The Simple Proposition that Underlies Sudbury Valley

Children Are People1

The Setting

My first memory of people being aware that there's some kind of a problem with education in this country dates back to 1956, when the Russians sent up the first earth-orbiting satellite. That event was really seminal for the United States. It shook people to the core. Among other things, it meant to everybody that our educational system had failed, because if it had succeeded, we would have been first to put a satellite up.

Back then we were told that the Russians produced 150,000 engineers a year, while our schools produced only 15,000. Right there you could see the failure of the educational system, because if ours was succeeding we would have produced a lot more. Imagine ten times more engineers a year! What staggeringly successful schools the Russians had! Nobody back then had a clue that Russia was actually a third-world country. That didn't come out until the 90's. Later on, it became clear that it was all a matter of terminology. Everybody who went to a vocational school in Russia was called an engineer when they got their diploma. It had nothing to do with getting a university engineering degree, but the people translating saw all these people as engineers!

So since 1956, we've been really worrying about our educational system and fiddling with it. One can marvel at this, because we're at it now for forty-five years and it's always the same refrain: things are bad, our kids aren't learning anything, the system is a failure, and we have to do something about it. Furthermore, the solution is always more of the same and that's a typical solution for all sorts of problems. The classic situation I always like to refer to is the First World War, which is not a very amusing model, where the war degenerated into virtually static trench warfare after about six weeks, just when everybody had hoped it would be over. People said, "Well, how do we win this war? We're doing everything we've done in the past and it's not working." The answer was, "Do more of the same." It's almost incredible when you look at it now. For four years the brightest people in the world on every side, Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany, France, Great Britain, the United States, the most advanced military thinkers, what were they doing during that whole period to win this intractable war? They were doing more of the same. In one fortress alone, Verdun, some million and a half people were killed and wounded battling for over a year. These figures are beyond comprehension. They were doing more of the same, which meant throwing more millions of young soldiers into the meat-grinder of trench warfare.

Here's another analogy. Suppose you see people suffering terribly from dysentery, an often fatal form of diarrhea, that usually comes from polluted water. You look at them and you say, "Why are they so sick? Well, it's because they're dehydrated. How do you cure them? Give them more water!" You put more water into them and they become sicker. Well, you say, "They're not drinking enough water, because they're still dehydrated." So you try to get them to drink more water maybe put a little flavoring into it to make it fun to drink. They drink more and more water and they keep getting sicker. So you've got to make them drink even more water: tie them down, and force them to drink more. No matter what you do, you keep thinking they're getting more dehydrated and that they therefore need more water. But the more they drink, the worse it gets.

How could something like that happen? Because in a situation like that, which strikes us as absurd, nobody stopped to ask what's really causing the dysentery. They're looking at the symptoms, but they aren't actually sitting back and asking, "Why is this happening? Is there something going on that's deeper?" In order to do that, you have to go back to basics, back to the original question of what causes dysentery and what causes disease. That's what we tried to do at Sudbury Valley. Instead of saying, "Education isn't working because the students aren't getting enough math, or English, or whatever," we sat back and asked, "What are schools about? Why do we have them at all? How do they fit into anything?" That's what I want to talk about here.

Why Do Schools Exist?

Schools are recent. That's so hard for us to remember. I'm talking about mass education, not specialized little schools where a few people in the population were taken and trained for special purposes. The idea that everybody should go to school is not even 200 years old, and it's Western. That means that a million years of evolution managed without schools. Think about it - the Roman Empire, the Egyptian pyramids, all the technological advances, all of modern science, all the inventiveness that created the Industrial Age - all that stuff and there were no schools! The whole progress of civilization for millennia! There are even some places today that still don't have schools.

So why do they exist? The answer for our culture is that schools are an environment in which children grow up to be effective adults. That's what they're here for. People decided somewhere about 200 years ago that they needed to create a special environment for children where they can grow to maturity.

What does this mean in practical terms? What does it mean to be an effective adult, what does it mean to be a child, and how do you get a child to be an effective adult?

An Adult Citizen in the Free West

The meaning of an effective adult very much depends on what culture you're talking about. It's very different in Saudi Arabia than it is here. We in this country have a very special idea of what effective adulthood is. The reason is that in this country adults are given a maximum amount of freedom. Here, the idea is that you start with the individual and you give them the maximum possible freedom to realize their dreams and their potential. The community and the government are seen as secondary features, there in order to support individuals and their activities. Our culture specifically focuses on individual realization, and we do not promote the submersion of the individual's dreams and aspirations to some great national or religious or ethnic ideal. So the idea of an effective adult in this country is a person who can handle this kind of freedom, a person who can function well in a society where individual realization is the thing that's primary. That in itself tells you something about what schooling should be like in this country, as we'll see.

