Thoughts of a Liberty Valley School Co-Founder about his Sudbury Valley School Education1
Founding a Sudbury School
Setting up a school means going through a year and a half of meetings, where you're trying to educate people to the model who don't know anything about it, and you try to get things going. You have to meet several times a week with people, and research all the codes in your area, you have to find a site and get some initial financing together. It's grueling. You could have a group for several years without necessarily having a school. I wasn't ready to sit in a group for years without having a school. I was ready to come to the aid of the school and be a presence there and have my kid at a school, but I wasn't necessarily ready to spend years of meeting once a week for something that might not even happen for years.
Luckily, the two founders of Liberty Valley School were really goal oriented in terms of actually getting the school itself off the ground quickly. They were determined to do it one way or another, and they had a community just big enough to make it feasible. I think the school actually opened with thirteen kids, which is pretty good; some of the schools have opened with less. I think a school that only opens with four kids has a really low probability of survival. It's like opening a grocery store with only one shelf of food. You might make it, but that's just a real uphill battle right from the get-go. So this school started with just enough of a critical mass, because I knew, as well as anyone who's ever studied these schools knows, that a whole bunch of people are going to leave in the first year, probably more would leave than would actually come in. During your first year, you might attract one or two new people, but then five or ten are going to leave. I knew from talking to people at the meetings that a whole bunch of them hadn't actually grasped what the practical aspect of the school was going to be. I was the only one who had been to a school like that, so I knew that freedom didn't mean that kids stopped being mean to each other all the time. I knew that freedom didn't mean that everyone was everybody's friend. I knew freedom sometimes meant the opposite, that sometimes people would be more likely, not necessarily to be mean, but to do their own thing, with or without regard to whether it suits the other person or not. For example, if you're playing a game with someone and you enjoy that person's company, there's less inhibiting you from just continuing; you're not under obligation to include everybody in your game.
Certain people think that freedom is going to lead to "the lion lies down with the lamb," or something. Somehow they don't get that freedom means the lion eats the lamb, in Nature's version of freedom. It's only people who are vegetarians, it's only idealistic people, who think that there's a reason not to eat meat when you can kill it. In Nature you go on a killing spree and nothing stops you. So for certain people there's this idea that with freedom, kids will all play together and never criticize each other, and that adult notions of good behavior will somehow prevail. I don't know where they get that idea, that a certain decorum and volume level will be the natural free choice of children. In fact, the natural free choice of children is rowdiness, and loudness, and exuberance, tumbling all over stuff, and using every word, especially the words that were forbidden to you before, as much as they can, as part of an expression of that freedom.
The adults involved had to know what's important about freedom. Some of them had a firm grasp of the implications of the philosophy and were comfortable with realizing what the beast was going to be once it was unchained. Whereas other people who were involved in the founding group didn't necessarily share that same understanding. They had a more idealized version of what people actually act like when they're free to act however they want, and they weren't that comfortable with it when they saw it. For instance, they didn't like being voted down in School Meeting. They didn't think of the obvious things, like, in a democracy, the majority wins, whether right or wrong. They didn't like being right but losing. You're not right if you lost in a democracy; you might be right in theory, but it doesn't really matter. In other words, it doesn't necessarily matter what, in a rational sense, might seem right or wrong to one person. What matters is what the majority of people see as right or wrong.
Every democracy has the potential to be a tyranny of the majority. The best protection for minority rights is that the same rule applies to everybody. In other words, you're not going to have a rule that says just people with red hair can't go on the playground, thereby depriving any person with red hair of their rights. There might be a rule no one can go on the playground, or there might be a rule everyone can go on the playground. It's one thing if there's a rule that says everyone can't do something; you can't honestly say that you're being singled out as a minority for some kind of punishment, because everybody is abiding by the same rule.
I wasn't going to become a staff the first year; I was just going to send my daughter, except Melissa Bradford said, "It would be really helpful if you came on School Meeting days, just one day a week, if you can, on Thursdays." The more I thought about it, the more I understood what she was talking about, because the more I talked to the people in the founding group, the more I realized that none of them had any experience in the model, not as adults, and certainly not as kids. So I realized maybe I should really be there for the School Meeting, to talk about certain things.
