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John Holt and Unschooling
By Pat Farenga
Note: This is a revised and shortened version of the foreword Pat Farenga wrote for the book "John Holt" by Roland Meighan, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2007. Volume 5 in The Continuum Library of Educational Thought. Series editor: Richard Bailey.
John Holt is a rare writer about education because he brought about changes not only in schools, but also in our homes. Holt was a major influence on the school reform movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and then, when he decided most people did not want schools to change in the progressive, learner-centered ways he advocated, he became a major influence on the modern homeschooling movement.
Equally remarkable for someone working in the field of education, Holt wrote all his books in a deliberately accessible style for the general public and he did this as an independent researcher, without affiliation to, or the support of, any university or public or private institution.
When "How Children Fail" became a national bestseller in 1964, Holt was encouraged by a friend to enter the world of academia instead of becoming an independent critic. Holt responded, in a letter quoted in "A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters of John Holt" (Ohio State Univ. Press, 1992):
Holt's vision about his work in this letter shows an almost prescient knowledge of his later transformations of thought and opinion as a public intellectual, education writer, school reformer, political activist, and a founder of the homeschooling movement. His independence of thought and descriptions about not just the techniques, but the emotions attached to teaching and learning continue to surprise readers, as well as to influence parents to homeschool their children. His books have now been translated into over 20 languages, and they continue to generate adherents and controversy.
For instance, Holt's vision of homeschooling, or "unschooling" as he preferred to call it in the early years of the movement, was not about doing school at home with one's siblings and parents. Instead, it was about learning in and outside the home, in places and with people that do not resemble school at all.
Holt viewed learning as an abundant, natural, human endeavor that gets warped or turned-off by imposing years of unasked-for teaching upon the learner. He envisioned not just families, but entire communities becoming places for life-long learning.
Indeed, Holt's writing continues to inspire people to create co-operative learning centers, and develop other forms of community-based activities for children and adults, defying the charge leveled against homeschoolers that they are only interested in their own children and circumstances.
However, to use a current analogy from the world of high technology, most educators refuse to acknowledge Holt's "open source" approach to education and insist on their "proprietary" approach to making children learn what they think they need to know month-by-month, year-by-year. Often, it seems that these rival visions of education are irreconcilable.
Most professional educators and politicians dismiss Holt's work as "romantic" and impractical because of the radical changes it could make to compulsory schooling. However, Holt's ideas about teaching and learning are important and practical and they continue to be implemented and adapted by a variety of homeschooling parents and independent alternative schools.
About Pat Farenga:
Patrick Farenga worked closely with the author and teacher John Holt, until Holt's death in 1985. He is the President of Holt Associates Inc. and was the Publisher of Growing Without Schooling magazine (GWS) from 1985 until it stopped publishing in 2001. GWS was the nation's first periodical about homeschooling, started by Holt in 1977.
Farenga speaks as a homeschooling expert at education conferences as well as on commercial radio and television talk shows. His appearances discussing homeschooling include The Today Show, Voice of America, Geraldo, Learning Matters, Parenting Today, Fox and Friends, The Exhausted School at Carnegie Hall and the National University of Colombia-Bogota.
Farenga and his wife unschooled their daughters, ages 24, 21, and 18. In addition to writing for GWS for twenty years, he has written many articles and book chapters about homeschooling, including the entry about homeschooling for the International Encyclopedia of Education, 3rd Edition (Elsevier, 2010).
Pat Farenga is the co-author of TEACH YOUR OWN: THE JOHN HOLT BOOK OF HOMESCHOOLING (Perseus) and provides information and coaching through his blog and websites at: