Un-schooled Kids

Walter Christmas-Dirckinck-Holmfeld – an adventurer who never liked school

History of Childhood. Peder Most. Walter Christmas hated school. During his years at Borgerdydskolen – one of Copenhagen’s oldest gymnasiums then led by the famous Danish philologist Jean Pio – he was what was generally called a “lazy, inattentive and fidgety pupil”. Rather than sitting around in over-heated rooms, he loved having street fights with boys from other Copenhagen schools or roaming the ruins of Tietgen’s Kirke for marbles. While he had to spend his evenings reading lessons and while Saturdays were feared for his father’s riding crop – applied if the grades were bad – he would dream of adventures bigger than those of Captain Marryat or Daniel Defoe. His imaginative world was “inhabited by Indians, pirates, smugglers, treasure hunters, by wild and dangerous beasts”.

Walter’s lucky escape came when he fell seriously ill at the age of 13. To improve his health, his parents decided to send him to sea as a “voluntary apprentice”– a preliminary step for joining Denmark‘s ancient naval cadet corps. The adventures he encountered during two prolonged sea cruises introduced him to the school of life – a school far removed from book learning.

Peder Most – an unpolished, likeable lad

The hands-on lessons in the social microcosm of the ship and the educative travels around Europe that young naval aspirants participated in would probably suit current adherents of the growing trend of unschooling (which has received heightened attention due to the Corona pandemic). In the face of increasing mental health issues among school kids, and of a rapidly transforming labour market that doesn’t need human machines, but creative thinkers, they advocate a system change: away from the incarceration in classical school rooms, inflexible curricula, and the eternal cycle of judgement, exams and certificates – towards an individual, informal way of learning, based on our increasing awareness that children learn best when they can play and follow their natural curiosity, in the middle of real life.

Walter Christmas’s early time in the navy was not a bed of roses. Hard years of naval school courses, of theoretical and practical exams, of harsh discipline and continuous assessemt would follow his first sea cruises before he could finally become an officer of the Royal Danish Navy in 1884. “A cloudburst of grades was constantly threatening, at every step we took, at every action we performed”, was how he remembered his cadet years. Nevertheless, or maybe despite this experience, Christmas would continue to propagate what one might call the un-schooled life. The Peder-Most novels, the boys’ adventure series that he became most famous for, were essentially stories about an unschooled kid written for unschooled kids.

Peder Most, an unschooled kid, and Frits Klenow, an educated middle-class boy, share the same dreams of maritime adventure. Illustration from the French version of Peder Most, “Camarades de Bord” (1912)

Their red-haired protagonist, Peder Most, is an unpolished lad with little school education, talking about “Napolibum” and “Nielsen” (Napoleon and Nelson) as if they were contemporaries. Yet, he has acquired a practical superiority and knowledge of the world which makes his friend, Frits Klenow, a rich and educated middle-class school boy, look up to him in admiration. The first novel of the series is essentially the story of how Frits’ wish to escape his monotonous school life for the adventures of the sea becomes fulfilled and provides two healthy Danish lads with an experience of the world – and, eventually, a real fortune – which they would never have obtained at home.

At the same time, Christmas wrote the novels as a sort of informal school books. They were meant to provide more entertaining geography lessons, particularly for lower-class children, than those he could remember from his own school years. The Peder Most books were thus typical adventure novels whose timeless appeal sprung from their combination of escapist plots and educative contents: They provided knowledge of a world much wider and much more exciting than the tristesse of the average school room. And, indeed, Christmas’s readers were often escapist school-drop-outs with iridescent careers just like his own, whom his stories invited to “sail for new adventures on the road from Svendborg’s perspective-less shores to the Africa of your dreams and towards a wild, amazing joy” (excerpt from a poem by Jannick Storm, translation by myself).


Did you also read the Peder-Most novels as a child to escape your boring school life? I will be conducting interviews with Danish readers of Walter Christmas in spring 2021. Feel free to contact me if you would like to participate. Find more information about my research project here.

Further reading:

More about Un-Schooling:

A recent article in the New York Times about how the unschooling movement might help parents in their current struggles with Covid-19-induced home-schooling and how this could change our school system forever:

Some famous Un-Schoolers are:

Interestingly enough, the most famous un-schooled kid of world (children’s) literature is also a Scandinavian, Astrid Lindgren’s “Pippi Longstocking“.

If you want to read a historical study and manifesto (in German) about how childhoods have changed over the past milennia and particularly the last 200 years, Michael Hüter’s “Kindheit 6.7” is a good point of reference. It advocates socialization in the family rather than early learning initiatives or classical school education.

More about adventure, escapism and informal learning:

Children’s views of the world are a comparatively recent subject of historical studies. Here you can find an edited volume about the world knowledge of children in 19th-century Germany, focusing on school books, novels, play & the toy industry: The world of Children: Foreign Cultures in Nineteenth-century German education and entertainment.

An older study of the connection between adventure and escapism is: Kevin Carpenter/Bernd Steinbrink, Ausbruch und Abenteuer: Deutsche und englische Abenteuerliteratur von Robinson bis Winnetou (1984).

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