One of the things I talked about (this doesn't follow necessarily logically from anything, but it makes a lot of sense) is that when you're in a position to make and repeal rules on a weekly basis at a School Meeting, you have to get a sense of what rules are. One of my "rules about rules" that I put out there every time it came up at School Meeting is that you should only make the minimum amount of rules you need. That's not obvious, because look at our government! In a bureaucracy, rules tend to expand exponentially; the more people there are available to make rules, the more rules you get. Our rule was always, "Don't make a rule if you don't need it." So even though there might not be anything wrong with saying nobody should go on the roof and have a party, there isn't a specific rule against it in the rule book until it's needed. Someone could actually go up there and do that. Now if after that happened, some people said, "Well, we need a rule against that," then you can say, "Now there's a logic to needing a rule against that: somebody actually did it!" But the idea is, don't make a zillion rules about what people might do. Worry about what people actually do, and then if behavior spins to a certain place that people are uncomfortable with, you can impose certain kinds of restrictions that will make sense, because they reflect reality, not just every possible fear every single person might have. If you keep the rules to the minimum you actually require in your type of society, that helps.
The same way you make the minimum number of rules, you try to make the rule itself as tailored to its job as you can. There's a big difference between saying to someone that you can use the internet but please don't visit the pornographic sites, and saying you can't use the internet at all, or you can only use it for approved sites. Those are very different kinds of things to say.
Justifying New Rules
A justification for safety is safety. The problem is people use that as a justification for every kind of gross restriction on activity. For me a justification for safety is, if you have a woodworking workshop and you have a table saw, you should require that people know how to use it, and then only those who have been instructed in its safe use have a right to use it. But then you should offer that instruction for safety freely, and not necessarily judge that because someone is ten they won't be able to use the saw safely. In other words, it's reasonable to be worried about the use of a table saw, but it's not reasonable (to my way of thinking, and I think to the school's general philosophy) to say flat out that a ten-year-old would not be able to master that. I would say if a ten-year-old is physically able to be taught, is tall enough to get on top of the thing and hold a piece of wood, has been instructed in the use of a table saw, is certified and knows the risks, then s/he has just as much a chance of operating it safely as anybody else does. There's no a priori reason to say they're going to be more likely to have an accident than an adult, especially when you know that all around the world adults chop their finger off with table saws. They're dangerous. Trained wood-workers often have joints missing, because they work with saws all the time, they expose themselves to these risks all the time, they take their chances, and they pay with their fingers. Mistakes are going to happen. My attitude is, if a mistake happened like that I'd be horrified, but I'd also say "look, professionals cut themselves too."
Safety is the biggest justification for any rule, and the only one that really stands out beside safety is protection of the other. Which is to say that one person's enjoyment of their freedom should not hinder or destroy another person's enjoyment of their freedom. That's where I think of minority rights getting protected. For instance, my rights as a lone person to do an activity. If I set up an activity at a table, just because a whole bunch of people come into the room after me and are engaged in another activity, that doesn't make my activity untenable. So there are rules about the use of space that basically mandate some kind of coexistence and realization that everybody has a right to their freedom. For example, there are rules about quiet zones, because for a lot of people reading a book, especially a deep book, is hard, if not impossible, to do with a lot of noise around. Where the physical circumstances permit, most schools have some kind of rule that says if a person wants to read here, please make this a reading zone. That's saying, "Look, I'm one person reading, but I have a right to have my activity as much as six people wrestling do." To me that's an essential minority right. If I'm always going to be at the mercy of the biggest, loudest group, how can I assure my own freedom? So there's a principle that says your freedom shouldn't impinge on other people's freedoms, and that these things have to be divided in a way that every one is aware of and the majority can agree to.
Also, there's a rule in almost every school that says that, as a precondition to being able to enjoy themselves and their freedom, every person has a right to exist without harassment. Now, harassment is a very difficult thing to define. The person who gets harassed more or less is in charge of defining what harassment is. One criterion is having given someone fair warning. If you're in the middle of a fight with someone where you're giving as good as you get, you can't suddenly turn around and accuse them of harassing you, necessarily. If you're choosing to be in a conversation with someone that involves calling each other names, or "dissing" each other, you're choosing to be in that dialogue, nobody's forcing you to do that. What you're supposed to do if you don't want to continue to be in that dialogue, is that when the other person comes at you with something that you feel is a harassment or some kind of hurt, that's the point at which you say, right off the bat, "Don't keep calling me that. From now on, I'm viewing that as a form of harassment." You're basically putting them on notice and saying, "You do that again and I'm going to write you up under the harassment rule." If they continue to do that, you can write them up.
