Reflections on Growing Without Schooling

Susannah Sheffer and Pat Farenga

Susannah Sheffer and Pat Farenga have carried on the legacy of radical American social and school critic, John Holt, by continuing to advocate for unschooling, even after Holt’s death in 1985. In a series of interviews with Eron Sandler and Shilpa Jain, Pat and Susannah shared the following reflections on John Holt, the Growing Without Schooling (GWS) magazine, and the larger homeschooling movement in the USA.


Q: Can you tell us about the history and background of Growing Without Schooling?

Susannah: GWS was a magazine, which John Holt founded in 1977. After years of experience as a teacher, Holt came to the understanding that schools basically have bad purposes. They are a bad idea. They can’t be made good as long as they have certain purposes, which include shutting kids out of adult society, separating winners and losers, making learning compulsory and separating it from the rest of life. He thus came to the conclusion that helping kids escape from compulsory schooling was a worthwhile thing to do.

John thought, "Maybe nobody feels this way but me, but if there are others, it would be good to know about them." It turned out that, around this same time, there were some families who, as complete mavericks and pioneers, were letting their kids grow up without going to school. They managed it by doing it underground or through some loop-hole in the law. They were few and far between, but occasionally John would get letters from these folks. As the U.S. is a scattered and diverse country, he would get a letter from here and another from there, but they would be raising similar questions. So he had the idea of creating a mechanism for putting them in touch. In the times before electronic list-servs, putting out a print newsletter was a way for these people to network and share stories. It was also a forum for John, in which he could share his evolving thoughts. For example, if one mother wrote with a common question, he could publish his reply in the newsletter. That way, others would also learn from it. So, Growing Without Schooling started as a four-page, plain text, no-frills little newsletter in 1977.

Pat: It took a lot of courage for John Holt to publicly change his mind and help create alternatives to school after spending much of his life advocating for school reform and alternative schools. But he felt the best thing he could do was to help as many people as possible escape the harmful effects of schooling.


Some excerpts from Instead of Education

"What most concerns me [are] … the things that schools teaching simply by the fact of being schools, of having the power to compel children to attend, to tell them what to learn, to grade, rank, and label them. As long as schools have these powers, this part of the curriculum cannot be changed, and all who work in schools help to teach this curriculum whether they want to or not, and even when they think they are teaching the very opposite…

The first message that schools, like any other compulsory institution, send to the people who attend them is a message of distrust and contempt: If we didn’t make you come here you wouldn’t learn anything, you’d just waste your time… Along with this goes the message: Even if you could be trusted to want to find out about the world, you are too stupid to do it. Not only do we have to decide what you need to learn, but then we have to show you, one tiny step at a time, how to do it. … Learning is separate from the rest of life. If you want to learn something of any importance, you must get it from a teacher, in a school. From this it follows that understanding is not an activity but a thing, a commodity. It is not something you do or make for yourself, but something you get. It is scarce, valuable, and expensive. You can get it only from someone who has it – if he is willing to give it to you. You can’t make your own; if you do, it’s no good, you can’t get anything for it. Some people have much more of this valuable knowledge than others, and because they do, they have a right to tell others what to do."

- John Holt, 1976


Q: How did John Holt come to this radical understanding about schooling?

Susannah: John had started his career as a fairly conventional schoolteacher. He hadn’t been trained in education, so, as he later put it, he hadn’t learned the alibis that teachers are taught to give when students aren’t learning. In other words, if the kids weren’t learning what he was supposed to teach, John hadn’t been taught the conventional litany of explanations: that the child must be learning disabled, or lazy, or uncooperative. John hadn’t been taught to believe that the problem must necessarily be with the child.

Instead, he naively (in one sense) thought, "Well, if they are not learning, it must be something I’m doing wrong." He paid very close attention to the kids and what was going on in the classroom, what kids’ actual experiences were. And he saw that their experience was very different from what adults thought it was — he saw how scared kids were a lot of the time. Scared and bored. John saw how kids spent most of their time trying to figure out what the teacher wanted them to do, and then trying to figure out how to do it, or get out of doing it, or make it seem like they had done it. This was in a regular fifth grade classroom in a private school. These 10-year-olds were far less confident in learning than the babies and toddlers John had spent time with. To make a long story short, he saw that this fear was crippling their intelligence.

John did a lot of thinking about these experiences, and realized that fear is an enemy of learning, as is the assumption that children will never learn anything unless they are made to and shown how. His notes and letters from that time in the classroom eventually became the book, How Children Fail (1964), which sort of thrust him into the public light. That book was among the works that jump-started that particular wave of the school reform movement in the U.S.

Holt’s critique of schooling gradually became more radical and systemic. By the time he published Instead of Education (1976), he was critiquing the entire thing.


