When I first read John Holt’s writing, I felt an incredible urge to meet him, to talk to him, to invite him over for dinner. I was so sad to learn that he had died before I’d ever heard his name. His writing inspires me not only due to its subject matter, but because it gives such a clear picture of a kind and good and honest man.

Today, on the 26th anniversary of his death, some friends collected quotes from his books. I’ve added a few of my own favorites as well.

Warning: Those of you I love who disagree with me about school and learning will find much to disagree with here. I won’t be at all insulted if you choose to skip this post or if you want to tell me all the things you think are crazy about it. Although that’s probably not necessary, as I think I have a pretty good idea :o). Thank you for loving me even though you think I’m nuts.

“Children do not need to be made to learn about the world, or shown how. They want to, and they know how.”

“I would insist that much of the seemingly irrational and excessive anger of little children—‘tantrums’—is in fact not only caused by things that happen to them or that are said and done to them, but that these things would make us angry if they happened or were said and done to us.”

“A man can not say Yes to something with all his heart unless he has an equal right to say No.”

“‘Allowed to experience childhood.’ At one level these words are true, but hardly worth saying. At any age, we experience being that age. Clearly the users of such words mean something else. Being allowed to experience childhood means being allowed to do some things and being spared having to do others – or forbidden. It means that adults will decide, without often or ever asking children what they think, that some experiences are good for children while others are not. It means for a child that adults are all the time deciding what is best for you and then letting or making you do it. But instead of trying to make sure that all children get only those experiences we think are good for them I would rather make available to children, as to everyone else, the widest possible range of experiences (except those that hurt others) and let them choose those they like best.”

“I would be against trying to cram knowledge into the heads of children even if we could agree on what knowledge to cram and could be sure that it would not go out of date, even if we could be sure that, once crammed in, it would stay in. Even then, I would trust the child to direct his own learning. For it seems to me a fact that, in our struggle to make sense out of life, the things we most need to learn are the things we most want to learn.”

“Living is learning and when kids are living fully and energetically and happily they are learning a lot, even if we don’t always know what it is.”

“We can think of ourselves not as teachers but as gardeners. A gardener does not ‘grow’ flowers; he tries to give them what he thinks they need and they grow by themselves.”

“We destroy the love of learning in children, which is so strong when they are small, by encouraging and compelling them to work for petty rewards – in short, for the ignoble satisfaction of feeling that they are better than someone else.”

“No use to shout at them to pay attention. If the situations, the materials, the problems before the child do not interest him, his attention will slip off to what does interest him, and no amount of exhortation or threats will bring it back.”

“To parents I say, above all else, don’t let your home become some terrible miniature copy of the school. No lesson plans! No quizzes! No tests! No report cards! Even leaving your kids alone would be better; at least they could figure out some things on their own. Live together as well as you can; enjoy life together as much as you can.”

“Since we can’t know what knowledge will be most needed in the future, it is senseless to try to teach it in advance. Instead, we should try to turn out people who love learning so much and learn so well that they will be able to learn whatever needs to be learned.”

“Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of things around them. If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process, the independent scientist in the child disappears.”

“There is no difference between living and learning.”

“Education now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and fans, driven more and more, in all parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve ‘education’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves.”

“The anxiety children feel at constantly being tested, their fear of failure, punishment, and disgrace, severely reduces their ability to perceive and to remember, and drives them away from the material being studied into strategies for fooling teachers into thinking they know what they really don’t know.”

“The idea of painless, non-threatening coercion is an illusion. Fear is the inseparable companion of coercion and its inescapable consequence.”

“Children, without being coerced or manipulated or being put in exotic, specially prepared environments or having their thinking planned and ordered for them, can, will and do pick up from the world around them important information about what we call the Basics. ‘Ordinary’ people, without special schooling themselves, can give their children whatever slight assistance may be needed to help them in their exploration of the world, and to do this requires no more than a little tact, patience, attention and readily available information.”

“It is hard not to feel that there must be something very wrong with much of what we do in school, if we feel the need to worry so much about what many people call ‘motivation’. A child has no stronger desire than to make sense of the world, to move freely in it, to do the things that he sees bigger people doing.”

