How Children Fail
The Student and his Studies
These two books complement each other superbly. Both undertake to show how students use schooling to release and develop their particular talent and capacity; and with the ways in which they so often fail. Mr. Holt and Mrs. Raushenbush write about education as a process that may either nurture or stultify human development, and both describe in detail just what occurs in the student in response to the demands the school makes, and the opportunities it affords. What distinguishes their work from nearly everything else that has recently been written about American education is the meticulous attention and respect they accord to the experience of the particular youngsters they discuss. The unsentimental devotion to education that leads them to describe the students they have observed as persons, rather than as cases, augments the sharp contrasts within the picture they present: failures become more painful to observe, triumphs more satisfying.
Mr. Holt’s book, particularly, is unprecedented. He is a mathematics teacher in the intermediate grades who has kept a journal record of his students’ responses to his efforts to teach them. How Children Fail consists simply of a selection of his journal entries from February 13, 1958, to June 15, 1961, with a concluding summary and interpretation. The value of such a work obviously depends entirely on the competence and sensitivity of its author. Mr. Holt is in a class with Piaget.
How Children Fail is very precisely titled. The book is a perceptive account of the process of failure—not an explanation of it, though Holt does consider why children fail in his concluding essay. His journal is often moving in its candor, like posthumously recovered notebooks in which scientists on a polar expedition have recorded events and data that revealed to them that they were doomed. Many of his accounts in fact might be excerpts from a play by Pinter or Albee. Mr. Holt and his students talk to one another and each modifies his behavior in response to the other’s demands. But they do not communicate because they have no common purpose. Mr. Holt is trying to get the student to understand a mathematical concept; the student is trying to find out what answer Mr. Holt wants and to give it, which is hard enough without trying to solve arithmetic problems at the same time. Mr. Holt’s integrity prevents him from giving his students what they want, while their anxiety and lack of interest prevent them from accepting what he has to give.
On July 25, 1958, after nearly six months of observation in his own and other classrooms, Mr. Holt wrote:
What goes on in class is not what teachers think—certainly not what I had always thought…I thought I knew, in general, what the students were doing, and also what they were thinking and feeling. I see now that my picture of reality was almost wholly false. Why didn’t I see this before?…
Those who most needed to pay attention, usually paid the least. The kids…
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