Pat: To answer this question in a meaningful way, we need to understand how the larger "education economy" is fundamentally flawed. How it dis-embeds learning as an integral part of our personal experience and personal growth, and embeds learning in the larger social context of market forces. How it classifies (rather than equalizes) and disempowers the vast majority of people around the world. How it turns education into a scarce commodity that is purchased and sold publicly and privately and in need of regulation by the government. The economics of education dictate that since education is scarce, there must be winners and losers, high test-scorers and low test-scorers, wealthy schools and poor schools. Schooling is the mechanism for sorting people into their economic destiny. John Holt, like Ivan Illich and others, understood this "economics of education" and committed himself to challenging it in whatever ways he could.


Q: What happened to GWS after Holt’s death? What is its status today?

Susannah: The magazine stayed in print for many years. John died in 1985 and it survived long after that, which is unusual for a small publication, started by one visionary, to do. Many would fold at that juncture. But because John’s colleagues were committed to the work and believed themselves to be capable of carrying it on, rather than just seeing themselves as followers of a leader, GWS was able to carry on as a homeschooling magazine, associated with John Holt’s philosophy. Most of our subscribers were from the U.S., but we also had several from other English-speaking countries (Canada, Great Britain, Australia) and some from Europe and Asia as well.

The magazine unfortunately had to cease publication in the fall of 2001 because of lack of funds. Some of our materials can be found on the website of Holt Associates <> and many of our back issues and other publications are available through the Family Unschoolers Network


Pat: John’s books keep his work alive; of the ten he wrote seven are still in print, and when the new edition of Teach Your Own (Perseus, 2003) comes out, I hope there will be renewed interest in his work. Individuals, such as Susannah and I, and families all over the world, have been inspired by Holt’s writing to create alternatives to school for our own, and others’, children. Holt predicted homeschooling’s rapid growth in Teach Your Own in 1981, and at the time of his death, he was pleased to see that it was growing. He was concerned though that it would become regulated into being just like conventional school.

Furthermore, John’s writing has a wide influence that goes beyond the homeschooling movement. For instance, some public school teachers, like the author of the book (and later a popular movie and TV show) Dangerous Minds, cite John Holt as their influence to try different things in their classrooms. Classical cellist Yo Yo Ma cites John Holt’s Never Too Late as a "must read" to adults beginning to learn to play music. Alfie Kohn and John Weiss, both superb critics of standardized testing and conventional schooling, mention John Holt’s work as a big influence on their own efforts. And the word "unschooling" has entered our language, a word invented by Holt.


Q: It has become very fashionable to talk about homeschooling these days. Can you share your thoughts on homeschooling and what is driving it?

Susannah: When people think of homeschooling, they most readily think it’s a matter of changing just one variable — where the schooling takes place — but otherwise keeping most things the same. Even today, many newspapers and magazines want to pose the homeschooling family at the kitchen table with workbooks. But some homeschoolers get a little feisty about this and say, "You can photograph us like that, but it would be false. That’s not what our homeschooling days look like."

In reality, homeschooling is simultaneously personal and political. As John said, "Change happens when people change their lives, not just their political parties." For many people, not sending their children to school is a way of saying many things: that school is not necessary to grow up all right in this country; that school’s assumptions about children’s learning, progress, families, needs, professionalism, are not immutable truths; that learning is a natural human function, which should not be institutionalized.

When John founded GWS in 1977, there was no one buzzword to describe the process of homeschooling. The early pioneers just talked about what they were doing. They would say things like, "I took my child out of school in fifth grade and now she learns at home." It might take a few words to say, because there was no single commonly used term. But, as tends to happen naturally when a practice becomes more common, one word emerged as the most frequent one. That word, in this case, was "homeschooling," despite the many ways in which it is misleading and inaccurate. Many of us sometimes feel that this word causes more problems that it solves, because it sounds like school at home. The concept of homeschooling in a way that does NOT replicate school is much harder for people to understand and imagine.


Pat: Perhaps one of the reasons we are witnessing the decay of support for public education (at least in America) and growth of homeschooling is that now that so many of us have passed through the educational process, we, as adults, are realizing how empty and disconnected from real life the rituals of education are. And some of us are having a hard time forcing our children to go through the exact same process.


Estimates of Number of Children Being Homeschooled in the U.S.

1983-84 : 60,000 - 125,000

1985-86 : 122,000 - 244,000

1988-89 : 150,000 - 300,000

1990-91 : 250,000 - 350,000

1995-96 : 700,000 - 750,000

1997-98 : 1,000,000

2002 : 2,000,000 +

Source: <>


Homeschooling has already grown to nearly two million children, not because it only appeals to cultural and religious conservatives, or only to cultural creatives and communards, but because it is broad enough to encompass a wide variety of rationales and approaches. Most parents are homeschooling only to help their children learn in the best possible way, not necessarily to start a social movement or prove the effectiveness of a new educational approach. Nonetheless, simply by homeschooling, every parent is demonstrating that there are many other places, people, and schedules to help children learn and grow besides those of school.


