A School for Today
Every one of us here this evening has something in common. We have all come here because we are thinking about a subject which is very much in the public eye and is very much a subject of controversy right now. In this country, at this moment, there is a tremendous amount of discussion and thought about education. This stems from what we generally perceive as inadequacies in our present educational system, and its failures to satisfy its clients. Right now schools, no matter how they describe themselves, and no matter where you are in the United States, and no matter whether they are public or private, come in one basic model, with little differences in some of the trim, and they are really very much like each other.
I am here this evening to explain a school to you that has very little, if anything, in common with the schools you have been exposed to, except that it is a place in which people pursue their education from childhood into maturity. But before I begin to describe the Sudbury Valley School, I would like to look back to the mid-‘60s, another time in which schools and education were on everyone’s minds, a time in which a group of people came to form a new idea about what school should be.
The group of people started by looking at society’s values, to determine what values should guide its schools. Our society, which is extraordinarily heterogeneous, also has many over-arching common principles. They are not only common to both the ‘60s and the ‘90s, they are common to people in all parts of the political spectrum. Democrats may disagree on a good many things with republicans; republicans for Bush may disagree violently with republicans committed to Pat Buchanan, or democrats committed to Jerry Brown, but I think all of them, and all of us, have a lot that we agree on, and these are the things which help to make up our common culture. Disagreement may surface about what our ideals mean in practice, but very little disagreement comes up about the ideals.
I would like to talk about these values for a moment. In America in the ‘90s, as in America a generation or two ago, or a century or two ago, there is tremendous and over-whelming respect for and belief in self-government as a principle. In New England, we see it in the governments of many of our towns: they are governed directly by their inhabitants through a Town Meeting, which makes all the administrative decisions and delegates all the responsibilities for town functions. In our states and in our country, we choose a representative form of government, and every person does not have immediate say over every decision – but every person has as much say as they wish over who the people are who represent us in making the decisions. Many of us belong to social or civic organizations of various kinds. Most are governed the same way – democratically. It is not an accident. We jealously protect our right and ability to make our own decisions. And this right and ability, which we tend to take somewhat for granted in this country, is not an automatic outcome of being born human. Watch the struggles in Eastern Europe to understand responsibility and individual power, to learn how to be free, and it is clear that we didn’t become self-governing haphazardly. It took an enormous struggle and the liberties we value still take constant vigilance.
In the United States, we believe that everyone must have an equal opportunity to prove themselves. It is of course clear to every one of us that equal opportunity does not make equal outcome – it merely gives everyone the same sort of chance to reach their own potential. We know that equal opportunity has not been perfectly achieved yet, but it guides our ideals, whether we feel the government should further it or the individual must reach out and grab it on his or her own. Because we feel so strongly about equal opportunity, we also have an extraordinarily highly mobile society. Rags to riches, or riches to rags; both are common stories.
And we do not expect everyone to be alike. In fact, quite the opposite. We expect tremendous diversity in our population, and I think more than any other society, we revel in it. We give cultures within our culture tremendous space so that they can assimilate, they can become American, and they can still retain ethnicity.
To us it is self-evident that every member of the community will be a contributing member of the community. Each person will pull their own weight, and each person is expected to contribute to the common good – through good works, through taxes, through political action – in a myriad of structured and unstructured ways.
We hold the rights in our Bill of Rights to be, well, sacred. Freedom to assemble, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of dissent, privacy, even the right to bear arms. These are not universal values. But they are universal American values.
And we feel that these rights extend to the right to equality under the law: Every one is entitled to their day in court. Often it makes us groan with the burden of supporting the courts, but very few of us would want a system that was more efficient if it compromised due process; we all pretty much agree that it is much better to occasionally not punish the guilty than it is to infringe on the rights of the accused.
And of course, this is a country where creativity is prized. That value has spurred invention and innovation in every walk of life, from the time of the earliest settlements, to the remarkable leap of creativity that lead to the conception of the American government in the eighteenth century, and to our development into the most important power in the world. And it is one of the reasons that our society is the envy of most of the world.
