Academic Failure and Democratic Schooling

Some Autobiographical Reflections1

I have zealously guarded my failing report cards from the 10th grade, which was to be my last year of secondary education in a traditional school. And I'll admit, I have a bit of pride in them still. One of them reads as follows: "Competitive Team Sports: His grade to date is an F; His poor attendance affects his performance. English 111: He is not working up to his capabilities; He lacks initiative and commitment to master material; He has not completed major projects; He does not make up missed work. Biology 1: His grade to date is an F; He does not make up missed work; His homework needs attention; He lacks initiative and commitment to master material." And so on.

Although I am afraid to think of what my teachers might have said had they been given a bit more discretion in articulating their comments, it is still my belief that the school's repository of pre-drafted explanations for academic failure could have used a few important additions. To begin with: "He despises most of his teachers", "He has no interest in school material", and the all important "He would prefer hacky-sacking and smoking pot on the corner with his friends to classroom exercises." Of course, some teachers did offer choice words (off the books) to my parents, and occasionally to me. These amounted mostly to the notion that I was hanging out with the wrong crowd, a crowd that would surely erode my intellectual and moral fiber, a process they had seen before so many times that it would be in my family's best interest to immediately wage war on my choice of social circles. (My parents, thankfully, did not attempt this.) In a way these teachers were right, though. My choice of friends was closely related to my growing belief that school work was not worth my time. And again, this was a dangerous crowd; perhaps the worst sort that a student can fall in with these or any days: the working class.

We didn't call ourselves the working class. In fact we didn't call ourselves anything, unlike the much hipper counter-school cultures described in any number of ethnographies of student resistance.2 But hip or no, we were a mix of greasers and pot-heads, most of whom above the age of sixteen had been tracked into our otherwise affluent suburban school's vocational program, or who had renegotiated the terms of their stay to include an extra year or two, along with dramatically reduced academic expectations and enrollment in the Upward Bound program. It wasn't until I read Paul Willis's Learning to Labour almost a decade later that it even occurred to me that the class background of my friends was different from that of other students, or might have something to do with my declining engagement with high school. I would like briefly to discuss this literature as it relates to my own experience in high school, as it provides a point of departure (and comparison) from which to discuss my unusual experience with democratic schooling at a place called Sudbury Valley School, where I finished the last two and a half years of my secondary education.

Student Resistance and Academic Knowledge

The story of resistance theory has been told by now by a large number of anthropologists and sociologists.3 What they have found is that relatively poor school performance is typically a function neither of lesser ability, nor of bad families or some tragic shortage of cultural capital, but rather of students' rejection of competitive academic regimes, and their opposition at some level to school authority and what they perceive as imposed norms, values, and expectations. Subsequent ethnographies have found mixed evidence on students' desire to succeed in school, and to move into middle-class jobs.4 In particular, blue-collar students have been found more willing to reject even the aspiration of class mobility. But more common, and understandable in situations where well-paying industrial jobs are not readily available, is a desire to succeed in school and to gain access to better-paying jobs, but an unwillingness to comply with the academic regimes imposed by schools, or to adopt the value systems and orientations in particular towards individual competition necessary for success.5 As Everett Hughes has commented: It is one thing to want to go to school and another to want to do the things one must do to succeed there.6

What are these things that one must do to succeed in school? The visible motions are innocuous enough: attending class, paying attention, not disrupting the teaching process, doing homework, actively absorbing the information deemed relevant for passing, and perhaps to some degree engaging with the material through class participation and writings. But it is the beliefs and value systems that support this set of activities that lend them a gate-keeping function, through which social class and unequal job access are reproduced.

Authority in the classroom is based on the recognition of academic achievement as a mark of social status that the teacher's place at the head of the class is earned by virtue of his or her knowledge, and students' complicity with this authority structure is based on the opportunity to gain access to this base of knowledge. However, ethnographers have found that working class, marginalized students often challenge the importance of their teachers' academic knowledge, considering other types of know-how more important. They chafe at a classroom hierarchy that is predicated on the transfer of academic knowledge from teacher to students, and sometimes mobilize almost every conceivable means of safely disrupting this process. Most importantly, counter-school cultures such as these are strictly enforced by peers, who will taunt or ridicule any friends who appear too eager to succeed in class work, who seem interested in actively participating in school work, who attend school a bit too regularly, who seem actually interested in academic material, or who in any way appear to be brown-nosing or sucking up.