Q: Didn’t Ivan Illich use "deschooling" and Holt "unschooling?" How do these terms compare with "homeschooling?"

Susannah: Actually, Holt used both terms, and others too, pretty interchangeably, all essentially as synonyms for what is now commonly described as "homeschooling." Sometimes, these terms referred specifically to the process of getting school out of your head, out of your thinking, questioning its existence and its assumptions. Illich used "deschooling" more specifically to refer to the social and political process of making school non-compulsory and less central to the functioning of society.


Pat: I think both unschooling and deschooling are about social change as much as they are about school reform. They are about creating or reclaiming places and events for adults and children of all ages to live and learn together. In this regard, Holt was aligned with many social change movements. I have particular knowledge of those groups I first encountered when I started work at GWS in 1981, and which are still around today, such as: the self-sufficiency, Back-to-the-land movement, the La Leche League, Organic Food and Natural Parenting groups, co-housing and other communal living experiments, all sorts of religious and spiritual groups, Appropriate Technology and other movements that question the role of technology in society.


Q: Then why all the confusion about homeschooling?

Susannah: I believe the assumption that homeschooling is merely "school at home" reveals how school has imprisoned people’s imaginations, at least as much as it has their bodies. Homeschooling actually means questioning many of school’s assumptions — not just the compulsion to get up and go there each morning, but also the assumptions about dividing knowledge up into categories. Or claiming that kids don’t want to learn or that kids will not work with discipline or rigor without force. Or needing grades, or assuming that learning ends when you’re grown up, or requiring people to stay with others the same age. And on and on. What we at GWS began to ask ourselves was, "What does freeing our imaginations from these assumptions look like? What does it mean not to separate learning from life? What is or isn’t the property of school?"


Pat: One must also appreciate the diversity inherent in the homeschooling movement. Holt recognized early on that even not all unschoolers cared for his ideas about children and learning, and some were more than eager to duplicate school in their home. This did not bother him, because he felt "we should respect our differences while we work for what we agree on, our right and the right of all people to take their children out of schools, and help, plan, or direct their learning in the ways they think best." The inclusiveness of Holt’s vision of unschooling, and his determination to help, not command, people to achieve it, has been important. That’s not to say that Holt and GWS did not have their beliefs about unschooling. But they also wanted to encourage the sharing of a wide range of ideas and opinions.


Susannah: Parents used to write apologetic letters to GWS saying, "Well, we’re sort of unschoolers, but we still do things at certain times." Or, "we still believe that quality of work is important." Or, "we still believe that adult help can be valuable." There is nothing intrinsically wrong about doing things at certain times, having teachers, setting goals, or working with adults. All of those things are very much a part of the unschooling life. That people are confused about that shows how much confusion school has taught. Does school "own" the concept of doing something at a certain time? What is important for parents to focus on is whose goals are being served and who is in control of what learning is going on.


Q: What do you feel is special or unique about homeschooling and those who participate in it?

Pat: Educators spend much time and energy developing interdisciplinary studies and motivational techniques that, at best, can only be extrinsic motivators for all students, reducing learning to a race for grades and privilege for the vast majority, who are simply going through the paces of schooling. What homeschooling taps into is the intrinsic motivation of children – using the innate abilities that enable children to learn to speak, walk, and reason from their infancy until they enter school.

Homeschoolers can use classes, traditional teaching methods, even textbooks and purchased curricula, to learn what they desire to know, but they do so on their own terms. They determine what, when, why, how, and from whom they want to learn, and are therefore in an entirely different relationship with their schooling than students who are in class simply because of their age. They also have a different relationship with their families.


Q: What has been the impact of GWS, in terms of its contributions to the larger homeschooling movement?

Susannah: Basically, what makes something a movement is an awareness of the implications of one’s actions and the ability to connect with others. And that’s where magazines, support groups and conferences are so useful — for people to share information about their struggle, to assert their rights, to pool information and strategies, to collectively organize, to lobby the state legislature for better laws, etc.

GWS was practical for homeschooling because it offered details. We liked to look at how something came to happen rather than just the fact that it happened. GWS was grounded in actual experience and focused on how to live with and help young people right here, right now, not as a theoretical argument or something that might be possible in the future.

In circulating GWS, John was putting into practice what he called "the nickel and dime theory of social change". This was the idea that change doesn’t happen by yelling at people who are going in the wrong direction; rather, change occurs when people go the way they believe in going, and helping others to come along as well. Of course, you come up against various obstacles, and then your work becomes figuring out how to get around them and how to make it possible for other people to join you. John was extremely practical in allowing people to share their experiences and to connect actual families together. At the same time, he had this sense of social change, this vision, on a broader scale.


Pat: GWS has given courage to many parents to follow their convictions that their children should be allowed to learn in family and community settings outside of the school, in a way that is completely different from the prepackaged, curricular-ized experiences that fill school programs.


