Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

Note: Based on talks given at Framingham State College and in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during the 2001-2002 school year.

I. The Setting

I would like to begin by placing the whole question of schooling and education in a broader historical and cultural context. This is essential to understanding where Sudbury Valley comes from, because the establishment of the school in 1968 was not an effort to reform the current educational system, but rather an attempt to go back to first principles. Since then, we've had a lot of time to refine our thinking about those principles, which we feel have been amply validated by what we've been doing for 34 years.

If you look up education in the dictionary, this is the definition that you find: The act or process of imparting knowledge or skill; the obtaining of knowledge or skill through such a process. Those are two different sides of the concept education, and when you think about that, it's obvious that the definition describes activities common to all human beings at all times and of all ages. There's no way to be alive and not to be either imparting knowledge or skill or obtaining knowledge or skill. In fact, the absence of these activities is probably the best definition of death! One of the biggest mistakes people make is associating learning almost exclusively with formal instruction. In reality, when you're vegging out you're learning. When you're wasting time you're learning. When you're getting up, brushing your teeth, making breakfast, you're learning. If you keep that in mind as you go through life, it'll give you a different perspective on the nature of the activities that you're involved in, because you're always acquiring or imparting some kind of skill or knowledge. Always. There's no way not to be. It's part of who you are.

Now, the whole idea of learning and imparting knowledge and skills can only really be appreciated within a broader context, because education is only one part of the overall content of any culture. Other parts include such things as family structure, world view, government, and economy. To understand any of these parts, you have to understand the nature and goals of the culture that you're talking about. You cannot talk about any one of them in a vacuum. First you have to understand the culture, and then you have to ask what role education fills in the culture.

This is all very abstract, so let me give you some examples. Suppose we're dealing with a hierarchical culture, where everything is stratified and everybody knows their place, the way the vast majority of societies have been for the last 5,000 years. What are the goals of such a society? A key one is the maintenance of its structure. Similarly, there's no way to make sense of medieval philosophy without understanding that one of the functions that it serves is to justify and explain the structure of the society within which it's written. Once you start reading about the great chain of being and how everything has its fixed place in the grand scheme of the universe, you understand that it all fits into that culture.

Another example, quite relevant today, is theocratic societies, which are based on the idea that they are ruled directly by God, and that their function is to be in the service of God. That's something that's alien to most modern secular people. But you cannot understand the religious wars of Europe in the 16th century if you don't understand how completely important religion was to their lives. It doesn't make sense otherwise. It just looks like a bunch of people killing each other for no good reason at all. But they weren't. They were doing something central to their lives, and everything else was built around that.

There are other different kinds of societies based on other goals. There are societies based on warlike principles where the ideal is to be a warrior. You can't understand Sparta if you don't understand the basis of their culture.

So you have to really comprehend what's at the heart of a society's culture before you can talk about education. I'm going to focus on America because that's where we are. We're not talking about education in Saudi Arabia and we're not talking about education in Central Africa. We're talking about education in America, and in order to understand that we have to understand that America is unique historically in two very fundamental ways. First, America is a conscious creation. The whole non-native American population has no roots here; all came here relatively recently from somewhere else. Think about this. French people trace their roots back to the Gauls. They look at Caesar's Gallic Wars and they relate to that: It's us Caesar's fighting against. Everybody in Europe has roots. America, by contrast, is the result of people coming over here through a decision to leave their country of origin and go to a completely different location. That decision is to make a conscious break from the traditions and the cultures that they and their families were born into. You can't even begin to understand this country if you don't keep that in mind. It's always said that we're a country of immigrants, but that doesn't really convey the full import of our peculiar origins. What we are is a country of people who consciously decided continuously, to this day! to break off from their origins and go to a different place and start out anew, which means that they have something that no other national group has: the opportunity to consciously create a society with new goals and new purposes, unlike any that they came from.

The second unique feature is related to the first. Not only was America settled by people who came here and broke off from their roots individually and consciously, but America as a nation, the United States of America, was a conscious creation of the people who lived in this country in the 1780s. This was a restatement of who they were, in a manner totally unparalleled in history. As we the people, they deliberately decided to create a nation, and articulated what this new entity is and what its goals are. One of the keys to understanding American culture is understanding what's behind that creation. What were they thinking? What were their goals? What did they see as the essence of the new American society that they spelled out and passed on to us?

