Why a Curriculum is Counterproductive

All too often parents, educators, and even students ask us why we are so adamant about not offering any courses at SVS, and why we only teach in response to the students’ initiatives. They wonder why we don’t just offer a few “required” subjects and thereby ease people’s anxieties and improve the school’s image as well. While we have many theoretical and practical reasons for our policy it is difficult to explain ourselves in ways which succeed in allaying people’s fears about our students not getting the education they will need to be successful as grownups in our society.

Last week I had a conversation with a student whom I shall call A., which shed new light on this subject for me. We were talking about spending time alone in the woods. A. told me that he never felt lonely there, but rather that he felt his mind was full of thoughts which were interesting and fulfilling to him. Then he continued by telling me that although he loved listening to music, he has lately come to realize that music expressed the ideas and thoughts of the musicians who composed it. These were their thoughts, not his. By listening to music all the time he felt he was depriving himself of his own thoughts. He now listens to music less often and uses it when he is in the mood, but not to fill his time. He needs quietude to be himself and he finds music distracting.

It took me a few days to understand what A. was talking about and then it hit me. That is exactly what we say at SVS when we tell our students to take responsibility for the use of their time and for their learning. We don’t want to fill their minds with our thoughts. We want to make sure that they are free to use their minds to think their own thoughts. That does not preclude us from answering questions or saying our opinions when we are asked to do so, and from generally being available to converse. But it does mean that we avoid offering them a curriculum to follow.

The minds of children aren’t blank or empty. They are busy all the time with taking in the world around them and trying to make sense out of what they see. When we as adults attempt to interfere with this natural process and take over their minds with our own wisdom, we take a grave risk of interfering with their own thought processes. This may result in their gaining some factual knowledge, but at a cost to their ability to think for themselves and to be original and creative. It boggles my mind that the attributes we cherish in ourselves and in our friends — being interesting, insightful, creative, and independent — is what we are willing to sacrifice in children in exchange for the acquisition of knowledge that some of us deem it necessary to learn. We adults need to have more trust in our children’s ability to figure out how to prepare themselves to be effective in this world.

Another thing that is important to me is the matter of time — what we consider to be a good use of it, and when it is wasted. Your time on this earth is your life. When somebody takes away some of your time, they are taking away a part of your life. One should be very careful in commandeering someone else’s time away from their own use. We do it to children too often, thinking to ourselves that because they are young their time is not as precious as our own. But in truth every minute that you occupy children with your own stuff is time you are taking away from them to use as they wish to use it. You are distracting them from their own lives. Not only is it an invasion of their privacy and disrespectful but it is also quite wasteful. The younger the mind the more effective it is in acquiring knowledge. Hence interfering with the natural processes of children as they are working to understand themselves and the world is even more harmful to them than to adults.

I believe that the net gain of some facts, skills and all the rest aren’t worth the distraction from the process that each child goes through on their own path. The adult’s job is to answer questions when asked, to provide tools and opportunities when requested and to stand aside and let the children do their work on their own. We must be very careful not to seek to fill our children’s minds with our knowledge; rather we need to let them find their own knowledge. We know we won’t be around to guide them all their lives, so we must allow them to develop the tools they need to be their own guides. And that is done by letting them struggle and figure things out on their own, and being ready to offer help when they ask for our help.

Perhaps a well known Zen story will express what I mean better than I can:

A Japanese Zen master received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen. It was obvious to the master from the start of the conversation that the professor was not so much interested in learning about Zen as he was interested in impressing the master with his own opinions and knowledge. The master listened patiently and finally suggested they have tea. The master poured his visitor’s cup full and then kept on pouring. The professor watched the cup overflowing until he could no longer restrain himself.

“The cup is overfull, no more will go in.”
“Like this cup,” the master said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

From Hyams, Joe, Zen in the Martial Arts,

(St. Martin’s Press; New York, 1979), pp. 18-19

What I learned from this story is that as a staff member at Sudbury Valley, I have to take care not to fill the students’ “cups” with my own opinions and knowledge. They must fill them themselves, and I have to respect them and trust them to fill their “cups” wisely.

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.