Sudbury Schools – The Promise

 

Alan White

 

 

 

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever does. (Margaret Mead)

 

 

I

For me, the promise was this: that the ideal expressed in our Declaration of Independence—“all men are created equal”—would be extended to children.

To be sure, an ideal is not political reality until it is formulated into a law. Historically “created equal” was applied to persons who were considered “responsible citizens”. At that time the founders of our country felt that the only ones who had demonstrated responsible behavior were white males, over 21, who were educated, and were either landowners, or owners of businesses. The founders’ justification for the limits placed on equality was their fear of mob rule, which had been the weakness of the ancient Athenian attempt at democracy. Nevertheless, the founding of the United States was a major step toward the ideal that all men are created equal at a time when all the great powers were ruled by an oligarchy.

Since 1776 many other steps have been taken toward equality by the former colonies of Britain. When enough people in power were willing to support those who were attempting to claim their right to equality, they were included. Women had to wait a hundred forty-four years until 1920 to gain their right to vote and are still seeking equality of opportunity and equal pay for equal work. It took a Civil War between the slave-holding South and the Northern states to begin to consider African-Americans equal to white citizens. When a majority in Congress wanted to prevent the spread of slavery into new territories, those in the minority wanted to protect their declared right to own slaves and to bring slavery to the expanding nation. To protect this perceived right, they saw no alternative but to withdraw from the United States and establish their own country. The Civil War was fought to prevent their withdrawal.

Emancipation of the slaves during the Civil War was an attempt to weaken the South by declaring the slaves in the rebellious states to be free, but there was no recognition of their equality within the Union. African-Americans did not gain full rights until the last half of the twentieth century, through civil disobedience and with the support of those who espoused their cause.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold, which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thrust for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers . . . have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. (Martin Luther King)

 

 

II

Each step we have taken toward the ideal of equality has benefited us as a nation; broadening of the vote to include all males over twenty-one and, later, all women over twenty-one, abolishing slavery, extending full rights to African-Americans and other minorities. The right to vote was lowered to eighteen on the basis of the idea that if young people could be drafted to fight, they were entitled to vote. Giant steps have been taken on the way to make created equal a reality. In addition, we are becoming more and more equal as we become more multi-cultural, to the enrichment of all.

Every step by which the citizens of this country extended the franchise to those who had not previously enjoyed it has truly led to a “more perfect union”.  As a nation, we have come to realize that the destinies of all citizens are indeed tied together with each other.

America can be proud of its achievements, but our job is not finished. We are approaching the ideal, but all those under the age of eighteen are still not considered responsible enough to have a voice, and need to be dependent on the state or their parents to decide what is good for them. The control they have of their own life is very limited, and this is often met by resentment from many, especially teenagers, and by anti-social and rebellious behavior.

Punitive measures whether administered by police, teachers, spouses or parents have well-known standard effects: (1) escapeeducation has its own name for that: truancy; (2) counterattackvandalism on schools and attacks on teachers; (3) apathya sullen do-nothing withdrawal. The more violent the punishment, the more serious the by-products. (B. F. Skinner)

As a society we all depend on others to protect and support us. We have local and national police departments, fire departments, and a military to protect us from external forces. We have a court system and other government agencies. Because we are a democracy, those who govern and protect us are under our control, if we are over eighteen, or at least under the control of our representatives in the government. But that is not the case with children under eighteen, who do not control their “protectors”.

We expect parent, school, and state to protect children, the more so the younger they are. But parent, school, and state also have the responsibility to help children to become independent adult citizens in an adult society. How does one balance the two—protection and independence?

As we all know there is much advice given on this conundrum but the advice is often contradictory and has varied over time. Corporal punishment, spare the rod and spoil the child, is still legal in some states. Most of us remember the humiliation that we felt as a child and do not want to subject children to that type of discipline. But on the other hand we feel that we are responsible for children’s behavior. Parent, school, and state have to do a balancing act, which is an art form.

 

III

There are two sources that may be helpful in resolving this puzzle. One is our historical development, that I have cited. The more we have given up control of others the stronger we have become as a nation. The second is the Sudbury Valley School (SVS) experiment, which started forty years ago when adults, staff and parents, shared control with students to the great benefit of all.

All through our history, limiting the rights of others was always based on the notion that those seeking those rights were not capable, not experienced enough, too emotional, too immature to be given equal rights. We now know that those in power have so often been proven wrong in their assumptions. Is it not possible that they are wrong about children under the age of eighteen?

In Sudbury schools, children have been given full rights and responsibility for helping to run the school on an equal basis with the staff. The staff gained a much more rewarding relationship with students, and the students gained more control over their own lives and a better understanding of our judicial system and what it means to live in a democracy.

All schools need to be a model of what it means to be part of a democracy; it makes no sense for those who run the schools to teach about democracy when they are so autocratic. It is the school’s culture that educates.

