DSM: public school prisons (sharing the SVS model, etc.)

Bruce Smith (bsmith@coin.org)
Wed, 8 Nov 2000 20:33:49 -0700

Although many people have already spoken eloquently on this subject, I
cannot hold back.

First, a quick biographical note. I've been a staff member at Sudbury
schools for three and a half years. Before that, I taught in public schools
for five years. Like the authors of previous posts, I too tried to be --
and, at the time, I thought of myself as -- a particularly humane teacher.
I was on what I considered extremely good terms with many of my students.
My last year in that system, one of my classes gave me a card which they
all had signed. The most frequent comment was "thank you for treating us
like people." This flattered and depressed me; the depression came when I
realized that what set me apart from their other teachers was that I
actually cared about and respected them.


I want to respond to the initial question, 'If you were given a free hand
in your public middle school what outcomes might result if the SVM was
implemented?' First, may I point out that that's a mighty big IF? The sine
qua non of public schooling is that *no one* gets a free hand! So what
would happen if one attempted to implement Sudbury in a public school? Not
nothing; no, worse than nothing. First, students would be (rightfully)
suspicious: you're not really giving us freedom, don't feed us that line,
etc. Then, if the teacher was sincere and persistent, eventually some
students might start to believe you. Just as soon as that happened, BOOM --
curriculum and behavioral requirements would slam the door. Try and tell me
that wouldn't happen.

Mostly, what a Sudbury-traditional hybrid would create is mass confusion
and frustration; slightly raised hopes, followed by harsh disappointment
and disillusionment. Don't overlook the fact that years and years of
brainwashing leave many students totally unable to _handle_ freedom for
quite some time. Why do you think so many college undergraduates go berserk
when they're on their own, making their own decisions for the first time in
their lives? If you, out of the blue, told your captive audience that you
were giving them a teeny taste of freedom, what the hell do you *think*
would happen?

What bothers me most is the suggestion that one can implement "parts" of
the Sudbury model in a public-school setting. Hogwash! Look, either you're
free or you're not. Having a "partial" Sudbury environment is like being a
little bit pregnant or dead. You can't mix coercion and freedom ("pay no
attention to the authoritarian behind the curtain"). When the adults hold
all the power, you cannot pretend that the students are free in the least.

A minimum-security prison is still a prison. The other thing that
especially bothers me is the sugar-coating of coercion in guises of choice
and freedom ("you have the *choice* of which of my projects you *have* to
do). Bullshit. In the good old days of public education, at least the
strict, authoritarian oppression of kids wasn't passed off as something
else. Nowadays, students are treated like asylum inmates ("we're just doing
what's best for you"), and made to feel that any problem they have with
this arrangement is theirs, and not the system's.

Look, I don't doubt that those of you on this list who are still in
traditional schools mean well, and are doing your damnedest to treat your
students as human beings. But you have to realize that, even if you are not
the enemy, you _are_ giving aid and comfort to that enemy. How many of you
have read _Atlas Shrugged_? Trying to do good within a corrupt system
really only perpetuates the corruption (come on, don't tell me educational
reform is really getting anywhere!). Of course, to abandon those trapped in
the system _is_ a terrible price to pay. But I, and others, saw no other

I agree that we gain nothing by attacking traditional educators personally.
But those who are taken aback by the intensity of this discussion must
understand that, for many of us, the suggestion that one can be truly
humane in that cesspool of oppression pushes the hottest of hot buttons.

Bruce Smith

p.s. I HIGHLY recommend the document "Open letter to the Superintendent of
Schools" by Robert Alter. It should be available somewhere on the Web (if
not, I can scrounge up a copy). Also, John Holt's _Freedom and Beyond_
speaks marvelously to impossibility of freedom within traditional

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