This is the culture into which the Sudbury Valley School was born. How should children be best educated to be citizens of this society? What kind of school can produce citizens who are most likely to hold to and raise to a high level, the values that the society has, was the fundamental question facing the founders of Sudbury Valley, and I think it is the fundamental question about schools today. I think it is why I am here today. Getting the answer has become ever more urgent, but meanwhile the answer is beginning to seem ever more obvious. Sudbury Valley is a school meant to embody these fundamental American ideals in a way that no other school ever has. It is an institution that has fully examined what it means to respect the individual, and to have faith in the individual’s power to exercise responsibility.
How, we asked, can a school best foster creativity? The answer was amazingly simple – and amazingly complex. People are learners. They are born already working on their education! They are born curious – and striving. How else can you explain the unbelievable development in the first few years of life from a pretty much helpless infant, with only the most fundamental communication skill, into a walking, talking toddler whose universe expands exponentially from month to month. They are born creative. No one at all has to explain learning processes to an infant. You can’t stop them, and each one learns differently: how to roll over, or to sit up, how to explore with their fingers, to stand, to walk, to say a few words and then a few sentences, and then express an infinite number of thoughts, many complex and abstract. The infant begins life learning in the ways we all use when we are learning for our own pleasure. They explore. They imitate. They experience. They build more complex world views from trial and error. It is simple to understand, but terribly difficult to accept, that the individual is best served at every age by allowing that native curiousity and creativity to be undeflected and uninterrupted. That the best schooling may be the schooling that least impedes the mind’s free exploration of the environment. I want to read the description one of our graduates has of both why learning is naturally bound to take place, and how an individual’s models of the world are expanded. “Learning and playing. I’m sure many other people have thought about the process of a kid’s adaptation to his environment. I think it’s important to have fun when you’re a kid in whatever you do. It’s part of the growing process. I suspect that kids when they play are trying out constructs, mental constructs, that they see other people using. They’re not really in a position in the real world to use those constructs, so they play and imitate them and figure them out. If it wasn’t fun, they probably wouldn’t do it. The motivation for figuring out all this stuff around you is that it feels good to do it.
“We have to understand the world around us because certain information that we need to survive cannot be passed down through DNA and genes. So we have a body of knowledge which we gain after we’re born, which is really a cultural knowledge. You learn it as an individual, but it’s passed on. That’s really what we need to survive, and if it wasn’t fun to learn that, we wouldn’t learn it. So, for some reason, it’s ingrained in us that play is fun, and play is modelling what we see around us. In school I did playful learning. I think it’s natural.
“I think of the expansion of your awareness of things around you as relating to a bubble. Everything within the bubble I know and understand and it’s part of my world. Outside, I haven’t learned yet, but I may be aware of it. That bubble expands as you grow. One year when I was about thirteen or fourteen, I became really aware of that growth. Before that you’re not even aware of your own growth. You’re just learning, and the things you know are all you know. But eventually you become aware of your own process of learning which is kind of interesting. It’s sort of a meta-awareness. It was interesting to me, to become aware of myself and I still always feel like there are things that I’m aware of which are still not inside my bubble, and I’m still growing. I follow my curiosity and then bring it into the bubble. I don’t purposely try to study things that I’m not interested in.”
Why don’t we have schools today that allow tremendous amounts of individual freedom to follow curiosity? Why do we have schools today that have not internalized the basic notion that an individual has, from earliest childhood, a world view, and that each individual hungers constantly to expand that world view, to expand the size of their bubble, to bring what is outside their bubble in, to refine their perception of the world. To learn.
