I have been re-reading John Holt's seminal work "How Children Fail" and have been struck as never before by what an insincere idiot the man is. Since almost the whole of the book is taken up with his own teaching methods and the anecdotes are all of how these techniques failed to help the children in his class, it might have been more honest had he called the book, "How I Failed Children"! Probably not as catchy a title though.
For those fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with this book, it is a collection of folksy anecdotes from John Holts teaching days. He gives heart-warming examples of how his insight into the little darlings developed and the entire thing becomes one long and overblown case of arguing from the particular to the universal. One statement at the end of the book struck me as spectacularly foolish even by Holt's standards. he says, "We cannot possibly judge what knowledge will be needed forty, or twenty, or even ten years from now."
I truly cannot imagine anybody making such a statement and not realising as they did so that it was sheer nonsense. In ten, twenty or forty years time the knowledge of percentages and how to calculate them will still be needed, in order that people do not get exploited by unscrupulous shops and banks. Africa will still be pretty much where it is now and the people there will still be fighting over scarce resources, while those from more economically developed nations try and buy them cheaply for their own use. The Earth will still be revolving around the Sun and turning once on its axis every twenty four hours. A knowledge of history will still be vital if one hopes to understand the present. It will still be necessary to know of the Kinetic Theory of Matter if one wishes to make sense of the physical world.
I could go on indefinitely, but the point is made; we can easily set down a body of knowledge which would be of enormous use to a person in ten or twenty years time. It would not be complete and some details might alter, but the knowledge that was on offer in schools and colleges in 1999 or 1989 or even 1969 is still useful and relevant to us today. The fact that John Holt could make such a strange assertion makes me suspect that he is not particularly good guide to the world of childhood learning and that we should be a little cautious in taking what else he says at face value without delving a little deeper.
His challenges to orthodox thinking about childhood development are founded upon such flimsy evidence that it is simply breathtaking. Here he is, doubting what scientists have to say on the subject of small children's co-ordination; "My seventeen month old niece caught sight of my ball-point pen the other day, and reached out for it. It has a plastic cap that fits over the point. She took hold of it, and after some pushing and pulling, got the cap off. After looking it over, she put it back on. A good game! Now, if I want to be able to use my pen, I have to keep it out of sight, for when she sees it, she wants to play with it. She is so deft in putting it back on that it makes me wonder about all I've read about the lack of coordination in infants."
Isn't this great? He spends an afternoon with a toddler and this one incident makes him dream up a new theory of childhood development! I love it. This is no isolated example, the man seems to have spent his whole life watching trifling interactions like that between children and adults, children and their environment. No harm in that you might say, except that it caused him to create and market to the credulous and willing an entirely new and demonstrably false view of children. What is worse, there is a self aware worthiness about his writing which makes it plain that he knew, even as he was writing, that he was a wise and humane man struggling against the hidebound orthodoxy of the old and sterile theories which then held sway. Do not buy this book or give it as a Christmas present!