Age Mixing, Positive and Negative Role Models, and Personal Independence1
We always felt that Sudbury Valley was the best place to develop each child’s unique potential to the fullest. That was a given for us from day one. The question is, how does this beautiful concept relate to setting up a school? It turns out that, when you think of the notion of developing each child’s unique destiny, you realize that it connects directly into the great debate of Nature vs. nurture. And the fact is that, at least in this juncture in human history, no one has an answer to the question of which of these is the determining factor, or the most important factor, or what relative weight can be given to each one. Both factors seem to play a role. So, for us, the question became, how does the school environment relate to each of these two factors, assuming that they both play a role? How does the school environment help each child to realize their own destiny, whether you consider that destiny to be determined by Nature or by nurture?
Let’s consider Nature first. The argument is that a child’s potential and capabilities are largely determined by his/her genetic makeup. It’s something inherent in the child from birth. The idea is that each child is born with a certain innate configuration that gets actuated as the child matures into adulthood – like hair color, or physical build. To the extent that this is true, then, the way to maximize a child’s ability to realize his/her own destiny is to let Nature take its course! It seems pretty obvious once you focus on what it means. If there’s a component of your destiny that’s inherent, the best way to assure that it will be realized is to let Nature do its thing undisturbed. That should happen without barriers, and with the patience necessary to let the natural processes unfold.
That idea is the origin of the school’s “Art of Doing Nothing” concept, which was first introduced in an article that Hanna wrote about twenty years ago.2 The idea is not so much that you’re doing nothing as that you’re stepping aside and letting Nature do something. In other words, outsiders – staff, or parents, or other members of the school community – have to take great care not to intervene in this natural unfolding of the child’s capabilities. That’s very important to us in the school. It has been for a long time. It’s become reinforced by our experience over and over again. We have come to understand clearly that any intervention engaged in by the school will undermine, to a certain extent, the innate natural drives and tendencies of a growing child.
When we talked about the role of parents, we discussed how important it was for a parent, before intervening, to weigh the benefits of the intervention vs. the costs of the intervention. In the school environment, which is very different from the parental one, the excuses for intervening are less. In the school, our goal, to let the child’s natural inclinations unfold, has to be uncompromised. We must exercise total restraint from putting up barriers or trying to direct the flow of the child’s development.
There’s a beautiful poem that came to my attention from Mary Oliver’s book Dreamwork3 that I would like to cite in this connection. It focuses on the damage that intervention can do to the natural unfolding. It’s called “The Journey”:
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations –
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do –
determined to save
the only life you could save.
One of the things that we gradually came to appreciate as we experienced this natural unfolding, was the crucial role time played in this drama. One of the most notable features of Sudbury Valley is the absence of time as a presence in the school. We don’t have bells. There are no personal deadlines set for students by the school. Time, in the school, is treated as organic to the individual processes that each person undergoes. It’s not a community concept. It’s an individual concept. Each student in the school runs according to their own inner clock. That’s something that any parent knows very well when they try to pick up their children! Even personal watches are seldom used during the day. It’s because children understand that the rate at which the earth spins around its axis doesn’t have anything to do with what happens inside them as human beings in their developing lives. For SVS to work, students and their families have to get accustomed to the fact that the tyranny of time has to be removed altogether.
This is something that the society around us finds very hard to accept. I’m not talking here about bells. The greatest tyranny of time that outside society imposes, and that the school avoids carefully, is the tyranny of developmental milestones. This is a curse that modern pseudoscience has introduced into the theory of natural human development. I can’t really explain why, historically, this concept has become such a fad. When I was growing up, nobody talked about it; then, the accepted reality was, “It’s never too late!”. One of our heroes was Albert Schweitzer, one of the greatest organists in Europe, who in his mid-30's threw it all away to go to medical school and become a doctor, to follow his inner dream of medical service to Africa. For us, this was held out as a model. You can always change. It’s never too late.
