A Sudbury Valley Education: The View from Inside

 

Michael Greenberg[1]

 

In the long view of things, the concept of the school isnt that odd.  In the history of human culture, public education as we know it has only really existed for about 150 years.  Up until around the 1820s or the 1830s all human cultural achievements came about without the benefit of a public school system.  Most people just hung around the people they lived with and learned what they needed to do.  They didnt call it anything special.  They just grew up in their villages.  Its kind of limiting, from our perspective.  But if you were the son of the butcher, odds are you learned butchery.  If you had an uncle who was a cobblestone maker, you went to his place.  If you were a farmer, you showed your kids how to farm.  It makes a lot of sense, within the context of a pre-technological culture, that you dont really need school.  Public schooling begins when we enter a period when a whole lot of people need to learn to read and write and do very simple things that are required for work in factories.  So you get an educational system thats developed to help a whole lot of people who would normally not even have known how to read.  This is something weve got to remember:  Before public schooling, the vast majority of the population of Europe was illiterate.  The whole notion of universal literacy becomes important when youre running a lot of industries and you need people who can actually read instruction books and figure things out.

In a certain sense, as the culture has moved into the future, its somehow gone back to the past.  Mass training has lost its purpose.  Were in a culture where diversity of opportunity, of ambition, of everything has become the rule, where people have multiple careers.

Most of the things that are taught in schools, and the way theyre taught, have become completely irrelevant.  Were in a culture in which the most important asset that you have is your own knowledge of yourself what you want to do next and how youre going to go about doing it.  And if you know how to keep learning for the rest of your life on your own from within yourself, youre never going to be stuck.  This is what people who are displaced out of their careers find out all the time.  Everything they knew about their former careers no longer matters.  What matters suddenly is, Can I learn something new?  Can I actually make heads or tails of my life?  Thats the way the world is: its a continuing, evolving chain of experience.  Its not like you have a childhood, you learn your thing, you go to work, you work fifty years, you retire, you die.  Thats over.  Youre continuously doing new things every few years in your life.  The average American holds a job for eight years.  Every eight years, on the average, youre going to have to reeducate yourself and go find another job. 

How do you become an effective citizen in modern America?  You need to know how to take initiative, you need to know how to interact in a society thats completely built around the honor system and around the rule of the law and around a certain kind of respect that a modern economy demands.  Sudbury Valley is a miniature model of that.  Actually, in the school, kids exercise a whole lot more control over their environment than adults ever get to.  When youre a group of kids in an insulated world of a school, you can actually have a much more perfect and meaningful democracy and justice system than what you can get in the outside world.  In a village, where everyone knows each other, you could probably get the same kind of thing.  If Edgar goes and plows into somebodys fence, youre likely to have real justice done by someone coming over and saying, Edgar, you plowed into the fence, youve got to fix it, and have it done and over with.  Its not an anonymous society.


Try to picture what it is like to be a kid in a school like this.  Youre in a situation where your voice actually matters from a really early age.  If you go into school and some big kid bothers you, you have immediate, swift legal recourse.  You can walk into a room, fill out a form, and next day stand in front of a group of kids who are a cross-section of the school, some of whom are probably that big kids friends; and theyre all sitting there telling the big kid, You shouldnt do that.  You shouldnt bug that six-year-old.  That is tremendous power.  You have the power to make a big kid stop bothering you without violence, in completely civil, legal, and enforceable way.  And if that big kid keeps bugging you, theyre really going to come down on him.  The other kids are going to say, You have got to stop bugging this person.  You cannot go into these three rooms because youve been bugging that person too much.

Then theres the fact that when youre a really young kid you can go through a whole day actually playing your imagination games without being bothered.  Kids have their own logic.  Its not up to me as an adult to figure out how a young kid can manage to play with dolls for seventeen hours in a row.  Theyre doing some real learning, about making characters and interactions and having imaginary conversations.  I just dont think adults can step in on that and be better at fixing a kids mental processes than what the kid is already doing on their own.  Theyre already programmed to be curious and to try to figure stuff out and to go in and play the kind of games thatll teach them the things they need to know.  Adults should step back and get out of the way.  My experience as a little kid at Sudbury Valley was that I spent a lot more time around slightly older kids than I spent with adults.  An eight-year-old is more likely to be a lot more interested in what a twelve-year-old has to say about the world.  It makes sense, because the gap between an adult and an eight-year-old, in terms of what theyre doing in the world, is enormous, almost unspannable.  If you ask a kid to guess your age and youre older, it almost doesnt matter whether youre thirty, forty, or fifty, theyre all so far away.  But a twelve-year-old isnt so far away.  A twelve-year-old is just further enough down the line that theyve already made a lot of the experiments that the eight-year-old is about to make and they can actually talk about them.

