The Significance of the Democratic Model: Self-Esteem, Self-Rule, and Self-Motivation

A Clearer View, Chapter 4, pp. 72-91

It may sound like a strange thing to talk about the significance of the democratic model in a school like ours, because the democratic model is so embedded in the school, and has been from day one. In fact, though, our understanding of what the model means has undergone significant development during the past thirty years.

The very first pamphlet that came out announcing the school didn’t mention democracy . It was titled ‘A Radical Proposal’, and it was written in 1965. It said, ‘The guiding principle of the school is that every member be free to pursue his own interests entirely wherever they may lead.’ Of course, that’s still a guiding principle of the school, but that doesn’t relate, at least in an obvious way, to democracy. Our first public flyer barely mentions democracy, except for the statement, ‘All people connected with school share responsibility for the school’s operation.’ There you see something explicit, but not the ‘d’ word. The first official brochure of the school, which was called About the Sudbury Valley School, was written in 1968. Among other things it lists nine key features of the school, and democracy appears there as number 8: ‘All members of the school community participate in regulating the school’s activities.’ That’s it. That’s the basic statement – simple and straightforward. The brochure goes on to say that we feel that all nine listed features are organically related, but not much is said about how democracy is organically related to all the other features. It was a good statement, but not too much meat on it; and that, I believe, reflects the state of our thinking at the time. We knew we had a good thing, and I guess we didn’t feel, at the time, that it was necessary to elaborate more.

Democracy was built into the Corporate Bylaws from the beginning: we had the School Meeting, which consisted of all students and staff and regulated the school’s daily affairs; and we had the Assembly, which included students, staff, and parents, and made all the general policy decisions of the school.

Why did we embed democracy in the school’s structure? What was it doing there in the early years? What was its function?

We had an answer back then, one that had to do with school as a training ground for a democratic society. Sudbury Valley has always been a hands-on place. It’s a place where children learn not just – or primarily – by talking about things, but rather through experience. For example, we don’t talk about ethics. Moral decisions are a part of everyday life in this school. Our attitude towards that is similar to our attitude toward everything: the way you gain knowledge and wisdom in any area is by experiencing activity in that area.

For us, the idea of democracy in the school was a socio-political goal: training for future citizenship. After all, what are schools for? They are a place where children prepare to be adults in society. One characteristic of society in the United States is that it is a democracy. Our stance in school was that if you want to train good citizens to live in a democracy, the way to do it is to give them hands-on experience in democracy – not to talk about it, not to preach about it, but to make them comfortable with it from day one.

I’d like to show you how consistent that aspect of our understanding of democracy has been through the years. In the first full-length book that we published, The Crisis in American Education3 , which was a really good seller in the early ‘70's and is still in print, we wrote: ‘There are three root ideas underlying the ethical, political and social structure of the United States. These three ideas serve as guiding principles for the nation as a whole. The first is the idea of individual rights. Every person is endowed with certain inalienable rights that belong to him as his own. The second root idea is political democracy. All decisions governing the community are decided by the community in a politically democratic way. The third right is equal opportunity. Every person has an equal chance to obtain any goal.’

We go on to say: ‘One would think that our schools would be the most persistent and vigorous expounders of these root ideas. After all, what is the ultimate goal of education if not to prepare the nation’s youth for a lifetime of responsible, mature citizenship?’ For us, preparing for adulthood in a democratic society implied hands-on experience with living in a democratic milieu.

That was written in 1970. Here, now, is what I said in a presentation entitled, ‘Education for Democracy Demands Democratic Schools’ that I made to the first international conference on democratic education, in 19934 : ‘As believers in democracy, we take upon ourselves the . . . responsibility of seeing to its continuation. How then are we to educate for democracy in those schools where we set out to do so? . . . To educate successfully for democracy, the real life surroundings of the children we seek to educate must be democratic in every respect, through and through, to the core and down to the last detail. The world of the children we want to reach must be a democratic reality, so the children wishing to master it will have no choice but to master the whole intricacy of its democratic structure. Education for democracy demands democratic schools. There is no other way to make it effective.’