In America the beginning point is the individual - every human being's desires and worth and dreams. One of the things people who came over here were doing was saying, "I am going to do something I want, and not something that my culture has programmed me to do." So the very act of coming over here already has the seed in it of the concept that this is a country based on the individual as the starting point. Now, to see how radical that was and it is still radical to this day you have to juxtapose it with what virtually every other nation and culture has done throughout history. The starting point has always been the reverse: that the nation is the primary important entity, and the individual is there to serve the greater good of the nation, however that nation is conceived.

You can see this operating in Europe today. What's keeping the Europeans from creating a United States of Europe? After the Second World War, many farsighted Europeans said, "It's crazy that we're killing each other. Let's create a United States of Europe so we can have peace and stability." Yet, half a century later there still is no United States of Europe. Why? Because Europe, like most of the rest of the world, is still very much caught up in the idea that there is such a thing as nationhood to which you owe your primary allegiance. You are first and foremost there to serve the British or Dutch, or French, or German national culture. The idea that the individual comes first and that the social structures surrounding the individual are secondary and are there to serve the individual, to help the individual fulfill their needs, is unique in America. And it's closely related to the fact that this was a consciously created culture in which individuals made decisions to come here independently.

II. America's Goals

All of this was nicely articulated by our founding fathers as they focused on three fundamental goals for American society: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nobody had ever said this before. The question is, what do each of these mean? We'll look at them one by one.

Life. This means that a primary aim of this society is to sustain the individual life of each and every citizen of this country. That has come to mean that we wish to enable people to live healthily, to live successfully, and to live comfortably, and by comfortably we mean not to suffer and not to die at an early age and not to sacrifice our lives for some abstract goal that has nothing to do with our personal dreams.

Liberty. That concept was never used before so openly in an official document. In fact, in 1788, the states were not even ready to ratify the Constitution unless the first Congress promised immediately to enshrine the concept of liberty in a set of Amendments that came to be called the Bill of Rights. They wanted no guesswork about what liberty means. It was too important. They wanted it spelled out and guaranteed.1

The pursuit of happiness. What does pursuit of happiness mean? It's a very interesting phrase, and you have to understand it in the context in which it was written. The word happiness did not mean the same thing in the 18th century in American English as it means today. Today we relate the word to the concept of joy or pleasure. Happiness back then meant the realization of an individual's potential. This country is based on the goal that every individual citizen should be free to pursue their dream and to realize it. This is completely antithetical to any kind of autocratic society. Ours is a society where people are supposed to articulate themselves and their dreams, and the government is supposed to support that. We don't go around saying, "We need 300,000 CPAs in order to make our country work, so here's what we'll do. We'll count off 300,000 young men and send them over to CPA school." In this country, we begin with the individual's dream.

In America, the ideal is a culture where each life is a precious entity, where each life has an intrinsic value that has nothing to do with serving any external interests. The founding fathers meant to articulate something that the vast majority of American citizens felt in the 18th century: that government is basically a plague. We need it because there are things we can't do alone, but we always remember that it's something that we only want when we really need it. Of course, for over 200 years the argument has been about how much we really need, but there's never been any question about the starting point. We don't start by making a scheme and fitting people into the scheme. We start with individual people and then say, "What do we have to do to support these people in realizing the three goals of our culture?"

Within this context it is possible to understand Thomas Jefferson's role in the history of this country. He's the person who articulated the three goals although they met with widespread approval and he felt passionately about them all his life. He felt that the only kind of culture that really fits these goals for the country is a rural culture, a culture made up of independent farmers. He was against commerce, against cities and all the culture that emerges from cities. It strikes a modern reader as very weird, until you recall that in the context of the early 19th century, farmers were the freest people around! They had their own plot of land, they could grow their own food, they didn't need anything from anybody as long as things went well, and in times of trouble they all helped each other out. For Jefferson, the American set of national goals was most easily realized on a farm.

Indeed, farmers were the most mobile people in this country throughout the 19th century. Who settled the country? Often as not, the children in a farm family would say, "I don't want to stay on my dad's farm. There's four of us, and if we had to divide up the farm, we'll each get too little." So what did they do? They got up and they went somewhere else Westward HO! and they made their own farm, and they kept on moving west until they used up all the available farm land, a turning point that was greatly bemoaned as the end of the frontier.

