Sudbury Valley School: An Environment That Preserves and Enhances Children’s Tools for Survival in the 21st Century

 

Daniel Greenberg

 

 

I

Not long ago, an article appeared in a major urban newspaper, which labelled Sudbury Valley as a “School with No Teachers.” Soon after, the newspaper that serves the Metro-West Boston region (in which Sudbury Valley is located) featured us in a big front-page spread with the headline: “Sudbury Valley, A School With No Rules.” I’m expecting the next one to say, “Sudbury Valley, A School With No Students”! These articles, written by intelligent and conscientious newspaper reporters, brought home again the difficulty people have with getting the concept of the school. It’s something that’s been puzzling us since we opened in 1968, because the central concept of Sudbury Valley is the essence of simplicity, and people who do “get it” realize this very quickly. Most things that make sense are basically simple.

Yet, it’s very difficult for simple ideas to catch on. That’s a historical fact. It’s paradoxical, but nevertheless true. Take, for example, science. The essence of modern science is a simple idea: that physical reality is somehow describable through logic and mathematics. Experience tells us that the world is terribly complicated, and thinkers throughout the ages grappled mightily with its intricacies. Then along came people like Galileo and Newton whose message was: “We can reduce all of this to something essentially simple.” It took centuries for this notion to catch on, and even today there are lots of people who doubt its usefulness.

 

The simple idea that informs Sudbury Valley School, and that people struggle to comprehend, is basically one that comes right out of biology and evolution—namely, that Nature has provided children with the innate drive and desire, and with the necessary tools, to become effective adults. After all, the human race has been around in one form or another for over a million years, and it existed without the benefit of schools and universal curricula until quite recently. How did we survive? Nowadays, the messages we receive from every quarter bombard us with the notion that without a massive effort directed at our schools, mankind is doomed. Nobody will be equipped to handle the future. Nobody will be equipped to be an adult. It’s enough to make one wonder how on earth the human race made it for 999,000 years or so until schools came along. It’s amazing that people ever got anywhere, because supposedly if kids don’t have just the right schooling, they’ll never amount to anything! Yet, we know that throughout the animal kingdom, Nature has endowed infants, one way or another, with all the mechanisms they need (in their own ecological context) to become adults and survive. And that clearly must have included the human race as well.

Here I would like to discuss in greater detail some of the implications of this really simple observation, that all children, regardless of their age, have the necessary tools provided to them by Nature to grow up to be effective adults. In particular, I shall talk about what I consider some of these tools to be. I’m going to focus on three major ones. The first is a burning curiosity, coupled with model-building ability. Let me explain. Curiosity alone isn’t enough. What curiosity does is make you look, make you constantly explore and interact with your physical and social environment, and with the mental constructs available to you. But this alone isn’t enough as a survival mechanism, because you have to be able to do something with the results derived from your curious probing. Just probing around doesn’t get you anywhere in and of itself; rather, it serves as your mechanism for building models of reality, pictures of the world that enable you to function. That’s the only way you can actually operate in the world—by having some idea in your head of what the world is like.

Try to imagine how it would be if you had no idea what your environment is like. Say you have never been in Central Africa, and I plunk you down in some remote village. Of course you’ll be curious; you’d better be curious or you’re not going to survive very long! But in addition to being curious, you immediately have to start trying to create a workable picture of what this reality is that you’ve been put into. To be sure, different people placed in such a situation will create different pictures for themselves, because each person is going to bring whatever experiences they’ve had in their lives—their pictures of reality, their personal history, their peculiar mental process, and their ability to build models. But it’s at the core of every person’s nature to be curious, and to use the results of curious probing to create models of reality which are constantly being refined.

The second major tool all human beings possess is the ability to interact with the physical world. It’s all well and good to be curious, but how does this actually play out? One way is through the body’s sensory apparatus. Indeed, the exact configuration of the human senses deeply influences the way we see the world. If we smelled better, if we heard a different range of vibrations, if we saw different visual frequencies, we’d “know” a different world. The particular set of mechanisms that enables us to interact with the world determines much of how we proceed into adulthood.

