Introduction to Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better

Patrick Farenga's introduction to the 2004 edition of
Instead of Education:  Ways to Help People Do Things Better by John Holt

This is a time for zeal in education reform, and it knows no bounds. Newsweek reports, “More than a third of the state legislatures have passed laws mandating testing that emphasizes achievement in basic skills.” Cries for, “’More, tougher tests!,’ ‘Higher standards!,’ and ‘Back to Basics!’” are being made all across the political spectrum. All political parties agree that education is in need of serious overhaul, but they still urge their people to support the cause of public schooling, value a four-year college education, and work hard to purchase more and more years of schooling for their children. The time is 1976, but it could easily be today.

Holt had his ear to the ground and felt during the seventies that a significant number of people were practicing or seeking ways to help children learn that were not supported by the school establishment, but which Holt advocated and sought to support.  If anything, the situation has intensified since Holt described it, and his solution, in Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better in 1976. The number of years spent in school and the number of tests our children must pass have all increased since then. The cost of four years of college is now a mountainous debt to many, and the value of a high school diploma is trying to be shored up by educators through “high stakes testing” as I write in 2003. Feeling that arguing against these trends was futile since most adults feel school should be difficult for children, Holt decided to offer concrete options to those who wanted to explore them. In doing so, Holt was also able to foresee and nurture the homeschooling movement in detail before any one else. He used his powers of observation, passionate and wide-ranging reading, New England Yankee inclinations, and friendships and travels that put him in touch with thousands of schools, politicians, activists, teachers, students, children, parents, and writers in the course of his life. Yet many people are not aware of the work of John Holt.

John Holt was a conventional fifth-grade private school teacher during the fifties, but, to paraphrase him, he kept wondering, “I teach, but the kids aren’t learning. What’s going on?” Eventually Holt finds his answer and describes it at length in his first and most popular book, How Children Fail. Holt determines he, as teacher, is more-often-than-not getting in the way of children's’ learning. Rather than nurturing learning, the teacher’s presence and questions often inhibit learning in children, making them think more about what the teacher wants rather than the actual subject at hand. When Holt changed his teaching to reduce stress and interference with the children, he, the school, and parents noted better results. However, as described here and in his other books, parents and teachers asked that he make his classes less enjoyable for the children because learning, like the real world, “just isn’t all fun and games.”  When he realized the depth of support for this view among school officials and parents, Holt then figured out how he could help learners without using schools. Holt  felt for many years that living and learning are ripped asunder by our concepts of education; Instead of Education is his attempt to demonstrate ways and reasons to reunite them.

Holt reflected a great deal about the purpose and goals of compulsory schooling. He  studied this subject with Ivan Illich and other scholars in the seventies, and he filtered these ideas through his own experience. Holt moved from classroom reformer, to school reformer, to social reformer, because he realized more and more that schooling is not the same as education, nor is education the same as learning. Holt’s definition of education and his disdain for conventional schooling can be harsh. Holt’s prose is deliberately provocative, a plainspoken analysis of education written for a mass market audience, not a fussy, academic paper written for policy-makers.

"I choose to define it here as most people do, something that some people do to others for their own good, molding and shaping them, and trying to make them learn what they think they ought to know. Today, everywhere in the world, that is what “education” has become, and I am wholly against it. People spend a great deal of time—as for years I did myself—talking about how to make “education” more effective and efficient, or how to do it or give it to more people, or how to reform or humanize it. But to make it more effective and efficient will only be to make it worse, and to help it do even more harm. It cannot be reformed, cannot be carried out wisely or humanely, because its purpose is neither wise nor humane."

Though Holt rejects education as terminally ill, he still provides many examples of schools and teachers that he approves of in this book. He found hope in the individual examples of schools and groups working with children, and he urges parents and teachers who wish to create more humane schools to do so if they can. However Holt’s eyes were on a different goal: not just alternative schools, but alternatives to school.

After arguing why we need to change our concept of education, Holt then explicitly outlines other ways to help people do things better.  The sorts of laws, attitudes, and learning situations needed to bring about this change are examined throughout Instead of Education. He cites many current (circa 1976) examples, but they aren’t hard to imagine for us in the 21st century because they are commonly used by homeschoolers today: eschewing school schedules for personal learning schedules; enrolling in independent study programs; taking individual courses at different schools and community colleges; using community resources such as pools and playgrounds for meetings and group play, attending learning centers, museums, concerts, lecture series at colleges and libraries; creating new local resources, such as learning exchanges and local environmental protection groups. Holt described these and many more such places, and why and how they could be supported in the near future, in this book.

