History of Homeschooling

John Holt and GWS

John Holt

One name written large in the history of homeschooling is that of the widely acclaimed author, relentless education reformer, and respected social critic, John Caldwell Holt. His great legacy is the homeschooling movement itself, which, without his considerable guidance and patient nurturing during its most formative years, would today be a horse of a very different color.
At the website www.holtgws.com there is an essay titled “Who Was John Holt?”, which begins with a brief overview of his early life:

John Holt was born on April 14, 1923 in New York City, the oldest of three children, and raised in the New England area of the US. He went to private schools, but he chose not to reveal the names of the schools he attended because he felt that was irrelevant. He said, ‘… the things I’m supposed to know so much about I never learned in schools.’ He served on a submarine in the Pacific during World War II and worked for World Federalists after the end of the war.

John Holt describes what happened next in an interview for The Mother Earth News magazine, conducted by Pat Stone, in July/August 1980:

I spent six years working for the World Federalists, an outfit that was trying to stop the proliferation of atomic weapons. Then I traveled around Europe, crewed my way back home on a former Coast Guard patrol boat, and–after that–went to visit my sister and her husband on their small cattle ranch near Taos, New Mexico. I didn’t know what to do next . . . but I thought that maybe I’d become a farmer, and raise food in a manner that would help build the soil.

My sister suggested that–since I enjoyed children and they liked me–I might want to become a teacher. I didn’t take to that idea at all, though. Oh, I wasn’t particularly critical of schools or education, as I am now . . . teaching just didn’t seem to me to be appealing work. But my sister persisted. She told me about the new Colorado Rocky Mountain School, where–it was planned–the faculty and students would build their own buildings and raise a lot of their food. She went on to suggest that, if I worked there, I might learn some of the skills I’d need in order to farm . . . and I’d get paid at the same time.

So I went to visit the school. I sat in on classes, answered students’ questions, kicked a soccer ball around, and–by the end of the day decided that the institution was a good place for me to work.

John Holt worked at the school for four years, then moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts and began teaching fifth grade math in an elite private school. Since starting to teach, Holt had written many letters about what he was observing in schools, and when friends suggested that he assemble the letters into a book, he did so in 1964, titling it How Children Fail. It has since become a cornerstone of educational theory.

In 1967 Holt published How Children Learn, which grew out of his keen observations of the babies and young children of his family and friends, and later observations of the young schoolchildren he was working with. One of his most important points was the many subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which children’s personalities were changed once they began formal schooling. Holt showed how children are born learners, and the book quickly became a classic reference in child development.

Together How Children Fail and How Children Learn sold over a million and a half copies and were translated into fourteen languages.

Holt eventually decided that schools could not be reformed and so spent his remaining years writing about how children could learn without conventional schooling. His 1976 book Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better recommended an underground railroad to help children escape from compulsory schooling. Patrick Farenga wrote an essay for the education journal Paths of Learning in 1999, titled “John Holt and the Origins of Contemporary Homeschooling,” in which he explained how Holt founded the newsletter Growing Without Schooling in August, 1977, after the release of Instead of Education:

In this book, Holt proposed removing children from school legally or as an act of civil disobedience. While the education establishment barely recognized this particular book of Holt’s, it struck a chord with some parents. Some wrote to Holt explaining that they were teaching their children at home legally, others that they were doing so underground. Some were rural families, some city dwellers, others were in communes. Intrigued, Holt corresponded with them all and decided to create a newsletter that would help put these like-minded people in touch with one another.

