Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Parents, Children and Staff
Usually I like to focus on the positive aspects of being at Sudbury Valley. I enjoy thinking about the many facets of life in our little community which is so rich with wondrous encounters and experiences. Every single student is like a whole world and in the course of time each one of them shows me something new that I never knew before. That is what keeps me wanting to work at SVS all these many years and why it is never boring to be there.
Of course, life is never perfect and neither is Sudbury Valley. Disagreements and misunderstandings often occur, as they would in any group of people who share space, time, resources and responsibilities. Students and staff alike have to learn to live with these problems and overcome the discomfort or anger that they may feel from time to time. I am no exception and I admit to having made my share of mistakes by doing or saying things which were hurtful to others. Sometimes I have been insensitive, neglectful or forgetful. I have done many things at SVS, and I have been seen by students at times when I was less than wise or intelligent. Usually they point out my inadequacies and I can accept their laughter at my expense and even their anger, because it is clear and above-board. They tell me to my face what bothers them and give me a chance to explain or apologize. Most of the time I am astounded by the kindness and tolerance that the students exhibit and it has taught me to be more understanding of others than I had been before coming to SVS.
Occasionally, I am angry or hurt by others' mistakes or insensitivities and then it falls on me to discuss the matter openly with the persons involved to give them a chance to explain or apologize. By and large people at the school get along quite well because of this ability to air grievances and work things through face to face. In cases where communication between people is impossible they can choose to avoid and ignore each other.
Unfortunately, this mode of interpersonal interactions is thrown out of balance when it is interfered with by others who are important to the individuals in the school but who are not a part of the daily life of the school. What I am going to describe has happened every year since our inception in 1968, and uncannily is enacted as if according to a script which is always the same. I would find it bizarre and amusing but for the pain that it causes to all the participants in this drama, including myself.
This is how it unfolds. Students are led to understand by their parents directly or by subtle suggestion that it would be good for them to take some sort of class. The kids agree in principle but can't bring themselves to do it. What we see is kids who ask for a lesson, and then behave in a manner which isn't congruent with wanting to take the lesson. Thus they forget their appointments, or their homework. They may come to the lesson with an attitude of "tell me what I need to know so I can get this boring stuff done with as fast as possible and be free to do what I enjoy doing". Time and again we see bright kids learning very little and hating every minute of it. They often ask the staff for instruction just before they leave for the day, or while the staff person is in the middle of another activity which makes it clear that no lesson can be given. These modes of behavior are in marked contrast to the way they behave when they want us to help them do something that they really want to do. Then they hound us with questions, wait for us to have time to attend to them, retain what we teach them and avidly do work on their own. They are purposeful and focused and it is evident in their whole demeanor that nothing will stop them from pursuing their interest. The contrast with the behavior of the same students when there is an externally imposed push to take classes is remarkable.
When children are questioned by their parents about classes which they really are not interested in taking but which they engage in to please their parents or allay their anxieties, they are in a quandary. How are they to explain their non-performance? They hem and haw and under enough pressure they begin to project their own behavior on the staff. They say, almost with no variation, that Hanna, or Denise, or Danny, or Joan, or Mikel, or Mimsy, or Carol were too busy to help them, or didn't show up for class, or were too late to do it, or were uninterested in teaching. Sometimes we are accused of going shopping instead of attending to the students! At first when I heard these complaints say about Joan, or Mimsy I thought to myself, "It's possible that it's true, but it is strange that they are both attributed the exact same behavior when I know them both to be so different. Mimsy is so well organized that it is unlikely that she forgot an appointment, and Joan is usually in the Art room and easy to locate. When she goes shopping it is for art supplies with a student and all the other kids in the room know where she went." I wondered: could it be that the whole staff at SVS talks a good line but refuses to be attentive to the students needs? Could it be that all of us are identically forgetful, uninterested in attending to the students needs and dedicated to shopping during school hours? It didn't make sense.
It was only after numerous repeats of these accusations, leveled at all of us at one time or another, that the pattern began to show itself clearly. The formulaic nature of these criticisms belied their truth and revealed their origins. The students want to do what their parents think is good for them. However, they find this difficult to do at the school. They are too busy doing what they think is interesting and important. Only at the end of the day do they remember what they "ought" to have done. They need an explanation for their parents and for themselves, which will not reflect badly on them, and so they attribute their own forgetfulness, or lack of interest, or preoccupation, to the staff. The trouble is that what they say doesn't fit the characters of the particular staff involved. It does, however, fit the stereotypical reaction of kids to parental pressure to learn things which the parents think are important to learn but which the students don't.
Neither I nor other staff members hold a grudge against the kids. We know that both they and their parents are doing what they think is best and that we have to cope with these complaints as part of our job. But it does upset me that often the parents involved don't want to hear what we have to say on the matter. They usually are offended when we imply that the child lied to them because the child did not want to disappoint his or her parents. They also often don't agree with us that "suggesting" things to learn to their children constitutes pressuring their children, and that it is not in harmony with the school's approach to education.
It looks to me that when things get to this stage the children are better off in a different kind of school, where there is a curriculum which the children are obliged to learn and where the teachers coerce them to learn it. I believe that it would be better for the family, and the children in particular, not to attend a school where they are daily put into a situation of conflict between following their own idea of what is important to learn and listening to their parents' advice. It causes the kids to be depressed, guilty and anxious and worse, insecure about their future.
Yes, SVS is an all or nothing approach to children. Parents either do or don't trust their children to acquire the skills needed to survive in America according to their own judgment. If the latter is the case, it would be better to transfer the children to one of the many humane and kind schools available which believe that children need more help and guidance than we provide at SVS.
One day, in the middle of June, there was a much-heralded solar eclipse. When I walked into school that day, a few of my piano students asked to be rescheduled because of the eclipse. "You mean you want to miss your lesson today because of the eclipse?" I asked incredulously. "Yeah, we wanna watch it. Please, please, please?" "Well, alright, I can reschedule you later in the week. Sure. No problem."
