Democracy and Culture


Daniel Greenberg




            Democracy has always been a central concept for Sudbury Valley School.  In fact, one can properly say that liberal democracy defines the school: a place where all stakeholders have an equal say in governing the community, where all have equal access to the resources of the community and equal opportunity to take advantage of them, and where all have the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Within this defining intellectual structure lie a myriad of powerful concepts, all inter-related, all flowing directly from the focal concept of democracy.  Some of these related concepts are more obvious than others; some are subtle and take a great deal of thought to uncover.  Over the years, we have drawn a great many philosophical and operational ideas out of this founding principle1.  What delights the mind is the fact that no matter how much we manage to learn as we grow wiser and delve more deeply, it turns out that the mother lode of democracy is an extraordinarily rich one, that can be mined almost endlessly for new and deeper insights.

            Just such a revelatory experience of new insight occurred to me several months ago, in a most unexpected manner.  (Nowadays, they always do.  It doesn’t seem to help me to look actively for a new way to think about things.  I find it much more useful to go about my business, pursue my interests, and simply wait for something unusual to come my way, more or less out of the blue.)  I was reading a book entitled The School of History: Athens in the Age of Socrates, by Mark Munn2.  The book addresses a fundamental question, which has occupied people for over two thousand years: How did it come about that 2500 years ago, one small Greek city – the size of an average town in our world today – managed to become, within the span of a century or so, the birthplace of one of the two great cultural traditions that underlay Western civilization?3

            There were, after all, a great many wealthy and flourishing Greek cities all over the Eastern Mediterranean basin, from southern Italy to eastern Turkey, ranging into Macedonia, and encompassing a number of islands.  These cities had a shared language, a shared religion, and many shared traditions.  Indeed, we know of lots of major thinkers who inhabited these other cities.  But despite all these common factors, it was Athens, and Athens alone, that created the enormously varied and advanced body of knowledge that, together, formed the basis of Hellenistic culture.

            This is a puzzling question.  The sheer scope of Athenian intellectual and artistic achievements can scarcely be comprehended.  They created the discipline of Philosophy.  They defined and fleshed out virtually every academic field known today: Physics, Mathematics, Biology, Meteorology, Geology, Political Science, Psychology, Ethics, Literary Criticism, History, and others.  Aristotle, coming at the end of this burst of creative achievement, organized it into a compendium of academic knowledge that remained the basis for all advanced study throughout the Western world for almost two thousand years!

            But that is not all.  The Athenians gave us a legacy in the various arts that was no less impressive or long lasting.  They created lasting archetypes for sculpture and architecture, as well as painting and other visual arts.  They virtually invented modern theater – drama, tragedy, and comedy – with compositions that are still performed today.  They originated lasting models of poetry.  And they found ways to record it all in literary forms that are still read with pleasure today.

            All this emanated from one small – tiny – city in the ancient Greek world.  Why?  How did it happen?

            That was the question that Mark Munn posed in his book. 




            Of course, one could view it – as many historians do – as an accident of history, a coincidental confluence of inventive factors that just happened. 

            This is not an outrageous idea.  History is full of things that just seem to happen, and that defy any but the most superficial explanation.  What accounts for the emergence, in ancient Macedonia – a region not particularly distinguished for anything spectacular, which hardly merits more mention than, say, ancient Etruria, or Hungary, or Romania – of Alexander the Great, a person who sets out to conquer the world, and basically succeeds, as no one had before.  (Indeed, no one had even conceived such a cockamamy notion before, as far as we know.)  What accounts for the appearance on the world scene of Isaac Newton, or Albert Einstein?  Such phenomena resemble biological mutations, occurring in the realm of human affairs, with all the appearance of randomness and accident.

            To talk about individuals as accidents of history is one thing.  That is not so difficult to accept.4  But how does an entire culture get created by accident, a culture that is the product of the joint efforts and creativity of hundreds of people, in an enormously wide range of endeavors?  The question of why and how begs for a more comprehensive and comprehensible answer.

            Let me insert here what my own take on this phenomenon was, prior to my reading Munn’s book.  I never felt I had a good answer to the puzzle, but on the other hand I was always convinced that a significant factor in the great creative flourishing of ancient Athens was the large degree of freedom that the people of Athens enjoyed.  Theirs was a highly egalitarian society, and they governed themselves directly through the mechanism of a democratic citizens’ assemblage, much like the New England town meetings of colonial times and today.  To be sure, they had not developed the key features of liberal democracy that were laboriously fashioned in England over a period of centuries – the features that embody individual rights and personal liberty.  Nevertheless, people in Athens enjoyed a lot of freedom, and felt quite empowered, and I have always been convinced that freedom and personal empowerment are critical elements that foster human creativity.

