Sudbury Valley–The Easiest School or The Hardest?

Sudbury Valley School—is it the easiest school or the hardest? It sounds like a simple question. But before even trying to provide some kind of answer, we have to ask ourselves what “easy” means and what “hard” means when they’re applied to human activities.

This kind of exploration as to what these words mean when they apply to human affairs goes back a long time. That’s what the Socratic Dialogues were about—trying to figure out what attributes that apply to human activities actually meant. I have to take a small digression: I catch a lot of flack from Mark Bell, and more recently from Jean, about my throwing ancient times into all of my talks, which are supposedly about modern times. Socrates and the Greeks always seem to pop up. I do this not out of a love of ancient history, which I do love, but because, as I found out many years ago when I started looking at these questions myself, all of the fundamental concepts that constitute the modern Western world view really date back to two great ancient civilizations: the Greek civilization and the Israelite or Jewish civilization of the ancient world. Each had extremely different world views which were actually mutually exclusive until the Romans brilliantly amalgamated them during the Roman Empire. They’ve stayed amalgamated to this day. I’ve always felt very strongly that if we don’t appreciate that and understand how these concepts were born and where they came from, we lose a lot in trying to understand how they apply to the modern world.

I’m going to start looking at these questions by considering two examples. I’d like you to go back and imagine the year 1945, right after the Second World War, which unfortunately a lot of the kids in my history seminars think also happened in ancient times. Let’s consider a union worker who’s on the assembly line—even the concept of an assembly line is almost lost, but it’s something you’ve probably read about in books, at least; or if you’ve seen Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times then you really know what it was like: people doing a completely routine, boring, often physically demanding job, 40 hours a week, two weeks’ vacation in the year. Virtually everybody who had those jobs hated them. They couldn’t wait to get home in the evening. In the evenings and on weekends, they did what they wanted. They relaxed, they read, they fished, they hunted, they went to the movies. But during their work week, they did dreadful things. That’s one situation.

Now let’s consider a second situation. We’re still in 1945 when people wrote books and sold them and publishers weren’t going out of business right and left. You’re a freelance writer and you’re a good one. You write what you want, you produce books and materials that publishers actually want to buy and can sell. You are your own boss, you are free as a bird. You don’t have fixed hours, you decide on your own vacations, you really are doing what you want all day. Doesn’t it sound wonderful?

Which is harder? Which of those two situations is harder? Most people would answer that the first one is harder—it sounds awful. Who would want to do that? The second one sounds heavenly—that’s the kind of job that everybody aspires to. But there’s a caveat here and it’s an important one because the first job, the union job—the assembly line job—is secure, totally secure. The union protects you. It protects you from arbitrary bosses, from arbitrary actions, from being fired, from being disciplined. It gets you better wages, it fights for you. And you make a steady, predictable income so you know how to adjust your standard of living to your income, you know how to support your family on it. You know where the next meal is coming from and where you’re going to live and how you’re going to take care of things and how you’re going to support your family. The second job is completely insecure. You have no idea if the next book is going to sell. You’ve got to continue being creative. You’ve got to continue writing stuff that people want to buy.

I want to tell you a couple of real stories about that era and about people who functioned in that era. In 1945 I was in elementary school. I lived in a middle class neighborhood, or what passed back then for middle class—people who made a decent living. Everybody had homes. We kids talked a lot among ourselves. Often we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. All of them said they wanted to be union workers when they grow up. They wanted to be union workers in a factory! I remember my shock when I heard that. I didn’t come from a background that would have given that answer, because my father was a Rabbi, and the farthest thing from an assembly line worker. Today if you ask elementary school kids what they want to be when they grow up, you won’t find one person anywhere in this country who’ll say, “I want to grow up to be a union worker on an assembly line”. They wanted it then, even though they all knew that it was a “terrible job”, because they all assumed that it was secure.

A few decades later, we were very close friends with a very well-known writer who published many hugely successful books for teenagers. In her day she wrote books that were very well-known, very well received, and actually terrific. Occasionally she wrote books for adults. All of her books were published by major publishers and were bestsellers. One day we were talking and she said, “I’m working on a new book.” And I said, “Oh, that’s great, I’m sure that’s all set up and you’re as good as published.” And she said, “No. Every single book I write, my agent has to go out and try to sell to a publisher.” I said, “I can’t believe it. They’re all bestsellers.” She said, “It doesn’t make any difference, it’s as if I start from scratch.” Many entrepreneurs in business have this same experience—successful entrepreneurs who do well, succeed at what they’re doing, get a bank loan for one project, it succeeds, it makes a lot of money, they go back to the same bank, and they’re starting from scratch, no security.