I taught the early lessons and went on a coffee break. The kitchen was curiously quiet. I noticed a lot of activity on the porch and went to check it out. An unusually large number of students were congregating on the porch and around the four-square court. An easel was set up. Some kids were passing around framed Mylar films and were looking at the sun through them. I got hold of one and had a look. It was really exciting to see the moon moving on a path in front of the sun.
At the easel were some cards with holes in them. One small boy was trying to figure out what to do with a card. I flashed thirty-odd years back to my next door neighbor's easel and telescope. I saw the image of the eclipse on the easel. It looked interesting and weird. I didn't really understand the meaning or impact of it then. I thought he was a weird enough guy to begin with, and even weirder that he was doing scientific stuff in his driveway. Science belonged in school, not in the driveway.
I showed this small boy how to use the card and tried to explain what it was he was seeing. He said, "Oh, cool," and ran away.
I wanted to see the eclipse through the film again and, after a little waiting, had a turn. The moon was closer to covering the sun. The energy level on the porch had increased as well as the number of students. I noticed kids on the dance room porch with their own sets of stuff set up for viewing.
I wanted another look, and while I was waiting this time I realized there were about fifty kids on the porch and only about five films. I was impressed at how patient people were as they waited their turn and how they kept the films moving after they had their look. No grabbing, no nasty words; just excitement and high energy.
That same little boy ran back and looked at the sun directly. Instantly a bunch of kids told him he could hurt himself if he did that and showed him how to use the film. He looked through, said "Wow," and ran away.
Some girls were waiting for a pizza delivery up at the parking lot. Their friends were screaming at the top of their lungs to come back down as soon as they could because the eclipse was going to happen soon.
Teenagers strolled onto the porch wearing tie-dyed T-shirts, strongly colored hair and various body jewelry. They wanted to know what was going on and, upon hearing, turned to look directly at the sun. Instantly people explained how they could hurt their eyes and showed them the alternative techniques for viewing. "Cool," they said, and continued strolling.
By this time the high point was close. The general color of the sky and land was darkening. It was a bit eerie. Then I noticed the shadow of lilac leaves on the porch. I had never seen anything like it. Each shadow of each leaf had a crescent shape. Hundreds of crescent shape shadows emanating from a shrub with heart shaped leaves. It was fantastic.
Now the eclipse was at its height. The energy level was at an all time high. Lots of talking, lots of viewing. Films being passed around dizzyingly. Kids running off the porch and back on the porch. I remembered for about the zillionth time how fortunate I feel to be working at the school, where students can go outside freely to experience occasional earthly events and whoop and holler if they feel so moved.
The excitement was beginning to quiet. People began dispersing, moving on to other things. The lilac leaf shadows were still crescented, but flipped in the other direction as the moon had passed the center of the sun by now. I felt so privileged to have shared this day with so many people on the porch.
As I continued through my day, the high energy stayed with me.
When I arrived to teach my first after-school piano lesson in a nearby town I asked the young girl, "What did you think about the eclipse today?" "The eclipse?" she said, "Oh, no. We weren't allowed outside today because of the eclipse. We didn't even get recess!"
At 7:48 each weekday morning, I hear First Bell. I'm usually sipping my coffee. Early in the school year, when the days are warm and my kitchen door is open, I can listen to the low monotone of the female voice pushing through the P.A. system. Soon after, another bell sounds (it's certainly not a ring), and I imagine roomfuls of like-sized and uniformed students moving through corridors like cars through a trafficked intersection. By this time, I'm making the final preparations for my commute to Sudbury Valley. Although the school with bells is only a stone's throw away from my back steps, I'd much rather commute 45 minutes twice a day to have the freedom that is the keystone of Sudbury Valley.
Freedom seems impossible at this school next door. The bells themselves betray the lack of freedom inside the school. They demand: Are you where you should be now? Are you doing what you're supposed to be doing? Have you done what's expected of you? Especially coming out of summer vacation, I imagine that those students moving to the sound of the bells must be suffering a great transition, from the relative freedom of their summers to the virtual loss of self during the school year.
Of course, there aren't bells at Sudbury Valley; the questions they pose would be entirely inappropriate. However, at the beginning of each year, or the beginning of a student's experience at the school, Sudbury Valley students also go through a transition. Typically, what returning students, new students, parents and even staff experience getting used to the school year at Sudbury Valley may seem a surprising reversal of what happens elsewhere. Here, the difficulty is in getting used to freedom, not in relinquishing it. As welcome as the possibility of freedom may be, it is not always easy to achieve. Rather, it is a formidable challenge. School members are effected on many levels: as individuals each with a unique sense of self, as members of the Sudbury Valley community, and as responsible citizens in the wider society.
For new students, the transition into the Sudbury Valley school year must be exceptionally profound. Not only do they move out of summer and into school, but they must change their very understanding of what school is. For some, SVS may seem like a continuation of the summer or as if they'd dropped out of school for something frivolous, even illegitimate. Younger new enrollees tend to adapt without a second thought; they haven't yet become burdened with expectations. Older new students may sputter and stall like a car that needs warming up. For years they've been urged or forced to replace natural inclinations with the should's and supposed to's of a life structured by bells. Many are former 'good' students who did everything they were told, and did it well, yet felt an intense disassociation with their lives. Others were the 'bad' ones, those who wouldn't succumb to the structures and directions imposed on them. For both, summers were perhaps their only chance to exercise personal choices about what they want to do.