“Schools assume that children are not interested in learning and are not much good at it, that they will not learn unless made to, that they cannot learn unless shown how, and that the way to make them learn is to divide up the prescribed material into a sequence of tiny tasks to be mastered one at a time, each with its appropriate ‘morsel’ and ‘shock’. And when this method doesn’t work, the schools assume there is something wrong with the children – something they must try to diagnose and treat.”

“What is most important and valuable about the home as 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.”

“We can best help children learn, not by deciding what we think they should learn and thinking of ingenious ways to teach it to them, but by making the world, as far as we can, accessible to them, paying serious attention to what they do, answering their questions — if they have any — and helping them explore the things they are most interested in.”

“If I had to make a general rule for living and working with children, it might be this: be wary of saying or doing anything to a child that you would not do to another adult, whose good opinion and affection you valued.”

“Why do people take or keep their children out of school? Mostly for three reasons: they think that raising their children is their business not the government’s; they enjoy being with their children and watching and helping them learn and don’t want to give that up to others; they want to keep them from being hurt, mentally, physically, and spiritually.”

“To trust children, we must first learn to trust ourselves…and most of us were taught as children that we could not be trusted.”

“The most important thing any teacher has to learn, not to be learned in any school of education I ever heard of, can be expressed in seven words: Learning is not the product of teaching. Learning is the product of active learners.”

“It’s not that I feel that school is a good idea gone wrong, but a wrong idea from the word go. It’s a nutty notion that we can have a place where nothing but learning happens, cut off from the rest of life.”

“Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very center of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we may make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.”

“When a child is doing something she’s passionately interested in, she grows like a tree — in all directions. This is how children learn, how children grow. They send down a taproot like a tree in dry soil. The tree may be stunted, but it sends out these roots, and suddenly one of these little taproots goes down and strikes a source of water. And the whole tree grows.”

“It is as true now as it was then that, no matter what tests show, very little of what is taught in school is learned, very little of what is learned is remembered, and very little of what is remembered is used. The things we learn, remember, and use are the things we seek out or meet in the daily, serious, nonschool parts of our lives.”

“We ask children to do for most of the day what few adults are able to do for even an hour. How many of us, attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us, can keep our minds from wandering? Hardly any.”

“If we continually try to force a child to do what he is afraid to do, he will become more timid and will use his brains and energy, not to explore the unknown, but to find ways to avoid the pressures we put on him.”

“I think children need much more than they have of opportunities to come into contact with adults who are seriously doing their adult thing, not just hanging around entertaining or instructing or being nice to children. They also need much more than they have of opportunities to get away from adults altogether and live their lives free from other people’s anxious attention.”

“I can’t help noting that no cultures in the world that I have ever heard of make such a fuss about bedtimes, and no cultures have so many adults who find it so hard either to go to sleep or wake up. Could these social facts be connected? I strongly suspect they are.”

“What makes people smart, curious, alert, observant, competent, confident, resourceful, persistent – in the broadest and best sense, intelligent – is not having access to more and more learning places, resources, and specialists, but being able in their lives to do a wide variety of interesting things that matter, things that challenge their ingenuity, skill, and judgement, and that make an obvious difference in their lives and the lives of people around them.”

“What children need is not new and better curricula but access to more and more of the real world; plenty of time and space to think over their experiences and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them, and advice, road maps, guidebooks to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go) and to find out what they want to find out.”

“A child wants to do and does what advances him into the world, what enables him to grow out into it, to encompass in his own experience and understanding more of the world outside him, the world of geography and the world of human experience.”

“Every child, without exception, has an innate and unquenchable drive to understand the world in which he lives and to gain freedom and competence in it. Whatever truly adds to his understanding, his capacity for growth and pleasure, his powers, his sense of his own freedom, dignity, and worth may be said to be true education.”

“About reading, children learn something much more difficult than reading without instruction – namely, to speak and understand their native language. I do not think they would or could learn it if they were instructed. I think reading instruction is the enemy of reading.”

“Teaching does not make learning…organized education operates on the assumption that children learn only when and only what and only because we teach them. This is not true. It is very close to being 100% false. Learners make learning.”

“We who believe that children want to learn about the world, are good at it, and can be trusted to do it with very little adult coercion or interference, are probably no more than one percent of the population, if that. And we are not likely to become the majority in my lifetime. This doesn’t trouble me much anymore, as long as this minority keeps on growing. My work is to help it grow.”

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