Review – How Children Learn

How Children Learn

by John Holt, published 1995

John Holt says the essence of his book can be boiled down to two words: “Trust children.” We hear echoes Magda Gerber’s RIE philosophy motto (“slow down”) and Maria Montessori’s “secret of childhood.” If we trust children, what are we trusting they will do and on what basis is the trust being given?

We trust that children will make not only good choices, but the right choices with regards to where they are in their personal development, that they will engage in behaviors and follow curiosities that maximize their ability to learn about themselves and the world around them and how it works. And the basis of this trust is that children are fundamentally competent to be themselves without any additional input, guidance or motivation from parents or other adults, who at best can merely replace the child’s ego with their own.

In reading Holt, I was constantly reminded of my friend’s book, A Theory Of Objectivist Parenting, which asks the reader to consider the philosophical dilemma of how an individual who is treated as incapable and irresponsible for most of their developmental life can suddenly be expected to be a functioning adult with the snap of two fingers. Where lies the magic such that an “animal” child is transformed into a “human” man without the benefit of practice or routine in these modes of thought and action?

Holt believes that children want to learn, and that their behaviors and choices are fundamentally aimed at learning about the important functional relationships of the world around them. They choose their own goals based on their own interests and then determine what preceding knowledge they must obtain to secure their goals. The schooling method, of which Holt is skeptical, involves sequential learning from the basic to the complex, with no object for the instruction other than to master the material. But this is not interesting to most children, because the learning is divorced from a meaningful context (ie, a problem they personally want to solve) and the structuring of the learning often serves to highlight to a child how little he knows about a given field, an unnecessary bruise to a young person’s self-esteem. The result is that children often invest a lot of energy in avoiding learning, rather than engaging with the material, and what they practice is denying their own values and interests rather than gaining competence in knowledge and systems they have no desire to learn.

The ego is so central to Holt’s understanding of how children learn that it almost defies explanation how absent this concern is from most other pedagogical methods! Where did people come up with the idea that the student’s own fascination with the subject (or lack thereof) is irrelevant to the problem of learning? Why should we think it is optimal to follow any path of instruction which ignores this fundamental element? And who is truly being served by such an approach when it clearly can not be the child himself?

A related danger that Holt discusses is attempts to trick children into learning things, by teaching them without them noticing they’re being taught. If the idea is to teach people even if they don’t want to be taught, and if doing so creates resistance to learning, then it does seem logical to try to sneak and cheat the information into children’s minds. But is that respectful, and should we imagine anything else but more failure from continuing to build on such flawed premises?

Holt’s warning is again startling. Children are not aliens who think completely differently from adults. They are simply differently capable people, and their human capacity for reasoning makes it obvious to them, even when they’re very young, when they’re not being treated on the level. How disrespectful to treat another human being this way, with so little concern for their own values and well-being! Imagine trying to “trick” an adult into learning something without their permission or interest, by asking questions one already knows the answers to, or insinuating that something they don’t consider important is actually quite so. Such a person would consider it demeaning to imply they can’t figure out for themselves what deserves their attention and what does not, or that they’re not sharp enough to know they’re being fooled with, and so it is with children.

This is a rich and dense work with many pithy observations I wish I had highlighted the first time through. The author clearly admires children for their potential and their capability alike, and he helps the reader to see children not as helpless, but as empiricists, experimenters and practitioners. The hardest thing for parents and teachers to internalize from this work is the need for them to exercise self-control in light of their penchant for thinking their interventions in the life of children are so critical to the children’s thriving. It appears to be just the opposite!

Review – Patriots: The Men Who Started The American Revolution

Was the American Revolution (and the War of Independence) a popular political movement?

After reading A.J. Langguth’s Patriots: The Men Who Started the American Revolution, it sure doesn’t seem to have been. With a total population in the colonies somewhere around 3 million, the patriots were only ever able to field a few thousand (and in total, a few ten thousand) men at arms in most of the major battles and the Congress was apparently not popular enough to convince the colonies to let it raise its own taxes to properly feed and clothe its army. Considering that the right of parliaments to levy taxes to pay for wars was a key aspect of British legal philosophy which had been developing for centuries since the Magna Carta, the inability of the Congress to avoid resistance to the issue of taxation to support the war effort appears to be as strong an indication as any that this was a minority struggle engineered by a crafty competing elite.

Given its lack of popularity, and the fact that many of those who were first agitating for the conflict had become wealthy by circumventing mercantilist trade laws in the colony (what we might crudely call “smuggling contraband”, much like a modern drug trafficker), the even more puzzling question is why they bothered to start it in the first place? Wouldn’t men like John Hancock have been better off collecting the monopoly rents granted to them by the system of restraints on trade in place which they so profitably worked around? Why were new laws like the Stamp Act, which would have only increased the profitability of their operations, the cause for a major escalation in the dispute between colonial citizens, their local (British-approved) magistrates and the Crown and British Parliament itself?