In a way, our new students are similar to the slaves just after emancipation. For generations, the slaves barely had names with which to establish their sense of personal identity. Choosing a name after emancipation was both powerful and symbolic. It meant a former slave was now a person with a sense of self. Many new SVS students describe their previous school experience as if they were imprisoned or stultified. Their liberties were impaired, not rendered obsolete as were the slaves; but in both instances, time and respect are essential in allowing them to find out who they honestly want to be. Sudbury Valley deliberately gives room for this. To many outsiders, the students' experience of self-exploration looks suspiciously like they're doing nothing. To new students, this introductory experience feels challenging, often confusing, but certainly not like they're doing nothing.
Returning students start the new school year by reacquainting themselves with what it is that they want. This is relatively easy for the lucky few whose summer experiences are as much their creation as their days at SVS. The transition is more pronounced for those whose time and choices were circumscribed during the summer; they have to learn (or relearn) to find and honor their wants. They must experience the traumas and rewards of time undetermined, apart from the norms of the society at large, adapting to the norms of the people and structure within the SVS community. Often they feel that what they want doesn't amount to much, especially in the discriminating eye of parents, relatives, friends from other schools, or our culture in general. Indeed, they must learn about what the idea of amounting to much actually means in their lives.
For parents the transition into Sudbury Valley entails giving way, although for them it may be less of an annual event than it is for the students. This means embracing and allowing, believing and trusting, not of the school and of its staff, but of the students in all their interests, lack of interests, indecisiveness or singleness of pursuit. Parents may never know how their children spend their time at SVS, but they will know if their children are happy, energetic, thoughtful, or engaged. There can be no documentable picture of what a day at Sudbury Valley looks like. Parents may ask "What did you do today?", but the student's answer will invariably be incomplete: doing at SVS can mean anything from eating lunch with some friends, to curling up on a pillow in the sun in the conservatory, to getting brought up, to sitting on the playroom porch watching four-square. Even doing nothing is considered doing. "What did you learn today?" is a more dangerous question, depending on how it's asked. Too often the interest isn't for conversation, but for evidence. It sounds like what the sounds of school bells intimate, "Are you doing what you're supposed to?"
Even some of the staff experience a transition in returning to SVS for a new year. For those of us who work elsewhere for all or part of the summer, being at SVS is something of a relief. At SVS, the staff are demystified individuals who relate honestly and directly with the students. In many other institutions, the role of the educator is as a masked performer who participates in limited and predetermined relationships with his/her charges. Even though I tend to work for what are considered particularly 'progressive' educational organizations during my summers, I end up reconciling many conflicts of assumption: that my students need to be supervised at all moments, that my clients won't choose the right things if given choices, or that being honest with the group may undermine the authority I must maintain over it. As with any other Sudbury Valley member, I am challenged to articulate my position, and not to compromise myself beyond what may be useful. I'm sure others from SVS also know the thrill of having a particularly SVS-like position acknowledged or adopted once it is explained.
Although public perception might suggest otherwise, freedom is neither easy or free. Often people assume that a school with so much freedom would support chaos, invite atrophy, or generally be a free-for-all for the privileged few participants. Freedom, by definition, is freeing, but it isn't free. It takes a lot of work. There are many things we're taught as members of our society; being free isn't necessarily one of them. It takes courage, tenacity and commitment to participate in such an unusual and controversial institution as Sudbury Valley, whether as a student, parent, or staff person.
A few blocks away from my house, in the opposite direction of the school with bells, is a church with a carillon tower. Every fifteen minutes the bells ring out. The sound bounces off the school behind my house, making a quick echo, "Bong-ong, bong- ong." I find the sound of these bells soothing. They seem to pose those questions we at Sudbury Valley enjoy being asked: Where are you at this moment? What are you thinking right now? What has your day been full of up to this point? What are you choosing to do at this moment of your life?
Over the years, we have found that the parents who choose to send their children to Sudbury Valley School have very few things in common. They don't seem to come from the same socio-economic class. In fact, most of them seem to be impossible to "class"ify at all; certainly it is impossible from the cursory amount of information we collect from them. Clearly, however, there are always more parents who struggle to pay our modest tuition than parents who find it easy.
These parents also have widely different standards for all sorts of categories of behavior in their homes, or at least so they and their children tell us.
Very often they turn out to be parents who would not ordinarily be sending their children to private schools; that is to say, they are the kind of people who generally feel that private schools have an odor of elitism about them, and they find that odor unpleasant.
However, what our parents do share is an overwhelming desire to do the best they possibly can for their children. Even though they might be people who only questioned the process of public schooling because their children forced the issue, they are not people who accept the status quo in child rearing or in education.
We have written extensively about what happens to kids who have had all or part of their education at Sudbury Valley. It has also become pretty obvious that their parents examine their own lives in many of the ways that every Sudbury Valley student must do over time. That in itself is enough to scare away many parents who are not willing to accept this challenge. It seems that this willingness to undergo intense re-examination of their own lives is one of the few generalizations we can make about our highly individualistic parents.
So, let us say that someone has examined the philosophy of Sudbury Valley, feels confidence in their child's curiosity and judgment, and decides to enroll that child. One might hope that the enrollment would signify the end of anxiety; that the decision to put full trust in the child's judgment would be a relief to parents. And it is a relief. But it also isn't. This is what a parent of a teenager in his second year at Sudbury Valley had to say to the other parents at an informal Assembly meeting:
For our son, the philosophy of this school made so much sense that coming here seemed like second nature. For us, however, slow learners that we are, the decision was much more an act of faith than one of reason. Molded by our parent's values, our own educational experiences, and the predominant thinking of today, it was clear that in order to be "good" SVS parents we would have to let go of many deep-rooted expectations of what education should be. We needed to get in touch with what we felt really mattered about school, and disregard the rest. This reorientation process hasn't been easy, and has offered a number of terrifying moments, as well as some extremely happy ones. I realize that in many ways hope is merely the flip side of fear. We hope that something good will happen, while fearing that it won't. Some days one face of the coin is up, other days the opposite side is showing. This contributes to a pretty exciting ride on an emotional roller coaster, especially where SVS is concerned.