So you can see that the theme of school democracy as an essential component of the social part of education has been a constant throughout the years. We didn’t focus, however, on the relationship between democracy and other values of the school, even though we talked about its interrelatedness to other values.

We didn’t really grasp it. Last year, a lot of the pieces fell into place for me personally. It happened as one of those ‘eureka’ experiences which really don’t mean that much to somebody else who doesn’t have it. The setting was an informal Assembly discussion group meeting. Sitting around in a room were a group of parents and some students and staff members. One of the parents asked the students in the room, ‘What is the most important element of the school for you?’ The questioner didn’t want to know what the staff felt was most important; she wanted to know what the students thought was most important. Without hesitating, Ben Day replied, ‘Democracy,’ and he talked briefly about empowerment. That was what democracy meant to him. The last thing I expected a student to say in response to that question was ‘democracy’. I expected ‘freedom’, ‘the ability to do what you want’ – but not democracy.

I began to think hard about this. He was talking about democracy as empowerment; he wasn’t talking about School Meetings as a socio-political process, as a method for deciding legislative agendas and governing communities. He was talking about something a little different, closely related to it. That’s when I started focusing on the larger question: what is the significance of democracy in society? Understanding its significance in American culture must precede our ability to grasp its significance in the school.

In the American version of democracy, the idea of personal empowerment is at the heart of everything. You see it in the Declaration of Independence and in the Bill of Rights – in the idea that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In America, the individual is supreme vis-a-vis the community. The community exists for the purpose of furthering individual happiness.

What an incredible concept! It’s completely different from the classical idea of democracy in ancient Greece, which was a purely political process. That had to do with how you decide issues in a society. You don’t have a king make the decision, or a bunch of noblemen, or a small oligarchy; you have everybody get together and vote, and the side with the most votes wins. It’s not surprising that most serious philosophers in ancient Greece came to the conclusion that democracy is a terrible form of government. They saw it as simply a question of who sways the most votes at any particular time, and they could think of no reason why that is any better than a king. Somebody like Plato would argue at great length and very successfully that in fact it’s worse than a king, because a king can be taught to think philosophically about deep issues, whereas you can’t expect much from the average bunch of people who get together in a big coliseum and vote. Likely as not, they’ll just be swayed by the latest fad. There’s no mention of the individual in the Greek concept of democracy. The individual is not what’s important. What’s important is the city-state.

Even England, today, does not have a written Constitution or a Bill of Rights. We come from English roots, yet the English don’t have a Bill of Rights. For example, England has censorship of the press in certain areas, where the government can tell the newspapers, ‘You don’t print this.’ England still has a class society. It still has a House of Lords. The idea of trial by a jury of peers, for example, means, among other things, that if you’re a Lord, if you commit a murder, your jury is the House of Lords. You don’t go to court with a regular jury like all the rest of the people. You go to the House of Lords. Very different from the U.S.A.

In America, the whole idea of democracy is that it’s a social order designed to protect and promote aspects of individual fulfillment. I’d like to name three aspects of individual fulfillment that are specifically promoted. One is the idea of individual self rule, of empowerment. You’re the master of your fate. You’re the person who decides what you do with your life. True, sometimes you can get that taken away from you. If you commit a crime and end up in jail, you’re no longer quite the master of your life. But, generally speaking, citizens control their own fate. One of the interesting aspects of self rule in this country is the incredible mobility of its citizens. Throughout most of history and most of the world, people weren’t free to travel. I don’t mean for tourist purposes. I mean to go somewhere else to change their destiny, to change the way they live. Even now, we’re really the only heavily populated continental country in which individual human beings can decide where they want to live and nobody can say a word about it. You don’t have to have individual ID’s or passports. You don’t have to show the person in the railroad station a travel permit in order to get a train ticket to go from Boston to Washington. There are no borders to cross, no barriers to overcome.

