How Children Fail
Back in 1970, when I was in high school, I found myself one day at a talk by a noted education "expert." How I got there I don't recall. At the time, education did not interest me in the slightest. I'd experienced some 12 years of schooling; what else was there to know? I had not thought much about careers at the time, but I knew one thing: I would never be a teacher. Who in their right mind would want to spend their days trying to make smart-alecky kids like me do and learn things they had no interest in?
But somehow this guy reached me. Drawing on his observations of children in the classroom and at play, he spoke in simple terms about how school kills children's innate desire to learn. I remember none of his exact words, only the feeling that I was hearing the truth about education for the first time. I picture myself sitting there, my mouth hanging open in amazement, the refrain of course, of course running over and over in my head.
The speaker was John Holt, the school critic and author who would later become the father of progressive homeschooling. It's going too far, perhaps, to say that my chance encounter with Holt that day is the reason I became a teacher and later an education journalist. But it is not a stretch to say that he was the first person to show me that schooling could, indeed should, be different—and better.
Whenever I pick up How Children Fail, Holt's first and most widely read book (more than 1 million copies have been sold since it was first published in 1964), it has that same jaw-dropping effect on me. Though I read Holt—and other schooling detractors—with a more critical eye these days, this book still bowls me over. His power of observation, the grace of his writing, and the timelessness of his message are simply unmatched in the world of education commentary. Reading this book now, I can hardly believe that he wrote most of it nearly 40 years ago; so much seems lifted right out of today's schools.
How Children Fail emerged from Holt's early experiences teaching at several elite private schools—the first in Colorado, the others in the Northeast. Painfully aware that most of his students weren't learning what he was teaching, Holt set out to discover why. He soon came to believe that the root of the problem was schooling itself.
Children begin life as eager, successful learners, Holt points out, but their lust for learning soon dies. "What happens," he writes, "is that it is destroyed, and more than by any other one thing, by the process that we misname education—a process that goes on in most homes and schools."
Schools and parents unwittingly do this damage, Holt explains, by making children perform senseless, tedious tasks; by encouraging and compelling them to "work for petty and contemptible rewards"; by breaking up life into "arbitrary and disconnected hunks of subject matter"; but most of all "by making them afraid, afraid of not doing what other people want, of not pleasing, of making mistakes, of failing, of being wrong."
And we do all this, Holt writes, "without knowing that we are doing it, so that, hearing nonsense shoved at them as if it were sense, [children] come to feel that the source of their confusion lies not in the material but in their own stupidity."
Holt lays out this harsh indictment in his final chapter. But How Children Fail is not long on sweeping generalizations; rather, it is filled with stories about the kids in Holt's classes and his thoughts as he puzzles through their struggles and failures. This is the beauty—and the weight—of the book. We know these children, and we recognize their difficulties. Holt makes us squirm because so much of what he's saying rings true.
In 1982, three years before he died, Holt revised How Children Fail, and it's this version of the book that's available nowadays. I was initially upset to hear of the reworking. Why tamper with a classic? But when I read this new edition—nothing of the old has been changed, only text added—I found the additions unobtrusive if not enlightening. In true Holt fashion, he acknowledges misinterpretations in his original text. But what leaps from the revised edition is the radicalism of the older Holt. If the young tentative teacher was out to reform schools, the elder Holt had given up on them altogether. "The proper place and best place for children to learn whatever they need or want to know," he writes in one of his add-on sections, "is the place where until very recently almost all children learned it—in the world itself, in the mainstream of adult life."
This approach may be right for a handful of our nation's children, but it certainly is not going to be the solution for the majority, at least not any time soon. Still, it would be wrong to dismiss Holt, as some do, as "that homeschooling guy" and ignore what was wise and true in his earliest writing. For if How Children Fail is about anything, it is about a faltering, painfully honest teacher who was not content to fail. "It was my job and my chosen task to help children learn things," he writes in the preface to the revised edition, "and if they did not learn what I taught them, it was my job and task to try other ways of teaching them until I found ways that worked."
In this age of standards-based reform, where states—not teachers—decide what's to be taught, these sound like fighting words.
Vol. 11, Issue 7, Pages 55-56Published in Print: April 1, 2000, as How Children Fail