Final Thoughts on How Children Fail

Final Thoughts on How Children Fail

I definitely liked this book much less than How Children Learn. It doesn’t work as well as a book about educational philosophy because it spends too much time diagnosing problems in the existing system; but as a critique of the school system, I suspect it’s rather dated now. That said, it was definitely a worthwhile read and I spent a lot of time reading bits of it to Dom, always a good sign.

I have one major beef with Holt, and that is over the issue of curriculum:

The notion of a curriculum, an essential body of knowledge, would be absurd even if children remembered everything we “taught” them. We don’t and can’t agree on what knowledge is essential….

The idea of a curriculum would not be valid even if we could agree on what ought to be in it. For knowledge itself changes. Much of what a child learns in school will be found, or thought, before many years, to be untrue. I studied physics at school from a fairly up to date text that proclaimed that the fundamental law of physics was the law of conservation of matter—matter is not created or destroyed. I had to scratch that out before I left school. In economics at college I was taught many things that were not true of our economy then and many more that are not true now. Not for many years after I left college did I learn that the Greeks far from being a detached and judicious people surrounded by chaste white temples, were hot-tempered, noisy, quarrelsome, and liked to cover their temples with gold leaf and bright paint; or that most of the citizens of Imperial Rome, far from living in houses in which the rooms surrounded an atrium, or central court, lived in multi-story tenements, one of which was perhaps the largest building in the ancient world. The child who really remembered everything he heard in school would live his life believing many things that were not so.

Moreover, we cannot possibly judge what knowledge will be most needed forty, or twenty, or even ten years from now….

Holt’s questions are good; but his conclusions are faulty. Perhaps because he is crippled in his own understanding of what education is and should be.

Part of the problem seems to be in Holt’s definition of curriculum; indeed, in his definition of knowledge. He seems to be thinking of a series of facts crammed into a child’s head. But a curriculum, properly speaking, means a course of study (it comes from the Latin word for race course). A curriculum isn’t, or shouldn’t be, so much a set of facts to be learned as a series of disciplines to be explored.

Look at his examples. Physics is not a set of facts to be memorized, it is a system of thought, a particular mindset and a kind of question a way of exploring the universe. When properly taught, students should know that theories change, models change, but the principles of exploration, the means of questioning, stay the same.  And so it is with all the disciplines.

History is not merely a set of facts, names, dates and events. It is the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and other people and those stories changes as we uncover more evidence, find new facts, see things from different perspectives. History is the principle of exploration. You don’t stop exploring because you might uncover new evidence, it is the hope of uncovering new data that drives the historian onward. Holt sees these changes as a problem, but the to the historian it is the process of discovery, of piecing together the stories that is the point. Holt misses the point and so wants to jettison the entire project.

Holt does have a good reason to complain, there are good reasons for him to be dissatisfied with his education. But he misunderstands where it went wrong. The problem is that he never learned what physics is for, how to think like a physicist. He never learned to think like a historian, how to look at documents and piece together the stories of the past. His education was lacking, he never really learned what it is that historians do or physicists do. And thus he never learned that even if data changes and models change, the disciplines are vital.

A curriculum exists because we have no way of knowing beforehand what a child’s interests and aptitudes are likely to be. Therefore, we spread out before him the entire feast of human knowledge. We introduce him to the various ways of asking questions and looking for answers because, as Holt rightly acknowledges, humans are creatures that learn. We are naturally curious, we ask questions, we want to know how and why and when and where and who, and what. Disciplines are merely the sets of tools we use to explore the various avenues of knowledge. A curriculum is merely the set of various disciplines, a series of introductions to ways of knowing about the world.

Of course the models change, that’s what models do. And if we are teaching properly children will come to understand that learning is a process, that knowledge itself grows and changes. And that is what is truly exciting: because learning is lifelong and knowledge is infinite, we can hope to be active participants and not merely passive consumers. We can hope one day to add to the vast sum of human knowledge.

A child should be introduced to all of the disciplines, not only the ones that happen to interest him when he is six or ten or fifteen or twenty. In part, because we do not know who the child will be or what he is capable of becoming. Tastes change and develop. Dom thought he wanted to be an astronaut and is now a writer. If he’d been allowed to self-select only math and science classes and ditch the English, he wouldn’t be where he is today. But even if we could determine where the child would end up, there is still a benefit to being introduced to all (or at least many) of the various branches of human knowledge.

Holt continues:

How can we say, in any case, that one piece of knowledge is more important than another, or indeed, what we really say, that some knowledge is essential and the rest, as far as school is concerned, worthless? A child who wants to learn something that the school can’t and doesn’t want to teach him will be told not to waste his time. But how can we say that what he wants to know is less important than what we want him to know? We must ask how much of the sum of human knowledge anyone can know at the end of his schooling. Perhaps a millionth. Are we then to believe that one of these millionths is so much more important than another?

Again, I think he identifies a genuine problem: we must strike a balance between moving through a set curriculum and introducing the child to the various things we deem important for him to know and giving him the latitude to discover his own interests in his own time and at his own pace. But just because school have tended to err more on one side of the balance at on point in time, doesn’t mean they can’t lean too far to the other side. What Holt proposes in throwing out the curriculum altogether goes too far.

He is right in his recognition that no individual can be a master of everything. But wrong in his conclusion that therefore we should attempt to provide children with a broad curriculum. Rather, I would argue, we must have reasonable expectations as to how much we can expect from them.  We must allow children to have a thinner knowledge in some areas so that they can delve deeper in others and we should be careful that they have time free to develop their own interests and pursue their own inquiries.

Holt claims that, “Learning is not everything and certainly one piece of learning is as good as another.” There is a truth in that, even if I think it is very badly stated. Most of us have the rather bad habit of valuing our favored avenues of study to the exclusion of those that don’t appeal to us. But as parents and educators, we must respect the child’s autonomy and allow him freedom to discover for himself his own interests and aptitudes and ultimately his own vocation.

I suspect that if I had the chance to sit down with Holt and have a good discussion, I would find that we agree far more than we disagree and that even our disagreements are probably more over language than substance, differences in style and personality and emphasis rather than in principles and philosophies. I look forward to reading more of his books and seeing the development of his thinking.

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