Reading John Holt just reminds me of how little things have changed in our school system particularly for the older students. Schools look and act in much the same way. No wonder Holt became disillusioned with the idea of real school transformation – just too many vested interests to alter the power of the 'status quo.'
As he wrote all those years ago,
‘schools with very few exceptions school do not give a damn what students think. Think, care about, or want to know. What counts is what the system has decided they shall be made to learn.’
For all this there are students (and parents) with the appropriate ‘social capital’ that do well but who really who cares about the rest? If they do care the ‘system’ is reluctant to change to really cater for them. In New Zealand, until Maori and other cultures become articulate enough to make the rest of us feel what institutional racism is, little will change.Until we have a change of mind we continue to expect less from too many students and often blame the students themselves for their own lack of success without even bothering to look at what schools are offering.
Holt wrote that to solve the problem of bored and alienated youths – those disengaged at school schools must
‘be places where children – and adults- may have the time and opportunity to do many great things, so as to find out which seems most worth doing.’
And Holt goes on to say students are so busy ‘taking in information and spewing it back’ to have the time to ‘work seriously’ on things of real interest. Such students will find their ‘engagement’ in other, less acceptable, ways!
John Holt values the arts
‘because they have more room for thought, effort, care, discipline and growth.’ Whatever it is that involves students must he says, ‘call on and use a large part of the energies and talents’ of the student'...‘There must be an element of challenge, of striving for perfection, or at least improvement.’ Students have to learn the power of doing things well, ‘of making things of real beauty, of striving, like every artist, for a perfection that he can never quite reach.’
In short he says
‘school must become communities in which children learn, not by being preached at, but by living and doing, to become aware of the needs of other people.’ There is a need to make schools, 'a place in which a child has so much respect for his own work that he will respect the work of others and will be naturally concerned to make the school a place where everyone can do best at whatever kind of work he wants to do.’
We have along way to go but over the years I have seen many classrooms that have achieved Holt’s vision – but few schools. It can be done; we now know enough that no student need fail if we had the wit and the imagination to change our minds first.
Holt also writes that we have the ironical situation that
‘having spent ten years making some kids hate school so much that they drop out, we then spend all kinds of money trying to figure out how to make schools attractive enough to make them want to come back. May be something should have been done sooner?’
And we are still waiting – in New Zealand 20% of students leave school with little to show for their time.