In Honor of an Education Heretic

Many American homeschoolers are probably unfamiliar with Dr. Roland Meighan, who died on January 20, 2014, but he was an important and wonderful person whose work should be more widely known. Roland admired the work of John Holt and he reached out to me in the mid 1980s, offering his help to spread the word about alternatives to school. Since then we stayed in touch, sharing our publications with each other and promoting each other’s efforts as best we could across the Atlantic. The Internet now makes the transatlantic journey easier and you can find many of Roland’s articles and books at Educational Heretics Press.

Roland is also the author of Volume 5 of the Continuum Library of Educational Thought, John Holt (2007). I like Roland’s opening sentence in this book: “John Holt is a rare writer about education because he brought about changes not only in schools but also in our homes.” Roland always grasped the importance of personal relationships in the learning process and wrote often how homeschoolers are being prepared for the modern world in ways conventionally schooled children are not. For instance, this is from his book written in 1997, The Next Learning System: And Why Homeschoolers Are Trailblazers (Educational Heretics Press).

“The flexibility of learning methods most families adopt and the varied curriculum that emerges, turn out to match the logistics of such things as the catalogue curriculum, multiple intelligences, and the variations in personal learning styles, leading to the flexibility of behaviours and mind that the modern world demands.”

Roland and John Holt stayed in touch by mail and eventually met in England a year before John died. Peter Humphries writes in Personalized Education Now (one of the publications Roland helped found) about discussions that Roland and John had in 1984: “In Dr. Meighan’s conversations with John Holt, John re-iterated his proposal that schools could be invitational rather than based on conscription (likened to ‘day prison’).” This idea became a focus for Roland and his pioneering work with it is known as Flexischooling.

I asked Roland Meighan to write the introductory chapter for The Legacy of John Holt not only because he knew John personally, but also because of his wide range of experience and knowledge about learning outside of school. I knew that Roland would be able to succinctly describe the development of Holt’s ideas, place them in the context of their times, and apply them to current-day education issues; his chapter is a beautiful portrait of Holt’s work. Here is how Roland described himself in his biography at the end of this chapter, written about seven months before he died:

Dr. Roland Meighan is an acknowledged Educational Heretic for his view that mass compulsory schooling is an obsolete, counter-productive learning system which abuses human rights and that it should be phased out as soon as possible. Schools should be recycled as part of a flexible learning system which is invitational and learner-directed. He is author of more than ten books and has been translated into twelve languages. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, Director of Educational Heretics Press, Director/Trustee of the Centre for Personalised Education Trust Ltd., and formerly Special Professor of Education at the University of Nottingham, UK.

I had the good fortune to meet Roland and Janet Meighan in London at a homeschooling conference in the late 1990s. Reading his self-description above, I remember that Roland came across to me similarly in person: sharply insightful, empathic, and action-oriented. These are all qualities that are lacking more and more in the world of education, which just gives us more of the same insights and actions—as reading any of Roland’s work from the 1980s (or Holt’s from the 1960s and 1970s!) will confirm. Roland believed that educational freethinking is the way to break out of the school reform rut we are in and he firmly believed, like Holt, that by involving families and/or children directly in how, when, where, and from whom they want to learn we can make schools better. If the schools won’t listen, at least people in the UK and elsewhere can still take action and choose natural learning. Roland writes at the end of his book Natural Learning and the Natural Curriculum (Education Heretics Press, 2001):

“Congratulations must be offered to those teachers, and sometimes whole schools, who manage, despite the odds, to maintain some kind of oasis in the general desert. But it is the long tracts of desert with which I am concerned. “One of the propositions of this book is that this is a consequence of abandoning natural learning and the natural curriculum. In its place have been imposed false and shallow learning and the largely junk State curriculum.

“We can stop all this. It has been pointed out many times that mass coercieve schoooing is NOT a fact of nature. Humans invented in about 150 years ago, and if it is no good, or has outlived any useful purpose, WE CAN SCRAP IT and devise learning arrangements and places that are convivial and far removed from places for miserable rule followers. Adapting the catch phrase of a popular TV series, ‘we have the technology and know-how—we can redesign it.’

“But we shall need a serious radical re-think to do this. Tinkering with an obsolete and counter-productive system will not do it. Returning to the principles of natural learning looks like a big step forward.”