In a Nutshell
What This Essay is Really About…
The school was first conceived half a century ago, in the Fall of 1965. In so many ways, it was a different world back then. Talking to young people about life in those days is like relating stories about some distant far-gone period in the history of mankind. No laptops? No smartphones? No worldwide web? No email, Facebook, Twitter, messaging--no way of connecting instantly to other people anywhere on the globe? No LEDs, no lasers, no color copiers, not even CDs or DVDs?
"Did you grow up," they think, "in a subsistence economy?"
Never mind the geopolitical world scene--as remote as the Triple Entente and Quadruple Entente were to me when I was growing up…
Yet, Sudbury Valley has remained fundamentally unchanged across the long span of decades since it opened in 1968. Lots and lots of details here today, gone tomorrow, but all within a sturdy framework built on a firm foundation, that have survived unblemished and gained ever wider renown with time.
I've been pondering why this has been so. What is it about the heart and soul of the school that was deeply relevant when it was founded, and continues to breathe life not only into Sudbury Valley, but also into so many other schools? Why do an increasing number of people all over the world seek to understand us? What is it that is so intriguing?
What I want to relate here is my answer to these questions.
Location, Location, Location
It did not, of course, escape our attention that Sudbury Valley was established in the United States. The conclusions we drew from that obvious fact were articulated in the Sudbury Valley Press' first book, The Crisis in American Education, published in 1970, in which we made the argument that any school purporting to educate children to become adults who can function productively in the American socio-political environment should mirror the basic structure of that environment. Our point was simply that subjecting children to an authoritarian, hierarchical school system was not an effective way to prepare them to be responsible citizens in a democracy.
That argument has been presented repeatedly over the years in our literature, and is as valid today as when it was first made. It proceeds from the conceptualization of schooling as a training ground for adulthood, and specifically calls on schools to provide experiences relevant to the adult lives of their students. From this perspective, students in school are seen as quasi-interns, preparing for the reality they will experience, when they reach the age of majority, by growing up in that same reality.
Democratic schooling as preparation for a democratic society--that was the essence of our socio-political argument against the prevailing school systems, private and public, and for the new model we were proposing.
This approach can be seen to be limited in its application to countries that are themselves political democracies. It would make no sense, and indeed be counter-productive, in an absolute monarchy or a dictatorship. We acknowledged that, and used it to promote our approach as not only valid, but essential, for the survival of our political system.
All this was taking place at a period in history--the 1960s and 1970s--when our society was undergoing an extensive cultural upheaval. In every domain, radical experimentation took center stage--in art, in music, in literature, in architecture, in business, in industry, in housing, in race relations, in government. President John F. Kennedy's declaration that a new generation was taking over the reigns from the old was the underlying theme of the era.
Education was right there, not to be left behind. The K-12 curricula that had been largely unchanged since the turn of the century were re-written and "modernized". Gone were the traditional methods of presenting school subjects, to be replaced by the "new math", the "new biology", the "new physics", the "new" everything. And hovering around the edges were a fairly large number of radical "free" or "democratic" schools.
In fact, an entire "democratic school" movement came into being, ultimately embracing over a hundred schools, most of which had no more than a few dozen students. They met in storefronts, in homes, in churches, in public places from which they could roam cities. They were loosely organized, included students in discussions about activities, and often in some of the daily decision-making. They placed a great deal of emphasis on spontaneity, and looked down on such activities as planning, organization, and rule-making as signs of authoritarian rigidity, whatever their origin.
To virtually all the members of that movement, Sudbury Valley was anathema.
All this made us take a hard look at the notion of identifying ourselves as focusing primarily on being "democratic". We were nothing like the other schools that claimed that identification, and we certainly didn't want people to compare us to those schools1. Furthermore, global geopolitics of that era had made the term "democratic" a mockery by any standard. Some of the most repressive political regimes included that adjective in their official name, calling themselves "democratic republics", as a glance at a map of the 1970s would reveal, and many still do.
