In appreciation of liberty

With all the difficulties that beset us in our personal lives, work environments, and world affairs, it is easy to lose sight of the precious gift of liberty that we enjoy in this country. Recently, a sad event occurred that served as a sharp reminder of that gift. De Kampanje, a sister Sudbury School that had existed for many years in the Netherlands, was forced to close by criminal prosecutions instituted by the Dutch government against parents of students at the school, on the grounds that its program did not conform to requirements mandated by the Ministry of Education. The Ministry reached its conclusion on the basis of an inspection report made by agents of the Ministry, who decided that the school was inadequate because it did not properly evaluate student progress.

Some background: As most of you know, since the early 1990s a considerable number of schools have been founded in this country and throughout the world, based on principles that were pioneered and developed at Sudbury Valley. Some of these struggled to survive and ultimately failed, but today over three dozen schools are up and running, with quite a few more in the formative stage. In fact, the Sudbury Valley School Planning Kit, which contains a vast amount of information in print, audio, and video format, and is sold through our bookstore, has been purchased by over 200 groups during the past two decades, an indication of the interest that SVS has generated.

The majority of groups and schools have been located in the U.S. Those that have succeeded in actually opening schools have had to deal with local educational authorities on the local and state levels, just as have all private schools. (One school succeeded in gaining recognition as a publicly funded charter school, but lost its permission to function when the school board’s membership changed.) The ease with which schools in this country have managed to gain recognition as legitimate schools (whose enrollees satisfy the compulsory school attendance requirements all states mandate for children under the age of 16) has varied. In most situations, they have encountered no difficulties, but in others, they have had to jump through several hoops, or adopt a variety of stratagems, in order to open. But one way or another, all have managed to overcome that initial hurdle, and open their doors as planned.

Unfortunately, the situation elsewhere in the world has been, for the most part quite different. If you were to contemplate the global geopolitical scene, my guess is that you would say that the places where such schools would have the easiest time being approved are the countries of Western Europe, which have the longest traditions of democratic governance outside our country. If that’s what you thought, you’d be dead wrong. Surprisingly, those are the countries where it is most difficult, if not impossible, to start a school as radically alternative to traditional education as we are.

It is not, in fact, possible to obtain permission to open a Sudbury model school in England, Spain, and France (home of the famed motto, “liberty, equality, brotherhood”). Sudbury Schools in Denmark and Germany have had a hard time maintaining their existence, and often have had to compromise some of their key principles in order to be allowed to remain open. Even Summerhill, world-famous for pioneering many of the features that Sudbury Valley has incorporated, was threatened with closure by the British government, and was only able to remain open after taking its battle to court and reaching a compromise deal with the educational authorities.

The members of the De Kampanje community, led by the determined and heroic efforts of Christel and Peter Hartkamp, the school’s founders, pursued every legal recourse to uphold their right to function as a legitimate school in the Netherlands, to which parents may legally send their children. Ultimately, the highest administrative court of the Ministry of Education denied their appeal, as did a higher criminal court hearing appeals of the criminal proceedings against the parents.

The ability of our school, and other Sudbury schools in this country, to function freely is a direct outcome of the liberties guaranteed to all of our fellow citizens, and we should be thankful for this precious gift every day.

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.