The third major tool people possess is the ability to interact with other people. Of course, that’s mediated by the senses, but it also involves mutually interactive relationships with other people, and with their mental images and ways of understanding the world.

These three—curiosity/model building, the ability to interact with the physical world, and the ability to interact with people—are what I consider to be the basic equipment that Nature gives every child to enable them to become effective adults. I would like to examine how these are used during three different phases of life: first, in infancy; second, in adulthood today; and then, when we’ve looked at the two extremes of age, I want to discuss what they imply for the intervening period, the “school age” period that, nowadays, forms the bridge between infancy and adulthood.

 

II

How do the three basic survival tools manifest themselves in infants and what kind of implications do they have? We all know about the curiosity of infants, but we often overlook the tremendous effort infants put into building models of reality with the fruits of their curious probing. Think for a moment about a very small child crawling around on the floor. What happens when she encounters something never before experienced? Invariably, the child tries to pick it up. The child feels it. The child turns it over. The child stares at it. The child put it in her mouth—always in the mouth, because that’s a very important sensory organ! Every texture is different for a little child. Did you ever see kids play with a rug the first time they ever see one? “Ooh, this is different!” Paper? Paper is different again. Plastic? What’s happening here? They’re trying to understand what their inputs mean and put them into some kind of a picture, make sense out of them. How can a child make sense out of something the first time she sees it? Think about it. They have no experience whatsoever. There’s no pre-existing framework for this or that particular novelty. It’s an enormous challenge. There are few, if any, clues. It’s a pity that so little attention is paid to the incredibly hard work, intense concentration, and focussing that is involved in the child’s model-building, which happens without the benefit of almost any reference points or starting points. For an adult to be plunked down in Central Africa is a million times easier because adults have so many analytical model-building concepts to work with—“shelter”, “clothing”, “food”“kinship”, etc..

Infants use play as their chief aid to model-building. By “play” I mean any free-flowing activity that does not lead to an end point that is determined in advance. Why do infants keep coming back to the same object day after day after day? What do they do with it? They turn it, they try this side, that side, the other side. They’re putting it into different modalities all the time. That’s play. They don’t know what it’s going to lead to. They go on doing this until they reach a certain point where it’s been totally integrated into their current world view. Play is a central feature of the way children form their view of reality.

Often overlooked is the degree of intense concentration that children bring to their play, indeed to all their activity, from the earliest age. Children are unbelievably focussed and concentrated beings. That’s their nature. The problems parents have with children often arise from the fact that parents are constantly interrupting children’s focussed activities. It doesn’t make any difference whether they’re ten months old, or two years old. They’re doing something. Their parents want them to do something else. The parents pick them up, soothe them, try to do nice things for them, but the fact of the matter is, the parents are bugging them, because they were into something in a terribly concentrated way. The minute you realize this, your whole attitude towards childrearing has to change. It doesn’t mean you’re not going to take care of your own needs. It doesn’t mean that you’re only going to do what the child wants to. But once you realize that this isn’t “just a little child” doing “little child things”, but rather a human being intensely focussed on activities that are central to its survival, then you can make your own adjustments. You can say, “Ok, I’m sorry to interrupt with your survival needs right now, but I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” The least you can do is understand what you’re doing. Try to think of the same situation with another adult. We’re always polite with adults. “Excuse me. I have to leave the meeting now. Can we just wait one minute?” We don’t take that trivially. But with kids, we usually don’t see how we are intruding.

 