If you think about how people really learn complicated things that they need to know in their life, its pretty mysterious.  Its like the way a kid picks up a whole language and becomes fluent through just listening to adults babbling and sounds theyve never heard.  You can take a newborn infant and plop him in any corner of the world and theyll learn whatever language adults are speaking and they will know all the rules of grammar and syntax and everything else that the adults use, without being taught a single thing about it.  Trying to teach a kid how to walk would be futile, because walking involves the coordination of a thousand different impulses.  And I think that trying to teach someone what they want to do with their life is probably about the same.  If the most important thing in life is to find some kind of happiness and meaning in your life if ultimately youre trying to educate people to have a meaningful life thats a hopelessly complicated task to actually try to teach someone.  You have to let them learn it themselves.  Theyre going to figure it out through all the things that are happening in the world that they themselves ascribe meaning to.  Then theyre going to chase it down as hard as they can and you wont be able to stop them.  I might look at some people spending their whole life surfing, and think, How can you spend your whole life surfing? because I never learned to ascribe meaning to riding the wave.  Thats my problem, its not theirs.  They learned something integral about the ocean and they want to commune with it. 


Parents have to realize that their kids are a mystery.  What a kid will do when they grow up whether theyre the kind of person that wants an easy job and a great home life where they can go to work for eight hours and then forget about it and just be with their kids and watch TV and be a regular Joe, or whether they want to be a complete wild free spirit whos always roaming around, or whether they want to be some hyped up eighty-hour-a-week workaholic, is up to them.  Its not up to us to say to our kids, Be a workaholic, or Go make a lot of money, or Do this or that.  Its up to them to decide, Whats going to make me happy?  What can I do for the next fifty years of my life?  And the kind of tools you can give them are pretty basic.  Theres only a handful of skills that really apply to everything.  They learn how to talk, they learn how to read, they learn how to understand the language of numbers numbers rather than mathematics, because I know plenty of people who dont know math at all but who at least learn how to balance their checkbook.  Thats about it for everybody, and then every person figures out what thing they want to specialize in.  Some people can talk for days on end about how to program a computer and you might not care at all; another person could go on and on in a rapture about something else.  I just think theres no way you can sit down a kid and say, Thats going to be important to you.  Learn it.  Dont do this thing you really want to do right now.  Go do what Im showing you because I think its important.  You have really no clue about the trajectory of a persons life, whereas a person themselves has an instinct and initiative.  Thats why almost nothing is required except letting kids go.  Whats left for adults, more than anything, is to serve, however humbly, as role models. 

Ultimately the job of a kid is to be in the world as an adult.  Whether they want to or not, sooner or later age is going to catch up with them and suddenly theyll find themselves in an adult world with a very different set of circumstances.  If anything, the biggest adaptation in my personal life was going into the real world from a place where I actually had much more control and freedom and ability to influence my environment.  First, I had to figure out what the thing I wanted to do is.  Then I figured out the obstacles in my way.  I didnt assume I cant do it just because there isnt a pre-slotted place waiting for me.  I looked and thought, Okay, whats between me and this thing I need to do?  Once I realized what it is, I had to decide, Is it worth the work?  Is it worth doing X, Y and Z to get to that?  How much work is it going to take?  Maybe I change my goals, or maybe I pursue the work.  But unless Im fired up by something, Im not even going to go that far.

 


The primary learning tools that people have used for most of history, and I think are still the ones that most adults use, are conversation and experience.  How do you learn at work?  Do you sit in a classroom?  Usually not.  Usually if you decide you need to get good at doing something, youre in a situation where another person is saying, You do this and do this, and you start doing it.  You learn by making a few mistakes and you go back and tell the person, That didnt work for me, and they look over your shoulder and say, Oh, thats because you forgot to do this.  And suddenly you know how to do something.  Eventually, you may even find better ways of doing things than people who have been doing it for a long time because you came to it fresh.  In the real world, when you want to get something done, you dont say, Im going to, for one hour a day, think about this thing thats really important to me and then Im going to rush off and study some completely unrelated thing the way we make kids go through history, then math, then English, from class to class.  You say, Im going to focus as hard as I can on the thing Im interested in and then maybe Ill blow everything off for a couple days and have some fun because my mind is getting numb from all the stuff Ive been cramming into it.  Thats the adult way of learning and its the kid way of learning too, because its really the human way of learning.  You pursue things intensely that youre interested in and then you take mental breaks from all the pursuit because theres too much going on in your head.

When you let kids do it on their own, they learn things really quickly.  I remember one of the amazing things was watching people who had never studied anything, who had never cracked a book, who basically hadnt even looked at a page of written text, when they were thirteen just suddenly learn how to read in a month.  I thought:  How can people spend years teaching something that any determined thirteen-year-old can learn in a month when they feel like it?  What did that thirteen-year-old do with all those hours that they saved throughout their youth?  They played games, they talked, they did other things and then they learned how to read, and no ones the wiser for it.  In fact, maybe they actually love to read because they learned how to do it at a time when they wanted to; maybe theyre a way more interested and comprehending reader!  When you want to do it, its fast.  When you dont, its slow.  Its not like when youre six youre going to suddenly get a job that requires a multiplication table.  You could wait until youre seventeen and a half.  It doesnt matter until youre older anyway and half the time then it wont matter either. 

