From Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept
From Child Rearing
Ages Four and Up
From Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept
Is SVS a School?
From The Sudbury Valley School Experience
Back to Basics
By The Sudbury Valley School Trustees
The American Dream
There are three root ideas underlying the ethical, political, and social
structure of the United States. Each of these three, taken alone, has a long
history in other cultures, and occasionally two of them have appeared
together. America has been unique, until recently, in combining all three
into that particular mix that gives our country its special character.
The first of these is the idea of Individual Rights: every person is endowed
with certain "inalienable rights," rights that belong to him as
his own, as his inherent possession -- not granted as a gift by some
benevolent ruler, not given as a privilege by an all-powerful state, but
belonging to him, without qualification, as his rights. They cannot be
removed, or explained away; nor can they be violated by any person,
government, or power, as long as law and order prevail.
The second root idea is Political Democracy: all decisions governing the
community are decided by the community in a politically democratic way. The
first root idea, of Individual Rights, covers those actions in a person's
life that primarily affect himself, and for which he is individually
responsible. The second root idea, of Political Democracy, covers those
actions that primarily affect other people, and for which the community is
responsible. There is no sharp dividing line; there never are sharp dividing
lines in real life. But there are large areas to which each of these ideas
applies independently, and these areas are generally agreed upon.
The third root idea is Equal Opportunity: every person has an equal chance
to obtain any goal. There is no privilege in America, a phenomenon stressed
even in our written Constitution. People are born equal, and they start out
with equal chances in life.
Individual Rights, Political Democracy, and Equal Opportunity -- these are
the three root ideas of the American way of life. Our country has pioneered
in their development individually and, especially, together. Take any one of
them away, and you are in another country, another tradition, another
culture. And we shall stand or fall on our ability to continue to give
meaning to all three ideas in our unfolding history.
By Daniel Greenberg
Nothing disturbs visitors to Sudbury Valley School more than the sight of children of all ages playing freely all day long. The image contradicts every notion people have of what a school should be. Moreover, it seems to offer proof of our culture's prevailing view that children, left to their own resources, cannot be expected to amount to much, since all they do is play. No matter how the situation is viewed, it doesn't look good.
In general, play has gotten a bad press in Western society. It is considered to be the activity that is least useful economically, socially, even ethically. It is associated with laziness and shiftlessness. It is the antonym of "work". At best, it is what one does when one has earned time off from productive work, when nothing more is expected of a person; it is to be discouraged at all other times. In the case of young children, it is sometimes acknowledged to be a necessary evil, and much effort is bent towards improving its quality, or justifying it as a partially excusable preparation for something more substantial.
Yet, there is something very wrong with this picture. It is, after all, a fact that Nature has arranged matters in such a way that play is the chief, overridingly absorbing, activity of human young. It is an equally indisputable fact that the human species could not have survived these past hundreds of thousands -- or millions -- of years on earth if the young of the species were not well endowed by Nature with a virtually irresistible drive to acquire the skills necessary for functioning as effective adults. Moreover, it is during the earliest years of development that children learn the most, and learn the fastest; nothing in later life compares with the enormous capacity of infants and young children to master new material, adapt to new environments, and obtain satisfactory solutions to strange and often overwhelming problems. According to the Natural order of things, then, play -- the activity central to people in their most accelerated learning mode -- must be the most effective instrument for learning. What is going on? What is play all about? Why did it come to get such a bad rap in Western culture? What attitude should post-Industrial societies adopt towards play? This essay is an attempt to provide some answers to these questions.
Let me begin with my definition of play: Play is activity directed by mental processes that are characterized primarily by the exercise of free-wheeling imagination. All such activity is play, and all play is such activity. The mind of a person at play must be engaged in some creative fancy; I generally call this mental activity "model-building". Play is model-building in action. It is the mind's laboratory, testing in the physical domain the fancies it has come up with in its purely mental exercises. Play does what every experiment, every "reality check", does: it provides feedback to the brain about the consequences of its models when played out in the real world environment. This is why play is so indispensable to infants: before they develop communications skills that enable them in effect to tap into other people's minds directly, play is the only avenue children have to test their models of reality. Later in life, play remains the only avenue people have to interact directly with their environment in order to test their new models.
Let's take a closer look at play, and note some of its characteristics. The most obvious is its powerful creativity. Play is the vehicle through which people produce creative outcomes in action. Its power lies in its freedom; it is not, by its very nature, bound to any prior mode of action or thought. In play, a person can survey a given situation and create an unlimited number of new responses to it. In play, a person can hypothesize, in his imagination, an unlimited number of new situations, and create responses to them as well. Creative people must "play" with ideas, with theories, with new behavior patterns. Successful research institutions know this, and make provision for it. The more creative people we want in our society, the more opportunity for play must be provided; and, as in any other domain of human behavior, the more comfortable people are with play at an early age, the better they will be at it -- and at producing creative outcomes -- the rest of their lives. The fact that children are born with the ability, and overwhelming desire, to play, is the clearest demonstration of the evolutionary fact that humans are by nature creative, by nature possessed of the innate ability to build infinitely varied models of reality and to relate to their environment in a limitless variety of patterns.
Allowing children to play freely is a necessary prerequisite for a society of adults who have the freedom to be creative -- in other words, for the post-Industrial society which we are rapidly approaching. Suppressing play in children means suppressing the expression of their imagination and creative impulses, which can later be recovered only with great effort, if at all.
Many people who acknowledge the substance of what I have written above are nevertheless still concerned about the apparently undisciplined nature of play. They worry that children who are allowed to play all day will not be ready to face "reality" when they grow up; that such children will want to continue to play all the time, without concern for the more serious issues of life. This raises an important question: What is the relationship between play and "reality"? Or, put in a slightly different perspective: What is the relationship between play and fantasy?
To answer this, we must grasp the relationship between fantasy, reality, and imagination. Every person creates his own models of reality by applying his model-building skills to the inputs provided to his mind by his interactions with his surroundings. In the course of building, revising, and reconstructing models of reality, people are constantly testing new constructs, and new modes of processing information. Fantasy is nothing more nor less than the mind's creation of alternative constructs for reality. They are consciously invented as alternatives to the current model of reality being used by the inventor -- hence they are, to him, "fantasies" rather than reality. They must, of course, be coherent models; all fantasies are models of some form of reality, albeit an "alien" form relative to the "real" form currently in use. Fantasy is the tool used by people to fashion "what if"s of reality, and to follow them through as far as they wish to.
This function of fantasy is widely accepted in the arts, especially in writing. It is less recognized as such in more "down to earth" domains, such as science and technology. But science is, after all, nothing if not the constant testing out of new notions of the way natural phenomena work, and modern science has taken the lid off of any limitations on the extent to which new hypothesize can appear to be utterly "fantastic". Dramatic technological breakthroughs, too, can be traced to some flight of fancy of one or more inventors, who depart dramatically from the prevailing models.
Children in their play can be seen to use fantasy in exactly the same manner as adults. Children are never confused between the "fanciful" models they create and the models of reality they are currently employing. They are fully aware that the space stations they build, or the animals they become, or the societies they invent, are different from the characteristics of reality that they are currently working with. Indeed, the difference is the attraction: play is not an escape from reality, but an opportunity to test out alternative models of reality. One of the most attractive features of children's play is the persistence with which they are willing to follow through and explore in depth an enormous number of consequences of their play models. This follow-through is tremendously important to the effectiveness of the creative process, and is much needed by creative adults. Children follow through naturally (as human beings are meant to), and the best way we can help children grow up to be adults who are able to expend concentrated energy on elaborating new models is not to interfere with them when they are elaborating their models at play.
It all comes down to the observation that there is no sharp line of demarcation between our current models of reality and fantasy. People's models of reality are, have been, and always will be in constant flux, and fantasy is the tool by which new alternatives are created, understood, tested, and ultimately used, either in whole or in part.
Play is not undisciplined. On the contrary, play is always governed by strict rules -- subject, to be sure, to change, but strictly enforced by the players as long as the play proceeds.1 Indeed, the first step a person takes when engaged in play is to delineate the hypotheses according to which the play activity will unfold. This is true even of infants, even in the pre-verbal stage of development; before they play, they configure the domain in their minds.
This aspect of play is one of its chief attractions. There is an absorbing two-faceted character to play: the formation of hypotheses (or rules) and the elaboration of actions within this framework, stretching the rules to their utmost extremes. Both facets are essential to the enjoyment of play, and to its significance as the quintessential model-building activity. To fashion models of reality, a person must learn not only to weave theories -- i.e., to create models -- but also to weave his perception of reality into his theories as well as he can, thus realizing the purpose for which the models were proposed in the first place. Being a good builder of models of reality means being good at playing!
The seriousness with which people, including even the youngest children, concentrate on actions which make reality work within the rules they have adopted has scarcely been noticed, and yet this is the most important active part of living, of model-building -- and of play. There is no point to creating models (i.e., hypothetical sets of rules) except as tools through which activities can be effectively performed. Children know this; so do adults. That's why everybody plays hard, plays long, plays with intense focus -- the more so, the better the player he is.
Watch a tiny infant repeat a set of movements over and over and over again -- he is playing, and perfecting the fit of model to his reality. Watch young children live elaborate "fantasy" lives for hours on end, down to the last detail, with no time off, with no tolerance of sloppiness -- they are elaborating their models, finding the flaws and learning how to function well within their parameters.
Play is the mother of all disciplined activity; its discipline comes from within the players, who are, as natural model-builders, committed to its success.2 Perhaps the most vivid example of this discipline is the way people play at games in which the rules are predetermined: video games, computer games, team sports, writing sonnets. In all such instances, the key attraction of playing is the challenge to perfect a person's performance -- i.e., to maximize the effectiveness of a person's actions within the domain of the hypothetical rules. The preoccupation that people have with such games is nothing less than a determination to better themselves as effective performers within the reality created by the models they have adopted.3
There is another aspect of play that is worth noting. Play is an outlet for the expression of emotions, which are an integral part of every person's stock of model-building tools (along with cognitive skills, sensory inputs, and autonomic neural activity). People at play, especially when they are not made self-conscious by external restraints, show their feelings in every conceivable manner as their play proceeds.
That the creative process involves the emotional side of people is well known. Play gives this side free rein, and enables the players to get comfortable with it. In play, people use anger, sadness, ecstasy, joy, love, hate and every other feeling; and, as they get to be more effective players, they learn how to integrate these emotions into their activity in a productive manner. They find out how to deal with conflicting emotions, how to deal with other players' emotions (if they are not playing alone) -- how, in short, to make their feelings participants in the model-building process, rather than treating them as unwanted intrusions.
This aspect of play is readily observable among the children at Sudbury Valley. The school is suffused with strong feelings; this is one of the main reasons being at SVS is such an intense experience for everybody, children and adults. Feelings are expressed at all times in the play that goes on all day, at all ages. Play makes it possible for children to grow up at SVS without having to split their emotions from their intellect as they learn to cope with life.
The free rein given to emotions at SVS is often a source of concern to parents, who wonder why, in a school where children are free, children are not "happy" all day. This concern traces back to the "bread and circuses" mentality of the industrial era, where a sign of well-administered autocracy was a populace that "felt good" all the time. In fact, of course, the healthy human state -- and the one that brings deep and lasting joy is the one wherein the full range of human emotions are part of daily life, and are integrated into the working models of reality by which people live.
It should come as no surprise that play has gotten a bad press in industrial Western culture, or in any society controlled by an authoritarian governance. Play is the essence of the free, creative, independent life, in which people realize their full natural potential as human beings. In a society which fears such openness and freedom, play is anathema. In such a society, play is indeed the opposite of what people should do to survive effectively, since such a society has little or no place for creative free spirits. On the contrary, independent people suffer in such a society, and pay a heavy price for their free-spirited behavior.
Now that Western culture, at least in the United States, has progressed well beyond the industrial era, it has become clearer and clearer to leaders and laypersons alike that the only kind of person who will be truly effective in the socio-economic environment which is rapidly overtaking us is just the kind of person who knows how to play, and play well. The successful adult of the coming decades will be comfortable with play, not ashamed of it; adept at it; and, hopefully, practiced at it from the earliest age. This is why Sudbury Valley exists -- to provide just such an opportunity for children as they grow up to become adults. Anyone who spends time at the school and quietly observes the nature of the play activity that goes on here should have no trouble understanding why we value play so highly; why we are delighted that we can say honestly that at SVS, children are free to play all day -- and that most of them, happily, do so!
