Hidden Assumptions

An era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted. ~Arthur Miller


Undergirding any educational program is a set of assumptions that are often believed to be so self-evident that they do not need to be stated. But are they so self-evident?

One of the assumptions in mainstream education is that children need teachers to instruct them in the things that they will need to know in order to become effective adults. The teachers must be certified by experts who have designed the curriculum that should be taught at each grade level so that children can advance year-by-year, demonstrating their competence as determined by their teacher’s judgment and by grades on state mandated tests. The assumption is that without the help of teachers and a curriculum, children would not be prepared to be responsible adults and to meet the demands of the world that will challenge them when they graduate from school. This is because – another assumption – it is taken as a given that children, because they are inexperienced, cannot get to know what will be required of them, and because of their natural inclinations would not learn what is necessary unless teachers inspired, then rewarded, or possibly punished them to get them to follow the curriculum.

It turns out that highly trained teachers, and a curriculum constantly revised to keep abreast of the flood of new information, are not enough to do the job. The task delegated to schools is so demanding that the schools have asked parents to supplement the schools’ efforts by supervising homework assignments. This is in addition to parents providing the financial resources to support the schools’ burden of escalating education costs, which have been growing much faster than inflation. The cry from every side is that an all-out effort is needed because our nation’s future depends on the success of our schools.

Indeed, we know the wealthy, successful, economically developed countries in the world have very similar systems of education based upon the same underlying assumptions. It is also true that there has been a vast increase in the wealth of the world over the past two hundred years, and that the rate of increase is accelerating, especially as we move into the 21st century. It is easy to assume that there is a direct correlation between education provided by the schools we designed for the Industrial Revolution and economic success.


Although a case can be made that schools as we now know them may have been necessary to support the Industrial Revolution in its early stages, the rationale given at the time was pure propaganda. The hidden agenda was the need for workers to make the industries work efficiently, and the preparation was effective. The assumptions we came to believe as self-evident were to sugar coat the pill. In fact, the schools were not based upon a philosophy of education. Instead, the schools were designed to turn out workers to support the Industrial Revolution, to help people who needed to perform boring repetitive tasks attain the necessary skills to work the machines, and to train them to follow orders. Schools underwent a stark change from the traditional pre-Industrial Revolution one room schoolhouse; they were modified to resemble factories for teaching basic skills – reading, writing and arithmetic – to the K through 12 that we know today. Moreover, people were so enamored with the factory model for K-12 that they carried it over to colleges and universities. With the expansion of the scope of modern industries, schools required a more extensive curriculum to prepare a wider range of workers for the more technologically advanced factories. In some ways it was the very success of the Industrial Revolution that fostered the idea that the assembly-line model would make the schools more efficient. And once assumptions became internalized they became “self-evident truths” and were difficult to dislodge.

We know how difficult it was for people to accept the idea that the earth is in orbit around the sun when it was so “self-evident” that the reverse was true. New discoveries and insights often come about because a self-evident truth is challenged. The factory model of education is under siege and has been for years, with the factory schools becoming more like forts. Their persistent failure to fulfill their mission has met with a spate of attempts to prop them up with new efforts, such as No Child Left Behind. At no time has there been a critical evaluation of the underlying assumptions. Are these schools viable in today’s world?

Those assumptions were never considered to be valid for the elite before the Industrial Revolution, a time when the average person did not go to school. Only when it was necessary to have a mass of common people to make the industrial machines work did we adopt universal education, in order to teach the importance of being punctual, following orders, learning respect for your teachers (and your employers to be), and some basic skills. Unfortunately, our schools are failing us in meeting the challenge of the Information Age. In 1970, journalist and social critic Charles Silberman published Crisis in the Classroom, a critique of U.S. education, in which he wrote:

Most of all, I am indignant at the failures of the public schools themselves. “The most deadly of all possible sins,” Eric Erickson suggests, “is the mutilation of a child’s spirit.” It is not possible to spend any prolonged period visiting public school classrooms without being appalled by the mutilation visible everywhere – mutilation of spontaneity, of joy in learning, of pleasure in creating, of sense of self. The public schools – those “killers of the dream,” to appropriate a phrase of Lillian Smith’s – are the kind of institution one cannot really dislike until one gets to know them well. Because adults take the schools so much for granted, they fail to appreciate what grim, joyless places most American schools are, how oppressive and petty are the rules by which they are governed, how intellectually sterile and esthetically barren the atmosphere, what an appalling lack of civility obtains on the part of teachers and principals, what contempt they unconsciously display for children as children.


Let us take another look at the underlying assumptions, and start with preschoolers. What parent tries to teach their newborn to move their arms and legs? Any mother can tell you they have been moving and kicking while still in the womb! How about teaching them to close their fingers to take hold of your finger or pick up a toy? How about sucking lessons? How long does it take a preschool child to learn to use the TV control? How about a five year old playing games on a computer? (You may not approve of the games, but the computer skills involved are impressive!)