This is much as I remember my high-school experience. Although status within my group of friends was mostly based on physical size, fighting prowess, and fortitude in the consumption of drugs (none of which put me terribly high in the pecking order!), my few marks of prowess involved the sheer number of classes I was willing to skip, along with some skill at shoplifting cigarettes. You were only truly accepted by the group after having faced significant persecution by teachers or house masters, which was a sign that your priorities were in order. We all shared these priorities, but courage was measured by the extent to which one would flout the school's requirements and disciplinary system. Creativity and audacity in ridiculing school authority figures were typically valued more than unimaginative disengagement. In other words, simply extracting ourselves from the school system wasn't as important as trying to dislodge teachers and house masters from their positions of control and respectability.

I'd like to quote from some of the students interviewed by ethnographers, and briefly review different explanations as to why different degrees of counter-school cultures and sentiments are found among working-class and minority students, before discussing my subsequent experience at Sudbury Valley. I want to draw out three major themes here that will be interesting in relation to my experience with democratic schooling. The first of these is the way in which students in traditional institutions view the age expectations of their schools, and how students who have had to assume extensive responsibilities for people around them and usually worked jobs on their own, resent being treated like children under the school regime and its authorities. The second theme is the way in which working class students are often impatient with the theoretical or academic knowledge they are expected to learn in order to succeed in school, but which they often neither value nor consider relevant to their circumstances. Lastly, I'd like to note students' reaction to the institutionalization of competitive measures of status and achievement in traditional schools, and the way in which competition is mobilized as a mechanism of control.

The Lads of Paul Willis's study regularly contrast the real life they experience, with what Willis terms the oppressive adolescence of school. Many of the resistance ethnographies turn up this sentiment: that working-class students consider school work, and the imposed activities of teachers, to be childish. They also consider students who conform to the school regime to be more naïve and generally less mature. The importance of drinking and smoking for counter-school cultures for example is valorized as an act of insurrection before the school by its association with adult values and practices. The adult world, specifically the adult male working class world, is turned to as a source of material for resistance and exclusion.7 Angela McRobbie has noted how working class girls in England use sexual maturity as a form of classroom resistance:

A class instinct finds expression at the level of jettisoning the official ideology for girls in the school (neatness, diligence, appliance, femininity, passivity, etc.) and replacing it with a more feminine, even sexual one. Thus the girls took great pleasure in wearing make-up to school, spent vast amounts of time discussing boyfriends in loud voices in class and used these interests to disrupt the class.8

We can see this as a similar attempt by students to resist imposed expectations of youthful behavior, by establishing closer relations with the world of working class adults (in this case women). The girls of McRobbie's study ridicule the sexual naïvete of their middle class classmates in the same gesture as they deride their orientation towards academic competitiveness. As 14 year-old Maggie comments: "They all think they're brainy but they're not. I mean Karen and me, we do no work but if we wanted to we could be top of the class. We're just interested in other things. They just want to be top, they're not. They don't like boys or nothin'." And aged 15 Meg: "They suck up to the teachers, never do a thing wrong."9

This relates to working class students' sense that their teachers don't understand the real world in which they live, and in which they have gained a form of maturity and depth of knowledge not acknowledged by the school's criteria. Commenting on students at their school getting A's, several of the Hallway Hangers interviewed by Jay MacLeod state:

Slick: Because they're smarter in some areas just like we're smarter in some areas. You put them out here, right? And you put us up where they're living. They won't be able to survive out here.

Shorty: But we'd be able to survive up there.

