School is Bad for Children

by John Holt

Almost every child on the first day he sets foot in a school building, is smarter, more curious, less afraid of what he doesn’t know, better at finding and figuring things out, more confident, resourceful, persistent and independent than he will ever be again in his schooling – or, unless he is very unusual and very lucky, for the rest of his life. Already, by paying close attention to and interacting with the world and people around him, and without any school-type formal instruc­tion, he has done a task far more difficult, complicated and abstract than anything he will be asked to do in school, or than any of his teachers has done for years. He has solved the mystery of language. He has discovered it – babies don’t even know that language exists – and he has found out how it works and learned to use it. He has done it by exploring, by experimenting, by developing his own model of the grammar of language, by trying it out and seeing whether it works, by gradually changing it and refining it until it does work. And while he has been doing this, he has been learning other things as well, including many of the “concepts” that the schools think only they can teach him, and many that are more complicated than the ones they do try to teach him.

In he comes, this curious, patient, determined, energetic, skillful learner. We sit him down at a desk, and what do we teach him? Many things. First, that learning is separate from living. “You come to school to learn,” we tell him, as if the child hadn’t been learning before, as if living were out there and learning were in here, and there were no connection between the two. Secondly, that he cannot be trusted to learn and is no good at it. Everything we teach about reading, a task far simpler than many that the child has already mastered, says to him, "If we don’t make you read, you won’t, and if you don’t do it exactly the way we tell you, you can’t. In short, he comes to feel that learning is a passive process, something that someone else does to you, instead of something you do for yourself.

In a great many other ways he learns that he is worthless, untrustworthy, fit only to take other people’s orders, a blank sheet for other people to write on. Oh, we make a lot of nice noises in school about respect for the child and individual differences, and the like. But our acts, as opposed to our talk, says to the child, "Your experience, your concerns, your curiosities, your needs, what you know, what you want, what you wonder about, what you hope for, what you fear, what you like and dislike, what you are good at or not so good at – all this is of not the slightest importance, it counts for nothing. What counts here, and the only thing that counts, is what we know, what we think is important, what we want you to do, think and be.” The child soon learns not to ask questions - the teacher isn’t there to satisfy his curiosity. Having learned to hide his curiosity, he later learns to be ashamed of it. Given no chance to find out who he is – and to develop that person, whoever it is – he soon comes to accept the adults evaluation of him.

He learns many other things. He learns that to be wrong, uncertain, confused, is a crime. Right Answers are what the school wants, and he learns countless strategies for prying these answers out of the teacher, for conning her into thinking he knows what he doesn’t know. He learns to dodge, bluff, fake, cheat. He learns to be lazy! Before he came to school, he would work for hours on end, on his own, with no thought of reward, at business of making sense of the world and gaining competence in it. In school he learns, like every buck private, how to goldbrick, how not to work when the sergeant isn’t looking, how to know when he is looking, how to make him think you are working even when he is looking. He learns that in real life you don’t do anything unless you are bribed, bullied or conned into doing it, that nothing is worth doing for its own sake, or that if it is, you can’t do it in school. He learns to be bored, to work with a small part of his mind, to escape from the reality around him into daydreams and fantasies – but not like the fantasies of his preschool years, in which he played a very active part.

The child comes to school curious about other people, particularly other children, and the school teaches him to be indifferent. The most interesting thing in the classroom – often the only interesting thing in it – is the other children, but he has to act as if these other children, all about him, only a few feet away, are not really there. He cannot interact with them, talk with them, smile at them. In many schools he can’t talk to other children in the halls between classes; in more than a few, and some of these in stylish suburbs, he can’t even talk to them at lunch. Splendid training for a world in which, when you’re not studying the other person to figure out how to do him in, you pay no attention to him.

In fact, he learns how to live without paying attention to anything going on around him. You might say that school is a long lesson in how to turn yourself off, which may be one reason why so many young people, seeking the awareness of the world and responsiveness to it they had when they were little, think they can only find it in drugs. Aside from being boring, the school is almost always ugly, cold, inhuman – even the most stylish, glass-windowed,$2O-a square-foot schools.

And so, in this dull and ugly place, where nobody ever says anything very truthful, where everybody is playing a kind of role, as in a charade where the teachers are no more free to respond honestly to the students than the students are free to respond to the teachers or each other, where the air practically vibrates with suspicion and anxiety, the child learns to live in a daze, saving his energies for those small parts of his life that are too trivial for the adults to bother with, and thus remain his. It is a rare child who can come through his schooling with much left of his curiosity, his independence or his sense of his own dignity, competence and worth.