Q: Can you describe some current exciting examples of what families within the homeschooling movement are doing? Can you share your own stories of how your family/friends are growing without schooling?

Susannah: I think the only way you can really convey the true spirit of homeschooling is through stories. These stories are not a step-by-step guide for what to replicate in your own home. Instead, they leave it up to the reader to understand the stances that’s being described and to figure out how to adopt it themselves. Implicitly or explicitly, the story shows how learning happens during the course of everyday life. For example, I remember this story told by my friend Lorraine Hoyt, whose two lifelong homeschoolers are now grown: Years ago, a father was having breakfast with his son one morning. A spider was building a web in the corner of the dining room, and his son got really interested in that spider. They looked it up in books and on the computer, and both of them had fun. And it made the father feel better about not being careful about his housekeeping. This kind of spontaneous interaction could not be replicated through a science curriculum, but only by taking time in the morning to pay attention to the people and place around you.

As John Holt once said, "It’s not a matter of copying it exactly, but catching the spirit of it." Trying to copy the particulars – instead of understanding the stance, the attitude that made it possible – will miss the point and strip homeschooling of its flexibility and joy. It seems to me that things like falling in love with, or cultivating joy in, or becoming fascinated by, spiders or trees or books or whatever else, can’t help but be more art than science.

The things I choose as my own work are structurally replicable as well; in other words, it is possible for others to adapt the general idea. The work I do with young writers is an example. I make myself available to young people as a practitioner, rather than as a classroom teacher, which is an idea for those adults who want to work with kids but who do not want to deal with the school system. We don’t need to turn such small-scale work into a broad program, or make a Montessori tool of it, but rather just catch the spirit of it. If one remains open and pays close attention to the spirit of the stories about homeschooling that one sees and hears, the practical application becomes clear.


Pat: Some homeschooling parents create clubs around certain interests their children may have, such as Science, Rocketry, Magic, or Theater, and conduct weekly meetings at their homes or in local libraries. Some share their expertise in exchange for money, barter, or no payment at all. A single mother we know charges families a modest fee for tutoring children in math at her home; another mother offers a free literature class in her home twice a week to ten homeschoolers. Both mothers are former school teachers by the way! My wife, who is not a school teacher or a private investigator, ran a Detective Club for a year in our house, engaging eight homeschoolers and one public school child of various ages in activities that fostered their interests in science, logical reasoning, and reading. This year a father we know, who makes his living as an illustrator, is hosting art sessions, once a week, in the evening at his apartment, as a way to share his love of art with his boys and their friends. Ordinary people, using their own resources, can be highly effective teachers when they share their own interests with children who wish to learn from them.

I should highlight the fact that most homeschooling, and certainly the formation and continuation of these clubs and groups, is not performed by people certified by schools as teachers, nor are their activities considered to be mandatory or graded. The participants get what they put into each activity; should they decide not to learn in these settings, there is no external failing grade or other penalty for them. They can come back to these places and learn what they need when they are ready for it, or they can choose, or create, other situations for them to learn what they wish to learn.


Q: But is it really possible to learn everything you need to know through homeschooling?

Susannah: I am reminded of a homeschooling teen, Miro Sprague, who was asked if he felt there were gaps in his knowledge. He said, "Of course, I don’t know everything." His humble response reminds us not only of the obvious — that everyone has gaps in their knowledge, at 14 or 44 — but also that the whole process of homeschooling is not airtight and problem-free, and it will not be wrapped up by the time children turn 18. Most homeschoolers end up understanding and appreciating that learning is a lifelong process.


Q: What is the background of the families involved in homeschooling? Is this an option only for the upper-middle class and elite?

Susannah: It is important to acknowledge that homeschooling, even as it is now, is not as exclusively middle class, or as impossible for single or working parents, as some might suppose. Nor is it an all-white phenomenon, though it is undeniably predominantly white in America right now.

The fact that homeschooling is easier for people with other kinds of privileges, has never seemed to me an argument against those people undertaking it. On the contrary, shouldn’t those for whom a journey is easiest and least risky go first, and then work to make it easier for others to follow? Skeptics might say to a white middle class parent with a Ph.D., "Well, it’s easy for you to renounce schooling. After all, you know you can do well there, and you already have those school credentials which you can pull out if necessary." It’s true that when disparities exist, people with the advantages can use them to widen the gap further. But they can also work to change things, so that the keys they happen to hold won’t be the only keys that work.


Q: A doubt that often comes up in the minds of many parents is whether homeschooling is good for the child’s overall development? Won’t they become anti-social if they don’t interact with children their own age?

Pat: For most people, it is the idea that children must be socialized by compulsory schooling rather than family and other institutions, that prevents them from accepting homeschooling as an alternative. They picture homeschooled children as being socially inept since they only socialize with their parents and siblings. However, this is far from true. Research on this topic has consistently shown homeschooled children to be well socialized.1  The vast majority of homeschoolers seek out or create social opportunities for their children to be with other children and adults besides their immediate family.

