The Legacy of John Holt A Man Who Understood, Trusted and Respected Children. Book Review

john holt review

The Legacy of John Holt

A Man Who Understood, Trusted and Respected Children

Edited by Patrick Farenga and Carlo Ricci  2013

Published by HoltGWS LLS, Medford, MA 02155, USA.

 ISBN-10: 1483905489. ISBN-13: 978-1483905488

Why does the subtitle of this volume speak so profoundly to us? Is it perhaps because we rarely hear such child-focussed sentiments anymore? The echoes of this great educator reverberate through this sixteen portrait text. They give colour and light to a man who influenced so many. He questioned our very basic assumptions about how children learn, the failure of schooling, the importance of self-directed learning and gave rise to the notion and birth of unschooling.

Across the developed world it is unlikely that teacher training students will ever come across John Holt other than by accident. This is such a tragedy for a man who has sold 1.5 million books since the 1960s. Even now John Holt has never gone out of print. As Kirsten Olson points out in her introduction he is understudied and basically unknown to contemporary teachers. Clearly, this book intends to help address this issue and provide an accessible preview to the themes that pervade John Holt’s main body of work.

What strikes the reader is the degree to which John Holt’s ideas influenced people. Further, on a personal level he deeply touched so many lives. We have to remind ourselves John Holt operated in the pre-digital world without the benefit of the web-based social media and tools. Letters, phone calls, talks, conversation, essays, books and journals were the order of the day. Contribution after contribution testifies to Holt’s acute ability to communicate. He was grounded in the moment and took real interest in people; he took time to be with them and to share in their activities. He was easy to be with and people enjoyed his company.

Holt lived what he believed trusting those he worked with and met. He gave this same trust to children and young people and easily earned their respect and affection. He empowered others eschewing them to explore and find their own way, to challenge the ‘expert’, to evaluate first hand and to observe for themselves. He carried this on into his writing communicating simply, avoiding the academic style which stifles the readability and power of the message. His message clearly rang a chord with so many people. In this volume Peter Bergson powerfully writes that ‘John Holt saved my life’.

Our own Roland Meighan offers a really strong opening essay exploring his ideas and analysis and Holt’s movement from trying to improve schools to supporting home-based education or unschooling. Roland surveys some of Holts’ key works identifying some authoritative quotes in his discussion. He gives much attention to Never Too Late, the most personal of Holt’s books. It accounts many aspects of his life and charts his experiences of becoming a musician. It is however, a book about education, about self-teaching and learner-managed learning. Roland was fortunate to meet John Holt. Indeed, he stayed with the Meighan’s in Birmingham during his European Conference Tour. Their last conversation led to the idea of flexischooling which Roland pursued in his book Flexischooling in 1988.

It’s typical that Holt’s own journey into music and specifically learning the cello in his later years touched so many lives. Vita Wallace and her brother Ishmael were homeschooled after their parents read Holt’s books. He later became a family friend and Vita and Ishmael ‘jammed’ with John. They subsequently became professional musicians (the Orfeo Duo) returning to John’s ‘making music comes naturally and technique can come later’ philosophy in their own teaching. (John’s cello playing features throughout the contributions.)

Two of the essays are edited versions of conversations about John Holt. We learn that he was considered King of the Renegade Philosophers. Whilst being a confirmed and committed city dweller Holt enjoyed his camping trips… life in the raw without the complications and rules of society. We learn of his sense of humour, his kindness, his physical strength, enthusiasm and eccentricity. He loved learning by doing. He travelled his own path, dancing to his own tune, being contrary and questioning. These latter characteristics carried to his mistrust of conventional medicine and his approach to the cancer that ultimately shortened his life.

Jerry Mintz met John Holt and wanted to know where he could find a school aligned with his ideas so that he might teach there. Jerry didn’t manage to locate one so he set up his own learner-centred school and enjoyed John’s support and recommendations.

Melroyd Lawrence, Holt’s editor points to his unique ability to observe and describe accurately and asserts ‘To read John’s work is to see children for the first time.’ Indeed, everything he wrote about was first-hand and all the more powerful for it.

Wendy Priesnitz charts her communications with John Holt and her parallel development in educational philosophy. She ends in a positive tone seeing the progression from Holt’s unschooling to current developments in supported self-education or open-source learning at post secondary level.

Susan and Larry Kaseman stress Holt’s contribution to the politics of schooling and homeschooling. He was there at its origins providing support, succour and practical common sense strategies. He gave confidence to families and set about giving equality to their perspectives. For those new to Holt they usefully summarise some of his Key Principles. Like other contributors they record their eternal thanks for Holt’s insight and influence on their lives.

Patrick Farenga himself writes compellingly of his experiences working for Holt Associates and then publishing Growing Without Schooling magazine. I particularly liked and concurred with his description of John Holt embracing the idea of a convivial society based on activities rather than a schooled society focussed on consumption. He also highlights Holt’s personal actions connecting to larger social change, his ability to trust people and how it was inevitably reciprocated.

John Holt puts the individual back in charge of their own lives, self-determination and self-managed learning at its core. My own life and educational experience have taught me this and I cannot disagree with the analysis. Undoubtedly John Holt’s contemporary relevance is not diminished.

I would dearly have loved to meet John Holt. Sadly that is impossible but we do have his ten key texts. These sixteen ‘windows’ on his life and work immediately prompted me to access some of the original texts and to quickly reassure myself that contemporary readers  would be able to find them. Indeed they can and after reading this book I’m sure they will want to know more. To that end this is a timely volume and an eminently good time to revisit him. It’s wonderful to have John Holt speaking to us again through the decades.  Figures like Holt are sadly missing from the current scene.

Peter Humphreys is Chair, trustee and a director of the Centre for Personalised Education – Personalised Education Now. Peter spent 25 years as a primary teacher, 10 years as Headteacher. Since that time he has worked as an educational consultant covering roles in local authority advisory service, BECTA (the government agency promoting ICT) and Futurelab. He currently works for Birmingham City University with teacher education. Peter researches, edits, writes and publishes in the CPE-PEN Journal, CPE-PEN website and blog.

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