An education worth having

In 1968 John Holt wrote, in a letter to A.S. Neill, the founder of the Summerhill school in England:

Young people in this country ask me about going to college or staying in college…. I say to [them], “What do you want to do?”  If they know something that they want to do, and I do not accept the statement that they want to be a this or a that, I then say, “Well, go where somebody is doing that thing, and make yourself as useful as you can.  Go as far as you can doing this thing that you want to do, until you find, if you do, that you can go no further because of the lack of some kind of academic degree.  If you get to that spot, then the task will be to get that otherwise worthless piece of paper as quickly and cheaply and painlessly as possible.  If on the other hand you don’t know what you want to do, for heaven’s sake don’t go to college, for you won’t find out there.  Travel around, see the country, find out what kinds of things are going on, learn something about the ways in which people are dealing with the serious problems of our time.”

(From  A Life Worth Living:  Selected Letters of John Holt)

What if everyone did just what Holt recommended?  What if even 50% did it?  They took the time, found the thing they really wanted to do, did as much of it as possible and only went to college as a last resort in the event they absolutely had to have ‘that worthless piece of paper’ in order to progress any further in their chosen field.

Can you imagine it?   Take a moment….

Zen-like rock photo to help your mind relax and reflect

After being a teacher for many years, then an advocate for school reform, Holt came to the conclusion that instead of reforming the schools it would be better to do away with them altogether.  No reform, no matter how ambitious, would alter the fundamental problems.   But Holt, being a practical man, realized that waiting around for a ‘grand plan’ or shift in paradigm was not the way to go.   And so he started advocating homeschooling.   Not school at home, but learning through life.    He supported it because is was something individual families could do ‘right now’.     And, as the quote above details, he did not believe that a 4 year degree was integral to a successful future.

John Holt died in 1985.  I wonder what he would think about the state of things today.   He would no doubt be pleased that an estimated 1.5 to 2 million children are learning at home rather than in school, but he might also be saddened at the voracity with which the powers that be continue to promote standardization and push for all children to get a 4 year degree (I’m lookin’ at you, Bill Gates).

43 years ago John Holt wrote a letter that could have been written yesterday.   What will education look like in another 40 years?   Will the majority of children still be plodding through a factory system that is at least 100 years out of date?  Or will we reach a tipping point – a paradigm shift – and find that Holt’s advice is the norm?

I hope it’s the latter.   In the meantime, we’ll do our part by allowing our kids the freedom of a self-directed education.   Which, as John Holt would say, is the only kind worth having.

Leave a Comment