Some unrelated problems that are linked after all
I don’t know why this came together for me just now, but it did. Everything simply fell into place on Tuesday night, March 10, 1992. I had completed an extraordinary novel about the Holocaust, David Grossman’s book, “See Under: Love”. At the very end, something clicked. It also had to do with a phone conversation with Hanna which really depressed me. She was calling from Portland, Oregon, recounting some of the difficulties the new Cascade Valley School was facing. She didn’t say anything particularly upsetting, but I realized that I had really been unhappy thinking that school after school that’s going to be set up along the lines of Sudbury Valley are going to go through the same problems. It was not a pleasant prospect. Here we should be exhilarated about groups starting schools all over the world, but what we’re also thinking is that every place is going to have the exact same struggle. They’re going to have people who won’t understand the model, who will bring about deep upheavals, and so forth. We even have a similar situation right here. After twenty-four years we’re still having the same kind of problems with parents, with students, with visitors. And I know that publication of our study of former students is not going to help. These realizations closed in on me, as the reality of the Portland situation made them much more immediate. Why does this have to be?
I want to recount the things that have been bothering me that were resolved on March 10, because to understand the solution, I think it’s important to understand the problems that were plaguing me. A lot of these seem disparate and unconnected but they turn out to be different facets of the same phenomenon.
An item of concern to me has been the up-coming publication of a book based on the oral histories we have been collecting about Sudbury Valley. It’s the same feeling I have when I talk to people about the school. I keep saying, “Don’t you see it?” Hanna refers to things like that a lot, too. She often uses the old Biblical phrase, “They have eyes, but they don’t see.” And I wonder, “What is it that I want them to see?” Just recently there were some visitors from the Midwest, and I was saying, “This morning I got a chill up and down my spine when I entered the school. I walked in, and there was a ten-year old girl walking out of the door; and she said, ‘Hi, Danny,’ and I said, ‘Hi.’ To me that encounter was a very big piece of the essence of the school.” But I couldn’t convey that to the visitors. It just didn’t mean anything significant to them. I could see the looks on their faces saying, “Yes, that’s nice, that a little kid could relate to an adult.” But it didn’t send chills up and down their spines, and I couldn’t transmit what it was about the way she said, “Hi Danny,” that so epitomized the school for me. It’s things like that that people don’t see. When people see the kids playing, they say, “Gee, it’s awfully nice the way the older kids relate to the younger kids.” But the real significance of this just isn’t getting across.
All the insights that we’ve been putting together over the years had something missing. How does the seminal work of Alice Miller fit into the picture? Why is Sudbury Valley more than a school? Why does the school really have something to do with the way families are run, and with the way children are treated throughout society? What’s the key to all that?
The modern European history seminar I’ve been giving plugged into this too. I just reached modern times, and I spent weeks explaining that there really isn’t a separation between ancient history, medieval history and modern history. The people of the Middle Ages did not feel themselves at all separated from the ancient world. They felt continuous to their forebears, as indeed they were in every sense. The fact is, there were only two major breaks in history. There was the transition from pre-history to history, which had to do with the invention of writing as a tool of communication and preservation of collective wisdom, which makes a serious difference in the way the human race functions. Then there’s the transition from pre-modern to modern times. I was trying to explain the distinguishing features of the modern era – something I had analyzed to my satisfaction. But the thing that I never felt I understood was why Western Europeans focussed so much energy on developing such a technologically advanced materialistic society. What spurred them on? What made it happen?
I guess that is what triggered the last step for me. I was telling the group about one of the big things that made modern Europe happen – namely, the influx of gold from the New World to the Old World and the creation of a large reservoir of capital. There simply had never been sufficient capital throughout history for major economic development. The point is that money is used for two purposes. The classical use is as a medium of exchange, replacing direct barter so that one can exchange goods in a whole community rather than just bilaterally. But money also has a second function, one that has a much smaller use historically, but is its primary use in the modern Western world: it represents wealth which accumulates from the excess productivity of people over and above what they need for their existence, and which can then be used as a way of creating wealth through an investment in the future. This is money’s use as capital, as a promoter of future productivity. But in order to serve as wealth, money had to exist physically. Before modern times the world always had a limited supply of gold and other specie. Then, all of a sudden, an enormous quantity of precious metals flooded into Europe for a century and created a huge supply of capital in Europe. Suddenly, people throughout Western Europe, starting with Spain and radiating outwards, were enabled to start new businesses, to build factories, to create wealth; and then, of course, the wealth created even more wealth, until the material prosperity exceeded the wildest imaginings of pre-modern people.
