Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book of Homeschooling

I believe this book is the first book on homeschooling I've read cover to cover. Apparently John Holt's earlier book Teach Your Own: A Hopeful Path for Education is a homeschooling classic (specifically about what is perhaps unfortunately named unschooling). His protégé Patrick Ferenga has taken that book and updated it. Overall, I enjoyed it, but as I read it, I was glad I hadn't read any until we'd already been homeschooling for years. I came to basically the same conclusions, but in my own way.

I'll start with a few small and probably petty annoyances. One of the authors commented that nobody would need to "learn computers" at school because it's easy to teach yourself or take a community class. But what he actually meant was learning to use spreadsheets and word processors, hardly what I think of when someone says "learn computers". Programming, troubleshooting software or hardware, etc. are far beyond mere user semi-competence. Mind you, many of the best hackers are self-taught, so this is no endorsement of formal computer education (of which I have next to none anyway). But it's like the sizable difference between "learning to drive a car" and "learning how to maintain and repair cars".

On page xiv of the preface, I read: "It wasn't a single homeschooling encounter, book, or research paper that convinced my wife and I to try homeschooling ..." Yes, convinced my wife and I. Well, that was Patrick. Somehow I think John Holt wouldn't have made that mistake!

In general I feel the book oversimplifies a number of things, and is overly dismissive of formal schooling methods in general. I don't think (and the book doesn't present much evidence) that formal schooling is in all places and times inherently broken. I prefer to narrow the focus to the inappropriateness of formal education for children younger than somewhere around age 13-16.

But I'm sounding too negative. The book is actually quite good, and I particularly appreciated that it didn't advocate any narrow ideological point of view (religious focus, or highly secular, or elitist). Many homeschoolers seem to have a highly rigid approach that focuses on their chosen curriculum or methods, and finds all others inferior. This book is narrowly negative and expansive, in the sense that it explicates the case for keeping kids out of formal schools, but otherwise leaving the field of possibilities wide open. And that is the approach I too have come to feel is best.

I found Patrick Farenga was in his finest form here in the book's conclusion:

To repeat once again the idea with which I began this book, it is a most serious mistake to think that learning is an activity separate from the rest of life, that people do best when they are not doing anything else and best of all in places where nothing else is done. It is an equally serious mistake to think that teaching, the assisting of learning and the sharing of knowledge and skill, is something that can be done only by a few specialists. When we lock learning and teaching in the school box, as we do, we do not get more effective teaching and learning in society, but much less.

What makes people smart, curious, alert, observant, competent, confident, resourceful, persistent--in the broadest and best sense, intelligent--is not having access to more and more learning places, resources, and specialists, but being able in their lives to do a wide variety of interesting things that matter, things that challenge their ingenuity, skill, and judgment, and that make an obvious difference in their lives and the lives of people around them. (pp. 278-279)

and later ...

... education is changing the definition of citizenship with very little debate. John Holt, in an unpublished talk to students in 1971, observed:

Thomas Jefferson felt that education was needed to help become and be what he called citizens. By "citizens" he did not mean what most of us mean when we call ourselves "taxpayers" or "consumers." A citizen was not someone who worried about how to "fit into society." He was a maker and shaper of society. He held the highest office in the Republic; public servants were his servants, not his bosses and rulers.

Being a citizen seems to mean merely being an "employed consumer" today. It is popular among today's educational policy makers to refer to children as "resources" to be developed, rather than as individuals to be nurtured. It is hard to imagine how teachers and students are expected to become citizens who "make and shape society" when so much of their time together is spent trying to "make and shape" the kids to fit the demands of twelve to sixteen or more years of school. (p. 285)

This book is not essential reading for people already homeschooling. But it's nonetheless worthwhile, and I especially recommend it for people who aren't familiar with homeschooling at all, or for homeschoolers whose teaching approach mimics the formal schools.


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