Because crying is often ineffective in getting help when we are hungry, sick, frightened or lonely, we learn to speak. It seems miraculous, but almost every young child learns the language of their environment, wherever they live. What parent has not experienced a thrill when their child begins to talk around the age of one and carries on a conversation at three? As Alfred North Whitehead said:

The first intellectual task which confronts an infant is the acquirement of spoken language. What an appalling task, the correlation of meanings with sounds. It requires an analysis of ideas and an analysis of sounds. We all know that an infant does it, and the miracle of his achievement is explicable. But so are all miracles, yet to the wise they remain miracles.

“The Aims of Education”

Could a certified expert teacher do any better? Do as well? How many college graduates have done as well when they were taught a foreign language especially if their major motivation was to qualify for their degree? Remember that to any newborn any language is foreign! In multi-lingual families they even learn to speak two or three languages. If you value the ability to speak foreign languages, make sure that there are native foreign language speakers in your home interacting with your children in their early years. They will learn to speak like natives. Compare their progress to that of any student who has suffered through five years of teacher-taught language in school. Are you still so sure that the factory model of education is the best model for learning?

I can hear the objection, “But young children are different than school age children.” Indeed they are! They have had to start from scratch, without any prior experience. Is it possible that the pre-school environment is a better model for learning than the factory model? We know that young children want to explore their environment. We know that they need to be into everything. Perhaps children do so well in their earliest years because there is a great learning advantage in being very young. Perhaps. It may also be the case that it is the nature of being humans that they are very good at solving problems when they are interested and others do not substitute their agenda for the child’s.

As long ago as the early 19th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

I believe that our own experience instructs us that the secret of Education lies in respecting the pupil. It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret. By your tampering and thwarting, and too much governing he may be hindered from his end and kept out of his own. Respect the child. Wait and see the new product of Nature. Nature loves analogies but not repetitions. Respect the child. Trespass not on his solitude.

But I hear the outcry which replies to this suggestion: - Would you verily throw up the reins of public discipline; would you leave the young child to the mad career of his own passions and whimsies, and call this anarchy a respect for the child’s nature? I answer, - Respect the child, respect him to the end, but also respect yourself. Be the companion of his thoughts, the friend of his friendship, the lover of virtue, - but no kinsman of his sin. Let him find you so true to yourself that you are the irreconcilable hater of his vice and imperturbable slighter of his trifling.

“Selected Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson”

There are critics of our public schools whose voices are growing more insistent and whose ranks are increasing. Part of this criticism is due to greater sensitivity and awareness of world problems due to better communication and information. They are pointing out that we are in a post-industrial Information Age, an age where initiative, imagination, and creativity are required, not just following orders, memorizing facts, and learning the skills involved in taking a test. Even our military has been getting more and more innovative, and recognizes the need for change. Yet, our schools are bogged down in their old accustomed ways. The critics know that the current educational model is flawed, but because of the economic success of the Industrial Revolution they assume the educational model is basically sound and just needs adjusting. Our grandparents would have no trouble recognizing today’s classrooms, even though the chairs today are not bolted to the floor.

We all hold on to “self-evident truths”; it is hard to give them up. They are the foundation stones of our world view and we all tend to treat contradictory evidence as special cases. But our factory schools have too many “special cases” today. Like an old car that has one problem after another, there comes a time when it is more sensible to replace the car rather than fix it. With schools, it is more complicated than getting a newer model car: it’s more like finding a new means of transportation, an entirely new model of education.


Before you abandon one model for another, you had better be sure that the new model works! Research and development are required, and a careful plan of implementation.

Sudbury schools are working on a new model based upon a new set of assumptions that are designed for the post-industrial age. It is in Sudbury schools that the careful research that is necessary to validate a new model of education is being done. What are these different assumptions? I will mention a few.

The more you work at solving problems of your own choosing the more effective you become at solving problems. That is why Sudbury school graduates, who had set their own agenda from four years old until high school graduation age, are able to meet the rigor of college programs and to become successful in professional careers.

Humans are by their nature designed to be good at solving problems. That design is exhibited from birth, as they work with great focus to become more and more independent, as they teach themselves how to move, crawl, walk, talk, and try to understand the world. We can all agree that the goal of schooling is for a child to be able to stand on his/her own two feet, prepared to assume an adult role in a responsible manner. Sudbury schools assume that children are driven to become effective adults, and so are confident that they can set their own agenda.

Challenges that you set for yourself are the only ones for which you can legitimately be accountable. Challenges that you set for yourself are more enticing than tasks assigned “for your own good”.

