Every word in education is connected to some preconceived idea in people's minds. This means that every time we write or talk about Sudbury Valley School, we have to try to break these connections, and this is a very difficult task. The main problem is that the prevailing view of education confuses two ideas that have to be separated. One is the idea that children have to grow up to become adults who are able to keep the community going as a viable entity. This requires us to identify the characteristics an adult needs to possess to be productive in a given community, and to meet the challenges of survival and continuity in that community.
Survival and continuity are a universal problem for all species, not only for humans. For a species to survive, the young born into the species have to find a way to become effective adults. This leads to some interesting implications. To the best of our knowledge, animal species don't have schools. As far as we know, they don't even have the ability to think about child rearing abstractly and worry about creating institutions in order to educate their children. Yet, the huge multiplicity of species survive: their children grow up and become functioning adults. How does this happen?
This is a basic and simple question to which, unfortunately, we rarely pay attention: How do various species handle the transition to adulthood in a manner that enables them to survive? There can really be only one answer: Nature provides every young member of every species with the tools needed to become effective adults. The young must possess the necessary abilities innately. Young animals must have the tools, and the potential for learning the necessary skills, built into their evolutionary heritage This simple fact has to be true for human beings, too. Every child has to be born with the tools and the skills and the abilities to grow up as an effective adult, or the human species would long ago have become extinct.
The second idea that has been tied to the concept of education is the notion of pedagogy, an idea articulated by the ancient Greeks. Pedagogy comes about when adults decide that there is something specific that they want children to learn. It has little to do with what children express a desire to learn, but rather it has to do with particular knowledge that adults decide they want children to learn. This knowledge usually is not a matter of survival skills, because the needs of survival skills are met by innate drives possessed by children. Greek pedagogy was practiced in various small schools, scattered among the Greek city‑states, catering to the young men (not women!) of the elite classes. In those schools, beautiful philosophical concepts (such as those developed by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) were conveyed through lectures and conversations conducted by learned teachers for upper‑class youth. They existed in one form or another for over a thousand years, and then quietly died out with the fragmentation of the Roman Empire some 1500 years ago. Their legacy was continued in the Moslem world, where Greek philosophy became the delight of Islamic scholars and the curriculum of their elite schools. From the Arab world, Greek pedagogy found its way back to the Christian European world in the late Middle Ages.
Why am I recounting this? To give some historical perspective. The many branches of Greek philosophy (which included science, mathematics, literary criticism, logic, and much else) are in fact specialized subjects with a limited historical lineage. For most of human history, the world got along just fine without them. For all I know, 500 years from now nobody will read Aristotle. Who can tell?
Current trends in education have totally mixed these two ideas growing up under the guidance of innate drives, and pedagogy.
How did children grow up before schools swallowed them up, which only began to happen about 175 years ago? They simply lived in the community, and learned by watching older children and adults, and by trying to do the things that they observed. In addition, children were treated like real people, from a very early age. They were given responsibilities as soon as they could take them. Four-year-olds had to carry water, six-year-olds had to take the sheep out to the field for days. As soon as children showed the ability to do anything, they became functioning members of the community.
Think about it. If a six-year-old took a flock of sheep out to the field, and a wolf ate one of the sheep, adults didn't say to him, "It's all right, don't worry about it, you're just a little boy." They would say, "What happened? You have to learn from this experience to avoid it happening again." They treated the six-year-old like an adult. The same was true of women and girls. If the girls had to wash clothes, the clothes had to be clean. If the clothes weren't clean, the women didn't say, "She's a little girl, she doesn't have to get it clean; maybe we'll just do them ourselves next time." They said, "Get the clothes clean!"
The reason this worked is because nature ensured that children wanted to do adult work, that they wanted to become adults. They wanted to be treated as adults and grow up, otherwise the human race would have died. Six-year-olds wanted to be good shepherds, they wanted to learn how to accomplish this because that's how you became an effective adult in the community. As soon as young men reached puberty, they became warriors; as soon as young women reached puberty, they got married and soon after they had children. In the play Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is 13 years old! For Shakespeare's audience in England, it was not out of the ordinary for 13-year-olds to fall seriously in love. Today, when we see a 13‑year‑old couple, we consider the relationship to be puppy love. From the perspective of growing up, children were always thought of as people, and given as much responsibility as possible within the community. Pedagogy, on the other hand, was kept for a small elite, for special subjects that people thought were appropriate. Aristotle himself says this very clearly. He writes that what we call culture is a product of leisure. People who have leisure, which by definition are the elite, have time to develop and enjoy what we call cultural pursuits.
So how did pedagogy and natural child development get mixed up with each other? For this, we have to look at the Industrial Revolution, which fundamentally altered society. All of a sudden, historically speaking, one had machines that could make things for everybody that previously only the elite could own: clothes, more people could own several pieces; food, fewer people starved; housing, better shelter became more widely available; furniture, dishes, cutlery, and so forth; and a huge number of new products to increase life quality were invented. The Industrial Revolution brought the possibility. It didn't happen overnight, but it became a realistic possibility that everybody would be better off materially; that everybody would be healthier, better fed, better clothed, more comfortable. Everybody. That was the hope this new era held forth.