So as I was thinking about this, I realized that there was something missing, because the same gold and silver had been in the New World! There it was, sitting there, and the Native Americans did things with it: they made artifacts, they stored it, they occasionally used it for trade. They were swimming in gold and silver. But why didn’t they create a capital economy? What’s going on? I couldn’t understand it. I’ve read all the explanations – the Protestant Ethic, etc. – and none of them are convincing. People have always liked to work. Work has not been a problem. You don’t need Protestantism to work. It just didn’t add up. Others said greed was the driving force; Western Europe was a greedy civilization. But why should Western Europeans be considered any greedier than Chinese or Indians or Afghanistanis or anyone else? It’s not so much that I wanted to know why it happened in Western Europe, which is, I believe, a mistake for historians to focus on. They look at the factors operative in Western Europe and they say, “These must have caused it.” But I don’t view history that way. To me, it wasn’t so much a problem of why it happened in Western Europe, but why it happened at all; why modern technological materialistic civilization occurred.
Another thing was that I’ve always had a deep feeling that Sudbury Valley School really represented a significant historic transition to something else. The school somehow tied into something much larger. And this to me was related to the difficulty people had in understanding it and accepting its validity as an educational institution.
This in turn had to do with another puzzle for me. At every turn, we see that the school arouses intense passions in people that are not typical of the intensity encountered by other schools. To be sure, there are often parents who are irritated with their schools and are worked up about this or that aspect of the programs. But the kinds of passions that are consistently aroused in Sudbury Valley tap much deeper wellsprings of anger than you would associate with any other new or established public or private school. Why? Is the trailblazing work of Alice Miller related to these passions?
Another problem seems to be completely unrelated to the ones I’ve mentioned. In the school, we talk about the virtues of a community based on mutual respect, and we conjure up images of people living together in peace. Then we come home and we look at Nature documentaries on TV, and we see violence in every aspect of Nature. All of Nature appears brutal. Every time we look at the screen, we see one animal tearing another apart. So why think that the human race isn’t rooted in violence too? Why even imagine that any new method of childrearing, or education, or organizing society, can break through the biological inevitability of violence? It’s Nature. It’s evolution. Yet I always knew that this question didn’t really bother me the way it bothered other people; but I could never understand why it didn’t bother me.
Or take the whole New Age phenomenon; or the establishment of intentional communities such as those described, for example, in the book by Judith Boice, “At One With All Life.” The appeal of that book puzzled me. What was it about this book that moved me? What was it that I found so touching? It felt like a harbinger of something – but of what?
The Key: Fear As an Evolutionary Addendum
Let me start with my understanding of evolution. The way the world is set up, in order to ensure the long-term survival of the Earth, there has to be some kind of metastable equilibrium between all the entities that make up the planet. It’s obviously not static equilibrium, because things change. There’s room for the evolution of new species. But on a planetary scale, change is slow. Any innovation in the scheme of things doesn’t take hold suddenly; rather, over periods of thousands, tens of thousands, even millions of years, one sees gradual changes that slowly shift things on a grand ecological scale. And as novelties are introduced, the rest of the world adjusts to them. In order for various species to survive, there has to be a kind of harmony among them that enables them not to constantly eliminate each other, or fundamentally disturb each other. That harmony is what Aboriginal thinkers always talk about, and what biologists and evolutionists study.
Within this planetary metastable equilibrium, there are all kinds of different forces at work, including those that involve the need all living things have for certain essentials such as food, water, and shelter. Evolution provides species, from the simplest to the most complex, with the mechanisms necessary to enable them to exist and to go on living. The way the world is set up, different living things keep alive basically by preying on each other. A certain amount of inorganic material ends up being absorbed into the lifestream of the planet, but most life is sustained by the exchange of organic substances between species, by the consumption of live or dead matter. The equilibrium among living species is brought about through mutual destruction in order to satisfy each other’s needs.