There is one more important aspect of homeschooling that I must share with you. Homeschooling allows children and teens to have safe, private, quiet spots where they can read, pray, meditate, or think away from the barrage of mass media that floods into our homes, schools, and communities. This is just as important as putting children into group situations for play or class. Homeschoolers have noted the importance of allowing their children time to do nothing, periods of apparent inactivity where dreams, aspirations, and personal issues are worked on. In school, these periods are called "daydreaming" and students are penalized for withdrawing into such a state.


Q: Many critics would argue that a school diploma is necessary for employment — all this talk of homeschooling is not practical. How would you respond to them?

Pat: In reality, it isn’t credentials that ultimately matter in the work force, but demonstrable competence. We believe that no one should be disqualified from access to the economy based on their educational credentials. Instead, performance tests, resumes, portfolios, work experience and recommendations, proof of completing specific courses needed for specific tasks, life experience credits, perhaps even assessment of computer simulations for certain tasks and functions, should be used in lieu of diplomas and standardized test scores.

Furthermore, homeschooling actually seeks to expand the options that allow children and teenagers to engage in or observe real work — manual labor, professional office work, volunteer work. We try to help them learn what is needed to do work well, by watching or apprenticing with adults who share their interests and work. They also learn how to interact with others to get jobs done, and how to leave work they don’t enjoy and find work they want to try. These skills are not only not taught in school, but actually atrophied in most schools. There, one typically works in silence in competition for grades and is penalized for sharing information. Nor can one easily change courses when it is apparent that one does not have the capacity or interest to continue with a particular course and would like to try something different.


Q: As you know, under the Education for All Global Declaration, there is a big institutional drive to force all children all over the world to go to school. How do you feel about compulsory schooling?

Pat: GWS has always been opposed to compulsory schooling. However, I feel that it is more fruitful and worthwhile to fight for options and alternatives to compulsory school laws than to try and eradicate them. The variety of methods successfully employed by homeschooling families, alternative schools, and all sorts of distance learning programs, are proof of the wisdom of this approach. Compulsory school is sometimes referred to as a "necessary evil" since there appears to be no other place or method for children to learn and grow in modern society. I hope, through our work and example, we can show that this evil is not necessary. Since World War II, we have, through law and custom, increasingly made school the center of our children’s lives, turning school into their entire world and fueling their belief that if they fail in school they will fail in later life. The past thirty years have seen a marked increase in the drugging of children in our schools to make them more compliant to compulsory schooling. Ritalin, Prozac, and Lithium are commonly dispensed to children of all ages in America in order to help them cope with the social and academic life of school.

Further, the increase in violence at schools (for example, in Littleton, Colorado where 15 students were killed and many others wounded by two fellow students) is a vivid reminder that not all children are content with the social life of school or with the type of future that school prepares them for. Educators and politicians often cite video games, the availability of guns, and poor parenting as the reason these acts of violence take place and they fund programs to address these issues. However these short-sighted fixes completely overlook the perpetrators’ choice of targets and clearly stated reasons — their hatred of school and its social castes — and thus obscure the real issue that needs to be addressed: how do we help children learn and grow when they are not doing so in school?

While far too many people in our society support the concept of forcing children to learn, I feel that many of these same people will also support a right to freedom in education. That’s where I think we need to build at this time.


Q: Many educators from developing countries around the world say that compulsory schooling is a matter of "equality." It is the only way to give the poor a chance to compete on equal footing with the rich, to ultimately make it possible for them to "rise up" in society.

Susannah: Right, the argument is similar for African-Americans and other minorities in the U.S. In Grace Llewellyn’s collection of essays by and interviews with African-American homeschoolers, entitled Freedom Challenge (1996), some of the contributors talk about the particular challenge that the idea of homeschooling presents to a minority community that has, for many years, seen education as a struggle for inclusion. Why, after fighting the desegregation battle, would African-American families then turn around and choose to take their kids out of school?

Yet, it has been said, in that collection and elsewhere, that those who have been most harmed by conventional schools stand to benefit the most from leaving. Low-income homeschoolers and homeschoolers of color are often those who most acutely recognize that schools will not serve their child well. In fact, many poor kids, especially poor urban kids, already know that school is not working for them.

For instance, in Boston, the problem of chronic absenteeism is dealt with by increased use of punishments or incentives (for example, kids out of school during daytime hours are considered outlaws; driver’s licenses are linked to school attendance; anyone with a perfect attendance record gets a pizza). It’s as if we can hardly even imagine asking and seriously answering the question: What are these chronic truants saying "no" to? What do they object to about the way they are treated in school and the way school organizes teaching and learning? What would it take to make these buildings into places these kids wanted to go? What could we do to be of real use to these kids?


Q: Does it require a lot of money to homeschool?