None of us lives in a vacuum. Everyone has friends, relatives, parents, sometimes other children, who feel that allowing a student so much freedom is tantamount to telling that child that no one cares what happens to him/her. Most everyone is in a workplace or a neighborhood in which such a brave decision is treated as a sign of abdication of the responsibilities of parenthood. And the very same people who might hesitate to criticize if they thought one's child had been nursed for too long, or put in day care too early, or not forced to sleep through the night, have no trouble spending a great deal of time denigrating the educational philosophy with which parents at Sudbury schools are trying so hard to align themselves.
Partly that is comforting. It opens up many forums for discussion. But partly it isn't, because a lot of the people one has these discussions with are working from a very small amount of information mostly from the tops of their heads or from what you have haplessly told them or from a position in which many of their beliefs are threatened. A lot of the people each parent knows are sure, totally positive, that the structure of education that is most familiar to them and it will almost always be a variation of the structure that most children are in today is the only possible one that guarantees that we will not produce a generation of savages, ignorant savages at that. They feel threatened by the idea of the loss of adult power and control that such a "free" school is predicated on.
But of course we parents too feel threatened. There we are, open to attack from all of those other people who think we are crazy, as well as from our own anxieties. It is very well to say in the abstract: "Sure, I know that my kids will grow up constantly busy learning things. I understand that to be the human condition." But then when the things your kid spends time doing perhaps Nintendo, or playing games in a tree, or poring over Magic Cards for months on end don't look at all like the things you did in school at that age, and don't require that they learn the capitals of the states, or how to diagram a sentence, then it is not so easy.
In fact, sending a child to such a school is a courageous and still an almost unique choice. We all want our children to have even better lives than we had, no matter how good ours was. When we think of a better life these days, we don't usually mean materially better, because most of us have had quite adequate material lives. We mean intellectually, emotionally and spiritually better. And it is hard to keep your "eyes on the prize" of the excellent, well-examined life when the life your children are leading is one in which they can play Nintendo as long as they want, or work with clay for months on end, or read a million science fiction books, or talk to their friends on the phone for hours and hours and hours after talking to them all day at school.
Most of us went to traditional schools, which became the tradition because society was heavily into educating for uniformity. Now that we are adults, we have noticed that uniformity is not much of a selling point when we want to get interesting jobs, or create a work of art, or create a new idea, or create a new product, or create a new way to market a product. In fact most of us are either in creative jobs, or at least totally excited about the creative activities that fill our leisure hours, and we realize that we don't have to all know exactly the same things as everyone else. Of course there needs to be some overlap between our knowledge and other people's; being alive in the world makes us crave for that overlap, so we go after it. Often, we look for commonality with others even in areas that are of limited interest, because we want to have things in common with people who are not just like us. That is one of the social imperatives of life.
If you are now a parent, odds are that in your childhood you were educated mostly for a world that was going out of style at the time and is becoming a distant memory now, a world where uniformity was vital to the workplace. Since my childhood the possible ways of earning a living have changed from many, to incredibly many, to no- one-can-count-how-many, because new ideas of how to spend time are invented every minute. Kids need to be educated for a world that changes even faster than today's world, which is a hard thing even to imagine. But that is why we have to allow them to use their minds in their own ways because that will guarantee the most complete possible development for them, which will maximize their chances of succeeding in a wide-open world.
It used to bother me actually it still does that I had no one to turn to for help with problems once the computers we were using at school had a certain number of programs on them. The configuration became totally unique, and there were so many possibilities that no one who had not studied our system could possibly be on top of them all, and be able to help us; and maybe not even then.
The kind of anxiety computer problems raise in me are the same kinds of anxieties we have about our kids. These are control issues. They are already in a world that is out of our control, all day every day, bombarded with information we hardly have a clue about. We are raising them for a world where there are less and less secure answers, and more and more possible paths, and that means such a total and necessary abdication of authority over them on our part that it is terrifying. I think every one of us who has chosen to send a child to a Sudbury school has contemplated that abdication of authority, that releasing of control, and everyone, no matter how secure, also has some residual worries about making a mistake.
So, now that we have taken a look at some of the things that are guaranteed to make one anxious if one is the parent of a child in such a school, let's look at the other side of the coin.
What do kids learn at a Sudbury school? Are there any guarantees? I actually think that there are, and I think the things that can be (almost) guaranteed are the most important things of all in an explosively changing world. A student learns to concentrate. A student gets constant opportunities to make ethical judgments. A student learns to be treated with total respect. A student learns to appreciate the outdoors. A student learns to be self-reliant. A student learns to be self-confident. A student learns what it means to set a goal and reach for it, to re-assess, to reach again, to achieve the goal, or to fail miserably, and to pick him or herself up and do it all over again, with the same or a different goal. A kid learns life skills. Real life skills. The skills that it takes to be successful at marriage, at child rearing, at friendship, as well as at work.
What does it mean when I say that a child learns to concentrate? It means that the person focuses in on the interest of the moment, or the hour, or the year, and pursues that passion until it is a passion no more. Which of course also means that the tremendous let-down of losing a passion and having to go out and find a new one is a frequent companion. I see this focus mirrored in students in our school every day. I see it in the student who at 17 has suddenly developed a passion for math, and spends hours a day grinding away at it. I see it in the determination of a kid to get up into the heights of the beech tree, a goal that can take years to reach not that the goal will be pursued, of course, every minute of every day, but more as a theme of life constantly working on climbing skills, and constantly working on what it means to look down 15 or 25 or 50 feet and know only your skills keep you safe. I see it in the kids who constantly design and re-design Lego planes, airports, and space stations; and play elaborate games with the structures they have made. I see it in the drive to learn everything a person has to know in order to be allowed to work in the photolab alone, or on the pottery wheel. And I know, because I have children of my own, and because I have seen a generation worth of Sudbury Valley students, that I see only a fraction of a percentage of what is going on, of the concentration that is happening.
