A Scientist at Heart

Emma Tunstall

"I attend the Sudbury Valley School. . . It is based on the idea that humans are innately curious, and that, when left in charge of their own education, children will learn what they need to naturally."

I said this at the beginning of one of what felt like hundreds of college application essays I wrote this fall, with the goal of trying to present my unique educational background to the admissions offices. At the time, I didn't think deeply about what it meant. The fact that people have a natural drive to learn seemed obvious to me; it was a truth I held to be self-evident, right up there with our founding fathers' proclamation that all men are created equal. The preamble of the Declaration of Independence has been written into who I am; I have heard it so many times that it has become a part of me and how I think. It is only when I stop to examine it, and think about the time in history when it was created, that I realize how radical and important it was and still is. It was much the same with the notion that children, and people in general, learn and grow naturally. That idea is at the center of Sudbury Valley's educational philosophy, and having spent my entire academic life at the school, I never really thought about its true and complex meaning until recently.

It all began just last week. Over the summer, I had knee surgery, and I am still recovering. After leaving a follow-up appointment with my surgeon, I realized that I hadn't asked why my knee was still hurting. For some people, it might seem obvious. I had surgery, my knee is healing, and therefore, it hurts. That's true, certainly, but I wanted, needed, to know more. What exactly is it that's causing my current pain? Is it muscles that are still tight and weak? Tissues that are still healing? Inflammation, or a combination? It became very important to me that I fully understand.

It was at this point that I connected my desire to understand with my interest in medicine--I want to be a vet--and thought to myself, maybe I am a scientist at heart. Anyone who has attended Danny's history seminars knows that he always starts at the very beginning. In this year's seminar on modern history, in which we aimed to start at around the year 1775, we first discussed ancient times and how we got to 1775. In the other seminar we're doing this year, history of religion, we began by thinking about what religion is. During that discussion, religion was defined as a mechanism humans use for trying to explain our world. If you think about early, polytheistic religions, this makes a lot of sense. Natural forces such as the ocean and the weather were personified as gods and goddesses. Of course, religion has other facets too, a sense of faith, for example. But it is this basic, primary idea that has the most relevance to my story. Also during that discussion, Danny put forth the notion that science is, itself, a religion. While thinking about this, and the idea of religion in general, I realized that it's not just that I am a scientist at heart, and maybe I am, but more than that--I am human. There is a reason why humans have been drawn, century after century, and decade after decade, to religion. We are constantly thinking about the world around us, analyzing, exploring, questioning. Always. That's what we do, all day, every day.

I thought back to everything the doctor had said during my appointment, and zeroed in on something that I was pretty sure was the answer to my question. After my surgery, my knee got infected, and a few weeks later I needed a second operation to wash out the infection. Having two surgeries within a month, my doctor had said, sets you up for a long recovery. Even now, five months later, my knee is still fighting to heal itself. It's still scarred, internally. When I remembered this, the answer to my unspoken question, I felt relieved, but at the same time, a desire to learn even more. That's what we do, day after day, at Sudbury Valley, and at every school and workplace across the country. We figure something out, and immediately, we want to learn more. I finish a piece on the piano, and move onto something harder. It is like I said in my essay, an innate curiosity.

Sometimes, at an art museum, while looking at a painting, I have to take a step back in order to see the piece as a whole. I was so used to being immersed in this idea of curiosity propelling growth and education that I wasn't able to fully appreciate it and its implications. Taking a step back and thinking about the theory in its entirety gave me the perspective I needed in order to realize how important and pivotal it is. What makes SVS, and by extension, its students, special, is our realization, and subsequent embrace, of this insuppressible thirst for knowledge. We know that it is enough to give kids the space and the resources to be themselves and educate themselves. Just as last year's graduates show in this issue of the Journal, Sudbury Valley's unique gift of a free educational environment allows us to make the most out of our curiosity, and learn how to use it during the rest of our lives.

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