This post reviews Roland Meighan, John Holt (London: Continuum, 2007).
Roland Meighan, a British intellectual/activist and the driving force behind Educational Heretics Press, (whose website houses an archive of his articles), here provides a guide to the educational writings of John Holt, a leading American critic of public education in the 1960s, who in the late 1970s became the key public voice of the homeschooling movement for nearly a decade. Holt’s death in 1985 is one of several factors that led to the shift of leadership in the homeschooling movement away from an eclectic mix of viewpoints to dominance by conservative Protestants.
A good biography of John Holt is sorely needed, and I had hopes that Meighan would give us something like that here. But the bulk of this book is simply a summary of Holt’s own books. Readers looking for a quick orientation to John Holt’s writings will find the summaries very useful. They are well written and reveal Holt’s main concerns and the evolution of his thinking. But there is not much here by way of analysis.
The section in my own book on John Holt took a good bit of time and effort, largely because no scholar has of yet taken the abundant source material available to produce a comprehensive biography. Meighan here adds nothing new to what is already known about Holt, and even in the two introductory chapters that do deal with Holt’s life and thought in a comprehensive way do not cite any sources or interact with what little scholarship is already out there on him.
After his 11 chapters summarizing 10 books and the magazine Growing Without Schooling, Meighan ends with two chapters assessing Holt’s significance. The penultimate chapter summarizes Holt’s answers to many of the standard criticisms of homeschooling. For example, when faced with the criticism that many homeschooling parents will likely pass on narrow, perhaps bigoted ideas to their children, Holt responds, in Meighan’s words,
…in a free country you can believe what you like. Schools act as if it is clear what ideas should be taught and which should be frowned on as narrow or bigoted, but who is to say which set of ideas should be imposed? Moreover, schools do not seem to be any good at actually changing negative attitudes. Newspapers and television show that there is plenty of prejudice left…(p.144)
Repeatedly, Meighan shows, Holt responded to homeschooling’s critics by reminding them that public schools are not models of socialization, academic achievement, diversity, or whatever. Since the schools have failed so miserably, why not give parents the freedom to try another approach?
In the final chapter Meighan assesses Holt’s relevance today, focusing especially on the British context. He notes that the “personalized learning” movement that has recently become popular in the UK could be interpreted to incorporate many ideas that are quite close to Holt’s vision. Meighan articulates a strategy of personalized learning that emphasizes student initiatives, informal pedagogy, and noncoersion.
In conclusion, I can only recommend this book for its “Cliffs Notes” version of Holt’s books. Readers wanting a more robust treatment of Holt’s life will still have to rely on incomplete accounts such as my own, Susannah Sheffer’s introductory chapter in her A Life Worth Living: the Selected Letters of John Holt (1990), or the relevant sections of Casey Patrick Cochran’s excellent dissertation, “The Home Schooling Movement in the U.S.: Georgia as a Test Case” (1995). The world still awaits a full treatment of this deserving homeschooling pioneer.