The importance of interacting with the physical world in infancy can be seen best if we think about the child’s drive to mobility. We all know how they want to touch things. But children are also frantically eager to be mobile. Why? From the tiny infant’s point of view, everything should be fine: “Here I am, four months old, sitting here. People are feeding me. They change me when I’m wet. Why do I have to move? I don’t ever have to move! It’s a great life. All my needs are taken care of.” And yet there has never been a kid born (who doesn’t have a major handicap) who hasn’t readily, eagerly, enthusiastically given up his or her lack of mobility for movement. They’re desperate to crawl. We have a grandchild living with us at home right now, and I recently watched him learn how to crawl. It was a good reminder, because I hadn’t seen this process first-hand for a while. My goodness, is it hard to crawl! You’ve got to coordinate four limbs! You’ve got to move them all and you’ve got to get them moving in a way that propels you. Some kids never learn how to crawl. Some kids go straight to walking. “Looks easier, what they’re doing. Only two limbs for that.” A lot of them go backwards. It happened to our grandson. He’s on all fours and he wants that cup and he’s doing all this stuff—and he’s going backwards! Then, somehow by accident, he turns, and he learns to combine turns and backward motion into forward propulsion! That’s like tacking against the wind. This need to explore the world impels children to use their body as an active explorer. This is a key part of human development; it’s exceptionally helpful as an aid to survival. Children use mobility with enthusiasm. They romp, they run. How many kids like to walk? We see this all the time at Sudbury Valley. The most common infraction of rules at Sudbury Valley is running in the building. Especially with the younger children. “Don’t run!” “I’m not running.” They have absolutely no idea. They don’t even think of it as running. They just can’t wait to get where they’re going. They don’t even get tired. Little kids run all over the place and they’re not tired out.

What about children’s interaction with other people during early childhood? I would like to focus on a feature of this that I don’t think has been adequately discussed. The question is, what’s the survival value of this activity? We can understand why children explore, why they need to build models, why they need to interact with the physical world. What’s the survival value of communicating with other people and interacting with them and learning how to be social with them? There are a lot of theories about this; for example, inter-personal communication makes it possible for tasks to get done that can only be carried out cooperatively, with more than one person. I don’t find this an adequate explanation; as we go through life, how many times do any of us do things that absolutely require other people to help us in its execution? Not that often. And what do infants know about large cooperative projects? There has to be more to socialization than just a question of having cooperation. I believe it’s this:

Somewhere along the line an infant comes to the realization that the other people around him are like him, that “I am a ‘person’ and you are a ‘person’.” I have no idea how this happens; the whole question of how human beings become self aware is one of the burning issues in psychology. Nobody really knows. There are even debates about whether animals are self-aware. But the fact of the matter is, every human being becomes self aware at a certain point and, more importantly, becomes aware that there are other selfs like her. Now this has tremendous consequences, because a child knows, instinctively, that she’s struggling to understand the world. She knows that because it’s her full-time job, all her waking hours. And one of the things that dawns on her as she interacts with adults is that other people are having the same struggle. Other people are trying to figure out the world, and other people have actually figured out something about the world! The big advantage children gain by communicating with other people is plugging into another mind that has already done a lot of work, and utilizing the results of that other brain’s work to help their own work. It’s almost unbelievably miraculous. That’s what we constantly do as parents. We’re constantly interacting with our children, talking to them and explaining the world to them, even when we’re not being didactic. “Here, have a glass of milk.” What does, “Here, have a glass of milk” mean to an infant? “Wouldn’t you like to have this?” or “Let’s go outside now”—all of these things are constantly being said to the child, and the child in turn at some point realizes that here’s somebody who’s figured out things about food, figured out things about the outdoors, figured out things about this or that, and if he could plug into their brains, if he could understand what they’re saying, he would literally expand the capacity of his mind to understand things.

I want to make it very clear that I’m not talking here about a conscious act. I’m not talking about a one year old saying, “If I plug into somebody else’s brain, I’ll be a lot smarter.” I’m talking about a survival mechanism, one that every child has, and one that enables each individual person to do something phenomenal, which is to use collective wisdom and collective knowledge. Humans can pool the results of their model building. So as far as I can tell, when a child is learning how to talk, they’re not thinking, “Oh, it will be good for me to learn how to talk so I can move a heavy object with someone else, or build a ship with other people.” They can’t project into the future about activities that require a lot of people do. But they can see the immediate gain of being able to look at their mother and think, “Oh my, she’s figured something out, and I can actually clue into it by talking!” This task of learning to communicate is something that children all pursue doggedly. They just have to do it. And if they’re in a home where different people talk different languages, they’ll learn to speak them all, right away, at two, at three. They learn different languages because they want to tie into these people, they want to understand. And to them it’s just a matter of, “That’s how I plug into this person, with a ‘oui’ and a ‘non’, and to this one with a ‘yes’ and a ‘no”’. That’s all.

