since this meant that we were available (Ed. italics)—without ever being intrusive—he quickly began to use us regularly, hourly, for learning, and we found that by the time he was two we literally couldn’t stop him from spending his day in learning. He read very well by two, and by three and four moved into continuous lessons in nature, history, science, and so on.…Here is an example: at three, in Central Park, he was looking at the pretty trees, and I mentioned that they could be distinguished from each other by type, this was an oak and that a beech, and others were like them. “Let’s make a map of all the trees in Central Park!” he said, having seen a map before. Well, normally this would have been shunted off, but since I really had been practicing what I preached we did indeed spend every day for the rest of that summer and several days a month in following summers making maps of all the trees in Central Park (almost all of it). I didn’t know much about trees, but we got a book to identify them, and one could find us every afternoon in the Park, me trudging behind my son while he shouts, “One more hill, daddy, it’s another Schwedler Norway Maple."

By the time he was 5, he was so used to getting up in the morning with the ecstatic prospect of learning all day long that I hated to disabuse him of the notion that learning was natural by sending him to school. Still I took him to a few and asked him to make his own decision and of course he said he thought it would be like going to jail which he also thought he preferred not to try. Since he was never registered anywhere, no one knew of his existence so I didn’t have to test the New York State Law which says only if home learning was “equivalent” to schooling could he legally be kept at home. (Legal research showed constant harassment of N.Y. parents who tried to prove equivalence, like saying home tutors could only be those who had N.Y. State teachers’ licenses—I found anyone with a teacher’s license to be useless as a tutor to a self-regulated child, so to this day the state still doesn’t know he exists.)

During his early years my wife and I and a couple of friends taught him all he wanted to know, and if we didn’t know it, which usually was the case, it was even better for we all learned together. Example: at 7 he saw the periodic table of elements, wanted to learn atoms and chemistry and physics. I had forgotten how to balance an equation, but went out and bought a college textbook on the subject, a history of discovery of the elements, and some model atoms, and in the next month we went off into a tangent of learning in which somehow we both learned college-level science. He has never returned to the subject, but to this day retains every bit of it because it came at a moment in development and fantasy that was meaningful to him.

(John Holt) I have underlined those words because they seem to me to answer, I would hope for all time, the question I have so often been asked by defenders of compulsory learning and compulsory schooling: “How can a child know what he needs to learn?” I have always said, but never with an example as eloquent and persuasive as this, that though the child may not know what he may need to know in ten years, he knows, and much better than anyone else, what he wants and needs to know next, in short, what his mind is ready and hungry for. If we help him, or just allow him, to learn that, he will remember it, use it, build on it. If we try to make him learn something else, that we think is more important, the odds are good that he won’t learn it, or will learn very little of it, that he will soon forget most of what he learned, and what is worst of all, will soon lose most of his appetite for learning anything.

Some might say that in helping him make that map of the trees in Central Park, L was acting as a teacher to his son. I would say that he was not so much a teacher as an energetic, enthusiastic, resourceful friend and partner. This is what children really like best. Popular children are the ones who are always thinking up interesting and exciting things to do—and they are even more popular if, when someone else suggests a good project, they willingly throw themselves into that. A child will say of another child, “Aw, he’s no fun, he never wants do anything.” L is clearly not like that.

Some might read into L’s letter the idea that learning means learning something out of a book, or having other people teach you things. I’m not sure whether L thinks that or not. I know I don’t think it. Most of what I know I was not taught, in school or anywhere else, and most of that I did not learn from books—though I love books, read a great many of them, and get a lot from them. I learn a great deal, and more every day, by seeing, hearing, and doing things, and thinking about what I see, hear, and do.