Situationally, two people can do a lot that's totally consensual, even to the exchange of light blows (such as good-natured rough-housing). If two people are rough-housing on the ground for fun, because both feel like a rough & tumble, and one elbows the other in the mouth in a way that was not intentional, but was a function of two people tangling with each other, what is that? Is that really one person's fault, or just two people engaged in consensual rough play? In such a situation, I'm less likely to feel that you were abusing that other person's rights. You were both within your rights of engaging in the activity in the first place, and one person's elbow happened to end up in the other's mouth. It's the same thing with name calling. Two people can be totally slamming each other to pieces and be totally friends about it. Another person may be very sensitive to that and may not want to participate in that. It's very much defined by the person who feels like a particular thing was an encroachment, and they basically define it by putting the other person on notice: "I'm just not in the mood for this today." It's not even consistent with the same person day after day. I may not be in the mood for this today, and I might say, "Look, I'm burnt, don't bug me, if you bug me I'm going to have to write you up." The next day I might be in a totally great mood and say, "Let's run around and chase each other and call each other names." It's not a hard and fixed rule governing actions, it's about interactions, which makes it much more complicated. It's about the relationships and the people in it. It's very liberal in that it presupposes that people have a broad range of ways of behaving to each other, that for one group of people may be totally acceptable, for another group might not. Or for one individual, one day it might be fine, and another day it might not. The key has to do with people who feel aggrieved giving adequate notice to the aggriever that this is a behavior pattern that must stop, or else consequences will occur.
There are other rules about property; you're not supposed to use other people's property without permission. Stealing isn't something everyone has to be on notice for. If you eat my lunch, I don't have to warn you that eating my lunch is theft, and that you are severely reducing my chances of enjoying my freedom by taking my food away. That's already assumed to be common knowledge. So you don't get warning for theft. Theft is theft. You don't get a warning for certain kinds of really outrageous behavior that the community can agree are behaviors that you don't have to be put on notice for. No one likes a sock in the jaw. There are behaviors that are obviously not in keeping with any kind of consensual activity.
For example, if two teenagers want to have sex, they're not allowed to do that at school. There's a couple of different justifications, and again you really have to be careful how you define sex. I'm defining it as something that's really private. For instance, where does kissing turn into making out? And where does making out turn into sex? Two people may be allowed to kiss each other, even on the lips, because all kinds of affectionate behavior are displayed at school. People do hug each other. People give each other reassuring pats on the back. People might massage each other's backs or shoulders. Part of what the school's freedom is about is maintaining people's ability to actually be warm to each other. So that's a different line to draw. This is where you take a cue from general society to a certain degree. There's a whole range of human activities that are defined in our American society at this point as fundamentally private, such as going to the bathroom, or being completely naked, or bathing yourself. And a certain class of sexual activities, that involve not necessarily solely flesh, but a certain level of passion. There's a certain class of things a person doesn't do in public pretty much anywhere in this country. The same applies at school, because those are more about social norms than freedoms. Certain other social norms you define at school by consensus, or by what people can put up with. Like norms about language for instance, which are much more flexible at school than in the outside world. In the outside world there's an adult consensus that children should never swear. Similarly, we're not a nudist culture. We're all born with a body; we choose to clothe it. Then there are all kinds of exceptions, like a naked baby is not offensive to anyone. There's no real reason that a naked baby is any less offensive than a naked adult as far as I'm concerned. It's just that we live in a culture that says basically that after the age of innocence is over, the age of nakedness is over. So a two year old naked is not offensive, a five year old naked is, per our society. I think in that sense the schools just reflect the societies they're in. I'm sure for instance if a school like this were in a nudist colony, everybody would be running around nude. If a school like this were in the African plains where traditionally men just wore a loin cloth, that even might not even be that concealing, and women went around totally topless, I wouldn't see why citizens of a school like that would choose to impose any different rule on themselves in school. Those things tend to transfer down just as social communal norms.
