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 who knew the answer to whatever question you were asking wanted to make sure that you knew they knew, so their hands were always waving. Also, knowing the right answer, they were in a position to enjoy to the full the ridiculous answers that might be given by their less fortunate colleagues. But, as in all classes, these able students are in a minority. What of the unsuccessful majority? Their attention depended on what was going on in class. Any raising of the emotional temperature made them pick up their ears. If an argument was going on, or someone was in trouble, or someone was being laughed at for a foolish answer, they took notice. Or, if you were explaining to a slow student something so simple that all the rest knew it, they would wave their arms and give agonized, half-suppressed cries of “O-o-o-o-oh! O-o-o-o-oh! But most of the time, when explaining, questioning, or discussing was going on, the majority of children paid little attention or none at all. Some daydreamed, and no amount of calling them back to earth with a crash, much as it amused everyone else, could break them of the habit. Others wrote and passed notes, or whispered, or held conversations in sign language, or made doodles or pictures on their papers or desks, or fiddled with objects.
There doesn’t seem to be much a teacher can do about this, if he is really teaching and not just keeping everyone quiet and busy. A teacher in class is like a man in the woods at night with a powerful flashlight in his hand. Where-ever he turns the light, the creatures on whom it shines are aware of it, and do not behave as they do in the dark. Thus, the mere fact of his watching their behavior changes it into something very different. Shine where he will, he can never know very much of the night life of the woods.
From this point on, Mr. Holt keeps on shining his light, but reflects more on what he brings to light. His explanation of what he perceives rests on two major conclusions. The first concerns the nature of intelligence:
Its roots lie in a certain feeling about life, and one’s self with respect to life. Just as clearly, unintelligence is not what most psychologists seem to suppose, the same thing as intelligence only less of it. It is an entirely different style of behavior, arising out of an entirely different set of attitudes.
Holt sees intelligence as a kind of confidence in oneself and one’s value, and in the rationality of the world in which one lives. He sees academic stupidity as rooted in a fear of failure that drives students to develop narrowly empirical strategies for seeking right answers and avoiding the delays, risks, and ambiguities involved in actually understanding what is taught. Even the most stupid children—perhaps particularly they—come to realize that what you have to learn in order to pass has very little relation to what the teacher thinks he is teaching.
Holt’s second conclusion concerns the school’s complicity in this process:
It begins to look as If the test-examination-marks business is a gigantic racket, the purpose of which is to enable students, teachers and schools to take part in a joint pretense that the students know everything they are supposed to know, when in fact they know only a small part of it—if any at all…
Children are subject peoples. School for them is a kind of jail. Do they not, to some extent, escape and frustrate the relentless, insatiable pressure of their elders by withdrawing the most intelligent and creative parts of their minds from the scene?…The stubborn and dogged “I don’t get it” with which they meet the instructions and explanations of their teachers—may it not be a statement of resistance, as well as one of panic and flight?
“School tends to be a dishonest as well as a nervous place,” Holt observes toward the end of his account. Yet, this is not at all the work of a plaintive or disillusioned man; it seems rather to be that of a teacher who has gained renewed strength from facing his position honestly. He does, I think, retain one illusion. He underestimates the degree to which his pupils consent to their own betrayal. Many of the students who seem to him to be failing see themselves, and are seen by the school, as quite successful. Both they and the school know that they are there primarily for assessment and indoctrination as future middle-class citizens; and that the presumed curriculum provides a socially acceptable, tax-supportable mise-en-scène. They are more then willing to assist the school in its pretense that they are really learning mathematics or whatever is required; and the intervention of a teacher like Mr. Holt must seriously delay their reaching an understanding with the school of just how little each will demand. Some of the pupils Holt sees as frightened of the school or resisting it are, I suspect, actually more annoyed with him for shining his light on them just when they were beginning to learn the rhythm of the school and make out with it.
Mrs. Raushenbush’s book does not have the emotional impact of Holt’s because her discoveries are not self-discoveries. She has been at Sarah Lawrence for nearly thirty years, a Dean for eleven of these, and has little more to learn about either herself or life. The people she discusses in her book, moreover, are college, not grade-school, students. The two books are, nevertheless, basically similar in their underlying values and in their assumption that students are themselves the best source of evidence of the effects of their education. The most important difference that the age of Mrs. Raushenbush’s informants makes is a technical one; she can interview them, instead of observing them in class. But what she is looking for seems essentially identical with what Holt sought in his younger pupils:
During the course of a year, in 1962 and 1963, I visited campuses in several parts of the country to talk with students about their work. I was interested in students who had become involved, or engaged, in their intellectual life, so that it mattered seriously to them. I did not seek out the remarkably talented few, whose qualities and gifts set them apart from others; the students who appear here are like many other intelligent young people whose education makes a difference in their lives—who use their education as a means of growing up…Often students who are deeply involved in their education do not get straight A’s; and we all know students for whom A’s come easy, or who get high grades out of compulsion, or ambition, or parental pressure, or fear, or the wish to be honored, who never do become engaged in their intellectual life.