One of the hardest things for all of us to see and to understand is the work necessary for a teenager who comes to our school to do what has to be done first: to come to grips with who s/he is. To many people, a lot of teenagers look like they are wasting their time. They just seem to spend so much time hanging out, talking, drinking coffee, sometimes even unfortunately smoking cigarettes, talking some more, driving around. Yes, they read. Yes, they are wonderful resources and usually extraordinarily kind to younger kids. But what are they doing? Part of what they are doing is forgetting. They have to forget that they spent years hearing that other people had an agenda for them that was touted to be the "best" thing for them to pursue. They have to get in touch with the idea that the person who really knows what is best for them is themselves; that they can become responsible for their own intellectual, moral, spiritual, and even physical development. That is no small trick. And, yes, a lot of the time they are squirming, suffering, struggling to shoulder these burdens or to escape from them. We, the adults around them believe that, in the atmosphere the school provides, the likelihood of them deciding to shoulder the burdens is as high as you can get. So we let them struggle. We let them suffer. They offer each other a tremendous amount of support. All the adults in the school can do is tell them we understand how hard it is. But what every parent must understand is that support offered from the parent must, first and foremost, take the form of confidence that the struggle will be fruitful. This also maximizes the chances for it being fruitful.
The student who grows up learning that the most productive motivation is self- motivation, and that s/he can in fact learn how to fail and how to succeed, has the best chance for a life that is rich. We also notice that children given the gift of trust by their parents become closer and closer to their parents, and sometimes these kids even provide the insights and strength to work to solve family problems that have developed over time.
Students at a school like ours will surely be practiced in ethical judgments. Moral questions are the bread and butter issues of Sudbury model schools. This community has very high standards for ethical behavior, standards that have forced me, over time, to raise my own. The school is run democratically. That doesn't mean that every kid has something to say on every issue. No one polls every person in the school every time something comes up. It does mean that for every issue that comes up, the School Meeting is a forum in which each person, no matter what their age, is treated respectfully and equally, and also has an equal vote in decisions. But there is much more than that. The system for solving problems that have to do with behavior involve a changing sub-group of the entire population, a sub-group with total age variation in it, that investigates, reports on, and comes to grips with, problems of a social nature. This means littering, this means irritating noisiness, this means taking another child's cookie, this means not doing the trash when it is your turn. It also can mean more serious violations of the community norms. Each community's members spend a great deal of time informally and formally defining these norms, to themselves and to others, till they have worked out definitions that will serve them, at least till the issue comes up again.
I would like to end with more of the hopes and fears of the same parent whose remarks were quoted earlier:
At first sight, the question posed in the title of this essay appears ludicrous. After all, the school's walls are virtually all lined with books from floor to ceiling a library that would be the pride of schools far richer and larger than SVS. The staff has always consisted of people who are highly educated and have a wide range of interests. The conversations at school, engaged in freely by children and adults of all ages, are often distinguished by their richness of content, elegance of expression, and wide range of topics. And the school has produced a more extensive literature, probing its philosophical foundations, than any other single school ever. It would seem that to wonder whether this institution has an "anti-intellectual" flavor is to be wholly unaware of who we are or what we are doing on a daily basis here.
Yet, the question is not infrequently asked, and this fact alone must drive us to consider whence it arises. As so often is the case, once we examine the matter more closely, a number of quite significant factors emerge, which shed light equally on the nature of the school and on the underlying outlook of the questioners.
Let's look at the context which usually raises the issue in the first place. Often, it is one in which parents of children enrolled at the school are told usually by their children, sometimes by other parents that a request to some staff member for help has been greeted with indifference. The story the parents hear almost invariably is something like this: "I went to X [a staff member] and told him/her I wanted to do science. S/he said 'You aren't really interested in this' and didn't help me." Or the last sentence might be, "S/he told me to get a book out of the library and read about science." There are any number of variants, both with regard to the subject matter under discussion, and the specific reply; but the gist of all of them is the same.
Moreover, when the parent inquires about the incident, the reply from the school is always in support of the staff member's mode of response. In talking about the matter further, the parent and some school representative ultimately get to the question of what constitutes real interest that is, when expressions of interest on the part of children should be responded to actively by staff, etc. subjects I have discussed at length elsewhere.
Up to this point, the concern has focussed on the more general topic of how adults at school deal with requests from students. It is at this point that a new element often appears. Here's how it usually surfaces.
There are all sorts of activities at school where staff members interact fairly regularly with students, even though these activities clearly do not represent deep, serious interests on the part of the students. Many examples come to mind: all sorts of cooking activities in the kitchen, especially with younger children; various activities in the art room, from fine arts to pottery to sewing to other crafts; outdoor activities, such as rock climbing, skiing, camping trips. In situations like these, it looks as if staff members at school react quickly even to fairly casual inquiries from students perhaps sometimes even initiate the activities!
On the other hand, one rarely finds this state of affairs occurring in areas of interest that coincide with the standard curricular activities of more traditional schools. To some parental observers, it seems as if the school is saying: "Cooking yes; science no. Beadwork yes; spelling no. Skiing yes; math no." Or, to generalize: "If a student wants to piddle around in some unessential activity that doesn't involve deep thoughts, the school's staff will rush to get involved; if a student wants to do something that develops his/her body of knowledge or ability to think critically (a term regularly used by prevailing schools to justify the subject matter that they include in their curricula), then s/he will get a fairly cold shoulder from the staff." The conclusion these observers draw: Sudbury Valley has an anti- intellectual bent.
Let's look more carefully at what is going on here. Part of what children enjoy about Sudbury Valley is their ability to interact with adults as people, rather than as authority figures or "teachers". They enjoy the conversation, the mixing, the friendliness, and in general the opportunity to chat about the life experiences of older people in an informal and unthreatening setting. Former students remember, even after a span of decades, how much they enjoyed simply being around grownups they could be friends with, and from whom they could learn all sorts of things about life.
