The Core Ideas of the Sudbury Model

This essay is based on a talk delivered at the 2005 Summer Workshop for Staff of Sudbury Schools and Startup Groups. The full talk is available as a CD from The Sudbury Valley School Press.

Sudbury Valley School was consciously modeled on the American experience. Our first publication, The Crisis in American Education, was written around the theme that this school's values parallel those of American society. Back then, we were naive enough to think that this fact should make the school an easier sell than if it were in conflict with American values. As time went on, and the entire public school system didn't convert itself to the Sudbury model, we had to face the fact that massive change wasn't happening, and try to understand why.

Why is it so hard to explain the school to Americans? Why is it so hard for Americans to accept its premises? And why is it such a hard sell to the rest of the world?

While we're at it, we may well wonder why American values and American principles are such a hard sell to Americans even beyond the realm of education? Why are so many Americans so conflicted in relating their practices to their ideals? We read a lot about that in our history books, which often convey a sense of disappointment, and often contain accusations of hypocrisy. How could the Founding Fathers be serious about these ideals and have slaves? Were the high-sounding phrases they wrote just a cover for the evils they perpetrated? Why is there so much discrimination in our society today, even though our ideals clearly militate against it? I feel I have finally come to the point where I have some insight into why this happens. To explain this, we have to really look deeply into the ideals of the American system, which are reflected in the Sudbury model. It turns out that some interesting and unsettling facts emerge that shed considerable light on the situation, both in this school and in the country.

There are a few core American ideals. One is the fundamental equality of every individual. That lies at the heart of the American belief system. All people are fundamentally equal. This a phrase that makes sense to anybody who was born and raised in this country.

A second core American ideal is the sanctity of human life. Every human life is sacred. You can get a sense of that when Americans talk about war; regardless of the degree of support for a given war, there is always tremendous pain in this society over human losses. That's not to say that people in other countries don't grieve when their loved ones are killed in war, but for much of the world, the notion is accepted that war is a normal part of the international political process (in Clausewitz's notorious formulation, "war is an extension of diplomacy"), and that it's too bad people have to die, but that's the way it is. Americans have never been comfortable with that. When Americans get killed, we're mad, and we go to great lengths to avoid that happening.

Where does the idea of the equality of all people come from? What is its origin? Look around you. One of the most obvious things about the human race is that people are not equal. Some of us are tall, some are short. Some of us are thin, some are fat. Some of us are old, some are young. Some of us are athletic, some are clutzes. If I walked into a room and said, "I have made a great biological discovery. Every human being weighs the same, it's just that our scales are different. We all really weigh 120 pounds, and if your scale doesn't show 120 pounds, you have to re-calibrate it" - I would deservedly be laughed at. Whether you're in a primitive tribal society or in the most technologically advanced society in the world, people are not equal. Or rather, they are clearly not the same. So we have to ask ourselves, what does it mean when we say that people are equal? Where does the idea come from, when it's so obviously contrary to experience?

While we're at it, where does the idea that all life is sacred come from? Historically, the world has never held human life sacred. Nature doesn't hold life sacred. I always find it amusing when people are concerned about restricting the TV their children are watching, so they won't be exposed to violence. They want their kids to look at educational programs instead, so they look at National Geographic or PBS and they see animals chewing each other up, or lions leaping on fleeing deer and tearing them apart. Nature is profligate with life, and with human life too. Tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, all such natural disasters take no pains to spare human beings. Nor is there a way to spare any person from ultimate death. So what's so sacred about life?

The answer to these questions is startling: both ideas originate in the Bible. They are at the heart of the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition, which was later extended to Islam. All three traditions share a common account of the Creation, and thus a common concept of the nature of the human race and human life. These concepts were highly innovative inventions, and judging from the speed with which they were accepted in the ancient world, they were hardly an instant hit. The tiny tribe of Hebrews had them at the core of their religion for something like 1200 years before they were adopted by the slowly spreading Christian world. Hundreds more years passed before Islam was born and spread its influence. Even now, after some 3000 years, when you add up all the Jews, and Christians and Muslims in the world, you still don't embrace anywhere near the whole world population.

What we have is the conceptual product of a small society in the ancient Middle East, expressed right at the beginning of their holy scripture, in the account of the creation of the world. There are actually two creation stories, but they are both similar in this fundamental regard, that one set of human beings was initially created. In the first creation story, God simply takes earth and creates man and woman simultaneously; in the second one, God creates a man, and the man was lonely for a companion, so God split him and made a woman out of half of him. In both cases, however, we have one single couple who are the origin of the entire human race, and right there you get a concept of human equality that cannot be denied: we are all one family, the "human family". The idea of the human family is a Biblical invention. Every single one of us belongs to a single global family. Every culture differentiates how you treat family from other people. Family is family, and in a deep sense, all members of a family are equal. You'd give your life for your family, you'd sacrifice everything for your family. You nurture your family, you get mad at your family, you love your family, old and young, fat and thin, tall and short, male and female, it makes no difference. We are all blood relatives. That's what human equality is about, and that's where it comes from.

