There was an adult reading in the tent this summer. This is a story, you understand - something I watched happen. There was a reader who was reading a book with animals and numbers. A child was listening and looking and was asking questions about the animals. Note that: it was the child asking questions. The reader was answering questions, providing information in a calm, interested tone. It was a wonderful learning time. You could almost see the synapses flashing, the weaving of new connections between images and ideas and understandings in the child's mind.
They were reading, and talking, and then looking at the numbers. The child began to count. I forget. Maybe the reader encouraged it. Maybe the child just started counting. Anyway, the child was counting and then he paused. The reader pointed to the next number and asked, "What's next?"
It was an innocent enough question. But it was also damaging. All of a sudden, for the first time that afternoon, it became possible for the child to fail a test. I saw that, because I saw the child's face change expression. I saw the worry and the frown and, then, the downcast eyes.
It had been a wonderful, sunny afternoon. But that was gone now. I'm positive the adult intended no harm. But that didn't matter either. The child had gone into protection. What had been a wonderful learning experience without possibility of failure had suddenly become school. Learning time was over.
(You will want to say I'm exaggerating, but the child remained quiet, and left the tent shortly thereafter.)
This sort of sadness and fear arises, says John Holt, whenever humans sit in judgment over one another.