Freedom and Beyond by John Holt
Reviewed by Francisco
The only middle school in Gainsville, Georgia, is getting
ready to make some major changes njo the way it educates its
students. The school plans to adopt the "Programs of Choice"
educational format; a format wherein students will still receive
instruction in the basic academic courses as required by the state, but
with a particular emphasis on linking the subjects together, and giving
the students more intellectual freedom.
School officials hope that this new style of education
- allowing students a greater freedom of choice concerning their
academic studies - will improve academic performance, attendance, and
This method of reasoning is not new. Indeed,
allowing students a
greater amount of
educational freedom is a central theme in John Holt's book entitled
Freedom and Beyond (1972), which attacked traditional ideas
concerning education, called for a restructuring of schools, and
addressed several problems that are often attributed to open schools and
the free schools movement. Such movements reached their peak
popularity in the 1960s and early 1970s, and were largely inspired by
the Summerhill School, which was created in England in 1921. At
the Summerhill School, students were permitted to study the subjects of
their choice, with teachers supporting their decisions.
The first part of Holt's book deals with the meaning of
freedom, and its relation to
education. Freedom, he notes, is something of which we know very
little. We have been raised to believe that the only way in which
our society can function is through the creation of rules and rigid
structures, often imposed and created by authority figures. Holt
explains the limits of freedom in education, and describes the tensions
and problems faced by free schools. He warns us not to confuse
freedom for unstructured education, devoid completely of any rules.
Such a system, he agrees, cannot exist because, "Every human situation,
however casual and unforced, has a structure." In the free
schools, there is not an absence of structure, but rather, a more
Meanwhile, in regular schools, the structure revolves
information and orders to the students. It is not as though free
schools lack rules. In such institutions, children are aware of
boundaries but still allowed space for self expression and creativity.
Holt provides an example of this flexible structure by describing a
British school, run by psychologist Margaret Lowenfeld, which had a
special room designed for those people who wanted to make a mess, and a
soundproofed room for those who wanted to make noise. However, in
regular schools and in society at large, we often find rules that are
vague and therefore, highly restrictive.
As the title of the book suggests,
beyond the free
schools movement. His book conveys the sentiment that learning is
a life-long process, and should not be confined to a building, separated
from outside interactions, or cut off from the real world. He also
voices the argument that we must look beyond 'education reform', as we
currently understand it, and examine our basic beliefs concerning
schools and schooling itself.
Holt stresses that reforming our educational system means
changing our conception of education, rather than simply modernizing
schools and buying more equipment. In going beyond educational
reform, the book also addresses the issue of schooling and its relation
Holt argues that schooling does not necessarily end
poverty, nor is poverty
entirely caused by a lack of education. He argues that getting a
degree will not necessarily improve a person's chance of getting a job,
if his field of specialty is already overcrowded. Schooling and
teachers are also damaging to the poor because they reinforce their
feelings of exclusion, humiliation, and inferiority.
To support this claim, Holt draws from a
in James Herndon's book entitled
The Way It Spozed to Be (1971). The passage describes a white
teacher who claimed that, while a young girl, she had been taught only
to speak to ladies and gentlemen, and that her black students were not,
and never could be, ladies and gentlemen. Therefore, she refused
to speak to her black students for the entire school year, and sent
them away from the room if they attempted to speak to her.
Herndon's book contends that a deschooled society would
appropriate for the poor. Such
a society would provide them with different paths of learning and
advancement, rather than the singular path provided by our rigid
educational system, which is too narrow and often fraught with
obstacles that specifically hinder the poor. Herndon also argues
that open or free school may be a waste of time and money for the poor,
and further notes that, only recently have we come to accept the notion
that learning best takes place in an institution. Such a notion
makes education a costly endeavor for our society.
Holt goes on to argue against big budgets for
instead a more hands-on
approach to learning where students are productive as they learn.
Holt notes the idea proposed by social scientist Paul Goodman, who
suggested paying a small salary to many kinds of workers and craftsmen
- i.e. garage mechanics, carpenters, etc. - in return for which they
would agree to let some children observe them working, and answer any
questions about their work.
The book concludes by pointing out that schools have
their principal mission: to promote the
growth of the children in them. Instead, they have been relegated
to a custodial function where they resemble jails instead of centers of
learning. In such a system, students don't feel compelled to
learn, and will often act in a way that makes it difficult for others
The book also criticizes school sports for creating an
"winners and losers," the indoctrination in which
schools engage, and state school attendance laws, which, if they must
exist at all, should allow students to choose the days on which they
will attend. Finally, Holt implores us to end the "tyranny" that
schools exercise over our children, stating that this is the only way
we can save their souls.
Holt, J. (1972) Freedom and Beyond
(Innovators in Education). Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.
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