Well, I think one reason our schools do not reflect what I think is self-evident is that for a long time, we needed a different type of school. We needed schools with rigid curricula for the industrial age. We have not always been in the age of information. We have not always been in the post-industrial age. Only an instant ago, historically, we were struggling to build an industrial society. In order to do that, we had to mold an industrial human being. We had to take the partially formed child and channel his or her creativity into a narrow field, so that the society became in many ways more homogeneous, so that we could work together in ways that did not always allow for individual development, in order to build an industrial society. We had to create a curriculum that insured that everyone, everywhere, had the same “training,” a word we don’t look at too kindly anymore. We had to forget our fundamental principles while dealing with the training of students. We took away individual freedom and responsibility. We took away their ability to govern themselves, and their freedom of speech. We put them in institutions that compromised their rights at ever turn, so that due process and democracy were just words in an eleventh grade classroom. We did this in order to get a certain result, which we wanted in a different era. Unfortunately, that result led to a curriculum that is established now in a deep, heavy, and powerful beauraucracy that resists fundamental changes with all its strength. This is how one of our graduates describes the difference between SVS and most other schools.
“I didn’t look upon going to Sudbury Valley as a radical thing. I looked upon it as what the norm should be and thought that the rest of the school systems were radical because they were radical departures from almost any other situation that any human being goes through in the United States in their lives. Once we reach eighteen, we’re all in control of ourselves within the structure of the law in the U.S. We are not placed in the position where legally we have to be in a building “x” number of hours a day and we have to listen to someone.”
Today, the industrial age is ending. We don’t need to produce factory workers anymore. We don’t need people to be like robots. Robots can be like robots. We don’t need people to be like machines. We have computers, which are machines. In an industrial society, armies of workers were needed for production. The machinery of the industrial society needed masses of mass-produced men: the machinery in a post-industrial society is much more sophisticated. In a post industrial society, routine tasks are done by information processing machines. We can free the mind of the child and the adult. We have an era in which the ability to figure things out for yourself is all important. We have an era in which more and more and more people are forging new paths, in which most of us are engaged in occupations that couldn’t have been guessed at forty years ago, and most of our children will engage in occupations that we can’t guess at now. Unfortunately, most schools have not even begun to realize the diversity that will be needed in the next generations. We need people who have developed their brains as much as possible. It is no longer necessary to make sure they have learned the same things as their peers – it is now possible for each person to develop their own model of the world without much risk of not being able to live in their model.
In 1968, the post-industrial age was a gleam on the horizon. Now it is fact. But it was already clear in 1968 that the educated person of the future had to be comfortable to explore and to innovate, and to constantly build new models of the world.
Sudbury Valley was the school for the future. Now it is the school for the present.
What is the school like? How do these principles get put into practice? First, let me set the stage. The school enrolls students from the age of 4 up. No one is too old, although most of our students are always 19 or younger. There are about 130 students, and some staff members, pursuing their interests on a campus in a semi-rural area in Eastern Massachusetts, a campus that includes woods and fields, a big old house and a barn, a pond, a dam and a bridge. The people in the school, no matter what age they are, are each doing what they want to do. Sometimes it seems that there are 130 different activities going on at once. Usually it means that some people are doing things with others, who can be of the most various of ages, and some people are doing things alone. Usually it means that most people are doing things not done in most other schools, and some are doing things that are done in other schools with a very unusual intensity and concentration. It more often means that children are teaching adults than that adults are teaching children, but most often people are learning and unconscious that “learning” is what they are engaged in. Doing what they choose to do is the common theme; learning is the by-product. It is first and foremost a place where students are free to follow their inner dictates. They are free to do what we all do when we have the time to, and what we all find to be most satisfactory – they play. Play is the most serious pursuit at Sudbury Valley. This is not an accident. Psychologists pretty much agree these days that allowing the mind to roam freely has the most potential for mind-expansion. In fact, when we talk about our most creative moments, we describe them as ‘playing with new ideas’. This is a process that cannot be forced. Creativity can only grow in such freedom. We refer to it as “model building” or “building a world view,” but we are all talking about the same thing. Some people play at games, and some play at things we who have more traditional educations are more comfortable with – writing or art or mathematics or music. But we are quite clear at Sudbury Valley that it is doing what you want to that counts! We have no curriculum and place no value on one pursuit over another. The reason that we are secure in feeling this way is that we constantly see that people play more and more sophisticated “games,” explore more and more deeply, that they constantly expand their knowledge of the world, and their ability to handle themselves in it.
