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John C. Holt Remembered As 'a Champion of Children'

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Have you ever met someone who just seemed to embody all the good things you believe people ought to stand for? One of the people in my life I felt that way about was John C. Holt, the education reformer, who died Sept. 14 at the age of 62. Holt's death was a loss to American education and, in a real sense, a loss to every child in our schools.

Many will remember him as one of those woolly-headed reformers of the 1960's who led the schools down the sodden path to permissiveness. I will remember him as a champion of children.

I called him at his office in Boston about five years ago. I was writing an editorial to defend a couple who were withdrawing their son from public school and teaching him at home, and Holt was the foremost spokesman for the right of parents to do this.

Somehow we got off the subject. The same week, a 6-year-old student in a Fort Wayne public school had been severely paddled by a teacher, and I mentioned the incident to Holt. He was outraged at the teacher's conduct and moved to compassion for the child. I could hardly get him calmed down. "Terrible, terrible," he kept saying. I'm sure my news upset him for the rest of the day.

How Children Fail was his first and probably best book. It was an account of his teaching experience in two Cambridge, Mass., schools. But he told a lot of us some things about schooling in general that rang true. He told how kids were being constantly bullied and bribed in the belief that that was the only way to get them to learn. He told how the whole stifling atmosphere of schools turned kids into "answer grabbers" and "teacher pleasers."

The most time I spent with Holt was at an Education Writers Association conference in New York, in 1981. Holt was on the program, talking about home schooling and the need for choices in education. The guest speakers were seated at round tables, and the writers and others at the conference moved from group to group. Holt talked fervently about why he had given up reforming the schools: The schools were exactly what Americans wanted them to be. He struck other familiar themes. Children are just naturally smart, eager to learn, he said. Children learn best when they're happy and interested. "Teaching isn't telling," he argued.

Reporters and others drifted away from Holt's table. His was no longer a radical cry for reform. His blue eyes still flashed earnestness. But his temples had gotten gray and, in his corduroy suit and knit tie, he had acquired the rumpled air of a professor of electrical engineering. Holt had become old hat.

The guest speaker at lunch was the late Ronald Edmonds, who had done so much to implement effective-schools research in New York City and who at the time was a lecturer at Harvard.

I sat next to Holt. He was easily Edmonds's best listener. To fully appreciate this, you should know that Edmonds was a brilliant education researcher, trained in the classic tradition. Long words and complex sentences tumbled from his lips with ease. You should also know about Holt. His books are written in the simplest, most natural style. The Reader's Digest wouldn't have to edit them a bit. Holt used to write articles and give talks about writing, and told people never to use a long word or a long sentence where a short one would do the job.

Edmonds's style didn't bother Holt, though. One minute he seemed transfixed. The next minute his head bobbed, his eyebrows raised. Edmonds had him hooked. Holt reminded me of the child he described in his books--bustling with intellectual curiosity, full of energy, eager to know and understand everything.

"Wonderful, wonderful," he said aloud as Edmonds continued. At several points during the speech, which required very careful attention, Holt would nod to me and say, "Isn't this terrific?"

If somebody had ordered him to turn off his mind, he couldn't have done it to save his soul. But in my own conversations with him, Holt invariably came back to his endless fascination with children, what makes them tick and how adults can help them.

One time--I have no idea what the context was--Holt told me about a young couple who had visited his office in Boston. The couple had a small boy with them, and Holt gave the boy an armload of books to take home. Naturally, the boy couldn't hold them all, and one by one they fell to the floor. Holt, instinctively, tried to help the boy pick them up. But the boy started to cry. Then he wailed. Quickly, Holt realized he had interfered in the boy's effort to take charge of his own life and learning. Holt put the books back on the floor. The boy stopped crying and proceeded to pick the books up himself.

For Holt, the incident was a metaphor for many of the things adults do wrong with kids. They blunder in. They don't pay attention to the child. They try to help by imposing their powers on kids, just when the kids need to be developing their own powers.

I never heard the full story of how Holt got involved in the home-schooling movement. In some ways, it didn't make sense. His allies included religious fundamentalists who had withdrawn their kids from the public schools because they thought teachers were part of a great conspiracy to promote secular humanism and destroy religion.

And here was Holt, a secular humanist if there ever was one. He believed in the ability of human beings to change for the better through education. He loved great literature and music. When he was promoting his ideas and his books, he carted his cello across the country from motel room to motel room. I never did get around to reading his book--Never Too Late, My Musical Life Story--about how he learned to play the thing.

Yet he was a humanist in another way. He had deep respect for other people's beliefs and traditions. And all over the country, school districts were hauling parents into court for refusing to conform by sending their kids to school.

It offended Holt's sense of justice. Besides, he really had come to believe the public schools weren't going to change much, no matter how hard reformers fought for change. He said Americans really want the schools to grind down the individuality of children so they'll adapt to the corporate world's requirements for conformity. So people don't really want the schools to promote creativity and serious thinking, which would have been his curriculum.

Holt hated his own pessimistic conclusion, I'm sure. But he believed it. He also discovered he had become a symbol of an era that in the late 1970's and early 1980's had ever fewer defenders. It was a bum rap that Holt's work had fostered permissiveness. But it stuck, and it made him sad.

The other thing that happened, I gathered, was that he no longer received many invitations to speak to teachers' groups. "Teachers just get mad at me," he told me.

His books no longer are routinely assigned reading for education majors. Many of our younger teachers have never heard of Holt. Or if they've heard of him, they haven't read his writings, the things that were standard fare for a decade: How Children Fail, How Children Learn, The Underachieving School, Freedom and Beyond.

For the generation of teachers who got started in the 1960's, however, Holt helped define the basic issues in education for the nation: students' rights, local control, the curse of poverty on children. Holt had a lot of influence on teachers of that period, a lot more than he would own up to. Of course, there were other important school reformers who came out of that time--Jonathan Kozol, Herb Kohl, George Dennison, James Herndon, and Ivan Illich come to mind.

But for me no one better captured the belief in the great potential of all kids to learn than John Holt. It's that expectation that has become the main message of much research on good schools and good teachers: Believe in kids, they'll believe in themselves, and they'll learn.

I do have one regret about this passionate believer in learning. I wish he had had as much faith in the schools as he had in the kids. In due course, the schools' willingness to learn a few new tricks would have surprised even him.

Vol. 05, Issue 07, Page 17

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