Frankie: See, what it is, they're smarter more academically, because they're taught by teachers that teach academics.10

Both conformist students and their teachers are seen as privileging abstract, theoretical modes of knowledge. This orientation towards academic achievement blinds them to the realities of their students' lives. As Shorty comments later:

Responsibilities. See, that's what I mean. Now, the teachers will not understand. He ain't got no father, right? The father ain't living there, just like me. He's the oldest kid now. And he has big responsibilities at home because his brothers are growing up and his sister. He's got to keep an eye on 'em. Now you gotta do all that, and you got teachers giving you a hard fuckin' time?11

The students at a working class community college interviewed by Howard London similarly show an impatience with excessive intellectualizing, and in particular react strongly to condescension towards students based on their poor academic performance, or disinterest in academic work. London quotes from his field notes:

Pete: Just before our big English exam, remember when Dumont [the teacher] said, "And don't insult me with any of your poor spelling."

George: She said that? Man if I was there I would have said, "Fuck you." He stands up and raises his middle finger.

Laura: I felt like saying, "And don't you insult us either."

Mea: They do insult us. Look, we all know. We're not the best students in the world, but who wants to hear a teacher explain the difference between there, their, and they're? [Laughter] I can't stand that. Who wants to listen to a dissertation on punctuation? That's why I don't go to class anymore.12

I remember specifically this cycle: resistance to school work typically generates greater and greater condescension from teachers, which made me less and less interested in doing work for them. The classes in which I first began failing, were exactly those in which conflicts with a teacher were sharpest. London notes that the more theoretical and abstract courses are singled out especially for disruption and disengagement. Rote memorization and cheating are also strategies of disengagement used by the community college students. There is intense pressure not to appear too attached to academic performance: "At one point Len said it wasn't cool to go to class as much as Don did. I ask what he means and he tells me that if you go to every class you're seen as a brown-nose, trying to curry the teacher's favor."13 Or, in commenting to London that he is well-prepared for an upcoming exam, Jerry's friend Roberta comments to him, "Pretty proud of yourself, huh? Jerry responds: For what? Memorizing this? Anybody could do it." One student when asked why cheating on tests is so common, tells London, "Because if you did everything they wanted you to do you'd have to spend too much time studying. You've seen the stuff we have to do. Does it look interesting to you?"14 Claiming to only have memorized material, or cheating on tests, are both ways that students do academic work, while at the same time disassociating themselves from it, and displaying a distance towards academic knowledge as the legitimate basis of a world-view or as a measuring rod for personal achievement.

Willis notes that competition in the form of grading systems is the school's primary mechanism for controlling reservation or disengagement: "in individual competition for approval the possibility of any private reservations becoming shared to form any oppositional definition of the situation is decisively controlled."15 But more importantly, the grading system by which students compete along lines of academic achievement, is how graduates (or dropouts) are filtered into the labor market. The threat of being punished by the labor market is the means by which conflicts with working class students and attempts to coopt them into a regime of individual competition are justified as a struggle for the student's own good (students, by virtue of their youth, not yet knowing what is best for them). The teacher is given formal control of his pupils by the state, but he exerts his social control through an educational, not a class, paradigm.16

And yet it is just this competitive ultimatum that we see students resisting, particularly through peer pressure: friends are urged not to attempt to out-compete their peers, not to work too hard, not to go to class too much, or talk too much, or show much interest. Much like the practice of soldiering on the shop-floor in which workers in a chained production process attempt to maintain a reasonable work pace by preventing fellow workers from speeding up the line, working class students are urged to keep the bar at a reasonable level, beyond which working too hard is seen literally as a betrayal of one's peers. Lois Weis, in a study of a predominantly black community college, drawing here on the work of Carol Stacks, notes that:

Within domestic networks, women and men maintain strong loyalties to their kin, and kin exert powerful internal sanctions upon one another to further strengthen the bond. Attempted social mobility involves a precarious risk in contrast with the relative security provided by the kin network. One's day-to-day survival demands the sacrifice of upward mobility.17

The way in which individual competition is seen as a middle class, or upper class value, is vividly illustrated by several of MacLeod's interviewees:

Slick: What it is, it's a brotherhood down here. We're all fucking brothers. There's a lot of backstabbing going on down here, down in the streets. But we're always there for each other. No shit. There's not a guy in here that wouldn't put out for one of the rest of us. If he needs something and I got it, I'll give it to him. Period. That's the way it works. It's a brotherhood. We're not like them up there, the rich little boys from the suburbs or wherever. There's a line there. On this side of the line we don't fuck with each other; we're tight.

