In Appreciation of Liberty

Note: “In Appreciation of Liberty” was posted on the SVS blog ( on June 9, 2014. It elicited several fascinating comments which, we felt, enriched the conversation, so we thought you might enjoy reading it as a “package”.

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. Last year, 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.

Responses to “In Appreciation of Liberty”

Niels, Monday June 9th

I have a mixed reaction to this article. I so agree with Sudbury Valley principles and I want a school like this for my step-daughter. I really do. I am also from Holland, applauding the efforts by the various people there.

And yet compulsory education was introduced in Holland in 1901. It was a strongly emancipatory measure. Many, too many children were working before then and this law set them on a strong path toward a better life; in fact, made a better life a reality immediately. I think it is entirely possible that the people enforcing compulsory education have a motivation quite similar to the ACLU when they defended the rights of Nazis to march through Skokie, IL.

It is interesting. As a European, I have far fewer scruples about limiting the rights of Nazis. In Germany, you cannot, by law, deny the Holocaust. And I agree with that law, but the ACLU would fight such a law if it were implemented here. And perhaps they are right. Their fight for the Bill of Rights defends freedom, is emancipatory.

Dutch education officials might have a similar view of defending compulsory education in that country. I think that that is not only possible; it is very likely.

This matters to me, because it matters how we engage the conversation around education. If we regard education officials as enforcers of oppressive laws, well that is not going to get us very far. But if we engage the question of how we can ensure the best future for our children (not to speak of the present of course), and cast that in a sense of shared values with regard to liberty, I think we may get further.

We may never agree. That is possible. But let’s not slide into the tendency to name every enforcement of the law as an attack on liberty without looking deeper into the motivations behind laws. Government restricts our freedoms to a certain extent, and must. In California, where I live, you cannot walk into a restaurant with an assault rifle, and thank goodness for that. But you can express the opinion that you should be able to, and thank goodness for that too (yes, after 20 years in the U.S. I have move toward the ACLU’s take).

Mostly, I don’t see a need to vilify education officials quite so starkly. I know teachers in Holland. They don’t agree with Sudbury’s principles, and I don’t agree with them. But we talk. They want the best for the children, not the best for an oppressive capitalist system. We have common ground.

Jim Whiteford, June 9th

Well… I concur with Danny’s observations. It has often struck me as somewhat ironic, having become so captivated by the Sudbury model, that the land of my birth, England, is home to arguably the world’s oldest modern democracy, yet so far away from seeing a Sudbury school open its doors. And that the country where I have become a citizen, Sweden, which is known across the world for its libertarian values, becomes more autocratic by the day in terms of its Education policy. It is another country to add to the list of those where it is not possible to open a Sudbury school. It has also recently made home schooling illegal – not that home schooling and a Sudbury school are the same thing, not at all – I mention it because the last European state to do so, as far as I know, was Germany in the 1930s, Niels.

I readily admit that I know nothing about the establishment of compulsory education in Holland, or the details of the case surrounding De Kampanje. And whereas I believe that in the broader scheme of things progress is indeed the order of the day, I also think it somewhat naive to believe that the establishment of compulsory education in the West was driven solely by the State’s desire for its children’s best. There are masses of well researched volumes on other forces at work, in the U.S. as well as Europe. And though one might well successfully argue that there was a form of progress overall, the fact of the matter is that compulsory education generally was established in an Industrial context. The requirement for standards, repetition, and automation are inextricable from the educational practice it spawned, which still forms the structure and beliefs of our schools today. Not to mention the Prussians, the aristocrats’ fear of popular revolution, and Industry’s thirst for an unquestioning, automated human workforce.

However, I do take issue with your interpretation of this article Niels, that education officials are being vilified. I see no evidence of that at all in what Danny wrote. If the Dutch courts made their judgement on the lack of evaluation of students’ progress, it seems they suffer from the general misconception that most State run educational systems suffer from. I think Danny made the point in one of his books, that generally school is often based on the premise that for an ounce of teaching, you get an ounce of learning – a good industrial concept that has little to do with learning in real life. And it seems to me that the only person who can meaningfully judge one’s progress in any learning environment is the learner herself. That is not to say that tests and evidence of knowledge in general don’t have their proper place…

 I have, thus far in vain, made the point in Sweden that nobody should be forced to go to a Sudbury school, or that all schools should be Sudbury schools. However, it may not be every individual’s belief that the State knows what is best for the child. And if the child, and the parents, believe that a Sudbury school would be in their best interest, what right has the State to deny that choice? Particularly as there is no empirical evidence that such an education is in any way detrimental. The current Minister for Education here once said in an interview that school was in fact a massive intrusion on personal liberty; but that, in order to use one’s freedom as an adult “in a good way,” one needed to be educated. It’s a twisted logic, given that most of the National Curriculum is about learning to parrot pre-filtered knowledge in a pre-determined way, which has little to do with the real meaning of education.