Children who play constantly do not draw an artificial line between work and play. In fact, you could say that they are working constantly if you did not see the joy in the place, a joy most usually identified with the pursuit of avocations.
I would like to talk about some of the other aspects of an atmosphere that encourages individuality to such an extent.
The school has about 25 rooms, in two separate buildings. On an average rainy day it is teeming with activity. The rooms are small and large, many are special purpose rooms, like shops and labs, but most are furnished like rather shabby living or dining rooms in homes: lots of sofas, easy chairs, and tables. Lots of people sitting around talking, reading, and playing games. On an average rainy day – quite different from a beautiful suddenly snowy day, or a warm spring or fall day – most people are inside. But there will also be more than a few who are outside in the rain, and later will come in dripping and trying the patience of the few people inside who think the school should perhaps be a ‘dry zone’. There may be people in the photolab developing or printing pictures they have taken. There may be a karate class, or just some people playing on mats in the dance room. Someone may be building a bookshelf in the woodworking shop in the barn – or fashioning chain mail armor and discussing medieval history. There are almost certainly a few people, either together or separate, making music of one kind or another, and others listening to music of one kind or another. You might find a French class, or Latin, or algebra. You will find adults in groups that include kids, or maybe just talking with one student. It would be most unusual if there were not people playing a computer game somewhere, or chess; a few people doing some of the school’s administrative work in the office – while others hang around just enjoying the atmosphere of an office where interesting people are always making things happen, there will be people playing role playing games in, often, several rooms; other people may be rehearsing a play – it might be original, it might be a classic. They may intend production or just momentary amusement. People will be trading stickers and trading lunches. There will probably be people selling things. If you are lucky, someone will be selling cookies they baked at home and brought in to earn money. Sometimes groups of kids have cooked something to sell in order to raise money for an activity – perhaps they need to buy a new kiln, or want to go on a trip. An intense conversation will probably be in progress in the smoking room, and others in other places. A group in the kitchen may be cooking – maybe pizza or apple pie. Always, either in the art room or in any one of many other places, people will be drawing. In the art room they might also be sewing, or painting, and some are quite likely to be working with clay, either on the wheel or by hand. Always there are groups talking, and always there are people quietly reading here and there.
One of the things most adults notice first about Sudbury Valley is the ease of communication. People, no matter what their age, look right at each other, and treat each other with tremendous consideration and easy respect. No one is afraid. There is an overwhelmingly comfortable air of self-confidence, the confidence normal to people pursuing the goals they set themselves. Things are almost never quiet, and there is (to an outsider) an exhausting intensity, but the activity is not chaotic or frenetic. Visitors speak of a feeling of a certain order, even though it is clearly a place full of enthusiasm.
The students at Sudbury Valley are ‘doin’ what comes natur’ly.’ But they are not necessarily choosing what comes easily. A close look discovers that everyone is challenging him or herself. That every kid is acutely aware of their own weaknesses and strengths, and extremely likely to be working hardest on their weaknesses. If their weaknesses are social, they are very unlikely to be stuck away in a quiet room with a book. And if athletics are hard, they are likely to be outdoors playing basketball. Along with the ebullient good spirits, there is an underlying seriousness – even the six-year-olds know that they, and only they, are responsible for their education. They have been given the gift of tremendous trust, and they understand that this gift is as big a responsibility as it is a delight. They are acutely aware that very young people are not given this much freedom or this much responsibility almost anywhere in the world. But growing up shouldering this responsibility makes for a very early confidence in your own abilities – you get, as one graduate says, a ‘track record.’ Self-motivation is never even a question. That’s all there is. An ex-student has described some of these effects:
“There are a lot of things about Sudbury Valley that I think are on a personal level, that build your character, things that perhaps enable you to learn better, that public school students never have a chance to achieve. When you’re responsible for your own time, and spend it the way that you want to, you tend to put a lot more enthusiasm into what you do, instead of being a lethargic lump that’s molded and prodded into a certain direction. And when you end up the way you want to end up, you know you’ve been responsible for it. It’s a lot more rewarding, I think, than when you end up the way somebody else wants you to end up.”
