The teacher and author John Holt wrote this letter to Mothering magazine in Spring 1983 that neatly sums up an often unrecognized problem caused by universal compulsory schooling—too much schooling creates stupidity.
“When I (now 60) was little, nobody ever thought that children had to be TAUGHT colors and shapes. Nobody ever taught me colors and shapes. I figured them out, just as I figured out thousands of other things, by seeing what people did around me and hearing what they said about what they did, and maybe asking a question if I wanted to confirm one of my hunches.
Every year we get more and more deeply mired in the fundamentally false idea that learning is, must be, and can only be the result of teaching, in short, that ideas never get into children’s heads unless adults put them there. No more harmful and mistaken idea was ever invented. The fact, as all parents of young children can easily observe, is that children create learning out of experience and they do it in almost exactly the same way that the people we call “scientists” do it—by observing, wondering, theorizing, and experimenting (which may include asking questions) to test their theories.
The idea that, unless taught, a child might actually grow up not knowing squares from triangles or red from blue is so absurd that I hardly know what to say about it. But it is an astonishingly widespread idea.
I suppose I’m doomed to spend the rest of my life battling it. The worst thing about it is that after a while kids come to believe it themselves.”
Such attitudes about learning dominate education today: children won’t learn anything unless we teach it to them. Common Core, the latest checklist of “essential knowledge” for children, is full of concepts and facts that teachers need to implant in the minds of students, replacing the No Child Left Behind list, the Back to Basics list, and all the other curricular checklists we’ve insisted that students learn since we created compulsory schools about 150 years ago. This checklist approach to education has the effect of infantilizing children in our minds and public policies and reduces their agency in practice. John Holt observed this in his fifth-grade classrooms in the 1950s and 1960s, noting how the standard dynamics of the classroom made otherwise mature children act particularly cute and childish as a way to tease answers or favor out of a teacher, made other students into clever bluffers, and so on (see Holt’s How Children Fail for more). Holt eventually viewed his most important work as a teacher to be figuring out ways to integrate children back into adult society rather than giving them cleverly designed lessons in a classroom.
In Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (Belknap Press, 2004) Prof. Steven Mintz notes the strong domestication effect of modern education upon youth and how childrearing today minimizes risk and freedom for children in favor of adult prediction and control that limits their social interactions: “Today, connections that linked the young to the world of adults have grown attenuated. The young spend most of their day in an adult-run institution, the school, or consuming a mass culture produced by adults, but have few ties to actual adults apart from their parents and teachers.”
Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, writes in the New York Times (July 5, 2014) how our style of schooling not only infantilizes our own children, but also children in other cultures when they are exposed to it:
“The turmoil of our teenagers is due entirely to societal practices that infantilize young people and isolate them from responsible adults, trapping them in the frivolous, media-controlled world of “teen culture.” Anthropological research also demonstrates that when Western schooling and media enter cultures where teenagers are highly functional, they typically take on all the pathological characteristics of American teenagers within a decade.”
John McKnight writes and works extensively about communities and how they grow and thrive. He notes that before 150 years ago, no human social group—town, village, tribe, community—thought the best way to help young people grow into responsible adults was to isolate them (by law) from responsible adults for 13 years.
Separating the young from the old is one of the great mistakes of modern education; for centuries children were very often around adults and children of different ages and school, if they had it all, was seasonal. Universal compulsory schooling is a very recent development in human history, but we act as if it is inevitable and the best way to help children learn and grow. I agree wholeheartedly with these words by Professor Mintz in his conclusion to Huck’s Raft: “Above all, our society can provide the young with meaningful opportunities to contribute to their communities, and provide the young with adult mentoring relationships. Young Huck needs Jim as he and his little raft brave a raging Mississippi.”
It seems simple enough—let’s help children find mentors—yet in practice school has diminished our imaginations and actions to the point that most parents believe only professional teachers in professional buildings can help children learn meaningful things (namely, what is on the current education checklist). The origins of school are rooted in the industrial revolution and the checklist approach works well for mechanical processes—but people are not machines. There is plenty of research that shows our brains do not develop like computers, gaining more information as new codes are added to it by programmers, but are more like rain forests that are startlingly interconnected and work like ecosystems (“Brain forests” as Dr. Thomas Armstrong refers to them). Nonetheless, we continue to push school processes and workplace needs over child development and community, to marginalize parents and other adults from children’s education because they are not properly certified or trained by school.
Albert Einstein said, “The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.” This is why we need alternatives to school: the very process of schooling teaches us—ingrains in us—the need to be taught by others. We need policies, ways, and means that promote individual intrinsic learning more and universal compulsory schooling less. Homeschooling or sending your child to an alternative public or private school are options that can let your child grow with more independence and responsibility than conventional school permits, but there are also smaller steps you can take to make children welcome in your community, such as:
- Make sure your local park and other public spaces are child friendly (including your front yard). See Playborhood.
- Support a recess period of free play for children during school hours.
- Be welcoming of children and teenagers in your daily life rather than wary of them.
- Fight daytime curfew laws that banish children from public spaces during business hours.
- Support businesses and nonprofits that provide apprenticeships, internships, activities, and events for children outside of school.
- Advocate for alternatives TO school for children, not just more school.
Pat Farenga is a writer and education activist who worked closely with the late author and teacher John Holt and continues his work today as the president of HoltGWS LLC. After Holt died, Pat published Growing Without Schooling magazine (GWS) from 1985 until 2001. (GWS was the nation’s first periodical about learning without going to school, started by Holt in 1977.) The Farengas unschooled their daughters, now ages 27, 24 and 21.Pat speaks as a homeschooling expert at education conferences around the world, as well as on commercial radio and television talk shows. His media appearances include The Today Show, Good Morning America, Voice of America, Geraldo, NPR’s Learning Matters, CNN’s Parenting Today, The Dr. Drew Pinsky Show, and Fox and Friends.