 

III

Now let’s turn to adulthood in the modern world. Let’s see how the three survival tools relate to an adult’s situation today. But first, a little detour. Something happened in the industrial era. The human race in a sense got “out of sync”. Some very creative people figured out ways to better the living conditions of masses of people by producing a lot of material goods through the introduction of the factory system. These were extremely imaginative people, brilliant innovators, inventors, etc. They figured this out, but they didn’t figure out computers. Which means that they couldn’t figure out a way to make all the repetitive routine actions that underlie mass production happen automatically. That’s an accident of history. Somebody might have invented computers first and then invented mass production : “Hey! We’ve got computers. Let’s try to use them to replace people weaving cloth.” But it didn’t happen that way. Instead, human weaving was replaced by complicated machines, with flying shuttles and wheels and gears, which needed human operators engaged in tiring and monotonous activities. For about two hundred years—a mere blink of the eye in the span of history—the human race was able to increase dramatically the production of food, clothes, shelter and other essentials; but, in order to do this, an army of “mechanical people” was required as companions to the inanimate machines. There was widespread awareness of this paradoxical problem at the beginning of the 19th century. People don’t like to be machines. Everybody knew that. So how does one transform them into semi-machines? The result was a social system in which a kind of “deal” was struck: a few people were permitted to be creative—an elite—while the great mass of people were placed in highly restrictive situations so that they would succumb to being robotic much of the time. That happened mostly in Western Europe and North America: the mass of people were relegated to a kind of imprisonment, in order to create material benefits for the whole society.

I would like to add a couple of observations. One has to do with the way the creative elite was treated. Many never went to school at all. Others went to select schools with curricula that were quite revealing. Not science. Not much math. Not biology. Not much history. But a whole lot of Latin and Greek literature, philosophy, and composition. It was the essence of a “useless” education; the least possible relationship to the real everyday world out there—but it created people who basically had their minds free and unencumbered. Nothing was holding them back from being highly imaginative and taking bold new initiatives in the real world! The second observation relates to the question of why the United States has been in the lead—and is in fact widening the lead—in the number of highly creative people in its population, despite the fact that the mass education system here is so hidebound and oppressive. My theory is that this country is the world’s leading innovator precisely because our schools are so “bad”! Everybody talks about this. The French have better schools. The Germans have better schools. The Japanese have better schools. They all have better schools. All of their kids do better on tests. All of their kids are right up there. And look at our kids. They don’t study nearly as much, or spend as much time in class. And I say, “Bravo! That’s the answer to the question, of course.” We have a lot of kids in our school systems who are zoned out. They don’t pay attention. They’re not as serious as the Western European and Japanese students. And so they float their way through school, one way or another, and then they come out and say, “Ok, now what am I going to do with my life? Hey, let’s build a new kind of computer! Let’s invent an electron laser!” And other dreamers give them the financial support to do it.

 

When we get to the post-industrial era, where we are today, the survival tools that nature has given us turn out to be the key survival mechanisms for adults, as well as for infants, just as evolution intended. The kind of socio-economic reality we are in absolutely demands that people be good effective model-builders. (That’s just another way of saying “creative”.) People today have to be able to look at situations that are unusual, adapt to new realities, adapt to change, be flexible, all of which are different ways of saying, “Come into new situations, be curious about them, build new models, be free, and let your mind expand to do original things.” That’s the bread and butter of the post-industrial age. To be sure, adults today have all grown up in a transition period from an industrial to a post-industrial culture. In the last decades of the 20th century, a lot of work situations were still industrial in form. But these are rapidly vanishing. Adults functioning in the 21st century in this country will have to be able to meet reality day by day with a flexibility that is unheard of in our experience. They have to be artists at life. They have to be able to respond with understanding and comprehension to the emergent reality around them. The ability to interact freely and openly with the physical world becomes terribly important. And the knowledge and skill to relate in a productive and positive manner with other people, people who have a huge variety of skills and interests and backgrounds, are clearly essential in the emerging global village. Every sign points to a future in which human beings will be satisfied with nothing less than a society of equals who can interact with each other with mutual respect.

