I have been idly leafing through my old copy of How Children Fail. This is such a dreadful book that it is something of a mystery to me why it has been so popular over the years. For those fortunate enough to be unaware of his work, Holt was a teacher and wrote a number of books criticising education in schools. He does not produce evidence for his views, other than basing them upon trivial events which he witnessed in the schools where he was teaching. His books are written as though by a guru, whose word one must simply take on trust for the pronouncements. This is essentially what is known in logic as 'bare assertion'. Holt makes statements and one must take his word for it. Let's look at a few examples:
Learning is not everything and certainly one piece of learning is as good
Schools should be places where children learn what they most want to
know, instead of what we want them to know
A child who wants to learn something that the school can't and doesn't
want to teach him will be told not to waste his time
These three statements were selected more or less at random from the final section of Holt's book. Let us see what we can make of them.
The first uses the neat rhetorical trick of beginning with an incontrovertibly true assertion and then following it up with a piece of nonsense. 'Learning is not everything' is of course absolutely true. The second part, 'one piece of learning is as good as another' is not true. When my brother was at school, he had no interest in anything but sport, particularly football. Although he made great efforts to avoid learning anything that he was taught, he memorised a huge amount of information relating to football. He could tell one which teams won which matches, going back for decades. In addition to this, he knew who had scored the winning goals and a lot more besides. If Holt's claim that 'one piece of learning is as good as another' were true, then in later life my brother should have found the knowledge of who scored the winning goal in the FA cup final in 1957, every bit as useful as understanding percentages as they are used in loan rates. I can assure readers that this has not been the case! Not all pieces of learning are as good as each other.
When Holt tells us that 'schools should be' this or that; it means nothing. he is really saying that he would like schools to be this way; not that there is any reason why they should be like that. I dare say that if I said here that schools should have all the desks facing the front, the teacher imposing silence and the return of the cane; it would be easier to spot this flaw in reasoning. If I said that schools should be like this, all I would be doing would be exposing my own personal prejudices, not saying anything at all profound.
What about the final statement, 'A child who wants to learn something that the school can't and doesn't want to teach him he will be told not to waste his time'. Who on earth will tell him that? His parents? His teacher? It sounds a bit mad, really. Is Holt saying that if a child wishes to go to ballet classes or learn Latin in his spare time, somebody will tell him not to, because it is a waste of time? I never heard of such a thing, although I suppose that some parents might feel that way. Is this a general thing though? One suspects not. And if it is not common, why on earth mention it in this way as though it were a universal practice for parents and teachers to disourage children from having hobbies and learning things out of school? The whole of Why Children Fail is like this; Holt's own opinions and prejudices tricked out as folk wisdom. Not only that, but the entire thing is served up in a mawkish and avuncular manner, as though Holt sees himself as the wise old village elder, transmitting his ideas to the next generation. Not a recommended read.