For some reason, just as the whole world has started to abandon the tyranny of time, the science of developmental psychology has fastened onto it as a fad. The conclusions that are drawn from the so-called scientific experiments that are done in this area are based on scanty material which is poorly understood, and can only be characterized as a leap of imagination. Yet, a lot of parents are very nervous when they hear that if their child doesn’t learn a second language by the age of X, then their ability to learn a second language is gone. If they don’t have mathematical skills by the age of Y, then they’ll never be good at mathematics. There’s a whole slew of these statements that are supposedly backed up by studies. Whenever I look at these studies – brainwaves, CAT scans, statistical analyses, etc. – I always think of the ant. I think of this tiny insect, which has nothing that you would really call a brain. It has complex behavior that we have no clue about. We have no idea how the ant’s cognition works, whatever that means. When I think of that, I say, “This fad, too, will pass, because we certainly are not going to understand the alleged milestones in the development of the human brain before we understand how an ant’s brain works.”
We have to be free of the tyranny of externally imposed life timetables as well. The tyranny of saying, “You should be out of here when you’re 18. You should be starting to study for your SAT’s when you’re 16.” These are milestones externally imposed by families, and by society. These, too, run counter to the natural inner development of each child. We’ve learned this very well over the past thirty years. Some people are ready to graduate or go out into the world at age 16. Some people aren’t ready until they’re 20 or 21. In the long run it makes no difference. When lifespans were 25 or 30 years, you might have had an argument for, “Get with it by the age of 13.” People got married at 13 or 14. You have to get a perspective on this. Chopin wrote his first piano concerto at the age of 19. You say, “Oh my God, I’m 20 and I haven’t done a damn thing,” and you start feeling that life has passed you by. That’s absurd. Chopin had to get on with his life. He was dead by 36. He may not have known that he’d be dead by 36 when he was 19, but people all over were dying at 36. So he might have guessed. Our lifespan is 70, 75, 80, who knows? No rush. For the Nature part to unfold, the tyranny of time has to go away.
But there is an other aspect of time, which it took us much longer to appreciate. That was the significance of the present. It’s one thing to realize that you don’t have to worry about time spans, but quite another to appreciate the present moment. One of the beautiful things about children is their ability to immerse themselves totally in the present. There’s no question – and certainly Eastern philosophy has accentuated this – that fully appreciating the beauty and complexity and richness of the present moment, with all of its nuances, letting it flood into you, is an enormously enriching experience that does much to open up your inner potential. Adults in industrial and urban societies have mostly gotten away from that. The present has been almost too difficult to bear, and so the present has been pushed aside. Instead, people tended to concentrate on the future, even on an afterlife. The present was just too miserable to contemplate.
In a school like Sudbury Valley, where time isn’t a factor, children don’t lose that ability to love and appreciate the present. You can see that in the adult graduates of the school as they grow up. You watch them in their twenties, in their thirties, in their forties by now. One of the things you see and marvel at about these people is they haven’t lost the ability to revel in the beauty of the present. That I find to be one of the most significant aspects of how the school has enriched the Nature part of each person’s search for their destiny.
Let’s turn now to the nurture component, which is a little more complicated. Understanding how the nurture aspect of development affects each child’s march to his or her destiny is critical when setting up a school, because a school is, by definition, an environment. If you are concerned about how the environment nurtures the child, you’ve got to be extremely sensitive to everything you put into that environment.
I’d like to pause briefly to discuss the various environments in which a child grows up. The most visible one is the larger culture, American culture in our case. They are immersed in that culture. We don’t have anything to do with that as a school because, living in America, they can’t get away from their American environment. The only way to avoid it is by moving somewhere else. A lot of parents don’t like certain aspects of the American environment. My message to them is, don’t fight city hall. You can’t avoid the fact that this is America. You can move to Australia. You can move to the Middle East. But if you’re stuck in this country, you’re going to have children who grow up in American culture, and the only thing that you’re going to achieve by fighting it is getting the kids to want to know more than ever what it is that you’re keeping from them.
We’ve seen this in our own family, with our children and TV. Our kids were born in the sixties and, like so many of our contemporaries, we did not want to expose them to TV. We kept it in the closet after we finally bought it. The kids would ask every now and then, “What’s that thing that looks like a suitcase?” and we wouldn’t answer – until we finally realized that what they were doing, of course, was spending an awful lot of time at their friends’ houses, looking at TV! When I was a child, I wasn’t allowed to read comic books, and guess what I did in my spare time? I went to my friends’ houses and read comic books!