Nothing compares to play as an instrument of learning, least of all courses given by a teacher. Although much has been written, in general educational literature as well as in Sudbury Valley publications, on the virtual uselessness of "taking classes" as a mechanism for learning, seldom has the matter been put more succinctly or eloquently than by Kahlil Gibran, in a passage rarely quoted:
The astronomer may sing to you of his understanding of space, but he cannot give you his understanding. The musician may sing to you of the rhythm which is in all space, but he cannot give you the ear which arrests the rhythm, nor the voice that echoes it. And he who is versed in the science of numbers can tell of the regions of weight and measure, but he cannot conduct you thither. For the vision of one man lends not its wings to another man. And even as each one of you stands alone in God's knowledge, so must each one of you be alone in his knowledge of God and in his understanding of the earth.4
Gibran presents us with the following image of the role an outsider can play in helping a person become an effective learner:
No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge. The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind5. [italics added]
There is a remarkable commentary on Gibran's book, consisting of a transcript of a series of talks given by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh to his followers in India in 1987. Rajneesh has some penetrating observations on the passages just quoted6, of which the following is a sampling:
Kahlil Gibran is not aware of the difference between the two words, the teacher and the master; otherwise he would have said that if you are only professionally a teacher -- that means you are a medium of transferring knowledge from one generation to another generation -- you don't have anything of your own to share and to give. But if your truth is awakened in you, and your house is full of light and your being is full of fragrance, you have become a master; you are no longer just a teacher. When you are sharing your own truth, you are a master.
The above excerpt is an extraordinary depiction of the kind of environment Sudbury Valley provides for its students, and of the challenges and fears they face daily. There is yet another passionate passage which is a graphic depiction of the difference between industrial-age schooling, and the schooling of the new era we have now entered, in which the uniqueness of each individual has an unprecedented opportunity to be expressed within the greater social setting:
Aloneness is one of the most mysterious experiences. But you are all afraid of being alone, you have become accustomed to being a sheep. I want my people to be all shepherds. That is the real transformation. You are, in fact, shepherd, but society has forced the idea on you that you are just sheep, so you behave like sheep.
The above passages express in a different, more emotional, and more poetic idiom many of the key ideas Sudbury Valley has stood for from its inception.
1. Many observers have taken pains to distinguish between "free play" and play that follows rules (e.g. athletic games, board games). I do not see the distinction as valid.
2. In industrial-era societies, where adults are limited in their opportunities for exercising their natural creativity, they usually play at their hobbies and recreations with a ferocious intensity and discipline that is rarely matched at their workplaces.
3. The upper classes of earlier societies understood this well. It is no accident, for example, that play - in the form of highly disciplined games - was encouraged and widely engaged in by the ruling elite of the British Empire. They were quite clear that such play enhanced the creative abilities of the players and developed within them the natural inner discipline that enabled them to function effectively throughout a global empire where they daily encountered conditions that were completely outside their former experience.
4. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (Heinemann: London, 1967), p. 67 (section entitled "Speak to us of Teaching").
6. Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, The Messiah: commentaries by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh on Kahlil Gibran's "The Prophet", 2 vols. (Cologne: Rebel Publishing House, 1987), excerpts from Vol. 2, pp. 119-134.Return to table of contents
From The Sudbury Valley School
The Art of Doing Nothing
"Where do you work?"
"At Sudbury Valley School."What do you do?"
Doing nothing at Sudbury Valley requires a great deal of energy and discipline, and many years of experience. I get better at it every year, and it amuses me to see how I and others struggle with the inner conflict that arises in us inevitably. The conflict is between wanting to do things for people, to impart your knowledge and to pass on your hard earned wisdom, and the realization that the children have to do their learning under their own steam and at their own pace. Their use of us is dictated by their wishes, not ours. We have to be there when asked, not when we decide we should be.
Teaching, inspiring, and giving advice are all natural activities that adults of all cultures and places seem to engage in around children. Without these activities, each generation would have to invent everything anew, from the wheel to the ten commandments, metal working to farming. Man passes knowledge to the young from generation to generation, at home, in the community, at the workplace and supposedly at school. Unfortunately, the more today's schools endeavor to give individual students guidance, the more they harm the children. This statement requires explanation, since it seems to contradict what I have just said, namely, that adults always help children learn how to enter the world and become useful in it. What I have learned, very slowly and painfully over the years, is that children make vital decisions for themselves in ways that no adults could have anticipated or even imagined.
Consider the simple fact that at SVS, many students have decided to tackle algebra not because they need to know it, or even find it interesting, but because it is hard for them, it's boring, and they are bad at it. They need to overcome their fear, their feeling of inadequacy, their lack of discipline. Time and again, students who have made this decision achieve their stated goal and take a huge step in building their egos, their confidence, and their character. So why does this not happen when all children are required or encouraged to take algebra in high school? The answer is simple. To overcome a psychological hurdle one has to be ready to make a personal commitment. Such a state of mind is reached only after intense contemplation and self analysis, and cannot be prescribed by others, nor can it be created for a group. In every case it is an individual struggle, and when it succeeds it is an individual triumph. Teachers can only help when asked, and their contribution to the process is slight compared to the work that the student does.
The case of algebra is easy to grasp but not quite as revealing as two examples that came to light at recent thesis defenses. One person to whom I have been very close, and whom I could easily have deluded myself into thinking that I had "guided" truly shocked me when, contrary to my "wisdom," she found it more useful to use her time at school to concentrate on socializing and organizing dances than to hone the writing skills that she would need for her chosen career as a journalist. It would not have occurred to any of the adults involved with this particular student's education to advise or suggest the course of action that she wisely charted for herself, guided only by inner knowledge and instinct. She had problems which first she realized and then she proceeded to solve in creative and personal ways. By dealing with people directly rather than observing them from the sidelines, she learned more about them and consequently achieved greater depth and insights, which in turn led to improved writing. Would writing exercises in English class have achieved that better for her? I doubt it.
Or what about the person who loved to read, and lost that love after a while at SVS? For a long time she felt that she had lost her ambition, her intellect, and her love of learning because all she did was play outdoors. After many years she realized that she had buried herself in books as an escape from facing the outside world. Only after she was able to overcome her social problems, and only after she learned to enjoy the outdoors and physical activities, did she return to her beloved books. Now they are not an escape, but a window to knowledge and new experience. Would I or any other teacher have known how to guide her as wisely as she had guided herself? I don't think so.
As I was writing this another example from many years ago came to mind. It illustrates how the usual sort of positive encouragement and enrichment can be counterproductive and highly limiting. The student in question was obviously intelligent, diligent and studious. Early on, any test would have shown he had a marked talent in mathematics. What he actually did for most of his ten years at SVS was play sports, read literature, and later in his teens, play classical music on the piano. He studied algebra mostly on his own but seemed to have devoted only a little of his time to mathematics. Now, at the age of twenty-four, he is a graduate student in abstract mathematics and doing extremely well at one of the finest universities. I shudder to think what would have happened to him had we "helped" him during his years here to accumulate more knowledge of math, at the expense of the activities he chose to prefer. Would he have had the inner strength, as a little boy, to withstand our praise and flattery and stick to his guns and read books, fool around with sports, and play music? Or would he have opted for being an "excellent student" in math and science and grown up with his quest for knowledge in other fields unfulfilled? Or would he have tried to do it all? And at what cost?
As a counterpoint to the previous example I would like to cite another case which illustrates yet another aspect of our approach. A few years ago a teenage girl who had been a student at SVS since she was five told me quite angrily that she had wasted two years and learned nothing. I did not agree with her assessment of herself, but I did not feel like arguing with her, so I just said, "If you learned how bad it is to waste time, why then you could not have learned a better lesson so early in life, a lesson that will be of value for the rest of your days." That reply calmed her, and I believe it is a good illustration of the value of allowing young people to make mistakes and learn from them, rather than directing their lives in an effort to avoid mistakes.
Why not let each person make their own decisions about their use of their own time? This would increase the likelihood of people growing up fulfilling their own unique educational needs without being confused by us adults who could never know enough or be wise enough to advise them properly.
So I am teaching myself to do nothing, and the more I am able to do it, the better is my work. Please don't draw the conclusion that the staff is superfluous. You might say to yourself that the children almost run the school themselves, so why have so many staff, just to sit around and do nothing. The truth is that the school and the students need us. We are there to watch and nurture the school as an institution and the students as individuals.
The process of self direction, or blazing your own way, indeed of living your life rather than passing your time, is natural but not self evident to children growing up in our civilization. To reach that state of mind they need an environment that is like a family, on a larger scale than the nuclear family, but nonetheless supportive and safe. The staff, by being attentive and caring and at the same time not directive and coercive, gives the children the courage and the impetus to listen to their own inner selves. They know that we are competent as any adult to guide them, but our refusal to do so is a pedagogical tool actively used to teach them to listen only to themselves and not to others who, at best, know only half the facts about them.
Our abstaining from telling students what to do is not perceived by them as a lack of something, an emptiness. Rather it is the impetus for them to forge their own way not under our guidance but under our caring and supportive concern. For it takes work and courage to do what they do for and by themselves. It cannot be done in a vacuum of isolation, but thrives in a vital and complex community which the staff stabilizes and perpetuates.Return to table of contents
By Daniel Greenberg
The Meaning of Education
I believe one of the key reasons Sudbury Valley has had difficulty giving parents a sense of security about sending their children here is the inadequacy of people's grasp of the primary goal of education and how it relates to children and to society. This is also the reason mainstream schools have had trouble understanding their continuing failure, despite repeated efforts at "redefining goals" and "reforming education". Virtually all the innovations in schools have been, and continue to be, in such areas as curriculum, administration, pedagogical methodology, and other such secondary levels, all of which depend in their essence on the fundamental goal of education which they serve. This deficiency at the most fundamental level of understanding cannot be remedied by any amount of exertion on other levels. Comprehending the primary goal of education seems to me to be well worth considerable effort. Let's proceed, then, from the beginning.
A child is born, and ultimately grows into a mature member of the community. What is it that society expects to develop in the child during the transition? Or, put differently, what is the basic nature of the transformation that converts a child into an adult? The answer to these questions is that maturity consists of the ability to cope independently, continuously, and successfully with the demands of life.
The ability to cope is a multi-dimensional, open-ended entity. It includes a great number of cooperating processes, the known ones not fully understood, unknown ones yet to be discovered. A partial list contains such activities as sensory perception, observation, model-building, integration of data, analysis, problem-solving, contemplation, action, reaction, remembering, and learning. This is an impressive, almost daunting, array.
The requirement that adults be able to act independently does not mean that they must be loners, or even be "able to go it alone" in life. It means, rather, that they have the wholeness to deal with life without being dependent on others for their basic decision-making processes. Because man is a social animal, it can be taken for granted that independence implies and includes the skills necessary for cooperation with other people to attain aims that are mutually beneficial and better achieved in conjunction with others.
That adults must be able to cope continuously means that they have to be able to sustain themselves day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, for the balance of their lifetime. Biology books like to point out the almost miraculous nature of the heart, which beats without fail millions of times in the span of a person's life. Much more incredible is the ability of the adult mind to cope with life's myriad challenges without fail year after year. Billions of inputs are processed, billions of exigencies taken care of, not just now and then, but for the entire period the person is alive.
The need for adults to be able to cope successfully means that they must find ways to survive, to be mentally and physically healthy, to have their basic physical, emotional, and spiritual needs met, and to have a sense of self-worth that makes them feel that there is a point to their existence.
The demands of life are each and every one of the numberless stresses and challenges that life places on the organism as it fights to survive intact. These range from the profound and intricate (such as the search for meaning, the need to make a livelihood, the yearning for sustained and meaningful relationships with family and friends) to the simple and mundane (such as what to have for breakfast, how to get to work, what to wear).
Even with the brief explications above, it can readily be seen that making the passage from birth to adulthood is a gigantic undertaking. One question immediately presents itself: How on earth did Nature provide for this passage to take place effectively, so that the human species could survive? And, more particularly, given the current insistence that a huge investment in presently-conceived school systems is absolutely essential for the preservation of the world's future, how did humanity make it through its first million or so years without the benefit of ever-improved curricula, standardized tests, advanced teacher training, psychological counseling, special education, subject specialists, coordinators, administrators, superintendents, teacher's aides, and all the other equipage we can't seem to be able to get enough of?1
I shall proceed in reverse order to take up each segment of my definition of maturation, and try to shed some light on how the natural order has dealt with it through built-in mechanisms that govern the process of growing up from childhood. We start, then, with an examination of the demands of life.
Biological survival dictates that every species is innately endowed with the tools necessary to recognize the demands that life will place upon it. For the most basic needs of life -- water, food, and shelter -- this should be too obvious to require comment. Even a newborn infant knows when it is hungry or thirsty, and actively seeks the comforting shelter of its mother.
"Industrial Era Thinking" has not, however, omitted even such basic areas from its revisionist scrutiny. Not satisfied with allowing infants to fully develop their own senses of these needs, which would allow these senses to function in a natural way throughout life, Industrial Era Thinking intervenes and dictates specific times for infants, and later children and even adults, to drink and eat, and creates unnatural shelters -- cribs, playpens -- to substitute for those the children are designed to crave. I have discussed elsewhere the reasons the Industrial Era had for intervening in these natural patterns2. But whatever the reasons, the results are clear: people raised to ignore their inborn recognition of these needs lose their native orientation to them, and develop both a dependence on substitutes, and all sorts of disorders associated with these substitutes.
A healthy upbringing gives free reign to children from the very beginnings of their lives to recognize and express their basic needs. The earlier this begins, and the longer it is allowed to develop without intervention, the more likely it is that such children will go through life with a firmly established set of inner-directed guidelines that enable them to distinguish clearly between needs that are real for them, and needs that are artificially introduced by others. Indeed, the worst excesses of our consumer economy can be traced directly to the inability of people to make this distinction, which is a result of being raised according to the principles of Industrial Era Thinking.
