RE: DSM: 60 Minutes Piece

From: aamb@mediaone.net
Date: Wed May 02 2001 - 14:35:41 EDT


Mitch,

This is Alan Mitter-Burke. I was one of the parents in the "60 Minutes"
piece and I'd like to offer my two cents.

First, you asked what was "left on the cutting room floor". There was maybe
a total of an hour filming and as far as I can recall, I think they got the
best we had to offer... One of the other Dads did make a sharp point about
the illusory rewards of his ivy league education, but that didn't make it
in.

Safer talked a lot more than they put in. He seemed especially concerned
about college entrance, which we tried to illuminate for him by talking
about the range of options and how different all kids are. I thought one of
the other Dads, the lawyer with the tie, made a great response about the
futility of the ivy league pursuit. Safer seemed real caught on that. The
producer, a very nice guy named Alden Bourne, chatted with us about the
competition in his peer group to get toddlers into exclusive daycares and
kindergartens in NY where he lives...

Safer was also very caught on the idea -- which I have seen frequently on
this list -- that no "learning" takes place, and that there is a set of
basics which Sudbury kids don't get. This sets up "play" as the opposite of
"learning", which is a common wisdom that the piece did indeed bandy
about... But that's their job, that's who they are.

I suppose you're right if you complain that they didn't "deal with it head
on", but Scott's point, which I agree with, is that they *presented* it head
on which is better than obfuscation or euphemism. I guess that you wanted
them to get into the "play vs. learning" discussion more deeply, but you
have to remember that it's 12 minutes, not 60 minutes.

My expectations were much lower than what I saw. The policy discussion you
want for your inner city dwellers will be years in the making, and this is a
great step forward in terms of visibility for our ideas. You will be
continually disappointed if you expect mass media, talk tv, or talk radio to
present unconventional ideas persuasively.

> I don't feel they "dealt with it head-on" at all. I thought they pointed
> their fingers and went "what a waste of time". I felt that they tied that
> together with the remarks of some of the parents, and the list of jobs that
> graduates hold, and the footage of kids playing video games (more below), to
> show that Sudbury is a school for "lazy underachievers".
>
> Yeah, I know, some of you have no problem with that, either.

I'm curious what your complaint was with the remarks of the parents. I have
received 90% praise for my piece, and I thought what the others said was
good. The one criticism I have heard was that we appeared "defensive",
which is accurate about part of how I felt. Facing this esteemed celebrity
who is challenging the foundations of how I'm raising my kids did make me a
bit defensive, although not overly so IMO. Is that what your problem was,
that we should have been more self-assured? Or did you wish we had said
things which were deeper, or what?
>
> I'm still trying to put my finger on exactly what bothered me the most.
> Here's part of it - I live in the inner city. I deal with lots of parents -
> heavily working class, immigrant and minority - who are actively looking for
> a viable alternative to city public schools. They want something that will
> help their children in life - and by "they", I mean "me too". Is a Sudbury
> model school a viable option for them? Well, I think it's possible - but
> you'd never know from the 60 Minutes piece, which made the school seem (this
> is my most lasting impression) like a baby-sitting center for the children
> of the over-indulgent.
>
> Which in some cases is true - of any school. But it was the dominant
> impression from the 60 Minutes piece, IMO.

If you frame the question in terms of conventional wisdom, I suppose your
impression is accurate. Is that what you yourself think, or are you saying
that's the impression most viewers got?

As the parent of three such kids, I've always wondered what people mean by
over-indulgent. What do you mean by it? My kids play video games at school
occasionally. My daughter plays a lot of cards, and a lot of other games.
And they do a lot of other things as well. They listed the classes that
she's taking, but that represents a fraction of her total time at school,
and I think they over-emphasized them. I "indulge" her to do whatever she
wants with her time. What's the problem?