You can’t fight it. What happened was that the minute we said to our first child, “Ok, you can have TV,” he sat in front of the tube all day, just to show us. After a while, he decided there were other things in life. Our youngest child, who had TV around from day one, hardly looked at it. You can’t avoid the culture you’re immersed in. You can exert your own influences. You can say what you think about it. There’s nothing stopping you from giving your opinions, but the ambient culture is everywhere, and it’s unavoidable.
Then there’s the culture of the family’s wider social circle, which includes the religious groups that you might belong to, or the social groups, or the business groups. This is a kind of sub-culture, and the child grows up in that too, and is deeply influenced by it. If you reminisce about your childhood, you will surely have many memories from this wider social circle – from your synagogue, or church, or youth group. These are all part of the environmental nurturing that affect a person’s upbringing.
The other major environment is the family, with which I have already dealt.4 It is, in many ways, the strongest influence on a child as s/he grows up, as we have discussed at length.
Compared to these three environments – the larger culture, the wider social sub-culture, and the family culture – the school seems to play a pretty minor role. It’s just a place that kids go to for a certain number of hours a day, every weekday during the school year, which turns out to be half of the year, 180 days or so. It doesn’t sound like very much, except that it is! And the reason it is very much is that the school is the only environment children experience where they are directly exposed, on a regular basis, to people with whom they’re not familiar. This turns out to be critical. The school is a model of the situation that will face children when they become adults. Think how odd, and terrifying, and strange it is to a student to come into the school for the first time! Here you are, in a place where you’re destined to spend many long hours, surrounded by people whom you don’t know at all. These are people you are going to encounter every day, face to face, interacting with them, watching them interact. It’s a microcosm of the “real world” of adults. Children are aware of this, and when adults tell children that school is the place that prepares them for the adult world, they are on the mark, at least from the perspective I have been discussing.
If we understand the school to be a crucial environment because it’s a model of the larger world, the question becomes, “What’s the best school environment that we can create to nurture each child to realize their full potential and unique destiny?” How do we design it? What kinds of things should a child be exposed to in order to maximize the likelihood of realizing their unique destiny? That’s the question you’re putting to yourself when you discuss the creation of a school.
The answer given by traditional schools is straightforward. They say the nurturing exposure that you need is to a certain specific grouping of content and skills. Given that exposure, they maintain that children will develop so that, in the end, they’ll be able to find their way in life. The specific skills and content chosen by educators are the ones they consider to be necessary for every adult to have to function in the modern world.
We’ve talked about this a lot in our writings. There are two things wrong with this notion, which we never, ever considered as a factor in creating our environment. The first thing wrong is that anything of that sort must involve active intervention. The idea of an environment that exposes children to a given set of skills or content requires intervention on the part of the adults. This, as we have seen, runs against the natural tendency of the child to develop in his/her own way. You cannot avoid that friction, and that is the source of the resistance that every schoolchild develops, in one form or another, to school – even kids who like school, as I did. You may like it, but you resent being forced into it because it’s contrary to human nature.
The second problem is determining what group of skills and content people should be exposed to. Nobody can agree on this. In fact, agreement is impossible in the post-industrial Information Age. So, what you get is groups of people creating ever more comprehensive lists of things that every child has to know.
I have a big book, which weighs about fifteen pounds and has 650 pages in it. It is a compendium of standards and benchmarks for K-12 education. This book represents the thinking of the best educators in this country, as of 1998, as to what it is that every child in this country should know before they graduate high school in order to function effectively in the world. This is the required exposure we have been talking about.
Now, when I grew up, the book probably had 30 pages in it. But the world became more complex, and as the world became more complex the response was to keep adding more and more topics to cover the complexity. I don’t have the space to entertain you with the contents of this book, but almost anywhere that you turn you find an absurd example. I’ll just open this thing at random to show a typical example: “It’s essential that every child in grades five to six in the country” – don’t lose sight of this, this is not specialized, this isn’t for Boston Latin or Bronx High School of Science, this is for every child, everywhere – “must understand the impact of European military and commercial involvement in Asia, e.g. how the Netherlands, England and France became naval and commercial powers in the Indian Ocean Basin in the 17th and 18th centuries. The impact of British and French commercial and military penetration on politics, economy and society in India. Why the Dutch wanted military and commercial influence in Indonesia and how this imperialism affected the region’s economy in society.” This is one item for grades five to six!
