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John Holt’s Contribution to American Education

Your obituary (Sept. 18) failed to capture the essence of the late John Holt’s estimable contribution to American education. In fact the headline, decribing Holt as an “Advocate of Reform,” was an acute--though doubtless accidental--insult to his memory. Calling John Holt an advocate of reform is rather like referring summarily to Van Gogh as a supporter of the arts.

Holt was recognized, by friends and foes alike, as the most significant American educational reformer of the 1960s and 1970s. With precision and uncommon straightforwardness, he revealed to millions of educators worldwide (his populuar books were widely translated) the mechanisms by which the modern educational machine devours our children. He labored, in bureaucratic, legal and academic circles, to dismantle some of those mechanisms, and, at Harvard and elsewhere, he called on teacher trainees to bring an end to what he saw as the “destructiveness” and “mean spiritedness” of our schools.

Though sometimes labeled as an impractical romantic, Holt was a Yankee realist, with a passion for demonstrable alternatives, who finally came to view the process of schooling itself as an unworkable and fundamentally counterproductive means of mass education. It is particulalry unfortunate that we have lost this serious educational thinker at a time when educators and editors increasingly view “reform” as a function of test scores, class size, retention rates, homework--as excalation of the very system that Holt so earnestly wanted to replace.

Holt said that he tookd some inspiration from a story about Mahatma Gandhi. He said that Gandhi once organized an important meeting of Indian leaders, only to find that the participants refused to begin the proceedings because, having discovered that the only accessible toilets were stopped up, they regarded the meeting place as inadequate. While the leaders debated at some length whether and how to postpone the meeting, Gandhi, characteristically, repaired to the latrine and himself unclogged the fixturs. In the field of education, John Holt was like that--out there making the tough calls and doing the dirty work, whereas the rest of us prefer to keep our shirts clean, and to babble on about the damndest things.

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GLENN T. GILBERT Newport Beach


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