The transition we are now undergoing to that kind of society is exceptionally difficult, and we’re going to have to bear that in mind when we talk about the school-age years. It is something that politicians, economists, businessmen, and social scientists are thoroughly aware of. People who are now working with the largest corporations in the world are all coming up with the same conclusions: that in order to stay competitive, every company has to work on according much more respect and much more voice and empowerment to the various people working in its various sections. Even an enormous corporation is basically a collection of groups of individuals who must treat each other with mutual respect, and have a real voice in defining the mission that defines their work.

 

IV

Let’s turn, finally, to the “in-between” years that span the gap between infancy and post industrial adulthood. By now it should become clear that the extremes have a lot to suggest about the middle. You start out with infants who are curious about everything and are fabulous model builders, children eager to learn, eager to work on understanding the world virtually all their waking hours. You want to end up with adults who haven’t lost this ability one bit—adults who haven’t lost the ability to play, who haven’t lost their creativity, and that light in their eyes that they had when they were little children. What should be done in the middle years? Indeed, what choice is there? You’ve got to let them continue being what they were in infancy so that they will continue being the same into adulthood. How can you do otherwise? How can you expect a child who has these tools in infancy, and who can function most effectively if she has these tools as an adult, to make a smooth transition from infancy to adulthood via an intervening 12-or-more- year environment where her curiosity is suppressed, where somebody else’s agenda is put in front of her agenda, where outside assessments replace the internal feedback and reevaluation that’s part of every creative process? The only thing you can attain from suppressing these tools is adults who can no longer use these tools to their maximum advantage, from sheer habit of twelve, fifteen, or eighteen years.

So, first and foremost, the extreme ages demand that during the middle, school-age period kids have to be left to their own devices, the wonderful devices that brought them from birth to the age of three or four where they can walk, they can talk, they can communicate with other kids, they can play with other kids, they can organize activities, they can concentrate, and they can focus. Leave them alone! They figure out for themselves what’s important. You don’t have to tell them that reading is important. You didn’t have to tell them that speaking was important. Is that what you did when they were one year old? “Talk! It’s important! You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t learn how to talk!” The same goes for reading. You don’t have to tell them. They’ll understand that it’s really important. And they’ll also find out that a lot of stuff we call “important” isn’t really; that often we’re not being truthful. Trigonometry is essential? What a joke! When was the last time you went to someone and asked, “What is cosecant squared plus secant squared? I don’t have a handle on it.” Really important! Do you think a second language is all that important for everyone? Sure, people who know two, three, or more languages have a wonderful skill. But the fact is that most people all over the world want to learn English, because just about everything important is being done in English, or translated into English. What language does a Japanese scientist who makes a great discovery publish in? He publishes in English! And so does the Finnish scientist, and the Hungarian and Slovakian and Romanian and Italian. Of course they have their own journals, but most of what they print in their own journals is stuff that they couldn’t, or didn’t bother to, get printed in English. Most people don’t really need two languages. I’m not against two languages. I’m just against the lie that it’s absolutely essential, that if you’re an American growing up in the modern world, in the new global village, you have to learn more than one language.

Let’s consider interactions with the physical world. This is such a big thing. Infants start out just so excited about reaching out to everything around them. As adults we want them to continue to be in touch with their environment. We want adults who love Nature, who enjoy the outdoors, who love to hike, camp, walk. So what should happen in the middle years? Should we confine school-age children to classrooms much of the day? What insanity! What does a kid like better than to be free to move around and touch the great wide world? Yet, we take school-age children who treasure their mobility and label them “hyperactive”; often, all too often, we drug them. It’s a tragedy. Kids love to move. What normal kid wants to sit in a chair—unless he’s sitting in front of a very exciting video game? Freedom of movement. At Sudbury Valley, the openness of the campus is just as essential, just as central as anything else. It embodies the freedom of children to maneuver in their environment in order to interact with it.