In case you think that was unusual, there’s a whole section here for grades five to six, and seven to eight, and nine to twelve, three whole pages of subject matter “which assures that everybody in those grades will have an understanding of the major developments in east Asia and southeast Asia in the era of the Tang dynasty from 600 to 900.” These are the Goals 2000 announced by President Bush and fervently pursued by both political parties. The only thing they compete about is who can put more pages into the book and whether the test should be national, which of course the Democrats want, or whether every state should develop its own book, which the Republicans want. It makes for a lot more books!
So, the question is, what should the school environment provide if it doesn’t provide that? What is the environment that is best for nurturing children to their unique paths in life? The way we’ve come to understand it, that environment should meet three criteria.
First of all, anything in the environment must be universally useful in later life. Second, it must be related to basic human drives and characteristics. It can’t run counter to natural inclinations. It has to run with nature, not against nature. Thus, whatever it is that you put into the environment, it has to be useful in a relatively passive way. It has to be there to be used, not imposed, because it has to be accessible and desired by the child naturally and not the result of an active intervention that breeds resistance. The third criterion is that it has to be essential to each child’s quest to realize their unique destiny.
If you look at those three criteria, there aren’t a lot of things that satisfy them. In fact, as far as we can see, the only thing that really satisfies all three is something that gives children practice in thinking about things – in figuring out how the world works, and in problem solving. These are skills that everyone has, by Nature. Everybody is born with the ability to think, with the ability to figure out the world around them. What you want to do in the school’s environment is provide something in the environment that will give that inborn skill a lot more use and practice in a natural way, without intervention. Not by teaching people how to think. Not by setting up courses in logical thinking. But by creating something in the environment that will naturally enhance the ability of children to think and solve problems.
Over the years, we came to realize what that “something” is. It’s the concept of the role model in its broadest sense in the school – a passive example provided by other people in the school for the child to observe with respect to how they behave and how they think. Perhaps the most important way children and adults perfect their thinking skills is by watching and figuring out how other people think. We saw in an earlier talk,5 about conversation, that the desire to watch how other people figure out the world is at the root of why children want to communicate all the time, because the essence of that communication is to find out how other people think.
The greater the range of role models available in the school and accessible to children, the more useful the environment, the more helpful it will be to enhancing a child’s ability to solve problems. That is the reason that age mixing is such a central feature of the school. Age mixing is the mechanism through which effective modelling takes place in the school. Age mixing comes in two varieties. I want to talk about them briefly so that you’ll get a picture of how rich the age mixing is in the school and how important it is in the environment.
The first is age mixing within a relatively narrow range of a few years: six year olds mixing with kids between the age of four and eight, for example. The value of that kind of narrow range age mixing was probably first appreciated most fully by a person whose name has become somewhat familiar, the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky, who developed for that concept the term “zone of proximal development”. He found that children challenge themselves constantly by interacting within this zone of proximal development, within this range of skills that are fairly close to their own. They stretch their minds by advancing to a point just a little beyond their reach, but tantalizingly close enough so that they are able to work hard on to get there. The six year old admires the eight year old for all that the eight year old has achieved. But the eight year old is not so far out of range that the six year old can’t see him/herself there. So they try. And it’s worth trying because, even though there’s a lot of failure involved, failure, and overcoming failure, are part of what makes the process work.
The benefit works in the other direction, too, which is very important to understand. What eight year olds get out of interacting with six year olds is a consolidation of their gains. That’s thoroughly understanding where you’ve come from. That’s saying to yourself, “I used to do that, but now I know better.” It’s the kind of thing that a teacher gets from teaching. Everybody knows that when you teach something, you learn it so much better. When you model for somebody just a little younger than you, you’re consolidating where you are. You’re entrenching yourself in your thinking skills. Then you look at ten year olds, in turn, and you stretch to them, while the ten year olds are looking at you and doing the same consolidation, and the same stretching to the twelve year olds! You see this in Sudbury Valley all the time, everywhere. You see it in the kitchen. You see it in the art room. You see it in the music room. You see it in chess, in games, in 4-square – everywhere, interaction within the zone of proximal development is an important part of life.