Success builds confidence, but failures that have been overcome are the most effective in building confidence, since you learn what doesn’t work along with what does. Moreover you learn that failure is only a step along the way to success. It is this knowledge that makes it possible to follow through on your self-assigned tasks.

Humans are by their very nature curious and curiosity is the driving force leading to discovery.

Children are self-starters; they are proactive as preschoolers and continue to be if they can follow their own agenda.

The Sudbury School model of education for the post-industrial era is based on a philosophy of education with deep roots in the pre-industrial past. It is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary. Now, there are Sudbury schools in many of the advanced post-industrial countries testing the viability of this model.

Many people have attested to the validity of the assumptions underlying this new model. For example, the following quote from ancient Rome indicates that the roots of the philosophy of the schools are very deep. Lucius Annaeus Seneca, the famed Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, and dramatist, stated: “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power” – a harbinger of the insistence of Sudbury schools that children choose their own agenda for how they spend their time.

In the 19th century, James Anthony Froude, English historian, novelist, biographer and editor of Fraser’s Magazine, said: “Experience teaches slowly, and at the cost of mistakes” – which echoes the assumption of Sudbury schools that trial and error is the most effective way to retain what is learned.

Oscar Wilde put it this way: “The only way to even approach doing something perfectly is through experience, and experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.”

Alfred North Whitehead, internationally known philosopher, mathematician and educator, a professor of philosophy at Harvard University in the second quarter of the 20th century, wrote: “There is only one subject matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations. Instead of this single unity, we offer children – Algebra, from which nothing follows; Geometry, from which nothing follows; Science, from which nothing follows; History, from which nothing follows; a Couple of Languages, never mastered; and lastly, most dreary of all, Literature, represented by plays of Shakespeare, with philological notes and short analyses of plot and character to be in substance committed to memory.”

Three-quarters of a century later, Gordon Forward, president of Chapparal Steel, expressed the same sentiment: “You’ve got to have an atmosphere where people can make mistakes. If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not going anywhere.”


Is a Sudbury school for everyone? The simple answer is, no, for several reasons. The current sample of students is too small to make sweeping claims for the population at large. The Sudbury schools, with a few exceptions, are tuition based, so that parents have to make a commitment to pay tuition, and also to transport their children to school. Furthermore, children need the emotional support of their parents for the very difficult task of preparing themselves to be responsible adults.

The Sudbury experience requires a dedicated staff that understands the model. Such staff members are difficult to find, since most people grew up in Industrial Age schools, and those schools are focused on control. Much has to be unlearned before you can shift gears into a new model of education.

Because this new model values the freedom for each student to forge her/his own path in life, while respecting others’ freedom, staff – and parents – must relinquish the urge to control others, even if they feel they are exerting control for the good of the students.

Although giving up control may cause great anxiety, the rewards are enriched relationships. In the history of the United States two hundred years have past since the Continental Congress of the American colonies declared that all men are created equal, an ideal that is still unfulfilled. Nevertheless, each step we have taken toward that ideal has benefited us as a nation. The slaveholders lived in terror of possible revolt by those enslaved. It was horrible for the slaves and dehumanizing for those who owned them. Women under the control of their husbands belittled them both and limited the contribution that women could make to our society.

I spent twenty years as teacher, principal and as an assistant superintendent, of which thirteen years were in the administration of Industrial Age schools. The major portion of all of the administrating meetings was devoted to control of teachers, students, parents, and the town Finance Committees. Of course, we did not use the word “control”; that was the “hidden agenda”. We always expressed our concern as an attempt at improving education.

Why are the Sudbury schools not welcomed by the educational establishment, and by the government that supports them? In medicine and science in general, research into new ideas or products is welcomed, especially if they are not competing for limited funds. If the government were sincere in the goal of “no child left behind” it would inquire whether children who have attended a Sudbury school are prepared to be responsible adults. It would have done follow-up studies of alumni of those schools, to ascertain how well they were doing as adults.

Ponder the following:

a) Children who have spent several years in a Sudbury school and leave for a host of reasons – for example, because their parents move, or lose confidence in the model and enroll them in another school – are placed in their new school with their age group, and have no problem in doing well in spite of the fact that they have followed their own agenda while they were in the Sudbury school. This is true even if they have spent ten or more years in a Sudbury school, and have never taken a class or a test!

b) Children who have attended a Sudbury school and have spent several years at the school and graduate, or just leave and decide to go on to higher education, have always been able to successfully pursue a college career.

In short, what can be said is that the successes of children attending Sudbury schools goes a long way toward shaking the foundation that underpins the schools designed for the Industrial Revolution.

Sudbury schools are dedicated to perfecting the model so others can come to understand that there is a viable alternative to Industrial Revolution schools that is more effective and efficient in helping children to be prepared for adult responsibilities.

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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.