Who are the kids in this school? Are they chosen for creativity, intelligence, or perhaps beauty? It is a private school – does that mean it appeals to only the well-to-do? Admission is on a first come, first served basis, and we have never been full. That means that the students in this school consist of everyone who wants to come whose parents will allow them to. It includes the cerebral and the super-active, the ‘regular’ and the ‘zeroed-in’, the full gamut of possibilities. Most of the families who choose to send their children to SVS are looking for something they wish they could find in public schools, but cannot: simple freedom for their children to develop according to their own timetables and their own desires. And most are making a committment to pay tuition in order to gain this freedom when that committment, even to a school with very low tuition, is difficult.
Is it perfection? Hardly. But it is tremendously stimulating and exciting.
Sudbury Valley is a functioning democracy. There is a School Meeting which meets once a week to take care of all the management work, either by directly accomplishing it or by delegating it. Each student and each staff member has one vote, and the meetings are run in an extremely orderly fashion. The School Meeting makes a budget each year, ever so carefully, because the tuition is low and it is important to be thrifty and not to spend money needlessly. Yes, kids know this, and are much harsher judges of what is – or is not – a necessary expense. The School Meeting passes every rule, often after weeks of soul-searching debate. This includes the rule about “no littering”, the rules about not ever setting a foot in the pond, the rules that govern which rooms eating is ok in, and which ones you can play the radio in, as well as the rules protecting individual rights. It is up to the School Meeting to approve groups organizing to pursue special interests that want budgets or space. Anyone who thinks that young children are not wise about these matters need only attend a few such school meetings.
The School Meeting delegates some tasks to sub-groups or to people elected by them to carry out certain responsibilities. A sub-group called the Public Relations Committee, composed of people interested in the school’s p.r. work, sent me here. Because I am elected to it, I serve on the school’s Bookkeeping Committee. Someone else is elected to see to the Ground’s Maintenance. Another person is elected to keep computer records of all of the judicial activities. All of us are totally accountable and totally aware of our accountability every minute. The School Meeting also debates candidates for staff, votes on them in an all day, school-wide, secret balloting, and awards contracts according to needs determined by this balloting. There is no tenure.
There is also a sub-group of the school meeting set up to deal with rule infractions. It is called the judicial committee, and its function is to investigate written complaints about possible rule violations, and to see that justice is served, being constantly careful about due process. Does it work? You bet it does. Peer justice is amazingly effective. Rules are often broken, but the culprits are usually good natured about both admitting what has happened and accepting their punishment.
We have no curriculum. If you send your children to this school, however, there are some certainties about what they learn. They learn how to debate, and how to ask for what they want, and see to it that they get it. They learn to ponder ethical questions. They learn how to concentrate: they can focus on things the way few adults that I know can, and this gives results. The same focus that a five-year-old puts into sand castles a seven-year-old puts into drawing, an eleven-year-old into making a gingergread house, a nine-year-old into chess, a twelve-year-old into d&d, an eight-year-old into climbing forty feet up in the beech tree, a fifteen-year-old into writing a story, a seventeen-year-old into making armor, or an eighteen-year-old into preparing for graduation will serve them well in each and every pursuit they choose as adults. Right now there is a group of about eight or nine young men, aged about 12 to 19, who have been working together and alone for periods of time up to two years building chain mail armor. It is a perfect example of what happens at SVS. No adult in the school inspired them and in fact no adult in the school helped them. And they did not take advantage of the adults in the school who could guide them as they studied the period of history in which chain mail armor was worn, the mechanics of making it, and the design of the different types of garments. They have created vests, helmets, and gloves. What they start with is a spool of wire. They must take it and turn it into thousands of tiny open circles, by wrapping it carefully around a thin metal dowel, or several dowels of various thinnesses, and cutting the coil into many open circles. Then with pliers and infinite patience, they weave the circles into beautiful garments, often using gold wire to weave in designs. They know a lot about history, but they also know a lot about how to determine an interest and follow it, about how to work long and hard for a goal that may not mean a thing to anyone else but enriches the person who is striving for it.