The idea that farmers are the most independent people and the ones who most cling to these beliefs is something that dictators understand very well. It is no accident that when Stalin took power in the Soviet Union in the 1920s, he tried to obliterate Russian peasant farmers, the kulaks. That made perfect sense, because he was trying to create an authoritarian state in which the goals of his party were realized. And he could not tolerate within his country a subgroup that had strong feelings of independence.

III. Happiness

There are several related concepts that inform the complex idea of happiness. There's no particular order to the items I'm going to discuss; they are all parallel concepts and they all inform what human happiness is about.

I'll start with the concept of self-realization: knowing who you are, knowing something about your destiny as a human being. It is a relatively new concept in the world that a person's uniqueness and destiny is something worthwhile for each and every human being to consider, because people's destinies were not something that they had any feeling of control over or even knowledge of. Societies throughout history were rigidly organized. Everybody had their place. You were born to be a servant, or a tradesman, or a nobleman, or a king. The idea that you can actually do something with yourself, that your destiny is not fixed, but rather something you have to uncover, understand, and go with, is a tremendously powerful concept. You can set your own goals in life. You don't have to live according to someone else's goals, or some pre-determined goal. Connected to that is the realization that you're given one life to lead on this earth, and appreciating the significance of that life is a central feature of happiness.

A second feature of happiness is leading a meaningful life: the idea that what you're doing makes a difference. You're not just a drone. You're not thinking, "I might as well go to work. I might as well have kids. I might as well make money. I might as well retire." This is not our idea of happiness. Our idea of happiness, for ourselves as adults and for our children, is to have a sense that life has some significance. That doesn't mean that we have to be in the history books as one of the great people whom everybody recognizes. We don't have to be Einstein, we don't have to be one in a billion. The idea is that every person can contribute something.

This focuses on the significance of meaningful to wit, that you've somehow related your life to the rest of the world; that what you do somehow links in to what you care about or to what other people care about and what other people are sensitive to; that when you finally end your days, people won't say, "Who? I never heard of him. I never saw him. Did he even exist?" but rather, people will say, "Yes, he was a good person. He was a volunteer for sick people. He worked in the church. He cleared paths through the woods. He helped build a company. He gave people employment." Something that he did related to other people in the world and lent some value to the human condition.

Another component of leading a happy life is having self-confidence: the conviction that you are a capable human being. It doesn't mean that I'm capable of doing anything that anybody else can do or everything that anybody else could do. It doesn't mean that I have to know everything that everybody else knows. It means that I'm good at something. That I have a talent that I can develop, whatever it is. I can be a good mortician. I can be a good accountant. I can be a good lawyer. I can be a good bricklayer. I'm good at my work. It doesn't make a difference what it is. Hand in hand with that is the conviction that I'm competent enough to overcome the obstacles in my path as I proceed to develop my capability in whatever I'm doing. Failures are viewed by self-confident people as something you learn from, not as something to avoid. It's a very American tradition to feel that we are a can do kind of people, against all odds.

Another component of happiness is empowerment: I have a say in what goes on in my life and in the life of the community. I'm not a non-entity. I have the strength to stand for what I believe in, and I have the ability to make my voice heard. I am a powerful human being. Empowerment is something that's internal. It can even reside in you when you're under somebody else's physical control. Empowerment is something in the soul that says, "I am as strong as the next person, in my essence, even if right now I'm being beaten down physically." You don't get any better example of the concept of empowerment than you get if you study the literature of places where large numbers of the population were put into incredibly horrible physical circumstances. An empowered person can live with a feeling of inner dignity and strength inside even under those conditions, can say, "I have strength and nobody can break me inside; even if they break my bones, they cannot break my spirit."

Another concept that has to do with happiness is independence: that you can't be deflected by others from your unique path in life. The understanding that you can be an independent human being and follow your own path even though everything you do inter-relates to what everybody else does is extremely subtle; if you don't have it, you end up feeling that you don't have any room to maneuver. We are all dependent on what other people do and yet, in a very profound sense, we are independent if we stay true to our own paths. It's like being the captain of the boat in rough seas. If you throw away the oars, throw away the sails, and allow yourself to be buffeted, that's not independence. Independence means trying at all times to remain in control of your ship.

Finally, happiness means being able to live as an effective adult. You're not going to be a happy individual in a society if you're not functioning effectively in that society, something that is very time- and culture-dependent. The interesting thing is that in the 21st century, being a functional adult has now taken on a much more global meaning. It encompasses a number of characteristics, such as the following:

You have to be a lifelong learner, because stuff is just coming out at an impossible pace of innovation. Whatever you learned in the past I don't care where you learned it or when you learned it is obsolete in a terribly short time. Things that are written in books often turn out to be obsolete by the time they get printed. Equipment designed for educational settings, then marketed, sold, and installed, is often obsolete by the time that it gets installed. A classic example of that is high tech equipment in schools and universities. So you have to be able to stay on top of things and be comfortable with lifelong learning, and not view learning as a chore.

You have to be self-motivated in the 21st Century. You cannot rely on other people to give you a push. Which means that you have to be able to initiate your actions. You have to be able to do things and not wait for somebody else to organize things for you.

You have to be adaptable to rapid change. You can be a lifelong learner and still be stuck in a rut. You have to be ready for change. You have to think of change as something that's just a fact of life. One of the things that has happened in the 21st Century is that life-long careers are essentially a thing of the past. When I grew up, the only talk was of life-long careers. In fact, people who changed careers were viewed with great suspicion as people who didn't have direction or any clear idea of who they were. The assumption was that if you had a clear idea of who you were, you would know you were going to be that for the rest of your life, you would be defined by your career. There were very few exceptions. There was one well-known model of a person who changed career acceptably in mid-life, but that was considered special. I'm talking about Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer was an internationally renowned organist who in his 30's had a new calling, to become a missionary physician to Africans. So he dropped his performances and turned his back on his fame and went through medical school, after which he went to Africa and set up a clinic deep in the heartland. He was unquestionably a great person which is why he was accepted as an exception to the rule. He was not considered fickle because he changed out of lofty motives, so he could be forgiven for giving up music. But for ordinary people, going from one job to another was usually considered unbalanced and flighty. If you went to a company and tried to get hired, and your resume showed five different jobs, each lasting less than five years, the first thing a person would say is, "Why would we hire this guy? He is just going to jump ship. He has no direction." Today, almost the opposite is true. If you stay an executive assistant to the president in a company for 35 years, people are likely to think, "What is the matter with you? You've experienced no growth at all?"

Those are the essential components of what we mean when we say we strive for happiness. I'm sure you can come up with other things that I've missed, but I don't think you'll give me an argument that these components are essential and important in our eyes today for leading a life that we consider to be a happy life.

IV. Happiness and Schooling

How does all of this relate to the educational environment appropriate for our children? Let's consider each element.

Self-realization. What does it take to realize who you are? One of the key factors is patience. By patience I mean the willingness to give yourself time. Self-realization is something like ripening. It's not something that happens overnight, even for people who have a calling. Joan of Arc had a great revelation about her life, but it took a long time for that to develop into action. You have to be able to give children time. You can't push them. You have to let them go by their own clock. That requires patience, it requires standing back, it requires not saying, "You look like you haven't been doing very much for the last year or two years. Get a move-on." A year or two is no time at all. Look at the life expectancy today. We're not living in the 15th Century, when the life expectancy was 30 years. Today life expectancy is in the 70's. What's the rush?

Leading a meaningful life. To do this, one has to develop a sense of meaning, an understanding of how your life relates to the rest of the world. That involves two things. One has to do with developing a sense of values. What is it that other people value? What is it that society values? What is it that I value? How do these link together? How do I contribute to society? You develop a sense of values by interacting with other people in a value laden environment, where real questions of ethics and morals come up. Not fake questions, not role-playing questions, but the real questions of everyday life. "I've got a problem. These kids aren't playing with me. How do I cope with that? How do I get through to them?" Or, "What is more important in my life today, to do A or to do B?"

Another component of learning how to sense what's meaningful is learning to be sensitive to the emotions of the people around you and to the effect that you have on their lives. This is not really a verbal thing. You may be able to verbalize it later, but in order to forge a good relationship whether it's between spouses, or between parents and children, or between you and other people you have to be able to develop a sensitivity to what's going on inside them at a level of feeling that is pre-verbal. One mechanism for learning how to do that is through the arts, and it is a mechanism used by an overwhelming majority of free children. The arts are a way of relating to mood. Working with the arts freely develops a skill in understanding feelings your own, and others. And indeed, at Sudbury model schools, you see this involvement with the arts on all sides. Students are listening to music, performing together, discussing their musical loves. The same with the art. They're all doing art of one kind or another. They're drawing, they're scribbling, they're sculpting, they're photographing. And they're sharing this work with each other, encouraging each other, critiquing each other, doing all kinds of things with each other at a level that has nothing to do with art criticism; rather, it has to do with developing through art a meaningful relationship that transcends words.

Self-confidence is developed primarily through self-initiated activity. The most important thing about self-initiated activity is that it really be allowed to go along without being bothered by other people all the time. That's where we make our biggest mistakes, as parents, as adults. We see somebody start something and our instinct is to be helpful. Always to be helpful. "We don't intend any harm. We're on your side. Can't we support you in this?" I learned this lesson in a very amusing way with our first oldest child when he was about 8 years old. For over a year he had been passionately collecting rocks. He found rocks where you wouldn't even think rocks existed. He'd study them, wash them, compare them, look them up in books. We watched this, and we thought we'd do something really nice to help. So we bought him, unsolicited, a rock polisher. Isn't that a sweet thing for supportive parents to do?

He never touched a rock after that. He dropped his engagement with rocks completely. We had taken over his activity. Innocently, with the best of intentions. There's nothing more dangerous than a helpful adult to squelch self-initiated activity. It is the curse of modern pedagogy that teachers help motivate, seize teaching moments, and try to assist at every turn. By doing that, they rob children of the ability to self-initiate and to carry out an activity, and undermine their self-confidence in the process.

Empowerment. This implies political equality. That is essential in the environment in which kids grow up if you want them to feel empowered. Indeed, there is no reason for them not to be empowered, even though they rarely are. Kids are people just like us, and there's absolutely no justification for not treating them like anyone else.

Years ago, we were visited by the headmaster of a famous progressive school, which had a student council; the school prided itself on how it listened to students' opinions. He was a wonderful man and a fine educator. I'll never forget how we sat together in the waning hours of the day, and he turned to me and said, "You know, your school is really different from ours. We have a lot of student input, and a formal student council. But in the last analysis, I can veto anything that they say. Here, you can't do that, and that's a world of difference." He was visibly moved, and I was moved by his ability to look me in the eye and say that.

Empowerment means equality, empowerment means democracy and empowerment means mutual respect. That you simply respect each other as human beings, period. That does not exist in schools which don't have democracies. The minute I can say to a student, just because he's young, "You have to go to the other room because you did A, B and C," there's no equality, no respect, no democracy. I've taken away his power. If I say to him, "I don't like what you're doing," he should be able to say to me, "I don't think I'm doing anything wrong." And then we ask the people whom we, as a community, have chosen to judge these things, "Who is right?" That's empowerment; students who receive it at an early age will keep it until they're a ripe old ninety-five.

Independence. Earlier, I talked about the subtle interplay between individual independence and societal interdependence. I want to say a bit about the most powerful weapon that we all are endowed with for learning that balance between independence and interdependence: it's called talking. Talking and talking and more talking, which is what everybody does, adults and children, whenever they get a chance. Talking is what enables you to develop your thoughts even as you're bouncing them off everybody else's. As adults, if we want to make a decision about something, we not only look inside ourselves, but we consult with our friends, indeed with everybody we think we can benefit from. Are we losing our direction when we do that? Of course not. We're maneuvering the boundary between getting all the wisdom we can out of others while maintaining our personal course. Conversation is the best tool for learning how to be independent in an interdependent world. What do traditional schools tell kids all day when they're in school? Don't talk! They should be saying, "Talk all you want. It's your best teacher."

Just before the end of school, Sudbury Valley traditionally has a camping trip to a beautiful state park. A huge group goes out on a week-long trip. What amuses us is that when they go out there, they have a great time, but they come back exhausted. Why? Because they're up half the night talking. The reality is that there is never enough time for talking, that it's exhilarating to have conversations because they're your life-blood. That's where you develop that wonderful sense of how you fit into the whole scheme of things and yet remain who you really are.

Adaptability to rapid change is most compatible with a school where you don't stand in the way of children, because there's nothing that moves more rapidly than a community of people who are free to do what they want. Any community, but especially children, because children are fully alive. Kingdom of Childhood2 is based on long interviews with former students who reminisce about how they felt while they were at the school. In one of them there is a passage where an interviewee tells how he remembers being a young child and running around all day and having a wonderful time and just doing a million different activities. He recalled doing this with a sense of urgency, because he looked around and observed adults and he realized that it wasn't going to be long before he was going to be tired and slow, just like those adults, so he wanted to make the best of the time that he had. That's how you learn to adapt to rapid change!

In a nutshell, if you think about the pursuit of happiness and all this phrase signifies, you are almost forced into a Sudbury-model school.

V. Education

Let's return to where we started to the concept of education. How did people learn and impart knowledge throughout history? Mass schooling, after all, is something very new, barely 150 years old. They learned by growing up immersed in their culture. It's as simple as that. They were born, they ran around their village or their town, they grew up in extended families, and they received and imparted knowledge through direct contact with each other. That's the way adults still do it today, everywhere. We do most of our learning by just hanging out and doing things that we want to do and asking other people and reading books and immersing ourselves one way or another in whatever it is.

Throughout pre-historic and historic times, that worked really well. For the first million years or so of human evolution, nobody ever thought there was anything wrong with this picture. They knew that, just like adults, kids would naturally learn by immersion. It's sort of odd to even think otherwise, because if kids didn't learn by immersion, how would society have survived for a million years? How did anything ever get accomplished before schools? Most of culture was created long before mass formal education, through the natural transmission of knowledge and skills.

Fast forward to the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution hits its stride. What everybody sees in the Industrial Revolution is an opportunity to increase material prosperity and thereby enhance everybody's life. Survival had always been a touch-and-go thing throughout history just having enough to eat, to wear, to be protected from the elements. If we don't understand this, we can't understand the extent to which the Industrial Revolution created an opportunity to have things that were never dreamt of from the dawn of humanity. Now all of a sudden people can have lots of clothes because they can make clothes in big machines; they don't have to weave everything by hand. They can grow lots of food because they have enormous machines going up and down huge fields, not an ox holding a forked stick that makes a little indentation into the ground into which you throw a few seeds. Everything is transformed.

Now for Europe, this works well: you have machines, you have people manning the machines, no problem! They didn't know about liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So for them this was just a big new lease on life. When Europeans realized that what was happening was that huge numbers of their population were becoming cogs in the industrial machine, it wasn't anything out of the ordinary, because they hardly gave a thought to the individual human being. What they focused on was the good of the entire society, as they understood it, which meant becoming prosperous. The fact that individuals in the society had to be sacrificed for this good, well, what else is new? Individuals were always sacrificed for something for a king, a nobleman, somebody's war, some religious leader's idea of what the next generation should die for. So you become cogs in a machine, no big deal!

But for America it's a big deal! Americans aren't used to being cogs in a machine. They seek liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So it's no accident that the industrial revolution reached this country slowly. Even then, do you know where most of the money came for the Industrial Revolution in 19th century in America? Who had money in the 19th century to build railroads, factories, and all the tremendous infrastructure that's required for an the industrialized economy? Europeans! Europeans owned much of this country for most of the 19th century. I had a good laugh back in the '70s when the oil crisis first came and everybody was complaining, "The Arabs are going to take over this country with all their oil wealth." Then in the '80s it was the Japanese who were going to own us lock, stock, and barrel. The Arabs and the Japanese didn't own a fraction of what the Europeans owned back in the 19th century!

Then what happened was that we were caught in a vise, and people in the 19th century knew it. We sort of liked this new economy. We got a taste for the benefits that the industrial revolution brought, in a big way, because they are comfortable! It is more comfortable to have a bigger house, it is more comfortable to have more clothes, it is more comfortable to eat better, live longer, have sanitation, have all these things. You do live longer and better! No question about it! But we were caught in a dilemma, because in order to have these goodies, we had to have a society in which the vast majority of individuals serve as cogs in the industrial machine.

The reason human cogs were needed is simple: machines weren't smart during the 19th century, or even during the 20th century until the 1960s and '70s. In the '80s and '90s they rapidly got smarter, and by the time the year 2020 comes around they'll be really smart. But in the meantime, machines needed people to push them along.

This introduced a tremendous cultural problem for America, namely, how to limit liberty and the pursuit of happiness in order to promote the good life. This battle between individual realization and material prosperity tore America apart in the latter part of the 19th century and is still with us today.

Now you can see where education fits in. People understood that in order for the industrial system to work, it wasn't good enough to start with adults, because if you start with an adult who grew up the way American children grew up back then, you were in trouble. American children grew up to be pretty free and high spirited. You can't suddenly take such a kid and stick them in a factory and hope that everything will work out, because they are going to gum everything up. So people realized during the first half of the 19th century that for the Industrial Revolution to work here, you've got to make kids become cogs in the machine so that when they grow up to be adults, they will be used to it.