The way this state of affairs reaches equilibrium in the planetary order of things is that the instincts and drives of individual animals are designed so that only their real needs are satisfied through predation; but once satisfied, they are shut down by a feedback mechanism. In this manner, the mutual destruction of life does not end up destroying the overall balance of Nature. What you don’t have in the normal course of events is wanton destruction of life. A lion can sit perfectly contentedly among sheep once it’s fed. It’s not going to just go and kill sheep. Only when it’s hungry will it kill, just enough for its sustenance. That’s the way it is throughout Nature. Herbiverous animals will graze until they’re full; they’re not just going to walk through a field and chomp and spit out grass. It’s the same kind of equilibrium as that of a free market economy, regulated by an “invisible hand.” To be sure, sometimes nature’s “economy” gets a little overheated in one sector – there is an overpopulation of deer, they starve, etc. But in the overall scheme of things, the predations are not mutually destructive, nor wanton, and they’re not – from our vantage point – evil.
I want to digress briefly to discuss the anthropomorphizing that frequently colors our view of the world. We tend to introduce moral values into non-human situations, based on our own experience. What we observe is processed by our minds in the context of our world view. So when we see an animal bleeding, we equate it to our own bleeding. When we hear an animal screaming or see it struggling, we relate to that through our own experience of what happens when we’re attacked. That’s because the vocal range of these animals falls within the range of our hearing, and the visual appearance of their blood falls within the range of our sight. On the other hand, we don’t think of brutality when we clip a flower.
Now, if we think of things in a more detached way, we can ask, “What happens when an animal screams?” It opens its mouth; it wiggles its vocal chords; the vocal chords move the air; the air carries sound waves; the sound waves impinge on our ears; and our ears hear. What’s taking place is a series of mechanical events that our sensory apparatus is set up to intercept and interpret. When a flower is clipped, there are also all kinds of changes that occur. If we had ears that heard as screams the events caused in the surroundings by a flower being clipped, then we would say that every person who clips a flower is being violent. The fact is, what we don’t hear, we usually don’t anthropomorphize. This is why I don’t feel any inherent brutality when I look at nature films. I don’t see wantonness, or malice, or anything I can anthropomorphize as evil. I see predators as no different really than herbiverous animals. Because after all, life is sustained through the mutual destruction of life, and that’s simply the way the world works.
Thus, for Nature to go on functioning in metastable equilibrium, then – to introduce a pure but apt anthropomorphism – there has to be a kind of mutual respect among the different species. It’s not a conscious phenomenon; I’m just providing a label for interactions that imply that living things “live and let live”. Basically, living things allow each other their space. The only time they need to interact in a way that doesn’t respect each other is when a biological drive has to be satisfied that enables a particular species to survive. Then, and only then, the species impinges on another species just enough to keep itself going and then the mutual respect returns. There is no underlying desire to destroy. There is basically indifference except when satisfying their essential needs.
At some point in the evolutionary scale, a new factor was introduced that ran completely contrary to everything that I’ve been saying: the ability to fear; and with this there appeared the stress reaction fear induces. Fear and stress enter the picture when animals encounter a situation, outside the normal ups and downs of life, that terrorizes them and mobilizes in them a series of internal physiological and psychological reactions that are completely at variance with, and even inimical to, the stability and the everyday maintenance of the organism. The whole point of the stress reaction is to turn the normal biological system upside down and make it do things that, if it did them on a regular basis, would kill it – and that, in fact, it can’t sustain very long.
I don’t know if this reaction exists in unicellular animals, or in plants, but at some point it appears unmistakably in the animal kingdom. Wherever it may first enter, the introduction of the factor of fear is an extremely important new step in evolution. Fear not only upsets the whole physiological and psychological order of things, but also makes the animal do things that it would never do in ordinary situations. Everything becomes focussed on removing what is perceived to be the cause of the fear.
An organism cannot go through life without satisfying all of its normal drives and instincts. It can’t go through life without eating. It can’t go through life without resting. It can’t go through life without drinking, without reproducing, and so forth. But an organism can go through life without ever undergoing a single stress reaction. That’s possible, certainly in a metastable world. I don’t know why fear and stress were introduced. I don’t know what their function is in broad evolutionary terms. I see them as facts, but I don’t see them as a necessity. The world could have easily existed without fear and the stress reaction. I can understand that animals and plants, in order to maintain themselves in their constant interaction with predators, have to contain systems within themselves that cope with them. But, at some point, a line is crossed. And I just don’t know why Nature had to cross it. Fear and stress are extraneous factors that are unnecessary for the maintenance of biological equilibrium.
The key to all of the different problems that I talked about in Part I is fear, and the effects that fear has on the organism. That’s the link between all the questions that were asked, as we shall presently see.
