A Conversation about SVS

A Conversation about SVS between Lenore Skenazy and Daniel Greenberg

Note: This interview took place on the Genesis Communication Network, on the Dr. Katherine Albrecht Show (hour 2), on October 7, 2014. Lenore Skenazy was sitting in as host for Dr. Albrecht. It can be listened to on podcast.

Lenore: I am Lenore Skenazy, the author of the book, and the founder of the movement, “Free Range Kids”, a frequent guest here and a sometimes host. I’m your host today. My guest is Dan Greenberg. Dan Greenberg, got his Ph.D. in theoretical physics at Columbia University, and he went on to teach there. But that’s not where he ended up. He ended up at almost at the opposite of Columbia University. For the past forty plus years he’s been at the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. I visited Sudbury Valley, going in as kind of a sceptic but definitely curious because this is a school like none I have ever seen before or since. Welcome, Dan.

Dan: Hi. I was wondering who you were introducing there. I didn’t recognize myself.

Lenore: You didn’t recognize some of the credentials? How about the last name?

Dan: The last name works. I remember your visit well.

Lenore: It was fantastic for me. I actually have some little videos on my phone that I still use to show people what an amazing school it is. What makes it different from your average grammar school, middle school, or high school, because it’s all of them, right?

Dan: It certainly is. I had to address that question today in another context and it occurred to me that the question is more difficult than you know and easier in many ways. Ask yourself what is it that makes this country so different than any other country. That’s a really intriguing question. Here we are, a small fraction of the world population and yet 85, 90% of the creative work that has been done in the past century has come from this country. How come this has happened? And more than that, how come no other country has copied us? Well over one hundred countries have been formed since the Second World War, and not a single one of them has said, hey, that USA is a really an intriguing place – we should do what they do, because they got such wonderful results. So, the answer to that is: because it’s so difficult to really explain, and the reason it’s so difficult to explain is that it’s so easy.

It all comes down to something very simple. We have freedom here. We not only have freedom for each person to realize their dreams, to do what they’re really good at, to lead meaningful lives. But we also have a tremendous sense of respect for human beings and for each other. It’s not enough to be free, you’ve also got to respect other people’s freedom and other people’s right to exist. So we are in a country that is unlike any other, where people are free, and people who look at it from the outside say that’s chaos, that can’t be right, that can’t happen. It can’t work because you have to tell people what to do or they’ll go off on the wrong track.

Lenore: Well, we do have laws, it’s not anarchy here.

Dan: Well, that’s part of the respect for the individual’s freedom. All of the laws that we have are supposed to be directed at one thing. In the Declaration of Independence, which after all is a pretty serious document, it says clearly that to protect the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, governments are established. The point of our government, the point of laws, and the point of rules, is to make this a place that respects the individual right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Now, take that a step further and ask yourself: if we’re going to prepare children to live in this country, if we want them to grow up to be good citizens who understand the country, what better way to do it than to put them in an environment – to immerse them in an environment – which does just that, so that as they grow up it’s part of their lifeblood. Doesn’t that make sense?

Lenore: Well, it does except that until now this great and glorious and creative and freedom-loving country has put kids in regular schools and achieved all this, so why would we need to put them in a different kind of school?

Dan: But it actually hasn’t. That’s a really modern phenomenon. We’ve been here since the 1600's and we’ve developed this culture over many, many centuries. Schools for all are only a phenomenon of about 150 years. Think about it – for almost all of human development, there never were schools. All of the tremendous results of civilization and culture that went on over the centuries was done with no schools.

Lenore: No morning bell, no pledge, no school lunch program even.

Dan: Nothing. All the great technology, the science, philosophy and so forth with no schools. So, why schools? Why do we have schools in the first place? If you look at it and you read the literature of the people who established public schooling – and ours was the country that led in public schooling – they’re very open about it: they say look, we now have reached the Industrial Revolution, we want to be a really rich country. And we want to be the forefront of industrial development in the world. And in order to do that back then, people had to be part of the machinery. We didn’t have smart machines back then. We had machines that needed operators to do robotic kinds of activities all the time. That’s something that kids don’t want to do.

Lenore: Nobody wants to do.

