Re: DSM: Re: TCS (Taking Children Seriously): Non-coercive Schools?

From: Ardeshir Mehta, N.D. (
Date: Fri Feb 22 2002 - 00:48:10 EST


This is a reply to Kristin, Laura and Alan. (I am trying to cut down
on the number of posts I send to DSM, as I was cut off automatically
from DSM when I sent "too may posts in a short time" a few weeks


Hi Kristin,

Thanks for your interest.

You wrote:

> How would common preferences work in a school community of 220?
> I am interested in exploring the assertion that they would be far more
> non-coercive than rules.

I too am interested in exploring this issue. From what little I have
read at the TCS web site, the idea is based on the fact that a con-
flict is normally between only *two* parties (or at most between a
*small* number of parties), so it doesn't matter how many mem-
bers belong to each party.

The way then to resolve the issue is for each party to put forward
their "first preference" in a meeting, and if it is clear that the "first
preference" of each party is irreconcilable with that of the other(s),
a brain-storming session follows in which an *additional* preference
is searched for, which is so good that each party's "first preference"
becomes their "second preference", and the newly found preference
takes the place of the "first preference" in the minds of *all* parties.

This now becomes the "common preference". It is *not* a compro-
mise, but a genuine preference which *all* parties choose over *all*
others. It's supposed to be a *creative* process. And there is abso-
lutely *no* reason to believe that it *cannot* be done!

To quote from one of the TCS pages, written by its founder, Sarah
Lawrence, answering some comments made about TCS:


          [COMMENT] The theory is idealistic...

     It is not an idealistic theory. TCS is, I conjecture, a true explanation
     of the reality that no other educational theory has ever explained. It
     is the solution of the problem no other educational theory has
     solved, namely, the problem that people get hurt. And it is the only
     educational theory that has ever been consistent with other
     prevailing ideas, such as human rights, the logic of how knowledge
     grows and how people learn, and so on.

          [COMMENT] In the absence of optimism, I think I
          need a model which explains why a child will set out to
          seek common preference...

     TCS theory explains this. The answer is that other things being
     equal, people want to solve problems, and problems are solved by
     creativity, and they are solved better when everyone's creativity is
     applied to solving them and not to fighting battles. That is why,
     other things being equal, people want agreement rather than
     conflict, they don't want to use force, they prefer peace to war.


You added:

> My 12 year old attends SVS. It happens that we can realistically offer her
> the choice between SVS and "the fees" because we work at home. Of course,
> there are many families where both parents work outside the home for whom, I
> assume, this would not be an option. Anyway, the question intrigued me, so
> I just asked her, in all seriousness, whether she would rather attend SVS or
> pocket the $4,750. She picked SVS, with no hesitation. I was actually
> surprised that she didn't even mull over her answer (though I did expect
> that she'd choose SVS). I asked her why. She replied, "I love SVS. I love
> the interaction. "
> Every summer we ask her, again in all seriousness, if she wants to re-enroll
> at SVS. Every summer we get an easy and prompt "yes".

As long as there is no coersion at home, this is completely in con-
sonance with TCS philosophy (as I understand it). Also see below.


And Laura,

Thank you for your thought-provoking post.

You wrote:

> This is interesting, I must say. Thank you for forwarding it for discussion.
> Since I am now involved in building a budding Sudbury school, my view is
> surely biased. I think the issue of whether a home can do the job of
> educating is an issue that a lot of families who enter SVS-type schools have
> probably already grappled with and answered for themselves in favor of "the
> school" versus the home for their own reasons at that given time. Sudbury
> recreates "the village" as much as it possibly can in our day and age. It isn't
> a perfect system, but it's better than (most) of the other schools I've ever
> seen or heard of in terms of coercion.

What I am saying -- and what the TCS philosophy says, with
which I agree -- is that it's up to each person (be he / she child or
adult) to decide where he / she wants to be!

Liz Reid wrote to me, in a private e-mail (during the period when
the list's automated "Majordomo" did not allow me to post on the
DSM list), that in Vancouver, where there are a lot of homeschool-
ing opportunities, and where there is also a school (Windsor House)
which offers a democratic and non-coercive environment to its stu-
dents, many students who are already given freedom at home don't
stay in that school for long, because the environment of a great and
attractive city like Vancouver is too rich.

And I agree: such a city -- and I could name at least a dozen others
whose environment is equally rich, if not even richer, and some of
which I have myself lived in -- offers a lot more than any school
can, unless one has specific ties to people at the school.

Remember, a city is much *more* than a village, to which you
compare Sudbury. Not everyone *wants* to live the village life.

And the proof is, that eventually all students *do* leave their
schools: even Sudbury! (At least *as* students: they may of
course come back as *staff*, but that's another thing entirely.)

> I like what TCS has to offer parents in terms of questioning the prevalent
> coercive and entrenched parenting and educational thinking. It would be
> wonderful if we all consistently exercised our full IQ's and EQ's (Emotional
> Quotient) to be able to navigate around every problem without falling back
> on coercion. I think Sudbury offers an environment where that kind of
> creative thinking is more possible. It is not a perfect system. It is a
> democracy. I think the human race in general is just not as highly evolved
> as Deutsch expects it to be.
> SVS as a model represents the evolution of schools as institutions,
> progressing from a completely coercive system to the crawling stage of
> democracy that SVS is. Beyond that maybe human beings can develop
> the utopian school of Deutsch's argument and common preferences,
> (wouldn't that be great!) but I don't see it happening in my lifetime.