Fear and Pre-Modern Culture
One of the most important things that distinguishes humans from other species is a well developed sense of self-awareness. I don’t know if any other species is self-aware, but it’s clear that people are, abundantly. This has momentous consequences.
For example, I don’t know whether a dog or a wolf knows when it’s afraid. Now, the fear reaction introduces an equilibrium-destroying set of responses from the animal. Thus, an animal in fear will lose its inner sense of balance with other species, and will strike out to kill, just to rid itself of what it fears. This is why you find terrified animals killing more than they ever want to eat, by striking out and destroying wantonly everything around them. This is what we call “brutality” – namely, destruction that is not caused to meet a normal biological need, but rather appears to occur simply for the sake of destruction, and is associated exclusively with the fear response.
Human beings, because they are self-aware, are not only aware of their drives, but they are also aware of when they are afraid. Human beings are very, very conscious of their fear. They feel it. They feel the changes that overcome them due to fear. They feel and know that they want to get rid of fear. They don’t only instinctively and biologically react with a stress reaction to get rid of it, but they know that they want to get rid of it. Humans look for the sources of their anxiety and fear, and worry about them, and become preoccupied with them.
This concern shows itself in many areas. I always felt that the idea of the supernatural, which is what religion is about, stemmed from people’s desire to understand their environment. In every religious tradition, supernatural forces play the exact same roles as physical forces do in Western secular science: they are used to explain natural phenomena. But what I didn’t realize until now is that there’s more here than just curiosity and a desire to understand. Beyond the search for explanatory patterns lay the tremendous fear that people had of being subjected to forces that they clearly weren’t able to control and that threatened their existence. In addition to wanting to understand the world just because the mind by nature seeks to create working models of the world, people also wanted to understand the world in order to be able to figure out how to rid themselves of unpredictable and unexpected phenomena that made them afraid: storms, fire, lightning, floods, droughts, the disappearance of prey, infertility, and natural disasters of all kinds. And in order to figure out a way to rid themselves of these awesome fears, people sought to create mechanisms that would remove what they perceived to be their causes.
This realization helped me understand a phenomenon that hitherto mystified me. Not long ago, a book called “The Continuum Concept” put forth the idea that people ought to sleep with their small children and be in close physical contact with them, a conclusion the author reached on the basis of observing some tribes in South America. That book became a best seller, even though the response that I had, and I’m sure 99% of the readers had, was: “What are you talking about? What is so idyllic about life in these tribes? Daily existence among these tribes is full of violence and brutality. What’s the wonderful consequence of their child-rearing practices? Where are the warm, peaceful, loving adults who grow up from their wonderful way of childrearing?” Now I understand what’s wrong with this objection. It misses a big piece of the picture. In the absence of fear, the natural instincts of humans, and the natural instincts of all species, are fundamentally in balance with each other. They have to be. That’s what keeps life going. Otherwise the world would have self-destructed ages ago. If you take away fear, the planet would consist of a mutually respectful and balanced environment, in which malice and evil, as we label them, would be non-existent. But when you’re plagued with fear, and you know you’re plagued with fear, you abandon all of the natural ways. Fear creates responses in you that even run counter to your own long-term interests. All you’re trying to focus on is how to remove the cause of the stress, and the major cause of stress for pre-modern man was always the inability to predict, to understand, and to control an environment that was full of vagaries and destructive forces that threatened his existence all the time, and had nothing to do with the everyday struggle for survival. Even when people did all the things they normally did to survive, there would come a drought or a flood or some other ravaging calamity, and they would suddenly starve. So in addition to all the normal struggles, pre-modern people experienced all these terrifying things happening that they couldn’t control.
The attempt to remove terror is what makes all pre-modern cultures, without exception, have elements of brutality in them. The brutality is rooted in the never-ending search for ways to tame the forces of terror. How they found these ways is only partially understood today. Surely many were created out of coincidences. It’s perfectly conceivable that seeing something terrible happen to somebody coincided with the removal of a threat. If a child died and a calamity disappeared simultaneously, it is quite understandable that people could conclude that sacrificing a child is a key to pacifying some of the ferocious unknown forces that are out there.
I’m convinced that one can trace every brutal ritual to someone coming up with the idea that by doing this, a source of fear can be removed. The reason the ritual is brutal is because it has nothing to do with the normal balance of nature, but arises out of an equilibrium-destroying reaction to terror.