The students and staff at Sudbury Valley are quite aware of this key role played by staff, and cherish it. Most of the time, they spend time together in a completely unstructured setting sitting around in the sewing room, chatting in the main lounge, playing outdoors together. It is this frequent and casual accessibility of staff that has so often been mistakenly interpreted by outsiders as "the staff doing nothing but hang out". The staff has on occasion been criticized for spending their time chewing the rag with students and seemingly "doing nothing" even by people within the school community, but rarely by students.
Occasionally, however, either students or staff set up easygoing structured situations where they can interact freely, and enjoy themselves in the meantime. Such situations almost always center around an activity that is relaxed, entertaining, and fun to do. In the context of such activities, staff and students spend gobs of time together, and get to know each other really well; in fact, one of the main points of having these planned activities is to create a natural setting for staff and students to be able to be together for a long stretch without any artificiality attached to the situation.
Thus, a group of students spending a morning in the kitchen with a staff member, cooking some dish or other, do so especially for the joy of being together, though the production of a tasty dish is certainly relevant to the pleasure afforded by the occasion. When an off-campus overnight trip is taken, the depth of the interactions increases significantly. Always, people return from these trips with greatly increased insights into each other's way of thinking and feeling, and make enormous progress in learning how to handle complex group situations. This is an important motivation behind the students' desire to go on these trips, and is one of the reasons staff members enjoy them so much, despite the considerable work involved.
The benefits that these relaxed opportunities for mixing afford children cannot be exaggerated. By contrast to most other interactions children have with adults, Sudbury Valley child-adult interactions become laden with positive associations; Sudbury Valley students learn from the earliest age to enjoy being with grownups, to be as relaxed about using them as resources and general role models as they are about using other kids, and to establish relationships that span several generations without any threatening overtones. These are gains that not only remain with students throughout their lives, but also affect the way these students in turn relate to children when they themselves become adults. By providing a setting for pleasant adult-child interactions, Sudbury Valley contributes significantly to breaking the cycle of fear that plagues inter-generational relationships.
The only way the system works, however, is if adults at school carefully avoid structured situations which are associated in the minds of children with the standard societal demands that are imposed upon them in other environments. In the present context of American society, it is not possible to have a relaxed adult-child interaction that involves chatting innocently about subjects that form the curriculum of the prevailing school system. There is no possibility to have casual get-togethers that putter around in science-related areas; for the children, these situations immediately turn into "science classes", and the adult becomes the "science teacher". The substance of the interaction immediately gets related to what other kids in other schools are doing; and when the children tell their parents about the activities, the parents having themselves been trained in traditional schools cannot help but reacting with overt or subtle signs of relief and pleasure that "finally, our kid is doing something academic", or "finally, our child is engaged in real learning in Sudbury Valley." The focus of the staff-student relationship veers away from person-to-person exchanges towards teacher-student exchanges, and Sudbury Valley is seen as participating, after all, in the same basic game as all the other schools.
Few things can be more damaging to the atmosphere and outcomes for which the school has fought long and hard. There is no way that the staff at Sudbury Valley wants our school to be even remotely associated with the notion that the curricular areas preferred today by other schools have any special value or significance within the total range of subject matter that children or adults can find interesting and absorbing. It is for this reason, more than any other, that the staff carefully avoids encouraging any slight signals given by children at the school that indicate that they want the comfort of tuning into the standard fare, to reassure themselves somehow that they too are "taking" the right "courses".
So when all is said and done, I think it is fair to say that Sudbury Valley School is staunchly "anti-standard-curriculum", and gives no special encouragement to students who talk about "doing" the usual school subjects. But in encouraging free-wheeling and open exchanges between adults and students at all times, in all sorts of settings informal, casual, or lightly structured Sudbury Valley promotes a level of "intellectualism" not generally found even in University Graduate Schools these days. The dictionary defines "intellectualism" as follows: "The exercise or application of the intellect." As we stress over and over again in our literature, the intellect is best exercised or applied in situations where it is self-driven, and free to roam without reference to external constricting pressures. Our major task has been, is, and will for some time remain the establishment of an environment as free as possible from the overwhelming societal pressures favoring certain kinds of pursuits as preferable, as more worthy than others.
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.
During the day we see the sun rising in the east, traveling across the sky and setting in the west. When our ancestors assumed we were standing still and the light source they saw was moving, it made perfect common sense. It is little wonder that Copernicus' theory that the earth was rotating while orbiting the sun took the better part of three hundred years to become generally accepted. The reason for the resistance to Copernicus was the endless set of arguments people were able to muster in defense of the obvious: our observations told us that the earth was stationary and the sun moved! When we are convinced of something, new information is often irrelevant.
Being out on a large lake or on the ocean in a small boat is a most vulnerable position and a sudden squall is often fatal. When our ancestors assumed that they were dealing with supernatural forces, angry or capricious gods, it made perfect sense to think back on what they had been doing or thinking for a cause and effect connection for a storm. They assumed something they had done or thought had angered the gods or spirits.
The idea that organisms so tiny that they could not be seen were the cause of plagues and other illnesses flew in the face of common sense. Now we understand that crystal clear water as seen by the naked eye can be a broth of harmful bacteria.
Our history is filled with new discoveries which, at the time they were proposed, were looked upon as the product of a deranged mind or at least as the product of a lively and fanciful imagination. It is often the case that the "experts" in any field at the time new ideas are proposed find them so contrary to their ingrained beliefs that only the death of the experts makes way for the new discoveries to become established in the next generation.
