These two articles respond to "School is Bad for Children" by John Holt.
School Was Bad for Me
I share John Holt's view that school harms children. My own negative experiences in elementary school have haunted me over the years and affected the way I present myself to my college professors. In fact, it has taken two years of college life for me to really feel comfortable talking to my instructors, largely because of my early school experiences with teachers.
Holt says that a child in school "learns that he is worthless, untrustworthy, fit only to take other people's orders," and I couldn't agree more. I can remember walking into Crestview Elementary School on the first day of first grade, anxious, nervous, and very shy. The first thing the teacher did was go over all the rules and procedures for the class: we were not allowed to speak without raising our hands; we could only get a drink when we went to the lav and we could only go to the lav once in the morning and once in the afternoon; both of our feet had to be on the floor at all times; and we had to respect the rights of others (that was a big one, but I was never sure what it meant). Of course, the teacher was careful to point out that any infraction of the class rules would be swiftly and severely punished. From that moment, I was terrified that I would break a rule. To be sure that I didn't, I didn't do anything. I didn't speak, I didn't ask questions, and I didn't participate in any way. From the start, I knew that she was the general and I was the soldier trying to get through basic training without getting into any trouble. I was so intimidated that when any child broke a rule, I shook in sympathy. When Tommy's spelling words weren't written neatly enough and he had to do them over, my stomach ached. When Erica's math paper had messy erasure smudges and she was accused of having a messy mind, I smarted with humiliation. I was always sure I would be the next to break a rule.
I made it through first grade by keeping my mouth shut, but second grade proved more troublesome. My coping strategy failed me almost at once. Soon into the year, the teacher asked a question, but rather than call on someone whose hand was waving wildly in the air, she called on me. I instantly panicked. The words stuck in my throat and my lips froze. I couldn't utter a sound. "What's the matter; has the cat got your tongue?" the teacher cleverly asked. I've never forgotten the humiliation of that moment.
Although I have had positive experiences with teachers over the years, that initial put-down made me hesitant to speak out in class by voicing an opinion or asking a question. Even in college, I could not at first participate in class or ask a question when I did not understand. Yes, as Holt points out, I felt worthless and fit only to take orders. That's what I learned in school.
Compulsory School Attendance Laws Make Sense
In "School Is Bad for Children," John Holt says, "We should abolish compulsory school attendance." He believes that only those who want to go to school should attend and that children should be allowed unauthorized absences. I disagree with Holt completely. School is not bad for children. On the contrary, children need to be educated, and for that to happen, children need to be in school. Compulsory attendance laws, therefore, should not be abolished.
Holt claims that at one time mandatory attendance laws made sense because children needed to be protected from adults who would keep them out of school and send them to work. Sad to say, children still need the protection the laws afford, for exploitive and abusive adults still exist and children still need protection from them. Without the law, plenty of parents would force their children into the workforce and worse. For children born into poverty and abusive homes, education may be the only way to a better life. If compulsory attendance laws did not exist, then these children would lose their tickets out of difficult situations.
Even if children do not need protection from adults, they must be required to attend school to improve their situations. Holt says that "for kids who aren't going to college, school is just a useless time waster, preventing them from earning some money." Sure, they can earn money doing minimum wage jobs that do not require a diploma. But how can people support themselves as well as a family earning a little more than five dollars an hour? An education is more important than a low-paying job at an early age because a person must have a chance at a better job in the future. I know of one person who dropped out of school, and today he is on welfare trying to support three children. He is twenty-six and has little to look forward to. Furthermore, his children are already at a disadvantage because their needs cannot be met, and they cannot enjoy the benefits that many of us had when we were young. Fortunately, these children will be required to go to school, so they may find a way out of their poverty.
Holt also blames compulsory attendance for the problems that exist in schools today. Those who don't want to be in school, says Holt, make things difficult for those who do. Perhaps, but the solution is not to let young people leave school. Instead, the solution is to find ways to make these people want to be in school. We need to do whatever it takes to attract the most talented people into teaching so all students can be motivated to stay in school and learn.
Some might think that Holt's suggestion that students be given unauthorized absences makes sense. But here too I see problems. How is a teacher supposed to maintain continuity with a steady stream of students coming and going? The teacher would spend more time repeating lessons to bring students up to date than teaching necessary material.
Mandatory attendance should not be abolished. Students need to be in school to receive the education they need to make a satisfactory life for themselves. Doing away with compulsory attendance laws would do more harm than any Holt sees with the existing laws.
Clouse, Barbara Fine. The Student Writer: Editor and Critic. 6th ed. Boston: McGraw, 2004. 13-16.