Then, there’s interacting with people. One evening, recently, at Sudbury Valley, a student was in a parent discussion group in which people were talking about the school. They asked him what the most important feature of the school was for him. “Is it your freedom to choose whatever you wanted to do with your day?” To my surprise and delight, he said, “That’s not it at all. I could stay at home for that kind of freedom. The key is the democratic structure of the school.” I had never heard a student express that before. I had gotten so tired of saying that myself, to blank faces, that I had stopped saying it at all. He went on to explain what he meant—namely, that it was essential to his development to be in an environment where he was treated with complete respect as an individual; not being patronized, not being bullied by adults, not being bullied by anybody, but having structures in place which guaranteed him a full and equal voice in the development of his community and its culture. Indeed, the School Meeting in Sudbury Valley School is the heart of the school. It runs the school. It decides all the rules, draws up the budget, authorizes every dollar spent, hires the staff, and oversees all the judicial proceedings. The democratic structure is central to the school; it says to every student in the school from age four and up: “You have a voice. You are as empowered in the school, you are as respected in the school, as every other individual, regardless of age, gender or whatever.” As an adult, I cannot tell a kid to shut up. I cannot tell a kid to get out of a room. If a kid is bothering me, I can file a judicial complaint against him just as he can file one against me—and I’ve certainly been filed against over the years! There’s nothing hokey about this. The kids understand it. They understand that I cannot treat them any differently than they can treat me or each other.

The atmosphere of mutual respect and equality is really the underpinning for all the rest, because it makes no sense to create a society in which kids are free to govern what they can do with their minds, but not equally empowered to govern what they can do with their environment and with each other. I can’t be a “Principal” and say, “Ok, when it comes to spending money, I’ll make the decisions. When it comes to allotting rooms, I’ll make the decisions. But you can do whatever you want with your time.” Kids understand what that means. It means, unequivocally: “I’m the boss. I have now given you the privilege of doing something with your time. But I can withdraw that because I reign supreme.” In a democratic school, the only way to get something done is through the mutual cooperation of equal people who respect each other equally. That’s central. You can’t have it any other way. That’s not a “piece” of the picture; it’s the heart of the picture. That’s why the democratic structures of the school are absolutely integral to the school. Drop one of them, and you might as well drop the rest, as far as I’m concerned.

The biggest thrill is to walk through the halls and have children age four, ten, fourteen look you straight in the eye. They never avert their faces. Try walking into a regular school as an adult. You’re the “enemy”. At Sudbury Valley, they greet you. They answer, “Fine, how are you today?” if you ask, “How are you?” You kid around with them, they kid around with you. They don’t think they know as much about life as I do, but neither do forty-year-olds. Does that mean I should have more votes? Maybe each person should have votes equal to their age in years. Four year olds have four votes, five year olds have five votes, etc.

People who come to our school sometimes come with questions like: “What’s the gender situation in your school?” And we look at them and wonder, “What do you mean?” “Well, do girls get treated differently than boys? Are they encouraged to do this or that?” It’s as if we’re talking a different language. “I don’t think of people as ‘girls’ and ‘boys’. It’s not even a category for us. There are girls who play basketball and climb trees and there are boys who play with dolls. Who cares? Young or old, male or female, rich or poor, black or white, Christian or Jew, they’re all people, all equally empowered members of the school community. And it’s by functioning in this kind of community during the school-age years that children create for themselves a smooth transition from the human interactions of early childhood to the democratic, egalitarian human interactions that define a free adult society.

 

V

At Sudbury Valley School, children flourish as they freely apply their survival tools to everyday existence, becoming ever more adept at the art of living as the years go by. It might be helpful to take a brief look at some of the ways the use of these tools is reflected in the daily life of the school.

There are few generalizations that can be made about daily life at school, but one is that the odds are that younger kids will be doing what we identify as “playing” most of the day, just about every day. It goes without saying that there is no stigma attached to playing in our school. To give you an example, one day I walked into a room where there was a group of five and six year olds. There must have been about six of them, playing the most elaborate game that you could possibly imagine with Barbie dolls. When I asked them, “What are you doing?” they answered that they were arranging a wedding, and at the moment they were waiting for another girl to bring Ken, the groom. Meanwhile, they were dressing the bridesmaids. It blew my mind because this was such an intense, focussed, serious activity. They were having fun, but it was very meaningful to them. It was not a “child’s game” for them. Some time ago, I was reading a psychology book written by a very perceptive Scotsman who went on and on about the virtues of play. That was the first half of his book. He described all these wonderful aspects of play and I thought that, finally, I had found a psychologist who really understands. Then I got to page 55 or 60 and he says that this is all wonderful for kids up to the age of nine or ten, but after that, of course, they’ve got to stop this kind of activity and get on with the more serious academic school activities, like algebra and trigonometry. It turned out that he had missed the whole point! Play is elaborate, play is complex and it goes on through all our life—the more the better.