A second aspect of individual fulfillment is self motivation. In America, we protect the ability of individuals to start their own projects and to carry them out. That’s the heart of the entrepreneurial spirit of this country. It’s nothing for people here to say, ‘I want to start something new. I want to start a business. I want to write poems. I want to market some new idea.’ People do it all the time and, in the post-industrial age, it’s becoming more the norm than the exception. We take it for granted. It’s embedded in our culture.

You can’t do this in most of the world today, even in many Western democracies. Because most of the world starts with the idea that the government exists primarily for the benefit of society as a whole. Its first objective is to regulate the individual through a host of rules that everybody has to obey for the greater good of the community. That’s why people all over the world complain that it’s so hard to be creative and entrepreneurial. In this country, too, we grouse about how much the government controls us. But the fact is that there’s no place in the world where the government is less on people’s backs, because the starting point here is what each individual person wants for his/her own future.

The third aspect of empowerment is the concept of self esteem, by which I mean the feeling that I am as worthy as my neighbor. It’s a fact of American history that we have never had a formal class structure in our society. From the beginning, ours was a society where we didn’t accord differential privilege based on education, heredity, money, or any other criterion. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t informal situations where people look down their noses at each other, but those run counter to the culture, which holds as a basic tenet that no matter where you were born, or who you are, you’re as good as the next person.

All these aspects of personal empowerment were applied at first, in this country, to white adult males who were land owners. As time passed, they were extended to white adult males who didn’t own land, then to adult males of all races, and finally to adults of both genders. The essence was there from the outset. The application spread slowly as the decades went by. It hasn’t quite reached children yet. That’s one of the key features of Sudbury Valley, as we shall see.

I would like to digress briefly to discuss something that I have found to be significant. One of the things I kept wondering about is the question: where did this uniquely American concept of democracy come from? What is its origin? Democracy has been practiced one way or another from ancient times, and yet the American take on it is notably different and original. How did this happen? The answer, I think, is rooted in geo-politics, and I think that understanding it helps us appreciate it better. Basically, it has to do with the history of how North America was settled, in the context of European colonization across the globe.

Let’s take ourselves back to the 15th century. This is the beginning of the so-called ‘modern era’ from the Europeans’ point of view, the period when European civilization became the dominant technological civilization in the world. For a variety of reasons, Europe emerged as a powerful force that overwhelmed the ability of the rest of the world to withstand its encroachment. That was, historically, a new phenomenon. Europe became a continent bursting with strength, and with the desire to conquer or dominate the rest of the world, militarily and economically. In particular, Europeans were seized with the desire to expand their influence and trade to the Far East, to those exotic lands that have spices and silks and other wonderful things that you can bring back home and sell at a tremendous profit. In short, if you study the history of that period, you find that Europe is focused on the wealth of the Far East.

Now, if you’re in Europe and you want to get to the Far East, how do you do it? Suppose you want to go through the Mediterranean and the Middle East. It turns out that the Italian citystates have a stranglehold on the Mediterranean trade, that has made the Italians the richest people in Europe for a couple of hundred years. Everybody else is looking with envy at Italy. Who else is a maritime power in that period? Only a few countries: Holland, Spain, Portugal, England, and France. First in line is Portugal. They have kings who are real seafarers and they decide, ‘We’re going to get the Eastern trade too. We can’t go through the Mediterranean because the Italians have it locked up. We’re going to see if we can go the other way around.’ So they start working their way around Africa, and finally get around the Cape of Good Hope and up the other side until they reach India and tie up that route. That’s what’s going on in the Columbus story. After all, why should anyone care about an Italian seafarer coming to Spanish court and talking about sailing to the Far East? Because the Spanish court is dying to participate in the Eastern trade, and all known routes are locked up! Along comes this guy and says, ‘Go this way. It’s open.’ So they give it a try.

This is where the story becomes interesting. They go West and they hit the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. Of course they don’t find the Far East; they find something a hundred times better! They find ancient civilizations that are fantastically wealthy. So, almost overnight, the Spaniards take over that whole region, milk its wealth, and bring it home. Spain becomes the richest country in Europe for some 150 years. It’s hard for us to imagine, given the current condition of Spain. Today, you certainly wouldn’t think of Spain as one of the greatest powers on earth for almost two centuries at the dawn of the modern era.