Mind you, we hadn't abandoned the idea that a central feature of the school was its basic compatibility with the socio-political ideals of our country. Nor had we lost sight of the proposition that having children grow up in an environment that displays such compatibility is the only way to ensure that, as adults, they would be more likely than not to maintain those ideals as adult citizens. But we realized that focusing on the structure of the school's governance did not provide a full enough conceptual framework for what we were doing here.
Building the Framework
Every institution has a conceptual framework within which it operates, and those that wish to remain relevant over time subject that framework to constant examination and elaboration. The work of identifying the components of the framework depends on the nature of the organization's activities, the materials that the "framers" will use, and the form of the structure that will emerge. The framers of this country's Constitution struggled with the concepts that would guide the overall structure of the Federal government they wished to create. People who create schools seek to identify the components of an environment that is best suited to promote the growth of children into adulthood--a process they call "education", from the Latin word meaning "to bring out", since they see that process as one through which the properties adults must possess in contemporary society can emerge and take root as children pass into the age of majority. So what are the elements that educators identify as components of the framework for schooling?
Wait a minute! Take another look at the last few sentences of the preceding paragraph. Educators "create schools" to provide "an environment that is best suited to promote the growth of children into adulthood". I'll bet you went right by that sentence, and the rest of the paragraph, without doing a double-take. Mass education, the notion that children have to spend a significant portion of their early years in institutions called "schools" that have to be "created" so that they can properly grow into adulthood--where on earth did that come from? When that amazing species labeled homo sapiens emerged, there were no schools around to shepherd its young into maturity. Until about 150 years ago, almost all members of the species managed that transition unaided by members of a profession called "educators", and of the few who underwent some sort of schooling experience, almost all did so for a few hours a day for a few months a year for a few years in humble one-room cabins. Oh, and with all ages mixed together (rarely past puberty), under the eye of an untrained, barely literate, and poorly paid youngster hired to be the "teacher". Children grew up, became productive members of the community as soon as they could, and to their best ability, at various ages that would have present-day guardians against "child labor" appalled.
And yet, despite the total lack of proper "schooling" (by current standards) available to children throughout history, the human race produced an amazing variety of cultures, complete with advanced technologies, science, philosophy, theology, art, music, literature--in short, complete with a stunning record of achievement at the highest levels of excellence, never static, always evolving in complexity, beauty, and range. So what gives?
It is fairly well known that there is a connection between the birth of the Industrial Era and the creation of mass education for children. The requirements of the new factory-centered economy that came to be during that era created a demand for a veritable army of people who could engage in an activity called "work" that was unlike any work known to humans prior to that time.2 But there is another aspect to the new social realities of the Industrial Era that has been given far less attention, and that is central to a key feature of modern mass schooling, and beyond that, of modern society. It deserves a close look.
"Happy Birthday to You!"--and by the way, "How Old Are You Now?"
One of the most striking features of modern schools is their age segregation. Striking, and puzzling.
There is a "before" and "after" to this phenomenon that are worth pondering. Before: there were only a few universally recognized age-related landmarks, and those were not linked to a particular chronological age, as they could occur over a wide variety of ages. They were the following:
(1) The age at which a person became capable of contributing productively to society. With precocious children that could be as young as three, but at all events, it was rarely later than seven. There were all kinds of tasks that very young children could perform that were extremely useful to the community--tasks such as babysitting their infant siblings, serving as couriers for conveying messages, or taking the sheep out to pasture.
(2) The age at which a person can produce children, and thus enable the community to have a viable future. Given the high infant death rate that prevailed throughout the world until very recently, for group survival it was necessary to begin bearing children as soon as possible, and to continue to do so as long as possible, within such other constraints as may be present (such as the availability of food).
(3) The age at which a person could no longer contribute productively to society, due to infirmity or illness.
Note that between (1) and (3), everyone was considered a useful member of society, and was treated as such. "Age-mixing" of people who were between those two landmarks was not a concept that found much currency in daily discourse; it was natural, just like breathing, eating and sleeping.
In a sense, that hasn't changed. It's the landmarks that have changed, but in a highly significant and consequential way. They have been assigned specific chronological ages.