And so while I agree that vilification in itself is not constructive, it has to be said that there is a demonstrable trend amongst education authorities to refuse to allow a reasonable hearing of the argument; a refusal to consider the practical evidence; and, indeed, a refusal to live up to the terms of the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that parents have the right to choose a form of education for their children which is in keeping with their philosophical beliefs. I have seen it systematically in Sweden, and personally in terms of my own children in school, that children’s human and democratic rights are breached day in, day out – by teachers, head teachers, and educational authorities.

And I for one am very grateful that we have the concrete evidence provided by SVS and other pioneers in the U.S., where their rights and freedoms have been granted to a greater degree than in the lands of their forefathers, to point to and say, “Look! They’re doing it! They’ve been doing it for over 40 years! Where is the problem?”

Niels, June 10th

When I first learned about SVS, only recently, I had an incredible IT EXISTS!!! feeling. That is tremendously important. To me personally. I still think, on the other hand, that others can make a legitimate case for the emancipatory nature of education as it currently exists in Holland. I don’t agree, don’t get me wrong. But it did free my father from an oppressive religious environment. For him, school is sacrosanct, because it set him free. I don’t want to forget that.

Ilana, June 11th

Thank you for this reminder of the importance of liberty for parents, as well as for children. It reminded me how lucky we are to be able to send our son to a Sudbury school.

Here in Jerusalem, Israel, the school is recognized by the ministry of education, but not yet considered an official “public” (i.e., heavily subsidized) school. The school is in the process of trying to become recognized as an official public school, which would also presumably help with being allocated a larger building for the school, which has a long waiting list and has outgrown its campus. It was interesting to hear recently from a staff member about how the education ministry has been unable to fit the school into the usual criteria for evaluating a school and has had to find new ways to evaluate it. Fortunately, it seems that they are open to doing so.

Brian Macaulay, June 12th

Thanks very much for this excellent post, though I’m very sad to learn the fate of De Kampanje. I don’t often comment online, but felt compelled to do by the importance of this story.

I was extremely lucky to have the benefit of an SVS experience, and fully believe I am the better for it. It is unfortunate that others don’t have the same opportunity, and worse still that some may find it, only to have it taken away in situations like this.

However, I use the term “opportunity” for a reason. As an adult, I have spent most of my time interacting with people who didn’t go to a school like SVS. If I explain it to them, they are typically surprised to learn of it, interested in knowing more, and often confused because it is so vastly different. I am happy to discuss it and share my positive views – but I don’t evangelize. I do not feel badly that they attended more traditional schools, nor do I insist to them that an education like mine is essential for their children. I don’t believe this to be so. There are times whereupon hearing of the difficulty someone had growing up, I feel certain it would’ve been much better for them at SVS. I empathize and feel strongly about the need for the SVS model to grow, but – I only want such people to have that opportunity. I wish for everyone to have the choice I did, which resulted in what I estimate is an exponentially better life. I have never believed that the goal should be stamping out the status quo and replacing it with my values.

This is what I see as the fundamental difference between people like Danny or myself, and modern educational policy. Liberty is precisely the right theme for this situation, because in the Dutch example liberty is what was lost. De Kampanje could have been a Sudbury model school or a rigorous military academy – the takeaway is that the right of self-determination was hampered. This right is something that people in the United States and Western Europe generally swear by, and often balk at any challenge to. So why is educational policy any different?

Arguments like that using the late 19th century child workforce as catalyst for compulsory schooling are extremely compelling. I, for one, will choose any school over an unsafe factory as the place an eight year-old belongs on a Monday morning in a heartbeat. In the face of these alternatives, there’s scarcely a counterargument to be found. But this is exactly the problem with such arguments; they are based on false dichotomies. These reduce things to two choices, of which any sensible person can only pick one. I may not wish to see my kid forced against his will into a desk and indoctrinated with vogue ideas of the day (a good example contemporary to the turn of the century might be eugenics), but if the alternative is both of his hands being severed in a hat factory, I absolutely will not argue. The question that must be answered before making this choice, and too often isn’t, is whether the stated world is the one which we live in.

Children are especially good prey for such arguments. Parents want, in fact need, to protect their kids. Many will say without hesitation that this is the paramount priority in their lives, and it’s a noble one. But policy makers and other advocates realize that this button is forever pushable in the interest of certain agendas.

Marketing is a great example. Car ads are full of information about safety, and often specifically about children. Manufacturers know that families care about having safe cars. While most standards of modern auto safety are the result of legislative action, the sheer prevalence of this data in advertising is extremely telling. Again, the success of the idea is based on how successfully a false dichotomy can be presented: “You can buy the 2014 Minivan X, or…” else. Cue the sounds of screeching tires, shattering glass, and ambulance sirens. However, I credit the auto manufacturers for limiting their pursuit to my money.