Life places other, less obvious, demands on a person, from the very earliest age. The most important of these is the complex of behaviors that I shall call "the need to make sense out of the environment". Every living being is an organized collection of molecules that relates to its environment by means of a myriad of physico-chemical interactions. Humans are, in addition, endowed with a self-awareness that enables us to think about these interactions, and to strive mightily to give them form and meaning. Such thinking is an activity from which people cannot escape; the human race does not have the option of existing in a non-thinking mode. From the moment of birth, children are designed by nature to employ all their resources in developing a sense of the order of existence.
The most obvious means employed by people in making sense out of the environment are the use of our sensory apparatus, and the processing of data by our brains. Both of these come into play from the moment of birth.
The amount of information a person has to deal with at all times is truly staggering in quantity and in variety. We do not have the slightest inkling of how the processing takes place -- how systems are created by the brain to identify, represent, symbolize, organize, and give significance to all this material. All we know is that this happens, and that people are given by nature the tools to make it happen. The simple fact is that if we want people to develop their potential to recognize and deal with life's demands as fully as possible, we must give them every opportunity to use these innate tools, and refine their abilities to render their environment comprehensible.
The converse of this proposition is also true. Every outside intervention in the ongoing efforts of a person to make sense out of the world makes it more difficult for that person to develop the inner confidence needed to forge ahead. Interference by others can bring about permanent disabilities in cognitive development. Indeed, the more intense the effort to put children through the Industrial Training Process, the more likely is the outcome to be the emergence of a variety of personality, behavior, and learning disorders.
Watch children growing up in an intervention-free home, or attending an intervention-free school such as Sudbury Valley. Watch them closely, and you will see that at every moment, they are determining for themselves what life requires of them at that time. Recognition of these requirements is virtually instantaneous, and sets in motion the complex of reactions that consists of successful coping.
Put in down-to-earth terms, at Sudbury Valley we see children decide for themselves what to do each moment of the day, without any reference to an externally imposed agenda. They figure out when they are hungry and thirsty, when they are warm or cold, when they are energetic or tired. They come to grips with chores they have taken on themselves, and with activities they have arranged. They are at all times directed from within, searching without prompting for harmony between their inner spirit and the world around them.
The requirement that mature adults cope successfully with the demands of life raises a very complex issue -- namely, the meaning of "success" as applied to human life. As we shall see, the answer to this is, at the least, paradoxical.
There is not much of a problem in this regard from the vantage point of Industrial Era Thinking. The whole industrial milieu is built around the production of material goods. In such an environment, success is measurable almost wholly by the value of goods accumulated and/or produced. A successful culture is a wealthy one -- one that has eliminated "poverty" and has created large reservoirs of productivity. Successful people are individuals who have wealth. Even in those areas where success has other indicators -- such as honor, prestige, admiration of peers -- these are usually translated into monetary measures, so that people who have a rating by these other indicators are expected to be rewarded with financial and material benefits as well, as a true sign of valuation.
In an industrial society, the patterns of successful living are as routinized as the patterns of production are. There are formulas for success, and anyone unable to follow these faithfully is threatened with failure. An industrial system of raising children and teaching them must impart the proper formulas to them, and make sure they perform accurately. The only thing you get from a mistake in the industrial milieu is a nasty setback, one that could have been avoided by not making the foreseeable error in the first place. In Industrial Era Thinking, one doesn't learn from mistakes; one learns from successes. Mistakes are signs of ineptness. The educational system that serves an industrial society stresses avoidance of errors, and perfect correctness.
In a post-industrial setting, the goals are entirely different.3 The routinized production of material goods is of minimal interest to people; for the most part, this is relegated to automated machine processes. There is no longer any need for a person to behave in a robotic fashion in order to create material wealth. The whole issue of production of material goods fades into the background. Survival is almost assured in a post-industrial setting, and people find themselves absorbed in an altogether different set of activities.
The focus in post-industrial societies is on creativity and innovation, on finding new ways of looking at things, on inventing a large variety of world models, subject to constant revision and replacement. "What is correct?", the theme of the linear industrial age, is replaced by "What is interesting?" in the post-industrial setting. The sense of freedom pervading the post-industrial setting is threatening, even terrifying, to people from an industrial society who come into contact with it.
The entire history of the human race shows that people are endowed by nature with the innate ability to use their brains for the creation of a virtually infinite variety of models of reality. The flow of history, and before it of pre-history, is nothing less than the saga of man's constant innovation, based on past experience and present needs. By the same token, both history and psychology make it evident beyond dispute that creativity demands the pursuit of an endless array of variations, the vast majority of which are rejected as useless. A healthy mind learns virtually from birth to experiment with different world models, and to expect only a tiny fraction of them to pan out. Success, as specified by human nature and as re-invented in the post-industrial era, involves the ability to treat failure as commonplace, and to continue unhampered in the quest for workable models.
The brain is designed to form models of reality from the flood of inputs it receives; and, like every other human activity, this main work of the mind improves with practice. It follows that children allowed to grow up following their own agendas will wage an endless struggle against mental chaos, without any outside intervention. Success therefore is defined for the child, as for the adult, as the ability to continuously form new and better world models, and to reject ones that are no longer useful to the person in meeting the demands of life.
Maturity implies the ability to cope continuously with the demands of life. It is not enough to engage in sporadic bursts of activity; life's challenges are constantly confronting us, and we need to be responsive to them always if we are to function effectively as adults.
Children are born with the ability to engage in continuous action without being aroused by artificial outside stimuli. There is no such thing as a bored newborn. If children are allowed to pursue their innate drives to master their environment, they will never be bored with this task, since it is inherently endless and fascinating. I cannot stress enough the basic fact that children who are free to use their minds without externally imposed restrictions, will from birth onward engage unceasingly in the activity of model building.
The ability of children to focus and concentrate for extremely long periods of time is dependent on their being free to follow their own internal agendas. Once their attention is diverted to mental tasks imposed on them by others, they begin to lose this ability, as the task at hand is no longer connected to anything that they perceive to be vital to their continued functioning. This phenomenon is commonly observed in all walks of life; it is universally acknowledged that people of almost any age have difficulty in maintaining interest in subjects or activities imposed on them by outsiders. Attention wanders, memory fades, exhaustion rapidly sets in.
This problem has plagued industrial-era schools, which are still committed to enforcing the industrial agenda on their clients. Schools based on Industrial Era Thinking could not afford the luxury of allowing individual variation in activity, since the very existence of a functioning industrial society required a high degree of standardization and dehumanization of the people in the society.
Because such schools had to knock a curriculum into the heads of their students, and because the students perforce had a short attention span, the entire framework of industrial-era schools was built around repeated short doses of indoctrination (or "teaching", as it was called), chopped up into small segments of time and little chunks of information, and administered with numbing regularity over a long span of time. Even such a carefully designed attempt at mass brainwashing (or "training") could succeed only as long as the children accepted the basic premise that industrial society required the outcome in order to function effectively.
Once the industrial era began to fade into history, an ever increasing number of children came to realize that the standardization imposed on them was an anachronism. This realization has been more intuitive than analytical, but it is nonetheless widespread. As a result, industrial era schools rapidly have been losing their ability to succeed at all in forcing a standard level of competence on everyone in the limited industrial subjects, no matter how many variations they introduced in the process.
Post-industrial people are called on to give continuous attention to dealing with the highly individualized patterns of their lives. As children growing up, they must accumulate a wealth of experience in applying themselves tirelessly to this task. An effective post industrial education must be entirely free of the tyranny of segmented time. The task becomes the focus. Children in post-industrial schools must learn the exact opposite of what they had to learn in industrial schools -- namely, they must be allowed to develop their innate persistence in doggedly pursuing projects until they are satisfied with the results. All attempts to intervene in this development by introducing time slots, semesters, labelled years, timed tests, are destructive to the natural maturation of the child.
Maturity involves the ability to cope independently with the demands of life. This characteristic is one of the most poorly understood of all those I have been discussing.
One of the fundamental realities of existence is the separate individuality of every living being. This atomisation of life is a great mystery, and is no better understood than the essence of life itself. We do not know how the sense of self, of uniqueness, of wholeness, of individuality is developed in a person, but every writer, poet, and philosopher has written copiously on the subject. It is the root cause of the universal loneliness that afflicts mankind, and the starting point for all human social interactions that ultimately lead to cooperation and community.
Life gives people no choice in this matter. We are individuals, and we must act as individuals. Nature provides us with a key tool that enables us to function singly: the persona that each of us is, as defined by self, by character, by personality. A newborn child has it, but it takes years for the child to develop a full awareness of individuality, and it is this long process of development that is the key factor in reaching maturity.
Whatever society people are born into, they must act as independent individuals all their lives. A key difference between one era and another, one culture and another, is the extent to which children are allowed to act uniquely, as determined by their own inner calling and spirit. Industrial societies are constrained to invest a huge amount of energy in playing down the boundaries between one person and another, and in trying to impose a high degree of conformity on the total group of individuals that make up the society. To do this runs entirely contrary to human nature, and therefore takes an extraordinarily harsh and long-lasting period of coercion, often lasting through adulthood until death. The industrial-era schools are but a small cog in the process of industrial homogenization, but they are splendid examples of the cruelty and relentlessness of the application of force to mold the maximum possible degree of uniformity. Industrial societies are not the only ones to act this way, however. Other cultures have sought, and continue to seek, ways of downplaying individual variation, and these too must do so by the application of pressure, especially during childhood.
Post-industrial society depends entirely on the uniqueness of each individual, and hence on people's ability to define themselves with confidence and self-esteem. For children to grow up with a strong sense of self, they must be free of all the elements of fear that accompany the application of coercion. Terror is the great enemy of independence, and freedom from fear is the great promise that a post-industrial society devoted to liberty holds out to its members.
For a post-industrial school to achieve its goal, it must have no trace of autocratic structure, whether in administration, legislation, or learning. Every individual in the school, regardless of age, must be given equal respect, and an equal voice in expressing his/her needs. A successful post-industrial society, rooted as it is in the concept of individual creative freedom and mutual respect among co-equals, will of necessity be based on democratic principles for adults, and on the consistent application of these principles from the earliest age at which interpersonal communication and independent action can be achieved.
Independence for individuals in no way precludes, or contradicts, community of action among individuals. People seek each other's cooperation all the time. Independent people work together by choice, and hence forge ties that are important to each of them, as well as to the collective group. Indeed, the degree of community participation that people with a sense of inner wholeness achieve is infinitely greater than that achieved by people who are forced to work together. For the latter, the community is a symbol of coercion, to be avoided and subverted in every way possible; for the former, the community is a source of inner joy at all times, since it fulfills personal goals as it is fulfilling group goals.
A school that fosters independence can do so only in one way: by granting independence. Freedom cannot be subdivided. A person is either a free being, or not. Children understand this with exquisite clarity. It takes but one little corner of authority in an allegedly democratic environment to give the lie to the concept of democracy, and children detect such corners instantly. A post-industrial school must be one in which children learn the uses of freedom and independence by being free and independent at all times.
We are now ready to look at the heart of the matter: what it means to be able to cope. For it is coping that is the key to successful living, in any environment, and an educational system that does not provide children an opportunity to learn how to cope cannot produce functional adults.
What coping means can only be ascertained relative to the object of the activity. In the Industrial Era, the requirement was to be able to cope with life in an industrial society. This implies that adults must be able to accept without protest the dehumanization of industrial culture, and all that goes with it: regimentation, robotic activity, limited independence of action, obedience, and the possession of a small number of specific low-grade skills that are needed to run the industrial machine. The schools of the industrial era, and the family values promulgated by social and religious thinkers in industrial societies, all cooperated to create an environment for children in which they would grow up to be adults with the required industrial characteristics. Indeed, to promote a school like Sudbury Valley, based on post-industrial concepts, in an industrial society can be downright subversive to that society. There is a time and a place for everything.
On the other hand, when we examine what meaning "coping" has in a post-industrial setting, we find something quite different and new on the world scene. In this setting, into which the United States and the rest of the Western world is rapidly moving, coping first and foremost means finding creative solutions to a never-ending stream of new challenges, that have no limitations in space, time, variety, or complexity. This, of course, is what the human mind is designed by nature to try and do, and what it does best when it has practiced from early childhood.4
The important thing about post-industrial coping is the unanticipated nature of the problems being posed from day to day. This is in marked contrast to Industrial Era coping, which deals with a relatively small and well-delimited range of concepts and actions. In the world order of today, information flows in to each individual from every corner of the globe, without respect for distance or national boundaries. An effective adult must be ready to deal with new cultures, new value systems, new language structures, new philosophical systems, almost effortlessly. The post-industrial mind has to be comfortable and adept at building and modifying world models, and understanding other people's models.