John Holt’s passion for children and learning never flagged, even as his focus changed over the years from reforming schools to simply helping parents find ways to help their own children. In 1983 Delacorte Press published a revised edition of How Children Learn, and John Holt provided many new excerpts which reflected his later thinking about children and learning and schools. One particularly illuminating passage is this paragraph, in which he shares his keen disappointment and perhaps a bit of frustration:

“….This book did not change, as I hoped it might, the way schools deal with children. I said, trust them to learn. The schools would not trust them, and even if they had wanted to, the great majority of the public would not have let them. Their reasons boil down to these: (1) Children are no good; they won’t learn unless we make them. (2) The world is no good; children must be broken to it. (3) I had to put up with it; why shouldn’t they? To people who think this way, I don’t know what to say. Telling them about the real learning of real children only makes them cling to their theories about the badness and stupidity of children more stubbornly and angrily than ever. Why do they do this? Because it gives them a license to act like tyrants and to feel like saints.”

Much more typical of John Holt’s eloquent and almost musical writing is this beautiful affirmation of childhood itself, from the same revision:

“… What is lovely about children is that they can make such a production, such a big deal, out of everything, or nothing … All that energy and foolishness, all that curiosity, questions, talk, all those fierce passions, inconsolable sorrows, immoderate joys, seem to many a nuisance to be endured, if not a disease to be cured. To me they are a national asset, a treasure beyond price, more necessary to our health and our very survival than any oil or uranium or name what you will…”

Growing Without Schooling

From Growing Without Schooling Issue 1, Aug. 1977:
“This is the first issue of a newsletter, about ways in which people, young and old, can learn and do things, acquire skills, and find interesting and useful work, without having to go through the process of schooling. In part, it will be about people who, during some of their growing up, did not go to school, what they did instead, and how they made a place for themselves in the world. Mostly, it will be about people who want to take or keep their children out of school, and about what they might do instead, what problems come up, and how they cope with these.”

Also in that first issue, John Holt shared observations about social change (“In starting this newsletter, we are putting into practice a nickel and dime theory about social change, which is, that important and lasting social change always comes slowly, and only when people change their lives, not just their political beliefs or parties.”), letters from his friends and correspondents, news items, subscription and promotional information, and his own continuing essays and commentary about children and learning.

GWS grew slowly at first, but in late 1978, after an appearance on The Phil Donahue Show, Holt received over 10,000 letters from people interested in taking their children out of school. In GWS #24 (available online at www.unschooling.com) Holt writes about those heady times:

“Many exciting things have happened since the last issue. As many of you know, on Oct. 28 Brigitta and Peter Van Daam (RI) and their three children, and Joyce and Dick Kinmont (UT) and their seven children appeared with me on the Donahue show. Also on the show were a number of Chicago area home schooling families who had managed to get in the studio audience. All the families spoke eloquently and convincingly about home schooling, and the older children, Andrea Kinmont and Julia Van Daam, were the strongest argument of all; they certainly disposed of the notion that home schooled children would somehow be out of place in the “Real World.” After the show, I taped a one-hour radio show on WFMT with my old friend Studs Terkel, whose program is heard all over the country.

“On Sept. 30, Eileen and Spencer Trombly (CT), their daughter Sarah, and I appeared on the nation-wide TV show “Good Morning, America.” The format of the show only gave us about seven or eight minutes to speak our piece. Nevertheless, I heard later from my publishers that our segment created the largest response (phone and mail) that “Good Morning, America” has ever received.

“Then on Nov. 3, 12-year-old Holly Hillestad (MN) and I taped the CBS-TV news show, “Up To The Minute,” with two other guests taking the opposing side and Harry Reasoner as host. One of our “opponents,” former U.W. Commissioner of Education Ernest Boyer, said that he thought that families who wanted to teach their own children should be allowed to do so – an important concession.

“Later that same week a writer and a photographer from People magazine came to the office to do an interview with me and, the next day, with the Maher family in Wakefield. The writer, who was very sympathetic and well-informed, taped at least eight hours of talk, and for the magazine’s editors to boil all this down to a People-length story will take some time.

“Meanwhile, the December ’81 issue of Yankee magazine has a very good article about me by my friend Mel Allen. One of the nicest things in it is a wonderful photo, taken by another friend, Ed Braverman (who took the cover photo for Never Too Late), of six-year-old Vita Wallace and me playing violin and cello.