So heres a school at which you have to make a big leap of faith and realize that each person finds their own destiny, and that its not up to one person to judge and say that your kid should be doing this or that.  Unless youre really determined that your kid do one thing or another, you trust them to find themselves and you put them in a situation where theyre around a lot of different kids and where the adults are there in a supportive way to answer questions when questions are asked.  You realize that learning is a very mysterious process.  Its not about cramming one thousand facts into someone.  Its about a person grasping an arc or a flow of something in ways that are connected to thousands of other things that are really difficult to map.  To grasp something is what makes us human.  Why cant you just throw a bunch of facts in the computer and say the computer knows history?  You can throw every historical fact in the world in the computer and then try to get the computer to write something interesting about the way people act.  It wont happen.  Learning is about a person saying, Ah!  Thats what we actually learn from history; thats what gives it its meaning.  Its the same with every endeavor.  It wouldnt be that interesting to watch machines play basketball, even if you could program them to do it a lot better than people.  Its interesting watching people do it because theyre onto something thats beyond getting a ball into a basket.  What makes it interesting is the interaction of human beings, and thats a much deeper, stranger thing.

You just have to trust.  You have to look into yourself and your own life as an adult and realize how you yourself learn things now and what motivates you.  Then look at your kids and realize that not only do they have ten times more energy than you, theyre also a sponge which is soaking up information in a much more aggressive way than you will at this point in your adult life.  Everyone knows you can sit a twelve-year-old down at a computer and theyll show you how to use it two weeks later.  Kids pick up stuff fast because theyre interested in everything.  I feel that if I can trust a twelve-year-old to learn how to use a computer in two weeks, I can probably trust them to portion their time in such a way that they get what they need out of life.  Its not always going to be what their elders say is right.  Its going to be what that particular person needs at that moment. 


Theres another thing we have to get away from.  Theres more to life than just aspiring to being a middle-class American with a white-collar job.  There are a lot of meaningful existences; people make a living doing really strange things now.  There are a thousand different kinds of businesses that people run and some of these people are actually much more successful financially than people who are holding down normal jobs.  A person nowadays can basically go anywhere in the world they want to find the thing they want to do, which is an incredible power.  We couldnt do this a hundred years ago, but today if any one of us wanted to become an African drum master, we actually could go to Africa easily and learn it from an African drummer.  Its not like wed have to mount an expedition and leave for twenty years, the way you might have had to in earlier times.  Now the world is open to us, and to kids much more so.  You cant even begin to imagine all the possibilities.  In a school where kids dont have anyone telling them to do this and not that, people develop their own interests in a way that doesnt follow a chart of any kind.  They pick up information, dispose of it, suddenly grab onto something and do it furiously; as an adult, you stay out of their way and you help them when they need help.

 

I went to Sudbury Valley School from the age of six in 1968 until 1979 when I was seventeen.  That was the only school I went to.  I was one of the people who had just reached school age when the school started.  A number of other kids, especially children of people who had helped found the school, started at that same time in their lives and went through pretty much the same thing I did.  Now, we have very different lives.  My best friend from that age became a complete academic.  He got himself into Eastman School in Rochester and ended up doing math at MIT.  They didnt really ask him about his public school history.  He just went in on fire to do math and they stood back and let him do it in a way that was remarkably similar to his career in Sudbury Valley.  It was strange, because when we were young he didnt do math.  He started when he was fifteen years old.  Earlier, he was mathematically inclined in the same way I was; now I run a business where all I have to do is add and subtract.  Hes dealing with some weird branch of a field that two dozen people in the world care about, and he cant really explain to me what hes doing because its so ridiculously abstract.  I came out of school knowing that I wanted to do art, which traditionally has not been associated with college terribly much.  Thank God we still live in a culture that realizes that a credential doesnt really help you create works of genius that youre better off just finding your muse.  So I went straight into working for people in photography, which was my field at the time, and learning from them and pursuing my own work through trial and error the way every other artist Id ever read about did their work. 


Generally speaking, during the first eighteen years of your life people dont really prejudge you one way or another in this society.  If at the age of eighteen you decide you want to be a doctor, you can pretty much study for the SATs, get into a school, and do what you need to do if youre really intent on doing it.  Thats been the experience of the people I met at school.  If they decided they needed to do something that took a lot of academic training, they found a way to get into college.  People did what was required to do the thing they needed to do.  There was a handful of people like me who just disposed of further academic training completely and went into their fields directly.  The one thing I have in common with this group is that I would hesitate to say theres any field I couldnt put myself into.  I feel like if I really wanted to do something I could learn about it.  I threw my whole career as a photographer away two years ago, not for any particular reason.  I was really making a lot of money and I was having fun but I wanted to do a different project that involved more of my friends.  So I basically just chucked it and we went into the club/restaurant business.  Restauranting is its own whole world that people spend a whole lifetime getting good at; I am certainly not good at it in the same way that some others are.  Ive got a lot of respect now for people who run a successful restaurant, because Ive learned how hard it is.  But Ive also learned that if youre willing to work really hard, you can learn the city codes and you can learn how to run a restaurant fine.  You can go in and learn what you need to learn, make a few mistakes, and come out on the other side of it still running a restaurant.  Whats the worst thing that can happen?  You wont be running a restaurant anymore, like a lot of people who started restaurants, and youll just start doing something else.  Will I be doing this twenty years from now?  I hope not.  I hope that in five or six years Ill find another thing thats interesting enough for me to say, Lets throw out this life and try something new.  Thats my personality.  My friend who does math will probably be doing math for the rest of his life.