There was only one problem: the machines of the Industrial Revolution were primitive. That meant that people had to be closely involved with, almost part of, machines. Human beings had to be on the assembly line, because each machine could only do a small part of the job by itself. Lots of people were needed to work with the machines that made all the things that everybody wanted. Today, if you build a factory to make cars, how many people are needed in the factory? Only a handful, to man the computers that run the factory. Few, if any, on the assembly line. In the same factory fifty years ago, there were thousands of people working shifts 24 hours a day.
The advent of the Industrial Revolution meant that society had a serious problem. No normal human being actually wants a job which forces them to behave like part of a machine. How do you go about creating millions of people who are willing to be part of a machine, so that we can all have a better life thanks to a flourishing industrial economy? The solution lay in the realm of pedagogy. Education had to be enlisted to take control of these children, not children of the elite, but the masses of common children to teach them the kind of behavior and rudimentary skills which have nothing to do with the kinds of skills that they needed to flourish in the pre‑industrial era. And chief among these new skills is the wholly unnatural one of being able to function as a human automaton. This is a tall order.
To achieve this requires two things. One, you have to break their free spirit. You have to force them to want to sit still in one place, get in lines, do what they're told to do all the time. No more running around. No more freedom, no more doing what you want to do, no more learning, no more following your curiosity just acceptance of strict discipline. Everybody doing the same thing all the time, punishment if you don't conform.
Second, you have to teach them specific skills, which came to be called the three R's. You have to teach them to read, because they have to read instructions. You have to teach them to write so that they can do the required paperwork. You have to teach them arithmetic so that they are comfortable with weights and measures, and so that they can do the standard bookkeeping required in the industrial economy. The three R's are, in short, the three basic industrial skills, and they formed the heart of the pedagogical curriculum. They have little to do with pre‑industrial survival, or life. Who needs math? Who needs to read and write? Throughout history, hardly anybody could read and write, not even kings and generals. In fact, there were only a few specialists who did the reading and writing for everyone. For the industrial economy, all that changed.
Think how quickly this transformation took place! In the year 1800, there was no compulsory education, no mass schools, as there hadn't been for a million years. In the year 1900, just 100 years later, every developed country had compulsory education! In that short span of time, it came to pass that everybody had to be subjected to pedagogy! Suddenly, teachers and academicians became important people in the society. Before nobody paid any attention to them. People in general mocked them, thought them to be silly and out of touch with everyday reality. Now, all of a sudden they're important because they're teaching the skills that society required.
Academicians are a club, and like any club, they like power. Politicians like power, academicians like power, union leaders like power, business leaders like power; it seems that every group likes power. The power that academicians wield is directly related to their role as teachers, as the source of all pedagogy. Suppose I am a Professor of history. What is my path to power? Simply this: I conclude that it's very important for every child to know history, just like it's important to know reading, writing, and arithmetic. To be sure, they don't need history to run a machine. But if you already have them in school teaching them stuff, we should teach them history while we're at it, and we find a reason such as good citizenship, for example. The same is true for biology, for language, etc. None of these are critical to the effectiveness of line workers in the industrial era, but we declare look how important they are! Indeed, once we have our curriculum, we keep adding to it, and a huge educational bureaucracy becomes entrenched in the government and in the private sector to make all this happen in schools. Thousands and thousands of people work on designing courses, writing textbooks, administering exams, etc. Today there are more people involved in this education‑industrial complex than there are even in the military. The public has come to think that pedagogy is the most important thing in the world ‑ to teach stuff to children who never asked for it, don't need it, and don't even service machines any longer!
So today we're still breaking the will of children, making them robots, treating them like machines, piling curriculum on them that they don't ask for and ‑don't need, all because of something that happened 175 years ago. Educators seem to be the only ones who don't realize that the Industrial Age is dead and the Information Age is here.
Today, the whole world is one village. Children all over the world have access, through the internet and computers, to virtually all the information in the world. Children have the same curiosity, the same will to become adults, the same will to become successful that they have had from the dawn of the human race except that now, children can observe people not just in their own little village, but all over the world, whenever and wherever they want, on their own initiative. They can find friends who are interested in the same things they're interested in. They can find information that they're interested in, and helpers and teachers who will help them understand what they want to learn.
It turns out that Sudbury Valley School is not a radical revolution in education at all. On the contrary, it's a very conservative school. Sudbury Valley just harks back to the days when children were treated like real people, and given all the responsibilities that they wanted and were able to assume. It treats children like human beings, and allows them to pursue their interests the way they used to in their villages, only now they do it on a global scale, in the global village.
The children have access to anything they're interested in, not just to that tiny number of subjects that curriculum designers decided were important. In fact, it's no longer possible to know what is important. Countless new things are developing all the time: new jobs, new ideas, new inventions, new concepts, new fields. Traditional schools keep insisting that you need to learn this or that, which today's children know is ridiculous. The fact is that most children today think that school is irrelevant, and children learn more outside of school than in school.
Nature makes it possible for children to discover the really important things for their survival. They have to be given the opportunity to find those things. That is the goal of a 21st century school.
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