Very Different: Growing Without Schooling
I'm sitting with three teenagers who have recently left school
to begin learning at home and in the wider world. On the table in
front of us lie notes about possibilities - ideas, wishes, plans
for further investigation. I've scribbled down, "Call
homeless shelter; find out about marine biologist," in
response to Anna's brainstorm of things she would like to do or
learn more about. Adrienne and I have agreed to meet next week to
talk about the essay she is working on. Ariel says that she wants
to work with someone who can help her see what it means to think
mathematically, rather than just how to complete math assignments,
and I've recommended someone for her to call.
Though these kids have been homeschooling for a few months,
they are still becoming accustomed to the freedom, to the heady
realization that education can be about figuring out their own
goals, rather than figuring out how to meet demands that don't
make sense to them. I am struck again and again by their
enthusiasm, their interest in learning, the number of things they
come up with when they are asked what they want to know more
As we scrape the last crumbs of chocolate cake from our plates,
our conversation turns toward their friends who are still in
school and who are more often than not unhappy there. They say
they want to let these kids know that homeschooling is an option
Speaking for the many skeptics, I offer a common criticism of
homeschooling: "Some people might say that you are special
kids and that homeschooling can only work for kids who are as
self-motivated as you are. After all, think of all the interests
you've been telling me about..."
"But I wasn't like this at all last year!" Ariel
interjects. "I wasn't the kind of kid you would think would
be self-motivated. I didn't do that well in school, and I didn't
have all these things I wanted to learn about."
The others agree. "Oh yeah," one says, "if you
had to go by how I acted in school..."
"It's not fair to look at kids in school and say, oh,
they're not motivated, oh, they're not good at this," someone
else adds, "because maybe they would be a lot more motivated
under a different system. The thing about homeschooling is that
it's so different. I wish people could understand that."
"Why didn't school work for you?" I ask.
"No one was paying attention to what I really
needed," Adrienne says. "And it was really hard for me
to take myself seriously there. I was always doubting
"It's hard to fit in there, but you have to fit in,"
Ariel adds. "School pits kids against each other."
"And you're cooped up all day, under those lights,"
Anna says. "It felt like we were being punished, that's what
I always used to feel, like we were in there as a
Some people would call this adolescent griping. Why do I listen
to these kids, this growing crop of new homeschoolers and their
companions, the long-time homeschoolers who have learned outside
of school for years, and feel that they are some of the most
important education critics of our time? Why do I feel that these
are the voices the school reform movement needs to hear?
John Holt wrote in 1970, "Every day's headlines show more
clearly that the old ways, the tried and true ways, are simply and
quite spectacularly not working. No point in arguing about who's
to blame. The time has come to do something very different."1
|Homeschooling is about doing something very different. It's
about making things better for kids right now, and at the same
time it gives us a vantage point from which to look at the
experience of kids in school and at the structure and assumptions
of traditional schooling. These homeschoolers are worth listening
to because they don't let us rest on old assumptions, because they
are exuberant, full of interests, eager to learn - and they
weren't like this in school a year ago. Something is different.
That difference is what school reformers need to study.
|Holt published the first issue of Growing Without
Schooling (GWS) in 1977 as a way of supporting the families
scattered across the country who were letting their children learn
outside of school. Holt had been a teacher for many years, and his
How Children Fail and several subsequent books had placed
him at the center of the school reform movement of the 1960s and
70s. By the early 1970s he was questioning the idea of schooling
itself. In the first issue of GWS, he wrote that the
newsletter would be:
about ways in which people, young and old, can learn to do
things, acquire skills, and find interesting and useful work
without having to go through the process of schooling. In
starting this newsletter, we are putting into practice a
nickel-and-dime theory about social change, which is that
important and lasting change always comes slowly, and only when
people change their lives, not just their political beliefs or
Growing Without Schooling, as Holt said elsewhere in
that first issue, was "to make people feel less
helpless," because it would show them that people could
change things for themselves, could create new solutions in their
own lives without waiting for an entire revolution to occur. Of
course, the changes they did make would then be inspiring to
others and would demonstrate that "something very
different" was indeed possible.
|Now many of the children who were babies when GWS was
first launched have spent their entire lives reading, thinking,
playing, studying, working with adults in the community, learning
all manner of things, all without going to school. They have
learned to read without traditional reading instruction, made
friends even though most people think making friends without
attending school is impossible, got into selective colleges
(ditto), and found interesting work (ditto). John Holt published a
book about homeschooling, called Teach Your Own, in 1981,
and continued to publish GWS and learn from homeschoolers
until his death in 1985.
|In Holt's Freedom and Beyond, which was first
published in 1972, he wrote:
Imagine that I am traveling into the future in a time
capsule, and that I come to rest, five hundred years from now,
in an intelligent, humane, and life-enhancing civilization. One
of the people who lives there comes to meet me, to guide me, and
to explain his society. At some point, after he has shown me
where people live, work, play, I ask him,
"But where are your schools?"
