In reading two of the greatest authors on the topic of unschooling and educational freedom, I encountered several negative references to Calvinism. They condend that Calvinist ideology:

  1. Sees people as machines to be manipulated, repaired, and optimized
  2. Sees children as bad
  3. Sees children as lazy

In my own Calvinist upbringing, I never saw or experienced the first or third of those tenets. The second tenet was emphasized, but was also applied to adults (Romans 3:23). While I agree with these authors that authoritarian educational approaches harm children, I would disagree with their assertion that this authoritarianism is the natural outworking of Calvinist ideas. I am not opposed to the possibility that these approaches are the result of a perversion of Calvinist thinking. Getting to the bottom of this apparent contradiction in my philosophy will take a good bit more study of the original writings of John Calvin.

Here are the quotations I have assembled:

John Taylor Gatto

“Over the past thirty years, I’ve used my classes as a laboratory where I could learn a broader range of what human possibility is—the whole catalogue of hopes and fears—and also as a place where I could study what releases and what inhibits human power.

During that time, I’ve come to believe that genius is an exceedingly common human quality, probably natural to most of us. I didn’t want to accept that notion—far from it: my own training in two elite universities taught me that intelligence and talent distributed themselves economically over a bell curve and that human destiny, because of those mathematical, seemingly irrefutable scientific facts, was as rigorously determined as John Calvin contended.”

Gatto, J. (2017). Dumbing us down: the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling (p. xix). Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

“To many of us, the greatest attraction of social engineering and antisocial demonologies is that both, at bottom, promise a quick fix. That has always been the dark side of the American dream, the search for an easy way out, a belief in magic. The endless parade of promises that constitutes the heart of American advertising, one of the largest of our national enterprises, testifies to the deep well of superstition in our national foundation, which has been institutionalized in the advertising business. Easy money, easy health, easy beauty, easy education—if only the right incantation can be found. Lurking behind the magic is an image of people as machinery that can be built and repaired. This is our Calvinist legacy calling to us over the centuries, saying that the world and all its living variety is just machinery, not very hard to adjust if we put sentimentality aside and fire the villains, either symbolically or with actual bonfires, depending on the century. School reform to most of us is an engineer reaching for the right wrench or Perry Mason finding the clue he needs to nail the bad guy.

Ultimately, how we think about social problems depends on our philosophy of human nature: what we think people are, what we think they are capable of, what the purposes of human existence may be, if any. If people are machines, then school can only be a way to make these machines more reliable; the logic of machines dictates that parts be uniform and interchangeable, all operations time-constrained, predictable, economical.”

Gatto, J. (2017). Dumbing us down: the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling (p. 85-86). Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

“The old Congregationalists would have been able to put their finger at once on the reason pyramidal societies, such as the one our monopoly form of schooling sustains, must always end in apathy and disorganization. At the root they are based on the lie that there is only ‘one right way’ in human affairs and that experts can be awarded the permanent direction of the enterprise of education. It is a lie because the changing dynamics of time and situation and locality render expertise irrelevant and obsolete shortly after it is anointed.”

Gatto, J. (2017). Dumbing us down: the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling (p. 87). Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

John Holt

[In reference to the philosophy of unschooling]

Interviewer: “What brought about this rather curious idea, as you express it?”

John Holt: “How did I come to think all this?”

Interviewer: “No. Where do you think this idea…”

John Holt: “About the innate sort of badness, laziness of children?”

Interviewer: “Yeah. That’s right. This theory of children.”

John Holt: “It comes out of Calvinism, out of Northern European Protestantism, and partly, that is to say…this view of children is almost unique to the Northern European Protestant civilizations. Your Mediterranean countries, your Catholics…There’s no notion in Catholicism about a kind of inherent badness of children, although I think Northern European Catholicism perhaps picked up some of the same strains. This has not been true of human cultures generally. There’s no generalized distrust of children in most human cultures. But it has come in in ours…”

Holt, J. (2015). John Holt interviewed in Pullman, WA. Retrieved from