With language, for instance, it also depends on whether the norms are hypocritical or not. When you talk about protecting minority rights, children are probably the most abused minority in our entire culture because anyone under eighteen seems to be exempt from any advance in social justice that everybody who's over eighteen has achieved. Like freedom of speech, for starters. This is an idea that goes back to the beginning of the country, that's been defended again and again. One of the places where this whole notion of what kids can and cannot say, what they are supposed to and not supposed to talk about or think about, is this weirdly hypocritical idea of what constitutes an adult subject. I've just never understood it. As a kid who grew up in SVS, I feel that you're as adult as you want to be, and no one can seriously argue that anybody who's gone through puberty isn't ready to think about sex. That's all they're thinking about half the time. How can we say that sexual issues shouldn't be discussed with children, with teenagers certainly? They're sexual beings. Whether we think it's wise for them to actually have sex or not, whether we want them pregnant or not, those are all separate issues. Certainly they're thinking about it constantly, and they deserve an education in it, and a free discussion of it. To pretend to be different than that in a free school is untenable, because that's not a cultural norm that stands up to examination, from a kid's point of view. Kids in our culture are comfortable with our culture's lack of public sex, and they're comfortable with our culture's lack of nudity, or public urination and defecation. They are not comfortable with being told they can't participate in a discussion about their own sexuality. They feel like their bodies belong to them, and that these things are open for discussion. So the point is, in terms of talking about it, freedom is there. In terms of actually doing it right at the school, no.
The school is probably one of the few environments in which, let's say, a couple of teenagers having sex wouldn't necessarily feel that it was something they couldn't discuss with someone at school, even an adult. Although, in a lot of places, it would be considered an automatic obligation for the adult to tell the parent; that response wouldn't exist at a school like ours. I would feel like that's a private thing they told me. If they want to discuss that with their parents, that's up to their relationship with their parents. Just like I wouldn't run off and tell anybody if an adult told me they were having sex with someone. I'd figure, if they want to tell someone else, that's their private thing. If you're married you're public about it. If you're living with someone, you're making a public declaration. If you're private, that's your privacy, and you deserve your privacy.
I think that Sudbury schools allow smoking because they believe that people in general have to make their own decisions. It's one thing to make an uninformed decision to start smoking and have no clue about the fact that smoking might give you cancer. But if you know that smoking is likely to lead to lung complications, then . . . I know, for instance, that getting into a car can lead to my death. Now, I don't smoke, but I do choose to drive an automobile. And I don't care how many statistics I hear about road safety, I need to drive to work.
You might say that people should be allowed to go up on the roof, despite the danger of falling. The difference between going on the roof and smoking is that the roof isn't designed for people to be on it. That's where the notion of risk comes in. It's what's an acceptable versus an unacceptable risk. I could smoke for a year or two for instance, and quit and really have negligible effects. I've seen people quit who smoked for twenty years, and by quitting immediately help their health an enormous amount. Even people who are adamant about the risks of smoking would acknowledge that if someone could limit their addiction to a couple of years of their life, they'd really suffer no huge amount of ill health. Just like people say, I know people get killed on the road, but I'm going to drive to work. No one thinks before they step out of their door, this is the day I'm going to get plowed into by a truck, or they wouldn't get out of bed. But people get plowed into by trucks anyway. We've accepted certain levels of risk to get certain things done. Smokers get pleasure out of smoking, and stress relief, and other things that are tangible benefits to them; obviously plus they're addicted. It's almost like they're saying, "Smoking's good for me. It takes the stress out, it makes me less nervous." Well, stress and nervousness are not great for you either, so who's to judge?
I think you have to assess your own risks, and decide: "Am I getting into a car today? Am I flying on a plane? Am I going by train? Am I putting this food in my mouth that is bad for me?" If you start to ban smoking, you might as well take bacon off the market. Everything can kill you. It's one thing to do something that clearly, in the short run, with very low exposures, has a very high risk of doing something bad for you. That to me is the difference between the roof and cigarettes. Tree climbing, on the other hand, is something that even risk-averse people would say kids have some kind of right to do. It's almost something that only kids do. Kids seem to love it. And sure, people fall out of trees, people hurt themselves, and yet we consider that climbing a tree is just something people are going to do when they're kids.