The earliest age at which a person is allowed to contribute productively to the community has come to be defined by law. With a few exceptions, for example, in this country, that has been defined as 16, with some variation allowed for those 14 and up (having special permits). The laws involved are labeled "child labor laws", equating "child labor" with the inhumane treatment of children by, among other things, forcing them to perform physical functions too stressful for their bodies (almost all functions being considered so), and--worst of all--preventing them from spending sufficient time in school. (Perhaps these laws should be re-christened "child school incarceration laws".)
The latest age at which a person has, until recently, been allowed to contribute productively to the community was fixed at 65 in this country (although in some Western countries it is a much younger age). This used to be a generally accepted age of forcible retirement from all regular jobs. It is still in this country the age at which retirement is encouraged, and retirement benefits are automatically paid.
So age mixing between landmark ages (1) and (3) is still not an issue--people in our society mix freely between reaching the age of majority and retirement age--but outside those landmarks, age segregation has become commonplace. Children under the age of majority are generally excluded from interacting freely with adults, and certainly from participating in adult decision-making. Retirees are provided with senior centers, special activities for our elder citizens, discounts and special privileges, and in many ways pushed aside as supernumeraries in society. Waiting to die.
There are many theories that try to explain why this age segregation has taken place. Most focus on demographic and economic considerations--namely, the explosion in population during the Industrial Era, which supposedly requires some limits to be placed on the number of workers allowed to compete for jobs if they are to have a chance at a living wage.
But that is by no means the whole story. There is a certain crassness to segregating society into separate age groups in order to provide a financial advantage to those in the most numerous and powerful group. And that has led the intellectual vanguard to create a panoply of conceptual justifications for this age separation.
Specifically, there has come into being over the past century and a half a wide range of academic fields devoted to various aspects of the human condition that are purportedly age-related. Most of these focus on the brain, and the details of its functioning at various points in life. So-called "brain research" claims to demonstrate that the brains of children develop in specific age-related stages, at which they are susceptible to certain kinds of learning and training; and, at the other end of the age spectrum, the brains of older people have specific types of deficits that inhibit their functioning. The fields of psychology and sociology are also harnessed to the wagon of age-ism, mostly by using theories of brain function as their starting point.
Using their "science-based" approach, the people directing the activities of young people in our society have introduced radical age segregation throughout their years of minority, subjecting each separate age group to the "age appropriate" levels of activity and attainment that their research has supposedly revealed.
So--age mixing is OK after the age of majority and before the age of seniority, but certainly not to be freely engaged in outside those parameters. In particular, the way children grow to adulthood cannot, in this view, be allowed to continue as it had been until the 19th century. One has to design the environment for the human transition to adulthood in detail to make it age appropriate.
And that, dear reader, is the academic and intellectual foundation of modern mass schooling.
Battling False Gods
All of Sudbury Valley's practices as a school were in stark contrast to those of the schools that surrounded us. There was no way to expect families to entrust their children to us unless we could present convincing refutations of the frameworks of those schools. So even as we were struggling to identify the key elements of our own conceptual framework, we were forced to take on the ideas that underlay the other schools we wanted parents to forsake in our favor.
It was no accident that the two of us who were deeply involved in founding the school had come from a background of academic science, and were thus intimately acquainted with the strengths and weaknesses of conclusions that were labeled "scientific". Although this is not the place for an extensive critique of such conclusions, for our purposes here it is sufficient to note that none of the studies that supposedly support those conclusions had been done in normal life settings. The excuse given for this surprising fact is that real-life situations are not subject to "controlled" studies, and so the behavior of human beings in everyday life can only be derived from studies made under controlled situations. Brain scientists and psychologists see no real problem with this state of affairs.
We, on the other hand, could see only problems with their conclusions, and felt that in every domain they contradicted the observed behavior of children in the real world. Our task was to point out those problems, and try to convince others--in particular, parents of children who were potential enrollees in our school--that to avoid those problems, one had to start over by taking a fresh approach to children.
So we had to examine each aspect of traditional schooling and muster arguments to justify abandoning widely accepted practices. Take the concept "learning". Traditional schools make the fundamental assumption that in order for children to learn anything they will need to know in order to function as adults in the world of today, they have to have someone "teach" it to them.
