School is the Place Where Children Learn to be Stupid

John Holt was an educator turned educational reformer and heretic. He was also something of a forerunner and patron saint of the Dangerous Child movement.

The following John Holt quotes are from a Mother Earth News interview in 1980.

It’s a well-established principle that if you take somebody who’s doing something for her or his own pleasure and offer some kind of outside reward for doing it—and let the person become accustomed to performing the task for that reward—then take the reward away, the individual will stop that activity. You can even train nursery school youngsters who love to draw pictures to stop drawing them, simply by giving them gold stars or some other little bonus for a couple of months … and then removing that artificial “motivation.”

In fact, I think that our society expects schools to get students to the point where they do things only for outside rewards. People who perform tasks for their internal reasons are hard to control. Now, I don’t think that teachers get up in the morning and say to themselves, “I’m going to go to school today and take away all those young people’s internal motivations” … but that’s exactly what often happens.

I’d realized, from observing and teaching, that school is a place where children learn to be stupid!

Most all youngsters are by nature smart, curious, and eager to learn. In fact—as I pointed out in my second book, How Children Learn—babies are such active, skillful seekers of knowledge that they learn more in the first five years of their lives than most older folks ever do in ten!

Holt is explaining how naturally inquisitive eager learners can be turned into dull-witted lazy minds by the school method of conditioning.

The next excerpt is from a 1980 interview with Marlene Bumgarner.

A lot of families have small businesses or subsistence farms or crafts, or various kinds of activities that the parents are involved in, which the children are also very involved in. The children just partake in the life of the adults wherever they are,and then questions are answered as they come up.

Growing up on a ranch or working farm provides an ideal environment for learning responsibility and various hands-on practical skills. But other family businesses and family workshops can also provide the same benefits.

Apprenticeships for young people can also serve as ways in which a budding youth can learn practical skills, business skills, and responsibility. Unfortunately, in the politically correct western world, child labour laws can make it very difficult for ambitious youth who want to get an early start and a leg up on the competition.

The next excerpts come from Sandra Dodd — who provides a number of useful links to interviews plus quotes.

“In a nutshell, people whose lives are hard, boring, painful, meaningless—people who suffer—tend to resent those who seem to suffer less than they do, and will make them suffer if they can. People who feel themselves in chains, with no hope of ever getting them off, want to put chains on everyone else.” —John Holt, Teach Your Own, Introduction.

“Children do not need to be made to learn to be better, told what to do or shown how. If they are given access to enough of the world, they will see clearly enough what things are truly important to themselves and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world then anyone else could make for them.” [ from "How Children Fail"]

A lot of people — including teachers — can feel themselves in chains. Today’s society makes it too easy for the educational establishment to put chains on young minds, perpetuating the cycle.

We know that after a child has been in schools for very long that they are not likely to see clearly what is important. This dumbing down and mind-blunting effect of schools has many reasons. School does seem to be “the place where children learn to be stupid.”

The next two quotes are referred to as “unsourced”, from Wikiquote

It’s not that I feel that school is a good idea gone wrong, but a wrong idea from the word go. It’s a nutty notion that we can have a place where nothing but learning happens, cut off from the rest of life.

Education… now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and fans, driven more and more, in all parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve ‘education’ but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and to allow and help people to shape themselves. _John Holt in Wikiquote

Unlike Al Fin, Holt did not always mince words when expressing his antipathy to the established system of big education.

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7 Responses to School is the Place Where Children Learn to be Stupid

  1. bob sykes says:

    This is utter nonsense. Even hunter-gatherers indoctrinate children to be good members of the tribe. Go read some Aristotle and ignore the New Age lunatics. Man is a social animal. He lives in a social context. He must know the rules.

    Also not all children are by nature smart, curious, eager to learn. Catch up on the had business. Man is an evolved animal. Every aspect of his being has a genetic component as well as a learned component. The deluded idiots you are quoting are special creationists and science deniers.

  2. bob sykes says:

    That’s hbd as in human biodiversity.

  3. Matt Musson says:

    And, as the OBama war on education continues – the fight against vouchers intensifies.
    Who will ever forget the image of Attrny General Eric Holder standing blocking the school house
    door saying, “Ignorance today. Ignorance tomorrow. Ignorance forever!”

  4. alfin2101 says:

    Bob: Hunter-gatherers were wise enough not to age-segregate children in special pens, forced to sit still and listen to a designated purveyor of officially sanctioned knowledge for 7 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 14 years of their young lives. They would have starved! Humans would have gone extinct! ;-)

    I don’t think that John Holt was anything at all as you describe. But if you can support your accusations against John Holt, please do so. He wrote several books and many videos of interviews are available on YouTube. He did not hide his ideas.

    Matt: Obama’s brave new world is all about keeping the voters dependent on big government and dumbed down. No wonder he resented what Scott Walker did to free the Wisconsin teachers and school districts from predatory unions.

  5. MC says:

    Twice in my very young educational life (both in middle school) I recognized that I knew more than the teacher just from reading books on my own. A fellow student and I realized very quickly that our algebra teacher was an idiot and we ignored her and taught ourselves together. She knew what we were doing but could not ignore perfect quiz and test results from both of us. Unfortunately the rest of the students were left behind and their further knowledge of math squandered.

  6. Borepatch says:

    Unlike Al Fin, Holt did not always mince words when expressing his antipathy to the established system of big education.

    LOL. Don’t hide your feelings, Al Fin. Tell us what you really think. And if you’re ever in the Atlanta area, I’d love to take you shooting and out for a beer afterwards.

  7. alfin2101 says:

    MC: Most teachers are unqualified to teach math, science, and technology in ways that make children enthusiastic and able to learn on their own.

    Borepatch: Thanks very much for the kind invitation. I’ll try harder in the future to express myself clearly and without equivocation.

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