John Holt, Ex-Teacher and Advocate of Reform, Dies

Times Staff Writer

John Holt, a one-time teacher whose first published views on education encouraged the reform of public schools but who most recently urged that children be taught at home, is dead of cancer.

He was 62 when he died Saturday at his home in Boston.

Holt was a lifelong bachelor who refused to discuss his own education (the New York Times reported on his death that he was a graduate of Yale University with a degree in industrial engineering). His early books on school reforms were critically acclaimed, although his latest, on abandoning public education, were roundly criticized.

He said he reached his position on “unschooling” after realizing that if school reforms were truly possible and effective, they would have eliminated his objections many years before he published “How Children Fail” in 1964.

That book emanated from a diary he kept while teaching at two private elementary schools in Massachusetts. Educators hailed that work for its insight into how children really feel about school, and it made Holt a popular figure on the lecture circuit and resulted in his being named a consultant to several school systems across the nation.

‘Fit to Take ... Orders’

Holt’s contention in his first and second (“How Children Learn”) books was that children are not taught to develop their minds but to only seize on answers teachers expect them to give.


“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,” he wrote in the 1960s, adding that the child leaves school “fit only to take other peoples’ orders.”

Within a decade, however, Holt was at the forefront of a movement to keep children home and tutor them there.

In a 1981 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Holt acknowledged that he was not overly optimistic about parents becoming teachers. “The bottom line is that most people don’t like their kids that much. . . . Most parents can’t wait to send their children to school every morning.”

He had published “Teach Your Own,” which contains methods for parents to circumvent mandatory school attendance laws, that same year. Earlier he had established “Growing Without Schooling,” a magazine on home education.

Likened to GM

He likened his movement to General Motors finally yielding to public demand and making smaller cars. “They started making small cars only when people quit buying General Motors cars and started buying small Japanese cars.”

Holt said he was confident that a parental outcry would have the same effect on public education. His “unschooling” concepts fell afoul of state and local school laws, however, and recent estimates are that fewer than 10,000 American parents are tutoring their children at home.