John Holt was the oldest of three children, and raised in the New England region of the USA. He was sent to private schools, whose names he declined to reveal. He said, "... the things I'm supposed to know so much about I never learned in schools." After graduating from university, Holt joined the United States Navy and served on board the USS Barbero, a submarine that fought in the Pacific Ocean. During the war, he concluded that nuclear weapons were the world's greatest danger, and only a world government could prevent nuclear war. After his three-year tour of duty in the Navy, he got a job with the New York branch of the United World Federalists. Starting in the mail room, he became the executive director of the New York branch within six years. However, he became frustrated with UWF's ineffectiveness and left it in 1952.
At the urging of his sister, Holt became a fifth grade teacher. He also spent much time with the babies and young children of his sisters and friends. He was struck by the difference between the 10s (whom he liked) and the 1s and 2s. The children in the classroom, despite their rich backgrounds and high IQs, were, with few exceptions, frightened, timid, evasive, and self-protecting. The infants at home were bold adventurers. After several years of teaching in Colorado, he moved to Boston. It was here that he met Bill Hull, a fellow teacher, and they decided to start a classroom observation project; one would teach, while the other would watch. The notes and journal entries Holt accumulated during his first eleven years of teaching formed the core of two of his most popular books How Children Fail and How Children Learn, as well as his lesser-known and more radical work, Escape from Childhood: The Rights and Needs of Children. These three books detailed the foundational ideas of Holt's philosophy of education. He held that the primary reason children did not learn in schools was fear: fear of getting the wrong answers, fear of being ridiculed by the teacher and classmates, fear of not being good enough. He maintained that this was made worse by children being forced to study things that they were not necessarily interested in.
In 1964 Holt published his first book, How Children Fail, asserting that the academic failure of schoolchildren was not despite the efforts of the schools, but actually because of the schools. Not surprisingly, How Children Fail ignited a firestorm of controversy. Holt was catapulted into the American national consciousness to the extent that he made appearances on major TV talk shows, wrote book reviews for Life magazine, and was a guest on the To Tell The Truth TV game show. In his follow-up work, How Children Learn, published in 1967, Holt tried to elucidate the learning process of children and why he believed school short circuits that process.
Holt became a sought-after speaker and supporter of school reform. He was a visiting teacher for the education departments at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. Up to this time, no book of his suggested any alternative to institutional schooling; he had hoped to initiate a profound rethinking of education to make schools friendlier for children. But as the years passed, he became convinced that the way schools were was what society wanted, and that a serious reexamination was not going to happen in his lifetime.
Holt then ended his teaching career in order to publicize his ideas about education full time. In 1976, he published Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better, whose conclusion called for a "Children's Underground Railroad" to help children escape compulsory schooling. Readers of this book contacted Holt, saying that they were educating their children at home. After corresponding with a number of these families, Holt began a newsletter in 1977, dedicated to home education, Growing Without Schooling.
It's not that I feel that school is a good idea gone wrong, but a wrong idea from the word go. It's a nutty notion that we can have a place where nothing but learning happens, cut off from the rest of life. -John Holt