            There are many examples from history that bear out this thesis.  Perhaps the most spectacular one is the awesome cultural flowering that occurred in Germany in the 1920s.  During a single decade, Germany led the way for the entire Western world in almost as wide a range of fields as ancient Athens did – not, to be sure, to the same depth, or with the same degree of culturally transformative power, but nevertheless to an extent that was marveled at and envied by people everywhere.  Indeed, students and professors and writers and artists of all types flocked to study in Germany during that time, and to experience the extraordinary creativity that flowed from that country.  It never seemed to me to be a coincidence that this decade was the first exposure the German people ever had to a non-authoritarian form of self-government, to a form of democracy that was at once chaotic and liberating and heady medicine for a highly educated nation eternally under the heel of oppressive rulers.  Freedom, I have always believed, was a key factor in making Germany of the 1920s the world leader in cultural innovation.

            But that does not suffice to explain the phenomenon of ancient Athens, or the historically unique depth and breadth of cultural innovation that took place there.  Many other settlements in the ancient world, not only in the Greek sector but all over the world, embraced a relatively high degree of personal freedom, and indeed many other regions achieved high levels of culture and inventiveness, as one might expect.  But none of them were Athens.  None of them were destined to give birth, single-handed, to the major part of current Western culture, which nowadays seems destined to engulf the entire globe.

            So what was it about Athens that made it special?




            Here is what Munn has to say, like a beam of sunlight penetrating the shadows of historical understanding:


[A]s the creation of a democratic state it [i.e., Athens] was unique.  No dynasty or controlling hierarchy controlled the instruments of power at Athens.  Political, judicial, and military power were directed by means of public debates in which skilled speakers tried to sway the majority against their rivals’ efforts to do the same.  Because power was publicly constructed, contestants for political influence at Athens developed the means to appeal to wide audiences, and to guide popular approval or condemnation not so much according to narrow, sectional interests, but by casting their arguments in terms of transcendent principles.  Over the course of the Athenian experience with empire, the use of writing to hone the skills of debate and to express the principles that made arguments memorable gave rise to new habits of discourse and standards of judgment.  These habits in turn provided the foundations of rhetoric, political philosophy, constitutional law, and history.

Writing had long been employed among the Greeks, especially as an aide-mémoire for poetry and to give voice to monuments, but in the course of the fifth century it became increasingly the medium for other forms of expression, particularly in prose.  Athenian democracy encouraged habits of literacy, both for the creation of public records and memorials and in the personal use of writing as one of the tools to sharpen and amplify rhetoric.  The consequences of this trend were various and profound.  Poetry at Athens was enriched by the absorption of rhetorical and eulogistic style and content.  In this period the public conscience was both entertained and at the same time informed about underlying meanings and ironies within contemporary events through the allegories of tragedy and the farces of comedy, all created and preserved in writing.  The enrichment of literary description and rhetorical argument achieved by writers versed in a growing literary heritage enabled critical history to be written, first by Herodotus and then by Thucydides.  And many of the same motives that sharpened rhetoric and critical history stimulated the reflective and analytical skills of political philosophy, best known in the person of Socrates and represented in the writings of Plato.5


            There it is!  The democratic process demands the sharpening of a whole panoply of intellectual and psychological skills.  In its very essence, it forces every member of the community to think hard, deeply and clearly about issues confronting it; to develop effective methods of communication in order to convey their thoughts to others; to perfect methods of analysis that can cope with challenges that are posed to their positions; to develop social skills that open others to the possibility of meaningful communication; and to deepen the understanding of human nature in all its emotional complexity in order to find ways to reach other people and hopefully win them over. 

            In addition, democracy depends on literacy.  Effective self-government by an entire community requires the ready availability of an accurate collective memory, which the invention of writing for the first time made possible.  Individual autocratic rulers can function without bowing to the demands of consistency.  When Louis XIV declared that “I am the State”, he was stressing the fact that his will and his whims were the legitimate bases for his rule, and there was no outside power that could call him to account or demand that he remain true to his principles – or indeed, even demand that he have “principles” which remain constant over time.