In North America, by contrast, there wasn’t any wealth to speak of. This is the key to the uniqueness of the North American experience. There are no Incan or Mayan civilizations in North America. North America is a continent in which there are hundreds of different native cultures, none of which possess fabulous wealth. The Spaniards roamed all over North America trying to find gold and silver, and they couldn’t find any at hand. So they left it alone – a whole continent, with an inhospitable climate, and no wealth. It’s all that’s left for the English and French! The French do what the Norsemen before them did in North America in the 10th century, and what the Russians did in Siberia: they trade in furs. They travel through all the major river systems of North America – the St. Lawrence, the Mississippi, the Missouri – and end up claiming all central North America for the French king. Which leaves England.

Now, what does England do? Bad climate means nothing to them. This is like home: rain, snow, cold, misery. The English have a different problem. Over time, they have developed more personal and political freedom than any other country in Europe. In England, some of the bonds of autocracy have been loosened. There is a form of representative government. Remember, we’re talking about the fifteenth and sixteenth century. English kings are still supreme. Common people are only marginally empowered. But there’s a lot more freedom there than anywhere else, and the thing about freedom is that, once you get a little bit of it, it whets the appetite. In England, you have an awful lot of dissidents, because that’s what freedom breeds. European continental powers knew what to do with dissidents. They killed them. They put them in jail. They shut them up. The English did some of that too, but not quite as much. So they ended up with a country in which people with different views of how life ought to be are stirring things up and making trouble.

This is the ideal setting for a whole new concept within the framework of colonialism: colonization. Not going over to rule and exploit a local population, which is what the Spaniards did, and what the English did when they plundered India a few centuries later, but going to a new continent and settling there because you want to live your life the way you want to live it and not be bugged by the ruling authorities.

We all studied this in social studies. The Quakers, for example. They’re not happy in England. They don’t like the established church. They see an opportunity to depart to a place that no one wants but the English. They come to the king and say, ‘Give us a piece of this new land.’ The king is delighted. He can get rid of these malcontents. He can ship them over to America! And who goes? What kind of person picks himself up in the 1600's and 1700's, leaves his home, leaves his native country, leaves his friends, leaves his support group, leaves his culture, leaves a place where his ancestors have probably lived for hundreds of years, to go off into a completely unknown territory where there are untamed natives threatening them – who takes this giant step in order to lead a new life? A self-selected collection of rugged individualists, for whom their own destiny was more important than staying in the comfort of their ancestral domains. It’s true of the Quakers in Pennsylvania. It’s true of the Catholics in Maryland. It’s true of the Puritans in New England. It’s true of Roger Williams in Providence, who couldn’t stand what the Puritans next door did and ran away from them. It’s true right down the line. And they bring with them the concepts of freedom that allowed them to depart in the first place – the idea that there’s something to parliamentary democracy, the idea that people ought to rule themselves. But what they bring most of all is the determination to make a new life for themselves in a new world.

Once that begins, America becomes a haven for people like that from all over the world. That’s what sets the tone. Think about it. Think about all the waves of immigration. These were waves of individuals. Every one of the people in those waves from all of those countries had to pick themselves up and uproot themselves from their communities, from their homes, from their friends. They went to an unknown world. They had no idea what they would see, who would help them. There was no safety net. They came over here with one determination: ‘I am going to make a new life for myself in a new world, however hard it may be.’ Anyone who has read the history of American immigration knows how hard it actually was. That doesn’t seem to have stopped anybody from coming over. All the hardships here were as nothing compared to the determination of that self-selected group of people from all over the world who came over here to realize their personal dreams.

That is the reason for the unique form of democracy we have in this country. To be sure, it’s a country that was set up on the basis of the English love of liberty and the English love of democracy. But the heart of it was a population that came over determined to empower itself and to make its own way in the new world.