I wanted to find students who pursued questions, who were not always asking for answers, whose education was not only the acquisition of knowledge, but a process of inquiry. How, if at all, did his studies help turn a detached, unmotivated boy into a student? What happens when students who are intent on developing talents already obvious, have no time for exploration that may reveal others? What happens when we encourage exploration?…
Mrs. Raushenbush had long talks, sometimes over the course of a year, with about 170 students, read their papers, and exchanged letters with them. But finding the kind of students she wanted to know was sometimes a problem. At one college she made her selection by studying questionnaires selected at random; at another she had a discussion with the administrations, some of whom understood what she was after. Some, however, offered the names of honors students, and when she explained that this might not give her what she needed, one remarked: “This makes me uneasy—I never thought of students quite the way you’re thinking about them.”
Most of Mrs. Raushenbush’s book consists of detailed reports she complied on four of the 170 students whom she interviewed. “I chose them,” she writes, “because I found that they had responded in interesting and sometimes moving ways to their education, as students often do.” They are varied: Scott Hansen at Harvard almost perfectly exemplifies autonomous growth toward cool commitment, of the kind which has become almost stereotypical of Harvard. Margaret Weaver, coming to Macalester College from a lower-middle-class family in a Chicago suburb, is more consistent in her purpose and rather more aggressive; where education expands Scott’s intellectual space in a concentric series of ripples, Margaret uses it to concentrate on her target—a political career—though her conception of politics, nevertheless, deepens and widens.
The other two students discussed are more limited by their earlier experience, though in contrasting ways. Alex Rovere, a poor boy with a poor record from a poor parochial school, was admitted to Hofstra’s New College only because the institution was determined to be conscientiously experimental. Young Rovere, now in graduate school, is moving along in a scientific career that he could hardly have imagined before New College, and one chemistry professor in particular awakened his interest. But he is still scornful of broader humanistic interests. Of college courses in literature, he comments:
None of it interested me. What are you doing in such studies? The work is there. It’s written down. You don’t contribute anything. It seems to me this should be done in your leisure. I don’t have any leisure.
Anna Warren, a student at Sarah Lawrence, is almost as severely handicapped by high school success. As a college freshman she was a bright, smooth academic operator who seems to have been liberated from her fantasies of expressing an essentially empty self by becoming a ballerina when Sarah Lawrence cracked her shell—Diaghilev, perhaps, might have mounted the story of Miss Warren’s adolescence, though he could not have encouraged her to dance the role of herself.
Mrs. Raushenbush selected these four students for discussion partly because of their diversity. She views their school careers as suggestive in their variety—none is a paragon. Consequently, her work never achieves a specific focus. It could not, really, unless she had discovered some single principle underlying effective general education; which is not at all what she was seeking and which probably does not exist. Her work must be taken for what it was meant to be and is; a rich mixture of specific observations of the process of college education, examined for indications of which components contribute most, under what circumstances, to the growth of autonomy in students. A teacher is most likely to contribute to such autonomy, she finds, if he makes his students feel personally and directly his commitment to and competence in his own field. He need not, and probably should not, involve himself in their personal lives; and the kind of students who interest her would hardly accept a father-figure even on the easiest terms. But they do consistently report having been helped by teachers whom they perceived as first-hand examples of what scholarship means in practice. Mr. Holt, I think, would be such a teacher if he taught in college. To grammar school pupils, hampered and pestered as they are by the crushing responsibilities of childhood in America, he is probably less useful.
Mrs. Raushenbush concludes with a recommendation that is virtually identical with that made by Paul Goodman—an author whom she does not otherwise resemble—in Community of Scholars. She urges that higher education be decentralized, and sees the best chances for student growth and serious involvement in satellite colleges like New College, Hofstra or Wayne University’s Monteith. She does not, as Goodman does, criticize American society with direct and explicit hostility. But in this her graciousness seems a little irresponsible. Her suggestion implies that our society is so anti-intellectual, pragmatic, ambitious, and hostile to the human spirit that liberal education had best be sought by a committed minority reconciled to its peculiar status and having no honorable place in a multiversity. I am afraid that this is true; but it is also too important to be left to implication. This, after all, is the heart of the matter. It troubles both Mr. Holt and Mrs. Raushenbush; and it ought to be stated plainly.