The second type of age mixing that happens in the school occurs over a broad range of ages. It took us a while to appreciate the value of this. Wide range age mixing gives children something different; it gives them insight into how adults work. A puzzle in itself. It’s not so much that they’re figuring out the next step for themselves, as they do in the zone of proximal development, but they’re trying to understand, “When I grow up, what’s it going to be like?” Which is an answer every kid wants to know. So they watch older people and how they do things. Kids study older people in detail.
Recently, I was talking to a group of people at a sister Sudbury school. There were kids present. I happened to be touching on this subject, and it was really very amusing. I said, “Kids know their parents better than anybody does.” All the kids shook their heads in agreement, and all the parents looked at them daggers. But, it’s true. Kids know us. The kids in the school study the staff. The kids know the foibles, the weaknesses, the strengths of the staff members much better than we adults know our colleagues. They’ve got us totally figured out. This is a key part of that role modeling, to figure out, “How do adults do it?” What could be a more useful environment for getting ready for the adult world?
Here is how one former student (now a staff member) put it:
In previous schools, I’d walk into a classroom and a teacher would already be sitting behind a desk and would deliver whatever it was they had to deliver for 45 minutes for a year, two years, however long they had to teach it, and then I would move on. The teacher would park someplace, another part of the campus. The teacher would eat on another part of the campus. The teacher would speak outside of the range of the student’s hearing. I came to Sudbury Valley and it was fascinating to see what kind of vehicles, bicycles, motorcycles, cars, whatever, the staff were driving. It was fascinating to see that they would sit and eat lunch and I could sit next to them and watch what they ate, and how they ate, if they had good table manners. How many different clothes they would wear and how they would dress in the cold and whether they wore hats or not. As a fifteen year old kid, I really had not spent time around grownups at work before. I’d occasionally get to go with my dad to the shop or see my mother and her friends around the table, but to come here and see adults at work every day, you really get to see how they lived and you could pick up so much in that real life setting. It was tremendous role modeling and I took away so much from that.
The beauty of the school’s lack of tenure is that when the school community concludes that there isn’t enough value to the role modeling that they get from a staff member, they remove him/her from their midst. What you might perceive as a value or I might perceive as a value does not necessarily correspond with what somebody else might see as a value. They might see, in that particular person, a modeling of some character features, for example, or some conversational abilities that I can’t see. I might even vote “no” for that person whereas fifty other people might vote “yes”. There’s a mechanism here for constantly reviewing and renewing the role models in the school. And, of course, the student role models change all the time because students come and go.
What do adults at school get out of it? That’s a question I used to ask myself for a long time. I used to wonder, how come, here it is 30 years later and I’m not burned out? Why? Because the older people refresh their own innocence, their wide-eyed lust for knowledge and life, by looking at the littler kids. You can see that happening with the teenagers, not only with the adults. The teenagers are constantly interacting with the little kids, and this interaction keeps the child in them alive. This is especially important in the teenage years, which are the worst years to live through. You’re not supposed to be a child anymore. “When I was a child I spake as a child, but now I’m supposed to set aside all these childish things. What does all this mean? Do I really have to grow up and become like my parents and like all these other adults?” It’s a horrible time of life, and here at Sudbury Valley you are surrounded by, and in direct contact with, children who are bouncy and full of life and full of mischief, and it keeps the child in you alive – that ability to be creative, to be imaginative, not to be tied down by convention, not to be tied down about all those things that you worry about on a daily basis.
Role models can be positive or negative. Negative role models are just as important as positive ones. This became really clear to us years ago when our oldest son reached his teenage years. One day, out of the blue, he said, “Those two years that I spent as a kid, when I was about seven or eight years old, in the smoking room back in ‘68 and ‘69, were the best years ever for me.” At the time, in ‘68 and ‘69, when we saw our seven year old hanging out in the smoking room with all the beatniks, we wondered. Our son said something very simple: “This period was wonderful. It taught me what I wanted to emulate, because these people were phenomenal musicians. They had lots of imagination. They were fun. They were interesting. And it taught me what I didn’t want to do. I saw how drugs, for example, wrecked them, and drugs just never interested me after that.” Now, other children might reach other conclusions, but the point I’m making is that the negative role model that these kids see is of crucial importance to their development. Kids can look at an adult and say, “I don’t want to be like that person. I don’t want to be irritable. I don’t want to be narrow-minded. I don’t want to have this or that trait, or behave in this or that manner.” Kids don’t have a chance to think that way if they aren’t exposed to wide range age mixing.