As far as I can tell from the reviews I read of the original edition, he was dismissed, at best, as a dreamer by critics and academics, for suggesting that children can become well-educated without attending schools and formal programs. But Holt did more than dream in this book. He suggests strategy, tactics, and resources to create “an Underground Railroad” to help children escape from compulsory schools, and he urges parents to keep their children out of school legally or in defiance of the law.  Though he spends time in Instead of Education describing public and private businesses and institutions that work well for learners, Holt also spends much time describing how people can learn without any such support.

Holt understood just how pervasive the modern concept of education had become. Today schools, colleges, athletic and arts programs, TV shows, drug and auto manufacturers, hospitals, funeral homes, and malls everywhere advertise programs to educate us about our needs and their services. “Curricular marketing” is a big concept in business today, a system for treating relationships with customers as measurable corporate learning opportunities. Certification programs exist for everything from palm reading to resume writing; some operated by the government, most by private accrediting agencies. We are a credential-mad, diploma-laden culture, slowly turning the world into a classroom, a situation Holt dreaded.

"It is clear now, as it was not at first, why Illich reacted with such horror to my saying that we should push the walls of the school building out further and further. That seemed at the time a good enough way to say that we should abolish the distinction between learning and the rest of life. Only later did I see the danger that he saw right away. Think again about the global schoolhouse, madhouse, prison. What are madhouses and prisons? They are institutions of compulsory treatment...
A global schoolhouse would be a world, which we seem to be moving toward, in which one group of people would have the right through our entire lives to subject the rest of us to various sorts of tests, and if we did not measure up, to require us to submit to various kinds of treatment, i.e. education, therapy, etc., until we did. A worse nightmare is hard to imagine."

The private school and homeschooling movements have grown by remaining independent of the bureaucracy, mandatory testing, strict curricula, and teaching methods of conventional schools, and they are thriving. The explosive growth of homeschooling, in particular, shows how Instead of Education’s ideas are sound about how children can learn without going to school or following conventional schooling patterns. The wide variety of curricula, methods, and ideologies that comprise the homeschooling movement are testament to both Holt’s hopes and fears, however. It is good to have such a wide choice, but the pressure to select from conventional products and their schedules increases with more people and products entering the marketplace, and the inclination to do-it-yourself becomes marginalized. To use terminology from recent research, “independent homeschooling” may be giving way to “enrolled home study students.”

As I write this introduction, educators are still viewing higher standards and more testing as the holy grails of school reform, the same reforms we are presented with after another national report proclaims “Our Nation At Risk” or “No Child Left Behind.” Technology and social conditions have changed our homes, work places, and lives for better and worse, in the course of the past 160 years. Education, its concepts, purposes, laws, and general operation in our schools, remain largely the same now as they did in the late nineteenth century. The concepts of grade level; self-contained classrooms; learning upon command; breaking the fabric of knowledge into units of study, dividing art from science, history from literature; focusing on competitive grades as measurements of academic achievement, the places, people, and rules of study, and, in particular, school’s compulsory nature, remain largely unchanged since the days of Horace Mann.

Forcing people to do things is rarely the best way to help them learn and become a team player. By most accounts, the U.S. military has raised the caliber of its troops by only taking volunteers; the compulsory army recruit is considered now only in dire times. Yet our schools cling to their power to force attendance despite all evidence that kids can learn elsewhere. Some criticize Holt for his conviction, described in this book, that his submarine service is a model of a good learning society, because, of course, military service was compelled in World War Two. “How could a good learning society be compulsory in nature?” argue the critics. However, Holt’s example is instructive. He volunteered to join the Navy, and the submarine service in particular, thereby proving his point about how people will seek worth work doing even if it is difficult, rather than being compelled to do so.

Holt saw and worked to create a learning society in our culture, a society that welcomed its young into daily life whenever possible. He withstood lots of criticism from his former school reform allies, and many teachers, who could not believe he had given up on schooling and education. But as this book makes clear, Holt never gave up on schools or other places where people can learn, just on our conventional notions of school and education. Instead of Education is a major step towards what Holt described later in 1983, “ A life worth living, and work worth doing—that is what I want for children (and all people), not just, or not even, something called “a better education."