John Holt’s Deschooling Society, today

Today on Facebook my friend Wendy Priesnitz shared a link to this article by John Holt written in 1971 titled “Deschooling Society”.  If you have time you should definitely read the entire thing, but I’m going to highlight a few paragraphs that, looking back from a distance of 42 years, seem not only relevant but almost prophetic when applied to the situation in schools today.   And which give even more credence to the idea that encouraging your kids to learn on their own outside of a school situation is the only way to go.

Here is Holt:

“To quote [Ivan] lllich again, the one thing schools really teach, all over the world, and they teach it to everybody—is the superiority of the schooled over the unschooled. So all these people who in their own eyes are dropouts, all the people who have failed to take advantage as they see it of a legal opportunity, a legal obligation, can then blame themselves. So you can see, we have here an instrument which can separate society into chiefs and braves, sheep and goats, high and low—an instrument which can effectively condemn the vast majority of society to a kind of permanent inferiority and convince them it is their own fault. It’s a superb defuser of political, or revolutionary, or change-making potential. It’s marvelous if you get people to say in this country, ‘If I’d been smarter, if I’d done more work in school, I’d have had a chance for a good job.'”

I don’t really need to say anything about this, right?  42 years later, the belief that the highly schooled are superior to those without as much schooling is so entrenched that young people willingly dig themselves into debt to gain that edge.  As an example?  Here is a sign I saw yesterday (the woman holding it asked me not to photograph her face, as she is in the process of a job hunt) by a woman who is very highly schooled:

As her dream is to be an attorney, she has no other option but university.  However, should 100K in debt really be a necessary component of following that dream?  If she went to a “good” school, the answer is apparently yes.

How many others, though, went to college at age 18 “just because”, and now find themselves in a ton of debt without even the comfort of a defined life goal?  And all due to the belief that the more schooling you have, the more successful you will be; the better person you are.

In 1971, Holt thought that society had just about reached the limit of what they would be willing to pay for school.  In this he was sadly mistaken.  In many things, though, he was exactly right.

Holt again:

“There’s no greater myth than the one that increased schooling is somehow a great social equalizer or leveler. There probably has never been a more powerful instrument for maintaining the class system or power structure in any country than the schoolrooms.”

This especially resonates with me today, as I spent about an hour this morning embroiled in a discussion on the FB page of the Badass Teachers Association wherein I was told that only in school can students learn to be contributing members of a democracy.  Really?  As Holt stated over 40 years ago, schools do not resemble a democracy in any way, and though teachers may talk about equality in their social studies classrooms, they model a dictatorship wherein students have no rights, no say, and are divided by age and perceived ability.  It is a dictatorial caste system, today more than ever.

“We’ve generated a race for the competitive consumption of schooling…the competitive consumption of anything leads to fairly ridiculous results…If you have a certain quantity of schooling, let’s say a high school diploma, every time somebody else gets a high school diploma, the value of yours goes down. Every time somebody gets more schooling (a bachelor’s degree or whatever), the value of your high school diploma goes down even further…I came to my office today on the MTA from Boston and saw this sigh, one of the “Finish high school,” signs, the “Stay in school, get a good job” kind of thing. If they ever get that message across, and everybody really does stay in school and everybody gets a high school diploma, a high school diploma will be worth just what an elementary school diploma is worth—i.e., nothing.”

In fact, 42 years later,  that is what children today are told a high school diploma is worth – if not nothing then next to nothing.  And so….

“So let’s put up a whole lot of new signs—”Go to college, get a good job” and spend $200 billion so that everybody can in fact go to college. If we can persuade all the young people in the country—which seems most unlikely—to put up with four more years of what they put up with, so that everybody finally gets a bachelor’s degree, that will become worthless. It’s not worth too much right now—as some of you may have found out who got one recently. There are already people, have been for a couple of years, talking about the need for a post-PhD degree because the PhD degree doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

Sound familiar?

It gets better:

“When you turn education into a race, which is essentially what we do, you have to have many more losers than winners. That’s how races work. We really have to award a hundred loser labels in our schools for every winner label we put on. The trouble with putting loser labels on people is that they begin to feel like losers, and think like losers, and act like losers, and human growth stops. There is no way to change that, except to get out of the labeling business. I’d really like to see schools and universities get out of the diploma/credential-granting business altogether. A society that has needs for tests of skill should have them at the place the skill or competence is to be used.”

Well John,  I’m sorry to say that today we make no attempt to hide the fact that we view education as a race and to the winners go the spoils.  Our current President titled his education plan “Race to the Top”.  Nothing ambiguous about that, is there?

“The difference I think is put very simply this way. We require people to pass a drivers’ test in order to get a driver’s license. Fair enough. We have not yet got to the point where we say ‘You can’t have a driver’s license, or you can’t take the driver’s test, unless you’re a certified graduate of a certified driver-training school.’ If you can learn to drive your car in a pasture somewhere, or get your second cousin’s brother-in-law or some guy down the street to show you how to drive the car, nobody cares how you learn to do it, as long as you learn to do it. This, in a nutshell, is the situation that people like lllich and [Paul]Goodman and myself are interested in. A situation in which it’s what you know that’s important, not where or how you learned it.”

It is what you know that is important, not where or how you learned it.  Precisely.  Testing, racing, diplomas, debt.   Where is this getting us?

Life learners know what they know through experience and because they are interested in learning it.  Not because they are in a race, or trying to score high on a test or because they want to be better than someone else and brag about which school they went to or what degree they got.  That road leads nowhere.   Or it leads somewhere, but not a place you’d want to spend the majority of your life.

John Holt coined the term “unschooling”.  He knew that the only way out of the schooling mess was not by changing the schools or making them “better” or reforming them.  It was, quite simply, to leave them and help others do the same.     To get back to the business of real learning, real education.  To live, as Wendy Priesnitz says, as though school didn’t exist.



2 comments on “John Holt’s Deschooling Society, today

  1. Saw this today and it makes me sad…and wondering how much common ground there actually is between schoolers and unschoolers. Sigh.

    • Amy says:

      Not much, I’m afraid. Although I wouldn’t want a tax break or tax dollars to unschool – I think it opens the door for them to tell us what we can and cannot do, the rhetoric that homeschoolers are draining or will drain the system of its’ money is a line that keeps coming up on the BAT’s Facebook page whenever someone mentions homeschooling. This morning it was a recurring refrain on the thread I was involved in; homeschoolers drain public schools of resources and can’t possibly learn how to be contributing members of society since school is the only place that can happen. (!) It’s exhausting.

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