I belong to the camp that says, unless you've got a really strong reason to restrict, you shouldn't restrict. A lot of my attitude involves my notion of what's fair in a rule. Most societies that aren't police states, which is to say most democracies (and very few schools, because most schools are run as police states) run on the notion that the way you get laws to be abided by is to have the people who are subject to them agree to their basic fairness. For example, most people in regular society understand that the state has a right to license you to drive. Letting just anybody drive (drivers who didn't understand the rules of the road, or drivers who repeatedly violated those rules) would be a much more serious community hazard than giving away your individual right. In other words, we've said that it's ok for the state to license us to drive, because the notion of anybody driving, regardless of their safety record or anything, is more terrifying than giving away to the state your personal right to drive. If things like that weren't in widespread agreement, there'd be no way for the government to enforce them. People have to agree to a law, unless you're in a police state, where they're willing to come in with guns and just shoot everyone on site; then, people think twice.
For most traditional schools, there's clearly nobody thinking about the fundamental right of each student's freedom before imposing all their rules. A lot of the rules about dress codes are complete impositions on freedom of expression that have only the merest glimmer of a pretense of why they're necessary. It's just about control. These rules are not considered fair by the students; as much as students can get away with not abiding by rules, they'll do so almost as a matter of principle, to declare their freedom. Whereas if you have a school in which all the rules are agreed upon, and where it's clear that rules only exist after careful discussion of whether this rule is needed; see, that's key too. The rules in the school are arrived at after debate, which weighs conflicting freedoms. There's a big difference in that type of atmosphere, because you're more likely to abide by a rule if you realize people discussed it, they weighed it, there are reasons for it. You might re-debate the rule, but the notion that the rule is fair and just is the reason why kids for the most part abide by them.
What Kids Talk about at a Sudbury School
One of the things that kids talk about a lot is notions of justice. This is an area where kids talk in a meaningful way about something that's about them. It's one of the topics that really infuses people's conversations, especially on School Meeting day, but often in the wake of controversial judicial proceedings as well. They are intense, very deep discussions, in which everybody seems to have an opinion, from the oldest to the youngest, about fairness, about one person's freedom versus another person's freedom, different kinds of freedom in collision. These are rights in opposition, which is the hardest kind of rights to decipher. There's tons of talking about those kinds of subjects, because you have the power to change things and it's right there in your life, it's affecting you every day. You have tremendous personal power. Even for people who would never describe themselves as being political, when it's part of their life, and it's affecting their behavior, it's hugely compelling.
Even when you're discussing trivial things, the concepts that come into play are always heady concepts. People who have no vocabulary for discussing philosophical concepts have totally intuitive philosophical precepts. They draw analogies that you might not agree with; they'll say this situation is just like that other situation, and you might see a thousand places where those situations diverge which makes one ok and the other not, but they're drawing parallels. You'll say, "Why do you think those are alike?" And they'll answer, "Because of this, this, and that," and they'll find the parallels between those two things. And you might say, "Except that so-and-so agreed last time, and this time they didn't." And they'll answer, "Oh yeah, but still, that wasn't the important part of it." So even people who don't have the vocabulary to discuss on a philosophical level, talk at their level of their intuition of what's right and wrong, using philosophical constructs without the words.
Why People Talk
When you're in a situation where you can do anything you want with your day, the fact is that most of what people do involves talking. I'd say the number one activity, that everybody participates in, is talking. Because talking kicks everything else's ass. Think about the mediums of expression and you'll see why kids talk. There are three modes of expression that tumble out of the human brain, unbidden: decorating, music, and communicating (reading, email, pop media, and especially talking). It's just part of who we are. The rest is technology. Music and painting are emotion based, but talking is more specific. Writing and reading are just representations of talk, they're not their own language in any really meaningful way, they're ways of representing sounds we make, words we say, and putting them in another medium where they can be picked up and manipulated, and re-created into talk. There's a whole host of specific detailed thoughts, states of mind, arguments, that can really only be made in language, and talking is the first form of language, it's the part that's the quickest, the most interactive. Having a conversation with someone is much more dynamic and flexible than a one-way street like reading. Reading is a lot like watching a movie or tv. An interaction with a person is going to be so much more charged with possibilities for learning than in an interaction with a book. In a conversation, two people who talk to each other change as a result of that conversation. Talking is still the most engaging and visceral thing that people do when it comes to exchanging the content of their mind. The act of the conversation is as important as the conversation itself; it's places you go with another person as the conversation turns from light things to heavy things, humor to sadness, from the personal to the general. And there's also this particularly human thing of trusting the person you are face to face with more than a person with whom you are interacting at a distance.