Susannah: What current homeschoolers are rich in is not money as much as resourcefulness. These are people who believe that they can create opportunities, rather than just accepting what’s presented. They feel in control of their lives in a way that many people do not. Sometimes people become empowered through homeschooling. As one single mother said, "Homeschooling gave me my voice and the language to speak." Standing up for her children turned out to be a transformative act.

Beyond this, though, it is also incumbent on current homeschoolers to think about how to offer support to people who are less immediately aware of options and who feel less able to do things, like call someone up and ask if their child can volunteer with them. There are so many good support networks already in place within the homeschooling community that it may simply be a matter of consciously broadening the scope. Already, a phone call to a homeschool support group may be the first time that a poor parent (especially one without much schooling) hears someone express confidence in her ability to help her child learn.


Q: What advice would you give to those parents considering homeschooling?

Susannah: Many parents have said to me, "I want to trust my kids to learn, but I still have so many fears." Parents fear that their children wouldn’t learn enough, wouldn’t learn what they needed to know, wouldn’t learn on time, would miss opportunities or not take advantages of the ones they had, would get angry at their parents later for what their education had overlooked, wouldn’t be prepared for college or a job, wouldn’t ever fit in… they’re familiar and common concerns. But I give a simple answer: "Maybe you’ll just have to do it scared."

While too much fear and doubt can be crippling, because it can undermine the very process we’re trying to engage in and sabotage the results parents are hoping to see, some amount of fear is part of the process. Our doubts and anxieties should not become self-fulfilling; we should not make our children untrustworthy by not trusting them (which is what schools do). Rather, we should take fear as a companion, and not let it debilitate us. I think it’s mistaken, or at least unnecessary, to think you have to wait until you are not at all afraid before you start homeschooling with greater trust and freedom for your children. What about instead acknowledging the fear and proceeding anyway?


Pat: Besides, there is little evidence to support these fears: Homeschoolers and alternative school graduates find work worth doing and get into selective colleges without special difficulty, as research and case histories have shown for decades. Roland Meighan (1997) notes that one study of 53 adults who were homeschooled found that three-quarters of the sample had felt that being educated at home "had actually helped them interact with people from different levels of society... When asked if they would want to be educated at home if they had their lives over again, 96% replied ‘Yes.’ ... Not one of the sample was unemployed or on welfare... and two thirds were married - the norm for the age group." Further, the evidence demonstrates that gaining high marks and honors in school is no guarantee of high income and honors in adult life after school.

Parents also need a lot of conviction and courage – both when dealing with school authorities and when exploring and trusting the unique learning processes of their children. The toughest part is to find a balance between these. For instance, though there is no biological clock that determines when one should learn to read, administrative directive (disguised as "learning theory") dictates that children in public schools should read by age seven — solely because they will otherwise fall behind the school schedule and be ridiculed by teachers and students. However, late reading is a common occurrence in homeschooling and alternative schools, particularly Waldorf schools. Alan Thomas, at the University of London Institute of Education, studied one hundred homeschooling families for his book Educating Children at Home (1998) and found that, "As long as children have the necessary pre-reading information processing skills, and these are crucial, we should not be too concerned about when they start reading. The trouble is that this does not fit in with school organization requirements."

What we, as parents and teachers, need to remember is that while we are important and have influence, we are not the sole determinants of how our children will grow. Children may grow to "be different" despite our efforts to make them conventional! How many radicals have children who grow up to be capitalists, and vice-versa? How many college professors have children who become carpenters, and vice-versa? There are no guarantees that schooling children in any particular way will turn them into the adults we think they should be. What we can do as concerned adults is nurture and bond with our children as much as possible. So that when they do grow in directions we don’t expect, they will take our admonishments or encouragements seriously, and love us as we love them, through thick and thin. "It is not what we teach children but how we treat them, that determines what type of people they will become," Holt once told me.


Q: What do you feel the role of computers and Internet has been in supporting homeschooling today?

Susannah: Without attempting to give a comprehensive answer, let me make one point. Often when newspaper reporters would ask us this question, they would phrase it as, "Hasn’t the Internet made homeschooling possible for more families?" It’s true that there are now plenty of online correspondence courses, though these can be almost exactly like school, with assignments and tests and grades. It’s true that there are plenty of homeschool websites and online discussions, as well as just email in general, which can be extremely helpful for getting the word out quickly (whether about a homeschoolers’ drama club rehearsal or pending legislation). Or, for exchanging stories and ideas and keeping in touch over long distance. The kids who go to "Not Back to School Camp" <> which is a wonderful week-long annual camp for homeschooling teenagers, often have quite in-depth discussions throughout the year, using the Internet (but many do travel to visit each other in person as well).

Yet despite these and other things which inarguably did not exist ten or fifteen years ago, I nevertheless disagree with the claim that the Internet is what makes homeschooling possible for families who would not otherwise have begun it. I just don’t think it’s the deciding factor for many or most families who are unsure about homeschooling. I don’t think someone who was afraid or uninterested in homeschooling would change her mind because of having Internet access. Sure, it is possible that she would receive answers to common questions and concerns over the Internet, which could be what makes the difference, but there were (and still are) other ways to get those same questions answered.