I think this is not giving enough credit to human *potential*. If I
*believe* that I will never be as smart as Einstein -- as I used to
think -- I will not even *try* to be. When I changed my attitude, I
found out that the Theory of Relativity has more holes in it than a
sieve! (So now I sometimes sign my name "Ardeshir Mehta, N.D.,
S.t.E." -- the "N.D." standing for "No Degrees" and the "S.t.E."
standing for "Smarter than Einstein".)

And Beethoven, in his youth, thought he would never be able to
compose music as well as his teacher, Mozart: but he didn't stop
trying, either. (Thank you, Ludwig, for not giving up, even when
you measured yourself against the best in your field.)

This principle, too, has been pointed out in the TCS pages. What-
ever the problem at hand, one should at least *try* to solve it. If
*after* trying wholeheartedly one does not succeed, one may say
with some confidence that it is extremely hard. (But not *imposs-
ible*, for someone else may have better luck!)

But if one does not even *try* to find common preferences, how
can one justifiably say that they *won't* be found? Especially
since they *have* been found in many cases where it had been
previously thought impossible: a prime example being the Camp
David accord of 1977 between Israel and Egypt, signed by Anwar
Sadat and Menachem Begin, and facilitated by Jimmy Carter.

If *that* accord could be achieved amicably, I think any conflict
that takes place at SVS should be, well, child's play to resolve!

> As for the practical ideas of offering kids the money instead of paying the
> tuition, I think that is fine -- but for the school to coerce that/demand that
> from the parents is not right. It would have to come from within the family
> structure itself -- otherwise it would just be another instance where the
> school is laying down the law.

Excellent point. But surely it is in the interests of *honesty* to ex-
pect that the school make it clear to its students that the *option*
exists -- or as a minimum, that as per the school's philosophy, it
should be *available*.

If the student *wishes* to go to Sudbury -- or indeed, even to a
public school, like my son Cyrus! -- it is TCS philosophy (as I un-
derstand it) to encourage him / her to do so. This does not mean
that one is condoning coersion, but simply that one is respecting
the child's wishes as to which school to attend, if any.

But to not make it clear that the *option* of leaving the school is
available, and the money otherwise spent on fees be given to the
child to be spent on whatever the child wants, smacks of dishon-
esty ... at least in my mind. It's like hiding the cookie jar.

> Also I agree that kids do need to be given
> the right to decide if they want to subject themselves to the structure of any
> place. If they agree to being there, then they generally would prefer to
> abide by the rules to begin with -- or -- at least to comply with the
> consequences for not preferring the rules.

Indeed. But that applies even to someone, like Cyrus, who actually
*wishes* to go to public school! And some might even prefer to go
to a military school. (If one of my kids had preferred that, I would
have supported him / her to the best of my ability, though it cer-
tainly would not have been *my* first choice!)

However, those who *agree* to a coercive regime are hardly the
best *critics* of such a regime. And criticism is vital for the growth
of knowledge, and for progress in general.

Deutsch's point, as I see it, is that rules are by nature coercive, and
common preferences by nature non-coercive; and surely *most*
students would prefer *any* non-coercive system as opposed to
*any* coercive one: would they not?

So, as I asked, what would it take for Sudbury -- or, for that mat-
ter, your budding school -- to eschew rules, and in their place bring
in common preferences as a way to solving conflicts and problems?

I personally think that would be by far the preferable way to go.
Surely no one seriously believes that all other things being equal,
coersion is better than non-coersion! Surely the latter is *every-
one's* "first preference". (And if not, why not?)


And finally, Alan Klein wrote:

> Ardeshir,
> I have read the article and find it to be a wonderful example of splitting
> hairs to the point of absurdity.
> From a micro viewpoint, of course people in democratic schools might
> at one moment or another be doing something that they "do not want to
> do", such as serving a sentence imposed by a JC or working to fulfill
> the requirements to use the darkroom that the Photo Guild has created.
> In a macro sense, however, this is a sham argument. Students are
> there because they want to be there. "Being there" entails following the
> rules set up by the School Meeting, of which each student and staff is
> an equal member. It is a complete package and one in which each
> member has a voice. My father is fond of noting that, "If you want to
> heat your house with wood, it makes little sense to complain while
> chopping it." The analogy, of course, is that if one wants to be part of a
> democratic school, then it makes little sense to complain about the very
> democracy that defines the school. If one does not want to be part of
> such a school, then leave. No fuss, no bother, and no coercion.

I already answered this, by saying that even if a child *wants* to
be part of a coercive school, as Cyrus does, that by itself doesn't
mean *coersion* is good!

One cannot excuse the coersive nature of most *public* schools by
saying that if the child wants to leave, he / she can always do so.
And if this argument applies to public schools, then surely it ap-
plies to *all* schools.

Or, in other words, there is absolutely *no* justification for prefer-
ring *any* coercive method of conflict resolution to *any* non-coer-
cive method, all other things being equal.

So the question still stands: What would it take for Sudbury to aban-
don coerciveness in favour of non-coercive methods of conflict reso-
lution, such as, in Deutsch's terms, seeking "common preferences"?

For if it doesn't, it can hardly be -- as Martha Stewart might put it --
"a good thing". (Would *you* say it is?)


Ardeshir <>.


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