"Do What You Wish": The Sudbury Valley School and the Neverending Story of Learning

“Do what you wish.” Readers, at least those of my generation, might remember this motto from Michael Ende’s book The Neverending Story1. The student Bastian, hero of this romantically tortuous coming-of-age novel, finds the call to do what he wants in a book that he first steals and then reads secretly, hiding in his school’s attic.

More precisely, the words, “Do what you wish” are engraved on the back of a special pendant that Bastian receives after he has rescued “Fantastica”, the realm of phantasy, by giving the empress of this realm a new name. After naming her, he becomes part of the story and continues to play more and more of a role in it. The boy, described in the beginning of the book as the image of a stereotypical loser and weakling in real life, is a celebrated hero in “Fantastica”.

But that’s not all. The pendant does not only seem to encourage him to do what he wishes, it also gives him the power to make the things he wants to come true. He only has to want it to be so, and not only does his own appearance change overnight into an image of himself he so far could only dream of, but he can also change the world around him. Desolate landscapes become fantastic jungles, and sad creatures turn into funny clowns.

Only slowly does Bastian understand the incredible responsibility that comes with his new power. Little by little he learns that the price he has to pay for this newly created ideal of himself are the very memories of himself and his history in the real world. In the beginning, Bastian can’t seem to lose all traces of his sad old self fast enough, but then, when it is almost too late, he understands that he is on his way to lose himself completely and is about to go insane. He will get lost in the realm of phantasy, if he does not find his way back into his own world and continues in it with his very own story.

“Do what you wish” sounds as if it could also be the motto of the Sudbury Valley School. Its first message to its new students is freedom. “From the beginning of their enrollment”, the school’s website informs, “students are given the freedom to use their time as they wish (…).”2

That means: no class schedule, no forced curriculum, no defined recess times, no homework, and no teachers telling anybody what is going to happen in the next 50 minutes. The typical kind of school day, that Bastian is reminded of in the beginning of his reading adventure by the school bell, doesn’t exist at Sudbury Valley. Similar to how Bastian once in a while remembers what is happening downstairs in school right now, while he is reading a book up in the attic, people at SVS sometimes recall what would happen in a “regular” school at a given point in time, but those memories don’t seem to have a very deep hold: “The clock in the belfry struck ten. Bastian was amazed at how quickly the time had passed. In class, every hour seemed to drag on for an eternity. Down below, they would be having history with Mr. Drone, a gangling, ordinarily ill-tempered man who delighted in holding Bastian up to ridicule because he couldn’t remember the dates when certain battles had been fought or when someone or other had reigned.”3 And a bit later on: “Recess was over. Bastian wondered what his class would be doing next. Oh, yes, geography with Mrs. Flint. You had to reel off rivers and their tributaries, cities, population figures, natural resources, and industries. Bastian shrugged his shoulders and went on reading.”4

Here, we have a situation that allows us to see two completely different learning situations under one school roof. On the one hand, we have Bastian’s usual school day, which is probably familiar to most readers, at least in so far as the pattern of alternating subjects and recess times concerns, a pattern that dominates even such a fantastical school as Harry Potter’s Hogwarts. On the other hand, Bastian, reading a book hidden in the school’s attic, presents a learning situation that is much more typical for learning at the Sudbury Valley School. Secretly, Bastian does something at his school that he could do at Sudbury Valley freely and without guilt: to pursue a matter of acute interest for him without any reservation or time restrictions, in his case, to spend his day with reading this particular book undisturbed.

Different from the rest of the school building, where time is regulated by the rhythm of the school hours, and where school time reigns, here, in the attic, time is restored to Bastian and is something that belongs to himself. This is one of the quintessential experiences for Sudbury Valley students: to own your time.

Describing Sudbury Valley as a school where you can do what you want at first sounds incredible and fantastical. But those hopeful and at the same time often skeptical students between 4 and 18 who find their way to the Sudbury Valley School—often after humiliating and confusing school experiences similar to what Bastian endures at his school—do not, as it happens to Bastian in the book, receive a magic amulet that bestows to them the power to do everything that hitherto seemed impossible. No. Together with the message that here, at Sudbury Valley, students can in fact do what they wish, they also receive the responsibility for all that they do. In particular, here, at school, they are responsible for forging their own way to adulthood. The sentence cited above, with which the Sudbury Valley School introduces itself on its website, doesn’t just end by saying that students are given the freedom to “use their time as they wish”, but continues by saying that students at the same time have “the responsibility for designing their path to adulthood.”5

In practical terms this means that instead of a the magical amulet, that Bastian receives, new members of the Sudbury Valley School receive, together with freedom, an extensive and detailed law book, in which they find the school’s procedures and democratically decided on school regulations.

The effect can be sobering. How do such great freedom and so many rules fit together?

