April 14, 2013 - Happy Birthday, John Holt!

John Holt was one of my heroes, when I was a teenager, and he ended up contributing a lot to my personal philosophy and to the shape of my life. After I read every one of his ten books, I got to hear him speak in person, and later I got to meet and talk to him. Sadly, Holt died too young, at age 62.

In addition to authoring ten books, Holt was the editor of a newsletter; books and newsletter dealt with the questions: How do children learn? How do children fail to learn?

Some families are too busy doing
things like this to go to school...
Holt started his career as an author as part of the school reform movement of the 1960s and ended up being very important to the modern homeschooling and unschooling movements, in which families allow and help kids learn and grow without schooling. (His newsletter was called Growing Without Schooling.)

Holt on children's rights...

Holt also had some very interesting ideas about children's rights—ideas that have not been talked as much about as have his ideas about school and homeschooling. Perhaps the ideas are just too extreme. His opening statement in the book is: “I propose...that the rights, privileges, duties of adult citizens be made available to any young person, of whatever age, who wants to make use of them.”

What do you think? ANY age?

A kid can drive, buy cigarettes, and vote, at age 13? Or 10? Or even 5?

Some kids learn to drive a
tractor before they learn to
drive a car.
Holt defended his ideas by pointing out that privileges such as driving can and do hinge on demonstration of knowledge of traffic laws and skill in operating a car. So, if a mature 13 year old can master the written test and wow the tester in the behind-the-wheel test, why not allow that 13 year old to drive? Obviously, parents would have something to say about it, since most 13 year olds do not own their own cars and cannot afford auto insurance—and proof of insurance is required before drivers can take the behind-the-wheel test. What do you think?

Holt pointed out that laws that prohibit children from buying cigarettes don't work. Teens somehow manage to get cigarettes very easily. One could argue that education about the very real (and very terrible) health effects of smoking works better than prohibitions by law. One could argue that acceptance of smoking by anyone—adults included—in society is the largest factor in kids smoking. The states with the lowest rates of adult smokers, such as Utah and California, also have the lowest rates of teen smokers. In my own state, California, less than 12 percent of the adult population and less than 7 percent of teens smoke...So, what do you think about no age limits on cigarette sales?

As to voting, Holt pointed out that many children have more time to devote to (and passion about) learning about candidates and propositions than adults. Some would argue that any person below age 18 could be given the right to vote if they could pass a written test demonstrating understanding of the functions and structure of government and the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Do you agree?

There are a lot of other children's rights that Holt discussed in his book Escape from Childhood. He wrote that many children would not want to use all or maybe even any of these rights—and that would be fine!

John Holt proposed these ideas as conversation starters. He admitted that his ideas were not fully fleshed out, and that various different societies could take steps towards these rights, little by little, one right at a time, after debating the possible effects of such changes. He wasn't a fiery radical who wanted to tear down everything and replace society wholesale!

I agree with Holt that we should have those sorts of conversations. But I also like some common sense restrictions—such as no tattoos or piercings until age 18, unless a parent gives consent, and no R rated movies until age 17, unless accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Even though these laws are not always obeyed or enforced, I think they can still help guide kids and families with choices about things that have complicated, long-lasting effects. 

Many people worked to ban
cigarette advertising on TV.

Do you think this "Joe Cool"
mascot targets kids?
Also, before selling cigarettes to kids was illegal (and before advertising cigarettes on TV was illegal), there were ad campaigns that seemed to be trying to appeal to kids. For example, Camel cigarettes had a mascot, Joe the Camel, who was cute and "smooth" and "cool"—and there was even a stuffed version of Joe. A toy! Making the selling of cigarettes to minors illegal doesn't keep all cigarettes away from all kids and teens, of course (although it makes it harder to get them than it used to be, for sure! – especially since there used to be coin-op cigarette machines!) – but it makes it a lot harder for tobacco companies to blatantly stalk young new customers. (Companies that sell products that kill off their current customers are always having to find new ones, don't you know?)

To find out more about Holt's ideas, check out this website devoted to the man, his writings, and his ideas.

Also on this date:

Anniversary of the completion of the Human Genome Project

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