Homeschoolers had wonderful support networks before the Internet, and they have them still. Homeschoolers were great at maintaining friendships and asking questions from people who lived far away. Homeschooled kids are fiends for pen-pals and letter-writing in general – even before email. So it’s important to keep this question in perspective.


Q: Then, have computers contributed to the way homeschoolers learn?

Pat: I think the web can be a useful tool in many ways for homeschoolers, particularly as a communication and social tool. But, with just a very few exceptions, I find most Internet distance learning to be merely school in a modem. The Internet’s more interesting educational uses are neglected, such as individualizing learning for all ages. Instead, we just get school programs that are jazzed up with music and video, but essentially they are bound by the same tired assumptions about kids and learning found in today’s schools.


The Nightmare of the Global Schoolhouse:

Why We Must Avoid Making the Entire Society a School!

"Think about the global schoolhouse, madhouse, prison. They are institutions of compulsory treatment. They are places in which one group of people do things to another group of people, without their consent, because still another group thinks this would be good for them. Prisons, at least those that believe in ‘rehabilitation,’ which most prisoners fear and hate, are places in which one group says to another, ‘We are going to keep control of your life, and do things to you, whatever we want, and for as long as we want, until we think you measure up.’ … A global schoolhouse would be a world, which we seem to be moving toward, in which one group of people would have the right through our entire lives to subject the rest of us to various sorts of tests, and if we did not measure up, to require us to submit to various kinds of treatment, i.e. education, therapy, etc., until we did. A worse nightmare is hard to imagine." - John Holt, 1976


Q: What do you see as the challenges to homeschooling today?

Pat: In addition to state laws and school encroachments, I believe it is our fears and insecurities as homeschoolers which are co-opting us. Our strengths as homeschoolers lie in how we are not like schools, and schools can learn from us about how to help children learn better. But recent developments show that this is not only a minority view, but an endangered one. Both schools and some homeschoolers are seeking to colonize home learning as a "product" to be manufactured and regulated in an economically accountable fashion, just as has happened with learning in schools. Some school districts are trying to enroll homeschoolers in expensive "alternative education programs," in which the district controls the curriculum and evaluates the students. Other schools are trying to regulate parents’ actions by offering state funding and resources, in exchange for their educational freedom. Also, the pressure to "do homeschooling right" drives parents to teach the way they are taught, which leads them to turn to conventional schools, their curricula, methods and tests, for help.

To counter this "colonization," we homeschoolers need to broaden our outreach, to acknowledge that diversity and experimentation are vital to our success in trying to make new learning situations for children, especially in this time of educational conformity. I am aware of homeschoolers who have taken classes, played sports, engaged in extracurricular activities, and even successfully petitioned their district for a school diploma. But we still must make sure that homeschooling doesn’t get co-opted by people seeking to standardize teaching and learning through the lure of "helping" homeschoolers become more like schools. We have to draw upon our pool of diverse experiences and not force people to homeschool in a particular way, with or without curriculum, with or without public school support, etc. Rather, we need to work together and support one another’s homeschooling now and in the future, to defend everyone’s right to homeschool in a variety of ways.


Q: What do you foresee happening with the homeschooling movement in the future?

Pat: Homeschooling is proving to be an important event in the history of schooling. Rather than a passing fad, homeschooling is still growing and shows no signs of diminishing in popularity — despite the millions spent on advertising, awards and events to promote the importance of going to school and the comparatively minuscule amount of money spent to promote homeschooling. As homeschoolers’ numbers grow, and public funding for educational alternatives becomes more popular, I think we will see more school and home co-operative efforts (for better or worse!), and, I hope, more public and private initiatives to create learning and social centers that work with people and not on them, such as London’s Peckham Center that John Holt wrote so much about in Instead of Education (1976).


Susannah: I believe that even if people never actually homeschool, they can benefit from homeschooling’s ideas – its way of looking at learning. Here’s one example: if you view education as something that has to be given to you by other people, then if the education handed out in your school isn’t of great quality, you will understandably feel you are getting the short end of the stick. If, on the other hand, you start to realize that learning is something you can find and create for yourself, then your whole way of looking at what’s available changes. For instance, Herbert Kohl’s Reading, How To (1973) shows how it is possible for anyone who knows how to read to help someone else do the same. This ostensibly simple idea is actually quite radical, with implications that are potentially far-reaching. When applied, not just to reading but to any skill at all, it means that communities, who have thought themselves poor in educational resources, may actually come to see themselves as more capable than they had realized.