Frankie: We'd chump them off [rob] on the other side, though.

Slick: Fucking right. If he's got four hundred bucks in his pocket, there's more where that came from. Fuck him. But they also chump each other off; only they do it legally. How do you think they got rich? By fucking people over. We don't do that to each other. We're too fucking tight. We're a group. We don't think like them; we think for all of us.18

Virtually all of the ethnographies of student resistance recognize the cultures of solidarity and interdependence that characterize counter-school groups of students, and the extent to which counter-school peer pressure stems from internal enforcement of anti-competitive norms: success in the academic sense means abandoning one's class; the very community upon which these students rely heavily in their everyday life. As Howard London has eloquently described the dilemma:

The essential problem for students was that intellectualizing implied upward mobility and this status change was also translated into a statement about oneself and was both feared and welcomed. [A]cademic activity was a problematic feature of community college life as it was bound with issues of one's fate, of one's nice in the social world, and hence of what membership in a status group implied about one's self and one's social honor.19

Democratic Schooling and the Path of Least Resistance

As I was doing more and more poorly in school, and, frankly, becoming more and more miserable there, my parents agreed to transfer me to a radically alternative school in nearby Framingham, Massachusetts, called the Sudbury Valley School (SVS). I knew very little about SVS when I agreed to switch there: all I really knew was that I was escaping the institution in which every day was a small, protracted struggle, and escaping into a new setting in which there were no grades and no classes. This much at least was accurate: there were no grades, and no classes, and students at SVS did whatever they wanted all day long, every day of the year. There was more to SVS, though, as I was to learn. The entire school was run by a democratic School Meeting, in which each student and each staff member had one vote. The School Meeting decided on everything from the hiring and firing of staff members (who do not like being referred to as teachers, as they don't teach); to setting the rules of the school; all the way through drafting annual budgets for routine and specific outlays (grounds and building maintenance, computers, office materials, etc). The school housed almost 200 students at the time I was there, ages four through nineteen. There was no power behind the School Meeting; no real authority that would override the decisions students made as to how the school should be run, or how important situations would be handled. All administrative positions were elected, and could be held by either staff or students; most were held by students. All of the school's rules applied equally and identically to students and staff members of the community; rules were enforced through a Judicial Committee populated mostly by students. SVS was close to thirty years old by the time I left there, making it a rare survivor in the world of alternative schools, many of which sprouted particularly during the late 1960s, but few of whom have survived to tell the tale.

One of the things that strikes me now is the extent to which the school's philosophy, by which I mean the way its students and staff members talk about it and distinguish it from other schools, embodies many of the values found in counter-school cultures, like the one I had come from. In the first place, members of the school community are not treated differently by age. Sixty year-old staff members and four-year-old students are bound by the same set of school rules and both have exactly one vote in the School Meeting. Informal social groupings were not strongly stratified by age. No student was expected to fill a discrete role in the school community that had been chiseled out for youth of any age, and every student and staff bore the same responsibilities towards themselves and others.

Why does age-stereotyping seem to be so closely related to conformity or resistance in these different schools? The first and most basic reason has to do with control and dependency. Social constructs of youth expectations of youthful behavior, narratives of personal development encasing judgments of the capacities of youth are the specific ideologies through which control relations in schools are justified. Students rejecting the schooling system in which they find themselves run up against ideologies of youth, and are forced to confront them in order to establish their right to challenge institutional and curricular norms. Many of the anthropologists and sociologists researching school failure have noted the close parallels between student resistance and shop-floor resistance in highly prescribed and micromanaged work-places.20 The work ethic is one ideology that supports relationships of control. Youth is another.21