The results of this lifetime of freedom? Here are some descriptions from alums:
“I feel as though the process and the environment which is created at Sudbury Valley is a really valuable one. It’s tragic to me that people can come through all their educational years in this culture and not realize that we’re practically like gods – we can do so much. People aren’t in touch with the fact that they really have so much power and so much ability. What I think is magical about Sudbury Valley and so wonderful is just that so many people who go through there can feel that sense of control over their lives when they leave. No matter what they do afterward, they know that can exist because they experience it there at the school.”
“Because I wasn’t forced to learn stupid things like reading, writing and ‘rithmetic, I had more of a well rounded, social view – all those things that you’re supposed to learn about in college, the reason you go to college, to get rounded, I had done before college. I learned about art, about literature, and the sciences when I was younger. I wanted to learn them because I wasn’t spending all my time doing stupid things. Sudbury Valley was a good school and it was an enjoyable place to grow up because you grew up academically and socially and physically all at the same time. It didn’t come in stages. I realize more and more each year what I got from the school.”
This is a school for the post industrial age. It is a school for the age of de-centralization and individualization. It is a school that gets kids ready for a world that is changing with breathtaking speed, where the biggest need people have is the need to adapt to new situations, to learn new material, to work independently, to be able to use their leisure time in ways that give them satisfaction. This is how one of our former students describes her abilities:
“One thing that strikes me is that I know people who say to me, “Oh, I wouldn’t know what to do with my time if I had a month off.” And I think “What are you talking about? Just use your time.” I never feel that if the structure in my life was lost, what am I going to do? I don’t feel lost. My ego doesn’t fall apart in chaos if I don’t have a schedule. I just live. I make my time what I want it to be. I never wonder what I would do without structure imposed upon me from the outside?” So many people I work with talk like that. Even about my job: in my job, we’re alone most of the day, most of the time. I’m a social worker in a hospital setting and we’re on our own to make our own schedules and get our work done. A lot of people come here and don’t know how to do that. They say, “Well, I don’t know how to structure. This day is too unstructured for me. I won’t get my work done because I don’t know how to balance my day to get it done.” And that I can’t fathom. That never happens to me. I wonder how I’m going to get my work done, but I appreciate having the freedom to organize my day the way I want to.”
A lot of people think that this sort of school will need tremendous numbers of adults running around making sure that each student’s needs are met and easing the way for everyone. In practice this is just the opposite of what we need. We operate with a staff to student ratio of about 1 to 15. And that gives us plenty of staff. Everyone is a teacher and everyone is a self-educator. Mostly what kids need from adults is very little instruction, but willing guidance towards their expressed needs. They want older people around who are successful in the world in that they have interests and activities which afford them satisfaction, and pursue them with dedication. What the kids at Sudbury Valley School seem to look for in staff is depth of character; they want people who have looked into themselves and can listen and understand when kids go through the same processes. They want older and more experienced friends to turn to, whether they are older students or adults. They want to have resources to turn to but not to feel obligated to use any particular resources. In other words, wisdom is at a premium. The adults are the people with the larger world views to turn to as yours expands.
