Sudbury Valley

Having personally experienced both public schools and Sudbury Valley, I would like to express a few of the reasons why I think that Sudbury was the right choice for me, and why I think that the public schools are harming today’s youth.

I would start with a short list of what most parents today are looking for their children to get out of school.

First and foremost a parent expects their child to get an education that will help them; get into a “good” college, select a profession, and operate successfully in the community at large. Not necessarily in that order.

In addition to these more tangible wishes, a parent would hope that their child’s school would “instill” in them: a sense of morality; a respect for people of all ages, races, and religions; and the motivation to improve themselves mentally and socially.

Motivation is probably the trickiest of all these, since without it none of the above can be accomplished. So I would start with that.

There is in the human spirit a powerful drive to constantly improves oneself, and to aspire to our greatest potential, achieving self-actualization. This drive need not be imbued, or even worse, drilled into anyone. Attempts to do so will almost always have the exact opposite effect, in which the learning process is represented as being so unpleasant that the child’s interest in learning is lost, or at least dulled.

At the very best the public schools encourage extrinsic motivation. Extrinsic motivation is when someone participates in an activity for a tangible reward, (i.e., grades). This as opposed to intrinsic motivation by which someone works for their own enjoyment, not for what it will get them.

It has long been proven that we are all more apt to persist, work harder, and produce higher quality work when we are motivated intrinsically.

It seems to me that in the public schools the beauty of learning for the joy of learning and self-fulfillment is lost among the demands and expectations of parents and teachers.

Sudbury Valley provides not only a serene setting, but also a warm atmosphere, free of demands, in which creativity and selfless creation can flourish. Any and all ambitions here are pursued, not for a letter on a paper by which our intellect and attitude may be judged, but for the satisfaction that comes with bettering ourselves.

Next I would address the issue of succeeding in the world at large. Daniel Greenberg has published numerous articles on the futility of industrial era based schools, attempting to program today’s children to succeed in a post-industrial world. The true geniuses who have become household names were not the ones who had a solid understanding of a myriad of subjects, they were quite simply the most creative, the most inventive minds in their chosen field. The pedagogical nature that constitutes the very plinth of today’s public education simply does not promote creativity. Quite the opposite; it promotes conformity.

However, to avoid covering lots of old ground I will attempt to pick up some of the pieces that I feel Danny may have left behind.

Right away the first thing that strikes me as odd is the meaning of success itself. The very definition of success is the accomplishment of something that one desires. Somewhere along the line the widely accepted meaning of this word was twisted to include the imposition of someone else’s ideas of success upon you. We started judging people’s success, not on the fulfillment of their own dreams, but on how much money they make or their social status. The fact is, a homeless vagabond who wants to be homeless has ultimately succeeded in life. It would seem obvious that the only one who can possibly know what someone wants to make of themselves, is that person. What gives the public schools the right to dictate what anyone should learn? What dolt came up with the idea to standardize knowledge?

I have always been interested in psychology. In my time at the public schools there was no way I could possibly pursue my own interests. The only psychology class was for eleventh and twelfth graders, (I switched to Sudbury towards the end of the tenth grade,) and you had to be an honors English student to take it. As for studying on my own, school would take up to eight hours of my day. I had at least five major subjects which called for a mere (HA!) one hour of homework a day, EACH! A little quick math will show that this barely leaves enough time for sleep, much less to do work on my own or lead any kind of social life. I would also bitterly add that counting up wasted time is the only thing I have ever used algebra for.

As for getting into a college, going to SVS creates an interesting situation. Since there are no grades at Sudbury, and none of the teachers give out recommendations, one would wonder how SVS graduates are to get into college. Well, this is probably the toughest question to answer, and the one that Assembly members are most often asked.

The best way that I can think of to answer that question is that you have to talk your way in. When you want to get into a college you send them a letter explaining why you feel that you belong at that college. SVS also sends a letter explaining the school’s policies regarding grades and recommendations.

At first, hearing this, most people immediately assume that it is harder for an SVS student to get into a college than someone who can produce proof of what they have learned. I would disagree with that assessment.

It seems to me that someone on a board of admissions would stop and pause at seeing a written letter, with no grades and no recommendations, expressing a strong desire to attend their school. Anyone can get a stack of recommendations a mile high of people saying that they are the greatest kid in the world. It’s the opinion of the students themselves that should count.

If I were to ask a room full of adults to produce proof of what they had learned in the last year, they would laugh at me. Why is it considered such standard practice to torment children this way?

This leads me right into morals. Every good parent expects their children to treat people of all ages, races and religions with respect. Then those same children go to school where they are immediately segregated by age, sex, intelligence, and popularity.

I can’t emphasize enough how important intermingling the ages is at Sudbury. It seems absurd that a child’s chances to learn from their elders should be limited to a select few adults whom they are far too young to relate to. It’s impossible to understand how well age mixing works without having seen it first hand at Sudbury. It is a thing of beauty to see a teenager reading a book to a young child. I would also make sure to include the profound affect that the younger children have on all of us. Being surrounded by children at play is a constant reminder of when the whole world was our playground, and when monumental discoveries were a daily event. The kids are an irreplaceable asset to the school community, and lend their own unmistakable aura to the school.

Responsibility and trust are two more things that are absolutely essential if one wishes to function in society. It would seem to be a given that in order for a child to develop these important attributes, they must first be given trust and absolute responsibility for the actions they take. In the public schools students aren’t even trusted so far as to leave the school grounds when they have no classes. Although this might well prepare one for prison, it does little to help ready one for functioning in the community. Responsibility goes hand in hand with trust. When they are thrust into society students will find a stark contrast to the coddling they received in school. There will be no one watching over their shoulders, telling them wrong from right. It would seem to make sense that throughout school students should be developing decision making skills by having good decisions reinforced and learning from their mistakes. It has often been said that we often learn more from our mistakes than our good decisions. Yet the public schools discourage these vital mistakes and limit the naturally probing minds of children.

Well, I would thank all of you who actually put up with my long rambling. And I would give a special thanks to the school as a whole for allowing me to expand in ways I never even dreamed of while I was at public schools, and to choose my own path in life.

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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.