The second concept, the sanctity of human life, comes shortly thereafter in the Bible, in the story of Cain and Abel. Here we have two brothers who are squabbling - which is certainly something common enough in the world - and one gets angry at the other and kills him. In the Biblical story, there's an unambiguous sequel. God says to Cain, "What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying out to me from the earth!" That's one of the most powerful sentences ever written. The blood of a human being has a voice that cries out to God from the earth. It's not a lifeless mass of liquid; it is the embodiment of a living soul, and God hears that cry and punishes the perpetrator, because he has violated the sanctity of the life that God has breathed into the human race. Furthermore, in the first creation story, God is quoted as saying, before man is made, "I want to create a creature in my image," and the story goes on to emphasize that mankind has indeed been made in God's image. So we're not only members of the same family, we all have a divine essence, and nothing can be more sacred than being created in the image of God.

So the sanctity of life and the equality of all human beings are religious concepts originating in the Bible. Indeed, many instances can be found that emphasize these values. For example, the Bible insists that all judicial processes have to treat everybody equally. Nobody should benefit from their status: poor people shouldn't get treated favorably because they're unfortunate, and rich people shouldn't get special treatment because they are wealthy. Likewise, when the ancient Israelites clamor for a king, claiming they want to be like everybody else, they come to the prophet Samuel with their demand. Samuel objects strongly: "There is only one king, God," and he bases his objection on the notion that all Israelites are inherently equal, so that one should not be placed above the others. There are a great many interesting examples throughout the Bible, all of which illustrate how deeply these two concepts were valued.

It is not an accident that in the 20th century, the two most brutal regimes known in the history of man specifically targeted the Judaeo-Christian religious tradition. With the Nazis, opposition was focused on it from the outset; it lay at the core of their belief system. The major enemy for Hitler were the Jews, the ultimate creators of what he called a corrupt morality that envisioned a world in which all people were equal, and life was sacred. Such notions were inherently absurd to the Nazis, who held to a racially based world-view that differentiated very clearly between the right to life of different racial groups. The Bolshevik Communists did exactly the same thing. They targeted religion in general, and the Judaeo-Christian religion in particular. They closed as many churches as they could, and they were militantly atheistic, because the fundamental idea behind Bolshevism was the supremacy of the community over any individual. Basing their actions on that concept, they went on to wipe out some 40-50 million people, ostensibly for the better good of society as a whole.

So here we have two ideas that are contrary to everyday experience, that are not embedded in our evolutionary biological heritage, and are foreign to our natural instincts. They are the products of a moral sensitivity that was developed by humans. And it's important to remember that, after all, the human brain is also a product of evolution. The fact that human beings create moral systems is itself a product of evolution, not outside of evolution. So we have an interesting biological conundrum here: evolution creating a creature that wants to defy it, that wants to create rules that act against it.

Western cultures adopted these ideas. Even secular people have adopted them; they are no longer tied to religion in our culture. The religious origins are not considered relevant. Secular Western culture in general has accepted the notion that life is sacred and that people are equal. I think it is a remarkable fact that even people who are not associated with any religion are somehow tied to these ideas by their roots, and by the religious origins of the culture in which they live.

Thus, one of the reasons that these premises are a hard sell for America, and for the school, is that they run contrary to our basic biological nature, and are a moral creation of a very specific culture. They are not something that come naturally to people. No matter how many times we say the words, we are saddled by a biological nature that cries the opposite. Thus, in the school, every parent who approaches us possesses the same biological nature that is subliminally screaming against what we're saying, and they're struggling with this conflict.

We have conflicts like that in many realms. For example, with regard to sexual behavior, which every society restricts in ways that run contrary to our natural inclinations, there are always problems arising from internal conflicts. Nature calls for mating, and if you impose inhibitions on that, you create conflicts. I have a lot of sympathy for people who preach one thing, such as abstinence, and then are found in bed with somebody. I have a lot of sympathy because it's a real struggle. I don't call them hypocrites; I call them people who have fought a very hard struggle and have come out on a particular side of it, which doesn't appeal to me necessarily, but I can certainly understand that it isn't an easy matter for them.

