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A Conversation with John Holt

In 1980, Marlene Bumgarner, a home­schooling parent, hosted author John Holt in her home while he was in California for a lecture tour. While he played in the garden with her two children, John and Dona Ana, she interviewed him for the bimonthly magazine Mothering.

What is your philosophy of learning?

Basically that the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we need to learn; we are good at it; we don't need to be shown how or made to do it. made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.

Why homeschooling?

That's a big question. The great advantage is intimacy, control of your time, flexibility of schedule, and the ability to respond to the needs of the child, and to the inclinations. If the child is feeling kind of tired or out of sorts, or a little bit sick, or kind of droopy in spirits, okay, we take it easy, and things go along very calmly and easily. When the child is full of energy and rambunctious, then we tackle big projects, we try tough stuff, we look at hard books. And I think schools could do much more than they do in this kind of flexibility, but in fact they don't. I want to make it clear that I don't see homeschooling as some kind of answer to badness of schools. I think that the home is the proper base for the exploration of the world which we call learning or education. Home would be the best base no matter how good the schools were. The proper relationship of the schools to home is the relationship of the library to home, or the skating rink to home. It is a supplementary resource.

But the school is a kind of artificial institution, and the home is a very natural one. There are lots of societies without schools, but never any without homes. Home is the center of the circle from which you move out in all directions, so there is no conceivable improvement in schools that would change my mind about that.

What does one do at a homeschool?

That's what Growing Without Schooling is about, of course. What one can do depends a lot on what one's own life is. A lot of families have small businesses or subsistence farms or crafts, or various kinds of activities that the parents are involved in, which the children are also very involved in. The children just partake in the life of the adults wherever they are, and then questions are answered as they come up. Other people may live at home and work somewhere else; they may have a more conventional kind of existence.

I don't believe in formal fixed curriculums, but it may very well be that when parents and children start off, they're both a little nervous. They're both wondering what they should be doing. If it makes people feel happier to have a little schedule, and to work with a correspondence school for a year or so, kind of as a security blanket, there's nothing wrong with that. It's a starting place.

My advice is always to let the interests and the inclinations of the children determine what happens and to give children access to as much of the parents' lives and the world around them as possible, given your own circumstances, so that children have the widest possible range of things to look at and think about. See which things interest them most, and help them to go down that particular road.

How that's done depends very much on the family's circumstances and their interests, and the particular interests of the children. Some kids are bookish, some children like to build things, some are more mathematical or computerish, or artistic, or musical, or whatever. The mix is never going to be exactly the same.

Does homeschooling require that the parents spend a great deal of structured time with their children in a formal learning situation?

Homeschooling doesn't require that parents spend a great deal of structured time. I think as parents get into this they tend to spend less time. How much time they spend with their kids depends a little on the circumstances in their own lives. Sometimes they spend a lot of time in company together just because it's fun. Other times that's harder for them to do. The children, though they may enjoy a lot of their parents' company during the day, don't need it once they get past 7 or 8.

Is the parent without background in education or experience as a teacher at a disadvantage in a homeschooling situation?

I'd say they have a very great advantage. I wouldn't say that a person was disqualified from doing it because they had had training in education, but I would have to say that practically everything they taught you at that school of education is just plain wrong. You have to unlearn it all. I never had any of that educational training. The most exclusive, selective, demanding private schools in this country do not hire people who have education degrees. If you look through their faculties - degrees in history, mathematics, English, French, whatever - you will not see degrees in education. I think for the most prestigious private schools you could almost set it down as a fact that to have a teacher's certificate, to have had that kind of training, would disqualify you.

Are parents talented or knowledgeable enough to teach physics or math?

Oh, well, the children don't have to learn physics or math from you. There are plenty of people to learn from; there are plenty of books; there are plenty of extension courses. GWS will have information on that. There are plenty of other people to answer your questions. And the children don't have to get it all from Mom and Pop. There are people who have only high schooling, or may not even have finished that, who are now teaching their children at home and doing a very good job of it.

What about the child's social life?

As for friends - you're not going to lock your kids in the house. I think the socializing aspects of school are ten times as likely to be harmful as helpful. The human virtues - kindness, patience, generosity, etc. are learned by children in intimate relationships, maybe groups of two or three. By and large, human beings tend to behave worse in large groups, like you find in school. There they learn something quite different - popularity, conformity, bullying, teasing, things like that. They can make friends after school hours, during vacations, at the library, in church.

What about the opportunity for youths to meet members of other backgrounds, other socioeconomic classes?

Most of the schools that I know anything about are tracked - there would be a college track, and a business track, and a vocational track. Studies have shown over the years that these tracks correlate perfectly with economic class. I think I know enough about most high schools in this country to say there is very little mingling of people from different backgrounds, different religious groups. The rich kids hang out with the rich kids, the jocks hang out with the jocks, the pointy heads hang out with the pointy heads, the greasers hang out with the greasers. Maybe there are some exceptions to that . . . but the idea of school as a social melting pot where people of all kinds of backgrounds get together - pure mythology, folks.

