Back to Basics

Authors: Daniel Greenberg
School: Sudbury Valley School


Why go to school?
For people who like to think through the important questions in life for themselves, Sudbury Valley stands as a challenge to the accepted answers.

Intellectual basics
The first phrase that pops into everyone’s mind is: “We go to school to learn.” That’s the intellectual goal. It comes before all the others. So much so, that “getting an education” has come to mean “learning” — a bit narrow, to be sure, but it gets the priorities clear.

Then why don’t people learn more in schools today? Why all the complaints? Why the seemingly limitless expenditures just to tread water, let alone to progress?

The answer is embarrassingly simple. Schools today are institutions in which “learning” is taken to mean “being taught.” You want people to learn? Teach them! You want them to learn more? Teach them more! And more! Work them harder. Drill them longer.

But learning is a process you do, not a process that is done to you! That is true of everyone. It’s basic.

What makes people learn? Funny anyone should ask. Over two thousand years ago, Aristotle started his most important book with the universally accepted answer: “Human beings are naturally curious.” Descartes put it slightly differently, also at the beginning of his major work: “I think, therefore I am.” Learning, thinking, actively using your mind: it’s the essence of being human. It’s natural.

More so even than the great drives — hunger, thirst, sex. When you’re engrossed in something — the key word is “engrossed” — you forget about all the other drives until they overwhelm you. Even rats do that, as was shown a long time ago.

Who would think of forcing people to eat, or drink, or have sex? (Of course, I’m not talking about people who have a specific disability that affects their drives; nor is anything I am writing here about education meant to apply to people who have specific mental impairments, which may need to be dealt with in special, clinical ways.) No one sticks people’s faces in bowls of food, every hour on the hour, to be sure they’ll eat; no one closets people with mates, eight periods a day, to make sure they’ll couple.

Does that sound ridiculous? How much more ridiculous is it, then, to try to force people to do that which above all else comes most naturally to them! And everyone knows just how widespread this overpowering curiosity is. All books on childrearing go to great lengths to instruct parents on how to keep their little children out of things — especially once they are mobile. We don’t stand around pushing our one year olds to explore. On the contrary, we tear our hair out as they tear our house apart, we seek ways to harness them, imprison them in play pens. And the older they get, the more “mischief” they get into. Did you ever deal with a ten year old? A teenager?

People go to school to learn. To learn, they must be left alone and given time. When they need help, it should be given, if we want the learning to proceed at its own natural pace. But make no mistake: if a person is determined to learn, they will overcome every obstacle and learn in spite of everything. So you don’t have to help; help just makes the process a little quicker. Overcoming obstacles is one of the main activities of learning. It does no harm to leave a few.

But if you bother the person, if you insist the person stop his or her own natural learning and do instead what you want, between 9:00 AM and 9:50, and between 10:00 AM and 10:50 and so forth, not only won’t the person learn what s/he has a passion to learn, but s/he will also hate you, hate what you are forcing upon them, and lose all taste for learning, at least temporarily.

Every time you think of a class in one of those schools out there, just imagine the teacher was forcing spinach and milk and carrots and sprouts (all those good things) down each student’s throat with a giant ramrod.

Sudbury Valley leaves its students be. Period. No maybes. No exceptions. We help if we can when we are asked. We never get in the way. People come here primarily to learn. And that’s what they all do, every day, all day.

Vocational basics
The nitty-gritty of going to school always comes up next, after “learning.” When it comes right down to it, most people don’t really give a damn what or how much they or their children learn at school, as long as they are able to have a successful career; to get a good job. That means money, status, advancement. The better the job you get, the better was the school you went to.

That’s why Phillips Andover, or Harvard, rank so highly. Harvard grads start out way up the ladder in every profession. They are grateful, and when they grow up, they perpetuate this by bestowing the best they have to offer on the new Harvard grads they hire; and by giving big donations to Harvard. So it goes for Yale, Dartmouth and all the others.

So what kind of a school is most likely today, at the end of the twentieth century, to prepare a student best for a good career?

We don’t really have to struggle with the answer. Everyone is writing about it. This is the post industrial age. The age of information. The age of services. The age of imagination, creativity, and entrepreneurialism. The future belongs to people who can stretch their minds to handle, mold, shape, organize, play with new material, old material, new ideas, old ideas, new facts, old facts.