Now, everyone knows that people, regardless of age, learn all sorts of stuff without teachers conveying it to them. The issue at hand is how to get children to learn the particular stuff schools demand that they have to learn. And that is where the structural foundation supporting schools begins to collapse. Who is to decide what this or that particular child, let alone any and every child, needs to learn to become a successful adult? Is there any human being who can identify the specific knowledge that underlies the huge variety of human endeavors that exist today? And is there any person who can be expected to possess all that knowledge?
Nevertheless, we are required to make do with the stuff that a bunch of arbiters have decided are the essentials of current human culture, and then give them the authority to declare that those essentials must be forced upon every child, and to design the methods for doing so. This, despite the fact that everyone is fully aware of the simple fact that the totality of human experience today bears little resemblance to that of a generation ago, or even a decade ago, and that tomorrow's reality will just as surely be vastly different from today's.
These considerations formed the gist of the argument we made in rejecting the very concept of a curriculum.
But we also addressed the related issue of how it might be possible to get children to actually learn what the schools have decided they must learn. The universal answer, that someone has to teach them the stuff, flies in the face of the widely acknowledged fact that despite the best efforts of pedagogues, who claim to be experts in teaching, the children exposed to that teaching rarely retain what they are taught.3
But underlying the whole discussion was a deeper question: if it is true that certain material has to be learned by everyone in order to become a functioning adult, why should we assume that children won't discover this on their own, and go about learning it? Isn't that what adults do? And the answer: those who have not reached the age of majority are fundamentally different than adults. Their thinking processes are not developed enough to relate to the world around them in a manner that will enable them to take the initiative to figure it out. We had to present clear evidence to the contrary--to wit, that children in every culture from the dawn of time had done so quite adequately.
In area after area, we had to combat the false conclusions of the people who designed, and continue to reenforce, the framework of schools. We had to address their views about play, about conversation, about responsibility, about socialization--every nook and cranny of the structure upholding schools had to be exposed to the light of real life experience.
That has been one of our most important tasks since our founding, and continues to be so. We have produced a vast collection of material to support our positions on all these subjects. But the search for the basic elements of our own conceptual framework continued to be a work in progress.
My "Eureka" Experience
We knew the conceptual foundation on which our framework could be built had to be simple. It had to be capable of being articulated in straightforward, clear, and uncomplicated terms. There were several reasons for this conviction.
First was the realization that something intricate could not be the key to the environment most suitable as a place where children can grow to maturity. It couldn't involve specialized training of adult mentors, or complex theories of developmental psychology, because none of these had been present since the dawn of time, since human beings first emerged as a species capable of the most amazingly creative problem-solving and inventiveness of any species before it.
Second was the fact that something profoundly simple had been going on at Sudbury Valley from the day it opened its doors: children of all ages, from all backgrounds, had created a vibrant, joyous institution, overflowing with high-energy activity, fascinating conversation, and an abiding atmosphere of fair play, all without the benefit of a thick (or thin, for that matter) manual providing formulas and guidelines for its operation.
Third was Occam's razor.
So the foundation had to be simple and deep at the same time, a happy combination only present in patently successful environments. But what was it? Why was it eluding us?
Then a series of events unfolded that ultimately revealed the key. New schools based on our model were being planned in various Western European countries, all of them steeped in a liberal political tradition. This process began in the 21st century, long after dozens of such schools had been established in this country. People were working on opening such schools in Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain. In each of these countries one or more such groups actually had proceeded to the opening stage. But without exception, regardless of where they were, they encountered strong opposition from their government, and pressure to abandon their radical innovative approach and conform to the prevailing modes of schooling.4
The question kept haunting me: why was this happening? Why could we succeed in this country, and so many others like us flourish here, while no other country wanted to give similar enterprises a fighting chance? The solution to this puzzle had to be related to the search for the essence of the school: what SVS is really about had to be in perfect harmony with what this country is really about, and out of sync with what the rest of the liberal democracies are about.
And this could only mean that understanding what this country is really about is the key to understanding what SVS is really about.
Once the truth of that simple statement dawned on me, it all became crystal clear.
