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John Holt & the History of Homeschooling

When people write about the history of the homeschooling movement there’s one name which comes quickly to mind: John Holt, the gently but relentlessly questioning author and educator who founded the first newsletter about taking or keeping one’s children out of school, Growing Without Schooling, often better known as GWS.

John Holt was definitely the individual who popularized the idea of what was to become homeschooling. As a school teacher Holt had observed children in classroom settings and developed a theory of education which held that fear was the primary reason children didn’t learn in schools: fear of getting the wrong answers, fear of being ridiculed by the teacher and classmates, fear of not being good enough. He gathered together the notes and journal entries from his first eleven years and in 1964 wrote the classic How Children Fail, which catapulted him into the national spotlight as a supporter of school reform. Holt became a visiting teacher for Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley education departments. He appeared on major TV talk shows and wrote book reviews for Life magazine.

Three years later, in How Children Learn, the follow-up book to How Children Fail, Holt wrote about his educational philosophy:

“… the human animal is a learning animal; we like to learn; we are good at it; we don’t need to be shown how or made to do it. What kills the processes are the people interfering with it or trying to regulate it or control it.”

In 1972 Harold Z. Bennett authored No More Public School, published by Random House, which, for the first time, offered advice to parents on how to keep their children out of school illegally:

“If your child is out on the streets during the school hours, he has a chance of being seen and stopped by curious school people: teachers on their way back to work from dental appointments, conscientious cops, social workers, and clergymen.

“You should thus keep your child off the streets during school hours, or figure out a plan for dealing with all such eventualities. You can figure out things to tell the authorities when and if they ask you what you’re doing. But before getting into all that remember that you will probably have to teach your child to lie and be deceitful. Ask yourself if you want this before you get wholly into it. Developing an elaborate defense will guarantee your own paranoia.”

John Holt called Bennett’s book ‘excellent,’ and in 1976, he published Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better, in which he described a “Children’s Underground Railroad” to assist children in trying to escape compulsory schooling. Holt began receiving letters from readers of this ground-breaking book who told him about their real-life experiences with educating their children at home.

After corresponding with these families for some time, Holt started a small newsprint newsletter in 1977, Growing Without Schooling. Writing clearly and succinctly about children and learning, John Holt shared news and helped interested families network with and support each other in their efforts to continue what Holt cleverly labeled ‘unschooling,’ playing off a then-very-popular advertisement for the soft drink 7-Up, widely known as ‘the Un-Cola.’

In 1980 John Holt wrote “I want to make it clear that I don’t see homeschooling as some kind of answer to the badness of schools. I think that the home is the proper base for the exploration of the world which we call learning or education. Home would be the best base no matter how good the schools were.”

A year later, in 1981, Delacorte Press published the only book Holt would ever write dedicated solely to the concept of homeschooling: Teach Your Own, largely drawn from the contributions of personal experiences which were sent by the readers of his newsletter, Growing Without Schooling. Holt wove the letters and comments into a cohesive exploration of homeschooling. Sadly, John Holt would only live another four years, succumbing to cancer in 1985.

There were others writing about the benefits of homeschooling, of course, notably:

It’s difficult now, over three decades later, to imagine what it was like to be a homeschooling family in the beginning of the movement. A glimpse can be had by reading the early issues of Growing Without Schooling. One issue in particular, GWS #7, highlights what can truly be considered the roots of homeschooling.

“…a Massachusetts Superior Court has handed down a ruling favorable to the Perchemlides family. It did not (as I did not think it would) say point blank to the School District, “Approve this family’s program.” What it said was, in effect, “Take another look at this program, and this time, be reasonable.” The family will probably have to (and will be wise to) make a few small concessions to the schools, probably in the area of curriculum, though I have strongly urged that they not yield an inch in the crucial matter of testing and evaluation. But the effect of the ruling will almost certainly be that they will be able to teach their children at home.

“The Judge’s decision is long and intricate, and a very good lesson in how judges think. …He made one novel and (to us) extremely important and useful point, that the Constitution guarantees to citizens many implied rights, rights which it does not specifically name, and that the right of parents to control the education of their children is one such implied right… saying that the right to educate one’s children can be seen as a logical part of a general right to privacy, the right to control one’s private affairs.

“But he also said that the right of the states to oversee the education of the young was itself a constitutionally protected right, falling under the general heading of police powers. From this it follows that in this matter of education the rights of parents and the rights of states are competing rights, which must be balanced against each other. The schools, therefore, may not arbitrarily reject, as they did in this case, a proposed home teaching plan, without giving any reasons. They must give reasons, which must be compelling…

“…They may not say that for people to educate their own children is in and of itself a crime, or arbitrarily and without due process deny them the right to do so.”