The Legacy of John Holt

I’m working on the final touches of a new book about John Holt that contains 16 essays about John’s lasting influence on the authors, all of whom knew John personally as colleagues, friends, or homeschoolers (both parents and children). I expect the book to come out in the next four to six weeks and I’ll announce it here when copies are for sale. It is titled The Legacy of John Holt: A Man Who Genuinely Understood, Respected, and Trusted Children.

28 years since he passed away, John’s personality and writing continue to influence those of us who were his friends and those who only know him through his writing. It shows how sound his ideas and writing are, as well as how ahead of his time he was regarding how children learn and what adults can do to help them. One of the things I hope to do with this book is break the rigid interpretation of Holt’s ideas that some unschoolers, and many teachers, have about his work, namely that all Holt is saying is provide freedom and access to the world to children and they will easily learn everything they need or want. In Aaron Falbel’s essay, “John Holt: A Man Who Saw Things Clearly,” I think we get an important clarification about this key insight of Holt’s. Here’s an excerpt about it from Aaron’s essay. What do you think about this?

In many ways, I think many people have misunderstood or misinterpreted what John Holt had to say about learning, and therefore discounted it. He was fond of saying that children were good at learning, that they don’t need to be made to learn or to be shown how, and that what we need to do is give them access to the world, to people, places, tools, resources, and so on, and as much help and assistance as they ask for, not more. I think many thought John was implying that, since children were good at learning, therefore they would learn everything they needed to know as long as they had access to it. All one had to do was to get rid of the nasty element of coercion, and then children would effortlessly and joyfully learn all the things we want them to know. But I don’t think John was saying this. He knew that there were no guarantees when it came to learning. He knew that when we try to ensure or guarantee certain outcomes, that’s when we get into trouble. In the revised edition of How Children Learn, John wrote, “All I am saying in this book can be summed up in two words: Trust Children” (p. viii). If being good at learning meant that learning would be automatic or guaranteed, then we wouldn’t need to trust children. We only need to have trust and faith in something or someone when we don’t know the outcome, when the outcome is not guaranteed, when it might not happen.

Similarly, if John Holt were alive today, I think he would be saddened by the efforts of some people who try to turn his term “unschooling” into some sort of a system, into a set of rules that must be followed. John trusted parents to learn from their experience with their children. He didn’t say, “If you’re going to call it unschooling, you’re going to have to do it my way.” He wanted them to figure out what was right for them, for their whole family. His advice and ideas were available as guidance for those who wanted it, but he didn’t want to turn unschooling into—of all things—a type of curriculum for parents. This, I feel, was to his credit. It revealed the deep humility of the man.