A Simple Answer Revealed in All its Magnificence
One doesn't have to work hard to discover the essence of America. It is spelled out in two sentences in the document that gave this country its definition and ultimate meaning--the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
The Founding Fathers who signed this Declaration, on behalf of the thirteen British colonies that formed the coalition ultimately becoming the United States of America, understood it clearly to be what today would be designated a "mission statement"--namely, a statement of ideals to which the new union aspired. Over the centuries, it has served as a guide for elevating the moral quality of this nation--for applying the phrase "all men" to all people, regardless of race, gender, origin, or belief; for refining the meaning of "governments…deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed"; and of specifying the nature of the "certain unalienable rights" over and beyond the three listed there. Its central position in our history has remained unchallenged. It has always been, and remains, the foundation upon which everything else in American society is constructed.
How does this mission statement reveal the key to American exceptionalism in the context of Western culture? To understand the answer, we have to examine it carefully.
What is the starting point from which all else flows? It is the individual human being. It is the person who has rights, not because some government has graciously granted them (and could just as easily take them away); not because some philosopher has argued that ethical theory, or political philosophy, demands that these rights exist; but because they have been granted by God, and thereby become "unalienable", not revocable by any human power. It matters not at all whether you believe in God or not; what matters is that as far as this country is concerned, the rights enumerated transcend human approval or disapproval, and are subject to neither a vote of confidence or a vote of rejection, no matter how overwhelming the majority either way.
The country, from the outset, was viewed as a place where every individual is sacrosanct, where every person's life, liberty, and pursuit of their dreams is the ultimate justification for the country's very existence. The collection of individuals who constitute the American body politic is not the primary focus, nor indeed a focus at all. Its role is strictly circumscribed: its sole purpose is to "secure those rights" of the individual, to protect the individual from their infringement, and even in that role, it can function only with the consent of the individuals who are being protected.
One stands in awe of the brazen originality of this simple mission statement (and of their brazen chutzpah in calling their "truths" to be "self-evident")! Nothing remotely resembling it had ever been articulated in human history. There was no model on which it was based. It stood in marked contrast to the collective-oriented conception of social organization that informed every social organization and government that had ever existed before, and has ever existed since. And that's the nub of the matter.
Like every other form of human organization other than America, the liberal European countries base their socio-political and socio-economic structures on the primacy of the community. Even the two nations that have been hailed as the beacons of liberty are no exception. The motto of the French Revolution, which was spread throughout Europe by Napoleon's conquering armies (themselves functioning under an absolute monarchy!), was "liberte, egalite, fraternite", where the key last word signified the centrality of a society bonded by a sense of brotherhood. It was no accident that during the period of the French Revolution, different groups with radically different ideas about what such a community should represent, and how individual citizens should fit into it, used every means available to them (including unbridled violence) to give their conceptions primacy. The succession of "isms" that dominated the European, and subsequently the global, geopolitical scene throughout the 20th century saw the same pattern repeated over and over again in various incarnations.
Likewise, the British highly-touted uhr-document of human liberty, the Magna Carta, was actually about the primacy of the nobility, as a group, over the king. To this day, the supreme ruler of Great Britain is its Parliament, which speaks for the nation as a community, and can legislate at will and without legal limitation the social structures that are best suited to promote national welfare.5
I have often wondered why not one of the countries newly created since the end of World War II--over one hundred of them--has found it fitting to copy the socio-political structure of the United States when defining their national identity, despite the clear historical evidence that, to put it with maximum humility, this country has not over time shown itself to be the most poorly organized society in human history. Why hasn't even one of them chosen to experiment with the American form of self-government, created when the American colonies freed themselves from colonial domination?
I now fully appreciate the answer to that question: our national identity was based on the supreme sacredness of each individual human life, a historical innovation too radical, too removed from timeless human experience. This is not the place to explore the reasons such a startling innovation could take root here. Suffice it to say that its emergence depended critically on the fact that the people who found their way to this country had come from all the corners of the earth, and had chosen to abandon the varied communities in which their ancestors had lived for generations. Old traditions had to be left behind, and their bearers had to coexist with the bearers of a plethora of alien, and often conflicting, traditions if they were to survive on this continent. The "melting pot" called America melted those traditions as well, and enabled them to be poured into a new mold created by the most original sculptors of human social structure known to history.
