John Holt's Instead of Education (1976)

& (verbiage overflow)Mon 14 August 2017RSS

A couple of months ago I read John Holt's Instead of Education: Ways to help people do things better (1976; Boulder: Sentient Publications, LLC, 2004). My reactions:

Interesting ideas

Escape. I like the last line of the book: "Let all those escape [compulsory schooling] who can, any way they can" (p. 222). That has worked for me, and I'm in favor of it for others. Holt also proposes "a new Underground Railroad, to help children escape from S-chools" (p. 218). At the same time, I'm not sure I believe my own meandering development up to this point can or should be replicated closely.

Coercion. some sections of Chapter 3 ("Nothing to Do with Gerbils", "Nothing to Do with Rules", pp. 20-22) show a subtle point that had not been evident to me from presentations I had read of his thought. He is opposed to coercion in the matter of whether or not you go to school, but not necessarily within a school once you go. It's an interesting distinction.

Holt praises as "s-chool" (the good kind of school) certain kinds of institutions that he says are "very tightly and rigidly structured," imposing "the most intense and inflexible discipline," and "demanding, intensive, formal, and tightly organized." At such places, including martial arts schools and dance schools, "the discipline is exact and intense." Perhaps amazingly, "as long as [students] stay in the class, they have no choices at all." Again, these are among the kind of school he approves of.

Holt's key objection to "S-chools" (the bad kind of school) is not that instruction is inflexible and denies students choice; he is concerned with "the degree to which the students are free to choose to spend their time with [the teacher] or not, do what he is doing, use his help, listen to and accept or reject his ideas." Holt wants students to be able to choose to, or not to, go to a school — how the school or the teacher chooses to run the curriculum seems to be the school or the teacher's business, and if you don't like it, you should be free to leave.

He writes: "The difference between s-chools and S-chools has nothing whatever to do with pedagogy, with philosophies of education, ways of teaching, curricula, materials, and so forth. … The only choice society offer[s students is], go to this school or some other school. Any school which is part of such a system of coercion is a S-chool."

Guidance. In Chapter 7, he describes "the true t-eacher, the master": As he sharpens the student's movements, he sharpens the criteria by which the student will later judge and correct his own movements. The true master does not want to make the student into a slave or puppet, but into a new master. He is not a behavior modifier. He does not move the student by imperceptible steps toward an end which only he, the master, can see. He seeks instead to give the student greater control of his own behavior, so that he may move himself toward his own ends..." (p. 58).

I like that "master" recalls the master-apprentice relationship, although elsewhere Holt says that some excellent teachers are not themselves masters of what they teach.

Teacherless textbooks. He has some thoughts about an idea that has motivated me for a long time: how do I enable independent learners to get training in subjects in which I have proficiency but that I may never have a chance to teach them in person?

In Chapter 7, Section "Feedback without a Teacher," Holt asserts "it must always be the first and central task of any teacher to help the student become independent of him, to learn to be his own teacher. The true teacher must always be trying to work himself out of a job." (p. 66)

Chapter 8: "I was once very interested in the idea of teacherless textbooks, particularly in Math. Math teachers seemed so unable to answer most students' questions that I thought, why can't we have a textbook that will answer them?" (p. 87). He concludes that "[we would] have to explain the explanations, and then explain them, and so on. The reason why the human t-eacher is at best so infinitely quicker and more flexible than a book or machine, is that with a t-eacher (but not a T-eacher) the student can begin with what he knows and what he wants to find out. He can ask the question he wants, and if the answer is not clear, do whatever he needs to do to make it clear" (p. 87).

I like that he considered the idea, but his argument against it seems to me both weak and dogmatic. There is such a thing as doing a good job that is nonetheless not perfect, but it is still a good job.

Mutual feedback. "People very often work more effectively in a group. Not all people, not always, and not for all kinds of work. Some people are loners and some work, like writing, is usually best done alone. But much of the time people can do far more working with others than they could all by themselves. They give each other a sort of collective feedback. These children knew or sensed that it was highly probably that any of their answers was right if they all agreed on it. Not that they were democrats, believing that the voice of the people is the voice of God; like all young children, they were aristocrats and anarchists. But they had all learned from experience that it was very unlikely, if a mistake had been made, that they would all make and agree on the same mistake." (p. 103).

The school [Ny Lilleskole] tries not to decide things on the basis of close votes; people look instead for solutions with which everyone or nearly everyone can agree. (p. 126)

Ivan Illich. The one book of Illich's that I've read is full of polemic and misinformation, and my opinion of him has been bad because of it. But Holt has an account of one pedagogical idea of Illich's that seems clear-headed to me.

Holt begins by describing an idea he considers mistaken: "The teacher has infinite obligations to the student and the students in return no obligations at all. … The teacher is expected to be infinitely available, and to respond with utmost sympathy and understanding to all the needs of the students. But he cannot make any demands on them. Their needs count, his don't. The students need not come to class, but should they feel like coming the teacher must be there. The students need not read a book, but should they feel like discussing one the teacher should have read it, and if not should immediately read it. The students have a right to withdraw from or reject any discussion that does not interest them. The teacher has no such right.