So much for criticism. What do we need to do? Many things. Some are easy – we can do them right away. Some are hard, and may take some time. Take a hard one first. We should abolish compulsory school attendance. At the very least we should modify it perhaps by giving children every year a large number of authorized absences. Our compulsory school-attendance laws once served a humane and useful purpose. They protected childrens’ right to some schooling, against those adults who would otherwise have denied it to them in order to exploit their labor, in farm, store, mine or factory. Today the laws help nobody, not the schools, not the teachers, not the children. To keep kids in school who would rather not be there costs the schools an enormous amount of time and trouble – to say nothing of what it costs to repair the damage that these angry and resent­ful prisoners do every time they get a chance. Every teacher knows that any kid in class who, for whatever reason, would rather not be there, not only doesn’t learn anything himself but makes it a great deal tougher for anyone else. As for protecting the children from exploitation, the chief and indeed only exploiters of children these days are the schools. Kids caught in the college rush more often than not work 70 hours or more a week, most of it on paper busy work. For kids who aren’t going to college, school is just a useless time waster, preventing them from earning some money or doing some useful work, or even doing some true learnings.

Objections. "If kids didn’t have to go, they’d all be out in the streets.” No, they wouldn’t. In the first place, even if schools stayed the way they are, children would spend at least some time there because that’s where they’d be likely to find friends; it’s a natural meeting place for children. In the second place, schools wouldn’t stay the way they are, they’d get better, because we would have to start making them what they ought to be right now – places where children would want to be. In the third place, those children who did not want to go to school could find, particularly if we stirred up our brains and gave them a little help, other things to do – the things many children now do during their summers and holidays.

There’s something easier we could do. We need to get kids out of the school buildings, give them a chance to learn about the world at first hand. It is a very recent idea, and a crazy one, that the way to teach our young people about the world they live in is to take them out of it and shut them up in brick boxes. Fortunately, educators are beginning to realize this. In Philadelphia and Port­land, Oregon , to pick only two places I happen to have heard about, plans are being drawn up for public schools that won’t have any school buildings at all, that will take the students out into the city and help them to use it and its people as a learning resource. In other words, students, perhaps in groups, perhaps independently, will go to libraries museums, exhibits, courtrooms, legis­latures, radio and TV stations, meetings, businesses and laboratories to learn about their world and society at first hand. A small private school in Washington is already doing this. It makes sense. We need more of it.

As we help children get out into the world, to do their learning there, we can get more of the world into the schools. Aside from their parents, most children never have any close contact with any adults except people whose sole business is children. No wonder they have no idea what adult life or work is like. We need to bring a lot more people who are not full-time teachers into the schools, and into contact with the children. In New York City, under the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, real writers working writers – novelists, poets, playwrights – come into the schools, read their work, and talk to the children about the problems of their craft. The children eat it up. In another school I know of a practicing attorney from a nearby city comes in every month or so and talks to several classes about the law. Not the law as it is in books but as he sees it and encounters it in his cases, his problems, his work. And the children love it. It is real, grown-up, true, not My Weekly Reader, not “social studies,” not lies and baloney.

Something easier yet. Let children work together, help each other, learn from each other and each others mistakes. We now know, from the experience of many schools, both rich-suburban and poor-city, that children are often the best teachers of other children. What is more important, we know that when a fifth-or sixth-grader who has been having trouble with reading starts helping a first grader, his own reading sharply improves. A number of schools are beginning to use what some call Paired Learning. This means that you let children form partnerships with other children, do their work, even including their tests, together, and share whatever marks or results this work gets – just like grownups in the real world. It seems to work.

Let the children learn to judge their own work. A child learning to talk does not learn by being corrected all the time – if corrected too much, he will stop talking. He compares, a thousand times a day, the difference between language as he uses it and as those around him use it. Bit by bit, he makes the necessary changes to make his language like other peoples. In the same way, kids learning to do all the other things they learn without adult teachers – to walk, run, climb, whistle, ride a bike, skate, play games, jump rope – compare their own performance with what more skilled people do, and slowly make the needed changes. But in school we never give a child a chance to detect his mistakes, let alone correct them. We do it all for him. We act as if we thought he would never notice a mistake un­less it was pointed out to him, or correct it unless he was made to. Soon he be­comes dependent on the expert. We should let him do it himself. Let him figure out, with the help of other children if he wants it, what this word says, what is the answer to that problem, whether this is a good way of saying or doing this or that. If right answers are involved, as in some math or science, give him the answer book, let him correct his own papers. Why should we teachers waste time on such donkey work? Our job should be to help the kid when he tells us that he can’t find a way to get the right answer. Let’s get rid of all this nonsense of grades, exams, marks. We don’t know now, and we never will know, how to measure what another person knows or understands. We certainly can’t find out by asking him questions. All we find out is what he doesn’t know which is what most tests are for, anyway. Throw it all out, and let the child learn what every educated person must someday learn, how to measure his own understanding, how to know what he knows or does not know.

We could also abolish the fixed, required curriculum. People remember only what is interesting and useful to them, what helps them make sense of the world, or helps them get along in it. All else they quickly forget, if they ever learn it at all The idea of a “body of knowledge,” to be picked up in school and used for the rest of one’ s life, is nonsense in a world as complicated and rapidly changing as ours. Anyway, the most important questions and problems of our time are not it the curriculum, not even in the hotshot universities, let alone the schools.

Children want, more than they want anything else, and even after years of miseducation, to make sense of the world, themselves, other human beings. Let them get at this job, with our help if they ask for it, in the way that makes most sense to them.

Copied from
Saturday Evening Post
February 8 1969