Founding staff members of SVS have written of the parents who began the school in 1968 that: "The starting point for all our thinking was the apparently revolutionary idea that a child is a person, worthy of full respect as a human being."22 I am struck now by how mature younger students at SVS appear when compared to their age-cohorts in traditional schools: their ease of expression and interaction with others of any age, their directedness in organizing their own activities and aspirations. I have vivid memories of new students arriving at SVS in states of complete introversion and isolation. One student, for example, sat under a tree by a large rock fifty meters from the school building all day, everyday, for weeks, perhaps months; the scars from the sort of daily torment and virtual terrorization by one's peers in traditional schools, worn like a badge. But all of the nightmarish experiences that most of us recall from attending traditional schools - the harassment, the badgering, open discrimination, and victimization - are facilitated primarily by the imposed adolescence of the school system. All SVS students who come from other schools shed this adolescence in the process of trying to figure out what to do with their time, and with their life. Being recognized as a person at SVS entailed being conferred the absolute right not to suffer abuse at the hands of other members of the community.

The second theme I mentioned in relation to counter-school cultures was impatience with academic or theoretical knowledge, and the sense that school material and the teachers who taught it were several degrees divorced from real life or the problems of the real world. There are no classes at SVS. The closest thing to one that I ever encountered was a history seminar that Daniel Greenberg would sometimes give, only when a group of students organized themselves and asked for it, and then he would go over topics requested by the students in the group, week-by-week. The fact that SVS students can do anything they want with their time doesn't in itself mean that they will be free from pressures to achieve academically. This sort of freedom is very much built by the values of the school community itself, and not written into any rule book.

The much older and well-known Summerhill school in England is an example of an institution in which students don't have to do anything, but where an academic imperative is still imposed. School founder A.S. Neill, for example, writes that most students avoid attending Summerhill's optional classes for a while after leaving their previous schools, but almost inevitably join in the classroom work eventually. Clearly, Neill's aspiration is not that students will do whatever they want, but that they will choose voluntarily to do academic schoolwork, and graduate into respectable middle-class jobs. He writes of students avoiding classes that:

This sometimes goes on for months. The recovery time is proportionate to the hatred their last school gave them. Our record case was a girl from a convent. She loafed for three years. The average period of recovery from lesson aversion is three months.23

He remarks apparently with pride on the school's record that:

Summerhill is a place in which people who have the innate ability and wish to be scholars will be scholars; while those who are only fit to sweep the streets will sweep the streets. But we have not produced a street cleaner so far.24

At SVS on the other hand, there is clearly no academic bias assigned to students choice of activities. Not doing academic work is not considered loafing, and proper loafing is considered an important activity for people when they need to do it (sheltering, as apparent loafing often does, thinking). The absence of an academic bias is, I think, one of the most important features of SVS. In the United States, only one out of every four citizens earns a college degree. This number has been stable for decades, and correspondingly, not more than one of every four jobs in the country require college graduates. And yet our schools are designed essentially to shame anyone who fails to achieve academically, achievement often measured by whether one graduates high school or not, and whether one attends or graduates from a college. Sudbury Valley spokespeople (those who tend to write books and articles, or speak with the press) have been very hard-pressed to show that SVS students can and do make it in the labor market and in the world at large: they attempt to reassure parents that all young students eventually learn to read at SVS, that graduates wishing to attend college can and do, and that they don't suffer from not having been exposed to employment-like discipline or forced to learn mathematics, a second language, and classic literature.25

However, as I look back on my experience and recall the group of students I attended school with, I am most struck by how diverse our class backgrounds were, and also the great variation in our later work or career trajectories. A number of my friends at the time came from blue-collar backgrounds, while others hailed from independently wealthy families; one worked her way through SVS (paying tuition from a job working at a convenience store), while another's parents were lawyers. A 1992 survey conducted by SVS of several cohorts of graduates found that 41 had worked in management positions, 18 as professionals, 44 in the trades, 18 in high tech, and 62 in unskilled jobs at one point or another.26 None of these tracks earned one denigration as a student at SVS, and for many students (as for most students who fail at traditional schooling), an occupation was not so much their goal as the means towards doing what they wanted in their lives.

This came out often in the school's optional graduation process. Although very controversial within the school, SVS does grant valid high school diplomas for those students wishing to go through the process. When I was attending, this consisted in drafting a short presentation on why we felt we were ready to enter the world at large as responsible citizens, a presentation that we would deliver before the School Assembly, which would then vote on whether to grant a diploma or not. Students most often focused on what they were planning to do after graduation in such presentations, and these varied from career-oriented goals, to short-term travel plans, enrolling in college, work plans, or the equally acceptable, "I have no idea what I'm doing next." Very few students have been denied diplomas, but those who I saw seriously challenged in this defense process faced criticisms for their conduct while at SVS (such as patterns of irresponsibility or immaturity), rarely for their stated plans.

