Interview With John Holt, In Context Magazine, 1984

Growing Without Schooling

Children may be more capable of competent self-directed learning than we give them credit for.

An Interview With John Holt, by Robert Gilman

This interview was done about a year before Holt died. Here is a taste of what you will read:

Robert: What you’re saying doesn’t leave much room for the sort of professional intervention that teaching has represented. If someone was in teaching but wanted to move in the direction you’re describing, is there anything that they could do?

John: I have many times talked to teachers who wanted to teach in alternative schools, or I’d meet some young guy who’d say, "I want to work with kids," so I say, well, what do you know that is so interesting that kids of their own free will will come up to you to learn how to do it. Usually they don’t have any answer at all. My reply is, you don’t want to work with kids, you want to work on kids, do things to them or make them do things that you think would be good for them.

The place to start is with something that really interests you, and then make yourself available to help others get to really do it also. There’s a guy named John Payne in Boston, a very good jazz musician, plays sax, flute and clarinet, a very gifted jazz musician. Within the last few years he’s started a little school, and most of his pupils are adults. He says if you want to play a musical instrument, forget everything you ever heard about talent. He has organized his students into what he calls the John Payne Sax Choir and they play gigs in nightclubs in places around Boston. The routine when the choir is playing is that these 30 or 40 people – all odd shapes, sizes, men, women, the youngest kids will be down around 9 years old – work up these arrangements (with John Payne’s assistance) and they fix it so that somebody who’s just starting has got very easy notes to play and the more experienced players have the hard parts. They adjust the arrangements to the skill of the players, and he and his professional jazz quartet play behind them to provide the rhythm section. He also divides the students up into small ensemble groups when they get a little better, so they’re actually doing a solo. My office friend Pat Farenga has been a jazz pianist for a number of years, and this last year he decided he wanted to play the sax. He took it up, and he’d had only 5 weekly lessons before his first appearance with the choir performing in public in a place where people come in and buy a drink and pay money to hear him! It’s just marvelous.

The philosopher wants to empower us while the expert wants to stand over us and make us dependent on him. A true teacher – and we’re all teachers, the human animal is as much a teacher as it is a learner – basically likes showing people who want to know, here, do this and do this. The essence of teaching is working yourself out of a job, getting a person to the point where they don’t need you. The home schooling movement is, of course, a marvelous paradigm of that, and that’s why it generates self-reliant learners, teachers and leaders.