By John Holt.
From: Growing Without Schooling #34
“Earlier this year I visited for a few days some old friends who are not home schoolers and whose children have always gone to school. Spending some time with their schooled kids made me realize that the combination of school plus “peer group” (an odd way to describe a group of people who have nothing in common with you except being the same age) can do children a kind of harm that I had not previously thought of.
My objection to the social life of almost all schools, as GWS readers know, is that it is for the most part mean-spirited, competitive, ruthless, snobbish, conformist, consumerist (you are judged by what you can buy, or your parents buy for you), fickle, heartless, and often cruel. Most children come out of school with far less self-esteem, less sense of their own identity, dignity, and worth, than they had when they went in. I know this was true of me. Most children in school feel like losers and outsiders, and most will do almost anything that will, if only for a short time, give them the feeling of being insiders, truly “One Of The Gang.” But I had generally felt and said that there might be a few children who were so good at all the things that schools and “peer groups” considered important, so completely winners at the school game, that socially, at least, the school experience might be more positive than negative for them.
My friends’ oldest child, about to enter high school, seemed at first to be such a person. She was very good at schoolwork (though not in the least interested in it), and got A’s in all her courses; was very athletic, outstanding in a number of sports; was good-natured, friendly, lively, funny, and very popular with both boys and girls; and was astonishingly pretty. She seemed genuinely happy, was fond of and nice to her parents, and was pleasant and friendly to me. Surely this one was one of those rare children who was getting good rather than harm from the social life of school. And yet, after living with her and her family for a few days, I began to feel that even to her the combination of school plus “peer group” was doing some real harm, perhaps harm of a rather subtle kind, perhaps harm that she may soon outgrow, but harm none the less.
What school plus “peer group” had done was to enclose her in a world that was so small and so cut off from every other kind of reality that she might as well have been living in a spaceship. In spite of being very bright, and having very bright parents, she was as nearly as I could tell almost totally ignorant of and uninterested in the world around her. By this I do not mean just that she was not up on the latest newspaper headlines – I tend to agree more and more with Thoreau that most of the “news,” even if true, is not worth knowing. What I mean is that she was not interested in anything about the world she lived in except the handful of cute boys and girls who were her companions, plus perhaps friends, plus perhaps a few stars from the world of popular mass culture – singers, actors and actresses, etc. For her, these were the most real or perhaps the only real people As I have said, she seemed to love her kind and intelligent parents, who very much loved her. But she was not interested in them or what they thought and did, except perhaps as it impinged on her own spaceship life. Most healthy children are at least some of the time very curious about the adult world, and particularly any strange adults who appear in their families. But this child, though she answered very nicely the few questions I asked her, asked none of me and paid no more real attention to me than she did to her parents.
I have to make clear that, perhaps because she was such an outstanding winner in her little world, perhaps also because she was a happy and good-natured person (no small thing) she had never learned to think of adults as enemies, and so was not in the least afraid of them, or rude, hostile, or contemptuous toward them. But she never gave the slightest sign that she thought than any adults, including her very intelligent and remarkable parents, might he interesting, or might have anything to say worth hearing, or any knowledge of the world or experience of life worth learning. Adults, those shadowy figures, were obviously there, and since they had money and power they had to be coped with one way or another, something she was very good at doing. But there was nothing interesting or useful to be learned by watching or listening to them; they were in no way models for the adult life she herself would one day lead. Friendly and charming though she was, she seemed as truly alienated from adult life, the (to me) fascinating community she lived in, and indeed the whole “Real World” the schools talk about, as the most enraged delinquent punk rocker. And this seems to me a serious loss and deprivation for her, and one that will probably make her own adult life less interesting and more difficult, when one day, as she must, she alights on Earth from her little spaceship.”