Let’s look a bit closer at freedom and rules at Sudbury. The youngest school members (but not only them) often frequently realize the part about being responsible for what they do once their process of self-development brings them into conflict situations with their environment or other students. Filling their school time—their time of freedom to pursue things that interest them—is usually not a problem. They play, and in their play they practice their physical, mental, and social skills. They don’t play to distract themselves from what’s happening around them, but to deepen their understanding of their world, learning to live and survive in it. Older students—and their parents—can from the beginning feel somewhat ambivalent or concerned about the freedom of the Sudbury Valley School. They are usually already aware of at least some of what Bastian slowly and painfully learns over the course of his reading adventure: to know, what you really wish to do is not an easy feat. You can want something and not even admit this something to yourself for fear of failing to achieve it. Many things that seem to promise happiness to ourselves or others disappoint. And it is possible to wish things that are harmful to others, and we can become someone’s enemy because of what we want. Bastian in The Neverending Story experiences all of the above, and it is hard to imagine a parent who wouldn’t prefer their children to be spared at least some of the extremes of that experience. There is great fear of what children could do, of what dangerous situations they could get into for themselves and others, if their days are not continuously organized and supervised. There are the other questions: What do we learn if we make do without subjects? Or: Won’t laziness win if there is no pressure by others to learn things? And: Can children take responsibility for their own learning?

These are big questions. For the purpose of this contribution, I’d like to concentrate on some aspects of the Sudbury Valley School that particularly stood out for me during my time working there as a staff member, which I hope might help to understand how such a school can in fact function well for its students.6

From the beginning, while giving students the space and time to develop a sense of what they want to do, Sudbury Valley also provides material and structures for learning how to actually do the things they want to do. The material in question is not so much some particularly shaped building material or specially designed lessons, and the structures are not the timing of activities or color coded subject folders. While these things exist at the Sudbury Valley School (together with a plethora of books, art supplies, music facilities and of course access to the internet), the most important learning ‘material’ at the school are its people, people of all age groups, with different life experiences, academic backgrounds, skills, and expertise. The most important structures are the pragmatic and social rules, that all school meeting members are subject to, and that all school meeting members contribute to and decide on, regardless of their age or their designated function.

As such, Sudbury Valley is very much not Fantastica, but a school that—since 1968—functions successfully on the insight that self-motivation, self-regulation, and self-criticism are the most important factors for successful learning, an insight that goes hand in hand with the conviction that one person’s freedom cannot impinge upon the freedom of another one, and that living together as self-determined individuals is not a passive, but an active state that members of the Sudbury Valley School contribute to actively, to keep an individual’s freedom and the freedom of all in balance.7

The law book’s preamble formulates it this way: “All School Meeting Members are responsible for the general welfare of the school, through actions that contribute to preserving the atmosphere of freedom, respect, fairness, trust, and order that is the essence of the school’s existence.”8

In this context, breaking a rule at Sudbury is not infrequently one of the important ‘typically’ Sudbury learning experiences and I have heard repeatedly, that even a difficulty encounter with the school’s “Judicial Committee”, the institutional “heart of the School”, that deals with infringements of all sorts, makes students understand and accept the Sudbury Valley School (and themselves) better, and students’ integration into the community.

So what is this school organ, without which a Sudbury Valley School is difficult to imagine, an organ that every school meeting member relates to at one point or the other, and how does it work?

Formally, the Judicial Committee is a committee delegated by the School Meeting (the highest decision making institution of the school), to take care of the infractions on a daily basis, and to report the results of its work in the weekly school meeting. (All current students and staff members, regardless of age or position, are voting members of the school meeting, each one has one vote.)

While attendance at the school meeting is generally voluntary, all school meeting members have to participate in work of the Judicial Committee at some point, just as U.S. citizens are required to do their “jury duty”.

The Judicial Committee is a group composed of two clerks elected by the school meeting, students representing different age groups, and a staff member. Members of the Committee rotate according to a specific rhythm. This Committee meets every day at a specific time, reads new complaints, listens to those involved in a situation, decides if a rule has been broken and what the consequence or next step will be.

A typical example might involve someone leaving their belongings or trash behind in a room. At most schools that I know, these kind of relatively small but cumulatively often aggravating incidents such as empty drink containers, material, bags, paper, etc., left behind usually lead to reprimands by teachers, parent complaints about messy school buildings, and general appeals to everybody’s social responsibility. At Sudbury Valley, these issues are brought up as a complaint to the Judicial Committee. New school meeting members who, as it happened to me in my first week, forget to pick up their belongings—a water bottle in my case—when leaving a room, the consequence is usually a warning and a reminder or explanation of the rule.