Dan: Nobody wants to do, but in order to get adults to do it at all, you’ve got to start training them at a very young age. And if you read the literature of the people who set up the public schools, you’ll see that they were very open about it: what we need is a place where we can train children to obey discipline. If we get them to obey discipline, then they’ll be able to be productive factory workers. And, in fact, the first schools not only accentuated discipline and obedience to the teacher, but they also taught the three R’s, which are sort of the very basic needs for any industrial worker. He has to be able to read the instructions, write simple things and then do really easy math. And that’s what the curriculum was for a long time. Now, once you get into that, you get a second thing happening. You get people looking at this and saying: ah, we have these child training institutions, why don’t we also start training them to all the other things we want them to do and see if . . .

Lenore: As long as they’re there. You’ve got the kids, you’ve got the schools, right?

Dan: Exactly. And the interesting thing is that too is something that was pretty complicated because what kinds of things do we want them to know. That’s a really good question if you’re going to start training them.

Lenore: That is exactly the question I was going to ask you. I’m very curious about what you think “normal schools” are teaching kids, but we haven’t actually said what Sudbury Valley is. And I think our listeners are probably pretty curious. What makes it different from the schools that they went to, or their kids go to?

Dan: Really, really simple. We treat every kid as if they’re human beings – adults – ready to live in a free society. And we give them, by right, the freedom that they will enjoy as adults in the society they grow up into. These kids are ready to become good American citizens in a free country, respecting each other, respecting the law, because they’ve been free to do that from the time they were very young. And the obvious objection to that is how can they be responsible enough to live that way, they’re only kids?

Lenore: How can a first-grader be responsible enough to live that way? What freedom are you teaching them? Are you treating them like an adult? Do they get to smoke and drink? What are we talking about?

Dan: No, they can’t just smoke and drink. But the reason for that has nothing to do with the way the school is run basically. Who said that children can’t exercise that kind of responsibility? Where’s the proof that they can’t? Who’s ever tried it? It’s an assumption that has no basis in any kind of fact. Look, remember what they said about women at the turn of the century. Women can’t be given a vote, they can’t be given responsibility. Why not? Because they have no judgment.

Lenore: They’re too delicate, also, right?

Dan: You never know what they’re going to do and mostly they do what their husbands tell them to do, so their husbands will control them. You know all the arguments. And the question that people who advocated that women have equal rights asked is very simple – how do you know? Who ever proved that women don’t have judgment? You never gave them the chance. And guess what? We gave them a chance and surprise, surprise – they’re just as good as males, if not better. In fact, I usually tell the kids in our school, if you want a secret to a really good and harmonious life, learn one thing: most women are smarter than most men.

Lenore: I’m liking the school more by the minute.

Dan: The same thing applies to children. Nobody ever tried to treat children like full human beings. Once you try, it’s a miracle. They don’t have to unlearn all the authoritarian nonsense that they get in the traditional school system. Freedom comes naturally to them.

Lenore: Can you just walk me through a traditional third grade school day versus a third grader at your school?

Dan: That’s really easy, especially nowadays because nowadays a traditional third grader – because of common core and because of national standards – basically all third graders in regular public schools are on the same page, on the same subject, at the same time during the day, all over the country. That’s because experts have decided what they should be doing that at that particular time. Now, what about our kids? First of all, there are no third graders because we don’t separate students into groups any more than we separate adults into groups. You don’t walk into a room and get put into the same group with other people your own age the minute you walk into a place. So our kids don’t either. They come in, they go wherever they want to go on the campus. And they decide who to play with, what to do, who to converse with, what books to read, what to do with their day. They make the same kinds of decisions you and I have to make every single morning – it’s no different.

Lenore: Well, wait, actually I don’t make that decision every single morning. Or at least I didn’t when I had a regular desk job. All I could do is decide that on the weekends, but in the morning I had to be at work at a certain time and sit at my desk and do what my editor said, so I didn’t have the freedom to wander around, right?

Dan: Well, yes and no, because what you had is, hopefully, the freedom to decide what job you wanted to get. Once you decided what job you wanted then you also, by doing that, decided to abide by whatever rules or whatever requirements that job has. Why did you make that decision? Because you had judgment, because you knew that to make it in an environment that you thought would be meaningful for you, you had to be part of that environment. Well, our kids are just as smart as you are every morning. They know, for example, that if they want to become part of a certain group activity, they’re going to have to find out what that activity is, or they’re going to have to blend into it, which may require some work, or leave that activity and do something else. You have the right in this country, for example, to quit your job, don’t you?