Now this is the very activity that children in a school such as Sudbury Valley engage in throughout the duration of their stay at school. They do it not only by trying to figure things out themselves, but by intensely interacting with other people and learning how to "get into their brains". In fact, one of the most prevalent activities at the school is personal interaction, with a wide variety of people of various temperaments, cultural roots, and ages. This interaction is wholly misunderstood if it is seen as "making friends", or "socialization" (i.e. "learning how to get along with people"). Such nomenclature debases the process and misses the essential point. The central function of social interaction at Sudbury Valley is an intense probing by each child of the world view of other children, whether friends or merely acquaintances. One need only spend time watching (from a distance) as these interactions unfold, to learn that the parties involved are intensely probing each other, finding how to construct a common language with which they can understand each other's idiosyncratic models. Over and over again, people who have been at Sudbury Valley point to these interpersonal interactions as the most important contributor to their growth during their school years -- and they identify getting to understand other models of reality and learning to flow in and out of them in harmony as a primary and utterly beneficial school activity.
Interpersonal interactions aside, the main work of students while at Sudbury Valley has always been practicing the construction of working models of the world. These models are not merely static structures, but also include within them the means of dealing with change, of solving problems, and of inventing new challenges. To be sure, industrial-era schools also have become adept in recent years at talking about "problem-solving", "teaching children how to think", etc. But these schools always view such activities from the vantage point of Industrial Era Thinking, as routines that can be taught, much as any other mechanical skill. Thus we find in the modern curriculum such absurdities as training or testing for creativity (as if this can be defined and measured), or an algorithm for solving problems (a contradiction in terms, since a problem is not a real problem if an algorithm exists for solving it, but rather a tautology).
In fact, human beings do not have to be taught how to think, or how to build world models, or how to solve problems or be creative. Nature created us with these skills as inborn possessions of each person, and it takes only time, patience, and freedom to have these skills develop to their fullest potential, without outside "help".5 The most striking example of man's natural propensity for reducing the surrounding world to a meaningful model is the behavior of two-year-olds ("the terrible twos") who have just begun to gain mobility and verbalization. Children of that age are indefatigable and all but unstoppable in their drive to conquer their surroundings. They need no "motivation" from "teachers", no "classes", no tests or progress reports, no unsolicited evaluations. They plow on regardless of the obstacles placed in their way, and never give up unless their will is brutally broken. They may seek assistance from adults, but they need no spur to ask for help -- indeed, one often wishes they would desist just for a moment.
At Sudbury Valley, we see this kind of seeking continue in its full bloom right to the moment of leaving -- and beyond, into adult life. Children who have been allowed to cope with the world without intervention throughout their early years continue to do so effortlessly, and with clearly growing sophistication, year after year6.
I cannot leave this topic without commenting on something even more misunderstood than interpersonal interaction -- namely, the activity of "play". It has become fashionable to view play somewhat condescendingly as a form of preparation for life. The argument basically is that even though play in itself is rather frivolous, it has useful by-products, such as learning how to count, or do elementary math, or read. These side benefits are accidental, and justifiably viewed with suspicion by traditional industrial educators, who point out that if the desired result is a particular skill, it is more efficient to train directly for that skill, rather than to count on happenstance to produce it.
Industrial era schools are correct to downgrade play and consider it a waste of time relative to their goals. On the other hand, play is at the heart of post-industrial education. It is, in its essence, the spontaneous application of all the activities useful in coping with life. In fact, play is coping with life -- not "practice" for life, but life itself for those who engage in it.
Children understand this, and all view play as the reality of their existence. For them, it is unadulterated and uninterrupted model-building, problem-solving, socialization, organization, creativity, innovation, the whole nine yards. They are completely engrossed in it, focussed upon it in all its details, excited by its successes and depressed by its failures. Those children who are allowed to grow up without feeling that play is in any way an undesirable activity, continue to play throughout their adult lives, and use play as the chief instrument for their own continued growth.7
Play in post-industrial cultures is not preparation for life; it is life itself, as best lived in that culture. To the extent that children growing up have their play interfered with or suppressed, their development into effective adults will be hampered. If a school, or any other environment in which children pass the time, does nothing more than give children the freedom to play as they wish, it will render excellent service to a post-industrial society.
However, the very word "play" is laden with condescending connotations that imply a lack of seriousness, a degree of triviality, indeed an activity that is wholly dispensable in a serious surrounding. No amount of apology or explication can rehabilitate this word, I am afraid. So long as we refer to what we see children doing, at home and at school, as "playing", we will have to present all kinds of convoluted attributions to make the word carry real significance.
Perhaps it would help to point out to people that "play" can just as well be called "R&D" (Research and Development), a phrase which has an honored place in post-industrial language, and which describes almost perfectly the role that the activity has in the lives of children. What children do at Sudbury Valley most of the day is R&D for real life -- serious, sustained, intense, imaginative, ecstatic, sad, variegated, and terribly intricate R&D, which can carry over for days, weeks, months, and years, until they proceed to their next "project". It is impossible for any careful long-term observer to treat their activities as anything less profound. Indeed, I am sure that serious studies of the multi-faceted nature of so-called "play" at Sudbury Valley will reveal in it every aspect of the adult form of R&D that forms the backbone of a post-industrial culture.8
I believe it is possible to communicate much more clearly with prospective parents and visitors, now that we have somewhat more insight into what the goal of education is, and how it relates to the current state of the culture. The root of virtually all misunderstandings of Sudbury Valley is different people's different conceptions of the meaning of the goal of education -- i.e. of what it means to develop the ability to cope independently, continuously, and successfully with the demands of life.
Most parents in this country, and most people from other countries, accept this goal as stated, but relate all its parts to Industrial Era Thinking, since for the most part they themselves grew up in an industrial society. Since it almost impossible for people to recognize the dawning of a new era for which they have not in any way been prepared, they simply cannot comprehend that the same goal can mean widely different things when applied to historical eras that differ widely in their essence9.
A great deal of energy can be saved by referring at once to the above-mentioned goal of education, to which virtually everyone subscribes, and discussing what it means to the other party. For the fact is that if that person does not grasp the content of the goal of education in the context of a post-industrial culture, there is no way on earth to convince that person that Sudbury Valley makes sense as a school, or indeed is a school at all.
Only people who share with us a commonality of reference for the expressions in the goal statement can engage in a productive dialogue about it. With such people, it is both possible and profitable (to both sides) to explore at greater depth the implications of each phrase in the expression, and help focus their thinking about these issues in a post-industrial era. Such people show themselves open to new models that did not exist when they were young, and reveal themselves as eager to share in the exciting new prospects facing their children in the 21st century.
In fact, serious dialogues with people who share with us at Sudbury Valley a common understanding of the goal of education are very likely to lead to a variety of types of schools and educational experiences that have their essence in common with ours, but have other external structures which we have not yet envisioned. We can expect in the coming decades to see a veritable explosion in the multiplicity of diverse environments that are as conducive to the fulfilled growth of children in the post-industrial world as is Sudbury Valley School today.
1. "The accomplishments of young children up to the age of five is remarkable . . . They learn to sit up, to crawl, to stand up, to walk, to gain command of spoken language (even several languages), among other things, and since almost all babies accomplish these enormously difficult tasks, we are not as awed by their accomplishments as we should be. Rather than recognizing how successful they have been at teaching themselves tasks that would be very difficult for any adult, we have gotten the idea that when they are four or five we can now take over their education and really teach them all the "important" things that they will need to know to be a successful and productive adult. . . . Even if I were to concede that our intentions were good, which is not at all a foregone conclusion, I would argue that we have never been able to come close to doing as well for our children as they have been able to do for themselves." Alan White, "Learning to Trust Oneself" The Sudbury Valley School Experience, 3rd ed., (Sudbury Valley School Press; Framingham, MA, 1992) p. 21.
2. "Industrial cultures have ... all developed methods whereby the survival of their value schemes and of their industrial life style is assured; first, in the period of growing up, and second, throughout adult life. ... The primary industrial survival mechanism is overt control of the individual by the community. This control is explicit, and is enforced by the exercise of physical power over the individual. ... Industrial cultures ... feel a need to control the access of children to alien values, and to direct the interests of children towards activities that are required by the current industrial economy." Daniel Greenberg, A New Look at Schools (Sudbury Valley School Press; Framingham, MA, 1992) pp. 56-7. In that volume I discuss at length the differences in types of world models that typify the pre-industrial, industrial, and post-industrial eras.
3. As they are in a pre-industrial setting, which is not my focus in this essay. See A New Look at Schools, loc. cit.
4. Compare the following comments by a musician and master improvisor:
"How does one learn improvisation? The only answer is to ask another
question: What is stopping us? Spontaneous creation comes from our deepest
being and is immaculately and originally ourselves. What we have to express
is already with us, is us, so the work of creativity is not a matter
of making the material come, but of unblocking the obstacles to its natural
flow. . . .
5. Compare the following excellent summary: "The self is a system of personal integration in perceiving and solving the problems of living, a system that has order, coherence, and openness to change. The self is faced with the task of maintaining stability, coherence, and continuity of form while being capable to transforming, rearranging, and developing psychic structures to permit adaptive and creative responses to environmental and maturational challenges. The self selects a unique pattern of drives, objects, defenses, perceptual sensitivities, and modes of communication that best serves our need for personal integration and individuation. It endows us with an evolving meaning structure that interprets events, unifies elements in the personality, and provides the basis for action. It does this in a manner that reveals a signature, a style of organization, which we recognize as expressive of and true to our essence." [all italics in original] Leonard S. Zegans, "The Embodied Self: Personal Integration in Health and Illness" ("Advances", Vol 7, No. 3, summer 1991, p. 32)
6. Here is how one person, who spent his entire school life at SVS, grasped this point in the course of an oral history interview done for the school's archives: "I feel like I'm in an accelerated development in many ways. I was able to enjoy a period when a lot of people are just waiting for their life to begin. They hate their school or they hate their whole childhood or something, and they really start being themselves when they become adults. I haven't really fundamentally changed my behavior with the exception of paying bills. I'm doing the exact same thing I was doing when I was six years old except that I now allot a certain chunk of my time for paying my bills and for making money. That's the only difference. You can say that's a major thing but I'm not sure that is such a major thing. I mean, I think that's something you do, but the rest of my life is fundamentally like what it was when I was a kid."
7. This is what one former student at Sudbury Valley had to say on the
subject, during an interview for the Oral History project: "Learning
and playing. I'm sure many other people have thought about the process of a
kid's adaptation to his environment. I think it's important to have fun when
you're a kid in whatever you do. I think it's part of the growing process.
This is all just sort of philosophical conjecture and it's not really my
field, but I suspect that kids when they play are trying out constructs,
mental constructs, that they see other people using. They're not really in a
position in the real world to use those constructs, so they play and imitate
them and figure them out. If it wasn't fun, they probably wouldn't do it.
The motivation for figuring out all this stuff around you is that it feels
good to do it. It's kind of like if there were no orgasms, the race would
die out very quickly. There would be no sex and therefore no procreation.
8. This point was grasped in its entirety by one former student who spent
most of his school years at Sudbury Valley. This is what he had to say
during an interview conducted by the school's Oral History project:
"Working in plasticene at Sudbury Valley was a fascination of creating.
You were creating things that you couldn't have in real life yourself,
maybe, but you could still make them, and by making them, you could have
them. I think it was probably one of the most intense things I'd ever done.
Villages would evolve. Sometimes you'd be building a gold mining community.
Sometimes it would be a bunch of towns with hotels and saloons. Then you'd
have battles and wars. You'd be building tanks and airplanes, just one thing
after another. But it always involved a lot of buildings, a lot of vehicles,
a lot of people and you'd make all the stuff. Then you would enact various
scenes with them.
9. One of the most vivid descriptions of the post-industrial life style has been written by Stephen Nachmanovitch, loc. cit., pp. 22-23: "A creative life is risky business. To follow your own course, not patterned on parents, peers, or institutions, involves a delicate balance of tradition and personal freedom, a delicate balance of sticking to your guns and remaining open to change. While on some dimensions living a normal life, you are nevertheless a pioneer, venturing into new territory, breaking away from the molds and models that inhibit the heart's desire, creating life as it goes. Being, acting, creating in the moment without props and supports, without security, can be supreme play, and it can also be frightening, the very opposite of play. Stepping into the unknown can lead to delight, poetry, invention, humor, lifetime friendships, self-realization, and occasionally a great creative breakthrough. Stepping into the unknown can also lead to failure, disappointment, rejection, sickness, or death."Return to table of contents
The Birth of a New Paradigm for Education1
By Daniel Greenberg
It's very difficult to begin a discussion about Sudbury Valley School, because it takes a certain fundamental change in mindset to grasp what we're trying to do. We're not talking about another "open school", we're not talking about curriculum reform, we're not talking about changing this or that aspect of the current school system to make it more humane or more pleasant for the children in the school. We're talking about what some people call a paradigm shift -- changing the way you look at the whole concept of education. We approached the school by starting from scratch and consciously rethinking what is wanted of education and of schools. It's not something that was born overnight. A group of us spent years reading and thinking and working very hard to purge ourselves of a lot of misconceptions. That process continued well into the life of the school, when we would sometimes find ourselves doing things that were really inappropriate, as a carry-over from our earlier experience. Changing a world view is not an easy thing to achieve.
