Sudbury Valley School
A Peripatetic School for the 21st Century
There is a book on my desk: “Wanderlust” . . . . This book is about peripatetics! While reading it, I thought about the two little girls walking side by side, on a road leading to Sudbury [Valley], talking about something very important. Sudbury has its unique landscape and, I believe, its familiar landscape allowed the pair of girls to communicate freely. At Sudbury, the peripatetic quality of its landscape plays a crucial role.
And I also have Sudbury in my peripatetic mindscape.
These words were written to me by a long-time friend of the school, who, on his own initiative, has translated several of our books into Japanese. He first translated Free At Last in the mid-1990s, which made our school, and our educational philosophy and practice, known widely in Japan, and led to two television documentaries about the school broadcast throughout that country, as well as several speaking tours and engagements by members of the school’s staff, and by students and alumni. In addition, he has experienced the school first-hand as our guest.
It was clear all along that Onuma had a grasp of the school’s essence on many levels—intellectually, institutionally, and emotionally. His sensitivity to the nuances of what we do was unusual, the more so since he came from a substantially different cultural background—or perhaps because of that, since that demanded of him a finely developed intuition that transcended culture and went to the heart of the human condition. The communication quoted above opened new vistas for me, which only revealed itself to me through contemplating his words.
And that is what I would like to share.
The key to it all is the word “peripatetic”, in all the richness of its meaning. If you look it up in a modern dictionary, you find a very stunted meaning attached to it, something like, “walking or traveling about”, which is a literal translation based on the original Greek. Now, every word represents a set of individual experiences, which a person groups together and represents by the word symbol; this is the essence of language as a shorthand for a class of events among which the person finds some common ground. The word enables the mind to call upon that class as a whole in order to process current experiences, instead of wasting the time and effort to scan the entire set.
Here is a concrete example: Suppose you go to a modern art museum, and see some creation highly unfamiliar to you that is in the furniture section. It takes no time at all for you to categorize it—say, as a chair, albeit a very odd one, unlike any you have seen. You don’t rummage through the vast number of furniture sightings that you have seen in your lifetime that are stored in your memory; you almost instantaneously place the object under the word-category “chair”; and instead of creating a new class for it, you simply note that it has qualities unlike any other member of that class that you have encountered. That doesn’t bother you, since no two items in that category are exactly alike anyway, but you have found it useful to lump them together. Someone else, however, coming across the same creation, might symbolize it by another word altogether, placing it in a different category based on his unique experiences.
Thus, there is no unique “definition” of “chair” that can be applied unambiguously to every person’s experiences, a fact that was made quite clear by Socrates and led Plato to invent a theory of language that is idiosyncratic and has been found to have no practical use.
What enables us to communicate with each other within our cultural setting is the great overlap between our experiences, and the understanding we each have that we will do our best to make do with each others’ classifications/definitions of words, in the interest of communication and collaboration. This is not an easy compromise for each of us, and often leads to bitter disputes that center precisely on what experiences we designate by a given word—such as “love”, or “democracy”, for example.
The difficulty of sharing a common understanding of words within a culture is multiplied many-fold when we attempt to “translate” words from one language to another. Translation is an attempt to find common ground between the symbolic classifications of experiences between peoples who have been immersed in wholly different environments, often over long periods of time. It is a thankless task, and has accounted for disputes and conflicts between cultures that are far more numerous and generally far more intense that those between members of the same culture.
So what can we garner about the fuller significance of the word “peripatetic”, as it was understood in ancient Greece, and what subtle overtones does it convey today?
The answer provides invaluable insight into Sudbury Valley’s significance as one of the most efficacious places for children to grow, educate themselves, and prepare for productive and meaningful lives.
The fact that Aristotle’s school, the environment where he held forth—where he created and conveyed the foundations of philosophy that still guide us today, over two millennia later—was designated “the peripatetic school” should alert us to the possibility that the word has considerable significance. I mean, how silly is it to say that Aristotle taught in a “walking or traveling about school”? Was this one of those schools that went from place to place, looking at the sights, peeking into the various activities of the people in the public places? Was it a school that didn’t have chairs, or where people weren’t supposed to sit down? And, if so, why point it out as significant? Was the walking around or traveling about the key to its unparalleled creativity?
So what is this “peripatetic” business all about? What kind of class of experiences does this phrase symbolize?
