Showing the World Who We Really Are

Michael Greenberg is a Sudbury Valley alumnus; Chicago Sudbury Valley School Assembly Member

Here are some of the things that have been crossing my mind as I try to think about what a Sudbury school is and how to attract people to the model.

For starters I must observe that the basic philosophical highlights of the school - Freedom, Democracy, Responsibility - do not resonate with most people as a desirable or workable educational system.

I have also noticed that the fears that these ideas generate in people are mostly immune to any logical argument on our behalf.

A lot of people seem to feel like this model of education would work only for a very special kind of person (not their "average kid" - of course!). We have always instinctively shied away from this, saying (and believing) that the school can work for almost anybody.

We feel that an inability to deal with the rigors of the school reflects some prior damage to the child from either another schooling experience or from an unsupportive home environment. Deep down, we think the model will work for any "normal," undamaged human being.

On the other hand, in apparent contradiction, we talk about how difficult this school really is: the struggle to find out what and who you want to be; taking total responsibility for yourself.

I think that this contradiction may be part of why we have such a hard time talking to the world about what we do.

I have been seeing the model more and more as a very rigorous type of education. Like many rigorous programs (West Point, Harvard) it has amazing results for those who are able to cut it. West Point expects people to wash out, but West Point is full and is respected as a way of educating certain people for a particular type of mental discipline.

A Sudbury education emphasizes a set of expected outcomes. It is a very useful set of traits, but not a set that I believe most people expect their children to fully possess.

What are they? Here's a partial list. It is in no particular order but numbered for convenience:

#1 Living an examined life.
#2 Taking full responsibility for your life - not blaming the world/others.
#3 Being law abiding - working within society's rules, or living outside them, but not breaking or ignoring them.
#4 Valuing experience over credentials - considering experts, grades, degrees, and official sanction to be without real merit on their own, and useful only when needed realistically to pursue one's goals.
#5 Believing that if you get your life right, the money and the good job will somehow materialize. This is a belief that is common to elites - not so common among regular folks.
#6 Rejecting violence as a means of problem solving.
#7 Embracing merit/Rejecting prejudice - not to be PC or pay lip service to "diversity," but because prejudice can mask merit.
#8 Wanting life to be fulfilling/meaningful/fun.

Wow! Look at that list! Not once did freedom or democracy come up explicitly. They are the "Means," the "Learning Environment," which produce the set of outcomes - a set of character traits that, as I look at it and think about it, essentially defines someone with a vested interest in our orderly society who feels that his needs can be met within that society even if he is on the fringe of its core values.

I think that Sudbury Valley trains people to think like members of the top elite. I'm talking way past the notion of money or power. I am talking about being a person who feels that the systems of our society fundamentally support his goals, actions and desires.

The traditional educational system tells the common student that he must crush a part of himself to find his place in a society that he must struggle to be a productive member of. The student is presumed to be, like the vast majority of people in any system, a follower, a person who should consider himself lucky to be a useful cog in the plan of someone who leads.

I would define a "Leader" as someone who leads, first and foremost, himself in his own life. He may also in the course of building his dreams and enterprises end up leading others.

A "Follower" feels hemmed in by societal constraints and immediately feels like he must make many concessions in order to survive.

A "Leader" realizes that life offers him a rich pallette of choices. He realizes that he will be required to work hard to achieve real results, and that both the work and the results should be fulfilling.

He accepts that compromise, failure, and things not going your way are an integral part of leadership, not exceptions to it. He has learned all this in the real experience of life at the school: in the School Meeting, in hours of conversation, in all the things he has tried to understand and master on his own.

It is only in the last few decades that our society may have become rich enough to turn everyone into a leader. Most adults still see themselves as followers. I think what we have seen in Sudbury Valley is that many children of the middle class have no difficulty in picturing themselves as leaders even if their parents don't share that confidence.

I always find myself flabbergasted by a parent who worries that his kid won't be able to support himself, won't be able to find a good job, in the richest country in history. I have never given my child's abilities in that department a moment's thought. I have always thought that such a parent is, well, weird, or at the very least horribly out of touch with modern economics.

