The Tyranny of Common Sense: a defense of the rule of law and democracy

Some people, who have only a passing knowledge about Sudbury Valley, are troubled and offended by the fact that our school relies on the rule of written law, rather than on guidelines or common sense. Some see our law-book, and presume that a couple dozen pages of written rules (plus many more pages of administrative rules) must be intimidating to young children. Without knowing our school, and without seeing it in action, they presume that consensus would fit us better—assuming that people are more empowered if the governance of a school depends on the active consent of each member.

Adults have persuasive and personal power in social relationships with kids. I remember when I was 8 years old people argued with their peers in a relatively equal way, but if an adult said something (even a reasonable adult) it always felt like a pronouncement. It was always a much weightier matter to actually disagree with the adult.

What attracted me as a child to Sudbury Valley, and what still attracts me, is that everything possible is done to minimize the amount of power that adults wield simply because they are older.

Guidelines and reliance on common sense may work well in a small group of people who know each other well, in which there is little disagreement, and in which there is little danger that some will be easily coerced by others. When I was a child, gentle coercion is what I most feared I would find at Sudbury Valley—gentle coercion, virtually impossible to fight against, to accept the adults’ vision of what is sensible within broad guidelines and understandings.

I was relieved to learn that Sudbury Valley was a community governed by laws and not by men. The existence of a set of written rules (as opposed to guidelines or common sense) were, for me, a condition for feeling personal power and responsibility as a student at Sudbury Valley.

Being a young person at Sudbury Valley is empowering. Each student has sovereignty over his own life. To maintain this, every school policy is part of a public record, which any member can review, and under which all members of the community are equal before the law. If those in the community with personal power were only answerable to guidelines rather than the laws as written, you can bet that the community would come to believe that the right interpretation of those guidelines is the one presented by the most influential members.

Far from taking away a child’s power, clearly worded rules leave one as able as anyone else to argue and understand the meanings of those rules. It frees one from being cajoled, seduced or otherwise made to accept someone else’s understanding.

The consensus model of government is impossible in a community like ours. Consensus assumes a community of people who all agree, and are all on the same page. If everyone in the community agrees, and has similar motivations, guidelines and common sense are enough. If it were a good thing for everyone to agree, then it wouldn’t be a problem if staff had more persuasive and personal power.

But our school is not designed for a community of people who are exactly the same. It is designed for a community of wildly diverse, independent people of all ages. As a child, I wanted a school in which it was recognized that I had my own set of wants and needs, distinct from everyone else’s; in which I was welcome to disagree in the School Meeting (or any other forum) and as long as I followed the laws I didn’t have to agree with them in order to be part of the community. I was sick of rooms full of teachers and administrators and guidance counselors trying to convince me that their way was the right way—I was happy to let them have their way so long as they would leave me to mine. I wanted a pluralistic society.

Some people, who have never seen a School Meeting in action, assume that debating on the School Meeting floor would be intimidating for a young child, and some go so far as to worry that losing a vote would devastate a child—these concerns and worries are at the heart of some adults’ desires to found schools that operate on the consensus model. In fact, it is a very empowering thing to be twelve years old, to argue an issue with other members of the school from age six to sixty, and to lose the vote; it reminds you that your opinions are yours and yours alone and that though you have a voice in the community and care deeply about that community, you are an individual and not synonymous with that community.

In addition to the way in which having straight up-or-down votes on difficult subjects adds to the sense of individual liberty, it also shows great respect for each person in the community. In our school each person knows that in whatever work he does he is expected to do his best, and will be treated to colleagues (whatever their ages) who also put their all into their work and their arguments.

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.