 

I think the best thing an adult can give a child is love and space.  Its very important to kids that they feel supported and competent, that adults dont ridicule them for their first efforts at things which will naturally be clumsy, and that adults dont undermine their confidence in the ultimate goal.  Like, Oh, youre going to be a ballerina.  Right!  One in ten million people make it.  That never helped anyone succeed.  Adults should be there saying, Its up to you, give it a shot, and trying to connect the kid with real resources like, You want to do this?  Heres the best book I know of about that subject.  Heres the best teacher in the area.  Go up to that person and say, >I want to learn everything you know.=@

Im a big believer in initiative.  If you really want to learn something, dont wait around for a mediocre adult to teach you!  Go to the best person and say, I want to know everything you know.  If they say, Im too busy.  Youll have to go to this other person.  Hes not as good as me, but hes got time,=@ then you got your answer.  But youll find initiative is rewarded in one way or another.

I think that adults should give kids only what they ask for in the academic sphere, but I dont think that a kid should have to ask for love and support.  I think that adults should give that freely without being asked, because thats the only way it actually makes a difference.  I think that if kids have to ask for love and support, by the time they get it its not worth the empty air its breathed on.  Be totally forthcoming with your support of whatever theyre doing.

The best example I think a teacher can give is having a happy life.  I think that an adult whos enjoying their life is the best example to a kid that its possible to enjoy your life.  I think a morose adult whos putting in time in a system they cant stand is a terrible crushing lesson in what will happen when you get older.  An adult whos trying to tell their kid, Live your own life for yourself, helps their kid immeasurably because they show them that life is worth living.  Thats not a given.  Thats not taken for granted in this culture at all.

 


My continuity chart for human development is infancy and then adulthood, which to me begins when youre about four.  I dont see the big leap between a seventeen and an eighteen-year-old.  To me theyre very alike.  I see a huge leap between a pre-lingual, pre-movement child and a kid who can talk, ask for what they want, go where they need to go.  In a way, the only difference between me and a six-year-old is experience.  Essentially, do we both know what we want to do for the next few days?  Yes.  Can we both keep ourselves amused?  Yes.  In all the basic categories, its the same thing.  Most ways that a kid is behaving are not that dissimilar from the way Id be behaving, except Im the one with more limited choices because I have had to take on certain things like paying bills, or commitments I made a long time ago that I cant just ditch.  The six-year-old has a shorter cycle on commitment.  Theyre not going to promise someone theyre going to do something for the next three years.  I might sit down at a meeting with my friends and say, Lets give three years to a restaurant, and then Im not going to back out of it because Im a responsible adult.  A kids not going to commit that far into the future; but a kid might say, Im going to go on a week-long camping trip, and if theyre miserable, theyre miserable, and they have to wait until the week is up to come back.  What you gain with experience is the notion of long-termism.  If youre a kid you create meaning day by day: Lets go down to the swamp.  Lets throw a ball around.  Youre not thinking, Am I going to want to be throwing a ball for the next twenty years?  Youre just throwing it.

So I dont mark the point of adulthood as late.  I mark the point of adulthood as when you can communicate your needs and pretty much get a lot of what you need for yourself.  I think most kids can do that.  I think that adults exist in the same network of humanity that kids exist in.  We cant do anything for ourselves, really.  We always require other human beings and their inputs, unless were survivalists in Montana.  Most of us live in a world where we require constant interaction with other human beings to get what we need.  I dont see much difference between that and what happens with a kid; a kid also requires constant interaction with other human beings.  The only thing I can see is different with kids is that they dont have to work because the parents are supporting them.  Plenty of adults dont need to work either, but theyre still adults.  I dont suppose that just because someone is rich and doesnt have to work that theyre not an adult.  Thats not really a criterion for me.  I treat kids as basically like other adults who have less experience.

