As often happens, his lecture rambled, following the convolutions of his thoughts. He has a high, flat
voice, and he spoke slowly, at times stopping dead in mid-sentence to better collect his thoughts. He talked
about the failure of schools and the future of homeschooling, using phrases that were as well-worn and
familiar to his devotees as a neighborhood walking path but if they had heard it or read it all before, they
seemed not to mind it.
"We don't need to be taught how to learn: we're born knowing and wanting to. It's our nature, our
genes, our biological inheritance. The hardest thing for parents to learn is hands-off. Teach less, not
"Beyond a very small dose, teaching impedes learning. The way we can help learning is by answering
their questions if and when they have them, helping them, if and when they ask for help."
A woman stood up. "I'm a professional educator," she said, "though I hate to say it in this
room. It doesn't seem to me that public schools are to blame; they aren't the villains."
He answered sharply. "The word 'villain' didn't come into the conversation until you put it in.
Neither did the word blame. You brought these words with you."
During his lunch a dark-haired woman came over. "What bothers me," she said, "is that there
seems so much chance in letting children decide what they want to learn. Shouldn't there be an element of
something more than chance?"
"Well," he said, "we disagree on the amount of chance."
"I don't know," she persisted, "I just think there is so much we can?"
He cut her off. "Fine, if that's what you think. Good. You have a right to think it. I think something
The woman paused bewildered. She seemed to expect something more, but Holt's hunch was that she just wanted
to argue. After many lectures people ask him. "How can you be so patient?" but on this day his
patience wore thin. He was as he said, "All argued out. It's a waste of time." He noticed a baby
crawling in the center of the floor. Somebody had dropped an orange and the baby was crawling towards it. He
walked over and leaned down. He wanted to see what the baby did with the orange.
As a young man John Holt had no interest in children. He wanted to be a physicist. He was the oldest of
three children in a well-to-do family. His father was an insurance broker who raised his children between New
York City and fashionable Connecticut commuter towns. By the ninth grade Holt was attending a prestigious New
England boarding school, and later an even more prestigious eastern university, but he always requests that
their names not be revealed.
"I no longer believe in degrees" he says, "and if I could get rid of mine I would. I quit
answering questions about my educational background a long time ago, except to say the things I'm supposed to
know so much about I never learned in schools."
He refers to his childhood as "gloomy" and by his own account he was unpopular in his teen years.
But at boarding school he often found classmates outside his door at exam time. The word had spread that Holt
could explain how to do math and science better than the teachers. By the time he went to college he
desperately wanted to be liked. "The more I worried and the harder I cried the less liked I seemed to
be." But at college too the lines formed outside his door for tutoring and advice on term papers. It was
in 1940 and to flunk out meant certain military duty. He was never one to turn anybody away. "If somebody
were to ask me what sort of a name I would apply to myself," he says, "I would say, I am a
problem-solver. I like to solve my own problems and if people ask me, help to solve theirs."
He graduated from college in 1943 and was commissioned an officer on the submarine Barbero, which he calls,
"the best learning community I have ever known."
"I was 21 and this was the first real job I'd ever done. It became my job to keep the boat in
underwater balance to prepare it to dive every day."
"Once when I was officer of the deck the captain came on deck. He said, "You know, Jack, you're
not a passenger up here. You can turn this thing in a big circle if you want to." But what he was really
saying to me was, "If you have to turn it in a circle in order to feel that you really have the power to
do it; then do it." And that ten-second sermon had a great effect on me."
The submarine sank two enemy ships in the Java Sea before it was damaged by a bomb. On the way to Pearl
Harbor after repairs, word came that Hiroshima had been destroyed by an atomic bomb. Holt, the former physics
student, thought world devastation would be only a matter of time. He saw a solution in world government, and
when he was discharged he began working for the World Federalists in New York City.
He stayed six years, giving over 600 lectures, bombarding newspapers with letters, and in his travels
becoming an instant uncle to over 50 World Federalist families.
He toured Europe for a year after leaving the organization, and when he returned home he visited his
sister, who lived near Santa Fe. He said he was thinking of becoming a farmer. She replied that he was
wonderful with her children, so why didn't he teach? No, he said, that didn't sound very pleasant.
But she persisted and told him to visit Rocky Mountain School near Aspen, which had just opened. They would
grow their own food; he could learn farming there.
He liked the school and stayed without pay in exchange for room and board until a regular teacher quit and
he was hired. He slept in a converted woodshop, stepping over mounds of sawdust to reach his cot. "They
gave me the bad students to teach," he says "but it has always been from the bad students that I
learned something. You may have fun talking to the A students but you don't learn anything about teaching from
Four years later he moved east to Boston. He was then 34 years old. He came to study music and a friend
offered him an apartment at the foot of Beacon Hill where Holt has made his home ever since. He began
observing a fifth grade class in an exclusive private school.
The school hired Holt but within a year grew disenchanted by, among other things, his insistence that
testing was probably harmful to learning, and fired him. He taught in two other private schools, but his
beliefs about learning met with little favor there either, and again he was fired.
"Schools were always a means to an end for me," he says. "I had to work in schools in order
to answer my questions on learning and children's intelligence. But I never identified myself as a
schoolteacher. So today when some people who still want to reform schools accuse me of desertion, my feeling
is that I never signed up in that army in the first place."
Holt's friends, when asked to describe his approach to life call him "childlike". "I am
happy to say they're right," Holt says.
Sometimes, in his enthusiasm, he fails to realize that everything that happens to him, everything he
observes, may not interest others equally. "He will cook a potato," says a friend, "and when he
tells about it, it will be like he's the first person who ever cooked a potato."
He has already made plans about how he will handle his eventual demise, an experience he intends to take
full advantage of. "I'm going to be the central actor in the drama of my own death," he says.
"I'm going to say to whoever comes by, 'Death is the agenda here. I've done lots of other things and it's
what I have left to do. If you don't want to talk about it, don't come here.'"
Holt says, "I like listening more than talking most of the time. One of the things I like most about
visiting friends is that I get a vacation from talking."
His friends smile at this view of himself. When he visits friends he often will talk from Friday to Sunday,
spilling out ideas, describing his dreams, discussing books and concerts. His friends will be worn from the
effort to keep pace, while he leaves invigorated. He takes his deepest quiet from music. "One of the best
things I like about my cello is that it is worthless," he says, but once after playing a duet with a
five-year-old girl, he emerged from the bathroom of his host, yellow toothbrush protruding from his mouth, to
exclaim. "We need more fun in music. More giggles. Did you notice how her bow hand relaxed when she
"His feelings lie very close to the surface," says a friend. "When he's with us we're either
laughing or crying. Whenever he tells a story he is not just telling it, he's reliving it for us."
He is always moved when telling of his friendship with A.S. Neill, the famed founder of Summerhill School
in England. He met Neill for the first time in 1965, shortly after How Children Fail came out, and was
to be heir to Neill's belief that children can be trusted to learn about their world with little adult
interference. And in the crusty Scotsman who delighted in bawdy Scottish jokes told in a thick burr, Holt had
found a friend.