There's a second problem that the concepts of equality and the sanctity of life introduce. The human species is, by nature, a social species. Human beings do not thrive in isolation. So as long as a human being is alone, it's all very well and good to say, "My individuality is primary," "my life is sacred"; but the minute human beings are cast into a situation where they share their lives with other human beings, you have a fundamental conflict. You have the conflict of people wanting to associate with other people who are just as individual as you are, and have just as much of an interest in living their own lives and pursuing their own interests and doing their own thing as you do, but you're not the same. You're not mirror images or clones of each other. As soon as there exists any social interaction, there arises the conflict between creating a viable group and between the individuality that you've held so important. That conflict is inevitable, because the human brain is so complex that it is guaranteed that every human being has their own individual world view, their own character, personality, aspirations, and ideals.

Thus, by the very nature of the species, if you're going to espouse a moral system in which individuality and life are sacred, there will arise a dilemma surrounding man's social nature. The problem of reconciling an individual with society is a problem in any world view, but it's especially poignant in the Judaeo-Christian world-view that Western culture has adopted, because we value the individual so highly. Indeed, in a country like the United States, this conflict is even more intense, because we don't willingly let go of any of our individuality at all. We each want to lead lives that are meaningful to us, yet at the same time we want to create a community. All political theories address this problem; in a sense, that's what political theory is about, and I don't think we should underestimate how difficult it is.

This dilemma has been struggled with for thousands of years, whether under monarchies, autocracies, military dictatorships, tribal democracies, or any of the other forms of government devised over time. Within the last three or four hundred years - relatively recently, from the perspective of history - the concept of Liberal Democracy was invented to address this socio-political problem in a stable manner. And a unique form of Liberal Democracy was fashioned in this country in a very conscious manner.

Indeed, the basic question underlying all the deliberations of the Founding Fathers was how to create a government that doesn't trample on the individuals making up the society being governed; a government that enhances the individual's ability to be productive and realize his/her goals, and yet at the same time enhances the ability of the community to be a viable, cohesive whole. This took a monumental effort. The result of their labors was a complex structure. Nor is it an accident that the Constitution is complex: the problem it addresses is complex, and they devised a complicated and intricate political tapestry to provide a solution.

As a result of the ingenious labors of these great men, American culture became a highly innovative combination of two unique creations of the human mind: the moral creation of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, embodying human equality and the sanctity of life; and the political creation of the Founding Fathers, the American version of Liberal Democracy.

The Founding Fathers revealed the origins of their point of view in probably the most celebrated passage of political writing, in the Declaration of Independence - a passage frequently cited in legal decisions of the Supreme Court as a valid indicator of the intentions of the Founders, even though the Declaration of Independence is not a binding legal document in the American legal system.

I am referring to the words, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

This passage deserves close reading. Consider the opening phrase, "We hold these truths to be self evident." The first thing that jumps out at you is the realization that there is absolutely nothing "self-evident" about these truths! Nothing! In fact, this is the first recorded document to declare these propositions to be "truths", never mind "self-evident". As I read it, this declaration is a bald attempt by the Founding Fathers to put one over on the reader, the way we often do in debates when we say, "Of course" . If you have to put the words "of course" in, you know that you've got a weak argument, because you can't support it by anything other than a declaration that it's true.

The first so called truth betrays it's Biblical origin right away. Isn't that remarkable? Right off the bat. It's a clear statement that the Creator created all men equal. Remember, this is the Declaration of Independence, not a church document, not a rabbinical sermon or the words of an ayatollah; it's the Declaration of Independence of the non-sectarian United States of America. The statement reveals clearly its exact origin - the creation story of the Bible. Whatever we think about the First Amendment, about the separation of Church and State, about the place of religion in government, no one can doubt the place of the Judaeo-Christian tradition in the minds of the Founding Fathers when they established this country. It's right there, in black and white.

When we get beyond that opening declaration, we're afloat, right away. There is nothing in the Judaeo-Christian tradition or in the entire literature of Western culture that points to a "self-evident truth" that all men are endowed with unalienable rights. That concept doesn't exist. The Declaration of Independence is the first official document in which this idea appears. And look at what these "rights" are. You can make a case for "life" as something originating in the Bible, but individual liberty? Liberty is an inalienable right in the history of the human race? And what of "the pursuit of happiness", which means, in their language, the ability to lead a meaningful life? An inalienable right? For every human being? These are total inventions of the Founding Fathers.

Then we come to the crux of the matter, the role of government vis a vis the individual. Why is government entitled to any authority at all? Where does it come from? In fact, the single most difficult problem facing every government, no matter what its form, has been to establish its legitimacy. Here we find the Declaration of Independence claiming it to be a self-evident truth that governments get their "just power from the consent of the governed." Even social contract theorists didn't all think that you had to have the consent of the governed continuously. For most of them, once a society made a contract, that was it for keeps.

Thus, the Founding Fathers presented a full blown invention for the way to resolve the conflict between the individual and society - an original invention, a unique one, and a strange one. The Constitution they devised was a detailed mechanism for working out the specifics of these ideas, and it's something we're still working on. Here we are, over 200 years later, and the country is still working out its Constitution! We still haven't figured out all the answers. It's a living dilemma.