 

An important difference between this school model and a lot of other schools is that you have room to fail.  Failure is a far better teacher than success.  You can be told numerous times not to step on that place because its bad for you.  As a kid you will go and step out there and its when you fall off or get wet or whatever happens that you really learn the lesson.  The lesson of not snapping at people is taught when you have all your friends say, You are a mean person and Im not going to play with you.  Thats when you learn it pays to be a good person.  Its not just about the outside world, its about the inside world.  Im more frightened for people who do well in controlled environments than I am for people who do badly.  I think that failure is the way you learn stuff.  If you just take somebody elses word for it that you shouldnt do something, you never really know why.  Youve taken it completely on faith.  Maybe sooner or later youve seen enough other examples, but in a certain way youre running blind, whereas if you make your own mistakes and make them frequently, the consequences teach you how to live in a much more powerful way.  Learning from your own mistakes can be costly, but its also often the only way to really learn.

Let me put it this way: the reason that I dont smoke is because I was lucky enough as a six-year-old to be around teenagers who were trying to quit.  If youre a twelve-year-old around a bunch of other twelve-year-olds, they all think its cool and everybody starts doing it.  When you watch someone actually try to quit smoking, thats when you realize why you shouldnt start.  The example of seeing someone I knew wrestle with the failure of their experiment with nicotine was the lesson that taught me.  I had no predisposition against smoking and there were kids who thought it was really cool.  But there were enough kids out there who were trying to quit and complaining about how expensive it was and dealing with the social ramifications of smoking, like having to find a place to get a cigarette, that made me think twice.  I can honestly say theres a whole bunch of us who grew up with that who just didnt become smokers because of that.


I think a lot of times its worth exposing a young kid to people who are wrestling with the failures of something, as opposed to trying to protect them from everything.  Theyre more likely to learn from somebody elses mistake than having to commit it.  I think that applies to the whole range of adult issues that are facing children that are being debated right now, such as drugs and sex.  If you know someone with a really bad case of a sexually transmitted disease, it would go a lot farther to making you think twice about sex than all the lectures in the world.  If you have a broad range of kids so that your young kids listen to the horror stories of the older kids, theyll learn a lot more readily from another kid than theyre going to take it from the preaching of an adult about, You shouldnt do this because it might lead to that.  Everybody thinks theyre Superman.  Its never going to happen to me.  But when you see it happen to your best friend or the kid whos older than you, its a much different lesson.

 

There were two kids who suddenly broke away from the mainstream of civilization as we know it and went fishing in the pond at the bottom of the schools campus.  Its not a great fishing pond.  We would go down there, throw a line in and catch a sunny, usually to dissect it.  I remember doing that a lot.  Wed catch a fish, cut it open and check out the digestive tract or whatever for the hell of it.  But these two kids spent all their time together fishing.  They would get to school, grab their poles, and start.  The other thing they did was they had committed to memory every Monty Python skit and they would perform them.  Suddenly they would appear doing Monty Python in accents and we would think, Oh God, because they were kind of hard to take.  They were so energized and in their own world with each other.  Probably anywhere else someone would have been saying, When are they going to break out of fishing? but for us it was just two kids fishing.  No one really thought about it.  They probably didnt have any contact with adults through that whole period.  Recently, I bumped into one of them, and found out that he had become a photographer.  His wife was a graphic designer and they were running a frame shop and a photo studio.  I dont know how or when he got into it, but he was completely knowledgeable and interested and making a living from it.  The other fisherman had become a musician, although at school I had never known him as a musician.  When they were in school, none of us heard what they were talking about.  They were fishing they could have been talking about anything!  They could have gone home every night and read chapters on medieval astronomy and come and discussed them at the pond where they were away from such dull folk as ourselves, for all we knew.  They had their own world that completely didnt block them from coming back into everybody elses world.  They chose each other and they chose to fish while they were hanging out together, and they chose it with an incredible discipline that continues to help them in their life.


To me in retrospect that story wasnt much different from anybodys, even though I myself wouldnt have fished that long.  But I played so much cards during my childhood that it is hard to remember when I did anything else!  When I think back on all the card games that I was part of, it seems like a whole childhood in and of itself.  We learned every game you could play.  The whole point about cards was it was so democratic.  You play with all different kids; its a constantly shifting group.  We had one staff member named Margaret Parra who was our guiding light because she knew all the rules to all the games of cards.  She was a much older woman, by far the oldest person on staff.  The main thing she taught was about cooking, but really she ran a kitchen in the best sense, which was a place where people congregated.  Certain times people cooked with her, but most of the time she was a talker.  She was a great conversationalist and she knew how to play cards like nobodys business.  As soon as we would get bored with a game Margaret would say, Have you ever played blah, blah, blah?  And wed say, Teach us, Margaret.  And Margaret would teach us and suddenly everybody would be playing whatever that game was.  But really, of course, when youre playing youre talking, everybodys there, its just a thing to do while youre with a lot of people.

Also, I was a gambler.  We gambled.  The rule was: no money on the table.  It offended some people to walk into a room and find a bunch of seven-year-olds with stacks of coins spending all day playing blackjack.  So we put the money in our pockets and wed call our bets.  It was our little sop to people who didnt understand the idea of gambling.  Im not a gambler now.  I would never go to Vegas and drop thousands of dollars; I think I was cured of that by gambling at school for pennies.  I also learned that gambling is fun and sooner or later everybody finds out theres something very exciting about not knowing whats going to happen in a hand.  Was that a waste of time?  I dont know.  I think it was a perfectly fine way to spend my time.  I think I learned a lot about a certain aspect of myself and of human nature in general: people are gamblers.  A lot of times when something doesnt make sense in the world I remember that fact.  People do things that dont have a snowballs chance in hell, but they think they might succeed so they go for it. 

