School is Bad for Children
by John Holt
Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, February 8, 1969.
Almost every child, on the first day he sets foot in a school building, is smarter,
more curious, less afraid of what he doesn't know, better at finding and figuring
things out, and more confident, resourceful, persistent and independent than he will
ever be again in his schooling - or, unless he is very unusual and very lucky, for the
rest of his life. Already, by paying close attention to and interacting with the world
and people around him, and without any school-type formal instruction, he has done a
task far more difficult, complicated and abstract than anything he will be asked to do
in school, or than any of his teachers has done for years. He has solved the mystery
of language. He has discovered it - babies don't even know that language exists - and
he has found out how it works and learned to use it. He has done it by exploring, by
experimenting, by developing his own model of the grammar of language, by trying it
out and seeing whether it works, by gradually changing it and refining it until it
does work. And while he has been doing this, he has been learning other things as
well, including many of the "concepts" that the schools think only they can
teach him, and many that are more complicated than the ones they do try to teach him.
|In he comes, this curious, patient, determined, energetic, skillful
learner. We sit him down at a desk, and what do we teach him? Many things. First, that
learning is separate from living. "You come to school to learn," we tell
him, as if the child hadn't been learning before, as if living were out there and
learning were in here, and there were no connection between the two. Secondly, that he
cannot be trusted to learn and is no good at it. Everything we teach about reading, a
task far simpler than many that the child has already mastered, says to him, "If
we don't make you read, you won't, and if you don't do it exactly the way we tell you,
you can't". In short, he comes to feel that learning is a passive process,
something that someone else does to you, instead of something you do for yourself.
In a great many other ways he learns that he is worthless, untrustworthy, fit only
to take other people's orders, a blank sheet for other people to write on. Oh, we make
a lot of nice noises in school about respect for the child and individual differences,
and the like. But our acts, as opposed to our talk, says to the child, "Your
experience, your concerns, your curiosities, your needs, what you know, what you want,
what you wonder about, what you hope for, what you fear, what you like and dislike,
what you are good at or not so good at - all this is of not the slightest importance,
it counts for nothing. What counts here, and the only thing that counts, is what we
know, what we think is important, what we want you to do, think and be." The
child soon learns not to ask questions - the teacher isn't there to satisfy his
curiosity. Having learned to hide his curiosity, he later learns to be ashamed of it.
Given no chance to find out who he is - and to develop that person, whoever it is - he
soon comes to accept the adults' evaluation of him.
He learns many other things. He learns that to be wrong, uncertain, confused, is a
crime. Right answers are what the school wants, and he learns countless strategies for
prying these answers out of the teacher, for conning her into thinking he knows what
he doesn't know. He learns to dodge, bluff, fake, cheat. He learns to be lazy! Before
he came to school, he would work for hours on end, on his own, with no thought of
reward, at the business of making sense of the world and gaining competence in it. In
school he learns, like every buck private, how to goldbrick, how not to work when the
sergeant isn't looking, how to know when he is looking, how to make him think you are
working even when he is looking. He learns that in real life you don't do anything
unless you are bribed, bullied or conned into doing it, that nothing is worth doing
for its own sake, or that if it is, you can't do it in school. He learns to be bored,
to work with a small part of his mind, to escape from the reality around him into
daydreams and fantasies - but not like the fantasies of his preschool years, in which
he played a very active part.
||The child comes to school curious about other people, particularly
other children, and the school teaches him to be indifferent. The most interesting
thing in the classroom - often the only interesting thing in it - is the other
children, but he has to act as if these other children, all about him, only a few feet
away, are not really there. He cannot interact with them, talk with them, smile at
In fact, he learns how to live without paying attention to anything going on around
him. You might say that school is a long lesson in how to turn yourself off, which may
be one reason why so many young people, seeking the awareness of the world and
responsiveness to it they had when they were little, think they can only find it in
drugs. Aside from being boring, the school is almost always ugly, cold, and inhuman.
And so, in this dull and ugly place, where nobody ever says anything very truthful,
where everybody is playing a kind of role, as in a charade where the teachers are no
more free to respond honestly to the students than the students are free to respond to
the teachers or each other, where the air practically vibrates with suspicion and
anxiety, the child learns to live in a daze, saving his energies for those small parts
of his life that are too trivial for the adults to bother with, and thus remain his.
It is a rare child who can come through his schooling with much left of his curiosity,
his independence or his sense of his own dignity, competence and worth.
|Our compulsory school-attendance laws once served a humane and useful
purpose. They protected the children's right to some schooling, against those adults
who would otherwise have denied it to them in order to exploit their labor, in farm,
store, mine or factory. Today the laws help nobody - not the schools, not the
teachers, not the children. To keep kids in school who would rather not be there costs
the schools an enormous amount of time and trouble - to say nothing of what it costs
to repair the damage that these angry and resentful prisoners do every time they get a
chance. Every teacher knows that any kid in class who, for whatever reason, would
rather not be there, not only doesn't learn anything himself but makes it a great deal
tougher for anyone else. As for protecting the children from exploitation, the chief
and indeed only exploiters of children these days are the schools.
We need to get kids out of the school buildings, and give them a chance to learn
about the world at first hand. It is a very recent idea, and a crazy one, that the way
to teach our young people about the world they live in is to take them out of it and
shut them up in brick boxes. Aside from their parents, most children never have any
close contact with any adults except people whose sole business is children. No wonder
they have no idea what adult life or work is like. A child learning to talk does
learn by being corrected all the time - if corrected too much, he will stop talking.
He compares, a thousand times a day, the difference between language as he uses it and
as those around him use it. Bit by bit, he makes the necessary changes to make his
language like other peoples. In the same way, kids learning to do all the other things
they learn without adult teachers - to walk, run, climb, whistle, ride a bike, skate,
play games, jump rope - compare their own performance with what more skilled people
do, and slowly make the needed changes. But in school we never give a child a chance
to detect his mistakes, let alone correct them. We do it all for him. We act as if we
thought he would never notice a mistake unless it was pointed out to him, or correct
it unless he was made to. Soon he becomes dependent on the expert. We should let him
do it himself. Let him figure out what this word says, what is the answer to that
problem, whether this is a good way of saying or doing this or that. Our job should be
to help him when he tells us that he can't find a way to get the right answer. Let's
get rid of all this nonsense of grades, exams, marks. We don't know now, and we never
will know, how to measure what another person knows or understands. We certainly can't
find out by asking him questions. All we find out is what he doesn't know which is
what most tests are for, anyway. Throw it all out, and let the child learn what every
educated person must someday learn, how to measure his own understanding, how to know
what he knows or does not know.
People remember only what is interesting and useful to them, what helps them make
sense of the world, or helps them get along in it. All else they quickly forget, if
they ever learn it at all. The idea of a "body of knowledge," to be picked
up in school and used for the rest of one' s life, is nonsense in a world as
complicated and rapidly changing as ours. Anyway, the most important questions and
problems of our time are not in the curriculum, not even in the universities, let
alone the schools.
Children want, more than they want anything else, and even after years of
miseducation, to make sense of the world, themselves, and other human beings. Let them
get at this job, with our help if they ask for it, in the way that makes most sense to
Excerpted from The
Underachieving School, CO: Sentient Publications, 2005.
Reprinted with permission of Sentient Publications.
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