Let's look at the core ideas of their political invention. The first one is that, in order to make an effective society, people have to surrender some of their individuality to another authority. The second core idea relates to the recognition of human diversity. Since people are so different from each other, it's obvious that it's impossible to agree on every single point when they come together to form a government. You cannot conceivably get unanimity on every issue that comes up before a group of people. So it's necessary to create some mechanism to make decisions, a mechanism that, of necessity, is going to displease some people. So one has to accept from the outset not only that you have to surrender some of your individuality to an authority, but also that some people are always going to be unhappy. The Constitution creates certain forms through which decisions are made, but whatever the form, the key point is that some method is devised to achieve this goal.

The third core idea is that regardless of the government, and regardless of how you make decisions, there are certain decisions you can't make - the ones that have to do with the "unalienable rights". We are the only country that has a Bill of Rights, or at least a serious Bill of Rights that you can go to court with and win your case.

A fourth core idea is encompassed in these unalienable rights - the concept of "due process". This concept demands that in setting up a Liberal Democracy, it's important that rules be clearly promulgated, that they have to apply equally to everyone and enforced fairly.

These are the same ideas that lie at the core of the Sudbury school model. That's why we thought it would be such an easy sell in this country. Since we are embedded in this culture, we felt we don't have to say that these ideas are self-evident, because the society has already said so, and that problem has already been taken care of! We just say that we're embedded in the culture, and that we mirror it. It turned out, to our consternation, that we ended up facing the same problem that American society as a whole is faced with. We have ideals, the same as those of American culture. We spell out these ideals explicitly, just as American culture does. But America has been fighting a centuries-old struggle to practice them, a struggle that is not close to being won. We are still far from racial equality, gender equality, complete religious tolerance, and complete mutual respect. These are our fundamental ideals, but to live up to them is just plain hard. If I talk to any group of people in this country, and ask, "What are your social and ethical ideals?" they would enumerate the ones I've been discussing, because they learned them in school, and they are sincere in feeling that they really believe in these ideals. But if I confront them about specifics in their lives, if I ask, "How come in real life you behave this or that way," they don't want to be confronted like that. They don't want to be accused of not being faithful to their beliefs. That's everyday reality. Ideals are a hard sell.

When talking about the school, we don't make it easy, because we implicitly throw in their faces the contradictions of their life. We essentially tell them, "Your life is not consistent with your values." Of course, we never say it outright - we wouldn't think of saying it that baldly, it's disrespectful. One doesn't declare to a parent who has come to an interview, "You're a hypocrite." We just tell them about this wonderful educational model, where everybody is treated equally, everybody is respected, everybody has a vote, everybody has an equal say, all of which has a familiar ring. They've heard it before. And they are already uneasy about not practicing these ideals in their own adult lives. Now, we are saying, in effect, "You don't live up to it in your lives, but we want you to accept the fact that your kids are going to live up to these ideals, in spite of the fact that you don't." That is a tall order. It's as hard a sell as you can imagine. We have to understand this fact. We have to understand that when we think we are focusing on education, what we are actually suggesting to parents is that even though they're not living up to their ideals, we are demanding that they allow their kids to live up to these ideals. That's a very difficult demand to make.

There is no fast way to narrow the gap between ideal and practice. This country has been working on it for over 200 years, and we're still far from our goal. Nor is there a shortcut to doing it in the educational world. Indeed, there is little hope for achieving a congruence of ideal and practice on a mass basis in the educational world until that congruence has been much more widespread in society.

What about other countries? There are some observers in recent times who have written about the global historical tendency of societies to move towards Liberal Democracy, and for these core ideas to become universally accepted. To the extent that that's the case, the Sudbury model will be a good fit in a larger number of societies. If you're trying to establish a Sudbury school in a culture which does not accept these core ideas, the task will be even harder than it is for us, because you're fighting not only the resistance we're fighting, but also the ambient culture, which doesn't subscribe to the essence of the model.

If I were to look at a school and say, "Is this a Sudbury model school?" I would look for two things. First, that the behavior of children towards children, adults towards adults, adults towards children, and children towards adults doesn't differ in any way from the appropriate behavior between adults in the wider society, outside of family. If people treat each other throughout the school as adults treat their adult peers in the society at large, with the same degree of mutual respect, then you have a school in which the core belief in equality and in the sanctity of every individual is being realized in practice. Second, it has to be an institution in which there is no authority beyond that granted by the consent of the governed, on a continuous, ongoing basis. There can't be areas of decision-making that are reserved for a particular, select sub-group. There can't be authority other than that which derives from the consent of the governed in a manner that grants an equal say to each member of the community. These are the core ideas that define a Sudbury school.

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