What the graduation process does not do, which traditional graduation criteria are based on, is to screen for specifically academic value orientations or competitive careerist aspirations. This is precisely the school function around which counter-school cultures form, and that generates school failure in traditional settings. To use the language of Lois Weis and Howard London, the dilemma of class mobility is delinked from the issue of school performance at SVS. This is not the case at many other alternative schools such as Summerhill, where pressure from the community and shared standards that value scholarship and denigrate street sweeping play, the role that grade systems do elsewhere.

Whither Academics in a Democratic Setting?

Many progressive teachers face a difficult problem: enforcing school performance by academic criteria seems to be the means through which working class and minority students are screened from extended educational opportunities and better-paying jobs. Teachers have usually attained their position because they value academic knowledge, which I would define loosely as the organized, disciplinary study of physical and social phenomena. Whether or not we privilege the knowledge of academics, we are institutionally prohibited from recognizing other standards within a classroom setting. Teachers in traditional school institutions are the gatekeepers of social mobility, but teaching is not experienced in this light. It is experienced as an attempt to engage students in the material, to provide them with a broader perspective and understanding of the world around them, and to fairly assess students progress and achievement. Student failure, although regrettable, results within a relatively fair framework from the perspective of the teacher fair by virtue of the equal expectations and equitable assessments of all students.

One approach has been to advocate for a more relevant curriculum for working class students: to address in the classroom issues of social inequality and the history of working class and minority peoples, facilitating a critical awareness of social relations. This is how Paulo Freire's work has largely been applied to formal educational settings (although he developed it in the setting of rural literacy initiatives), and a substantial literature on critical pedagogy has evolved around this theme.27 This literature has a tense relationship with resistance theory. As Paul Willis notes, these are essentially attempts to reintegrate students into the school system, and to achieve the teacher's imperative of engaging students in academic material.28 In the language I have been using, they still embody an academic bias: assuming (hoping?) that students are resisting not the authority exercised over them, nor academic knowledge per se, but only the type of academic knowledge often taught in traditional schools.

Once, when describing my strange and twisting educational background to a professor, he asked me whether I felt that SVS had something to do with my success. Although there is some sense in which I feel that I've succeeded insofar as I'm doing what I love to do, working with the labor movement and doing research on working conditions, the professor clearly wanted to know how I, a failing high school student, had turned myself around, climbed an occupational ladder, and made may way towards a professional middle-class career. He could have asked me instead what role I felt SVS played in preventing me from failing, again. The question grated like sandpaper. I've never felt that I am a success as an academic in any way that I would not have been in a working class job, or that I am any more successful than my friends from high school who have not completed college degrees.

I could never have come to academics through such a value orientation as the one embodied in my professor's well-meaning statement. Indeed, I was a failure at becoming this sort of an academic, as are so many failing students who buck under the weight of condescension heaped upon their families and communities, and who snub academic imperatives as an imperious waste of time. I have the utmost respect for such gestures, and nothing but disgust with the working conditions one often must labor under in maintaining one's integrity in this way: working-class and minority identities are maintained at a high cost in this country.29 And yet, I found myself able to approach academics at SVS without sacrificing many of the values and commitments that had set academic knowledge beyond the community to which I belonged and who shared my values. I distinctly remember rediscovering many of the books I had refused to read while in high school, or had read as little of as was conceivably possible. I deplored these artifacts of academic expectation at my previous school, but the reason I hated them was because they constituted the primary battleground of a struggle over who would control my own activities, and whose value system would prevail (although the outcome was not much in doubt). To read those books or to enjoy them would be to capitulate. I rediscovered academics in a context where intellectual study had been disentangled from any system of control over my activities, justified on the basis of my youth. I had no more obligation to engage with these texts at SVS than I did with video games or basket-weaving.

