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HOLT ASSOC IATES,INC 2269 Massac husetts Ave :ambridge MA 02140 Monday, Apri18, 1974 THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR The learning society • John Holt Is a teacher, man of lettefl, unlicensed philosopher, amateur musician (he often gets up at 4 a.m. to practiM the cello). · · • • John Holt We hear much talk these days that the society of the future will be a learning society. Not long ago some of this talk put a thought in my mind about "learning." Suppose we were in the midst of a group of people, and found after a while that most of their talk was about breathing: "You are breathing very well today." "He breathes wonderfully, don't you agree?" "1 am breathing better, but not as well as I should." "How ea.n we all improve our breatlung?" Would we not soon think that these 'people must all be sick, or just recoverJng from some trouble with their lungs? Otherwt1e, why make such .a fuss about what healthy people do naturally? If we could visit human societies in Uteir most vigorous and creative periods, when most peQPle were growing most rapidly in under· standing, competence, and sk111 say classic&l Greece, or 18th century New England - we would probably hear very little talk about "learn· ing." People were learning a great deal bec~use they were doing a great deal. because their lives made demands on, and opportunities and rewards for, their ing_enuity and intelligence. The· best learning community I have ever known, in which most people were growing most rapidly in competence, sklll, and judgment, was no£ meant to be a learning community at all. It was a u.s. submarine - the USS·Batbero - in World War II. We were not in that sub to "learn about submarlnes," but to help fight Uie war. We qever thought about learning. We were too busy rWm1ng that compllcated ship, trying to flnd and sink enemy ships, and trying to keep them from finding and us, to have time to worry about learning. Our present great concern about lear.ning, and all the time, talk, and money we spend on it, seems to me a slgn ..... one of many - that some· thing is very wrong with modem society - all modem societies. It most people had work to do that they Uked, that used and rewarded much of their intelllgence, skill, and judg· ment, work whose purposes they understood and shared and re· spected, and lf they felt that what they thought, bellev~d, wanted, said, and did made or might make a real difference, we would not~ talking so much about learning. We would. all be busy doing interesting things that mattered. In recent months I have been spending many hours a day playtng the cello, which I have only just begun to play, and whic_h I mean someday to play well. Most people would saY. 1 was "learning to play the cello." But this implies that there are two processes : (1) learn· lng to play the cello (2) playing it, and that !J.fter doing the first for a while I will stop and begin doing the second. This is of course nonsense. There are not two processes, but one. We learn to play the cello, llke anything else, by d<¥ng it. At first, we don't do it welL Later, if we have good models, and perhapS some good advice, if we play often, and always play as well as we can, we play better. There is no oth4}r way. It now seems to me vitally impor· . tant that we understand U\at this process, which some ·call learning but I call : '<Jolng," is yery different from and 1n4eed the oppos{te of the procels we call "education;" By '"doing" I ineJJt the things people do in their own time and their own way, for their.own reasons, purpoees, and satisfaction, with no more help than they want and ask for, to explore the world around them (in time as well as space) so as to gain more understanding, competence, freedom, control, and joy within it. By "edu· cation" I -mean a process in which some people decide that other people ought to be made to know, believe, and want certain things, and try to find ways to do this. I mean, in short, a process in which some people set out to shape other people., I am wholly against this process, hOwever carried out, and the system of credentials and compulsory school· ing, carrots· and sticks, which we use to carry lt out. Education and compulsory schooling seem to me ar;tong the most authoritarian of all the inventions of man, and the deepeet foundations of the slave state we are so busy making. And I am afraid that this learning society that everyone talks about will in fact be an "education" society, and that unless we take steps to prevent it the I)eople·shapers wlll find ways to keep shaping us all through our lives. I do not believe that this process o.f education, which in rival societies we quite righUy call brainwashing, can be wisely and humanely carried out. It must in the long run lead to invidious comparisons, judgments, pseudo-diagnoses and predictions, humlllation, threat, punishment and cruelty. Nor do I think that schools, as long as they are run by and work for educators rather than do-ers, can be made tnt~ places that are good for people, young or old. The only "educational reform" that seems to me serious is the task of taking the schools away from the educator$ and putting them at the service of the do-ers. This ls not a task that can be done within schools, though school people. can and should help to do Ii. n ~a political task, and one of the most urgent of1our time .. I hope we may soon get to work on lt. (§)' -tohn Holt 1874

The Learning Society

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