Books I Want My Kids to Read Someday #75: "Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of Homeschooling" by John Holt and Pat Farenga

Dear kids,

Teach Your Own: The John Holt Book Of Homeschooling by John Holt and Pat Farenga isn’t my favorite John Holt book. But anything with his name on it is a push of the “Buy Now” button on Amazon for me.

Notable Quotes:

  • One morning in Boston, as I walked to work across the Public Garden, I found myself imagining a huge conference, in a hotel full of signs and posters and people wearing badges. But at this conference everyone seemed to be talking about breathing. “How are you breathing these days?” “Much better than I used to, but I still need to improve.” “Have you seen Joe Smith yet—he certainly breathes beautifully.” And so on. All the meetings, books, discussions were about Better Breathing. And I thought, if we found ourselves at such a conference, would we not assume that everyone there was sick, or had just been sick? Why so much talk and worry about something that healthy people do naturally?
  • If there were no other reason for wanting to keep kids out of school, the social life would be reason enough. In all but a very few of the schools I have taught in, visited, or know anything about, the social life of the children is mean-spirited, competitive, exclusive, status-seeking, snobbish, full of talk about who went to whose birthday party and who got what . . .
  • Years ago I read that one or more inner-city schools had tried the experiment of letting fifth graders teach first graders to read. They found, first, that the first graders learned faster than similar first graders taught by trained teachers, and secondly, that the fifth graders who were teaching them, many or most of whom had not been good readers themselves, also improved a great deal in their reading.
  • We can sum up very quickly what people need to teach their own children. First of all, they have to like them, enjoy their company, their physical presence, their energy, foolishness, and passion. They have to enjoy all their talk and questions, and enjoy equally trying to answer those questions. They have to think of their children as friends, indeed very close friends, have to feel happier when they are near and miss them when they are away. They have to trust them as people, respect their fragile dignity, treat them with courtesy, take them seriously. They have to feel in their own hearts some of their children’s wonder, curiosity, and excitement about the world. And they have to have enough confidence in themselves, skepticism about experts, and willingness to be different from most people, to take on themselves the responsibility for their children’s learning. But that is about all that parents need.
  • During his early years, my wife and I and a couple of friends taught him all he wanted to know, and if we didn’t know it, which usually was the case, it was even better for we all learned together. Example: at 7, he saw the periodic table of elements, wanted to learn atoms and chemistry and physics. I had forgotten how to balance an equation, but went out and bought a college textbook on the subject, a history of discovery of the elements, and some model atoms, and in the next month we went off into a tangent of learning in which somehow we both learned college-level science. He has never returned to the subject, but to this day retains every bit of it because it came at a moment in development and fantasy that was meaningful to him.
  • A very important function of institutions of so-called higher learning is not so much to teach people things as to limit access to certain kinds of learning and work. The function of law schools is much less to train lawyers than to keep down the supply of lawyers. Practically everything that is now only done by people with Ph.D.’s was, not so very long ago, done by people with no graduate training or in some cases even undergraduate training.
  • Q. I don’t want to feel I’m sheltering my children or running away from adversity. A. Why not? It is your right, and your proper business, as parents, to shelter your children and protect them from adversity, at least as much as you can. Many of the world’s children are starved or malnourished, but you would not starve your children so that they would know what this was like. You would not let your children play in the middle of a street full of high-speed traffic. Your business is, as far as you can, to help them realize their human potential, and to that end you put as much as you can of good into their lives, and keep out as much as you can of bad. If you think—as you do—that school is bad, then it is clear what you should do.
  • Q. I value their learning how to handle challenges or problems. . . . A. There will be plenty of these. Growing up was probably never easy, and it is particularly hard in a world as anxious, confused, and fear-ridden as ours. To learn to know oneself, and to find a life worth living and work worth doing, is problem and challenge enough, without having to waste time on the fake and unworthy challenges of school—pleasing the teacher, staying out of trouble, fitting in with the gang, being popular, doing what everyone else does. Q. Will they have the opportunity to overcome or do things that they think they don’t want to do? A. I’m not sure what this question means. If it means, will unschooled children know what it is to have to do difficult and demanding things in order to reach goals they have set for themselves, I would say, yes, life is full of such requirements. But this is not at all the same thing as doing something, and in the case of school usually something stupid and boring, simply because someone else tells you you’ll be punished if you don’t. Whether children resist such demands or yield to them, it is bad for them. Struggling with the inherent difficulties of a chosen or inescapable task builds character; merely submitting to superior force destroys it. 
  • This is the opposite of the “charisma” that we hear so much about. Charismatic leaders make us think, “Oh, if only I could do that, be like that.” True leaders make us think, “If they can do that, then by golly I can too.” They do not make people into followers, but into new leaders. The homeschooling movement is full of such people . . .
  • The elephant in the jungle is smarter than the elephant waltzing in the circus. The sea lion in the sea is smarter than the sea lion playing “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” on some instrument. The rat eating garbage in the slums is smarter than the rat running mazes in the psychology lab. The crawling baby, touching, handling, tasting everything it can reach, is smarter than the baby learning, because it pleases his mother, to touch his nose when she shows him a card with NOSE written on it.
  • Intelligence, as I wrote in How Children Fail, is not the measure of how much we know how to do, but of how we behave when we don’t know what to do. It has to do with our ability to think up important questions and then to find ways to get useful answers.
  • This ability is not a trick that can be taught, nor does it need to be. We are born with it . . .
  • For instance, a British study, described in the book Young Children Learning, compared tapes of the conversations of working-class parents with their four-year-old children to those of nursery school teachers with four-year-olds. It revealed that the children who stayed home asked all sorts of questions about a diverse number of topics, showing no fear of learning new words or concepts. The children under the care of professional teachers had much less range of thought and intensity, and they asked much fewer questions . . . 
  • One thing I’ve found useful, when helping kids go through this process, is to make three lists. One list is for things that come easily, things that you would do anyway, whether or not you sat down and made a plan about them. The second list is for things that you want to work on but feel you need some help with—maybe suggestions of ways to pursue the activity, or maybe some sort of schedule or plan regarding it. The third list is for things you want to put aside for a while, things you don’t want to work on right now.
  • Nonetheless, we continue to raise the level of fear of failure in our schools as the best means for creating “good citizens,” which is the ultimate legal reason that society compels children to attend school.



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  1. I have nothing against homeschooling. Parents who do it for the right reasons should be applauded. Parents who do it right should be applauded.
    What I have seen, however, are many parents who homeschool because they think it is easier and will cost less. I have seen those who don’t teach the child at all and now the child is another year behind the rest. Done right, and I know some who do, it is a blessing. Let’s just figure out how to separate the right ones from the wrong ones. Yearly testing certainly helps, but somehow, if you don’t teach your child, there should be / might be some consequences to the parent? Hmmm, just a thought.