There is no lack of people who are convinced that there's something seriously wrong with the educational system. Even the most devoted advocates of traditional schools can't help noticing that the system gobbles up incredible sums of money at an ever-increasing rate, which nevertheless rarely seems to produce satisfactory results. But it's much more difficult to go from there to a completely different world view which concludes that the whole traditional way of looking at education is wrong.
I'd like to start by telling you a little about the conclusions we reached and then backtrack to examine how that compares with the paradigm that prevails in the educational world. There are two overarching purposes to any educational system in a society: one educational, and one sociopolitical. The educational purpose has to do with making it possible for each individual young person in a given society to grow up to be a productive adult. You start with little kids, and you want them to grow up to be adults who can feed themselves, who can raise a family, who can do whatever one does in that particular society and do it effectively. The sociopolitical purpose is to produce good citizens in that society, whatever the definition of "good citizen" is; in other words, to produce people who function effectively in the sociopolitical environment that the culture wishes to propagate. These are two overarching goals, and they're valid for any culture, because every culture will want to propagate its own unique system, whatever it is. Even if later on revolutionaries overthrow the system, they in turn are going to replace it with something else, and then they'll pursue the goal of producing youngsters who can grow up in their new revolutionary social system! So these are meta-goals, which don't refer to any specific sociopolitical or economic system.
Let's look at the educational goal as it applies to the United States. We were discussing this in the late sixties. Conclusions that we reached then are much more valid now and much more widely acknowledged. The question is: what is it that makes a youngster into an effective adult? More to the point: what is an effective adult like? What are the qualities and the traits that one would ascribe to effective adults in modern American society? Let me put it a little differently. If I was the personnel director of some business, what is it that I would look for in the people that I wanted to hire? The answer to that question nowadays is widely agreed upon by a huge variety of businesses and institutions, large and small: they are looking for creative, imaginative, alert, curious, thoughtful people who are capable of taking responsibility and making judgements. They need people who can take the ball and run with it, people who can take initiative, who can think for themselves, who can figure things out, who when they're abandoned out there or left to face a problem don't have to refer everything to some superior for an explanation and a decision. Furthermore, you don't need to be a radical educational reformer to accept this description of educational goals: it's in almost every policy statement of schools nationwide.
Now, let's just think about this for a minute and see what it implies. Forget schools, forget any reference to an established educational system. Let's just focus on that goal. How do I relate it to a child? How do I make the transition from a child to that kind of adult? To answer that, we have to look at children and see the raw material we have to work with. How big is the problem that we have to face here?
It turns out that children are extremely good at every one of the things that I've just listed! Curious, they certainly are. They are so curious that it has become a negative thing in child-rearing. In my opinion, one of the most obnoxious phrases that exists in all child development books is "the terrible twos," a phrase applied to an age when children become mobile enough to turn their curiosity to good use, which means to make sure that they've uncovered every single thing in your household that you possibly could have hidden from them. Clearly, they exhibit no deficiency with respect to curiosity.
Nor is there a problem with children's ability to make decisions for themselves. They make them all the time. They don't have to be taught how to make decisions. I can't stress this enough. They don't have be taught how to be curious, and they don't have to be taught how to make decisions, not when they're one or two or three.
Children don’t have to be taught how to bear the consequences of their decisions either, or how to recover from failure, both tremendously important aspects of learning how to be responsible. Indeed, at the heart of learning is the process of encountering errors and transcending failure by living through it and remaining whole without having your self-image destroyed. Every little child knows this! There’s no better example than when they learn how to walk. They’re up and they’re down and they’re falling, and the parents are saying, “Oh, he hurt himself,” and hurrying over with concern; but the kid is bouncing up immediately and doesn’t want you around, he just wants to get up and try again. They don’t have to be given any special attention and they don’t have to be led by small steps of positive reinforcement to learn how to walk. Imagine if that’s the way we dealt with little infants when they wanted to learn how to walk! Oh, don’t get up now, you might fall! Let’s just get you part way up. Now a little further, now let’s put one foot forward. We don’t want you to fall, we don’t want failure! Now let’s sit down again and I’ll read you a book. Now another foot forward.” Failure leads to the destruction of self-esteem? Nonsense! Ultimate triumph over failure is one of the biggest contributors to the development of self esteem.
The important message from all of this is: the raw material is there, in each and every child. Look at how they run their lives. A little child does not have to be programmed. They wake up and they’re ready for action. That’s the first step towards taking responsibility: being able to open your eyes and say, “I’m going to do something today and this is what I’m going to do.” As you grow older, the complexity of what you decide to do gets richer. But the first step in taking responsibility is sizing up a situation, deciding on your own that “I’m going to do this particular thing,” and then going ahead and doing it. To be sure, you could say, “Well, that’s not taking a lot of responsibility, getting up and deciding, ‘I’m going to eat now’.” But in fact, they’re not eating all the time; after they’re done eating, they decide what they want to do next. Think about it. We don’t have to plan a one-and-half-year-old child’s day. We may do it, but not because we have to, not because if we left the child alone that child would be bored. Maybe we plan that child’s day because we want to control how the day is spent, but not because the kid isn’t ready to take responsibility for their day.
So the raw material is there. All the elements that we want for effective adulthood in the 21st century are there in the child. This is where the paradigm shift comes in. What it means for education and for schooling is that we just have to let these elements ripen and mature. The best service we can render a child in making the transition from childhood to adulthood is not to get in the way. Any school that does nothing more than promise not to get in the way is worth any tuition you can muster, because that’s the school that will guarantee the fullest, easiest, most complete growth of all those traits from childhood to adulthood. The essence of a good school, educationally speaking, is staying out of the way of the child’s native biologically-produced drives and tendencies. Evolution has taken care of the maturation process. The human race did not wait for the public school system in the United States in order to figure out how to mature. All the good things that happened throughout history happened without the aid of the school system developed in the West that now claims that it’s indispensable to progress.
Let’s consider the sociopolitical side of education. In the United States, we consider ourselves a country that believes in democracy as the basic framework for organizing society. We expect our country, our states, and our towns to be run democratically. In New England we still run our towns by open town meetings, the embodiment of grassroots democracy. Standard educators’ approach to this basic fact is to talk about the need to teach about democracy, to introduce democracy as part of the curriculum!
To me, it’s obvious that the most effective way to create an adult population that can work comfortably with democracy is to have everybody get used to it from the earliest age. It seems rather difficult -- in fact, close to impossible -- to have people grow up in what is basically an authoritarian environment until they’re eighteen, and then suddenly have them transform into effective citizens of a democracy. It just doesn’t make sense. A person who has absorbed democracy into his being has learned to live with difference, to tolerate, to listen, to understand that people have widely divergent points of view, to stand back and think about alternatives, to live with defeat, to come back and fight to win another day, or to graciously yield and go on to another issue. It is this complex behavior that is the true democratic spirit -- the kind of liberalism that Jefferson wrote so eloquently about. This is something that can’t emerge suddenly overnight at the age of eighteen.
There’s no hope for this being a really democratic society in the way most of us would like it to be -- of people really living together in brotherhood and making decisions together and participating and having a voice in their own fate -- unless it happens from the earliest age. We asked, “What's to stop us from running a school democratically? Nothing!” If we’re not saddled with prevailing practice, we would expect the school to be organized as a pure democracy, which means that everybody in the school community participates fully and equally in making the decisions and is listened to equally.
Now, I have to emphasize that I mean it Just like I meant the other statement about staying out of the way. These are not just words. I remember vividly the lawyer, a Yale graduate, who wrote our corporate bylaws back in 1967. We were describing what it was that we wanted. He was very kind and supportive, and he was a real Yankee, very conservative but open-minded -- as we found a lot of people to be in New England about individual liberty and democracy. He started pacing back and forth and saying, “Four-year-olds have the vote!? Four-year-olds are going to vote!? My God! You can’t mean that!” I’ll never forget that. He just couldn’t believe it. But he wrote the bylaws, and four-year-olds get to have the same vote I have on everything.
There’s no hidden agenda. Children are smarter than adults. I’m saying that seriously, and I mean it in this sense: adults have become so jaded and so used to wearing masks that a lot of times we can fool each other for a long time. A lot of times it takes a long period of exposure for people to realize that a person we thought was really nice turns out to be a real son of a gun. It doesn’t take nearly that long for kids. They see right through fraud because they’re more direct. They haven’t developed as many masks yet. So you can’t usually fool them for any length of time. You can’t tell them it’s a democracy while you have a Board of Trustees sort of tucked away in the back room that “just makes a few decisions” -- like the budget -- or have a special committee that decides on hiring teachers. The School Meeting runs Sudbury Valley School. It hires and fires. I am up for election every year. There’s no tenure. I stand for election every single year, and don’t think I don’t take it seriously. The School Meeting, together with the Assembly, designs and decides on the budget, and how the money is going to be spent. There’s no power that is beyond the reach of these two bodies, each of which contains every student as full voting members.
It’s the same with staying out of the way. There’s no one who says, “Look, you can do whatever you want all day if only you learn how to read.” Or “if only you study the basics” -- those wonderful “basics”. I always get into arguments about “the basics,” especially with academicians. They always come back to me with math. I love it when people discuss math, because I cannot imagine a subject that more people hate than math. It is universally hated, but nevertheless everybody comes back with, “How are they going to make it in life if they don’t all know math?” My answer is always, “As far as I know, nobody ever uses math, really, unless they’re in a math-related field, like engineering.” The truth is, if a kid wants to become an engineer he’s going to figure out pretty early on that if he doesn’t know math he’s not going to be an engineer, and he’ll learn math quickly and easily, which is our experience. There’s nothing to it when you want to learn it. But I don’t even try to teach anybody who isn’t invested in learning math. I keep asking people: if they walked into a supermarket and went to the cash register, and had a cashier there with a piece of paper who started putting down a long column of all the prices on the things in their carriage, and then started adding it up the way they were taught in school, would they ever shop in that supermarket again? And would they trust the addition? It’s ridiculous! Nobody would do that today! Imagine applying for a job as a teller in a bank and saying, “I’m good. I got 100% in adding long columns of figures.” I hear people say, “They won’t know how to make change if they don’t know arithmetic.” We have five-year-olds running their own concessions in the school -- stores that they set up with School Meeting permission. They know how to make change! Maybe they can’t tell you how, but you can’t short-change them.
In the environment I am describing, there can’t be a hidden agenda of “just the basics”; it’s like being a little bit pregnant. The minute that a child sees that you really do have an agenda for them, however small it is, that you really don’t trust them to make their own educational decisions, they understand that you really don’t trust them at all. Today it’s “just the basics,” tomorrow it’s “just a little bit of American history so you’ll know what’s going on in the world,” and the next day it’s “just a little bit of sex education,” and so forth through the standard curriculum.
I want to discuss briefly how the schools got to where they are now, why the traditional paradigm is so different from the new one I’m discussing here. You’ve got to understand the prevailing system in order to transcend it. That took us a long time to figure out, and yet the explanation has now become fairly accepted in the world of education.
The current type of school came into existence in a very conscious way in the middle of the nineteenth century, first in the United States and then later in Western Europe. Prior to that, the “village model” was the norm, where kids grew up basically absorbing what was going on around them, and at a fairly early age integrated themselves into the society one way or the other. The idea of a mass school system where every child was to be put through a similar kind of experience in a particular way was put together consciously by a group of extremely intelligent educational reformers whose purpose it was to launch the United States into the industrial age. The problem they dealt with was how to create a human infrastructure for a mass industrial society.
Producing industry-based prosperity -- clothing, food, housing, transportation, communication -- involved making human beings part of the machine. Today, anything that can be reduced to a repetitive formula can be automated. But before the Information Age, that wasn’t possible. To produce an outpouring of material benefits you had to create human machines. There’s no point in debating whether this was good or bad. It happened -- and it’s over. A very simple deal with the devil was made by our forebears: we will sacrifice our individuality, our freedom, a big piece of our humanity, for the sake of enjoying the material benefits of the industrial revolution. Seen that way it’s an understandable decision, especially against the background of grinding poverty which was the fate of virtually everybody back then.
That meant trading their freedom as adults in and around factories, and it meant trading the freedom of children in order to produce factory hands. If you think of it that way, everything about industrial-age schools makes sense. Their primary task is to break the will of the child. You cannot hope to convert a child who is active and alert into an automated robot unless you break the child. There’s no fancy word for it. You’ve got to break the child's will, and the literature of education doesn’t mince words, especially in the nineteenth century. They talk openly about this -- about making the child accept the need for discipline, for obeying orders. The schools they created to achieve this were designed accordingly.
Today, we are in the post-industrial age. We don’t need that paradigm of education anymore, but do you see how hard it is to rid ourselves of it? It’s like carriage-makers when cars came in. It was so hard for them to forget about making carriages. Basically, all the cars manufactured until 1947 were kinds of carriages. Imagine how long it took to break out of that obsolete mold! The first modern car was the 1947 Studebaker. It was said of it that you couldn’t tell the front from the back. Indeed, we used to stare at it and wonder which way it was going; it was a whole new concept of transportation.