I want to address briefly a paradox that might have occurred to you. I’m talking about each child realizing their own unique destiny and developing something that’s very much their own. How, then, does that gibe with role modelling, which seems to involve copying somebody else? We often hear that from parents: “I’m worried about my child. She seems to be aping everything that X is doing. Is this good? What shall I do about it? I don’t like the fact that she’s following X around and doing everything that X says.” There is no real paradox in that once you understand that a child who feels really empowered, a child who feels really in control of his/her own destiny, is not slavishly following the role model. They’re studying the role model. The more role models there are for them to study intensely in their environment, the more options they open for themselves in later life. As long as you have trust and confidence that your child is developing their own inner voice, you don’t have to worry about how much they copy someone else at some stage of their development.
Finally, I want to touch on something that I brushed aside. When I showed you the big, thick book, I begged the question: “How do kids find out about the world? How do they find out about the stuff – some of the stuff, at least – in that book?” Here, age mixing plays a key role as well. We all know how much people are inundated with information from TV and from movies, but age mixing is a much more important source of information. Children, in the course of the days and weeks and months that they interact with each other and talk to each other and exchange ideas with each other, over this broad and narrow age range, talk about just about everything. They hear about everything. The likelihood of their coming across something that really excites them is very, very high.
Here is how one of our graduates put it:
I didn’t really think about getting an education. I didn’t understand the idea of having to artificially get an education. I thought that you lived in the world and you got smarter because every day you were learning. I thought that there was no way to get dumber unless you were erasing stuff out of your brain. It seemed to me that one day you were talking to someone about one subject and another day you were talking to someone about another and that eventually you’d get around to all of them. Outsiders would ask, What classes do you do?, and you’d think, Classes, we don’t do classes. Look around. There are no classrooms here. They’d say, what did you learn today? And we’d think, what did we learn today? What are you talking about, because it wasn’t as if you went into the library and learned your facts for the day. You had a dozen conversations with people. We weren’t learning subject by subject. We were learning in a much more organic manner. You would be doing a lot of different things and you would learn them in little bits and pieces that would start adding up to much bigger pictures. You wouldn’t really know where it came from a lot of the time. By the time you were done learning about something, information was coming from so many different sources, from books and from people you were talking to and from a long drawn-out experience, that you had no idea how you learned it.
That says it as well as anybody could.
The randomness of these interactions that we’re talking about, that go on in the school all the time, is the key to their effectiveness. We live in this country in a relatively free market economy. The whole point of a free market, as Adam Smith discovered long ago, was that if things are allowed to develop at random, eventually everything gets covered and everything fits. You try to plan an economy the way other countries have in the twentieth century – the twentieth century can be called the century of the great experiment in planning and the great failure of that experiment – you always miss something. Everybody knows that. You try to plan a car factory from scratch, and you create factories that build one kind of screw and one kind of fender and one kind of this and one kind of that, and you have all the factories set up to produce just the right amount – and then you try to put the car together and you find you’re missing a door handle! So then, everything stands still until you build a factory for door handles. By contrast, how does General Motors do it? Through the randomness of the market. They look in the yellow pages. They let their fingers do the walking until they locate somebody who is making door handles. They order the door handles from them. It’s the same randomness that operates in the school with subject matter. If you try to plan what every kid is going to know, you’re going to miss, more likely than not, the one thing that they really want in order to realize their destiny. If you let the process be random, the chances of their finding what they want increase spectacularly.