Students who are older in age tend to engage more and more in pure conversation. At school, you will often see teenagers spending huge amounts of time talking, talking, talking to each other. When they leave school after they’ve talked all day, they’re on the phone at home and they talk till two in the morning. Then they come in the next day and they talk. When they go on a camping trip, what do they do? They talk all night because they haven’t had enough of a chance to talk! And it’s all terribly important to them. Consider a teenage girl calling up a friend of hers to ask what she’s going to be wearing to the party tomorrow night; a typical kind of teenage phone call. A conversation on that subject can go on for hours. They might call up other friends to check, etc. I know that my attitude towards things like that used to be, many years ago: “This is absurd. What can be sillier than teenage girls talking about what they’re going to wear to a party!” After a while I came to see that this is not really what’s happening at all. These conversations are part of a very complicated and elaborate process of understanding socialization. That’s what they’re really talking about: What are the implications of wearing this? What are people going to think? What are their friends going to think? How’s that going to make them appear? What these kids are doing is trying to build a useful social model for themselves, and that’s a long tedious process. They’ve got to spend a lot of time on the phone, a lot of time with their friends, and it’s no less serious or meaningful than a bunch of adult males talking about a stock swap and a takeover, which is just as silly if you think about it.

Then there’s age mixing, which we have called our “secret weapon”. One of the beautiful things about age mixing is that it enables kids to interact with people who are somewhat ahead of them, but not so far ahead that they’re not really in the same mental sphere. Part of the trouble adults have interacting with children is illustrated by a wonderful story that happened with a friend’s seven-year-old child, who came to him one day and said, “Daddy, where do I come from?” My friend had been dreading this “birds and bees” thing for some time, hoping it wouldn’t come up, and finally his kid comes and asks him. So he takes a deep breath and gives him a whole long, pedantic, explanation about the seed and the egg and all the rest. At the end of the whole story, his child looks at him and says, “Dad, don’t be silly. John comes from New York. Where do I come from?” It’s an archetypal story, because as adults, our world isn’t as geared into the world of seven year olds as the world of a nine year old is, no matter how hard we try. With age mixing, the seven year old can benefit not only from contact with other seven year olds, who are usually exchanging the same degree of information—or misinformation—but also from contact with nine and ten year olds, who have a new kind of misinformation, but a kind that is still meaningful and accessible to the seven year old. It’s a very fruitful interaction, and it goes on all the time.

What one does in our school is respect these conversations, and watch with excitement as the children develop ever-improved models of reality as time goes by. That’s tremendously important. It’s the same respect I’ve been talking about all along. If two adults are having a conversation—let’s say they’re talking about some aspect of economics—and I happen to walk by and overhear one of them saying something that I know to be just plain wrong, I would not stop and say, “Oh, that is stupid. You’ve got it all backwards. Let me explain to you how it really is.” Never. I know very few adults who are that rude, and those who are don’t have a lot of friends. But people feel free to do this with kids all the time. At Sudbury Valley, we treat kids like adults. If I walk by, and I hear a nine year old who’s explaining to a seven year old, very elaborately, how something works, and it’s totally wrong, it would never occur to me to interfere. If the seven year old comes to me and says, “Is it right?” I’ll tell him truthfully what I think. But if he hasn’t asked my opinion, I figure that when he’s nine he’ll ask an eleven year old, and eventually he’ll probably get the right story. I learned that lesson very early from our son who, when he was very young, had somebody whom he admired who was five years older than he was. Whenever he had a question in physics—I’m a physicist, by the way—he’d go to Ernie. Never to me. One day he came to me and said, “Would you explain this and this to me?” I explained it to him and he said, “That’s wrong.” “What do you mean, that’s wrong?” “Ernie said something different.” That’s when I learned that there’s no competing with the Ernie’s of this world. I figured that eventually either my son is going to arrive at a better answer or he’ll forget the question.