Lenore: That’s true.

Dan: Nobody makes you stay there. You don’t have the right to walk out of your third grade classroom. You don’t have the right, in fact, to even go to the bathroom when you want to go. And you also don’t have the right to really hear or explore alternative explanations to the things you’re being taught in class. So, for example, you may happen to land in a class in which you’re told that the founding fathers were all terrible people; they were slave owners so they couldn’t possibly have been decent human beings in any other area. They were businessmen and so obviously they were money-grubbing, and that’s terrible.

Lenore: Right, a lot of revisionist history.

Dan: And they get that in the school. The point is you don’t control it, it’s just there.

Lenore: No, that’s right. You didn’t control it when we heard that George Washington couldn’t tell a lie and you don’t control it when you hear that he was a jerk.

Dan: Exactly the point. And of course the kids in our school have the same freedom you have. They can look it up, they can see other versions of our founding fathers. They can make their own decisions based on reading the material that the founding fathers produced. Now some of them may reach the same conclusions, but they’ve reached it on their own. A lot of others will say: wait a minute, that’s not a real version of history because we’ve researched it on our own and found that it isn’t. Remember one thing. Let me say this simply. Every child wants to grow up to be an effective adult in society. If that weren’t the case, our species would have died out a long time ago. Just like every animal wants to grow up to be a successful adult animal.

Lenore: There’s a drive to adulthood, and to success, and to breeding It’s all there, and it’s fun.

Dan: We don’t have to mess with that. We don’t have to motivate children to grow up. And we don’t have to motivate children to learn.

Lenore: How do you motivate children to learn, or do we really not have to? Are they going to do it on their own? If they have a whole free day ahead of them, are they going to eat chips and play basketball, or are they going to get down to the books, or some combination? How does that work at the Sudbury Valley School? Are you leaving kids alone? Are they just free to do whatever they want all day and somehow they’re going to get educated? Is that what the Sudbury Valley School is?

Dan: Well, absolutely. But, of course, the key is in that wonderful phrase you used “and somehow they’re going to get educated”. Wow, is that a loaded phrase.

Lenore: It is.

Dan: Imagine the people who first came and looked at this country from the outside, from Europe for example. Are you really going to leave all those people alone and let them do their own thing? I mean, how can that be? No civilized country does that. Why do we leave each other alone? Does anyone come and ask you what books you’ve read recently? Does anybody check on that? Does anybody give you a reading list?

Lenore: No.

Dan: Did you stop learning the minute you left school? Why? How do you learn?

Lenore: I get it, but I already had my schooling when I was younger. I got the foundations.

Dan: Isn’t that amazing? So, for 150,000 years without schools people just couldn’t do anything because nobody gave them the foundation? How did it happen? The absurdity of it is obvious the minute you look a little more deeply. Obviously, people are always learning. The minute you stop learning, you’re effectively dead. Of course we learn. Kids learn every minute. Adults learn every minute. School has nothing to do with it. In fact, one of the things I love to do whenever I speak in front of an audience is say: who in this audience right now can solve a quadratic equation? And of course, the only people who can raise their hands are engineers or scientists – you know, people who still do that for a living. But most of them can’t. Why not? Because this so called “foundation” is a foundation for nothing – it has nothing to do with their lives. When they go out into the world they have to build their own foundation from scratch. So instead of advancing their education, being cooped up in a school and being forced to deal with stuff that is totally irrelevant to your life goals sets you back. You have to start learning the things you want when you’ve left school. Isn’t that ridiculous?

Lenore: I’m one of those people who would slink away having zero idea how to solve or even what a quadratic equation is at this point. However, had somebody taught me quadratic equations and I thought this is so fascinating, I hope I get to keep doing more of this, and I kept going in math and ended up a physicist, I’d be very glad that somewhere along the line somebody taught me quadratic equations as opposed to saying you can do whatever you want and me never encountering that.