I would not suggest that democratic schooling is a road through which working class kids can somehow be reintegrated into an academic paradigm, or catapulted into middle-class trajectories. Although SVS publications have not, that I am aware of, explored the relationship between graduates class background and subsequent employment patterns, I strongly suspect that the occupational diversity of graduates reflects the class diversity of its entering students. In other words, SVS is not likely an engine for either systematic upward or downward mobility, and class reproduction does happen even without formal schooling. SVS graduates whose interviews I have read, and certainly those with whom I've spoken, learn extraordinarily different lessons from their SVS experience depending on what sort of jobs they move into. This gives us a glimpse into how reproduction functions within a democratic school; a process whereby students from different backgrounds experience the school as playing dramatically different roles in their lives. One SVS graduate who went on to own his own small business comments that, of the important things he learned from the experience of democracy in the [SVS] School Meeting, one is that:

Everything's going to run itself fairly reasonably with or without your presence. Once you have a fundamental trust in the reasonableness of the society you're in, you don't have to attend to every detail. I have a certain faith in the government, in the country, in the overall will of the American people. I can pretty much sleep easy... So I don't find myself super politically involved. I find myself the opposite. I find myself realizing that democracy guarantees me a certain reasonableness in society and that I don't have to worry about that aspect of my life.30

This former student comments that this justifies, for him, the low voter turnout in U.S. elections. A number of graduates who went on to entrepreneurial careers refer to their experience at SVS in controlling their own education, directing their own activities, and pursuing individually articulated goals as formative. In stark contrast, I know that a number of us have gone on to become involved with community and labor organizing, or other movement activities, taking our SVS backgrounds as training grounds in collective action and community mobilization. Similarly, as an SVS graduate, I found myself more emboldened to make claims on the rights of communities' political, regional, or work communities to participate in their own governing structures.31 Drawing these lessons from SVS would probably seem as absurd to future entrepreneurs as their drawing lessons about individualist competition and political disengagement seem to me. There is, in short, a very different system of class reproduction at work at SVS involving probably an interaction between one's family and cultural background with how one uses one's time at school, and leverages this experience in the labor market after graduation.

So what is different, then? There are at least two crucial differences in how class reproduction is experienced at SVS, both of them closely intertwined. Perhaps most importantly, students at SVS graduate into working-class jobs without the status markings of poor performance, and with the full support of their community. Social conflict within SVS does not play the systematic role that it does in traditional schools of buttressing a particular value system or achievement paradigm.32 School failure is not a meaningful category at SVS, and my own experience has been that staff members measure the success of the school more by the happiness or self-satisfaction of its students and graduates than by any occupational or income-oriented criteria.

Secondly, those who do go on from SVS to become academics, or who pursue a college degree for middle-class work, do not achieve their academic careers, but rather choose them. By this I don't mean that going on to higher education is an arbitrary or totally free choice: family background at least will play an important role in shaping the desirability of such choices. What I mean is that academic work at SVS isn't supported by an achievement ideology, or by competitive, disciplinary achievement regimes at the school level. No one pursuing academics at SVS will feel exceptionally productive or successful relative to those who do not.

Academic knowledge has become so deeply embedded in traditional school institutions that it is almost difficult to think of what academic study might look like without competitive grading, hierarchies of student advancement (freshmen, sophomores, and so on), and teacher-student relationships. The very term discipline, used to organize different fields of academic pursuit, hails from the vertical relationships between master and disciple (as in the verb, to discipline). It is the chance of joining an academic community that draws many SVS students into college33 settings, but the type of community we actually find is riven by layers of control and coercion both between and among students and faculty layers so minute as to lay shame even to military hierarchies. "It is tempting to cut and run with the observation that academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low." (A quote I have seen attributed to Winston Churchill, Wallace Sayre, and Henry Kissinger.) But can we extract the idea of an academic community from the historically specific institutions that have housed them. What would a democratic academic community look like? My time at SVS tells me that democratic schooling transforms not only the experience of students who might have failed in traditional schools, but also the nature and social role of intellectual study for those who follow an academic course. I generally agree that school reform or greater access to education is not a means by which inequality or poverty can be significantly affected.34 But in a society in which working-class work does not earn one dignity or respect, and in which academics plays a privileged role in defining class boundaries and policing their boundaries, I cannot help but see democratic schooling as a possible means of liberating academics from its shamefully undemocratic social life in traditional schools of all sorts, and as a way of freeing working-class people from the libel of social failure.