What is your philosophy about teaching reading?

I think the teaching of reading is mostly what prevents reading. Different children learn different ways. I think reading aloud is fun, but I would never read aloud to a kid so that the kid would learn to read. You read aloud because it's fun and companionable. You hold a child, sitting next to you or on your lap, reading this story that you're having fun with, and if it isn't a cozy, happy, warm, friendly, loving experience, then you shouldn't do it. It isn't going to do any good.

I think children are attracted toward the adult world. It's nice to have children's books, but far too many of them have too much in the way of pictures. When children see books, as they do in the family where the adults read, with pages and pages and pages of print, it becomes pretty clear that if you're going to find out what's in those books, you're going to have to read from that print. I don't think there's any way to make reading interesting to children in a family in which it isn't interesting to adults.

What your philosophy about math?

My approach to math is to say, What do we adults use numbers for? We use them to measure things. And we measure things so that having measured them we can do things with them, or make certain judgements about them. And so I say let children do with numbers what we do with numbers. I'm a great believer in many kinds of measuring instruments - tapes (centimeter tape, inch tapes, rolls of tapes), rulers, scales, thermometers, barometers, metronomes, electric metronomes with lights flashing on and off that you can make go faster and slower, stopwatches, things for time.

Another thing is money. Kids are fascinated by money. We all say: "We'll have to teach them all this arithmetic so that some day they can deal with money." I think dealing with money is inherently interesting to children. I say family finances ought to be out on the table, charts on the wall: expenses, food, taxes, insurance, health care, how much this costs, how much it cost last year. I think actually, like typing, double-entry bookkeeping and basic accounting are fascinating skills, and if you're talking about basics, those are basics.

The fundamental idea of double-entry bookkeeping, the distinction between your income and expenses and assets and liabilities is one of the really beautiful inventions of the human mind. It's fabulous the way it works, and I think families should do their finances as if they were a little teeny corporation with income and expenses and assets and liabilities and depreciation.

Some kids might get to the point where they would want to be the family treasurer and keep the family books and balance the checkbook. This is all really "big adult stuff." Let the child write out the checks that are paying the bills, instead of the harassed picture, you know, of father with his tie untied, sitting at the desk and papers all over the place. Why? This is inherently interesting, so let's at least make this part of our life - like every other part - accessible to children. The best way to meet numbers is in real life, as everything else. It's embedded in the context of reality, and what schooling does is to try to take everything out of the context of reality. So everything appears like some little thing floating around in space, and it's a terrible mistake. You know, there are numbers in building; there are numbers in construction; there are numbers in business; there are numbers in photography; there are numbers in music; there are fractions in cooking. So wherever numbers are in real life, then let's go and meet them and work with them.

What subject matter do you see as essential?


What about the parent who works outside of the home?

One question which often comes up is "How am I going to teach my kids six hours a day?" And I respond to that by saying, "Who's teaching your kids six hours a day now?" I was a good student in supposedly the best schools and it was a rare day that I got five minutes of teaching... that's five minutes of somebody's serious attention to my personal needs, interests, concerns, difficulties, problems. Like most other kids in school, I learned that if you don't understand what's going on, for heaven's sake, keep your mouth shut. What happens when children become ill, or have an injury, etc.? Home teachers come in for three to five hours a week. It has been found that this is perfectly sufficient. These children don't fall behind. No child needs, or should stand, six hours of teaching a day, even if a parent were of a mind to give it. It would drive them up the wall!

How are homeschoolers evaluated when they go to enroll at the university level?

Just like anyone else. You know, there are these tests you can take... the College Boards, the SAT, and so forth. Actually, homeschoolers do exceptionally well on these things. They're more motivated to learn what areas will be covered, and prepare for them.

Does it sometimes happen that a homeschooling student will express a desire to go to or return to traditional schooling? How do parents handle this?

Various ways. Sometimes parents have to decide (we're the grownups) that we don't want them to go back to that school, and then stick with it. But other times, if the children want to go, then that means they're immune to the manipulation the schools can do with the children who don't have a choice about whether they have to be there or not. The school loses some of its power when the children know they can quit if they want.

1 Once when John Holt was speaking to a school audience, describing his views on the their structured curriculum, a student asked him, "But surely there must be something important enough that everyone should learn it?" He thought for a moment and replied, "To learn to say 'I'm sorry', 'I don't know', and 'I was wrong'." [unpublished anecdote]

Adapted from "Mothering Interviews John Holt", Mothering, Issue 19, Spring 1981, with the kind permission of Marlene Bumgarner, Mothering, and Holt Associates.

Dr. Marlene Bumgarner, parent of four children, teaches child growth and development at Gavilan College in California, and has written and lectured about children and education for over two decades. Her son John, now 24, is pictured in a photo with John Holt on the back cover of Learning All the Time (Holt, 1990). Marlene's latest book, Working With School-Age Children, was published in 1999 by Mayfield Publishing Company.

Anecdote footnote written by Jan Hunt.