            In a democratic community, however, there can be no continuity, no hope for social stability or “consent of the governed”, unless there is a way to record for posterity the fundamental ideas which the community has accepted over time as its guiding principles.  Such a record is not only necessary for continuity, it is also essential as a precursor to orderly change which, to be justified, must make reference to widely known underlying principles that are being subjected to challenge.

            Democracy gives birth to innovative and profound culture, then, now, and forever.  It does so through the processes that drive its governing institutions – debating assemblies, delegated authority, judicial systems, and public discourse – that quite literally force a society to develop and perfect all the skills and means enumerated above.

            I, for one, did not see that link before reading Munn’s book.  I had written a lot about the other more obvious benefits of democratic governance, and applied them to the school.  But I never spotted this crucial link between democracy and culture.

            For that matter, neither had any other historians.  Munn’s book broke new ground.




            The reason we at Sudbury Valley – students and staff alike – missed the link between democracy and culture has to do with the way we focused on each of the two separately.  And that, in turn, has to do with the radical nature of the school.

            Sudbury Valley addressed two aspects of schooling.  One was the question of how people become educated, how they absorb and become part of the prevailing culture into which they are born.  The second was the question of how to manage a community of people (in this case, students and staff and, on broader issues, parents and others) that exists within a democratic society.

            The answers we provided to these two questions have been elaborated on and studied in depth from the time of our founding.  In the course of finding our way and articulating it, we zeroed in on those specific features of democracy – empowerment, equality, consent of the governed, for example – that were the essential factors emphasized throughout history by political philosophers, factors that probably received their most eloquent and comprehensive expression in the various works and approaches of this country’s founding fathers.  Similarly, we focused on those specific features of education – learning, teaching, modeling, apprenticing, freedom of choice, concentration, persistence, making mistakes, preparing for adulthood – that were the key features discussed by educators, psychologists, and academicians.

            We felt strongly that all the various features of our school were interlinked in an organic fashion; this is something we have repeatedly stressed – that ours is not a collection of independent innovations piled one on top of the other, but an integral approach to schooling for children.  But only now has it become clear that the institutions of democracy nurture an approach to life and to the world which fosters the creation of a vibrant, innovative, and progressive culture.  Democracy forces every member of society to think for themselves in ways they do not have to under any other form of government.  Democracy forces society as a whole to develop methods of recording what has been created, of accessing those records, and of using them as a basis for new creations.  Democracy grants to every individual, by right, the freedom to employ their minds in any way they see fit.  These features of democracy are the necessary and sufficient conditions for a flourishing culture.

            Which is precisely what we see at Sudbury Valley.  Everyone, even casual visitors, comments on the incredibly high intellectual level of discourse at school; on how “smart” all the students seem to be; on how vibrant the atmosphere is, bursting with energy, filled with electricity.  Over and over again, we hear people – including new or visiting students who are first encountering the school close up – speculate that the school seems to skim the cream off the top, seems to attract the best and the brightest.

            But, of course, we know that not to be the case.  We know that our policy of open admissions has made it possible for anyone and everyone to come, however “smart” they are considered to be.  We enroll students who were considered “learning disabled”, those who did very poorly at other schools, those who excelled, and those who are considered “brilliant”.  We get them all – and after a while, who can tell the difference?  Lo and behold, they all turn out to be “smart”.

            Up until now, we have ascribed this all to the almost magical effect that freedom has on the human spirit – an effect that we know has been present throughout human history.  But it is now clear that we owe this to more than simply unleashing bonds.  We owe the richness of the culture at Sudbury Valley also to the school’s democratic institutions.

1.  Examples abound.  We have understood that having a democratic community means that all participants gain a feeling of empowerment; that they grow in judgment and wisdom as a result of their freedom to make choices and learn from their mistakes; that they partake in innumerable educational experiences as a result of their freedom to associate with whomever they please, and their freedom to speak their minds at all times; that it is inconsistent with personal liberty to subject members of the community to intellectual coercion in any form; and so forth.

2.  University of California Press; Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2000.

3.  The other being, of course, ancient Hebrew monotheism and the Bible that it created.

4.  I do not mean to imply that these individuals were not also products of their environment.  Clearly, their achievements were related to the circumstances in which they found themselves.  Newton famously declared that he had achieved what he did by “standing on the shoulders of others.”  But none of that explains the gigantic leap forward in human thinking or action that these individuals represented.

5.  Loc. cit., pp. 1-2.  Munn’s entire book is informed by this insight, revealed in its opening paragraphs.


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