The encounter with the Committee is a first hand and very real experience of the fact that both the school’s rules as well as the authority to discuss these rules, to hold them up, and to change them is not vested foremost in a few adult persons such as teachers and directors, but an authority that all members of the community partake in. Authority, understood as ability and power to effect something, is not bestowed on people via some kind of magic or special title, but a power to make decisions and put things into effect that all school meeting members have access to.

In Judicial Committee meetings, children and adults remind each other of the rules of the law book, and discuss their meaning and application. In this way, the rules, as they are enabling as many students as possible to do as much as possible of what they wish to do, are in fact a piece of the power to do what you wish. While sounding restrictive by nature, the law book that everybody receives at the beginning of their time at Sudbury Valley, and then again at the beginning of every new school year, might not be as physically attractive as Bastian’s amulet, but it is at least as effective. Students appreciate the power that comes from being able to rely on fair solutions to difficult situations, achieved by following processes and rules that have been agreed on as a community much more than relying on some hopefully benevolent or all-knowing higher up to take care of things.

Freedom at the Sudbury Valley School always balances individual freedom and responsibility for oneself and others. For example: if people at Sudbury Valley can rely on everybody understanding and agreeing to the fact that some trees or branches under a certain size are too dangerous for climbing, then it can be ok to allow climbing on trees in general rather than forbidding it. If there are rules for climbing trees, and people follow them, then students can have the freedom to climb. And further, if all school meeting members understand that they are responsible for not endangering themselves, and that they are also responsible to make sure other people do not endanger themselves and others either, there is a possibility to use rules as a way to allow things, because the members of such a community are protected by participating in these shared common goods of freedom, respect, fairness, trust and order much better than by designated supervisors.

All of this is not easy and simple. Even those who like the Judicial Committee, don’t always enjoy making the kind of situations and decisions that need to be pondered and made there, and one can’t blame them. Almost no situation, simple as it might seem at first, is ever as clear cut as one would ideally have it. The very few who like the idea of being judge a little bit too much, who come to decisions too fast and try to dominate their committee members, usually have to deal with strong resistance to such behavior, as do those who seem to endlessly draw out the decision making process. This is hard work for everybody involved. Then there are the rules themselves. In a concrete situation, some well-meant and familiar provision can seem insufficient or too far-reaching. Changing a rule takes a lot of effort too. Almost no change to the lawbook, be it an addition or a cut, as much as these might have been discussed on the school meeting floor—the first part of the process—doesn’t require some additional kind of tweaking once people start applying it to the reality of new situations. And of course this in itself is the actual content of what people at Sudbury Valley learn by doing it. Freedom, justice, and democracy are complex entities, requiring patience and perseverance.

Something else that is required is linguistic competence. This is another aspect of the school, and I would like to explain how I think the Judicial Committee contributes to the particular learning that happens at Sudbury Valley because of its very structure and culture. Both as an active participant and as an observer of the Judicial Committee, I have often thought that apart from its other functions in the school, it might also be something of a kind of language class that all students participate in. Here, in the Judicial Committee, students daily find a real occasion to use language responsibly in all its forms. During a Judicial Committee meeting, everybody has to listen very carefully to what others are saying when describing a situation or a sequence of events, or when a written report is read out loud. They have to establish what real situation is depicted with a given oral or written description. Then, these complex situations and sequences have to be rendered in written form, and the often long discussions surrounding the choice of single words or sentences make it abundantly clear to everybody involved, that choice of words and punctuation do matter. And they do matter, because what students and adults alike deal with in the Judicial Committee is never hypothetical, but real life.

Thus, I think the Judicial Committee also plays a critical role in the particular culture of conversation and writing as it exists at Sudbury Valley, and it is this culture that—at least for me—explains part of how and why Sudbury Valley graduates who are seemingly lacking most or all of any experience writing school essays and giving class presentations are able (frequently superbly so), to stand their ground professionally, to participate in and chair conferences, and to write college essays. At Sudbury Valley, they have practiced the necessary skills in their daily dealings with each other.

I would like to come to an end here with some thoughts concerning a particular situation of the student Bastian in The Neverending Story. Bastian’s strange day of learning during a day where he both very much at school (even at night), and totally absent, begins with something that is very hard for Bastian, and which no school, private or public, SVS or Hogwarts, approves of. Bastian steals a book. It is a real dilemma. He feels that he needs this book, but cannot think of another way to get it, because there is no reason whatsoever for him to think that the bookseller would simply let him have it. He has no legal access to what he needs most, so he has to do something wrong and in a moment that is both courageous, bold and cowardly, takes it and runs away.

Thinking Bastian’s dilemma over and over, I’m wondering: could it be, that some of our school truants, our homework resisters and our chronically absent minded or defiant students are reacting to a similar dilemma as the one Bastian finds himself in? Is their rule defying behavior perhaps a way out of a situation where they cannot rely on either adults or the system they are in to give them access to what they need? Do they somehow take some of the freedom they need, defying the rules and expectations of the world around them, because there is no alternative?