These kind of activities don’t take place in the average school even on an extra-curricular basis. Let alone all day.

At Sudbury Valley, these activities are, in a sense, the whole curriculum.

Does it sound far-fetched? Perhaps to an untrained ear. But history and experience are on our side. How else to explain that fact that all our graduates, barring none, who wish to go on to college and graduate school, always get in, usually to the schools of first choice? With no transcripts, no records, no reports, no oral or written school recommendations. What do college admissions officers see in these students? Why do they accept them; often, grab them? Why do these trained administrators, wallowing in ‘A’ averages, glowing letters from teachers, high SAT scores; why do they take Sudbury Valley grads?

Of course you know the answer, even if it is hard to admit; it runs so against the grain. These trained professionals saw in our students bright, alert, confident, creative spirits. The dream of every advanced school.

The record speaks for itself. Our students are in a huge array of professions (or schools, in the case of more recent graduates) and vocations. They are doctors, dancers, musicians, businessmen, artists, scientists, writers, auto mechanics, carpenters . . . No need to go on. You can meet them if you wish.

If a person came to me today and said, simply: “To what school should I send my child if I want to be assured that she will get the best opportunity for career advancement in the field of her choice?” I would answer without the least hesitation, “The best in the country for that purpose is Sudbury Valley.” Alas, at present it is the only type of school in the country that does the job, with an eye to the future.

As far as vocations are concerned, Sudbury Valley has encountered Future Shock head on and overcome it. No longer is there any need to be mired in the past.

Moral basics
Now we come to a touchy subject. Schools should produce good people. That’s as broad a platitude as mother and apple pie. Obviously, we don’t want schools to produce bad people.

How to produce good people? There’s the rub. I dare say no one really knows the answer, at least from what I see around me. But at least we know something about the subject. We know, and have (once again) known from ancient times, the absolutely essential ingredient for moral action; the ingredient without which action is at best amoral, at worst, immoral.

The ingredient is personal responsibility.

All ethical behavior presupposes it. To be ethical you must be capable of choosing a path and accepting full responsibility for the choice, and for the consequences. You cannot claim to be a passive instrument of fate, of God, of other men, of force majeure; such a claim instantly renders all distinctions between good and evil pointless and empty. The clay that has been fashioned into the most beautiful pot in the world can lay no claim to virtue.

Ethics begins from the proposition that a human being is responsible for his or her acts. This is a given. Schools cannot change this, or diminish it. Schools can, however, either acknowledge it or deny it.

Unfortunately, virtually all schools today choose in fact to deny that students are personally responsible for their acts, even while the leaders of these schools pay lip service to the concept. The denial is threefold: schools do not permit students to choose their course of action fully; they do not permit students to embark on the course, once chosen; and they do not permit students to suffer the consequences of the course, once taken. Freedom of choice, freedom of action, freedom to bear the results of action — these are the three great freedoms that constitute personal responsibility.

It is no news that schools restrict, as a matter of fundamental policy, the freedoms of choice and action. But does it surprise you that schools restrict freedom to bear the consequences of one’s actions? It shouldn’t. It has become a tenet of modern education that the psyche of a student suffers harm to the extent that it is buffeted by the twin evils of adversity and failure. “Success breeds success” is the password today; encouragement, letting a person down easy, avoiding disappointing setbacks, the list goes on.

Small wonder that our schools are not noted for their ethical training. They excuse their failure by saying that moral education belongs in the home. To be sure, it does. But does that exclude it from school?

Back to basics. At Sudbury Valley, the three freedoms flourish. The buck stops with each person. Responsibility is universal, ever present, real. If you have any doubts, come and look at the school. Watch the students in action. Study the judicial system. Attend a graduation, where a student must convince an assemblage of peers that s/he is ready to be responsible for himself or herself in the community at large, just as the person has been at school.

Does Sudbury Valley produce good people? I think it does. And bad people too. But the good and the bad have exercised personal responsibility for their actions at all times, and they realize that they are fully accountable for their deeds. That’s what sets Sudbury Valley apart.