The Bible is full of the terminology of fear – “You shall fear the Lord thy God” – and the major appeal of the religion is that you can focus your fear on one entity. In seeking a way to protect themselves from a host of fears, monotheists transfer the whole gamut of their fears to one God. Furthermore, if you fear only God, it means you become totally preoccupied with the right set of rituals that will appease this one supernatural force. If a calamity does come, you don’t have to figure out why it came, or how you can control it. You know the answer: you must have done something wrong vis-a-vis God. The explanation is always that you didn’t do the right thing, and the cure is to recant. The whole human enterprise becomes focussed on getting rid of your fears by figuring out the right way to satisfy and appease the supernatural force that’s causing them.
Fear and the Modern Era
What happened with the introduction of modernism is that people started creating workable world models which enabled them, by their own efforts, to begin to remove the fears of unpredictable natural disasters. The central goal of science was the human mastery of an understanding of the physical universe. And the reason people wanted to understand the physical universe, again, was not just idle curiosity, but also – and perhaps primarily – so that they could tame it and make it fulfill their needs in a way that isn’t laden with terror.
It is crucial to understand that, in its essence, science replaces religion. In its essence, science is secular, because the whole point of science is to displace the search for control of nature from focussing on a supernatural being, to figuring out through human powers how to achieve the same end. Science at its heart is about elevating humanity to the level of deities.
To me, the question of why this happens in Western Europe is irrelevant. I think it’s completely serendipitous. To me it’s the same question as, why was Newton, Newton; or why was Shakespeare, Shakespeare. And the people who say that Shakespeare was really Bacon don’t answer anything because the question then is why was Bacon, Bacon. I don’t think we have an answer to that. I don’t think we have an answer to the randomness of creativity. As far as I can see, the invention of the modern world view could have happened anywhere in the world, and if it would have happened anywhere else in the world, we would have asked why it happened there. I don’t think it was tied to any place or any event. What it consisted of, in essence, was the creation of wholly alien and wholly new world models that took a long time to be understood and accepted.
What I find interesting to pursue is what happens once such a new model does get established somewhere. The answer has enabled me for the first time to make sense of the world-wide love affair with modern Western culture. It’s not because modern Western culture promised prosperity. Lots of people are not driven to enrich themselves. The real promise held out is control. The promise was a way out of fear, a way out of terror. That’s why virtually every non-Western culture that has come into contact with Western culture has aspired to it, adapted to it, and all but abandoned their own original culture. This is virtually a universal phenomenon, the like of which has never happened before. Throughout history, cultures met each other and interacted. There has always been transcultural contact everywhere in the world. The minute they came into contact, they didn’t abandon their native culture. When the Indians met the Chinese, they didn’t become Chinese. To be sure, there were times when they did abandon their culture, and the exceptions are instructive. When Christianity spread widely over a period of hundreds of years, a lot of people did abandon their polytheistic world view because they liked the monotheistic way of dealing with fear better. But when cultures come into contact with Western technology, virtually everybody jumps on the bandwagon. It has to do with a sigh of relief that here is something that finally has conquered fear. That’s the appeal of Western culture.
Now I understand better the trade-offs that went on here, the Devil’s bargain people made in order to become “modern”. What people began to see more and more as modern times unfolded was that, in order to make their control over fear effective, in order to make science and technology give them the ability to be free of a life of terror, then – just as in religion – they have to make sacrifices. They have to brutalize themselves. Just as religion said that in order to get God’s protection, one has to sacrifice one’s child, or mutilate oneself, so science and technology said, for hundreds of years, that in order to control the world through this man-made method, people have to kill their emotions. People are going to have to lose touch with their feelings in order to create the milieu of the industrial era. (This is why so many of the New-Age thinkers reached for the same thing. They grasped that the essence of creating the industrial age was detaching people from their emotions, from those instinctual feelings that prevailed in pre-industrial societies.)
So a deal that never made sense to me before now appears far more convincing. I would always talk about it in political-economic terms. I would always say that people sacrificed their freedom in order to get prosperity. But though that’s true, it was really not the central issue. It goes a level deeper than that. What they’re really doing is sacrificing in the biblical sense, in the pre-modern religious sense. They’re sacrificing their feelings, their emotions, their natural instincts in order to rid themselves of terror, which overrides all instincts and all normal survival mechanisms.