Many people have caught on that we’ve got to shift paradigms. An example is U.S. Steel Corporation. That company realized early that making steel would no longer be their focus; so they changed their name to USX, where “X” stood for anything they would choose to do! They no longer cared what they produced! They broke out of the old mold. “We’re a big company. We’ll do anything! Don’t limit us to steel.” The educational world hasn’t got there yet; it tends to react very slowly to historical change. It took over fifty years to catch on to the industrial revolution, and it’s taking an awfully long time to realize that the industrial revolution is over and that industrial-age schools have nothing to do with current needs -- namely, an environment in which children are free to develop as they wish and which is run with their full participation.
When we opened Sudbury Valley School, basically there was nothing in the school except the rooms. We did have a playroom for which we bought some toys because we just couldn’t get ourselves to believe that you didn’t have to have some toys for the kids. Every single toy we bought was either trashed within a few months or converted into something else! Yet the games that go on in the school are the most intricate that you could possibly imagine. Games are creations of the imagination and these kids are learning how to think twenty-four hours a day. Having courses in schools to teach kids how to think is just so much nonsense! They think just fine without the help of any educational gimmicks.
There’s no such thing as a child who’s doing nothing. The kids in the smoking area may sit weeks on end listening to music. You might think, “Well, they’re not doing anything.” We don’t think they’re not doing anything. It’s so strange, because with religious leaders people are happy to say, “They went and meditated for forty days.” They think, “That’s wonderful!” If I walked by and saw someone meditating for forty days, I could easily say, “Why is he wasting his time? He should be doing something.” In fact, no one says that about religious leaders, but to kids they do. They don’t allow children the same trust, the same assumption, that when they spend their time dreaming and thinking, something important is going on in their heads.
You know what the kids do best? Concentrate. The exact opposite of what the given dogma is. If you’ve been in education you will know that one of the dogmas of education is that the concentration-span of a child up through highschool on any specific subject is three minutes. That is the source of the three-minute film loop, and it’s carefully followed in lesson plans. That’s why textbooks are so chopped up. Actually, kids concentrate phenomenally at every age on what they’re interested in doing. They forget to eat, they forget to rest, they don’t want to go home. We open our doors at 8:30, close at 5, they can come whenever they want and leave whenever they want, but we’ll have kids who absolutely kick and buck when you throw them out at 5. It’s a regular phenomenon every day. We throw them out because we don’t want to sleep there, but ideally the place should be open twenty-four hours a day. They don’t let go. In short, they’re marvelous workers. Hanna Greenberg has an essay in The Sudbury Valley School Experience called, “What Children Don’t Learn at Sudbury Valley.” They never learn how to shirk, which is the main thing you learn in traditional school -- how to get out of doing work, how to con the people who think you’re doing work when you’re not. Our kids are proud of their work, whatever it is. Other kids think they’re nuts, but the employers love them.
I want to end with the essence of what the school is about: that a child is no different than an adult in the respect that is due to them from the rest of us. And the easiest way to get into this paradigm, the easiest way to break out of all of these other preconceptions, is to keep reminding yourself of that simple fact. Every time you interact with a child, stop yourself for a second -- you can train yourself to do this -- and ask, “Would I behave this way to an adult?” Would you walk up to an adult and say, “Haven’t you been sitting a little too long staring at the roof? Wouldn’t you like to read a book that I have for you?” If you would, I would hope you would seek therapy. It’s not a healthy thing to do in adult relationships and it’s no healthier in adult-to-child relationships. Children don’t do it to each other when they’re treated with respect either. When people say to us, “Well, children aren’t adults. Don’t they need . . .?” I have a very simple answer. All you have to remember is what people used to say about women. It’s quite revealing. The most common negative characterization applied to women when people were putting them down was, “They’re like children.” Actually, I agree. So are men. That’s the point. If you remember that, it’s easy to break out of the paradigm. And if you don’t remember that, you’re stuck in a male chauvinist, adult chauvinist world that you’re going to have to break out of.
We were absolutely convinced that the second the model was shown to work, people would want to do it, both in our community and everywhere else. It turns out that breaking paradigms is really hard, even to people in the know. When you see something you know is right, you still go on doing the wrong thing out of habit. There’s an interesting political analogy I think is relevant. In 1945 the United Nations was established with about forty members. Now it has about 170. In the past half century there have been over 100 new sovereign states set up in this world. Every one of these states had to decide on their form of government. Now you would think that at least some would have chosen to emulate the system of government this country has. I’m not saying this because I think ours is the only system, or even necessarily the best system, but it isn’t the Yet, no one adopted our form of government. Why? I think it’s the same story. It’s too big a paradigm shift. Since the early 1990's, however, the whole world sees the new political paradigm, and many shift over to it. I feel similar things are going to happen with education, with grassroots democracy, with the elimination of bureaucracy and government. I think you’re going to have dams breaking, but people have to reach a certain point where they are ready to make really deep cultural shifts, and nobody can predict when that will happen. Historians later on look back and say, “Oh, it was inevitable. It had to happen then.” But if you lived through it, you know that you didn’t have a clue.Return to table of contents
From Reflections on the Sudbury School
What seems so self evident at one time in history often seems infantile and
quaint when later generations look back and have the advantage of hindsight.
It isn't that earlier generations were any less intelligent, but what our
forebears took to be self-evident, to be "common sense", strikes
us as naive or primitive.
By Daniel Greenberg
Ages Four and Up
By age four or thereabouts, human beings have a fully developed
communication system which, for all intents and purposes, makes them mature
persons. They are capable of expressing themselves, of understanding what's
said to them, and of structuring continuous thought; and they are capable of
doing things with their environment. You could ask whether a person age four
and up belongs at all in a book on child rearing, because I don't consider
someone over that age to be a child. To a certain extent the subject doesn't
belong here, and yet society considers people to be children until a much
older age than four, and so we have to discuss this largely because society
forces it on us.
From Reflections on the Sudbury School
Is SVS a School?
When visitors arrive at the Sudbury Valley School for the first
time, they usually get the impression that they've come during
"recess." Everywhere children are playing and happily enjoying
themselves in various ways. If they stay a while, they start wondering when
recess is over as do many parents when they discover "recess"
extending for years.
From The Sudbury Valley School
Back to Basics
For people who like to think through the important questions in life for themselves, Sudbury Valley stands as a challenge to the accepted answers.
The first phrase that pops into everyone's mind is: "We go to school to learn." That's the intellectual goal. It comes before all the others. So much so, that "getting an education" has come to mean "learning" -- a bit narrow, to be sure, but it gets the priorities clear.
Then why don't people learn more in schools today? Why all the complaints? Why the seemingly limitless expenditures just to tread water, let alone to progress?
The answer is embarrassingly simple. Schools today are institutions in which "learning" is taken to mean "being taught." You want people to learn? Teach them! You want them to learn more? Teach them more! And more! Work them harder. Drill them longer.
But learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you! That is true of everyone. It's basic.
What makes people learn? Funny anyone should ask. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle started his most important book with the universally accepted answer: "Human beings are naturally curious." Descartes put it slightly differently, also at the beginning of his major work: "I think, therefore I am." Learning, thinking, actively using your mind þ it's the essence of being human. It's natural.
More so even than the great drives -- hunger, thirst, sex. When you're engrossed in something -- the key word is "engrossed" -- you forget about all the other drives until they overwhelm you. Even rats do that, as was shown a long time ago.
Who would think of forcing people to eat, or drink, or have sex? (Of course, I'm not talking about people who have a specific disability that affects their drives; nor is anything I am writing here about education meant to apply to people who have specific mental impairments, which may need to be dealt with in special, clinical ways.) No one sticks people's faces in bowls of food, every hour on the hour, to be sure they'll eat; no one closets people with mates, eight periods a day, to make sure they'll couple.
Does that sound ridiculous? How much more ridiculous is it, then, to try to force people to do that which above all else comes most naturally to them! And everyone knows just how widespread this overpowering curiosity is. All books on child rearing go to great lengths to instruct parents on how to keep their little children out of things -- especially once they are mobile. We don't stand around pushing our one year olds to explore. On the contrary, we tear our hair out as they tear our house apart, we seek ways to harness them, imprison them in play pens. And the older they get, the more "mischief" they get into. Did you ever deal with a ten year old? A teenager?
People go to school to learn. To learn, they must be left alone and given time. When they need help, it should be given, if we want the learning to proceed at its own natural pace. But make no mistake: if a person is determined to learn, they will overcome every obstacle and learn in spite of everything. So you don't have to help; help just makes the process a little quicker. Overcoming obstacles is one of the main activities of learning. It does no harm to leave a few.
But if you bother the e person, if you insist the person stop his or her own natural learning and do instead what you want, between 9:00 AM and 9:50, and between 10:00 AM and 10:50 and so forth, not only won't the person learn what s/he has a passion to learn, but s/he will also hate you, hate what you are forcing upon them, and lose all taste for learning, at least temporarily.
Every time you think of a class in one of those schools out there, just imagine the teacher was forcing spinach and milk and carrots and sprouts (all those good things) down each student's throat with a giant ramrod.
Sudbury Valley leaves its students be. Period. No maybes. No exceptions. We help if we can when we are asked. We never get in the way. People come here primarily to learn. And that's what they all do, every day, all day.
The nitty-gritty of going to school always comes up next, after "learning." When it comes right down to it, most people don't really give a damn what or how much they or their children learn at school, as long as they are able to have a successful career þ to get a good job. That means money, status, advancement. The better the job you get, the better was the school you went to.
That's why Phillips Andover, or Harvard, rank so highly. Harvard grads start out way up the ladder in every profession. They are grateful, and when they grow up, they perpetuate this by bestowing the best they have to offer on the new Harvard grads they hire; and by giving big donations to Harvard. So it goes for Yale, Dartmouth and all the others.
So what kind of a school is most likely today, at the end of the twentieth century, to prepare a student best for a good career?
We don't really have to struggle with the answer. Everyone is writing about it. This is the post industrial age. The age of information. The age of services. The age of imagination, creativity, and entrepreneurialism. The future belongs to people who can stretch their minds to handle, mold, shape, organize, play with new material, old material, new ideas, old ideas, new facts, old facts.
These kind of activities don't take place in the average school even on an extra-curricular basis. Let alone all day.
At Sudbury Valley, these activities are, in a sense, the whole curriculum.
Does it sound far-fetched? Perhaps to an untrained ear. But history and experience are on our side. How else to explain that fact that all our graduates, barring none, who wish to go on to college and graduate school, always get in, usually to the schools of first choice? With no transcripts, no records, no reports, no oral or written school recommendations. What do college admissions officers see in these students? Why do they accept them þ often, grab them? Why do these trained administrators, wallowing in 'A' averages, glowing letters from teachers, high SAT scores þ why do they take Sudbury Valley grads?
Of course you know the answer, even if it is hard to admit; it runs so against the grain. These trained professionals saw in our students bright, alert, confident, creative spirits. The dream of every advanced school.
The record speaks for itself. Our students are in a huge array of professions (or schools, in the case of more recent graduates) and vocations. They are doctors, dancers, musicians, businessmen, artists, scientists, writers, auto mechanics, carpenters . . . No need to go on. You can meet them if you wish.
If a person came to me today and said, simply: "To what school should I send my child if I want to be assured that she will get the best opportunity for career advancement in the field of her choice?" I would answer without the least hesitation, "The best in the country for that purpose is Sudbury Valley." Alas, at present it is the only type of school in the country that does the job, with an eye to the future.
As far as vocations are concerned, Sudbury Valley has encountered Future Shock head on and overcome it. No longer is there any need to be mired in the past.
Now we come to a touchy subject. Schools should produce good people. That's as broad a platitude as þ mother and apple pie. Obviously, we don't want schools to produce bad people.
How to produce good people? There's the rub. I dare say no one really knows the answer, at least from what I see around me. But at least we know something about the subject. We know, and have (once again) known from ancient times, the absolutely essential ingredient for moral action; the ingredient without which action is at best amoral, at worst, immoral.
The ingredient is personal responsibility.
All ethical behavior presupposes it. To be ethical you must be capable of choosing a path and accepting full responsibility for the choice, and for the consequences. You cannot claim to be a passive instrument of fate, of God, of other men, of force majeure; such a claim instantly renders all distinctions between good and evil pointless and empty. The clay that has been fashioned into the most beautiful pot in the world can lay no claim to virtue.
Ethics begins from the proposition that a human being is responsible for his or her acts. This is a given. Schools cannot change this, or diminish it. Schools can, however, either acknowledge it or deny it.
Unfortunately, virtually all schools today choose in fact to deny that students are personally responsible for their acts, even while the leaders of these schools pay lip service to the concept. The denial is threefold: schools do not permit students to choose their course of action fully; they do not permit students to embark on the course, once chosen; and they do not permit students to suffer the consequences of the course, once taken. Freedom of choice, freedom of action, freedom to bear the results of action -- these are the three great freedoms that constitute personal responsibility.
It is no news that schools restrict, as a matter of fundamental policy, the freedoms of choice and action. But does it surprise you that schools restrict freedom to bear the consequences of one's actions? It shouldn't. It has become a tenet of modern education that the psyche of a student suffers harm to the extent that it is buffeted by the twin evils of adversity and failure. "Success breeds success" is the password today; encouragement, letting a person down easy, avoiding disappointing setbacks, the list goes on.