The economic reality of the country fitted this framework perfectly. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, we were primarily an agricultural country. Over 90% of the people lived on individual farms. They homesteaded and they kept going West, because they wanted their own land. They were ruggedly individualistic farmers. Indeed, that was Jefferson’s ideal: an America built on a solid foundation of small farmers who understand the role of individual empowerment.

You all know that in the 19th century, when the industrial era came of age, these ideals were severely tested. Industrialism inherently contradicts the idea of personal empowerment, because in the industrial era people had to become parts of machines, and the only way you can get people to become mechanized is to dehumanize them, to disempower them. That’s why, throughout the industrial era in this country, there was a deep conflict between the economic system, which lost its agrarian character, and the fundamental American ideals. That conflict set the stage for all the major social battles of the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Today, the post-industrial age is here. We’re at a point where the economic realities can once again, today and as in generations past, realize the ideal of empowerment, albeit in a nonagrarian setting.

What’s true of American society today is true of the school. The school is basically about democracy as empowerment. Once you realize it, you see it everywhere. Let me read you what two former students said: ‘At first I was scared of the School Meeting, afraid somebody would ask me to say something and I wouldn’t even know what to say. I went anyway, just because I was interested. I wanted to listen. L. was the Chairman. I had read in books about how meetings were conducted with minutes and agendas and a Chairman and everything like that, but it was my first experience with a structured meeting. At first I was confused about L. I didn’t know if he was a student or staff. When I found out he was a student, I was impressed. I thought he did a great job and I really admired him for doing it and looked up to him. I was amazed that one boy who was younger than me, he was nine or ten, spoke right up. I think he had been disciplined and he was trying to explain why he had done something. He just stood right up and spoke his piece. I was so amazed that he had no fear at all. It turned out that he had a good reason for what had happened and everyone ended up rescinding his sentence.’ Or the second quote: ‘Feeling equal is so important. That’s the whole thing. As a kid it’s extremely important because you feel like you have some authority and that you can express your feelings and somebody is going to listen to you. If somebody just throws a rule or something at you, it’s almost like a natural reaction to want to rebel against it, but if you have something to do with it, if you’re part of the decisions to make the rules, that whole democracy feeling, the situation is an advantage. I’m talking now as an adult, but as a kid I was aware of it. I knew that I had certain powers. ‘Hey, we voted for staff.’ You knew you had powers to vote people in, vote people out.’

You see that every day in the school. It’s absolutely gripping. There are a lot of issues that come up in the school and are matters of deep concern to a lot of members of the community. As far as I’m concerned, there is nothing more moving, more interesting, and more impressive than watching the School Meeting assemble, week after week, occasionally moving up to the barn when there isn’t enough room, because one is witnessing the coming together of people who feel they have the power to affect their destinies and to make their opinions count. That doesn’t mean that everybody gets their way. I certainly don’t always get mine. Nobody always gets theirs. But the school provides the opportunity to try to realize your dreams through direct personal action.

Sudbury Valley gives hands-on experience, not simply in democratic government, but in the individual empowerment which is the core of the American democratic concept.


1. During the school year 1997-98, as part of Sudbury Valley School’s Thirtieth Anniversary celebrations, a series of six talks was presented on the theme: What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Thirty Years Ago. This is an edited version of the fourth talk, presented on February 12, 1998.

2. These early documents are all collected in the book Announcing a New School (Sudbury Valley School Press; Framingham, 1973), which is the history of the beginnings of the school, with appendices that contain photocopies of many of these documents. They’re quaint now, when you look at them, over 30 years later.

3. (Sudbury Valley School Press; Framingham, 1970)

4. The conference was held in Jerusalem, and people attended from all over the world. Invited were many academicians, but almost no representatives of schools that claim to practice democracy in one form or another. In fact, ours was the only school invited to make a presentation, thanks to the efforts of Yakov Hecht, who was director of the Democratic School of Hadera, Israel, and who was not himself asked to make a presentation!

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