In Remembrance: John Holt
September 14, 2015, marks the 30th anniversary of John Holt’s death and I’ve been conflicted as to what to write about it. I wanted to mention his writing and how prescient he was at identifying the growth of school as a technocratic enterprise that tightly controls children and their behavior; how he recognized the deep educational value of free play and self-determination for children; how he noted how adult anxieties interfere too much with children’s development in school and out; how he turned away from reforming classroom schooling and focused his thoughts and work on the social contexts of learning and how education operates in society and our lives, not just in educational institutions. As I thought about this anniversary I went through various books and files for inspiration and I came across the documentary slide show we created for the Growing Without Schooling 20th anniversary conference in 1997. You can see the A Life Worth Living video on the GWS YouTube channel that I linked to this site.
We sold this as a DVD for a bit and then it went out of existence, so to speak, and I’m happy to bring it back to the public. Many of the photos and video snippets are online already, but I think they congeal into a unique story about John Holt's life and work in this presentation. John took many of the photos that you see and the cello playing at the beginning is by John, too. In writing the script I tried to use John's own words as much as possible, as well as his own voice from various recordings, to give an accurate picture of him as a person and how his vision and ideas for reforming education changed as he grappled with the realities of complacent institutions and adult resistance to viewing children as natural, eager learners.
Fortunately, I came across something George Dennison (The Lives of Children: The Story of the First Street School) wrote that captures my feelings and thoughts about John Holt today, and I’d like to share it with you. Dennison was one of John’s favorite writers about education, and a dear friend of his. He wrote this for us to read at John’s memorial service.
In the last weeks of his life John spent eight days with us at our home in Maine. Something happened one day that gave me a glimpse of the very heart of his life. He was so weak he could walk only a few steps at a time and with canes. It was beautiful weather. I took him driving to see the views from certain hills—long views of wooded slopes, fields, streams, our large river, and several ponds. Again and again he said, “How beautiful it is!” He was sitting beside me in the front seat. We drove on and he began to talk about his work. “It could be such a wonderful world,” he said, “such a wonderful place.” His body began to shake and he dropped his head, crying uncontrollably—but he kept talking through the sobs, his voice strained and thin. “It’s not as if we don’t know what to do,” he said, “We know exactly what to do, and it would work, it would work. They’re going to wreck it.”
We do all have feelings of this kind, but not many people, at the end of life, would feel this heartbroken passion for the world itself. It seemed to me that the deepest and most sustaining things in John’s character had been revealed in that moment. And like so much in his work they were rare and fine.
To learn more about John Holt’s life: