Let's Make a Deal

As Hanna tells the story, one day she and Mikel were chatting and casually looking out the window, when they spotted two of our youngest students walking down the road towards school, deep in an animated conversation. The scene prompted Mikel to comment something like, “Look at them! They’re negotiating!” And Hanna’s recounting this incident to me prompted me to realize that a key element of Sudbury Valley had been all but omitted from all the extensive writings and talks that have been made by us over the years!

How did this happen? It’s well worth explaining, because it involves a process of analytic thinking that often leads one to miss important connections.

I. The problem of thinking about a place like Sudbury Valley—or any place, for that matter.

We have always been keenly aware of the difficulty in providing a real picture of life at the school—what the school feels like to members of our community, what people do here, what we actually mean when we say that the school is an ideal environment for getting an education (whether you are a student or a staff member. Whenever we have taken a stab at conveying the whole picture, we inevitably felt that we fell far short of what we had hoped to convey. This didn’t stop us from trying, but we didn’t step back and try to grasp the underlying problem that led to our continued frustration.

Yet, the source of the difficulty was right there before our eyes, and we had become familiar with its significance long ago. We just failed to apply it to the issue at hand. It is simply this: the school, and every human institution, is a complex system, all aspects of which interact with each other, no parts of which are independent of the others. This is not only true of the physical parts of the system—the students, the staff, their families, other people who come and go, the physical plant—but also of the concepts we choose to apply to the system and the words we use to represent those concepts. Nor is the school itself an independent system; rather, it is a subsystem of the surrounding universe, with interactions orders of magnitude more numerous and tangled than those within the subsystem. Indeed, talking about the school without bringing into play all its interactions with its surroundings is an artifact, an attempt to cope with its inherent complexity without having to deal with the greater ones related to what is outside the artificial boundary we have set up.

I will return below to the difficulties introduced by focusing on the school as a subsystem of the whole world. There are more than enough problems to engage our attention within that subsystem alone. Let’s begin to take a look at them.


The history of Sudbury Valley reveals with stark clarity a succession of attempts to break down our vision into manageable segments, focusing on each one in succession, then doubling back to refine our understanding of each segment and gradually revealing its integral connection to other parts of the whole.

There was, of course, a vision of the whole, a central theme that lay at the heart of what we hoped to create: a school embedded in, and appropriately compatible with, the American society into which its students would ultimately emerge as adults. Since the central theme of that society is that all individuals are equally endowed with the absolute rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that had to be, for us, the central theme of Sudbury Valley. How to translate that theme into the complex reality of a group of people of all ages populating an institution established to provide an environment where children can be treated in the same way as adults are treated in the surrounding community was the challenge. And the only practical way for us to meet this challenge was to create subsystems that were within our intellectual abilities to deal with, examine them as deeply as we could, and do our best to figure out how they were interconnected to form a coherent whole.

All of these subsystems existed in the realm of political and educational theory, which deal with understanding human beings as individuals and in groups—just as all the physical subsystems of western science exist in the realm of natural philosophy. They are not cast in stone; rather, they are flexible, changeable, and often discarded as new directions are pursued.

Here is a very simple—yet basic—example of the kind of thing I am talking about. The time is the early spring of 1968. The setting: a series of (a great many) organizational meetings of the founders. (The founders, themselves a subsystem of the school’s supporters, were an ever-changing group; meetings were open, people joined and people left, and there were not infrequent challenges of continuity in the evolving formulation of the school.) The question arose: what about our library? With the absence of a required curriculum, what kind of library do we want? How will it be acquired? How will it be housed? How used? How organized?

Now, these were all questions that had been dealt with in the world of libraries in general, and school libraries in particular, over centuries of practice. There were a number of established models to choose from; it shouldn’t have been much of a task to do that, and move on. But we were keenly aware that the kind of place we were creating was an entirely new concept of school, and that everything, without exception, had to be examined anew, from the ground up. Nothing could be taken for granted, as no models available for any of our subsystems could be assumed to be relevant to our radically new invention.

So what, on the surface, sounds like a simple task—establishing a library for the school—that should have taken little time or intellectual effort to settle, turned out to be far more involved than we had expected. The subsystem had to be self-consistent, and consistent with the larger system, the school, within which it resided.

Here are some of the many considerations that came into play:
How should the library be housed? The standard answer—in an area, or room, set aside as “the library”—didn’t seem appropriate for a school that carefully avoided making judgments about the relative worthiness of various activities or interests. (The equal respect given in the society at large to any person engaged in any activity is a key aspect of American society.) Putting books in a special room conveys a message—shines a particular light on reading as a valuable activity, graced with special quarters and special rules. Our solution: house the books throughout the school.

How should the library be used? The standard answer—have a checkout system, recording who takes what and when it is due back and what happens (usually a fine) if it isn’t back in time, and so forth. Again, the same message: books have to be specially guarded, given a certain sanctity, and are not to be used casually. But the whole point of the invention of writing, as we saw it, is to make information widely available, and the invention of printing made it easy to fulfill that mission. People read because they are curious to know something that the book they are reading can potentially tell them, and individual curiosity was the essence of the school’s “educational program”. Our solution: make ours a browsing library, with easy access to books, and an honor system for taking books out of school and bringing them back. Here was a clear place where the library subsystem interacted with, and had to be compatible with, the broader system of the school as a whole, which was rooted in the honor system, in the trust placed in every person in the school until the person proved themselves to be untrustworthy.

How should the books be organized? This turned out to be the knottiest problem of all. There were two standard models for library organization: the Dewey decimal system, and the Library of Congress categories. School libraries and smaller public libraries chose the former, larger libraries—including virtually all university libraries—chose the more professional-looking LC system. We went with the latter, to shed any impression that we were just another K-12 school. We spent a great deal of energy in the early years marking books with their proper LC numbers, but that gave us a base line for where to put what. But there was another, highly contentious issue. An elementary school librarian who was part of our group insisted that we place a yellow label on those books that were “appropriate for young readers”. This was a common practice in elementary schools, the idea being that it guided young readers to books that they could read comfortably, and avoided the supposed frustration and alienation from the printed word that would result from young readers taking a book, trying to read it, and finding that they couldn’t understand it. The battle over yellow markers was intense, but once again, the principle that we were not to classify people by age led to our rejection of the idea (and the librarian’s disgusted departure from the founding group).

How should books be acquired? The standard answer—by a professional librarian trained in acquisitions—made no sense to us. The norm was to rely on one person’s judgment (or perhaps that of a committee) to decide what books are worthwhile and what can be left out, and the more limited the allotted budget, the more limited the selection of books that end up in the library. To a school in which no person’s judgment, however “well informed”, could govern the intellectual activities of another person, the whole idea was anathema. Our solution was to accept books solely through private donations, from just about anybody who was willing to give us books. This meant that we were open, without prior judgment, to providing a wide selection of materials that had been chosen by a wide variety of people, and the more we received, the greater the choice available to the community.

I have gone into considerable detail to illustrate the way we humans, with our intellectual limitations, are constrained to deal with the problem of understanding our world. It is far too complex to be grasped in total; it is, in short, a vast system in which all the parts are connected in varying degrees. In fact, even the seemingly simple phrase “all the parts” conceals a basic difficulty: how do you identify a “part”? How do you separate out a piece of the whole and consider it self-contained enough to be looked at without taking into account everything else around it—at least not initially?

Look back at the description of our initial grappling with the school’s library. We started by doing what other institutions do: carving out for ourselves a subsystem, a small section of the whole, that we called “library”. For other places, that sort of makes sense only because they invariably separate out a physical location where they place things that constitute the contents of the library. (And yes, the “things” can be books, media, art, and just about anything the institution wants to put there!) But in other places, the same items, if spread around in rooms (offices, classrooms, arts centers, etc.) are not considered to be part of their “library”. And in many cases, physical locations that have none of these items in them are considered to be part of the library—lobbies, reading rooms, meeting rooms, and so forth, located within the physical confines of the location labeled “library”. So even trying to define what the subsystem called “library” is turns out to be, well, all but impossible.

In our case, what the founders thought they were discussing—the various aspects of the school’s library—turned out to be not that at all. We discarded the notion of a separate location, and from the outset actually did not deal with the normal idea of a library, but rather with the question of how the school will handle . . . well, exactly what items were we discussing? Books, to be sure. But not just books. Media as well. Some media, not all. (Later, we added computers, laptops, wifi, etc. to the matters dealt with by what we still called “The Library Committee”.) We tried to relate what we do with books to what other schools do, and in some cases we adopted other models, in others, we created our own model, from scratch, relating its features to something that had nothing to do with books or reading, but rather, with the fundamental principles of the larger system, the school, within which the books were handled. In fact, it no longer remained clear what subsystem, if any, we were dealing with, or even whether it was a definable subsystem separable by any criteria from a larger system within which it is embedded.


So how does this relate to the problem I posed at the outset—the key element of SVS missing from our discussions of the school?

To establish the school, which is, physically (among other ways), a subsystem clearly separable from the system within which it is embedded—the surrounding environment—we had to be able to describe its key distinct features. We had to do this from the outset, if we were to establish an identity for the school. So we set about trying to find significant concepts underlying the school. Now, any significant concept is itself a complex collection of ideas, a subsystem of the totality of philosophical concepts we use to describe human endeavors. Thus, in trying to define the school, we zeroed in on a number of separate abstractions, and delved (and continue to delve) as deeply as we could into the meaning and full richness of those abstractions. The hope was that a vivid picture of the school would emerge from this collection, taken together.  



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