Nowadays, we assume that teaching is essential for learning, and we organize our schools from preschool through college on this assumption. When we want to know how someone is doing in school we ask what classes they are taking. For those of us in my generation this was as ingrained an assumption as the sun traveling across the sky was for my ancestors. For those children who did not learn what was being taught, we had an excellent explanation: the fault lay in the child. Either the child was not paying attention or the child was mentally deficient. Of course, many children did learn the skills and course contents, and that kept us comfortable in our basic assumption. In our attempts to be fair to the child, we sometimes assigned some of the fault for those who didn't learn to the teaching or to other factors, like too much tv, not enough discipline, etc.
Sudbury Valley School Press has published extensive writings on the topics of courses, curricula and testing, but these are not the only insights that can help us to reevaluate the real value of courses. Every one of us who has taken courses for years is in a position to reflect on what we really learned. We know that we learned arithmetic and how to read. We all can remember teachers whom we admired for their mastery of their subject. We know that we were able to get a job and take on the responsibilities of being an adult. We were told that we had our schools to thank for our success and we believed what we were told. (And the earth stood still while the sun traveled across our sky. . . . .)
There are always individuals who question the obvious. The founders of Sudbury Valley School and their decades of experience have given us new insight on how we learn and how we do not learn. Very few courses are given and only a small minority of students are interested in arranging these courses. (I suspect it is a carryover from their traditional school experiences before enrolling in SVS.) Yet, all students at SVS learn the three R's and so much more. Those who wish to go on to college compete very well with students from traditional schools. But all children who go to SVS are given a precious gift; they learn to trust themselves and their judgment. They feel that they are responsible for, and are in control of, their lives. They have been able to use their childhood years to master their environment, gain maturity, and focus on how they wish to spend their adult years. When we adults reflect upon our school experiences, we know that we cannot remember how we learned. We know that we were given tasks to do, that our teachers explained things to us and we passed the test that they gave us. We know our three R's and we give credit to our teachers, but it took us years to learn the skills that SVS students may learn in months. The truth is that most of us can remember only a small part of any lecture or course. What we have experienced is a performance, a performance we can enjoy and appreciate but in truth we learn very little from such performances that aid us in mastery of the subject.
If we pay attention to very young children we can see how their determination to communicate with older children and adults around them leads them to being able to learn the language of their culture. All the sounds they make and play around with are exercises in learning how to communicate. And they do with very few exceptions. Children at SVS use similar techniques to teach themselves all sorts of subjects. What the school setting provides is the opportunity to focus in on this task when they become aware of the need. Because we are all unique, we approach solving problems differently. The approach chosen by the learner is much more efficient than an approach chosen by others because the learner is fitting things into the mosaic of his/her understanding of the world. Attempts to help are counter-productive unless the learner requests a piece of information s/he needs for understanding the problem s/he is trying to solve.
Babies become aware of what they need at different ages and they have their own priorities. This explains why some children learn to talk at one year of age, while others wait until three; why some children learn to walk sooner than others; why some children at SVS learn to read at five while others wait until they are ten or older. Learning to read in our culture is an essential skill. Sooner or later children become aware of this fact, and when they do they focus in on what is needed to gain a level of mastery that satisfies their need. It is becoming aware that counts, not being told. As a species we are all born with the capacity to learn and we spend our entire lives trying to make sense out of the world in which we live. When we watch the news, read newspapers, engage in conversations and read books, we are continuing our lifelong quest to understand the world in which we live.
When we enter the world of work, those of us who want to succeed learn what we need to know to keep our job and advance in our chosen field. It isn't that we come to these jobs without any prior preparation, but most of what we need to know to be successful on the job we learn on the job. The reason SVS graduates do so well is because they have been their own teachers from birth. They have learned to trust their sensory input and to rely on themselves throughout their school years.
Is Sudbury Valley 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.
When people first encounter the Sudbury Valley environment they undergo a kind of culture shock. They bring their expectations of what it is that a school ought to be, but they immediately come face-to-face with a very different set of images, and they don't quite know how to deal with the situation.
This kind of thing happens all the time in trans-cultural encounters. It's what took place for hundreds of years when Westerners encountered indigenous peoples all over the world. From the vantage point of a Western industrial society, native peoples weren't doing any of the things associated by the Westerners with "culture," so it became common to label such peoples as "uncultured savages." When people call a tribal culture "savage," what this really means is that they do not recognize in the tribe any of the usual clues or images that indicate "culture" to them.
Now, one of the more humane lessons we've learned over the last fifty or so years is to be a little more cautious in our labeling, and to understand that when we encounter such a dramatic clash of expectations and images, we should pause before we call something that we're not familiar with "barbaric." We have learned to say, "Let's try to understand that society and see what it's about." What I would like to explain here, from that perspective, is what's behind the culture shock that makes people wonder whether Sudbury Valley is a school.
What is the Sudbury Valley culture? What are the expectations that the school set out to meet?
There isn't much disagreement that a school is supposed to develop the intellectual potential and moral character of children and, at the same time, to prepare them to perpetuate the culture and to function as citizens in the community. There's really a two- fold function that any educational system undertakes in any culture a personal and a social function. These two have to work in harmony in order to make a viable school.
Usually educators start by saying, "What is it that we want to achieve on the social side?" That's where we start as well, by asking, "What kind of people are needed in this era in history to make this country function?" And in order to answer this, we have to evaluate carefully what is going on in our society.
When we first opened, in the sixties, people had just started waking up to the fact that the United States was entering the post-industrial era. That was a new phrase back then; today it's commonplace. A new social and economic environment was being created in this country, that went beyond the factory, beyond the industrial revolution, and looked toward a different kind of economic system, the key to which was the idea that repetitive routine work would no longer be done by human beings.
Such transformations don't happen overnight. But we have always felt that our society is moving inexorably toward a future in which people will have to be imaginative, to find new ways to lead productive lives. This requires every child to grow to be creative, to be responsible, to have initiative, and to be self-starting. All these phrases are widely used in educational circles today, because by now everybody has realized it. Every school talks about producing people who will have these attributes.