“Along with all this I have done live telephone radio interviews with stations in Oklahoma City, Washington, Toronto, Grand Rapids, Boston, San Francisco, and Detroit. Most of these shows were excellent. These shows give other home school organizations a chance to make themselves known – for example, Pat Montgomery called in to the Detroit show to tell about her Home Based Education Program. There are thousands of these radio shows around the country; let’s use them as much as we can.”

Teach Your Own

In 1981 Holt collected much of the material from GWS into the only book he ever wrote which was specifically about homeschooling, titled Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education (Delacorte, 1981. Revised and updated by Patrick Farenga, Perseus 2003). In that book Holt explained his thinking about the word ‘homeschooling’:
“…I have used the words “home schooling” to describe the process by which children grow and learn in the world without going, or going very much, to schools, because those words are familiar and quickly understood. But in one very important sense they are misleading. What is most important and valuable about the home as a base for children’s growth into the world is not that it is a better school than the schools but that it isn’t a school at all. It is not an artificial place, set up to make “learning” happen and in which nothing except “learning” ever happens. It is a natural, organic, central, fundamental human institution, one might easily and rightly say the foundation of all other institutions.”

GWS was published continuously until December, 2001, sixteen years after John Holt passed away. At that time the staff of Holt Associates sent a letter to its readership and friends, which said, in part, “In running an operation like Holt Associates – one that is more about spreading ideas than about making money – there is always an inherent tension between trying to make information and support available to people who need it and trying to meet the expenses involved in doing that work. Some of the ways we’ve tried to cut our expenses and increase our income over the years have worked, but ultimately this has not been enough to sustain the entire enterprise.”

After 143 issues filled with insights, opinions, networking, experiences, court cases, essays, legal findings, questions, answers, legislative actions, discussions, book excerpts and so much more, Growing Without Schooling stopped publication. The loss to the homeschooling community was keenly felt, and the void its passing left has never been filled.

GWS Online

In a review of the book Growing Without Schooling: Record of a Grassroots Movement, award-winning teacher and author John Taylor Gatto described GWS as, “A record of grassroots human accomplishment in the face of pedagogical theories which deny that such events are even possible…”
A record of grassroots human accomplishment… That is the beauty – and the genius – of Growing Without Schooling. In an effort to help preserve that record we at Home Education Magazine have been working for some time now with Patrick Farenga, President of Holt Associates and an old and dear friend, to make all of the copies of GWS available online at our unschooling.com web site. HEM General Manager Mary Nix has been editing (presentation only, not content) and uploading the issues for several weeks as I write this, and Patrick sent a letter introducing the issues, which says in part:

“Posting issues of Growing Without Schooling magazine (GWS) online is exhilarating to me, and a bit sad. Exhilarating because I am excited that a new audience of children and adults will be able to read these issues almost exactly as they were published nearly thirty years ago. Sad because their posting achingly reminds me of the loss of my friend and mentor John Holt, and because they mark a fascinating period of my own life that is now considered ‘historic.’

“…Bringing these issues to the Internet is a group effort. I am using old hardware to find materials that were saved on magnetic tape, single-sided 400K disks, and Olivetti word processing floppy disks to recreate the back issues, so we will be posting the issues according to their ease of retrieval rather than as a chronological project. The Hegeners, Mary Nix, and their assistants are patiently formatting and posting the issues as I pull them out from the archives. I hope to post issues that have been out of print the longest first.”

The staff and management of Home Education Magazine are thrilled to be making this important homeschooling publication available for anyone to read free online. Patrick notes, “If you want to actually own and hold an issue of GWS in your hands, you can still purchase a few original back issues of GWS from www.FUN-Books.com.”

Whether you read them on your computer at www.unschooling.com or order a few back issues to read from the original print, we hope you will find time to read these wonderfully encouraging and still very empowering issues of homeschooling’s very first publication.

© 2006, Helen Hegener