How does this education end? There is no magic moment when it is over, because of course the idea that permeates the school is that you are a learner every day of your life, but at some time most students begin to feel that they want to move on to a different kind of situation. Perhaps they want to try their wings at living independently. Perhaps they want to continue to pursue their interests in an institution, such as a university, where there is a larger group of people interested in the same area as they are. Perhaps they are ready for an apprenticeship in the larger community, or perhaps they have honed a skill to such a point already that they are ready to pursue it full time. They may leave school to travel the world on a shoestring. Or to become professional chefs. Or to study fashion design. Or to work hard to break into the music business. Here is someone’s description of getting ready:
“After a certain amount of time the school was something I had to be done with. I had to graduate. I had to go on and do something else. And that evolved slowly and at the right time, I think. I felt like it was time to graduate. It wasn’t like I felt pressed. It came from inside and I was ready. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, but I was prepared to go out and do whatever it was. I don’t think I had the confidence to go out until I was really ready. Suddenly, whether I knew what I was doing or not, I knew I had the confidence to go out and try and that I would do the best I could and let things happen the way they were going to happen. I don’t “fail” by actually failing, like a guy testing a parachute might fail if he jumped off a big cliff. I would fail by throwing a brick tied to a parachute. If that brick hit the ground and broke, that was my failure. I would test the waters before I jumped, always. And so my failures were never catastrophic, they were just, “Well that parachute didn’t work. I’m going to have to build another one.” I still live my life that way. I don’t throw all my eggs in one basket.”
Many who leave to go on to the next step in their lives leave with excitement, but most leave reluctantly too. Among the things they do not take with them are grades, transcripts, evaluations or lists of courses completed. What they do take is a firm conviction that they can do what they set out to do. This usually gets them through the college admission process or the job finding process. After that, Sudbury Valley students have what it takes to do very well. They have become used to working hard. They are used to working independently. They are used to overcoming difficulties. And they know who they are. They can describe their own strengths and weaknesses and their own methods for exploiting the strengths and overcoming the weaknesses. So they seem to be quite successful in their next pursuits. They get into the colleges they want to go to. Part of that is the process by which they decide to go to college. It is always to pursue an interest they are committed to, and they choose colleges where their interests will be met. But part of it is the impression they make when they interview. Each one has to talk their way in the door. But each one has spent years and years talking and arguing and thinking about real issues, so they are an amazingly articulate group.
Listen to three of them describing college admissions and experiences:
“I learned from Sudbury Valley how to voice my opinion and how to say what I want and that’s what got me into college. I said to myself, ‘I’m going to get myself in there one way or the other.’ I was persistent and I did it.
“They took me because I talked, I showed that I wanted to be there and that I wasn’t being forced to be there, that it was something I felt I had to do. I walked right in and talked to the Dean. I was really nervous about my interview; it was something I never did before. He said, “What can I tell you about the University?” and that was an instant shock. I was kind of blank for a second, then I said, “Well, to tell you the honest truth, I’ve already made my decision to enter this school, so I think I know as much as I possibly should know about being a student here. What I think you should know is about me and why I want to be here.” And he moved around in his chair, looked back at me and said, “OK, go for it.” And I went on and on and on and he said, “OK, why Criminal Justice?” And I told him about the Judicial Committee. I told him about the staff. I told him about everything. He said, “You know something? I’m going to call my office and I’m going to tell them.” He told me right then and there, “You’ll see your acceptance letter,” and “I’ll see you in the Fall.” I said, ‘Thank you very much.’”
“I looked for a college that had a heterogeneous population, as much as possible. They called it “diverse” in my day. I looked for a place that sort of promoted a certain amount of freedom for the students. The school that I went to had expectations but it didn’t have a tremendous number of requirements, although I did apply to schools that had more requirements. I looked for places that had good departments in what I was interested in, in dance and in religion. I also looked for schools with good reputations. I visited them and felt the atmosphere and that kind of thing. I took out books from the library, read about the colleges, looked at how many stars they had, read what students had written about them, and visited. I was pretty careful. The interviews were the best feature of my applications I think, because kids from Sudbury Valley are used to talking. They talk a lot. Coming from that school and having to explain it, gives you sort of a leg up. You present as responsible, as articulate, as thinking. You’re used to talking to adults.
“You’re already used to having classes not meet all day every day, so that when you get to college and classes meet twice a week for an hour and you have free time, you know what to do with it, you know how to handle that, it’s not a shock. You’re used to intensity in classes. You’re used to designing your own schedule. You’re used to setting aside time to study because no one’s going to do it for you. You have a lot of free time. You learn how to balance that. That comes very easy. What’s a little bit hard at first is tests. It takes about one semester and that’s it. You’re fine.”