People who think that all education has to come from schools or programs feel educationally deprived, if the schools in their area are bad, or if they can’t afford better ones, or if there are no programs available for people like them. Realizing that we can learn on our own steam, wherever we are, is an extremely empowering and sometimes life-altering experience. Malcolm X’s experiences, of teaching himself to read in prison, are a good example of this. In essence, the same idea supports a prison inmate, who decides he can teach himself (or another inmate) to read without a formal program; a mother, who believes that she can help her young child learn no matter how much or how little schooling she herself has; and a 16-year-old, who dares to leave school instead of following the common injunction to stay.


Q: How do you think Holt, GWS and homeschooling relate to the unfolding of learning societies?

Pat: Well, most educators are aghast by the suggestions of homeschooling, particularly of the unschooling and deschooling variety. Children are like trains to them: they must pull into certain stations at certain times or else they must be repaired. More national curricula, higher standards, more and tougher tests, longer school days, more money for schools, are the remedies educationists propose to work on children to make them effective students. But I propose that adults and our social institutions, including public schools, can work with children rather than on them. Using children’s various interests and abilities, as well as those of parents and adults who work outside of schools, we can create all sorts of places for children to be when they don’t fit, for whatever reason, into school.


Susannah: In Freedom and Beyond (1972), John Holt tells a wonderful imaginary tale. He imagines himself traveling to the future in a time capsule. When he arrives, he is greeted by a guide who shows him around, shows him how people live and do the various activities of life. After a while, John Holt asks the guide, "Where are your schools?" The guide, puzzled, says, "Schools? What are schools?" John explains that schools are where you go to learn things. The guide is still puzzled. "But people learn things everywhere," he says. And though John keeps trying, he "cannot make clear to him why we think that education should be, must be, separate from the rest of life." After relating this parable, John goes on to say, "I have come to feel that … a society in which learning is not separated from but joined to, part of the rest of life, is not a luxury for which we can wait hundreds of years, but something toward which we must move and work as quickly as possible."

There are so many ways that we can move toward the kind of society John was talking about. Some small, but potentially significant ways have to do with the language we use. If we realize that learning happens everywhere, we won’t say that kids go to school "to learn" (which implies that they wouldn’t learn otherwise, and don’t learn when they aren’t there). We won’t say, of something we didn’t happen to cover during our school years, "I never learned that," as though now that we’re finished with formal schooling, there are no more opportunities to learn. We won’t judge people on the basis of how much schooling they have completed. In other words, we won’t automatically assume (without any further information) that someone who has completed a certain amount of schooling has learned more than someone who hasn’t.


Pat: Homeschooling does not have to be for every family. Families that wish to use school as they always have would be free to do so. However, by also providing opportunities for children and adults who wish to learn in other settings, we can create a true learning society: one that allows people to have second chances (or as many chances as they need), to learn what they need to learn, when they want to learn it, and to break free from the education economy.



1 See L. Shyers. 1992. A Comparison of Social Adjustment between Homeschooled and Traditionally Schooled Students. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Florida; Mayberry, Knowles, R. and Marlow. 1995 Home Schooling: Parents as Educators. Sage, Corwin Press.



Holt, J. 1972. Freedom and Beyond. E. P. Dutton Press.

_____. 1964. How Children Fail. Perseus Publishing, 1995 ed.

_____. 1976. Instead of Education. Holt Associates, 1988 ed., Other India Press, 2002 ed.

_____. 1978. Never Too Late. Perseus Publishing, 1991 ed.

_____. 1981. Teach Your Own. Delacorte Press, 1989 ed.

Johnson, L. 1995. Dangerous Minds. St. Martin’s Mass Market Paper.

Kohl, H. 1973. Reading, How To. E. P. Dutton Press.

Llewellyn, G. 1996. Freedom Challenge: African American Homeschoolers. Lowry House Publishers.

Meighan, R. 1997. The Next Learning System: and Why Homeschoolers Are Trailblazers. Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press.

Thomas, A. 1998. Educating Children at Home. Continuum Press.



Pat Farenga <> published Growing Without Schooling magazine for sixteen years and he is President of Holt Associates, Inc. He came to work at Holt Associates in 1981, as a volunteer wanting to learn how to use a word processor, not as someone interested in education reform. He ended up working closely with John Holt during the last four years of Holt’s life. He has written many articles, book chapters, and books about homeschooling. His most recent book is Teach Your Own: The John Holt Guide to Home Schooling (to be published in 2003). He and his wife live in Massachusetts with their three daughters, all of whom have been homeschooled.


Susannah Sheffer <> wrote her first letter to John Holt when she was 14, after reading his books. She eventually worked at Holt Associates and edited Growing Without Schooling magazine for many years. Her books include A Life Worth Living: Selected Letters of John Holt, Writing Because We Love to: Homeschoolers at Work, and A Sense of Self: Listening to Homeschooled Adolescent Girls. She works as a writing mentor to young people and serves on the board of North Star, an innovative resource center for homeschooling teenagers in Western Massachusetts, USA. In addition to her homeschooling work, she also writes about the death penalty and prison issues in the United States.