The currency of liberty, as in the Dutch case, is more often what is sought. This can be seen in arguments that are made daily to anyone who engages with society. “Support this particular anti-terror measure, or you will be incinerated in a terrorist attack.” “Support this specific social welfare action, or you will starve to death in the street.” “Support streamlining for death sentences, or a criminal will weigh the pros and cons in favor of murdering you.” One would have to be an idiot not to make the supportive choices here. But only if they are as black and white as they are presented. If any grey area exists, then sensible people tend to weigh decisions more carefully and, whatever they may decide, are less likely to give up a particular liberty without a lot of consideration. Therefore, no grey area can be allowed. False dichotomies seek – necessitate actually – immediate and emotional reactions.

That is why children are the perfect brush for a such a painter, and why education is the foremost area in which they are used. There is no separating a child and his or her future from emotion for a parent. Hence, arguments for educational policy with greater control and less liberty are always made in this way. All modern, popular policies in education are presented in the context of choosing them, or seeing your kid incur a devastating life accident. In the first world, the factory is largely gone, but the arguments have evolved. Impassioned believers use the same logic to sell Common Core, or No Child Left Behind, or whatever incarnation of standardized testing, or All Child Left Ahead – I’ll concede that I’m not fully briefed on current proposals, but it makes no difference. The alternative is inevitably alluded to as some grotesque scene wherein the child, now an unemployed and uneducated adult as the result of being unable to match STEM scores from a highly selective Chinese sample in the sixth grade, must forage through dumpsters for sustenance but is barely successful even in this endeavor because he cannot read, and keeps looking for half-eaten hamburgers behind Staples instead of McDonalds. But all of this can be avoided if you’ll simply give up some more choice in your child’s education. Who would argue?

In the pre-Civil War South, it was held, as a matter of law and common belief, that African Americans were inherently inferior in intellect to whites, and that their use as slaves (property) was wholly appropriate to their mental limitations, and ethical as such. But at the same time, it was common for the practice of teaching a slave to write to be illegal. What could a slave, in the eyes of those who saw who him or her as not more than an animal, write? To my knowledge, there have never been popular movements to ban the education of other animals. So what did those in power fear? At the time it was slave revolts, and the spread of knowledge (through reading and writing) that would urge these. However, the state was exceptionally good at putting down slave revolts. Moreover, many slaveowners were exceptionally good (and brutally so) at limiting what their slaves could and could not do. It is extremely unlikely that the majority of slaves would have ever had an opportunity to make true the fears the of those who sought to ban their education, and wildly unlikelier still that any revolt would’ve upset the institution of slavery in a substantial way. So what was accomplished by the law?

Like the modern false dichotomy, slavery was predicated on extremely shaky logic. This is obvious to all of us living in 2014, but the picture was very different in that place and time. If you were a white (free) person, raised to believe that there existed another race that might resemble a human being but was in fact an animal, would you believe it? I want to say no, but I would be wrong. If I had been propagandized all the days of my life to believe this, and had never had any opportunity to see that such a person was every bit a human being as I was, I would have no reason to doubt it. The limitations on free access to information in such a culture would be enough to keep me ignorant. But, if I did engage with and talk to a slave, or, worse yet, read something they wrote, things could be quite different. I might see that this human being was every bit my intellectual equal, or better. I might begin to question what I had been told. A slave’s pen may not have been enough to destroy slavery through an uprising, but it might start to change hearts and minds.

Certain institutions, like slavery, can only bear so much scrutiny before reasonable people stop believing their proponents, no matter how entrenched their ideas are. I would not equate the evil of slavery with compulsory education or any modern institution, but I do see a very telling and important parallel. Both demand ideological uniformity for the status quo to remain intact. They can allow for no exceptions, even in small numbers. This is true of all falsely polarized arguments. Not all slaves had to read and write for the belief that African Americans aren’t real human beings to collapse under its own ignorance. Some information to the contrary is enough to create change. This is why all authoritarian regimes recognize controls on information as essential.

How does this relate to education? Simply by virtue of the fact that, to those clinging to the idea that their approach is the sole one keeping your kid out of that dumpster, one De Kampanje is too many. Did that school cause in Dutch society some kind of “evaluation crisis” that threatened a worst case scenario where a generation of dolts would emerge? I hardly think so.

The number of cycling fatalities in the Netherlands numbers somewhere just below 200 a year, but will they criminalize bike sales and close the shops? Did De Kampanje have 200 students? The difference is that the cyclists pose no ideological threat to anyone. More may die, less may, it doesn’t matter. In the realm of cycling, 200 deaths is an acceptable rate of loss for state control of cycling not to step beyond its current bounds, though it easily could and reduce that number to zero – by sending cycling the way of De Kampanje. But 200 cyclists is not enough. X number of unevaluated students however – this is a problem the government must address.

As stated, I do not evangelize for the SVS model to my friends. I simply tell them my story, listen to theirs, and then we do something else. But I do notice their reaction, and the aforementioned confusion. Sometimes, a person will later tell me that they visited this website, or watched a video about SVS on YouTube. They’ll have given it thought. I feel good when I hear this. It reassures me that for a philosophy I believe in, I needn’t evangelize. An idea can live or die on its own merits. But it should be given that chance. Unfortunately, in this case, those in power to make a decision thought otherwise.

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