I wonder.

There are other aspects of Bastian’s act that I would like to comment on with regard to a Sudbury Valley School education. For once, his stealing reminds me that Sudbury Valley School students are not angels, and incidents such as stealing happen at Sudbury Valley as at other schools. Perhaps they happen less, but in any case, what has been important for me to observe at Sudbury Valley was that the way such transgressions are handled—with the help of the Judicial Committee—contributes very much to learning the kind of things Bastian eventually learns as well: that it pays off to be honest, that it is possible to take responsibility, that there are ways to correct situations, and that it is possible to have a fresh start after failures and mistakes. And that these things are not things that one might learn because of good luck or because of one particularly great teacher, but because the structure of Sudbury Valley makes it possible to take these real experiences seriously and treat them as essential parts of learning at school.

There is yet another way in which Bastian’s theft highlights the value of a Sudbury Valley School education for me. Bastian’s theft shows him actively making an existential decision, and making this one decision is the beginning of other important decisions, from which he—for better or worse—learns to be himself.

What interests me about his decision to steal the book is how it differs radically from the kind of decisions that present themselves to us on a daily basis along the lines of “chicken or beef”, and which seem to me to serve the purpose of creating an impression of freedom rather than representing much of real freedom, or real decision making. Bastian’s moment of decision making is not so much a choice between two or more possibilities (A, B, or C, Math or Chemistry, red or green, etc.), but the decision to do or not to do something that he couldn’t foresee coming, and the meaning of which he doesn’t understand yet. Bastian’s theft is a reminder that life serves up situations that multiple choice tests and essay contests don’t necessarily prepare you for, and that real life doesn’t tend to present itself as a buffet of unlimited possibilities.

The particular kind of freedom of Sudbury Valley that keeps the horizon of what a person can or might do with their life as open as possible by refraining from formulating specific expectations beyond the regulations in the lawbook as to how and with what content students should fill their time at school, is a true challenge. Students who, over the course of their time at Sudbury Valley, learn to master the challenges of this particular freedom are very well equipped to lead their own adult lives and to handle those existential moments of decision making.

Bastian, at the end of The Neverending Story, has learned so much from his experience with freedom and power, both good and bad, that he is able to confess his theft, to own up to the bookseller, and to find a way to make up for the now lost book. Similarly to Bastian, SVS students can go through some rather difficult times, through periods of hubris and harsh self-criticism before arriving at a realistic understanding of themselves.

This kind of learning about yourself and others, that Bastian fights to gain for himself not in the classroom, but in the school attic, with his nose in a book, is something that schools generally aspire to, but which is very hard to realize in the reality of most school days, with their many subjects and changing topics.

Sudbury Valley is a school that has this kind of self-determined learning at its core. The success of the school and its many graduates give a measure of hope for what the future of schools could look like, especially if we can look at the history of human schools as a different story than that of human learning. Sudbury Valley allows us to take a new look at what school could be, and to think about school again and again.

What I have learned during my time at the Sudbury Valley School is that it is possible to trust that people want to learn, if you let them, and that people have almost unlimited energy to learn what they really need and want to learn.

I also learned that people, regardless of their age group, need freedom in order to learn how to handle freedom, and that one can trust children with this learning process.

 

ENDNOTES

1. Michel Ende,The Neverending Story, First published in Germany as Die Unendliche Geschichte by K. Thienemanns Verlag, 1979, translated by Ralph Mannheim, Doubleday & Co., Inc. 1983, Firebird, An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2005.

2. www.sudburyvalley.org. About SVS. The Sudbury Model.

3.The Neverending Story, p.40.

4.The Neverending Story, p.53f.

5. www.sudburyvalley.org. About SVS. The Sudbury Model: “From the beginning of their enrollment, no matter what their age, students are given the freedom to use their time as they wish, and the responsibility for designing their path to adulthood.”

6. For discussion of these and other questions about the school, I would like to recommend the school website, its blog, and the literature by the Sudbury Valley School press that explains the school’s model and its underlying insights into learning and schooling. The book The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni is particularly interesting for readers interested in students’ accounts of a Sudbury Valley School education.

7. Corporate By-Laws of the Sudbury Valley School, Inc., as printed in the Sudbury Valley School Handbook, April 13, 2016:  “(…) Article II, Purposes. The purpose for which this corporation is formed is to establish and maintain a school for the education of members of the community that: is founded upon the principle that learning is best fostered by self-motivation, self-regulation, and self-criticism […].”

8. Sudbury Valley School Lawbook, April 13, 2016 version, Section 1—Rules Protecting the General Welfare, 10 Preamble.

 

 

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