Such a society is based on a tremendous trust in human nature, to an extent that is truly staggering. You see that when you come into contact with people of other cultures. I remember when Russian immigrants started pouring into this country in the seventies, by the thousands. Over and over again, when you met these people, they simply couldn't believe our supermarkets! They couldn't believe that you could walk through a store with a carriage and pick things off the shelf and put it in your carriage and check out all without a hundred people watching you all the time. Their reaction was, "In Russia, if there was a store like this, it would be robbed blind within one day!" One couldn't just walk up to the shelves in a Russian supermarket. But our whole culture is based on trust. Sure, there are a lot of people who violate it, people who steal, people who cheat, but we factor that in and accept it as a cost of our culture. We would rather hold to freedom and trust.

The question is, "Why does it make sense to create a society with such freedom and trust?" The answer is that we have culture-specific notions of what adults are like. For example, let's assume we all thought that adults can't learn how to tie their shoes. This is trivial, but it illustrates the point. Then we would either create a society in which we had helpers standing by who were trained to tie shoes and helped every single adult in the morning, or we would create shoes that don't have laces, that worked on velcro. In other words, there's a relationship between what we think of adults and the concept of how an adult functions. What I'm going to do is list six characteristics that we associate with adults in our culture. The number six has no magic to it. There are six that I happened to come up with, and I just want to list them and talk about them briefly, because it is these characteristics of adulthood that lead us to believe that it makes sense to trust people and to create a society that glorifies individual freedom.

(1) Adults are self-motivated self-starters. That's what we expect adults to be: people who get themselves up in the morning, who go out and find jobs, who receive an assignment at work and proceed to carry it out under their own steam. We don't expect adults in this society to be sitting with their hands folded in the morning waiting for somebody to contact them on the phone or on their TV screen in their bedroom and say, "Good morning. Now you are to get up, brush your teeth, go here . . ." We expect adults to be able to conduct their own lives, to manage their own order of the day and so forth on their own. That's a big expectation. It reflects our belief that it's human nature to behave this way, not something superimposed from the outside. We actually believe that the standard, normal condition of people, when they're grown up, is to get up and do things. You're expected to be able to keep yourself busy, and you expect other people to be the same.

(2) Adults are responsible. This means they're capable of taking on a task, or engaging in some activity, and understanding the consequences of their actions. We don't feel we have to walk over to each other and say, "You know, you shouldn't be drinking that much milk because if you do, you're not really getting the proper nutrition. You should eat this or that instead." We might ask each other for advice, but we expect people on their own to comprehend the outcomes of their actions and to be accountable for them. Our whole system of law is based on that notion that if you do something, you do it with knowledge and you should have an understanding of where it's going to lead. If you decide to rob a bank, that's your decision, and you suffer the consequences of what you've done. As an adult, you can be held to that.

(3) Adults have judgement. They can evaluate on their own, they can prioritize. To be sure, we're all out there preaching what we think is good and bad; we're telling our neighbors, we're telling our friends, we're joining groups, clubs, and so forth. But we're doing that because we want them to internalize those values for themselves. Underlying the whole enterprise of telling other people our ideas is the notion that every individual has judgement, and that we're trying to get them to exercise their judgement in ways that we approve. This essay I have written is a perfect example. I think every reader has judgement. I'm giving you my spiel, I'm telling you how I see things, but I'm not telling you you've got to see them this way. I'm assuming that you have your own judgement, that you're going to read this and that some of you are going to say this is a lot of baloney, some are going to say part of it makes sense, and some are going to say it all makes sense!

(4) Adults know how to learn. This is an important characteristic. Our society cuts off formal schooling at a certain point: at sixteen by law, at eighteen for high school graduates, at twenty-two for people who go to college, and older for people who insist on being graduate students. But at some stage our assumption is, "You're an adult, you know how to learn on your own from now on." In fact, what do we do in our adult lives when we want to learn something? We figure out how to learn it! If we didn't think adults could do that, we'd say everybody has to go to school all their lives! Instead, what we say is, "You have the tools, you have the capacity to learn, and somehow you can figure out how to do it. You can either get the information yourself, or you can find experts, or you can go to the web, or to libraries you figure it out." As an adult, once you're cast free of the school system, you are assumed to be able to learn all of the skills and information that you need all your life.

(5) Adults are problem solvers. We assume that when you come up against something in your life that's stumping you, you're going to figure out a way to get over it. Of course, there are times when you have trouble solving your problems. But part of knowing how to solve problems is knowing how to get help, and we assume that's something adults can do. We don't walk up to people and say, "I'm going to put you through a series of evaluations to find out what your problems are, and then I'm going to tell you how to go about solving them." We assume that adults are problem solvers and they're going to figure things out, and that if they have trouble figuring things out, one way they'll go about it is to seek help, which itself is a part of problem solving.

(6) Adults are social. I use that term in the broadest sense, meaning that they know how to communicate with people, they know how to relate to people, and they've figured out how to conduct themselves within the framework of a larger society. We assume that adults are able to carry on interactions with other adults that will create stable relationships and a stable community. We assume that adults are capable on their own of figuring out how to find a common language with each other, and how to behave in a social setting.


1. This article is based on a talk delivered at the Chicago Sudbury School on May 5, 2001.

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