A LIFE WORTH LIVING: SELECTED LETTERS OF JOHN HOLT (Ohio State University Press, 1990)
INTRODUCTION by Susannah Sheffer
John Holt (1923- 1985) was a writer, teacher, and amateur musician, who came to public attention when his first book, How Children Fail, was published in 1964. The book was a collection of memos and letters about life in the fifth grade classroom in which Holt taught, and its critique of conventional schooling helped set the school reform movement of the 1960s in motion. After graduating from college in 1943 (an institution that he later would not name, believing that "a person's schooling is as much a part of his private business as his politics or religion"), Holt served for three years on a submarine during World War II, worked in the World Government movement, and finally took a teaching job at a small, experimental boarding school in Colorado. He had no idea that education would become his life's work until he began to ask himself why his students weren't learning what they were supposed to be learning, and found that he had something to say about why that might be, and what we might do about it. The public response to How Children Fail showed that people were interested in the opinions of this previously unknown elementary school teacher. By the mid-1970s, when How Children Fail was ten years old and Holt's name had become widely known, he appeared to have given up on schools. The teacher who had cared so passionately about making schools into better places for children seemed to have lost interest. He no longer spoke at meetings if school reform was the topic. He wrote about a society without schools, rather than a society with better schools. To many of his audiences and readers, and likewise to his colleagues in the reform movement, it seemed as if John Holt had left the fight. But he did not so much leave the fight as reconceive it, redefine what needed to be done. To the extent that he did, in fact, give up the idea that reforming schools was possible or desirable, the giving up was not easy. It was, as he later wrote, one of the hardest things he ever had to do.
This introduction, by Susannah Sheffer, to her selection of letters by John Holt is one of the best summaries of Holt's life and work.