Unfortunately, “Patriots” doesn’t spend much time pondering or attempting to answer questions like that, which to me is a shame because the reason I bought the book was that both the title and the insinuations of many of the reviewers seemed to suggest it had some conspiratorial light to shed on this momentous historical series of events.

My expectations ran high in the initial chapters of the book. Langguth’s chosen motif, if it isn’t obvious, is to highlight a key personality in the chronological narrative in each chapter. He starts with “Otis”, “Adams” and then “Henry”, but quickly ventures off the rails with “Riots”, and “Politics” and eventually “Saratoga” and “Victory.” The first few chapters outlining some key legal and social goings on, centered primarily in Boston, are exciting, detailed and alive with the moment. The author succeeds again and again at painting a neat little portrait of each major player as they enter the stage such that you get a sense of their personality, their motivations and ambitions and some of their personal back story that helps to create a context for why they’re involved at key moments and why they might have acted as they did. He excels in these early parts at providing interesting data, economic, demographic and otherwise, that help the reader to draw inferences about the larger context of each disturbance, one of my favorite being that the British customs service (responsible for enforcing the system of tariffs that bolstered the mercantilist relationship of the mother country to its colonies) cost 8,000 pounds sterling to operate each year but only managed to collect 2,000 pounds sterling in revenues and fines. Considering the public and private corruption the customs service engendered, why bother with such a system if only to operate it at a 6,000 pound loss every year? It is a piece of data that leads one down many puzzling philosophical paths!

But as the conflicts in Boston move from the courthouses and legislatures to the streets and, eventually, the towns and fields of battle, the narrative structure loses its way. It becomes clear that this is a story that is much too complex to fit this “great personalities” framework and the author seems to willingly abandon it but not before introducing a cavalcade of new characters along the way without fanfare or suitable explanation. In one chapter, a teenage Alexander Hamilton pops his head in for a paragraph in the form of hoping for a war in a letter written to a friend in New York but we hear nothing from or about him until almost two hundred pages later and even then he plays a minor role seemingly mentioned only because of the narrative omniscience that he’ll mean more to American history at a later date.

Aside from covering some of the major struggles in Boston, Langguth talks about issues being debated in Virginia in the House of Burgesses. The rest of the colonies (11 out of the 13 total, mind you!) go essentially without mention in terms of their own internal problems with British authority culminating in their decisions to join an armed rebellion. They only pop in here and there when their representatives make some motion in the Congress, or one of their militia bands achieves some glory (or disgrace) on a battlefield somewhere. If you went off of Langguth’s telling alone, Boston was the only intellectual and politically active place in the 13 colonies and it somehow managed to drag all the rest of the population into a conflict that they had nothing to do with.

Equally puzzling is the intense focus on the military campaign in New England, centered around action in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York state. Though references are made several times to the “Southern campaign” and the “Northern army” engaged in key battles at Saratoga, Canada and elsewhere, it is almost as if there wasn’t a brutal, guerrilla¬†war despite the colonial military campaign somehow abruptly concluding with Cornwallis’s entrapment and surrender in the Southern (Virginian) Yorktown. Now how on earth did Yorktown become decisive when the fighting all seemed to take place in New England?

There were a few takeaways that seemed clear to me. War and military combat is horrible and there is nothing glorious about it, not even when fighting (nominally) for political freedom. Descriptions of the bayonet charges, of men having their heads pulverized on impact by cannonballs, of the mutilations and amputations that are left after a major battle all made it clear that¬†war is inhumane. Another takeaway was that war is not carried out by men shooting at each other on battlegrounds alone. Spying and intelligence gathering, bribery and loyalty-negotiation and even market forces are all things a commander needs to contend with. Finally, while I certainly don’t believe it is reasonable to expect men to be “better” than this anytime soon, it was fascinating to see how many of the various “Patriots” were what might be described as traumatized, ego-driven personalities who struggled vainly for glory and treasure and were willing to do violence because of these passions. It really got me thinking about how little conflict the world would be engendered by if it wasn’t populated by men willing to abandon their loving families for years on end to engage in oratorical parlors (Congress) or to carry out war and destruction for a little excitement (Hamilton, Washington, etc.).

One of my biggest frustrations with the book turned out to be the fact that over half of the book followed the military campaigns of the Revolution, but it was difficult and at times impossible for me to parse Langguth’s narrative to understand what, physically, was occurring on the battlefield and why. There are clearly reasons why men with rifles and cannon did what they did to defeat one another in those days, but it was rarely clear to me a.) what it was they were actually doing and b.) why they determined it to be advantageous. I know very little about how war is conducted, in this era or any other, and this author didn’t help resolve my veil of ignorance.