Small wonder that our schools are not noted for their ethical training. They excuse their failure by saying that moral education belongs in the home. To be sure, it does. But does that exclude it from school?
Back to basics. At Sudbury Valley, the three freedoms flourish. The buck stops with each person. Responsibility is universal, ever present, real. If you have any doubts, come and look at the school. Watch the students in action. Study the judicial system. Attend a graduation, where a student must convince an assemblage of peers that s/he is ready to be responsible for himself or herself in the community at large, just as the person has been at school.
Does Sudbury Valley produce good people? I think it does. And bad people too. But the good and the bad have exercised personal responsibility for their actions at all times, and they realize that they are fully accountable for their deeds. That's what sets Sudbury Valley apart.
Some time ago it became fashionable to ask our schools to look after the social acclimatization of students. Teach them to get along. Rid our society of social misfits by nipping the problem in the bud, at school. Ambitious? Perhaps. But oh, how many people have struggled with reports from school about their own þ or their child's þ social adaptations, or lack of them! Strange, isn't it, how badly people sometimes screw up what they do? I mean, trying to socialize people is hard enough; but the schools seem almost methodically to have created ways of defeating this goal.
Take age segregation, for starters. What genius looked around and got the idea that it was meaningful to divide people sharply by age? Does such division take place naturally anywhere? In industry, do all twenty-one year old laborers work separately from twenty years olds or twenty-three year olds? In business, are there separate rooms for thirty year old executives and thirty-one year old executives? Do two year olds stay apart from one year olds and three year olds in the playgrounds? Where, where on earth was this idea conceived? Is anything more socially damaging than segregating children by year for fourteen -- often eighteen -- years.
Or take frequent segregation by sex, even in coed schools, for varieties of activities.
Or the vast chasm between children and adults þ have you ever observed how universal it is for children not to look adults in the eye?
And now let's peek into the social situation created for children within their own age group. If the schools make it almost impossible for a twelve year old to relate in a normal human fashion to eleven year olds, thirteen year olds, adults, etc., what about other twelve year olds?
No such luck. The primary, almost exclusive mode of relationship fostered by schools among children in the same class is þ competition! Cut-throat competition. The pecking order is the all-in-all. Who is better than whom, who smarter, faster, taller, handsomer þ and, of course, who is worse, stupider, slower, shorter, uglier.
If ever a system was designed effectively to produce competitive, obnoxious, insecure, paranoid, social misfits, the prevailing schools have managed it.
Back to basics
In the real world, the most important social attribute for a stable, healthy society is cooperation. In the real world, the most important form of competition is against oneself, against goals set for and by a person for that person's own achievement. In the real world, interpersonal competition for its own sake is widely recognized as pointless and destructive þ yes, even in large corporations and in sports.
In the real world, and in Sudbury Valley, which is a school for the real world.
We take it for granted that schools should foster good citizenship. Universal education in this country in particular always kept one eye sharply focused on the goal of making good Americans out of us all.
We all know what America stands for. The guiding principles were clearly laid down by our founding fathers, and steadily elaborated ever since.
This country is a democratic republic. No king, no royalty, no nobility, no inherent hierarchy, no dictator. A government of the people, by the people, for the people. In matters political, majority rule. No taxation without representation.
This country is a nation of laws. No arbitrary authority, no capricious government now giving, now taking. Due process.
This country is a people with rights. Inherent rights. Rights so dear to us that our forefathers refused to ratify the constitution without a Bill of Rights added in writing, immediately.
Knowing all this, we would expect þ nay, insist (one would think) þ that the schools, in training their students to contribute productively to the political stability and growth of America, would
But the schools, in fact, are distinguished by the total absence of each of the three cardinal American values listed.
They are autocratic -- all of them, even "progressive" schools.
They are lacking in clear guidelines and totally innocent of due process as it applies to alleged disrupters.
They do not recognize the rights of minors.
All except Sudbury Valley, which was founded on these three principles.
I think it is safe to say that the individual liberties so cherished by our ancestors and by each succeeding generation will never be really secure until our youth, throughout the crucial formative years of their minds and spirits, are nurtured in a school environment that embodies these basic American truths.
Back to basics
So you see, Sudbury Valley was started in 1968 by people who thought very hard about schools, about what schools should be and should do, about what education is all about in America today.
We went back to basics. And we stayed there. And we jealously guarded these basics against any attempts to compromise them. As we and our successors shall surely continue to stand guard.
Intellectual creativity, professional excellence, personal responsibility, social toleration, political liberty þ all these are the finest creations of the human spirit. They are delicate blossoms that require constant care.
All of us who are associated with Sudbury Valley are proud to contribute to this care.Return to table of contents
By Daniel Greenberg
Developing Each Child's Unique Destiny
Let’s consider Nature first. The argument is that a child’s potential and capabilities are largely determined by his/her genetic makeup. It’s something inherent in the child from birth. The idea is that each child is born with a certain innate configuration that gets actuated as the child matures into adulthood – like hair color, or physical build. To the extent that this is true, then, the way to maximize a child’s ability to realize his/her own destiny is to let Nature take its course! It seems pretty obvious once you focus on what it means. If there’s a component of your destiny that’s inherent, the best way to assure that it will be realized is to let Nature do its thing undisturbed. That should happen without barriers, and with the patience necessary to let the natural processes unfold.
That idea is the origin of the school’s “Art of Doing Nothing” concept, which was first introduced in an article that Hanna wrote about twenty years ago1. The idea is not so much that you’re doing nothing as that you’re stepping aside and letting Nature do something. In other words, outsiders – staff, or parents, or other members of the school community – have to take great care not to intervene in this natural unfolding of the child’s capabilities. That’s very important to us in the school. It has been for a long time. It’s become reinforced by our experience over and over again. We have come to understand clearly that any intervention engaged in by the school will undermine, to a certain extent, the innate natural drives and tendencies of a growing child.When we talked about the role of parents, we discussed how important it was for a parent, before intervening, to weigh the benefits of the intervention vs. the costs of the intervention. In the school environment, which is very different from the parental one, the excuses for intervening are less. In the school, our goal, to let the child’s natural inclinations unfold, has to be uncompromised. We must exercise total restraint from putting up barriers or trying to direct the flow of the child’s development.
There’s a beautiful poem that came to my attention from Mary Oliver’s book Dreamwork2 that I would like to cite in this connection. It focuses on the damage that intervention can do to the natural unfolding. It’s called “The Journey”:
One day you finally knew
One of the things that we gradually came to appreciate as we experienced this natural unfolding, was the crucial role time played in this drama. One of the most notable features of Sudbury Valley is the absence of time as a presence in the school. We don’t have bells. There are no personal deadlines set for students by the school. Time, in the school, is treated as organic to the individual processes that each person undergoes. It’s not a community concept. It’s an individual concept. Each student in the school runs according to their own inner clock. That’s something that any parent knows very well when they try to pick up their children! Even personal watches are seldom used during the day. It’s because children understand that the rate at which the earth spins around its axis doesn’t have anything to do with what happens inside them as human beings in their developing lives. For SVS to work, students and their families have to get accustomed to the fact that the tyranny of time has to be removed altogether.
This is something that the society around us finds very hard to accept. I’m not talking here about bells. The greatest tyranny of time that outside society imposes, and that the school avoids carefully, is the tyranny of developmental milestones. This is a curse that modern pseudoscience has introduced into the theory of natural human development. I can’t really explain why, historically, this concept has become such a fad. When I was growing up, nobody talked about it; then, the accepted reality was, “It’s never too late!” One of our heroes was Albert Schweitzer, one of the greatest organists in Europe, who in his mid-30's threw it all away to go to medical school and become a doctor, to follow his inner dream of medical service to Africa. For us, this was held out as a model. You can always change. It’s never too late.
For some reason, just as the whole world has started to abandon the tyranny of time, the science of developmental psychology has fastened onto it as a fad. The conclusions that are drawn from the so-called scientific experiments that are done in this area are based on scanty material which is poorly understood, and can only be characterized as a leap of imagination. Yet, a lot of parents are very nervous when they hear that if their child doesn’t learn a second language by the age of X, then their ability to learn a second language is gone. If they don’t have mathematical skills by the age of Y, then they’ll never be good at mathematics. There’s a whole slew of these statements that are supposedly backed up by studies. Whenever I look at these studies – brain waves, CAT scans, statistical analyses, etc. – I always think of the ant. I think of this tiny insect, which has nothing that you would really call a brain. It has complex behavior that we have no clue about. We have no idea how the ant’s cognition works, whatever that means. When I think of that, I say, “This fad, too, will pass, because we certainly are not going to understand the alleged milestones in the development of the human brain before we understand how an ant’s brain works.”
We have to be free of the tyranny of externally imposed life timetables as well. The tyranny of saying, “You should be out of here when you’re 18. You should be starting to study for your SAT’s when you’re 16.” These are milestones externally imposed by families, and by society. These, too, run counter to the natural inner development of each child. We’ve learned this very well over the past thirty years. Some people are ready to graduate or go out into the world at age 16. Some people aren’t ready until they’re 20 or 21. In the long run it makes no difference. When lifespans were 25 or 30 years, you might have had an argument for,“Get with it by the age of 13.” People got married at 13 or 14. You have to get a perspective on this. Chopin wrote his first piano concerto at the age of 19. You say, “Oh my God, I’m 20 and I haven’t done a damn thing,” and you start feeling that life has passed you by. That’s absurd. Chopin had to get on with his life. He was dead by 36. He may not have known that he’d be dead by 36 when he was 19, but people all over were dying at 36. So he might have guessed. Our lifespan is 70, 75, 80, who knows? No rush. For the Nature part to unfold, the tyranny of time has to go away.
But there is another aspect of time, which it took us much longer to appreciate. That was the significance of the present. It’s one thing to realize that you don’t have to worry about time spans, but quite another to appreciate the present moment. One of the beautiful things about children is their ability to immerse themselves totally in the present. There’s no question – and certainly Eastern philosophy has accentuated this – that fully appreciating the beauty and complexity and richness of the present moment, with all of its nuances, letting it flood into you, is an enormously enriching experience that does much to open up your inner potential. Adults in industrial and urban societies have mostly gotten away from that. The present has been almost too difficult to bear, and so the present has been pushed aside. Instead, people tended to concentrate on the future, even on an afterlife. The present was just too miserable to contemplate.
In a school like Sudbury Valley, where time isn’t a factor, children don’t lose that ability to love and appreciate the present. You can see that in the adult graduates of the school as they grow up. You watch them in their twenties, in their thirties, in their forties by now. One of the things you see and marvel at about these people is they haven’t lost the ability to revel in the beauty of the present. That I find to be one of the most significant aspects of how the school has enriched the Nature part of each person’s search for their destiny.
Let’s turn now to the nurture component, which is a little more complicated. Understanding how the nurture aspect of development affects each child’s march to his or her destiny is critical when setting up a school, because a school is, by definition, an environment. If you are concerned about how the environment nurtures the child, you’ve got to be extremely sensitive to everything you put into that environment.
I’d like to pause briefly to discuss the various environments in which a child grows up. The most visible one is the larger culture, American culture in our case. They are immersed in that culture. We don’t have anything to do with that as a school because, living in America, they can’t get away from their American environment. The only way to avoid it is by moving somewhere else. A lot of parents don’t like certain aspects of the American environment. My message to them is, don’t fight city hall. You can’t avoid the fact that this is America. You can move to Australia. You can move to the Middle East. But if you’re stuck in this country, you’re going to have children who grow up in American culture, and the only thing that you’re going to achieve by fighting it is getting the kids to want to know more than ever what it is that you’re keeping from them.
We’ve seen this in our own family, with our children and TV. Our kids were born in the sixties and, like so many of our contemporaries, we did not want to expose them to TV. We kept it in the closet after we finally bought it. The kids would ask every now and then,“What’s that thing that looks like a suitcase?” and we wouldn’t answer – until we finally realized that what they were doing, of course, was spending an awful lot of time at their friends’ houses, looking at TV! When I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to read comic books, and guess what I did in my spare time? I went to my friends’ houses and read comic books!
You can’t fight it. What happened was that the minute we said to our first child, “Ok, you can have TV,” he sat in front of the tube all day, just to show us. After a while, he decided there were other things in life. Our youngest child, who had TV around from day one, hardly looked at it. You can't avoid the culture you’re immersed in. You can exert your own influences. You can say what you think about it. There’s nothing stopping you from giving your opinions, but the ambient culture is everywhere, and it’s unavoidable.
Then there’s the culture of the family’s wider social circle, which includes the religious groups that you might belong to, or the social groups, or the business groups. This is a kind of sub-culture, and the child grows up in that too, and is deeply influenced by it. If you reminisce about your childhood, you will surely have many memories from this wider social circle -- from your synagogue, or church, or youth group. These are all part of the environmental nurturing that affect a person’s upbringing.
The other major environment is the family, with which I have already dealt3. It is, in many ways, the strongest influence on a child as s/he grows up, as we have discussed at length.
