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Doing, Not “Education”

(Excerpt from “Instead of Education” published by Sentient Publications. Please see ad on p. 30)

by John C. Holt (1923-1985)

This is a book in favor of doing -- self-directed, purposeful, meaningful like and work -- and against “education”--learning cut off from active life and done under pressure of bribe or threat, greed and fear.

It is a book about people doing things, and doing them better; about the conditions under which we may be able to do things better; about some of the ways in which, given those conditions, other people may be able to help us (or we, them) to do things better; and about the reasons why these conditions do not exist and cannot be made to exist within compulsory, coercive, competitive schools.

Not all persons will give the word “education” the meaning I give it here. Some may think of it, as I once described it, as “Something a person gets for himself, not that which someone else gives or does to him.” But I choose to define it here as most people do: Something that some people do to others for their own good, molding and shaping them, and trying to make them learn what they think they ought to know. Today, everywhere in the world, that is what “education” has become, and I am wholly against it. People still spend a great deal of time -- as for years I did myself -- talking about how to make “education” more effective and efficient, or how to do it or give it to more people, or how to reform or humanize it. But to make it more effective and efficient will only be to make it worse, and to help it do even more harm. It cannot be reformed, cannot be carried out wisely or humanly, because its purpose is neither wise nor humane.
Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts. That means, the right to decide for ourselves how we will explore the world around us, think about our own and other persons’ experiences, and find and make the meaning of our own lives. Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very center of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we may make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.

Education, with its supporting system of compulsory and competitive schooling, all its carrots and sticks, its grades, diplomas, and credentials, now seems to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all the social inventions of mankind. It is the deepest foundation of the modern and worldwide slave state, in which most people feel themselves to be nothing but producers, consumers, spectators, and “fans,” driven more and more, in all parts of their lives, by greed, envy, and fear. My concern is not to improve “education” but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and let people shape themselves.
This does not mean that no one should ever influence or try to influence what others think and feel. We all touch and change (and are changed by) those we live and work with. We are by instinct talkative and social creatures, and naturally share with those around us our view of reality. Both in my work as writer and lecturer, and among my friends, I do this all the time. But I refuse to put these others in a position where they feel they have no choice but to agree with me, or seem to agree. I want them to have the right, if they wish, to reject absolutely any and all of my ideas, as I would want and demand for myself the right to reject theirs. Also, I have learned that no one can truly say Yes to an idea, mind or anyone else’s, unless he can freely say No to it. This is why, except as an occasional visitor, I will no longer do my teaching in compulsory and competitive schools.
I do not mean to say, either, that no one should ever have the right to ask another to show what he knows or can do. Clearly, if someone wants to drive a car, fly a plane, or do something that might directly affect the lives or health of other people, then society, through some agent, has the right to demand that he show that he is able to do what he wants to be allowed to do. Indeed, even where health and safety are not involved, a person can often rightly be asked to show his competence. If he wants to play in an orchestra, sing in a chorus, act in a play, or join other people in any work they are doing, whether for money, pleasure, or other reasons, they have a right to ask him to show that he can do it well enough to help and not hinder them. But these demands are specific in time and place. They are not at all the same thing as saying to someone that just to be allowed to live in the world at all he must be able to show that he knows this or that.
By “doing” I do not mean only things done with the body, the muscles, with hands and tools, rather than with the mind alone. I am not trying to separate or put in opposition what many might call the “physical” and the intellectual.” Such distinctions are unreal and harmful. Only in words can the mind and body be separated. In reality they are one; they act together. So by “doing” I include such actions as talking, listening, writing, reading, thinking, even dreaming.

The point is that it is the do-er, not someone else, who has decided what he will say, hear, read, write, or think or dream about. He is at the center of his own actions. He plans, directs, controls, and judges them. He does them for his own purposes -- which may of course include a common purpose with others. His actions are not ordered and controlled from outside. They belong to him and are part of him.
The best and only really good place for do-ers would be a society that does not yet exist. In that society all people, of whatever age, sex, race, etc., could have work to do which was varied and interesting, which challenged and rewarded their skill and intelligence, which they could do well and make pride in doing well, over which they could exercise some control, and whose ends and purposes they could understand and respect. Today, very few people feel this way about their work—only a small number of artists, artisans, skilled craftsmen, specialists, professionals, and a few others. Beyond this, all people would feel—as very few people do now—that what they thought, wanted, said, and did would make a real difference in their lives and the lives of people around them. Their politics, like their work, would be meaningful. Their elected officials would be public servants, not petty kings and emperors. They would shape and control the society they lived in, instead of being shaped and controlled by it. In such a society no one would worry about “ education.” People would be busy doing interesting things that mattered, and they would grow more informed, competent, and wise in doing them. They would learn about the world from living in it, working in it, and changing it, and from knowing a wide variety of people who were doing the same. But nowhere in the world does such a society exist, nor is there one in the making. Except perhaps in societies too small and primitive to be helpful, we have no models to go on; we must invent and design such a society for ourselves. Neither in the United States, nor any other countries I know of, are there more than a handful of people thinking and talking seriously about what such a society might be like, or how we might make it. What people talk and argue about instead is growth, efficiency, and progress, and how human beings may best be selected and shaped (“educated”) and used for those ends.

This is not a book about such a doing society, or what it might be like. Enough to say that it would be a society whose tools and institutions would be much smaller in scale, serving human beings rather than being served by them; a society modest and sparing in its use of energy and materials, and reverent and loving in its attitudes toward nature and the natural world. This is a book about how we might make the societies we have slightly more useful and livable for do-ers, about the resources that might help some people, at least, to lead more active and interesting lives -- and, perhaps, to make some of the beginnings, or very small models, of a doing society. It is not a book about how to solve or deal with such urgent problems as poverty, idleness, discrimination, exploitation, waste, and suffering. These are not educational problems or school problems. They have not been and cannot and will not be solved by things done in compulsory schools, and they will not be solved by changing these schools (or even by doing away with them altogether). The most that may happen is that, once freed of the delusion that schools can solve these problems, we might begin to confront them directly, realistically, and intelligently. -- JCH