The Fire Inside

Bruce is a staff member of the Alpine Valley School, Wheat Ridge, Colorado. This article is reprinted, with permission, from the Journal of Alpine Valley School, volume 10, number 1, October 2003.

Often in JAVS you’ll find a comparison of Sudbury schooling with other forms of education. However, in this article I’d like to focus less on how Alpine Valley is more this or less that in comparison with other schools, and consider more directly what it is about the Sudbury model that works.

While the Sudbury model comprises a tapestry of elements, one of the most critical is passion. Indeed, passion can be considered the motive force behind all our principles and structures. Schools like Alpine Valley wouldn’t be what they are without an emphasis on freedom, respect, and responsibility; but when students are given freedom and respect, when they assume responsibility, it is passion that drives them onward.

What do I mean by “passion”? Passion is anything that seizes the imagination and refuses to let go. It can make time vanish and turn bodily necessities like food and sleep into mere distractions. Your passion is something for which you would undertake any chore, overcome any obstacle. It is something you know intimately, an essential part of you.

Passion is that state in which your very soul is tingling with energy and enthusiasm. It bestows significance and meaning, for when you are responsibly pursuing your passion, you don’t have to ask whether it’s something you should be doing, whether it’s worthwhile. Passion is nothing less than life lived abundantly and purposefully.

But what does passion look like? More to the point, what place does it have in a school? As I envision it, passion encompasses a host of traits, appearing in many forms: curiosity and skill, focus and persistence, intensity and desire, frustration and dissatisfaction. While its specific manifestations vary, passion lies at the core of human nature; it’s the fuel on which we run.

Sudbury schools work because they allow students’ innate passions to awaken or revive. Here, their capacity for life can unfold organically. We strive to provide a setting where, over time, a student’s vision can become unclouded, where each individual can come to hear the call of his or her soul.

Passion works: we see this all the time at Alpine Valley. Our students are extremely passionate about…well, about practically everything. Inquiry, imagination and strongly held (and expressed) opinions are the order of the day. AVS students are passionate about creating things, about connecting with others, about incessantly pushing the boundaries of their capabilities.

When someone spends hour upon hour on a project, for days at a time, or when he or she sets forth an articulate, heartfelt argument at a meeting, that’s passion. AVS students have abiding passions for animals, languages, construction, writing, art, gaming and music – to cite just a few examples.

Even the adults associated with Sudbury schools have a great deal of passion. Thus, our students have as role models people who have found something they love and are pouring their heart and soul into it, doing whatever it takes to realize their passion.

Despite this evidence, many people are quick to overlook or dismiss passion. Why is that? Partially, it’s because what some view as passion others perceive as frivolousness. When they see our students spending more time playing and talking than sitting in classrooms, people may assume our students aren’t taking life seriously. (In reality, these young people bring the seriousness of passion to virtually everything they do.) They may also assume that our students are wasting time, falling dangerously behind in preparing for their adult lives.

But what do young people actually need in order to prepare for adulthood? Could it really be an arbitrary assortment of facts and skills, approved and imposed by so-called experts, though of suspect relevance and usefulness? Or are the strength and persistence – the drive – of a life governed by the responsible pursuit of passion more likely to give students what they truly need?

It is easier to doubt passion when you look around and see people lacking in it. Yet this is not a natural state. The sad, underlying truth is that passion can, and often does, atrophy when opposed over time. This does not invalidate passion; it merely implies that some people hold other values in higher esteem, and thus minimize, criticize and/or repress passion.

Negative assessments of passion most frequently arise from a place of fear. Unlike passion, fear holds people back and shuts them down: it diminishes life by restricting the perceived range of possibilities. In extreme cases, fear transforms life into a constant struggle to withstand opposition, a hunkering down against the next disaster.

Fear is eager to make concessions for the promise of security – and this in a world where guarantees simply aren’t feasible. It is willing to compromise vigorous, healthy growth for superficial signs of learning. At heart, fear wants to control the vicissitude of life, when life simply doesn’t yield to that kind of control. The most we adults can do in this regard is let our children develop their natural strength of character – their integrity, and their passion.

In the end, we face a fundamental choice, whether to act more from fear or passion. Should we educate our children in a life-affirming manner, to believe that great things are possible, or in a manner that tells them to compromise their dreams, do as they’re told, and hope for the best?

I don’t know about you, but I vote for passion – for empowering children and letting them maximize their capacity for full, enjoyable and worthwhile lives. If we want the best for our children, ourselves and our world, passionate people are by far the most capable of bringing such a happy reality into being.

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The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.