Many people who read my newsletter ask me to recommend other newsletters, so today I’m going to oblige… and recommend a newsletter from four decades ago.
Last month, when it became clear that our kids would be home from school indefinitely, I dug out the first collected volume of John Holt’s Growing Without Schooling. The newsletter began in 1977, to be “about ways in which people, young or old, can learn and do things, acquire skills, and find interesting and useful work, without having to go through the process of schooling.” (It continued through Holt’s death in 1985 until 2001.)
The archive of back issues is available online, and taken together, they form “a record of a grassroots movement,” a remarkable countercultural document of parents trying to figure out how to help their children learn from home at a time when homeschooling was, in many states, illegal. (Many of the issues are filled with legal advice and stories of parents’ interactions with school officials and judges.) The newsletter is also interesting from a technological and historical perspective — particularly for millennial parents who might be “digital natives” — showing how people grew community and shared knowledge without the aid of the internet. (In some ways, I think they might’ve been better off.)
Holt actually set out with the intention of making the newsletter timeless. “Most of what we print in GWS will be as useful in five or ten years as on the day we print it,” he wrote. “In that sense, the word ‘newsletter’ may be a little misleading. What we really are, I guess, is a reference book published a piece at a time.”
I’ve been particularly influenced by Holt’s book, How Children Learn. Reading GWS, I came to realize how much it seems like a first draft of his later books — if you pick up Teach Your Own or Learning All The Time, you’ll see a lot of familiar material. (In some ways, it reminds me of reading Thoreau’s journal vs. his finished essays and books.)
Starting in mid-April, I read an issue every day, tweeting out my favorite bit. While that might’ve been a little ambitious, it did what I intended it to do: it gave me a picture, from parents forty years ago, of how kids can learn and thrive at home.
I am not optimistic about the chances of schools opening later this year (or rather, I can see them opening, but not staying open) and I see many parents out there struggling with trying to figure out how to homeschool their children. I believe that Holt’s books and Growing Without Schooling provide a healthy alternative to “distance learning,” or, rather, the replication of school-like busywork done at home through the computer screen, the small amount of which we’ve already experienced as exhausting for everyone, unsustainable, and probably, ultimately ineffective. (My new favorite genre in social media is all the creative ways students have learned to get out of Zoom calls and online homework.)
The alternative is this: What if school, in fact, isn’t the best place for your kids to learn? What if you didn’t try to replicate school at home? What if you had the opportunity, now, to try something else? What if we saw this time as a radical opportunity to let our kids learn and explore their interests unfettered by the demands of the classroom? What would happen if you stopped worrying about teaching them and gave your kids the time, space, and materials to lead their own learning? What would happen if you let them in on your working life, let them see you working, involved them more deeply in the work of keeping up a house and a home life?
These are the ideas that Growing Without Schooling explored. Perhaps it’s put best by a mother in issue 2: “What I hope is that the children not only will flower more truly in their home environment, but also will be enriched by growing up with parents who are attempting to live their beliefs.”
Not every household will be ready for these ideas, but by merely reading about other modes of living and learning that other households have engaged in, we can discover new possibilities for our own.