"Schools? What are schools?" he replies.
"Schools are where people go to learn things."
"I do not understand," he says, "People learn
things everywhere, in all places."
"I know that," I say, "But a school is a
special place where there are special people who teach you
things, help you learn things."
"I am sorry, but I still do not understand. Everyone
helps other people to learn things. Anyone who knows something
or can do something can help someone else who wants to learn
more about it. Why should there be special people to do
And try as I will, I cannot make clear to him why we think
education should be, must be, separate from the rest of life.
This was my first vision of a society without schooling.
Since then I have come to feel that the deschooled society, a
society in which learning is not separated from but joined to,
part of the rest of life, and is not a luxury for which we can
wait hundreds of years, but something toward which we must move
and work, as quickly as possible.3
This parable of Holt's is developed within the context of a
much deeper and more detailed analysis of the function of
schooling in society than I can give here. The story is useful,
though, because it gives a vivid picture of what we are aiming
for. It invites us to think about what stands between our current
assumptions and those of that mythical future guide.
When I think about Holt's conversation with that tour guide, I
think about the guide's bewilderment, his lack of comprehension.
Though of course I feel myself to be trying to increase people's
understanding, I'm also working toward a time when many of the
things we now do to children and many of the ways we now think
about children's learning simply won't make any sense.
|The tour guide didn't understand what Holt meant when he said
that schools are places where we go to learn things, and many of
the long-time homeschoolers I know don't understand this either.
Well, of course they understand it on some level, because it is an
idea that permeates their culture, but they don't really
understand it because they do learn everywhere, from everyone - at
home, curled up on the couch reading or being read to, building or
cooking or drawing or playing music or writing or having a
conversation, and in libraries, museums, labs, courthouses,
specialty shops, veterinary offices, theatres, newspapers, soup
kitchens, historic houses, farms, wildlife sanctuaries - the list
goes on, and these are all real examples of places homeschoolers
visit and work as volunteers.
|Naturally, as homeschoolers grow, they may find that
they want to learn about or work on something in particular. They
may decide that they want help in doing that. Homeschoolers
understand the value of teachers, but they are less likely to
understand why it's necessary to learn from people who are only
teachers and/or to learn only from those teachers who are assigned
to them. Homeschooling kids can ask for help, feedback,
suggestions, inspiration, and support, and they and their families
can create for themselves, as needed, whatever degree of schedule,
planning, outside appointments, and deadlines they find useful.
These families demonstrate what it means to create a useful
structure rather than to labor under an externally imposed one.
Homeschooling is important because of what it rejects, but it
is equally (or perhaps more) important for what it reclaims on its
own terms. Teachers, help, schedules, organization - these are not
school things in themselves. They are school things when someone
assigns the teachers, tells the teachers what to teach, gives the
students no say in the matter, makes the help be compulsory,
imposes the schedule according to institutional rather than
individual needs, and so on. But when the teachers are chosen
freely, the help is requested (and can be refused), and the
schedules and organization serve real needs or goals, then these
concepts mean something quite different.
Holt's tour guide wouldn't understand the need for grades and
other external motivators, either. In a world where everyone
learns all the time, people are learning on their own steam, for
their own reasons, and they don't need the promise or threat of
grades to make them learn or to tell them how well they did. Growing
Without Schooling once asked home-schooling kids and teenagers
to describe situations in which they had to do something difficult
or frustrating as part of working towards a larger goal: "The
pronunciation is difficult," a fifteen-year-old homeschooler
wrote about her efforts to learn Spanish, but she kept practicing
because she really wanted to learn the language. "Although it
would have been easy to quit, I decided not to," a
thirteen-year-old wrote about his determination to remain on a
challenging swim team because of his ambition to become a
lifeguard. And after describing how hard she had to work to learn
to sight read music, a sixteen-year-old lifelong homeschooler
said, "I do things that are difficult, or that I really don't
like, for the same reason I do anything else: because I've decided
This is what our tour guide would understand, but what so many
schools fail to appreciate. Young people are capable of deciding
what is important or necessary, and once they have decided, they
are capable of working much harder than we imagine. Schools, after
failing to give children the chance to decide what is important to
them and to understand the relationship between their chosen goal
and specific tasks, then conclude that children are lazy, no good,
One of the consequences of thinking that people learn only in
schools is that the culture ties up more of its resources in
schools than in libraries, museums, public art facilities,
community centers, and other places that are accessible but not
compulsory and not restricted to one age group.