There's a close relationship between talking and thinking. Your own brain is in a flow that's very much like a conversation. Who you are, and who you become over the years of being yourself, has on a certain grand scale a lot of the same elements as a long deep conversation. It's got its unpredictable ebbs and flows, its odd little moments of pure bliss, its sudden sharp turns into despair, its unraveling in no particular order. The character of it is its own definition. How you talk and who you are are very much connected together somehow; you can't just separate one from the other without a feeling of falseness, or a feeling of being removed.
People want to learn how to do analytical thought, certainly. People realize the value of being able to look at something and understand it in an analytical way. But people also realize that a much more important kind of analysis is the kind of analysis that takes place in the moment. The ability to talk about something, sort it out in that moment, make some connections, put your arguments out there, listen to what other people say, integrate that, reformulate your own thinking, is a critical thinking skill which everybody needs. Everybody needs to make sense out of their own tumbling thoughts about something in order to tell another person about it, and then be able to understand that, in that moment, someone's going to improvise their own response to those thoughts, and you have to be able to improvise right back. The whole thing has to have a certain clarity for you to be effective in relating to other people. It really doesn't matter whether you know you're right or not; if you can't explain it to another person, you're just whistling in the dark. The ability to explain it to another person is the ability to be in the world. It's so odd to me how absent that is from general education. To me it seems that in every situation in life, the thing you're constantly faced with is that improvisational quality of thought. These are processes that you have to thoroughly comfortable with, to do in the moment. The saddest thing to me is inarticulate people.
I think it is all rooted in the fact that man is a social animal. Almost anything meaningful you can get done in the world is done in the company of others. You can do a lot of things by yourself, but they rarely have meaning until others encounter them. The notion of meaning for people comes out of their existence within a group. The whole gist of human experience at every level seems to be that someone has an idea, and someone else wants to modify it, and someone else wants to modify the modification, and it's an endless modification of things to the point where the original idea hardly matters. It's all the modifications and their agreed upon outcome that matters. That's what a conversation is essentially. For kids, being able to converse is almost like having a vocabulary of concepts, rather than a vocabulary of words. It's knowing how to argue, knowing how to say something in a way that makes sense to another person, and then realizing what they're saying to you, and being able to build an instant framework back to them, a bridge back.
A free school is such a good environment for learning this kind of thinking. Because it's one of those things where only practice works. You can't write a book that tells someone how to converse. The only school for conversation is conversation. It's one thing to not be able to grasp a deeply scientific concept, and it's another thing to not be able to grasp certain cultural precepts that are all around us, that need to be grasped in a more immediate way, using language on levels people understand. Saying something is only as good as the person listening can make it work.
Conversation and Empowerment
[Q. - This goes into a neat area, because they say "equal votes" - adults and kids are equal. But the power at the school is going to be different for each person.]
Exactly. This is a huge motivator for learning how to converse, because a lot of your power resides in how effective a communicator you are.
[Q. - This breaks away from the notion of an ideal democracy where people do vote on ideas, and not because of their political affiliations.]
That's not a human democracy. I always maintain that for any system to have any meaning or content it has to include human beings in it. In a compassionate society, you can't always go by what's right and wrong. The degree to which politics is personality in the real world, in our democracy, or in any democracy, is the degree to which it's also personality at a school. You don't pick a leader, in a democracy, based just on their positions on all the issues. There's a lot of reasons to vote for something, and one shouldn't be so quick to judge other people's reasons for voting.
[Q. - If it's ok for people to vote for whatever reason, and whatever their maturity level, what does that say about how we decide an age for people to vote? Should it be moved down? Should children be included?]
The history of the vote has been the ever broadening expansion of the franchise. It went from white men, to white and black men, to women; from property owners to non property owners; from people who were 21 and up, to 18 and up. The franchise has been expanded as people have found less and less reasons for denying a certain group of people a voice. I think that age is the last arbitrary division we make in our society of a group of disenfranchised people. We've managed to find a way to include both genders and all races, which is a nice big step, and yet for some reason we manage to exclude everyone who happens to not be eighteen. Is it any more logical? You might as well say women can't vote because they have periods, which is what people used to say: "They'll be all hormonal when the vote comes." Why should a completely senile person of ninety be trusted with the vote, while a perfectly acute fifteen-year-old can't execute? There's no logic to it.