And third: “I decided to go to college because I wanted to do more music with other people who were interested in classical music. That was the primary motivation. The secondary motivation was that I wanted to see what it was like to be around a university and to be around other people who were interested in the same academic things, and to have a rich amount of academic things going on around me that I could participate in if I wanted to or talk to people about if I wanted to. I felt it was something that would be really different from Sudbury Valley in the sense that instead of being one person interested in something, if I was interested in something in college, I figured that there would be lots of other people around who were interested in it too. There would be lots of people to talk to. It turned out that as I got more interested in math, there weren’t very many people I could talk to, because where I was there just weren’t many people who were that good at math.”
And listen to one of them describe not going to college:
“I didn’t go to college because I didn’t know what I wanted to do in college. My parents had the money set aside. I could have gone to any college. I just didn’t know what I would have wanted to learn. Anytime I wanted to learn something, I could picture what I wanted to learn. Like when I wanted to learn refrigeration. I could see these guys working on refrigerators. I knew they were getting a lot of money. It looked like they were having a lot of fun. So I wanted to learn how to do refrigeration. I had a goal. I didn’t quit my job and go to refrigeration school. I bought a book. And when I didn’t have the book, I asked the refrigeration guys what they were doing. Most guys, if you ask them, they want to tell you. And the more I could learn, the more questions I could ask that made sense, the more interested they would be in telling me. Pretty soon I was doing it. I learned it in a matter of months. Then I got better and better as I did more and more and went into more complicated problems. Whenever I wanted to learn something, I always found I could learn it real quick, so why go to college?”
Why is such a wonderful school not the norm you are asking yourself by now? If what she says is true, you are wondering, wouldn’t SVS already have been copied in a million different places. The answers aren’t so simple. Or maybe they are. The idea of total freedom for children is very threatening to most people. The kinds of objections that are raised are: but there are some basics – how do you insure that each child learns them? We at Sudbury Valley are not so certain that there are any basics, but we are certain that our students are in an environment that is real, that is totally linked to the larger community, and that if there are things everyone should learn, the kids in the school surely know it as well as the adults, and it is up to them to insure that they learn it. Often people are angry when they learn that most students can learn all of basic math in just twenty hours of classroom work. They feel cheated because they spent years and years of doing repetitive mathematics either because they hated it and weren’t interested and were bad at it or because they learned it fast but were told they had to re-drill, re-drill and re-drill some more or they would forget everything. Now I ask you, would you really forget it if it were truly basic?
But of course what these people really mean is, if kids are not controlled by rigid authorities, won’t they be out of control? That is the “Lord of the Flies” objection: that children that are free will turn swiftly into cruel creatures. But our children are not in a hostile, terminally stressful environment; they are free in an orderly, rule-respecting society. Yes, they are free to change the rules, but only when they convince everyone else the changes are wise. They are free surrounded by models of the way people behave who wish to maintain all their freedoms.
I want to end with one more description of life at Sudbury Valley translated into adulthood: This young man is the same one who has the machine shop. As a boy, he worked with about a dozen other kids, day after day, month after month, on creating a miniature society, out of plasticene, modeled precisely on cultures they were interested in, all to scale.
“Working in plasticene at Sudbury Valley was a fascination of creating. You were creating things that you couldn’t have in real life yourself, maybe, but you could still make them, and by making them, you could have them. I think it was probably one of the most intense things I’d ever done. Villages would evolve. Sometimes you’d be building a gold mining community. Sometimes it would be a bunch of towns with hotels and saloons. Then you’d have battles and wars. You’d be building tanks and airplanes, just one thing after another. But it always involved a lot of buildings, a lot of vehicles, a lot of people and you’d make all the stuff. Then you would enact various scenes with them.
“Well, I think about it every now and then, and I’m doing exactly the same things now. Except I’m doing them now in real life. I’m building a factory and making machines and talking to people all day long. Same exact thing. And very intensely. We talk about how to build the things, how to talk to the customers on the phone, all that sort of stuff. Day in and day out, the same exact thing I was doing in plasticene.”
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