 

I can honestly say I never met a kid who spent any length of time at Sudbury Valley who didnt learn how to read and write.  Were so completely surrounded by visual, literary, and sonic information that you could no more not learn how to read in this culture than you could not learn how to talk as a baby.  When youre surrounded by as many words as surround us, you learn how to read.  Anybody whos exposed to people who read and write eventually realizes that a whole world opens up when you learn those things.  Thats what I saw at Sudbury Valley.  Kids are always striving to communicate as best they can with all different kinds of people.  They learn all the different forms of communication.  They learn the way people talk, they learn how to interpret television images, they learn how to see movies, they learn how to listen to popular music, and they also learn how to read.  Its all about different manifestations of culture and language.


Reading and writing are only slightly less natural than talking.  But the only point in reading is to read something interesting.  Theres certainly no point in reading textbooks.  The point in reading is to read good books.  The best strategy is to litter the place with good books and just sort of hang out and wait.  If youre a kid at school, sooner or later you see enough of your friends ducking their noses into a book and blowing you off because the book is more interesting than you are, and you realize that books are pretty interesting and you want to read them youre curious.  Furthermore, there are a lot of things that the incompetent adults around you dont know and that you have to find out by going to a book written by someone who actually knew what they were talking about.  The two fishermen they didnt learn their fishing lore from any staff member!  They learned it out of books on fishing.  The stuff that they knew about fishing was gathered out of a combination of experience and reading.  Lets put it this way: at a certain level, theres no subject that you could possibly be interested in that you would not benefit from reading about at one time or another.  I cant imagine anybody with a shred of genuine interest in anything being able to pursue it without reading.  Even kids who are interested in rock and roll need to keep up with like Rolling Stone and People Magazine and all the zines.  The underground rock and roll scene is the most literary scene in the world.  Thats how you find things out.  So how do you access that?  Are you going to go your whole life saying, Will you read that to me?  You know you cant do that!  Its no more appealing to a kid than being in diapers your whole life.  One of your main goals as a kid is to get away from needing to ask for things.  Its embarrassing.  You dont want mommy doing everything for you, you dont want to have some bigger kid always having to condescend to you by sharing their knowledge.  You want to acquire it yourself and reading and writing are part of that.

One of the ways the school indirectly encourages literacy is through the judicial system.  If you want to participate in any of the judicial proceedings, its all paperwork.  You can go and ask people to write complaint forms for you all the time, but sooner or later its a lot easier if you just know how to write them yourself.  And if you know how to read the School Meeting Record you dont have to ask people whats going to be discussed at the meeting; you can read it for yourself.  Theres a lot of things that are on paper in the structure of the school.

 

The structure of the school is very formal, in a certain sense.  The whole idea is that every kid has a vote and you express your opinion in orderly meetings that take place with a chairman who recognizes you, where you raise your hand and you have to speak to the topic, and if youre not speaking to the topic someone else can raise their hand and say, This has nothing to do with the question at hand.  So youve got the discipline of debate, of reasoned argument, of trying to persuade your fellow man of a certain thing.  If youre a kid and you want a room set aside for music, for instance, you cant just do it.  You have to go to the School Meeting and get political support, just like in the world.  You have to find out if there are other kids who want that room set aside for music and go to the School Meeting and say, Can we set this room aside for music?  The rest of the School Meeting is going to say, Well, right now we use it for this.  What do you want to do in there and why do you want to do it?  Why do you even need a special room?  You have to come back at them with, Because we play it loud and we want to soundproof the room and its only being used to store a bunch of sports equipment that could be thrown in that closet over there.  Its a very adult process and its also very much of a mirror of the society we actually live in.  You have to fill out the paperwork.  Its always the paperwork in real life, right?

A whole other aspect of this is that you have to interact with all the people at school.  I went in every day and I had to get along with the dozens of other people who were at school.  It didnt mean I had to be their best friend, but I had to at least be on some kind of terms where I could live with myself and they could live with me.  Theres nobody sorting you out.  Theres the rules system which steps in when things get out of bounds, but you have to develop social skills.