The logic behind the school saying four-year-olds and up can enroll is that four seems to be the youngest age at which someone can be reasonably be expected to talk, walk, and reason enough to be able to be responsible for themselves, in the sense of if they did a bad thing, they could figure out that it was a bad thing. You can explain a moral framework, because there are some language skills there. So I'd locate it somewhere between 3, 4, and 5 years old, when a person is linguistically capable of making the kind of decisions that anybody makes, to a certain degree.
A lot of what goes on in democracies is not rational. It's emotional, it's tied to names, and labels, and hot button issues. And to expect a school that's democratic to be any different is crazy. There's always going to be personality, politics is personality, and there's nothing more political than a democratic system.
Being a Role Model for Constructing Reasoned Arguments
I know I have a high level of trust at this school. Part of that comes from my continuous defense of people. I have a tendency to take the outer philosophical view and always defend the rights of people. So I think people realize I would defend that right whether it went against me or not, and that I'm responding from a broader philosophical point, and not just out of anger about a particular issue. That's part of trust building. They see the way a lot of people at school communicate, and they choose to model themselves on people whom they admire, or whose communication they admire. For instance, if you notice that fair people tend to take a broader view (in other words, not just their own personal interest of the moment, but the broader philosophical view) and that people who are just trying to get their own little thing across tend to jump on whatever works for that moment, you're going to start to make the jump in your own speech of realizing that if you start to frame things in a broad view and not just in your personal opinion at the moment, that it's going to be a stronger point of view. People are going to respect that, so it changes the whole nature of your speech and the way you frame your arguments. It's a common thing to hear older kids at school saying, "I realize that in order to get people to accept what I was saying, I have to back it up."
Kids throughout the school of all ages have already taken a tremendous journey in just the way they speak, because they've understood that just thinking something and feeling it is not nearly as persuasive as being able to explain to another person a chain of things that might make them agree with you. So they've all become much more persuasive, which is a key skill of talking, and they've all become much more adept at listening to the other person.
So what you end up with over time is a whole lot of very good things happening. One is the realization that different people have really different ways of saying things and receiving things, and that if you're going to have meaningful conversations and really learn from different kinds of people and explain things to different kinds of people, you have to adopt a really broad pallet of acceptable discourse. You have to get past inarticulateness, you have to realize the essence of what they are saying. People sharpen their skills in all directions by realizing that you're going to miss out on a lot of intelligent things unless you realize that really intelligent things come in clumsy packages. And sometimes really clumsy ideas come in very nicely wrapped and very intelligent packages. Part of the skill is knowing the difference, and knowing that for yourself, being able to package things both intelligently and clumsily has merit. Sometimes you have to say a thing in a clumsy way to get someone to realize what's going when an intelligent way doesn't work. There are no rules here; it's all about just communicating with the other person.
The reason people choose talk as their main vehicle for learning and for teaching is because it encompasses the simple and the complex, it encompasses the intellectual and the emotive thinker, and because it's so indefinable, and it's the way in which you really understand so many nuances of things that you can't always get out of a more prepared version of the world. These are people who intuitively know that reading books isn't necessarily what makes you smarter, or that watching television isn't stupid; people who don't assign these sorts of knee-jerk reactions to what are essentially media. Watching television can make you smarter. Reading books can be a way of escaping any real contact with the world. They know that. And in their choices they make all the time, they generally choose to engage with the world as it is, and with the people around them, as much as they can, because they know that's the place where they're going to learn things.
The best favor you can do for someone in a conversation is to speak intelligently yourself. Because it serves as a model for the conversation. For people to cue on that and actually incorporate your style of speaking into theirs, to realize the tricks of the way you work, they have to be exposed to you over and over again in such a wide variety of ways before they can make use of anything you have to teach them as a conversationalist.
Conversation To Order
[Q. - If public schools heard you, and agreed with your concepts, and decided to implement a program where an hour a day kids were given the freedom to talk, would that help?]
Let's put it this way: an hour in which people talk to each other is better than not talking to each other at all. The problem is that the best conversation is an organic, flowing thing. You can't just sit people down in a room and say, "You have an hour in which to converse," and expect a great conversation to take place, because the nature of conversation is that the good ones sneak up on you. You can't just create a good conversation any more than you can create any form of inspired thing in the human mind. You can't manufacture those in a time frame; you have to have a bunch of open time in which smaller secondary conversations take place at random, and suddenly one of them grows into the deeper thing. You can't schedule creativity.