There’s one other thing I want to say here about another important way in which the school environment works to help each child find their own path in life. That way is by respecting individual differences. We don’t show preferences in any way for one path or one interest over another, for one life vision over another, for one activity over another. What that means is that the school, structurally, does not display any preference whatsoever, not by saying, “Iit’s really nice that you’re reading,” or “Why don’t you stop playing basketball for a few hours and go read a couple of books?” – not by saying anything that indicates, even with the lifting of an eyebrow, that some lifestyle or activity is preferable to another. By doing this, we’re sending the message, every single day, that each person’s uniqueness is precious and is respected and that when you seek out your own very special path in life, you’re doing it with the whole community’s blessing.
What that does in particular is respect the loneliness of the search that each person has for their own path in life. Because in reality, when all is said and done, as the existentialists have written about at great length, everybody suffers from a degree of personal aloneness in the cosmos, with which they have to be able to come to grips. This is understood and respected in the school for students of all ages, however young. That’s why we don’t push people, force people together, force people to cooperate, force people to collaborate, force people to get along. We let them be alone just as we let them be together. We let them be themselves.
I want to conclude with an excerpt from a piece that I think addresses this point poignantly. It’s from a story written by Yakov Hecht from the Democratic School in Hadera, Israel:6
When I was about 18 years old, I took a long solitary walk through the sand dunes south of Hetaera in Israel. I wandered several hours, looking for different birds that frequent the dunes. After awhile I felt terribly thirsty. The sweat and sand sticking to my body began to bother me. I decided to go back to the road and return home. I took a shortcut along an unfamiliar path in the dunes. The path dragged on endlessly and I was getting more and more irritable from thirst, stickiness and the sand. I climbed to the top of a tall dune and, suddenly, I saw before me a beautiful pond. It was about the size of an olympic pool, its water a sparkling blue, surrounded by colorful flowers with geese floating peacefully on its surface. For me, it was a moment of thrilling discovery, a Garden of Eden. I jumped into the water, splashed around happily and found that there were even fish in the water. Afterwards, when I got home, I told my friends about the phenomenal discovery I had made and I convinced them to come and see for themselves. This time, of course, we travelled by car right to the dunes which were near the road and went to the top. I said to them, ‘Take a look!’ They looked at my pond with contempt and said, ‘This is much smaller than the other pond we know.’ They turned and left. The magic of the little pond stayed with me for years, indeed to this day, but I have never managed to convey my magical feeling to anyone else. Learning is discovering something new. What can be more exciting than the experience of discovering something new? Such excitement grips us when we discover something new about the world, or about ourselves, especially after a long search at the end of which we discover what it was that we were seeking. This experience is one of the strongest and most moving ones we can have, at least it is for me. To find a flower I’ve been seeking after for a long time. To find anything. My conclusion is that, in order for the experience of discovery to take place, it seems every person first has to wander in his own little desert, to look for and find his own private pond. It seems that this experience is not really transferable because it is unique and personal. I learned that if you once go through this deeply moving experience, you develop a searing thirst for more. Unfortunately, there exist people who have never, ever tasted this exquisite flavor and have therefore missed the experience of thirsting for more. In order for every person to have the opportunity to wander in his or her own desert, and discover his or her own private pond, schools must make it possible for them to wander in the desert when they are young.
The main ways that the school environment maximizes the likelihood of each child realizing their own unique destiny and their full life potential is by cooperating with nature – staying out of the way and being patient; and – for the nurturing side of development – by providing through age mixing exposure to a variety of modes of thinking, by respecting individual differences, and by accepting the cosmic uniqueness and loneliness of each individual.
1. During the school year 1997-98, as part of Sudbury Valley School’s Thirtieth Anniversary celebrations, a series of six talks was presented on the theme: What We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Thirty Years Ago. This is an edited version of the fifth talk, presented on March 3, 1998.
2. The Sudbury Valley School Experience, 3rd ed. (Sudbury Valley School Press; Framingham, 1992), p. 81ff.
3. (Atlantic Monthly Press: New York, 1986), p. 38.
4. “What Is the Role of Parents?”, The Sudbury Valley School Journal, Vol. 28, #3, January 1999, p. 4ff.
5. “Conversation: The Staple Ingredient”, The Sudbury Valley School Journal, Vol. 28, #2, November 1998, p. 1ff.
6. Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept (Sudbury Valley School Press; Framingham, 1999), p. 77ff.
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