 


The world of the school is a seething cauldron of pursuits.  Its kids doing stuff.  A lot of the games kids play today not only require reading and writing, they require computer skills.  Most of the cool games that kids play are on a computer.  This is beyond anything I learned because personal computers didnt even exist in my school days.  Theres nothing more depressing to me than seeing a seven-year-old log on and play some mind-blowing game at a speed thats so fast that Im left in the dust.  But there they are doing it thats part of their culture.  At a school like this, you can have a computer and a kid can basically use it as much as they can get their hands on it.  Thats another place where responsibility and socialization come in.  How do you get access to a computer at school?  There are a whole lot of kids that want to use it.  What you instantly find is a culture of rules.  You have to be certified to use a computer, which means someone who knows has to tell you how you turn it on, how you turn it off, all the things you have to do to not damage the machine, and you have to show them that you know how to do that before you can use the computer on your own.  Then when youre using the computer on your own there are probably more kids who want to use it than time, so the computer people have to set up an access system where you sign on for the amount of time youre going to use it, and when your time is up you have to gracefully give it over to the next kid or persuade them that your thing is more important than their thing so theyll let you use their time and youll pay them back later or something.  Youre dealing in very real world things.  A resource isnt limitless.  Heres a resource, its not going to get bigger.  We have this computer, theres twelve of you who want to use it, theres this many hours in a day, figure it out.  The community itself has to create workable structures.  With a lot of things kids want to do, they find that they have to set up structures, and they have to respect those structures on their own.  Its not about an adult saying, This is right, this is wrong.  Its about Heres what weve got.  Lets figure out how to divide it up.

 


Im a radical when it comes to education.  I think that the traditional school system is essentially an oppression of the human spirit, and I think that anybody who rebels in it should be applauded.  I honestly think that if any adults had to go through what kids go through in school, they would feel it was not a boss they would be happy to work for.  The pay sucks, to say the least.  Theres no correlation between what theyre asking you to do and anything outside, and its an authoritarian system where your opinion is not really respected or consulted.  When do people actually stop and ask a kid, Did you get anything out of this?  Is this important to you?  Do you care?  So to me, any human being who rebels against a system which does not consult them in their fate is just doing what someone should do.  Some of my closest friends in school were a lot of the people who had done bad stuff in other schools and who were rebels, kids who realized there was something else in life.  For them, Sudbury Valley was a place where they could come and for the first time in their lives just kick back and find themselves; not spend their whole life in opposition to a completely arbitrary system, but just do what they want to do, talk to people, hang around, find their passion, and then finally actually pursue it.  I can tell you that David Geffen has a lot more respect for what an eighteen-year-old thinks and cares about than the average teacher.  David Geffen is willing to put millions on the line to put out music the kids care about.  Im someone who considers music a legitimate part of our culture and an important part of world history.  I think that music is key to the expression of people and Id much rather have my kids sitting around listening to music all day than reading a bunch of terribly boring textbooks.  Thats me.  But I would also say that if a kid wants to read a bunch of textbooks and theyre actively seeking out those textbooks, then theyre probably getting a lot out of them because to them those textbooks arent boring.  But theres a big difference between a kid seeking out a textbook and reading it on their own, than being told to read a textbook.  I would just ask every adult to look into themselves and say, What gets me going in the morning?  Am I more inclined to learn from things that someone else tells me to learn, or am I more inclined to learn things I like and am interested in?  Whats important in my own personal life and how do I work?  Your kid is basically the same as you, but with more energy and actually more internal incentive than you have.  You have the external incentive of, Ive got to pay the mortgage and Ive got to put the groceries on the table, getting you through a lot of your life.  Your kid does everything theyre interested in because they want to.  A lot of times parents look at their kids and think, How can they just be doing that all day?  But the fact is a kid listening to music solid, non-stop, twelve hours a day thats intensity, thats commitment, thats being into something.  Thats about being excited about something.  Theyre probably not going to be into that their whole lives.  If they learn how to do that really well, later on when they find something else they want to do, theyre going to bring that same energy to it. 

 

Boredom is one of the keys to the whole learning process.  In life, a lot of times to get to the peak you have to go to the valley first.  Being bored is often the way you finally get moving.  Kids hate to be bored.  But theres no cure for boredom.  A lot of times youre sitting there and youre bored.  Whatever you were into last week is no longer interesting and youre sitting there and maybe your friends are all off doing something else and you dont want to play the game theyre playing and youre bored, bored, bored.  A lot of times kids come home to their parents and their parents ask, How was it? and they answer, Its so boring!  And the parents think its a problem, instead of just saying to themselves, Oh thats great!  Shes bored!  Shes on the road to somewhere!  Now, obviously Im not going to sit around and tell my kid, Oh great, youre bored!  Im happy for you!  Im going to say, Thats the kick-start.  Being bored is boring.  Youre boring me with your boredom.  Go do something interesting.  You figure it out.  Youre boring me to tears.  And thats a real truth in this life.  No one wants to listen to someone whos bored all the time.  Thats boring!  Go get a life!  The real kicker for getting a life is when no ones filling up your time and telling you what to do. With kids at the school, no ones telling them what to do, and the dark side of all that is that youre sitting there and you have to decide for yourself what you want to do and a lot of times things are boring.