Social basics
Some time ago it became fashionable to ask our schools to look after the social acclimatization of students. Teach them to get along. Rid our society of social misfits by nipping the problem in the bud, at school. Ambitious? Perhaps. But oh, how many people have struggled with reports from school about their own, or their child’s, social adaptations, or lack of them! Strange, isn’t it, how badly people sometimes screw up what they do? I mean, trying to socialize people is hard enough; but the schools seem almost methodically to have created ways of defeating this goal.

Take age segregation, for starters. What genius looked around and got the idea that it was meaningful to divide people sharply by age? Does such division take place naturally anywhere? In industry, do all twenty-one year old laborers work separately from twenty years olds or twenty-three year olds? In business, are there separate rooms for thirty year old executives and thirty-one year old executives? Do two year olds stay apart from one year olds and three year olds in the playgrounds? Where, where on earth was this idea conceived? Is anything more socially damaging than segregating children by year for fourteen — often eighteen — years.

Or take frequent segregation by sex, even in coed schools, for varieties of activities.

Or the vast chasm between children and adults have you ever observed how universal it is for children not to look adults in the eye?

And now let’s peek into the social situation created for children within their own age group. If the schools make it almost impossible for a twelve year old to relate in a normal human fashion to eleven year olds, thirteen year olds, adults, etc., what about other twelve year olds?

No such luck. The primary, almost exclusive mode of relationship fostered by schools among children in the same class is competition! Cut-throat competition. The pecking order is the all-in-all. Who is better than whom, who smarter, faster, taller, handsomer and, of course, who is worse, stupider, slower, shorter, uglier.

If ever a system was designed effectively to produce competitive, obnoxious, insecure, paranoid, social misfits, the prevailing schools have managed it.

Back to basics.

In the real wold, the most important social attribute for a stable, healthy society is cooperation. In the real world, the most important form of competition is against oneself, against goals set for and by a person for that person’s own achievement. In the real world, interpersonal competition for its own sake is widely recognized as pointless and destructive yes, even in large corporations and in sports.

In the real world, and in Sudbury Valley, which is a school for the real world.

Political basics
We take it for granted that schools should foster good citizenship. Universal education in this country in particular always kept one eye sharply focused on the goal of making good Americans out of us all.

We all know what America stands for. The guiding principles were clearly laid down by our founding fathers, and steadily elaborated ever since.

This country is a democratic republic. No king, no royalty, no nobility, no inherent hierarchy, no dictator. A government of the people, by the people, for the people. In matters political, majority rule. No taxation without representation.

This country is a nation of laws. No arbitrary authority, no capricious government now giving, now taking. Due process.

This country is a people with rights. Inherent rights. Rights so dear to us that our forefathers refused to ratify the constitution without a Bill of Rights added in writing, immediately.

Knowing all this, we would expect, insist (one would think) that the schools, in training their students to contribute productively to the political stability and growth of America, would

  • be democratic and non-autocratic;
  • be governed by clear rules and due process;
  • be guardians of individual rights of students.

A student growing up in schools having these features would be ready to move right into society at large.

But the schools, in fact, are distinguished by the total absence of each of the three cardinal American values listed.

But the schools, in fact, are distinguished by the total absence of each of the three cardinal American values listed.

They are autocratic, all of them, even “progressive” schools.

They are lacking in clear guidelines and totally innocent of due process as it applies to alleged disrupters.

They do not recognize the rights of minors.

All except Sudbury Valley, which was founded on these three principles.

I think it is safe to say that the individual liberties so cherished by our ancestors and by each succeeding generation will never be really secure until our youth, throughout the crucial formative years of their minds and spirits, are nurtured in a school environment that embodies these basic American truths.

Back to basics
So you see, Sudbury Valley was started in 1968 by people who thought very hard about schools about what schools should be and should do, about what education is all about in America today.

We went back to basics. And we stayed there. And we jealously guarded these basics against any attempts to compromise them. As we and our successors shall surely continue to stand guard.

Intellectual creativity, professional excellence, personal responsibility, social toleration, political liberty , all these are the finest creations of the human spirit. They are delicate blossoms that require constant care.

All of us who are associated with Sudbury Valley are proud to contribute to this care.

 

Reprinted with permission from Daniel Greenberg