What Sudbury Valley School is Really About
Our school is an "immersion" school. That is not a new concept in education. People who want their children to grow up embedded in the values and culture of traditions other than the classic American one (although not necessarily inimical to the American tradition) often enroll their children in such a school. For example, there are well-known "French immersion" schools and "German immersion" schools, as well as immersion schools for various religious or spiritual cultures.
Sudbury Valley is an American immersion school. It is a place where children grow up immersed in the culture that was created on the basis of the mission statement of this country's defining founding document. It is the kind of environment one would expect every adult in this country who wants to see the "American way of life" survive into the future, albeit in a global environment generally indifferent, and often hostile, to it.
It is a place devoted to the principle that all people, regardless of race, national origin, religion, gender, or age, are created equal. Fully equal--not partially equal, not almost equal, not gradually more and more equal as they grow older. The very first sentence of the school'sHandbook states this with perfect clarity, and places the responsibility for maintaining the school's vision in every individual member of the school community:
All School Meeting members are responsible for the general welfare of the school, through actions that contribute to preserving the atmosphere of freedom, respect, fairness, trust, and order that is the essence of the school's existence.
It is a place that recognizes that all people are "endowed…with certain unalienable rights". The school, by its commitment to the law of the land (spelled out specifically in its Lawbook6), recognizes the rights belonging to all Americans. In addition, its Lawbook contains an entire section entitled "Personal Rights and Their Protection", which spells out certain specific rights for the sake of clarity, much as court decisions in the community at large do.
It is a place where the government of the school community derives its power from the consent of the governed. As the Sudbury Valley School Lawbook states on its cover page:
The Lawbook is a living document. It gives an overall picture of how the School operates. Everything in the Lawbook has been passed by majority vote of the School Meeting, and can be changed or added to at any time by vote.
In a Nutshell
We have always said that in its essence the school is based on a simple foundation: it is a place where children are treated as fully people.
What we really meant was that Sudbury Valley is an American Immersion School, where children and adults exist in an environment that fully embodies the American ideals that have inspired this country from the time it was founded.
It is a "school of the future", designed to allow children to grow into adults who can help guarantee that our country indeed has a future.
1. The use of the designation "democratic" has not waned; quite the contrary, the number of schools and institutions that claim to be "democratic" has skyrocketed, and the description seems to have lost all connection to a meaningful definition. For example, one of the organizations claiming to be an umbrella for "democratic schools" has embraced a definition that says that any school based on respect for students can rightfully be called democratic. Since I know of no school anywhere that claims not to respect students, it appears that the goal of universal "democratic education" has been achieved according to that perspective!
2. I have examined the socio-economic factors that led to the establishment of mass education in A New Look at Schools, Daniel Greenberg (Sudbury Valley School Press®, Framingham, MA; 1992).
3. The confusion of "learning" with "teaching" is addressed in Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track, Russell L. Ackoff and Daniel Greenberg (Prentice Hall; New Jersey; 2008), pp. 3-22.
4. On reflection, this development should have come as no surprise. A decade earlier, Summerhill, the world-renowned parent of all schools that have radically departed from traditional practices, was almost hounded out of existence by the British government after over half a century of operation. This was happening in the country that prided itself on being the birthplace of Western liberal political theory. If the British couldn't tolerate Summerhill, why be surprised if no continental liberal countries could tolerate schools modeled on SVS? The situation prompted me to write a blog entitled "In Appreciation of Liberty", Sudbury Valley School Blog, June 9, 2014.
5. One hears frequent reference to the "unwritten British constitution" to which Parliament is bound. In fact, that "constitution" can be modified at will by Parliament, and the British courts must, in the last analysis, yield to the judgment of the collective group that sees itself as representing the body politic as a whole.
6. "There shall be no illegal activities on the campus, nor shall anyone use the campus as a base for illegal activities in the community." (Sudbury Valley School Lawbook, Rule 400.01)