Compared to these three environments – the larger culture, the wider social sub-culture, and the family culture – the school seems to play a pretty minor role. It’s just a place that kids go to for a certain number of hours a day, every weekday during the school year, which turns out to be half of the year, 180 days or so. It doesn’t sound like very much, except that it is! And the reason it is very much is that the school is the only environment children experience where they are directly exposed, on a regular basis, to people with whom they’re not familiar. This turns out to be critical. The school is a model of the situation that will face children when they become adults. Think how odd, and terrifying, and strange it is to a student to come into the school for the first time! Here you are, in a place where you’re destined to spend many long hours, surrounded by people whom you don’t know at all. These are people you are going to encounter every day, face to face, interacting with them, watching them interact. It’s a microcosm of the “real world” of adults. Children are aware of this, and when adults tell children that school is the place that prepares them for the adult world, they are on the mark, at least from the perspective I have been discussing.
If we understand the school to be a crucial environment because it’s a model of the larger world, the question becomes, “What’s the best school environment that we can create to nurture each child to realize their full potential and unique destiny?” How do we design it? What kinds of things should a child be exposed to in order to maximize the likelihood of realizing their unique destiny? That’s the question you’re putting to yourself when you discuss the creation of a school.
The answer given by traditional schools is straightforward. They say the nurturing exposure that you need is to a certain specific grouping of content and skills. Given that exposure, they maintain that children will develop so that, in the end, they’ll be able to find their way in life. The specific skills and content chosen by educators are the ones they consider to be necessary for every adult to have to function in the modern world.
We’ve talked about this a lot in our writings. There are two things wrong with this notion, which we never, ever considered as a factor in creating our environment. The first thing wrong is that anything of that sort must involve active intervention. The idea of an environment that exposes children to a given set of skills or content requires intervention on the part of the adults. This, as we have seen, runs against the natural tendency of the child to develop in his/her own way. You cannot avoid that friction, and that is the source of the resistance that every schoolchild develops, in one form or another, to school – even kids who like school, as I did. You may like it, but you resent being forced into it because it’s contrary to human nature.
The second problem is determining what group of skills and content people should be exposed to. Nobody can agree on this. In fact, agreement is impossible in the post-industrial Information Age. So, what you get is groups of people creating ever more comprehensive lists of things that every child has to know.
I have a big book, which weighs about fifteen pounds and has 650 pages in it. It is a compendium of standards and benchmarks for K-12 education. This book represents the thinking of the best educators in this country, as of 1998, as to what it is that every child in this country should know before they graduate high school in order to function effectively in the world. This is the required exposure we have been talking about.
Now, when I grew up, the book probably had 30 pages in it. But the world became more complex, and as the world became more complex the response was to keep adding more and more topics to cover the complexity. I don’t have the space to entertain you with the contents of this book, but almost anywhere that you turn you find an absurd example. I’ll just open this thing at random to show a typical example: “It’s essential that every child in grades five to six in the country” -- don’t lose sight of this, this is not specialized, this isn’t for Boston Latin or Bronx High School of Science, this is for every child, everywhere–--“must understand the impact of European military and commercial involvement in Asia, e.g. how the Netherlands, England and France became naval and commercial powers in the Indian Ocean Basin in the 17th and 18th centuries. The impact of British and French commercial and military penetration on politics, economy and society in India. Why the Dutch wanted military and commercial influence in Indonesia and how this imperialism affected the region’s economy in society.” This is one item for grades five to six!
In case you think that was unusual, there’s a whole section here for grades five to six, and seven to eight, and nine to twelve, three whole pages of subject matter “which assures that everybody in those grades will have an understanding of the major developments in east Asia and southeast Asia in the era of the Tang dynasty from 600 to 900.” These are the Goals 2000 announced by President Bush and fervently pursued by both political parties. The only thing they compete about is who can put more pages into the book and whether the test should be national, which of course the Democrats want, or whether every state should develop its own book, which the Republicans want. It makes for a lot more books!
So, the question is, what should the school environment provide if it doesn’t provide that? What is the environment that is best for nurturing children to their unique paths in life? The way we’ve come to understand it, that environment should meet three criteria.
First of all, anything in the environment must be universally useful in later life. Second, it must be related to basic human drives and characteristics. It can’t run counter to natural inclinations. It has to run with nature, not against nature. Thus, whatever it is that you put into the environment, it has to be useful in a relatively passive way. It has to be there to be used, not imposed, because it has to be accessible and desired by the child naturally and not the result of an active intervention that breeds resistance. The third criterion is that it has to be essential to each child’s quest to realize their unique destiny.
If you look at those three criteria, there aren’t a lot of things that satisfy them. In fact, as far as we can see, the only thing that really satisfies all three is something that gives children practice in thinking about things -- in figuring out how the world works, and in problem solving. These are skills that everyone has, by Nature. Everybody is born with the ability to think, with the ability to figure out the world around them. What you want to do in the school's environment is provide something in the environment that will give that inborn skill a lot more use and practice in a natural way, without intervention. Not by teaching people how to think. Not by setting up courses in logical thinking. But by creating something in the environment that will naturally enhance the ability of children to think and solve problems.
Over the years, we came to realize what that “something” is. It’s the concept of the role model in its broadest sense in the school – a passive example provided by other people in the school for the child to observe with respect to how they behave and how they think. Perhaps the most important way children and adults perfect their thinking skills is by watching and figuring out how other people think. We saw in an earlier talk, about conversation, that the desire to watch how other people figure out the world is at the root of why children want to communicate all the time, because the essence of that communication is to find out how other people think.
The greater the range of role models available in the school and accessible to children, the more useful the environment, the more helpful it will be to enhancing a child’s ability to solve problems. That is the reason that age mixing is such a central feature of the school. Age mixing is the mechanism through which effective modeling takes place in the school. Age mixing comes in two varieties. I want to talk about them briefly so that you’ll get a picture of how rich the age mixing is in the school and how important it is in the environment.
The first is age mixing within a relatively narrow range of a few years: six year olds mixing with kids between the age of four and eight, for example. The value of that kind of narrow range age mixing was probably first appreciated most fully by a person whose name has become somewhat familiar, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who developed for that concept the term “zone of proximal development”. He found that children challenge themselves constantly by interacting within this zone of proximal development, within this range of skills that are fairly close to their own. They stretch their minds by advancing to a point just a little beyond their reach, but tantalizingly close enough so that they are able to work hard to get there. The six year old admires the eight year old for all that the eight year old has achieved. But the eight year old is not so far out of range that the six year old can’t see him/herself there. So they try. And it’s worth trying because, even though there’s a lot of failure involved, failure, and overcoming failure, are part of what makes the process work.
The benefit works in the other direction, too, which is very important to understand. What eight year olds get out of interacting with six year olds is a consolidation of their gains. That’s thoroughly understanding where you’ve come from. That’s saying to yourself, “I used to do that, but now I know better.” It’s the kind of thing that a teacher gets from teaching. Everybody knows that when you teach something, you learn it so much better. When you model for somebody just a little younger than you, you’re consolidating where you are. You’re entrenching yourself in your thinking skills. Then you look at ten year olds, in turn, and you stretch to them, while the ten year olds are looking at you and doing the same consolidation, and the same stretching to the twelve year olds! You see this in Sudbury Valley all the time, everywhere. You see it in the kitchen. You see it in the art room. You see it in the music room. You see it in chess, in games, in 4-square – everywhere, interaction within the zone of proximal development is an important part of life.
The second type of age mixing that happens in the school occurs over a broad range of ages. It took us a while to appreciate the value of this. Wide range age mixing gives children something different; it gives them insight into how adults work. A puzzle in itself. It’s not so much that they’re figuring out the next step for themselves, as they do in the zone of proximal development, but they’re trying to understand, “When I grow up, what’s it going to be like?” Which is an answer every kid wants to know. So they watch older people and how they do things. Kids study older people in detail.
Recently, I was talking to a group of people at a sister Sudbury school. There were kids present. I happened to be touching on this subject, and it was really very amusing. I said, “Kids know their parents better than anybody does.” All the kids shook their heads in agreement, and all the parents looked at them daggers. But, it's true. Kids know us. The kids in the school study the staff. The kids know the foibles, the weaknesses, the strengths of the staff members much better than we adults know our colleagues. They’ve got us totally figured out. This is a key part of that role modeling, to figure out, “How do adults do it?” What could be a more useful environment for getting ready for the adult world?
Here is how one former student (now a staff member) put it:
In previous schools, I’d walk into a classroom and a teacher would already be sitting behind a desk and would deliver whatever it was they had to deliver for 45 minutes for a year, two years, however long they had to teach it, and then I would move on. The teacher would park someplace, another part of the campus. The teacher would eat on another part of the campus. The teacher would speak outside of the range of the student’s hearing. I came to Sudbury Valley and it was fascinating to see what kind of vehicles, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, whatever, the staff were driving. It was fascinating to see that they would sit and eat lunch and I could sit next to them and watch what they ate, and how they ate, if they had good table manners. How many different clothes they would wear and how they would dress in the cold and whether they wore hats or not. As a fifteen year old kid, I really had not spent time around grownups at work before. I’d occasionally get to go with my dad to the shop or see my mother and her friends around the table, but to come here and see adults at work every day, you really get to see how they lived and you could pick up so much in that real-life setting. It was tremendous role modeling and I took away so much from that.
The beauty of the school’s lack of tenure is that when the school community concludes that there isn’t enough value to the role modeling that they get from a staff member, they remove him/her from their midst. What you might perceive as a value or I might perceive as a value does not necessarily correspond with what somebody else might see as a value. They might see, in that particular person, a modeling of some character features, for example, or some conversational abilities that I can’t see. I might even vote “no” for that person whereas fifty other people might vote “yes”. There’s a mechanism here for constantly reviewing and renewing the role models in the school. And, of course, the student role models change all the time because students come and go.
What do adults at school get out of it? That’s a question I used to ask myself for a long time. I used to wonder, how come, here it is 30 years later and I’m not burned out? Why? Because the older people refresh their own innocence, their wide-eyed lust for knowledge and life, by looking at the littler kids. You can see that happening with the teenagers, not only with the adults. The teenagers are constantly interacting with the little kids, and this interaction keeps the child in them alive. This is especially important in the teenage years, which are the worst years to live through. You’re not supposed to be a child anymore. “When I was a child I spake as a child, but now I’m supposed to set aside all these childish things. What does all this mean? Do I really have to grow up and become like my parents and like all these other adults?” It’s a horrible time of life, and here at Sudbury Valley you are surrounded by, and in direct contact with, children who are bouncy and full of life and full of mischief, and it keeps the child in you alive – that ability to be creative, to be imaginative, not to be tied down by convention, not to be tied down about all those things that you worry about on a daily basis.
Role models can be positive or negative. Negative role models are just as important as positive ones. This became really clear to us years ago when our oldest son reached his teenage years. One day, out of the blue, he said, Those two years that I spent as a kid, when I was about seven or eight years old, in the smoking room back in ‘68 and ‘69, were the best years ever for me.” At the time, in ‘68 and ‘69, when we saw our seven year old hanging out in the smoking room with all the beatniks, we wondered. Our son said something very simple: This period was wonderful. It taught me what I wanted to emulate, because these people were phenomenal musicians. They had lots of imagination. They were fun. They were interesting. And it taught me what I didn’t want to do. I saw how drugs, for example, wrecked them, and drugs just never interested me after that.” Now, other children might reach other conclusions, but the point I’m making is that the negative role model that these kids see is of crucial importance to their development. Kids can look at an adult and say, “I don’t want to be like that person. I don’t want to be irritable. I don't want to be narrow-minded. I don't want to have this or that trait, or behave in this or that manner.” Kids don’t have a chance to think that way if they aren’t exposed to wide range age mixing.
I want to address briefly a paradox that might have occurred to you. I’m talking about each child realizing their own unique destiny and developing something that’s very much their own. How, then, does that gibe with role modeling, which seems to involve copying somebody else? We often hear that from parents: I'm worried about my child. She seems to be aping everything that X is doing. Is this good? What shall I do about it? I don’t like the fact that she’s following X around and doing everything that X says.” There is no real paradox in that once you understand that a child who feels really empowered, a child who feels really in control of his/her own destiny, is not slavishly following the role model. They’re studying the role model. The more role models there are for them to study intensely in their environment, the more options they open for themselves in later life. As long as you have trust and confidence that your child is developing their own inner voice, you don’t have to worry about how much they copy someone else at some stage of their development.
Finally, I want to touch on something that I brushed aside. When I showed you the big, thick book, I begged the question: “How do kids find out about the world? How do they find out about the stuff -- some of the stuff, at least -- in that book?” Here, age mixing plays a key role as well. We all know how much people are inundated with information from TV and from movies, but age mixing is a much more important source of information. Children, in the course of the days and weeks and months that they interact with each other and talk to each other and exchange ideas with each other, over this broad and narrow age range, talk about just about everything. They hear about everything. The likelihood of their coming across something that really excites them is very, very high.
1. The Sudbury Valley School Experience, 3rd ed. (Sudbury Valley School Press; Framingham, 1992), p. 81ff.
2. (Atlantic Monthly Press: New York, 1986), p. 38.
3. What Is the Role of Parents?”, above.Return to table of contents
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