Now, for the first time, that deal makes sense, because it never seemed totally reasonable that people would just give up their intrinsic nature for more food, clothes, and possessions than they need to survive. I see too many cultures for which having a lot of material wealth doesn’t make that much difference. The thing that is worth changing a whole way of life for is to be rid of fear. The role of fear is central in economics as well, as Franklin Roosevelt realized when he warned, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” It’s fear that is the destructive, unnatural force before which all else pales in insignificance.
Freedom from Fear in the Post-Industrial Age
What SVS symbolizes is the notion that in post-industrial society, you can have at least as much control as you had in the industrial era without paying the price of brutalization, without making the sacrifice. For the first time, you can remove fear but still live according to your normal, natural instincts. That’s the message of the post-industrial era. The world went through three or four centuries of the scientific industrial era, worked its way through it, and finally got to the point where humanity has devised enough new world models and enough creative new ways of looking at things that we can have our cake and eat it too. This is a first in the entire history of the human race. There’s no point in talking about going back to primitive or prehistoric forms of life, or “back to nature”, or anything like that. For the first time, one can think in apocalyptic terms, because it’s possible to conquer fear and still be human. At least the hope of it exists, and the reality is almost here.
That’s why Alice Miller makes sense today. Her work doesn’t make sense historically. It doesn’t make sense in ancient times, because she doesn’t understand that people had to have brutal rituals in ancient times. They needed to sacrifice. It’s only now that it is even possible to conceive that you can banish fear and still survive. This is a direct result of the human creative ability to fashion effective world models, which are totally secular. Man has finally worked hard enough and long enough over evolutionary time to create world models that are effective enough to conquer his fears.
Alice Miller, New Age thinkers, all have been harbingers of this great new step for mankind. They have all groped toward it, just as we have been groping for it at SVS. For example, take democracy. We call ourselves a democratic school. But democratic forms don’t mean a thing. Democracy in and of itself is worthless. It is, when considered formally, little more than a tyranny of the majority. But the significant underlying point of the democracy we talk about is not the mechanism of reaching decisions, by vote. The underlying point is the assumption of equality and mutual respect. To make sense of democracy, to endow it with depth and meaning, you have to start with that. From that you derive the idea of the vote. But the vote isn’t the essence of it. The essence is that all people are created equal.
That’s the genius of our Founding Fathers. They understood that the heart of this country must be the fundamental equality of all people and the fundamental necessity for people to respect each other fully. Unfortunately, they applied this understanding only to white males. But at least they understood the concept of equal worth. Indeed, the Constitution was ratified only conditionally to the adoption of the Bill of Rights. The first ten amendments weren’t just a nice added feature. The founders said clearly, “Without this, there is no United States of America, no matter how beautifully the Constitution is crafted.” And the Bill of Rights is nothing less than the embodiment of the notion of mutual respect and equality; it gives American democracy its special character.
This ties into what I was talking about when I discussed the metastable equilibrium of Nature, which is based on mutual respect. As with Nature, the concept doesn’t mean that in the ideal world in which everybody respects everybody else and fear is absent, there won’t be people who are injured by others. It doesn’t mean that lives won’t be lost. There will be many instances in which people will suffer. What will be missing is wanton destruction of life, rooted in fear and malice. That’s the best we can aspire to, and mighty good it must appear from the perspective of the twentieth century.
Other harbingers of the new order of things are members of the environmental movement. The New Age movement stresses the fact that now we can be in touch with our feelings again and be ourselves. (SVS talks about this all the time – about being yourself, discovering yourself, getting in touch with who you really are.) The environmentalists come at it from the other side. For them, only now has the right time really arrived. You couldn’t be an environmentalist before. Not a single primitive tribe is really environmentalist. They inflict damage on their environment and throw it out of balance in many ways. And the industrial era wreaked havoc on the environment. What the environmentalists are actually saying is that we must change our way of doing things to be in equilibrium; and that now, we can do it. The environmentalists aren’t saying go back to the woods. The environmentalists are telling us to be post-modern. Only now does humanity have the ability to begin to understand the environment, and put it back in balance again. Environmentalism, at its core, is a post-industrial concept, not a “back to nature” movement.
