One of the best things in life is having friends with whom conversation is smooth and intellectually engaging. The kind of conversation that you walk away from feeling like it might help you figure out more pieces of the life puzzle. Reading “How Children Fail,” by John Holt, was a lot like having a three-hour lunch with that friend.
Engaging and accessible, Holt talks about what happens to intelligence when people do not have the liberty to make choices about what they learn and how. He includes a lot of concrete examples of how anxiety and stress both break down the learner’s self-concept and impedes the ability to think. The book is based on the author’s experiences teaching math. Despite the fact that math is not among my top ten favorite topics, the book added details, concreteness and humanity in a way that worked well for me.
The author’s conclusion about coercion is dead-on, and is one of the most important takeaways from this book—one that applies to all people regardless of their age and place in life:
“The idea of painless, nonthreatening coercion is an illusion. Fear is the inseparable companion of coercion, and its inescapable consequence. If you think it your duty to make children do what you want, whether they will or not, then it follows inexorably that you must make them afraid of what will happen to them if they don’t do what you want. You can do this in the old-fashioned way, openly and avowedly, with the threat of harsh words, infringement of liberty, or physical punishment. Or you can do it in the modern way, subtly, smoothly, quietly, by withholding the acceptance and approval which you and others have trained the children to depend on; or by making them feel that some retribution awaits them in the future, too vague to imagine but too implacable to escape.”