Dan: But that’s true of everybody in any walk of life. You can say that about people growing up in this country in general. Had somebody only showed people how wonderful it is to live under a king, then my goodness maybe we’d want to live under a king. It’s not that bad. If you remember in the bible, one of the most wonderful biblical stories is here are the children of Israel, leaving Egypt, and it’s not that easy in the desert, right? What do they say?

Lenore: But for forty years!

Dan: That’s right. Then what are they complaining about? Just read your bible and it says: hey, Moses, we want to go back to Egypt, it was easier there. We got fed, we didn’t have to walk around and wonder what we’re going to do all day. It’s a common complaint. It’s really nice to have somebody tell you what to do so you don’t have to worry about things from one minute to the other. But thinking for yourself has its rewards. If we want to raise kids who don’t think for themselves, we’ve got the perfect system, leave it alone. I wouldn’t touch the schools. But if we want to raise kids who actually can think for themselves, reason for themselves, explore, learn new things . . . how can you even learn new things if you go to our school system? It’s a miracle that people actually learn anything new. Because you’re penalized for saying anything new in our school system.

Let me tell you something from when I was teaching physics. I was teaching an introductory laboratory. And everybody says laboratories are what science is about, you ask nature questions and nature gives you the answers and that’s how you make progress. So there I was teaching an introductory laboratory and one of the things that kids measured was how fast a ball rolled down a plane – a standard thing in these introductory laboratories. And they measure it and they come back and they say here, I made this measurement and this is the answer that I got. And I’d look at it, and I’d compare the answer to the answer in the book and I’d say to them oops, you got the wrong answer. What lesson does that give to somebody in school about what science is? The lesson is that science is about getting the right answers that are in the book. And that’s what our schools are all about – feeding back things that people already know and saying that gives you the foundation for life. Well, that’s not a foundation for anything except a bunch of robotic repeaters which is what our schools want people to be. Our kids are enthusiastic about life. They’re enthusiastic about learning – everything and anything. You know that because you’ve sat in the school, you’ve heard the conversations.

Lenore: I did. I knew that the Sudbury Valley School was an unusual school and that there were no grades or grades, i.e., there’s not first, second, third grade; and there’s not A, B, C, D, F. There were just going to be kids. But when I got there, I was quite surprised to see that at a giant table in this beautiful, old living room of an old mansion in Massachusetts, there were three kids playing cards, there were a bunch of kids doing a video game, there was kids studying what looked like quadratic equations – I’m not sure what they were. And there was another kid upstairs playing the guitar with a friend that seemed to be composing music and another girl who was making stuff out of clay. And it looked like something out of Little Women – everybody was buzzing with activity and interest, and, seemingly in a harmonious way. And then at some point, one of the kids said hey, let’s all play Capture the Flag, and almost instantaneously, the word got out and forty or fifty kids showed up outside on the playground, and one kid said: so, should we choose teams or count off by twos? And everybody voted quickly and they decided to count off by twos. And they made a line faster than I’ve ever seen a line of children form up anywhere – straight, good, one, two, one, two, one two. They separated into their groups and I thought wow, maybe they’re not learning quadratic equations except for that one kid I saw, but I wish my kids knew how to organize a game. I wish they knew how to organize themselves, I wish they knew how to communicate that fast and go and have fun because it seemed like they had learned all sorts of great things that you don’t necessarily get in regular school – like communication, like compromise, like democracy, like alacrity.

I know I’ve been harping on this a little, Dan, but just give us a little more perspective on what they are learning. I did see them being very happy, being able to organize a game, following their pursuits, but some of their pursuits were video games, card games. I know that a lot of parents out there are going to think, I’m not going to send my kid to learn how to play a video game, that’s what he spends all his time doing anyhow.