What epitomizes SVS and makes the school so integrally related to childrearing is the absence of fear. We’ve talked all around this without ever zeroing in on it effectively. We say, “It’s one of the things you can’t help noticing in the school – that little kids look adults straight in the eye, and don’t fear them.” We say adults aren’t authority figures. But it goes far beyond adults not being authority figures. We talk about the beauty of age-mixing in school. Age-mixing, in and of itself, isn’t any special innovation. It goes without saying that when you mix ages, people are going to learn from each other because they have different levels of experience. That happens even in the brutal outside world. The beauty of the age-mixing at SVS is that it’s without fear, that four year olds can walk up to seventeen year olds and have no anxiety in relating to them.
That’s why what we talk about in the school is so integrally related not only to the whole new world that’s opening up, but also to childrearing and to the family. If you have a family in which the children are raised with fear, it doesn’t fit into the modern world. What Alice Miller is trying to do is break the cycle of family brutality. We now have a world in which you can break that cycle. But, by the same token, people who are raised with fear, and therefore grow up to hate, will look at a fear-free society such as SVS and be totally threatened by it.
That’s why our school always arouses such deep passions: because people sense that our message is that, in the modern world, you don’t have to base your relationships on fear. Many parents express their own sense of fear in all sorts of different ways. “It’s a tough world out there. SVS kids won’t be used to it. How are they going to get used to the hard knocks of life?” That’s the way they justify the brutality with which they were raised, which enabled them to survive in another era. They believe that children have to learn how to deal with brutality and therefore one has to be brutal to children. And historically, that was true. But it’s not true any longer, and SVS epitomizes the lie of it today. The school says loud and clear that in modern communities – not just in school, but in homes and in wider communities – brutality can go out the window because fear can be banished. The social significance of this message is primary, and renders ludicrous the oft-expressed contention that SVS promotes selfishness at the expense of social values.
So many religions and social movements are based on the notion that doing good is an obligation, a duty. The whole notion of doing good as a duty is a notion that’s rooted in fear. That’s why do-gooders are so often busy killing each other. That’s why religious people fight holy wars. But a person who doesn’t have fear in his soul will, by nature, be a good member of society, because equilibrium implies extending to other people what you want extended to yourself, which is the root of good behavior. And you can’t do that if fear is overwhelming you.
At school, we often have situations where parents are dissatisfied with us for not protecting their kids from the unpleasant effects of other children’s behavior. Sometimes, a child calls home during the day and says, “I’m having problems; this person’s mean to me and that person’s mean to me,” and so on. The parents often react by wanting to protect their children from these things, and are perplexed and annoyed that we don’t view the situation with the same concern they have. The fact of the matter is, that if any staff member, or even student, in the school, saw a child walking around with terror in his/her eyes, they would relate to it, instantly. People here are quick to respond to fear. We know how to look at a child and to sense the presence or absence of terror. And in its absence, we stand back, and we let the situation work out its own equilibrium. That’s what SVS is about. Unfortunately, many parents don’t know how to see the absence of fear. It’s not their fault. They just don’t see it. When you walk into that school, either you feel the absence of fear in your bones – in which case you know it’s an ok place, and that’s where you want your kids to be – or you don’t feel it, in which case all of the other considerations become paramount: is my child going to learn, is he/she going to get into college? People who ask these questions don’t see the one thing that is everything. It’s a yes-no situation. Any parent who wants to break the cycle of fear sees what goes on in SVS, knows that this is the place the child is going to be. There’s nothing to argue about, because it’s just plain rare to see children in our school with terror in their eyes. And it’s the norm in other schools, where children are terrorized by adults, and by other children. Visitors either understand this or they don’t. Most visitors, most prospective parents, don’t see it; and if they don’t, all the explanations in the world are hardly worth the effort.
This issue is central to an appreciation of the oral history material we have been collecting. The individual stories aren’t going to mean that much – so kids did this, kids did that, they went out into the woods, they played together, they studied, they built fantasy worlds. So what? The real beauty in all of those stories is the atmosphere that they convey. The trouble is, people will totally miss that atmosphere if they don’t realize what they’re looking for, if they don’t understand what it is that’s being said. They’ll just see a bunch of anecdotes that could be told about any group of lively children. But that’s not the real story being told. What’s significant is that all these stories are permeated with the atmosphere of the school. And I don’t know how you get it across so that readers will feel it.
What Alice Miller has focused on much more clearly than any of the rest of us is that the experiences of terror in early childhood is what brutalizes people for life and makes it necessary for them to transfer their hatred. The SVS contribution to this picture is to make it clear that we’ve reached a historical period where you don’t need to face terror in everyday life, because secular humanity has the power to banish its fears.
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