Now I suddenly realize that they are the norm. I have been trained to think like an elite, a leader. And so was everyone I went to school with, except for the washouts who either didn't feel they could cut it, or had parents who freaked out or did not support them.

We all come into this world with unknown talents and intelligence. Then life happens. Habits of thought, styles of personal interaction, expectations and temperament all form early in life. Our school is not an easy place. It may be an impossible place for someone who does not believe in themselves.

Many, maybe most, parents do not really trust their children at the level that the school's philosophy requires to be fully supported at home. Surprisingly, in spite of this, many, maybe most, younger children have a shot at taking the good energy of early childhood's enormous learning experiences and succeeding at our rigorous program anyway. Heck, when you've just taught yourself how to walk, talk and make some sense of this big world, how hard can it be to make all your own choices about life all day long?

But I think that the older you get, the more you will be affected by doubts that your parents/friends have. As they mature, most children will have internalized a logic of self-doubt that makes the rigors of total personal responsibility almost impossible. We have watched new kids spend months or even years decompressing, getting rid of anger. That is a big thing, but it is not the powerful set of traits I discussed earlier. It is a prelude. Often, with parents who don't really believe in their child or in the school's philosophy, that is all that can happen.

We know from experience that only a tiny percentage of people who encounter the school or its ideas think it makes sense or has any relevance to them. Although our school has been very helpful for a broad range of desperate parents and their sometimes angry, damaged kids, the real core of the school is based on a group of healthy, positive parents who believe in their intelligent, hardworking, responsible kids.

They want their children to have rich, fulfilled lives. They have seen the magic in their child's soul and they want to see it flower. They cannot see it crushed.

Often, a person who is enlightened, who is in fact in the lucky vanguard of our society, will not use the word "elite" to describe their thinking or their position. "Elite" has overtones of power, wealth and snobbery. But, like the powerful and the rich, this person does not worry continuously about failure or about security, rather seeing life as an exciting adventure. This is an "elite" of a positive sort. This is us.

Traditional "elite" schools often cultivate a snobby, "rich" kind of image, the shallow and unsupported idea that having money in and of itself will qualify a person for something.

However, some "elite" schools cultivate the idea of excellence, merit and hard work.

Sudbury's idea has never had a connection with wealth either as a qualifier or as an objective of a meaningful life.

Excellence, merit and hard work are absolutely essential if you are not going to be bored out of your skull at a Sudbury school. And the worst part is that no one is even there to tell you which hard work to do! The hardest part is finding the work.

For the first time since I was a kid I am wondering if the description of freedom and democracy should come first, as the basis of a new person's exposure to the school, or should it be later on as the mechanics of how your kid will be put through an experience that will make them a powerful person. Maybe it is the powerful person that your kid will become that should be emphasized.

They will learn to think for themselves. To do intense analytical thinking. To deal with multiple viewpoints in subjective situations where there is no "truth." Along the way they will pick up reading, writing, basic math, an ability to make clear, logical arguments in matters of deep ethical complexity. They will learn how to find the information they need through multiple sources (internet, books, trial and error, talking to people who are in the field). They will learn how to set priorities and allocate resources. They will learn how to be useful to others and how to be responsible participants in a complex society. They will learn how to create, enforce and obey the rule of law in an environment with no tolerance for violence, theft or vandalism. At graduation, they will be adult in ways that most traditionally schooled students can never hope to be, as a reading of our graduation thesis defenses will immediately confirm.

They will possess the set of powerful character traits that the Sudbury system imbues in those who have spent sufficient time in the program. Above all, they will live an examined life that is fulfilling, meaningful and fun.

How will they learn this?

Through rigorous freedom. Through total personal responsibility. Through mandatory participation in the school's legal system as an investigator, judge and enforcer of a clearly written, sensible set of rules that are enacted, amended, or repealed by the same one person equal one vote democratic structure that runs the all of the school's day to day business. And through constant interaction with other students and with the exceptional adults who staff the school - adults who are chosen through a grueling process completely unlike the hiring procedures of any other school, ensuring a level of dedication that has no parallel.

And most of all they will learn it from deep inside themselves, in the place from which all true learning always comes.

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