Consider this: In 1968, Sudbury Valley set its tuition at the average cost of education in the public schools in the surrounding area. Over forty years the cost of public school education has increased dramatically, while SVS’s cost per student has risen with inflation and is now less than one half the cost of the same public schools. Moreover, over 40 years, the physical plant at SVS has been vastly improved—including upgrading the main building, grounds and a major renovation of a barn—while the public schools have deteriorated, in many cases being replaced within a generation. Inclusion of students in decision-making has clearly been more effective economically than exclusion has been. Since at SVS the students outnumber the staff by more than fifteen to one and can outvote them, it’s hard to make the case that at least a majority of students are not fiscally responsible.

At SVS there are clearly written rules, kept in a Law Book available to all, governing all administrative policies and behavior. It is worth quoting a student who transferred into SVS from a public school at the age of twelve:

The thing that I really liked about it was that all the rules were spelled out . . . so when I came to Sudbury Valley, the first thing I did was read . . . the Law Book and all the school’s rules.

Probably the main reason that students trust the laws is their participation in making and enforcing those laws and their ability to change them if they feel they are not working fairly.

Because the laws are perceived as fair even the youngest child (enrollees are as young as four) feels safe. Since there is no attempt to separate the students by age there has to be a culture that protects the weak from the strong. Any student can write-up, or ask help if they cannot as yet write, a complaint to the Judicial Committee (JC). To write-up means that the JC can be petitioned to protect them through the laws governing the school.

Indeed, it is a school’s culture that educates, and in these schools the culture is one that insists that each student must respect the rights of others and obey the laws of the school, state, and country. It is the culture of the Sudbury schools that protects the rights of each member and if it became known that any member was aware of a violation of the rules as it pertains to safety and did not write a complaint, it would be considered irresponsible behavior on their part.

 

 

IV

The question becomes, is it possible for children, especially young children, to set their own agenda? Given the fact that they are inexperienced, how will they know what is important for them to learn to become educated?

Although the Sudbury schools are a true democracy and closer to the ideal of “all men are created equal” the basic question remains: does such an education produce responsible adults that are prepared to take on an adult’s responsibility? Producing responsible adults has to be the test of any school system and by responsibility one has to mean people who respect the laws of the land, people who are capable of standing on their own two feet, able to be find a meaningful job or qualified to go on to higher education.

So how do these students of Sudbury Valley School meet the above criteria? The simple answer is: very well! A significant number have become entrepreneurs with or without a college education. At SVS those who choose to go on to higher education have been able to succeed at that level. What is most remarkable is the focus that they can bring to their task and how quickly they can meet new challenges; they know how to learn, to find information, to seek help when they need it—behavior that every one of us exhibits if we are after something we want badly enough. In the preschool years every infant shows this characteristic, which is essential if they are to learn how to crawl, walk, feed themselves and talk. We also see this characteristic exhibited by athletes who drive themselves relentlessly to reach star status. They spent countless hours of intense focus to hone their skills. They are a joy to watch as they make the seemingly impossible look easy. Their competitors are doing everything they can to distract them to no avail. It is being in control of your own destiny, not having to follow someone else’s agenda that is the key to focus.

So how do Sudbury school students get into college without grades and courses? How do the colleges know that the applicant is prepared for college level work? Do grades and tests really indicate that students are prepared for college? Some colleges require SAT exams; if that is required, the students prepare for them. Some colleges have found that the SAT is not a good indicator of being prepared for college level work, and they have developed other criteria, such as written essays. Writing is a nonverbal form of talking and it turns out that Sudbury students have highly developed writing skills.

In fact, their verbal skills are well honed, since conversation is one of the things they are able to engage in freely. Children learn from others, children and staff, and they learn to be comfortable in interacting with them, since they are not controlled by others. In the traditional schools of which I am aware, conversation between students is discouraged in class and conversation between teacher and student is rarely interactive in any real sense of the word.

Perhaps the following quotation taken from an interview some years ago with a now world famous physicist will give you a better understanding of why conversation, computer games, and age mixing are so powerful.

I should say, of course, that the most educational thing in the world is conversation. That does have the property that it is complex, interactive, and ought to have a low cost, although often between children and adults it has a high cost and high risk for the children, but it should not and need not.

Apart from conversation, all the complex interactive things require a huge initial investment, except video games, and I think video games are a breakthrough in human culture for that reason. They are not some transient, fringe aspect of culture; they are destined to be an important means of human learning for the rest of history, because of this interactive element.

Why is being interactive so important? Because interacting with a complex entity is what life and thinking and creativity and art and science are all about. (An interview with Dr David Deutsch by Sarah Lawrence)

 

A Final Word

Introducing a new model of education is a daunting task, because the established model is so entrenched. The voices for change are few, because the established model has so often been identified, by those who have been most successful as adults, as a major factor contributing to their success. New ideas are difficult to hear when you are comfortable with your preconceptions, as anyone within the system knows who has tried to convince one’s colleagues.

Educational discourse, especially among the educated, is so laden with preconceptions that it is practically impossible to introduce an idea that does not fit into traditional categories. (“Teaching is a Subversive Activity” by Neil Postman & Charles Weingartner)

Yet, change is possible and the voices for change are gathering support.

  We can’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can make for us or spare us. (Marcel Proust)

 

 

 

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