I want to tell you the flip side. In Brazil, there's a man by the name of Ricardo Semler who took over one of the largest production companies in Brazil (called Semco). He was a brash young guy who didn't like the feeling of being boss over a slew of obedient subordinates. So, over a period of a few years, he went about creating the first large democratic company in South America. He's told the story of this transformation in a gripping book called Maverick. He turned his organization into one where everybody had a right to participate in the way it was run. The workers met with each other and decided what to produce and how to produce it, what their salaries should be, what their hours should be, how they should relate to each other. It was a total revolution. The result was highly gratifying. Not only was the work environment transformed, but the company prospered more than ever.

Nevertheless, he soon discovered that he had a problem, namely, finding adults who could function in a free and democratic environment. People like that were rare, because the adults in general were the product of Brazil's schools, which carefully trained people to be cogs in the industrial machine! He had the worst time orienting his workers and getting them accustomed to this new kind of workplace. What he is starting to do now is to establish a school in which children are given freedom and responsibility.

The tension between individual freedom and industrial schooling is tremendous. You have all felt it, whether you're aware of it or not. We have recurring bouts in which the culture as a whole rebels in bizarre ways: the 1890s, the roaring '20s, the 1950s (when people became selfish by thinking about their own individual goals and their own interests), and of course the '60s. Often, this tension drives people to be self-destructive in their pursuit of happiness; they'll go to any lengths in that pursuit. They'll turn to alcohol, to drugs, to partying, to exotic alternative religions, whatever they can do to break out of this tension.

Historically, one thinks of the industrial revolution as a rapid transformation which it was, because it happened in just over a century. But the demise of the industrial age happened even more quickly. Information technology made the necessity for human cogs vanish. The reason for that is simple: anything repetitive and predictable can be done today with the aid of some kind of a computerized program. There is no need anymore for people to interact with machines as thoughtless workers. In addition, the information revolution created instantaneous global communication, so that the latest advances have been able to be spread worldwide basically instantaneously, and everybody can have access to them. It all happened within one generation, all over the world, even in those countries where liberty and the pursuit of happiness doesn't mean a thing. In fact, it's one of the reasons why the concepts of liberty and the pursuit of happiness are spreading throughout the world.

Thus, the whole raison d'etre of traditional schools has vanished. There's no point to them anymore. The need to take children, break their individual wills, and make them conform to a prescribed pattern that you've set for them is gone. It is no longer necessary to tell a child what to do any more than to tell adults what to do. The Founding Fathers tried to form a society of free and equal citizens. For a while, we went off track because of the needs of the industrial machine. But we're really only comfortable with the kind of society originally envisaged in the 18th century. That's what we're about.

We still have to have schools as safe environments for children. But we don't need schools in any sense of the term as it is commonly understood. We don't need compulsory classes, or a curriculum. That's prescriptive industrial age stuff. No one tolerates this as an adult, and it makes no sense for children.

Schools will probably eventually wither away. In the meantime, for safety reasons and because the adult world is still so crabby about children, we've got to create environments in which kids can grow up. The only environment that makes sense now is one where we treat them the way we treat adults where we let them be free, where we let them pursue happiness and give them liberty, where we let them figure out what they want to do, what their life dream is at any given age, whether they're 4 or 8 or 16, and where we treat them as equals. To the usual objection, "Don't young kids need to be given some guidance?" I say that if you take that logic, young adults should be getting guidance from senior citizens. That's not, of course, the way we work. An older, more experienced person doesn't have the right to treat a younger one with any less respect than anybody else. All ages deserve the same treatment and the same respect. Sudbury Valley School is that kind of environment, a community of people with aspirations that fit American ideals.


1. Once it was used here, where did it go immediately? To France! It was no accident that it went to France. They helped us with the Revolution. Imagine how stupidly the King of France acted! He sent over generals and soldiers to fight side by side with the Americans, who are running around talking about all this liberty stuff. France, the most autocratic country outside of Russia in all of Europe, the country where the King declared, in a notorious statement, "I am the state." Why did he send over his soldiers to fight here? He had no idea what the Revolution was about. He thought it was about kicking England in the butt, so he sent people over here to fight the English! By the way, that's one of the reasons we won the Revolution. It's doubtful whether we would have won it without the French. Then they all went back and made their own revolution. And what was the first word of their rallying cry? Liberty!

2. Sudbury Valley School Press; 1994.

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