Let me digress for a moment, and jump forward to a contemporary scene. I was a graduate student in Physics in the 1950s, one of the most productive periods that discipline has ever gone through. We met and had direct contact with some of the major historical figures of the time: Enrico Fermi, Charles Townes, I.I. Rabi, Albert Einstein, and many others—and Neils Bohr. I single him out, because all the others singled him out. He was not only a giant in his field, he was also a great human being, who understood the source of innovative thought. Every summer he would gather a group of some of the most promising physicists in some beautiful mountain setting, and spend hours hiking in the woods and chatting about ideas, or sitting around in a comfortable room discussing the problems of the day. Every single physicist who experienced these occasions was lavish in their praise of the person who conceived them, and of the richness of the creative thought that emerged from them.1 They singled out the relaxed atmosphere, the fun, physical mobility (lack of confinement), the wide-ranging conversation that spanned topics that seemingly were unrelated to each other or to physics, the developing camaraderie, the absence of competitiveness, and the willingness to engage in intense debates that were free of personal animosity.
The image of Bohr’s gatherings, and of their educational and human interactions, never left me. When, in my subsequent research into the history of science and philosophy, I encountered Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, as well as the pre-Socratic philosophers, it became clear in the context of their writings that the environments in which they functioned were essentially the same as those of Neils Bohr.
But what exactly were the keys to the wonderful success of those environments, to their ability to produce profound and original thinkers as well as intelligent, high-functioning citizens?
Some of the elements that stood out were obvious; I have listed them above. And when the time came to create a new educational environment for children growing up in the 20th century, they were easily translated into the basic elements of Sudbury Valley, with stunningly successful results: a relaxed atmosphere, joy, physical mobility (lack of confinement), wide-ranging conversation that spanned topics that seemingly were unrelated to each other, camaraderie, the absence of competitiveness, and the willingness to engage in intense debates that were free of personal animosity. We wrote and spoke extensively about each of these factors, and about their essential interconnectedness.
But I confess that I missed one factor that was at the heart of ancient Greek education, and of the school. The one that Onuma put his finger on. Read his words again. Their essence lay in the last three words: “my peripatetic mindscape”.
What is a “peripatetic mindscape”? It is a mindscape which allows the mind to “walk or travel about” metaphorically; a mind that allows intellectual mobility (lack of confinement), a wide-ranging conversation with itself, one that spans topics that seemingly are unrelated to each other but which are somehow connected by the invisible strands of thought that comprise our complex mental processes. It is a mind that debates with itself, free of constraint, free of concern about risk, about taking the “wrong” path when no “right” path has revealed itself clearly. It is a mind that is flexible, ready to meet all contingencies and change through incessant movement through the realms of memory and experience. It is a mind accustomed to freedom, to the joy of discovering the intricate avenues and lanes of other people’s thoughts by communication. It is a mind perfectly attuned to the need to accommodate to a constantly changing world, to find adaptations to ever-shifting environments. It is a mind designed to maximize the likelihood of survival and meaning.
Traditional education has degenerated into a confined straitjacket of linear thinking, of acceptance of authority, of rejection of deviation, of suppression of free communication with others and with the infinite world to which we now have access. Traditional academia has made a mockery of the “Academies” of the ancient world, where peripatetic mindscapes dominated the scene, and has replaced them by the stultified dogmas of ossified disciplines. The free-ranging explorations of Aristotle, creating whole new areas of thought, giving them names, words that symbolized the collection of experiences they were investigating—“physics”, “rhetoric”, “meteorology”, “logic”, and so on—names that were meant to open up vast new fields (even the word “field” is significant here) through which to wander, these explorations he launched have become petrified, rarely yielding to the new, the expansive, the mobile.
Sudbury Valley exemplifies the modern peripatetic school in all its glory. It is a return to the environment of ancient Athens that produced the greatest outpouring of original thinking in every domain of human endeavor—art, philosophy, science, literature, government, law, administration, all created within a population of a few thousand free men. The 21st century, with its vast number of free men and women—and, following the example of Sudbury Valley, of free children—holds out the promise of creating a continental environment whose potential for creativity and human betterment is unbounded.
It’s all about peripatetic mindscapes.
1. Although not one of these eminent physicists tried to emulate these occasions in his own setting. Why not?
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