There is no activity at Sudbury Valley that is considered better or worse than any other activity. There never has been, and there never will be. I’m always interested in the way people grapple with this issue. Usually, if people from a standard educational setting visit our school and see five kids sitting and reading books, they’ll say, “Isn’t that wonderful? They’re reading at their age level and they’re doing something academic. Splendid!” They can be reading the stupidest children’s books, but as long as they’re published nicely by legitimate publishers and written by specialists, the most enthusiastic praise will be forthcoming. But if the same group of kids is sitting excitedly in front of the latest multi-media video game which has just been released, and they’ve just loaded it into the computer and they’re trying to understand what makes it work and why this is better than the last video game—the visitors will almost invariably say, “This is a mind-numbing activity.” What if one of the kids playing video games goes on to be the next Bill Gates? That’s different, right?

The role of adult staff in a democratic school is not easy to describe. A staff person is basically someone who’s there to help keep the school running and to fill needs that are expressed explicitly by the school community. One has to be really very sensitive to these needs; you can’t impose your own view of what they are. In addition, staff have to provide the community with useful role models of an adult. Also, staff have to like children, but as people, not as “children”. It’s very hard to find adults who respect kids as full-blown people. We once had a visitor who actually understood Sudbury Valley pretty well, because it fit in with his personal philosophy. We were having a conversation, and a seven year old walked by. The visitor reached out and patted him on the head. The seven year old bristled and looked at him and said, “Please don’t do that.” He immediately understood. He said, “Of course. That’s patronizing.” Adults “pat kids on the head” a million times a day without necessarily touching them physically, as when they say to children, “How good! How nice! That’s such a wonderful thing that you did!” That doesn’t mean one shouldn’t be encouraging, but these are the kinds of sensitive areas one has to deal with in our school. They’re very delicate. If you’re constantly grading kids, constantly showing them that you’re judging what they’re doing to be good (or bad), they’ll pick up the clues and you’ll end up in a fairly standard teacher- student relationship. On the other hand, if a kid comes up all excited and says, “Look! I managed to tie my shoes myself for the first time!” you’re obviously not going to say, “Who gives a damn?” You’d react the way you’d react to an adult who comes by and says, “Look, I caught my first five pound bass.” And hopefully, if you have a good relationship with that adult, you’ll say, “Hey, that’s neat!” even if you’re holding your nose and wishing he went somewhere else with it. It’s a hard row to hoe. Staff members at Sudbury Valley are always talking among ourselves about what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong. We’re not used to it. It’s not natural to us. So we have to be constantly correcting ourselves.

 

VI

A final word: When all is said and done, how do we measure the success of a school? Indeed, what do we call a successful life? This is something everybody has to grapple with personally, not just for their kids, but for themselves. You’re not going to decide it for your kids anyway. Ultimately your kids are going to decide for themselves when they grow up. Every single human being has to come up with an answer. My answer is for me and your answer is for you. I can’t dictate the answer to everybody, or anybody. For some people a successful life is a life in which there is a lot of achievement, a lot of recognition, a Nobel prize. For other people it’s a lot of money, a lot of wealth. For still others it’s a whole gamut of things—holiness, spirituality—everybody has their own goal. But one thing I’m sure of. There’s no single answer to that question. That’s an individual question with an individual answer particular to each person.

I cannot begin to understand an educational system that will seek to put one underlying answer to that question—namely, that the successful life is that of a person who has prepared himself with a “well-rounded education”, who knows 10,000 facts about American history, etc. What kind of approach is that? If you want to do all that, that’s fine. But that’s your decision. What authority gives somebody the right to make that decision for the whole population? It runs counter to everything we believe in, everything the world is tending toward. The only people who have that kind of arrogance are academicians and educators, nobody else.

What a school like Sudbury Valley does is allow each child to formulate that question for themselves as they start growing up: “What is it that I want to call a successful life for myself?” By the time they leave the school, they’ve already grappled with that question. Of course they’ll keep grappling with it all their lives, but they’re used to thinking about it through all their years of growth and development.

 

 

 

 

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