|Holt's tour guide wouldn't judge people on the basis of how much
time they've spent in schools. Unfortunately, we do judge people
on that basis in our culture, but here again homeschoolers can be
an exception and a suggestion of future possibilities. When
homeschooling kids get into college, not on the basis of a
high-school transcript but on the basis of what they have learned
and done during those years, they show that there are other ways
to evaluate people's abilities.
|When homeschoolers choose not to go to college but instead make
their way into the adult world through apprenticeships and other
interesting routes towards meaningful work, they show that college
John Holt took an unusual approach to this problem of living in
a culture that evaluates people according to school credentials.
Having already acquired a couple of those credentials (though not
as many as most people thought) before he developed his critique
of schooling, he refused to include any mention of his schooling
in public descriptions (on a book jacket, for instance, or on
other occasions where such information is ordinarily given).
Instead he said, "I have come to believe that a person's
schooling is as much a part of his private business as his
politics or religion, and that no one should be required to answer
questions about it. May I say instead that most of what I know I
did not learn in school, or even in what most people would call
John Holt's approach here is characteristic of his attitude
toward social change in general. In a letter he wrote during the
late 1970s he said:
During the 1960s, many young people were talking about
revolutionary changes in society. Paul [Goodman] used to say to
them, "Suppose you had had the revolution you are talking
and dreaming about. Suppose your side had won, and you had the
kind of society you wanted. How would you live, you personally,
in that society? Start living that way now! Whatever you would
do then, do it now. When you run up against obstacles, people or
things that won't let you live that way, then begin to think
about how to get over or around or under that obstacle, or how
to push it out of the way, and your politics will be concrete
and practical." Very good advice. The trick is to find ways
to put your strongest ideals into practice in daily life. I
don't mean talking to other people about it, or saying,
"Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all did this or that."
I mean doing it right now. It is interesting, absorbing,
fascinating, satisfying, and useful. You don't have to wait for
a hundred million people to agree with you, you can start right
away. And when you find that you are able to do something, the
very fact that you can do it means that anyone else who wants to
can also do it.6
This is what I try to do, and what, in a sense, homeschoolers
are doing as they simultaneously try to live in a way that makes
sense and in so doing illuminates the possibilities for all of us.
It's true that we are not anywhere near the kind of society that
Holt's imagined tour guide lives in. But what would it look like?
How would people live? What would no longer be true or necessary
and what would remain? Homeschooling is about figuring out answers
to these questions and then - as Holt suggests - about trying to
live as though those changes had already happened. Circuitous?
Maybe. But it's the most direct route I know to the world where
that tour guide lives.
1 John Holt, What Do I Do Monday? New York:
Boynton-Cook/Heinemann, 1995. p. 302.
2 Growing Without Schooling #1, Vol. 1, No. 1, August
1977, p. 1.
3 John Holt, Freedom and Beyond. New York:
Boynton-Cook/Heinemann, 1995. p.117.
4 "Working Toward a Goal," Growing Without Schooling
#84, Vol. 14, No. 6, December 1991, pp. 14-17.
5 Growing Without Schooling #48, p. 1.
6 "Celebrating 100 Issues," Growing Without
Schooling ft 100, Vol. 17, No. 3, July/August 1994, p. 35.
This article originally appeared in Everywhere All the Time: A New Deschooling Reader
by Matt Hern. Reprinted with permission from Susannah Sheffer and Matt Hern.
Susannah edited Growing Without Schooling magazine for many years,
and also edited the book A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters of John Holt.
Her books about homeschooling include A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girlsand
Writing Because We Love To: Homeschoolers at Work.
She now works at North Star: Self-Directed Learning for Teens, a resource
center for teenagers in Western Massachusetts, and also writes about the
death penalty and prison issues. Her most recent book is called In a Dark Time: A Prisoner's Struggle for Healing and Change.