>> If the episode had concentrated on people at study, with noses buried in
>> books, or engaged in high-sounding academic debate, the piece would have
>> been -- if not dishonest -- at least easily misinterpreted.
>
> But if they HAD shown SOME of that - and the nods in that direction were at
> best cursory - it would have shown a better sample of what the school is
> about, no?
>
It sounds to me like you think there is a lot more class time than there
really is. Given that this was 12 minutes long, it was bound to be cursory,
but if you added up the minutes devoted to class time and "teaching", who
knows, I think it would approximate total-school-teaching-time divided by
total-student-school-hours.

>> People out
>> there would have gotten the impression that at Sudbury Schools kids do
>> what they _want_ but that clearly the adults coerce or cajole them to
>> "want" the right things.
>
> Why would they have gotten that impression? At no other point in the piece
> were adults shown cajoling or much of anything else.
>
>> Yes, video games were perhaps a touch exaggerated. But so, frankly,
>> were one-on-one tutorials. Cooking and camping trips weren't in the
>> piece, I don't remember the rough trash-talking culture of four-square at
>> all. They had a limited amount of time to get footage, and that footage
>> was used well -- in that they stuck to the message of what the SVS
>> challenge to education actually _is_.
>
> I thought they failed badly at that, actually. They showed part of the
> message - lack of coercion - quite capably. They failed miserably to show
> what children do with their freedom - positive as well as negatie.
>
This depends on what you consider positive and negative. Have you
considered the idea that the freedom itself is "positive", regardless of
what one does with it -- and it's up to the kid to decide what's positive?

>> In fifteen minutes, we couldn't hope to both _describe_ and convince
>> people _of_ our radical view. I'm glad that the piece concentrated on
>> putting forward our views in stark terms. The only way to sell something
>> as radical as SVS in 15 minutes is to lie about it -- and I'm glad that
>> they didn't do that because then we'd have to spend LOTS of time, energy,
>> money convincing people that we are _not_ what they think we are. This
>> way we can spend our energy actually showing people the proof that this is
>> the best sort of education that they could hope for.
>
> In those terms, then, I'd say this - the piece probably preached to the
> choir quite effectively.
>
>> I find it interesting that people who work _inside_ Sudbury Model
>> schools almost all agree that the piece was very positive, while
>> sympathetic people outside of the schools felt that the story was
>> manipulative.
>
> Why do you suppose that is? I'm sympathetic, I'm outside, and I walked away
> from the piece groaning. My girlfriend - a Catholic school grad with almost
> no exposure to Sudbury - had a VERY negative impression.
>
>> I think that perhaps this difference is because the schools themselves
>> are used to being totally misrepresented in the press. We're used to
>> spending much of our time patiently explaining to parents "no, we are not
>> the sort of school that you think we are." People outside of the schools
>> may think that our real task is _proving_ ourselves to people, but in fact
>> the majority of our time is spent _explaining_ ourselves to people.
>
> And the failure (as I see it) of the interview was not of the school, but of
> 60 Minutes. Or perhaps it WAS of the school; I've seen plenty of people on
> this mailing list basically assume that the benefits of non-coercive,
> democratic education are self-evident.
>
>> And yes, for many kids, playing video games (in the social framework of
>> the video-games stalls) is by far the most important part of their day.
>
> Understood. The piece would have been better-balanced had it explained why
> this isn't a "Bad Thing". Which was the impression the piece left.
>
Let me skip to the bottom rather than prolonging this good dialogue. You
make many interesting points. I think you are saying you wish that we could
learn to speak more persuasively to people who aren't "in the choir", and of
course we are all struggling to do this all the time and are sympathetic to
your desire.

My experience (being on the board from the beginning at Red Cedar in
Vermont, also trying to get Marin Sudbury School started, and now a parent
and staff husband at SVS), and I suppose some of what Scott is trying to
say, is that it's a mistake to try to hide the way this looks from a
distance. If you try to bring people closer to it by making the surface
look different, you end up with frustrated people down the line. Both the
staff and the parent end up frustrated down the line.

Those who aren't open to this aren't going to come on over if we just say it
better. Thirteen years ago, my wife (who you saw speaking on the show) was
a Catholic school graduate with almost no exposure to Sudbury...

So keep at it, and let me know what I could have said better, and do explain
to me about indulgence.

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