Anyon, Jean. 1981. Social Class and School Knowledge. Curriculum Inquiry, 11 (1): 3-42.

Apple, Michael. 1996. Cultural Politics and Education. New York and London: Columbia University Press.

---------------. 2000. Official Knowledge: Democratic Education in a Conservative Age. 2nd ed. New York and London: Routledge.

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1. Ben graduated from Sudbury Valley in 1997.

2. For example, Paul Willis's Lads, or Jay MacLeod's Hallway Hangers. (Willis 1977; MacLeod 1987)

3. A very partial reference list: Anyon 1981; Dei, Mazzuca, McIsaac, and Zine 1997; Fine 1991; Fordham 1999; London 1978; MacLeod 1987; McRobbie 1978; Solomon 1992; Weis 1983 and 1985; and Willis 1977.

4. This is in particular something that some researchers have argued differentiates black and white student counter cultures (Weis 1983 and 1985; and in a different sense Solomon 1992).

5. For examples of students thus pulled in two directions, see London 1978; Weis 1985; and Solomon 1992.

6. Preface to London 1978, p. vii.

7. Willis 1977, p. 19.

8. McRobbie 1978, p. 104.

9. Ibid., p. 103.

10. MacLeod 1987, p. 69.

11. Ibid, p. 109.

12. London 1978, p. 69.

13. Ibid, pp. 68-69.

14. Ibid, pp. 73, 74.

15. Willis 1977, p. 65.

16. Ibid, p. 67.

17. Weis 1985, p. 111.

18. Macleod 1987, p. 33.

19. London 1978, p. 61.

20. For example, Willis 1977, chpt. 4; MacLeod chpt. 5. Reading through the accounts of blue-collar and service workers in Studs Terkel's book Working, on the heals of reading ethnographies of student resistance, frames the truly remarkable similarities (Terkel 1974).

21. These two intersect, of course, in the category of youth wor I would refer the reader to Stuart Tannock's fantastic treatment of the constitution of youth in service industry stopgap jobs (Tannock 2001, Chpt. 4).

22. Sudbury Valley School 1992, p. 1.

23. Neill 1960, p. 4.

24. Ibid, p. 5.

25. For such defenses of SVS graduates record, see in particular Gray and Chanoff 1986 and Greenberg and Sadofsky 1992.

26. From tallying tables on Greenberg and Sadofsky 1992, pp. 29-31, 71-73, 113-117 A number of reported occupational categories are left out of my list.

27. Take Apple 1996 and 2000; Darder ed. 2002; Giroux 1983 and 1993; Henricksen and Morgan eds. 1990; Kanpol 1994; Leistyna ed. 1995; McLaren 1995 and 1998; Shor 1992; and Trifonas ed. 2000.

28. Willis 1977, pp. 71-72.

29. There is sometimes criticism of resistance theory authors that they glorify student resistance and the consequences of school failure. There is no question, as a growing literature in working-class studies have shown (including but extending well beyond working-class students), that working-class people often shun class mobility. Treating this as a meaningful social norm that fills an important function in working-class communities. That is, not treating it as a mistake or a case of poor judgment on the part of individuals does not amount to glorifying the conditions of working-class life, I don't believe.

30. Greenberg and Sadofsky 1992, p. 54.

31. See ibid., p. 75 for students comments regarding entrepreneurialism and p. 41 for those who became politically active.

32. See Anyon 1981 on the role of achievement ideologies in traditional schools.

33. One SVS graduate who became a professor of mathematics said, "I felt it was something that would be really different from Sudbury Valley in the sense that instead of being one person interested in something, I figured that there would be lots of other people around who were interested in it, too. There would be lots of people to talk to." (Greenberg and Sadofsky 1992, p. 51.)

34. In other words, I agree with the assessments of Bowles and Gintis 1976.

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