How can every person be above average? It sounds impossible, but it is a given in the community at Sudbury Valley.
Living life with a measuring stick, watching to be certain that you are doing OK by others’ standards, and getting a thumbs up that you are pulling your own weight is easier than living without such a measure. Having a measuring stick gives you a clear excuse and a reason to stop working and to become passive when you have met some particular point on the measuring stick (whether that chosen point is halfway up or at the top).
When your guideposts are along the lines of “How do I compare to others on this particular narrow measure of achievement?” it is easy to become intellectually inert -- cramming and pushing at the last moment to pass an arbitrary guidepost, then patting oneself on the back. This is humanity denying its nature. Humanity is at its best when each person is actively seeking more and looking to understand or accomplish what nobody else ever could or did. When your guideposts are your own self-generated puzzles and questions and your own desire to push a little further, then you are fully human.
I remember how easy it was in college to stop caring about what one was doing. Once one saw an A on a sheet of paper, s/he would take that as a sign that it was time to stop thinking and musing and writing about a given subject.
I remember fighting that impulse in myself, and that I would sometimes manage to successfully fight it. I could do so because I had grown up in Sudbury Valley, so I was used to knowing how important it is to push one’s understanding in unexpected directions until one could finally offer new insight to the others in the conversation. I was only sometimes successful, because in any environment with grades there is a seductive message that being lazy is OK, and the sense that one’s aim is to go no further than matching some particular measure of another person’s knowledge.
But once one person knows and understands something, how helpful can it really be for even one other person in a group to know and understand the same thing in precisely the same way? And is there any utility at all in having every person in a group know and understand the same thing in precisely the same way?
It’s not helpful. The advantage of living and working in a group is to embrace diversity of information, ability, and approaches. This is even more fully the case in the modern era, when technology can handle most repetitive tasks.
My housemate makes fun of me that every time I describe a kid in our school, I use adjectives like “best,” “perfect,” and “amazing.” She taunts me that I must be wearing rose-colored glasses, because it’s not possible for a hundred different people to be “the best,” likening my attitude to the foolish quest by departments of education to decry a world in which half the children are “below average.”
At Sudbury Valley, there is no such thing as average. I’m not wrong when I say, about any child in our school, that she or he is exceptional. And it’s not just by comparison with other schools -- even when one looks only within our school, each child is exceptional.
At Sudbury Valley, as in any free society, this can be the case because there are infinite different ways to be exceptional. There are endless possibilities for how we can be better, and how we can make life better for those around us. By our nature, we each have different hopes and dreams for ourselves and our neighbors, so no two people ever have precisely the same interests or goals.
Each person has a unique way of analyzing the world, has unique interests, has unique ways of understanding what others tell her/him, has unique ways of expressing what s/he knows, and has a unique approach in handling those tasks s/he takes on that are less interesting to her/him.
The unique blend means that the person who is ideally suited to do one job is not the same person who is ideally suited to do another job. Humanity always does better when it is possible for each person to do more of what s/he does best, and to allow others to do more of the tasks that they do best. We are each and all better off when it is easy for others around us to be themselves, and to do those things that only they can do.
Every person can be exceptional when there are as many ways to be exceptional as there are people and each person is free to pursue his/her own goals. A key goal in the well-lived life is coming to understand yourself, your own abilities, and your own limitations.
It is no accident that 2500 years ago the advice to “know thyself” was announced boldly in the main front chamber at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi. Sudbury Valley students constantly improve by coming to know themselves better, and by aiming for heights that only they can reach.