Help With Your Mother's Rule

Help With Your Mother's Rule is a forum for women who want trouble-shooting help with their Mother's Rules or about any aspect of the 5 Ps of the married vocation.

Ask Holly: This blog is composed of your questions. Contact me at the address listed on Holly's Helpers page and I will respond. Please share your unique ideas as well. The more ideas and experience we share, the more successful every mother will be in designing her own unique Mother's Rule.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

On John Holt's Unschooling

Dear Holly,
After reading your response on unschooling, I wanted to write to say I have been uncomfortable about some Catholic authors using John Holt as a model of Catholic education. Can you clarify any more on this?


  1. When I critiqued the unschooling, it was a critique of some of the underlying philosophies which led to a specific methodology. It does not mean parts of unschooling are invalid if they are come at from a proper understanding of the human person and are compatible with the aims of Catholic education.

    First off, keep in mind that "schooling' and 'education' are very different or distinct terms.

    Secondly, we must distinguish between unschooling as a method, and anti-education.

    We may relate to the notion of 'un-schooling', (which means non-lecture/text/school-method instruction,) and we can thus find many legitimate ways of educating our children without reverting to school methods. Whether I 'teach' science by a video or by a text, or by real books or by discussion, or filed trips or experiments or whatever, doesn't matter. The method should be chosen that suits the family. So, if the term is used this way, there is no problem. This is all fine.

    But, John Holt is not talking about this alone. His theory actually promotes 'un-education' , which in his meaning, it becomes wrong or undesireable to 'direct' the child in any fashion.

    This has and does leave parents feeling guilty for intervening and moving into a more 'direct' or 'traditional' method, or for even using school methodologies (which are not sinful or wrong in themselves) for fear they interfere with their child's development.

    Unschooling, as it originates with Holt, is a type of philosophy that considers the child corrupted by society (and even parents... along the lines of Rousseau's view of the child as essentially good and no original sin) and so to 'teach' becomes the modern 'sin' - it is 'anti-education' (against the parent's mission to educate) and some of the Popes have addressed this directly.

    In my opinion, John Holt is indeed not just anti-schooling, or anti-institutionalization (neither of which the Church considers sinful or an abuse of the child, remember)... Holt is anti- education, meaning, anti-parent/teacher passing down anything, and the Church definitely WOULD and DOES consider this sinful and a neglect and abdication of one's parenting mission.

    According to Holt, the child should be left to discover all on their own and parents are to let them be. It is important to understand this serious distinction, and let this be your guide to assessing the Catholic literature you have come across.

    Also keep in mind that these theories that encourage the freedom-from-guidance methods are often couched in a romanticism about what it is like to let the child educate himself - it all sounds very good, especially to a distraught or under-confident new homeschooling mom who may be dealing with reluctance in her child.

    But as Catholics we know that the child too is affected by original sin, and so, in his own heart, he can tend to the good or to the bad, and it is the parents responsibility to guide, channel and correct what needs to be channeled and corrected. These two aspects are the heart of parental education of the child.

    The confusion in Catholic homeschooling circles stems from the difference between what the original philosophies (such as Holt's), methods/terms really mean and say, and what people get out of them. Often, the meaning of the terms are changed, and so in reading them with a change of meaning, issues become confused. As a result, in the new 'Catholic unschooling' method circulating - if it means exploring more family-based ways of educating , is just fine; but if it really means what Holt says, it is not fine.

    Parents are called to pass along a faith and a culture and knowledge and a worldview, as well as skills, etc. How they do this is up to their own circumstances, particular personalities, children's needs and talents.


    For as long as this link works, it has been observed that unschooling - ie: no structured curriculum - can leave students as far behind as 4 grade levels when compared to peers in school and in structured homeschool programs...

  3. I do not believe Holt was suggesting a Peter Pan lifestyle. He simply states that letting your child find his own path leads to a healthy lifetime of learning. The parent is always there to guide, support and provide resources. The parent is present as a constant example of love, trust and faith. It is not sinful, it is full of mutual respect and understanding. Jesus led by example, his people, his children, his followers had free will.

  4. Jesus also 'taught'. Which means, people were 'led'. Being taught and being led are not impositions of disrespect. The notion of letting a child 'go his own way' can be traced back to Rousseau who believed the child was 'all good' (ie: no original sin). As a result, it was society that 'corrupted' him. As Catholics, we take a more realistic view - that the child, like us, is created good but tainted with original sin, and thus the child's heart, like ours, tends to both good AND evil. The child too, has virtue and vice. The parental role, which remains one of respect and guidance, does not hesitate to 'correct' and to 'lead' and to 'teach'. In fact, it is BECAUSE the parent loves that he/she leads, teaches and corrects. It would be niave to think a child has all the wisdom he needs to self-guide to maturity. If you look at God's 'fathering' role in the Old and New Testaments, you will see these three things - lead, teach, correct - are parental aspects BECAUSE of His love for us.

    The crux remains that purist-Holt is "anti-teaching" - ie: a parent can only 'lead from behind', if he/she is allowed to lead at all - and that CAN be in direct contradiction to our mandate as parents, if people misunderstand this to mean the child's 'freedom' comes first. Freedom and license are two separate things.

    In fact, from my study, it appears to me that parental authority is meant to be the exercise of the child's freedom by the parent, in his stead, until the child is old enough to assume a 'responsible' freedom for himself. And that all of parenting is about this gradual transfer of who exercises the child's freedom - ie: freedom meaning to take responsibly to do the good for oneself and others. Until the child has the intellectual, moral and volitional maturity and skills in place to decide and choose 'responsibly' for himself, the parent is bound to act in his stead - as an advocate.

    The fact remains that, the 'pure' Holt methodology, no matter how modern advocates have (correctly) tempered it and redefined it, is 'essentially' incompatible with the Catholic worldview of the human person.

    That does not mean of course that the child is to lived an ultra-structured life, without making any decisions. But it does mean that at the beginning, parental decision is greater, and the normal path would be a gradual tranference of 'freedom' to the child, as he/she becomes capable of assuming it. This obviously has serious implications in how we educate our children. Moderation and balance in all things being the norm...