Speech is this all-encompassing mental skill that spans a huge range of useful mental skills: the ability to communicate with the other person; the ability to react in the moment to something that's happening and be intelligent about it; the ability to incorporate an outside person's experience into your own, which I think is so crucial, to be able to really listen to another person and realize that what they're saying impinges on you and expands your humanity; the ability to make a friend, to be empathetic, to realize that a new thing has entered and it totally rearranges everything that you had before. These are all skills that can't just be ordered up on a clock. You have to be in a flow of a thing like that to really benefit from it.
Also, for a conversation to be meaningful, it often requires privacy. That's where the right to move freely intersects with all these other rights as a key right. Unless you have the right to choose your space, and to control it to a certain degree, the whole point of conversation is severely diminished. You have to have free movement to have freedom of conversation.
The lack of a real opportunity to converse is probably the single worst thing about the current school system; the whole one-way conduit of teacher, book, question, answer. The problem is that if you sit down in a biology class with twenty or thirty thirteen-year-olds and one teacher, and the teacher says, "Let's talk about biology." The answer that the teacher doesn't want to hear is what most people will say: "I don't have anything to say about biology. Biology is not interesting to me." There's no starting point for a conversation. Conversation begins when people are talking about something they want to talk about. You can't get passed that naked fact. It's as if you say to the kids, "Try to string together a few sentences about biology." Unless there are kids who really care about it, and want to talk about it, in which case there'll be no stopping them at best, you're going to get a conversation going between a handful of people who actually care. The system is so inherently screwed up that you can't push it in that direction. It would be great if all the classes were just a bunch of conversations by the few people who actually wanted to talk about those things, and then everyone else could just talk about what they wanted to talk about. But the result would be a school in which there was a tiny handful of people talking about each subject, and everybody else just talking about anything, learning their own way. It would be great if school was just something that happened a day a week, and the other four days people just got out to talk, and do whatever they wanted to do, because then it wouldn't be so miserable. If there was just one hour a week of each subject, I'm completely confident that they would learn far more than they're learning now. Whether they tested out better, I don't know, but inside, my feeling is they would know more.
There's another point worth making. I'm amazed at the degree to which people don't really want to be instructed so much as to be told a few basic things and then to discover the rest on their own; the degree to which people will choose to reinvent the wheel, just to feel how the wheel works. People really want to learn hands on. People I considered my great teachers and my great inspirations were those who told me only the most rudimentary aspects of what that subject is, and that is often what makes you a great teacher in a free context. My attitude was, "Show me a simple thing, and get out of my way." For example, the rules of grammar are arrived at after people have spent thousands of years actually doing; they're all explanations afterward of things that exists, they're not the way you do the thing. They're a way in which people might say, "This explains the way everyone's always been doing it. There's a consistent pattern. But they're not the way you do it. I'm always surprised by how much stake people put in the aftermath. If you want to teach someone language, talk to them. If you're going to teach them how to write, there has to be some framework in which they're going to want to write. So much of what goes on in public schools is just an exercise in futility. It doesn't bring anyone any closer to expression, it doesn't deepen anything, it just creates a huge mass of mediocrity.
I get the feeling that a lot of it is job training for jobs that no longer exist. If people were honest with themselves about the way they learn things, they would realize how often they come into a job and not learn what they needed to learn through a manual, but learn throughout the primary vehicles of doing and talking. The way most people learn a complex task is by talking to the people who already do it, and by doing it. The method of trial and error, plus communication, is still the main way people learn things. Given the choice, most kids would prefer to learn by talking and doing. Doing it that way comes completely naturally to almost anybody, and is a pure outgrowth of the way the human mind works.
1. From the transcript of an interview conducted by Rhonda Goebel as part of the research for A Thesis Presented to The Faculty of the School of Education, DePaul University, in Partial Completion of the Requirement for the Degree of Masters of Arts, entitled "Research on Manifestations of Critical Thinking in Children's Spontaneous Talk". For excerpts from that thesis, see The Sudbury Valley School Journal, Vol. 30, #1, October 2000 and Vol. 30, #2, November 2000. This transcript has been only lightly edited, so as to retain its flow as an oral interview.
Copyright © The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc. ®