Dan: You’re really baiting me with something there. What is so bad about video games? Ask anybody what’s so bad about them. And try to see what they answer and what they focus in on: they’re repetitive, they’re mind-numbing. Well, imagine when books were first produced, what parents said about kids who buried themselves in books. I mean, they’re not out there farming! There’s a wonderful story about this which I have to share with you and that is back in colonial times there was a meeting between leaders of the Virginia colony and native Americans who lived in settlements nearby. And the Virginia wise people said to them look, we can help you get civilized, we are ready to offer you scholarships to go to Harvard University so that you can learn to be modern, civilized people. And the answer they got was wonderful. The leaders of these native American tribes said to them, look we’ve already had that offer, we’ve sent some of our kids to Harvard and when they came back they were perfectly useless. They didn’t know how to hunt, they didn’t know how to skin an animal, they didn’t know how to plow a field, they didn’t know how to do any of the things that had to keep them alive. Now, we’ll give you a deal, we’ll pick some of your people, we’ll put them in our culture and teach them how to live. What does that story tell you? The story tells you that what you need to become educated to lead a good life depends on what your goals are and what you mean by a good life. The main aim that everybody has from the minute they’re born is to grow up and to have a meaningful life – otherwise we wouldn’t have survived. Kids are all looking for that and they’re finding it in their own way. And for anybody to presume to tell them what a good life is, or what tools they need for something they haven’t chosen, is something we reject as adults. We wouldn’t tolerate it for a minute if people tried to do that to us as adults. Why do we do it to children? Why don’t we continue doing it to adults? Why don’t we have refresher courses? Stuff is happening all the time. Why don’t we make you, Lenore, and everyone else go back to school every other year to learn all the new things that have happened because the foundation that you got when you went to school – even if you’re only 29 years old – is totally obsolete. It’s already obsolete.

Lenore: You have no idea how my stomach is clenching as I think of the idea of even going back to school for one day and having to take a test.

Dan: But where’s your foundation? Something is happening. And don’t you ask yourself how do I even stay alive? I don’t have a foundation for the new stuff. Do you know that virtually all the stuff that I taught when I was at Columbia is considered obsolete now? In physics. Think about medicine. How much do we believe now in all the things they believed a hundred years ago? Just think back a hundred years when most of the things that we cure today were incurable and think of how fifty years from now they’re going to look back and say oh, my god, they didn’t even know how to grow new organs, what a bunch of losers!

Lenore: You’re right. I do think that your school is doing something extraordinary. I brought my own son with me when I came to visit, as you know; he was sixteen. And he came back and he was pretty depressed for the next week because he had gotten that taste of freedom, and back he went to History, Science, English and Social Studies. But I know that before I went I wasn’t sure how kids even learned to read without a teacher at the front of the class saying this is an A, this is a B. Can you explain how kids get some of these skills that we do want them to learn?

Dan: That’s such an easy question to answer because the hardest skill you learn in your entire life is to talk. People don’t really give that credit. The idea that you can symbolize a thought or a thing by a symbol called a word is the most abstract concept in the world. And furthermore, to figure out what any particular word represents is a monstrously huge intellectual task. Yet every kid masters it in every culture. And that means that from birth, they’re capable of learning the most complex things. Reading is simple. There’s nothing to it. It’s a simple code. It’s using symbols to represent sounds. We’ve never taught reading. There’s never been a kid in our school – ever – who hasn’t learned how to read, eventually, in their own good time. And we’ve never had a case of dyslexia in 47 years.

Lenore: You’ve never had a kid with dyslexia?

Dan: Not one. Listen, I could give you indigestion if I fed you ice cream all the time. And yet if I say to people well they can eat whatever they want, what’s the first thing they say: oh, they’ll want to eat sweets and ice cream all the time, right? As if the human race grew up right away with these nutritionists telling them exactly what they have to eat otherwise we’d die out. The idea that freedom is toxic is an idea that they teach in schools. And if we’re going to survive as a culture, we’d better get our schools from the get-go showing kids that freedom is exhilarating, it’s creative, it’s the thing our whole beautiful culture is based on. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

Lenore: Why should kids go to school at all if it sounds like regular school is just constricting and horrible? Why would they go to Sudbury School? Is it just to have a critical mass of children together in one place?

Dan: I think eventually somewhere down the line schools will probably fade away, but right now the world at large is not a safe place for kids to roam around freely. It’s hardly a safe place for adults to roam around freely. But it’s certainly not for kids. And until we have physical environments in which kids can really gather and do their thing on their own, we’re going to have places that are safe havens for kids to be free. For kids, the world at large right now is too dangerous – it’s sort of a big war zone. And Sudbury schools are safe places for kids to be free.

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