A second, no less important, requirement in this country is that people have to know how to function as free citizens in a democracy. It used to be that when we talked about this, people would say, "What do you mean, you have to learn how to be free? What's the big deal?" Nowadays, it's a lot easier to explain what we mean, because within the last few years half of the world has suddenly rid itself an unspeakable tyranny, and there are literally hundreds of millions of people out there who do not have a clue how to function as free citizens in a democratic society where they all have to share in decisions, where they all have to make compromises, where they all have to make political judgments, day in, day out. Today, all you have to do is look across the ocean and you can see that it is no easy task to learn all this.
So all in all, any school has a very challenging, two-pronged task: to produce creative, self-starting, imaginative, responsible people, and also to produce people who know how to be free and know how to function in a democracy.
We started from scratch. We didn't assume anything. We just said, "Given these requirements, where do we go from here? Let's consider ideal situations and then see how much we can put into practice."
The first thing we had to ask was, "What's the raw material we're working with?" Clearly, we are working with a child. "How much modification do we have to produce in that child?" If we had a glob of clay and wanted to make a pot out of it, we'd have a lot of work ahead of us. We'd have to throw it on the wheel, get it centered properly, and be sure that it doesn't collapse or it's not too wet or not too dry, or that it not crack in the kiln. These are big concerns because clay that comes out of the earth doesn't have a natural tendency to form pots.
The raw material that we have when we work with children is, by contrast, much easier to deal with. It is "made to order", because children are designed to become all the things we want. That's their evolutionary inheritance. Children are born with the capacity to interact with their environment in a way that will process it, challenge it, work on it, and understand it in imaginative ways. This ability is something human beings were endowed with by nature. You don't have to take a one-year-old and say, "Look around you," or grab a two-year-old by the scruff of the neck and say, "Go explore the environment," or a three-year-old and say, "Move around a little, don't lie on your back all day." You can't stop them!
The raw material is perfect. Our major task as adults is to get out of the way, to provide an environment where we don't interfere, where we minimize to every extent possible the barriers that prevent children from doing what they want to do naturally. To the extent that we succeed, they'll be alert, they'll explore, they'll be active, they'll be healthy. They'll be solving problems all day, problems that they set for themselves and attack with a passion. Leave children alone and what's the first thing you notice? Their intensity. Their involvement. Their focus.
Where does the social part fit in, that has to do with living in a free society? The only way to accustom children to democracy is to practice it. There's no escaping that conclusion. We certainly aren't going to teach them by telling them the virtues of democracy. To take people you've been pushing around for twelve years in the authoritarian environment of traditional school, and sit them down for fifty minutes of talking about this being a free country, and what freedom is about, and what their rights are, is laughable. The only way to bring up free citizens is to make them free citizens from day one. And there's no reason not to. There's no reason for a school not to be an operating democracy. There's no reason for four-year-olds not to have the same voluntary access to decision-making as fourteen-year-olds or thirty-four-year-olds.
When we opened the school, we were told that there's no way to give four-year-olds a vote. People predicted that within a year we'd be closed. "They're kids. They'll buy candy with all the budget. They'll do something crazy. You can't give kids responsibility. They're not capable of thinking about the future." What is there to say, decades later, when a school that has been run by the School Meeting, in which every child regardless of age has the same vote as every adult, a school that started out in 1968 with a per-pupil cost equal to that of the public schools and today is operating at less than half the per pupil cost of the public schools? Never a moment's reliance on government money, grants, or fund raising. So much for kids who spend all the money on candy! There isn't a person who graduates from the school who doesn't understand what it means to be a responsible member of the community. And there isn't an adult in the school who is uncomfortable with the fact that they share their power equally with the children.
All this sounds like a lot of abstraction. Is this really a school? Of course it's a school! It's a school that really makes sense for where we're headed as a society. The only problem is, it doesn't feel like a school. We're back to the culture shock. Sudbury Valley doesn't have all the road signs that people have been used to in schools.
So let me end with the following observation to help bridge this culture gap. People come to SVS and see it as being in "perpetual recess," and it gives them a little twinge and perhaps they start worrying. But just remember this: these schools that we all grew up in, with their classes, their curricula, their SAT's and Achievement Tests and Placement Tests, their grade levels and exams, these schools are relative newcomers to the scene! They're only about one-hundred-fifty years old. They were started by people who sat down and thought about education and said, "This is the kind of school we need to create a great industrial society." And do you know what happened? People in the 19th century used to walk into those "newfangled schools" and experience culture shock! They'd say, "This is a school? My kids could be spending their time productively out in the fields on the farm. They could be apprenticing as tradesmen, or as craftsmen, or doing all sorts of useful things. You mean to tell us that taking kids and sitting them at desks and having them write on chalkboards, that's a school? You're calling that education?" They had just as weird a feeling then as people have today looking at Sudbury Valley! It took many, many years for people to get used to the industrial-age schools which are so accepted now!
Nothing exemplifies these culture clashes around the subject of education better than a wonderful story recorded by Benjamin Franklin, who was sent to talk to a group of Native American leaders. He made them an offer, to take some of their brightest children and give them scholarships to Harvard, so that they could get the most advanced education available. Franklin recorded their reply to his offer. They said, "That's very gracious. We thank you. But we must decline the offer because we've had some experience with what you call a 'school.' Some of our young men once went to Harvard and their heads were filled with the weirdest things! When they came back, they didn't know the art of skinning, the art of hunting, the art of tanning, the art of shelter building. They didn't know any real medicine. They didn't know how to survive in the wild. In fact," they said, "those young men were good for nothing!" And as a gesture to Franklin they made a counter offer. They said, "If you, on the other hand, would like to send us some of your young people, we would be glad to train them, and make real men of them!" That story puts the culture shock of encountering Sudbury Valley into perfect perspective.
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