As often happens, his lecture rambled, following the convolutions of his thoughts.
He has a high, flat voice, and he spoke slowly, at times stopping dead in mid-sentence
to better collect his thoughts. He talked about the failure of schools and the future
of homeschooling, using phrases that were as well-worn and familiar to his devotees as
a neighborhood walking path but if they had heard it or read it all before, they
seemed not to mind it.
"We don't need to be taught how to learn: we're born knowing and wanting to.
It's our nature, our genes, our biological inheritance. The hardest thing for parents
to learn is hands-off. Teach less, not more."
"Beyond a very small dose, teaching impedes learning. The way we can help
learning is by answering their questions if and when they have them, helping them, if
and when they ask for help."
A woman stood up. "I'm a professional educator," she said, "though I
hate to say it in this room. It doesn't seem to me that public schools are to blame;
they aren't the villains."
He answered sharply. "The word 'villain' didn't come into the conversation
until you put it in. Neither did the word blame. You brought these words with
During his lunch a dark-haired woman came over. "What bothers me," she
said, "is that there seems so much chance in letting children decide what they
want to learn. Shouldn't there be an element of something more than chance?"
"Well," he said, "we disagree on the amount of chance."
"I don't know," she persisted, "I just think there is so much we can…"
He cut her off. "Fine, if that's what you think. Good. You have a right to
think it. I think something different."
The woman paused bewildered. She seemed to expect something more, but Holt's hunch
was that she just wanted to argue. After many lectures people ask him. "How can
you be so patient?" but on this day his patience wore thin. He was as he said,
"All argued out. It's a waste of time." He noticed a baby crawling in the
center of the floor. Somebody had dropped an orange and the baby was crawling towards
it. He walked over and leaned down. He wanted to see what the baby did with the
As a young man John Holt had no interest in children. He wanted to be a physicist.
He was the oldest of three children in a well-to-do family. His father was an
insurance broker who raised his children between New York City and fashionable
Connecticut commuter towns. By the ninth grade Holt was attending a prestigious New
England boarding school, and later an even more prestigious eastern university, but he
always requests that their names not be revealed.
"I no longer believe in degrees" he says, "and if I could get rid of
mine I would. I quit answering questions about my educational background a long time
ago, except to say the things I'm supposed to know so much about I never learned in
He refers to his childhood as "gloomy" and by his own account he was
unpopular in his teen years. But at boarding school he often found classmates outside
his door at exam time. The word had spread that Holt could explain how to do math and
science better than the teachers. By the time he went to college he desperately wanted
to be liked. "The more I worried and the harder I cried the less liked I seemed
to be." But at college too the lines formed outside his door for tutoring and
advice on term papers. It was in 1940 and to flunk out meant certain military duty. He
was never one to turn anybody away. "If somebody were to ask me what sort of a
name I would apply to myself," he says, "I would say, I am a problem-solver.
I like to solve my own problems and if people ask me, help to solve theirs."
He graduated from college in 1943 and was commissioned an officer on the submarine
Barbero, which he calls, "the best learning community I have ever known."
"I was 21 and this was the first real job I'd ever done. It became my job to
keep the boat in underwater balance to prepare it to dive every day."
"Once when I was officer of the deck the captain came on deck. He said,
"You know, Jack, you're not a passenger up here. You can turn this thing in a big
circle if you want to." But what he was really saying to me was, "If you
have to turn it in a circle in order to feel that you really have the power to do it;
then do it." And that ten-second sermon had a great effect on me."
The submarine sank two enemy ships in the Java Sea before it was damaged by a bomb.
On the way to Pearl Harbor after repairs, word came that Hiroshima had been destroyed
by an atomic bomb. Holt, the former physics student, thought world devastation would
be only a matter of time. He saw a solution in world government, and when he was
discharged he began working for the World Federalists in New York City.
He stayed six years, giving over 600 lectures, bombarding newspapers with letters,
and in his travels becoming an instant uncle to over 50 World Federalist families.
He toured Europe for a year after leaving the organization, and when he returned
home he visited his sister, who lived near Santa Fe. He said he was thinking of
becoming a farmer. She replied that he was wonderful with her children, so why didn't
he teach? No, he said, that didn't sound very pleasant.
But she persisted and told him to visit Rocky Mountain School near Aspen, which had
just opened. They would grow their own food; he could learn farming there.
He liked the school and stayed without pay in exchange for room and board until a
regular teacher quit and he was hired. He slept in a converted woodshop, stepping over
mounds of sawdust to reach his cot. "They gave me the bad students to
teach," he says "but it has always been from the bad students that I learned
something. You may have fun talking to the A students but you don't learn anything
about teaching from them."
Four years later he moved east to Boston. He was then 34 years old. He came to
study music and a friend offered him an apartment at the foot of Beacon Hill where
Holt has made his home ever since. He began observing a fifth grade class in an
exclusive private school.
The school hired Holt but within a year grew disenchanted by, among other things,
his insistence that testing was probably harmful to learning, and fired him. He taught
in two other private schools, but his beliefs about learning met with little favor
there either, and again he was fired.
"Schools were always a means to an end for me," he says. "I had to
work in schools in order to answer my questions on learning and children's
intelligence. But I never identified myself as a schoolteacher. So today when some
people who still want to reform schools accuse me of desertion, my feeling is that I
never signed up in that army in the first place."
Holt's friends, when asked to describe his approach to life call him
"childlike". "I am happy to say they're right," Holt says.
Sometimes, in his enthusiasm, he fails to realize that everything that happens to
him, everything he observes, may not interest others equally. "He will cook a
potato," says a friend, "and when he tells about it, it will be like he's
the first person who ever cooked a potato."
He has already made plans about how he will handle his eventual demise, an
experience he intends to take full advantage of. "I'm going to be the central
actor in the drama of my own death," he says. "I'm going to say to whoever
comes by, 'Death is the agenda here. I've done lots of other things and it's what I
have left to do. If you don't want to talk about it, don't come here.'"
Holt says, "I like listening more than talking most of the time. One of the
things I like most about visiting friends is that I get a vacation from talking."
His friends smile at this view of himself. When he visits friends he often will
talk from Friday to Sunday, spilling out ideas, describing his dreams, discussing
books and concerts. His friends will be worn from the effort to keep pace, while he
leaves invigorated. He takes his deepest quiet from music. "One of the best
things I like about my cello is that it is worthless," he says, but once after
playing a duet with a five-year-old girl, he emerged from the bathroom of his host,
yellow toothbrush protruding from his mouth, to exclaim. "We need more fun in
music. More giggles. Did you notice how her bow hand relaxed when she giggled."
"His feelings lie very close to the surface," says a friend. "When
he's with us we're either laughing or crying. Whenever he tells a story he is not just
telling it, he's reliving it for us."
He is always moved when telling of his friendship with A.S. Neill, the famed
founder of Summerhill School in England. He met Neill for the first time in 1965,
shortly after How Children Fail came out, and was to be heir to Neill's belief
that children can be trusted to learn about their world with little adult
interference. And in the crusty Scotsman who delighted in bawdy Scottish jokes told in
a thick burr, Holt had found a friend.