"When I first went to [Centro Intercultural de Documentación (CIDOC), Illich's 'de-Yankeefication' school in Mexico] and met Illich, some such ideas were in my mind. In our earliest talks I was surprised at how strongly he resisted the idea of what was then called informal teaching, and defended instead the old-fashioned schoolmaster. Later I was surprised again by the passion with which he argued against free schools. Most puzzling of all was his fear that what people were beginning to call the deschooling of society might simply produce a society that was itself a universal or perpetual school, or his remark that a global schoolhouse would be like a global madhouse or a global prison.

"On my second or third visit to CIDOC, he told me a perplexing story. He said that after one of his talks in the U.S. someone in the audience began to criticize him sharply for not having made clear something he had been trying to say. After a while Illich interrupted him, and said with great force, 'Please sit down! I am not your teacher!' He told me this as if it were important that I understand it, and as if understanding it would make clear what in a larger sense he was saying about education and teaching. But it was still some time before I began to see what he meant.

"Only as I began to make in my own mind the distinction between doing and education, or between S-chools and s-chools, and T-eachers and teachers, did I begin to understand the passion with which Illich told the questioner that he was not his teacher. He was saying, in effect, 'I have not agreed to be your teacher, and there for am not responsible for your understanding or failing to understand anything I may say. If you want me to be your teacher, to accept a responsibility for making you learn or understand something, you must ask me. Even then I will only agree if I feel fairly certain that I can in fact teach you or help you understand. If I think I can, I will set forth the conditions, the mutual responsibilities and obligations under which I will agree to teach you. If you wish to accept them, you may. Otherwise, I accept no responsibility for making you understand, or blame if you do not. We are not talking here as teacher and pupil, but as equals, and not understanding each other is one of the risks of all such conversations.'

"It is important to understand here that Illich is saying, first of all, that the proper relationship of teacher to student is not one of equals. The student, while he is in that relationship, is in some ways (but not all) an inferior; he acknowledges and accepts that. Beyond that, Illich is saying most emphatically that not all things can be taught. … One of Illich's deepest criticisms of S-chools and S-chool people is that they do not even know or admit the distinction between what can be taught and what can not, what is not learned by being 'taught.'" (pp. 107-9)

How much of this is Holt and how much Illich I won't guess.


Much of the book has to do with things Holt doesn't like about society, especially but not only in relation to education. Almost all of that is polemical, familiar, and uninspiring. He goes long on truisms and anecdote, and it's dull. I no longer have the patience to read theories on how to solve the problems of society. Instead, I'm interested in effective strategies by which people can obtain proficiency in various skills.

There are some interesting ideas in the book, but I am put off when I find Holt returning over and over to dogmatic statements about the kinds of schools and teachers he disapproves of. He has a "tone issue" that makes my irritation fuller: he distinguishes between "s-chool" (his word for the sort of educational organization he approves of) and "S-chool" (the sort he does not). There is a similar distinction between "t-eacher" (approved of) and "T-eacher" (not). He also writes "do-er" and "do-ing", I suppose in hope of making me see these words with fresh eyes. But after seeing for the tenth time, I am revulsed and feel the author is talking down to me.

Miscellaneous inanities

In Chapter 5, he suggests that in small towns without good libraries, people "are forced into the passive amusement of watching TV. There is very little else for them to do" (p. 40). By that reasoning, people in big cities today should spend relatively little of their time on social media. But I'll bet the numbers are about the same for big cities and small towns.

P. 59: "Reading, unlike dancing, is not a muscular act." I do not agree with that. Maybe it is an easier process to master by oneself, but "automaticity" is the key — reading is not about decipherment but about training one's mind to perform the act accurately and without the need for conscious control. Holt seems to have an opinion I don't understand about the intrinsic difference between different subjects, in terms of their learnability. It comes up also in the last paragraph I quoted about Illich.

P. 205: "A teacher who does not use fear and does not need to use it, who makes his students less afraid, and so make them harder for others to make afraid, threatens every other teacher in the S-chool." I've seen teachers who use fear and teachers who do not use fear coexist peacefully and respect each other. I think this is a case (one of many) where Holt is in a rage and says things that are not sound.

P. 165: "Modern work is moronic, not by accident, but by design." Well, U.S. society is soon going to have to find something to do with tens of millions of people who are only good for doing moronic work and have been superannuated by technology. That's by design? It's going to be a political nightmare.

P. 78: "In S-chool talk, 'guidance' means being told what to do. When someone asks, 'Don't children need guidance?' he is not asking if children need advice — which in fact they do need and seek out. He is saying that children need, everywhere, always to be told what to do. The 'guide' is the person who tells them. So the word 'guide' loses its proper meanings, and we lose our sense of the ways in which one person really can guide, and so help, another." I've been to S-chools my whole l-ife. There was plenty of true guidance everywhere. Even rigid teachers who relied on fear were able to give genuine guidance to all sorts of students, one on one or in small groups. I think this is more petulant generalization on Holt's part. Really, this writer needs a strong editor.

In a lot of the book (as above) I hear him as primarily angry. What he writes in that state is not enlightening for me to read.


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All prior articles

  1. John Holt on learning in mid-life and the role of the teacher (1978)