Kids have the same kind of existential, What am I doing with myself? that adults have.  You go through cycles of being rabidly interested in something and then mastering it to the point that you want to.  Whats the next think youre going to do?  No adult is waiting to bale you out.  When I got older, I used to love the sight of little kids trying to wheedle some help from adults in the form of entertainment.  That was always met with, Youve got to figure it out.  The adults on the staff of Sudbury Valley do not exist to entertain the kids.  Its one thing to say, I want to play with you a genuine, Lets do something fun.  Thats met with a cheery enthusiasm.  But to go up to someone and say, Im bored and youre doing nothing, so clown around for me, thats nowhere.  One of the nice things about the way the school sets it up is adults have the freedom in the school situation to read it for what it is.  Youre not required as a staff member to simply do everything a kid tells you to do.  Youre required to analyze it from your own individual perspective and to filter it through your own understanding and to make your own judgement as to whether its lovely and heres a kid who just wants to play a game with me and were interacting as two human beings and theres a give and take, as opposed to heres a kid whos bored who wants me to entertain them.  As a long-term thing, boredom is what kick-starts you into action.

I think it all goes back to what you believe about human beings and human nature.  It all comes down to a faith in humanity, to the belief that what human beings are really about is a striving curiosity.  What makes a person curious?  A lot of it is the disincentive of boredom.  What makes you curious is the fact that youre bored with the last thing you were just doing.  You would never seek another horizon if the one you were looking at was interesting and completely all-compelling.  You seek the other horizon because youre bored with the one youre looking at now.  Youve done that, youve mastered it, and now youre on to your next challenge.


Heres what I would want to leave you with:  I think that the Sudbury model is one of the few intellectually coherent systems of education.  Its got a lot more to do with the way people lived for the whole of history, up until just about now.  Kids were just part of the culture.  You had the kids right around the village who eventually became part of the adult world, and it wasnt this big mysterious, Weve got to teach them how to do this.  You were showing them day-by-day, by example.  Ask yourself whether when you look at your kids you think theyre actually curious and vital and interested, or whether you think theyre listless layabouts who are just waiting for excuses to goof off.  I think people know the answer.  The point of an education is being able to learn throughout your life, by developing the tools to learn, which everyone possesses from birth.  Also, we live in a democratic, open society.  Whats closer to the model that kids will grow up into than making your own decisions and being responsible for yourself in a way that you get called to account by the other people around you for your behavior?

That, to me, is what the model is about.  Were growing our kids up for America now.  Its about the real world.  Its about what makes people tick.  And its also about happiness.  Time and freedom are the key ingredients to finding your own self.  If you have the time to actually do things, to get bored, thats how you go on a spiritual journey and its a lot easier to do as a kid than as an adult.  People say, Well dont kids have to learn all kinds of specific things before theyre an adult?  The way we approach kids is sort of like making me walk around on crutches so that when I lose the use of my legs Ill know what its like.  Because when youre seven, what has the world of reading and writing and math got to do with your life?  Youre alive youre seven, you can run, you can play, you can watch bigger kids do stuff, you can play with dolls all day long youre so alive at that age!  One thing that blows me away about my own child that I wish I could do, is I wish I could just stand in a room with two plastic figures and make them talk to each other for hours, and care about it.  I cant have fun for a length of time I do it for a little and I get bored because Ive already done that as a kid.  But the point is that a kid can.  To interfere with that I just dont get it.  For what purpose?  For what pressing agenda that cant be done later?

Then I see how kids come out of a Sudbury school.  I was such a self-possessed, assured eighteen-year-old.  I went right into work and I did it because I wanted to.  I know its not about me being a special person; all my friends were that way.  Its because we were allowed to figure out what we were doing.  When I read about people like Mozart who died at thirty-five, I see that he too was very self-possessed at the age of eighteen.  Nowadays theres this whole sense that we dont even expect an eighteen-year-old to know what theyre doing.  We expect that all you have to do when youre eighteen, for most middle-class parents, is get good scores and get into college.  Even there, if you dont know what youre doing for the first couple years its alright because you can always pick your major later and hopefully by the time youre in your twenties youll have gotten some foggy notion of what you want to do.  I had a life before I was twenty-four.  I dont believe in waiting to live your life.  I think youre alive now and now is, in a sense, your whole life.  You could die tomorrow; are you a happy person now?  Are you someone whos doing what you wanted to do?  A kid is even more that way because time means nothing.  For them, today is everything.  Thats their world.  Thats the way theyve been programmed to be by nature, and Ive never heard any argument that makes sense that interfering with this would make a kid more educated, happier, or a better person.

 

 



 

1.  This article is an edited version of a talk given by the author six years ago, at an evening organized by the founding group of Liberty Valley School in Joliet, Illinois (later to become the Chicago Sudbury School in Chicago and the Prairie Sage Sudbury School in Joliet).  The author was a student at Sudbury Valley School (and no other prior school) from its founding in 1968 until his graduation in 1979.  He later joined the founding group, and staff, of Liberty Valley School and subsequently of the Chicago Sudbury School.  His two daughters have attended only the Sudbury model schools with which the author is associated.

 

Copyright The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc.