BOSTON'S School Committee spent much of this winter trying to suppress student strikes and to lower a vandalism rate which cost them 500,000 dollars last year. After five hundred students staged a walk-out from a Dorchester high school February 4, Chairman of the School Committee Paul Tierney (Louise Day Hicks' successor), citing a "national conspiracy to disrupt and destroy the public school system," sent uniformed and plainclothes policemen into four Boston high schools to prevent arson and keep non-students out of the buildings. He said the conspiracy was made up of "extremists, the Progressive Labor Party, communist sympathizers, and SDS." Three weeks later one fourth of the students in thirteen Boston high schools went on strike asking for an end to harassment of black students, more black teachers and guidance counselors, student control of student councils, and more involvement in school policy decisions. Mayor Kevin White said he could not even consider the demands until students stopped their "illegal" strike and returned to school. Most did after two days. Tierney once again called in special deputies and police after twenty-five students were suspended from Boston English High for assault and also when a series of small fires forced Jamaica Plains School to close. It is surprising that there is not more vandalism and striking against an institution which continually forces people to learn what is of no personal importance to them.
"Gradually the idea grew that schooling was a necessary means of becoming a useful member of society," Ivan Illich writes in Celebration of Awareness. "It is the task of this generation to bury that myth." While the myth is still prevalent we allow schools to treat children like punch cards to be stamped with information ever more thoroughly and quickly so they can become increasingly more useful people. A child's progress is directioned, rationed, and judged in accordance with average achievements for his grade level. It is possible that some children do not want to read or go to school at all? Yes, but they will be called mentally ill or at the least be helped for problems with "motivation."
It is difficult to think that colorful elementary school classrooms and matronly teachers are agents for fear inhibiting every child's growth. But John Holt, with examples from his own experience (he is a teacher who has observed children for years) shows schools do more to prevent than foster learning. Holt's plea is simple: schools must not accommodate the needs of teachers and administrators but the needs of children as they grow into the world.
As in his previous work, Holt's condemnation of American schools in What Do I Do Monday? is stunning. The fundamental problem is that teachers and students have different understandings of the purpose of school. A teacher thinks a student is learning to read and write and each assignment contributes toward these skills. But a child sees no importance in his daily tasks like vocabulary and spelling drills because he does not know where they lead. His day seems to be only a series of assignments he completes to win the approval of his teachers and parents.
HOLT FIRST presented evidence of this problem in How Children Fail, published in 1964. He looked at one surprisingly complex phenomenon, a child's response when a teacher asked a question. Instead of looking happily and rationally for an answer, the child, in a "panicky search for certainty." guesses at the teacher's expectations and lunges for them. In order to protect himself from humiliation he often stops making any effort to find answers if he continually fails to please. At this point, because he does not do what the teacher tells him to do, he has problems with "motivation." The usual remedy, if the school is sufficiently wealthy, is some kind of individual attention in which the child is praised lavishly for each completed assignment. The cause of the motivation problem is still overlooked. The child is not allowed to grow for any of his own reasons. School only presents a body of knowledge separate from his experience and expects him to happily absorb it. He usually does, but not because he wants to. Not much is left in someone after twelve years of this education.
Holt's work is particularly compelling because he arrived at his conclusions about education by detecting contradictions in his own classroom. His pupils are supposed to become more rational and confident-but instead they become more and more dependent on other people to decide what is right for them. Over seven years of writing Holt slowly became aware of more complexities of the oppression in schools. Each successive book since 1964 has been a fuller and more powerful statement.
In What Do I Do Monday? Holt does not concentrate on problems in the schools but instead defines what real education should be in terms of what he calls a mental model: "Each of us lives not so much in an objective out there world that is the same for all of us, but in his mental model of the world. It is his model of the world that he experiences.... I live in my mental model of the world and my mental model lives in me." The mental model is one of the four models he describes. World one is inside his skin, world two is the mental model, world three is what he knows only a little about, and world four is what he knows nothing about. Education is making the mental model more and more accurate, workable, and reliable by becoming more acquainted with the worlds one knows nothing about. It is not the teaching of isolated skills which are misunderstood and useless in themselves.
Holt encounters large obstacles in trying to portray any alternatives to current education. He has defined the problem so well that his solutions, like those of most other writers on education, are finally inadequate. Most of What Do I Do Monday? depicts a sort of ideal school. It would be a free and open place which presented more favorable conditions for growth than the outside world. That would be the only justification for its existence. A student would be free to do what he wanted in its rooms full of books, experiments, and other people, the prime resource material. A teacher would be only a guide helping the child go where he wanted to go. There would be no compulsory attendance.
Holt realizes that this kind of school will not be legal or popular for a long time. But eventually some solution in which a child is free to choose his own direction of growth must be adopted. George Dennison concluded the Lives of Children suggesting that it would be economically feasible to make a First Street School run by a teacher and children's parents on every residential block in New York City. Similarly Holt proposes a kind of community organizing to share ideas on education and demand changes in the schools. He also suggests that "student teachers [be given] the kind of choice in learning that we hope they will someday give their own students. We must teach them once again what many of them will have long forgotten-how to play, how to confront the new and strange with curiosity, imagination... hope, and joy."
IN ORDER to make some of his ideas useful rather than chimerical for teachers working within the present educational system Holt proposes letting students work on special projects that they design themselves. For example, students might be interested in measuring their height or strength over a long period of time and could learn arithmetic in this way. Or they could do interviews with other students with a tape recorder and learn about conversation, English, and grammar. Learning would be possible without the pain of failure and repetitious drills.
From a teacher's or administrator's point of view these projects are acceptable as long as a student learns addition and sentence structure. But if these projects must be oriented toward the teacher's chosen goal they accomplish only the smallest improvement. The classroom is less gruesome but the child is still not in control of his own life.
In trying to get his ideal school set up in more than a few isolated communities Holt will meet much greater obstacles than the fact that student teachers have forgotten how to play. He encounters a revealing kind of resistance from people who say, "[Society] rejects whoever doesn't fit. What's going to happen to kids educated in your way? How are they going to survive?" There is a large disparity between what Holt envisions and what many people want for children. These parents must be made aware not only of what is wrong in schools but also what is limited in their own aspirations for their children. Community organizing and discussions around the problems of the schools may be a very good place to start toward this awareness. People are often more sensitive to violations against their children than against themselves.