So you can see that the question of easy and hard is a complicated question. Because freedom is really terrifying, and it’s really insecure. The beauty of it and the appeal of it has its dark side. There’s a wonderful biblical law which I want to read to you because when I first encountered it, I was studying with my father, and I said to him, “How could this possibly make sense?” And I’ll read it to you. I’ll read from a standard translation, but you’ll have to excuse the archaic English.

If thy brother be sold unto thee, he shall serve thee six years. And in the seventh year thou shalt let him go free. [That’s the sabbatical—that’s where the word sabbatical comes from—you were not allowed to keep servants more than six years.] And it shall be, if he say unto thee, I will not go out from thee because he loveth thee and thy house, because he fareth well with thee, then thou shall take an awl and thrust it through his ear unto the door and he shall be thy bondsman forever.

I used to think that was an awfully gory thing, but now that I see everybody with their body piercings, I think, “Whatever. . .” (Nowadays, they’d probably line up for it!) Why would anybody want to continue to be a servant if they’re being freed? My father couldn’t answer. But the answer’s right here: “He fareth well with thee.” It’s secure, he doesn’t have to worry.

So as you can see, any activity will have a hard side and an easy side to it. And that already seems a little strange, that seems to violate the law of contradiction. The law of contradiction says a thing can’t be something and the opposite of it at the same time. The law of contradiction is the cornerstone of rational thought and modern logical thinking. It was made the cornerstone long before Socrates’ time. You can read the best logic book ever written, by Aristotle. The law of contradiction stands at the center of it. And the interesting thing is that it turns out that Socrates tried to apply the law of contradiction all the time to human affairs. That’s what his dialogues are basically about: what does this mean, what does that mean? And he tried to pin it down. And he never could because it always turned out that anything that he tried to pin down, the opposite was also valid. He failed and he knew he failed. He always ended his dialogues with sort of admitting it, but he never had the guts to come out and actually say, “hey guys, this law of contradiction that everybody’s so enamored with, it doesn’t apply to human affairs. Things in human affairs can be one thing and its opposite at the same time.”

And so the question comes up: what are the origins of this really bizarre paradox? How does it come about, where does it come from? It begins at a very early age. When infants are born, what are they struggling to be? Their purpose for existence is to grow up to be independent. That’s what they’re supposed to do. Otherwise, there would be no species. The species survives on the basis of infants struggling to grow up into independent adults. That’s what evolution and biology demands. They’re given all the tools from early infancy to gain independence and freedom. They’re given curiosity, they’re given the ability to explore things, the desire to explore their surroundings. They’re given the ability to learn, to learn from mistakes, to do things and then learn from what they’ve done and remember it and use it in the future. They’re given the ability to take risks; they always want to do things that are dangerous. And that lasts well into the teenage years. They don’t shy away from their mistakes. They don’t consider mistakes a bad thing. They have memories, so that they can call on their experience and use it in order to avoid making the same old mistakes, so that they can make new and different ones.

From infancy children have something that makes it possible for them to be independent and is really a very difficult thing for us to envision. They have the ability to form a unique personal world view. I want to explain what I mean by that because it is a key to independence, a key to freedom. They have the ability to construct for themselves a picture, a useful picture, of how the world around them functions. To get some idea of the magnitude of this task and how important it is for freedom and independence and creativity, remember that an infant is born with no life experience—with sensory apparatus that can accept all kinds of inputs from the environment, but with no real way to process that a priori. They have to start from scratch. It’s really overwhelmingly impressive how they take these trillions and trillions of pieces of data that come flowing into all the senses. Can you imagine what a jumble it is? Imagine yourselves dropped in the middle of a jungle where some natives are talking a language and behaving in a way that you’ve never heard. Imagine just that one situation. You hear all this jabbering, and what does it sound like? Jabbering! Imagine how hard it is for you to make any sense out of what’s going on. These poor infants, they’re surrounded by people jabbering and making noises that make absolutely no coherent sense, not to mention visual inputs, sensory inputs, and so forth.

Of course, we don’t know how it works. We’re not even at the beginning of having enough of a theory of the brain to understand how it works. But we know that it does work, that they are able to create some picture of how the world around them works out of the mass of data. They’re able to build on it, and to modify it, and to add to it, and to make it more and more complex; it’s something we all continue to do until the day we die. We all do it. We’re all constantly modifying our world views and updating them. And by world view I mean figuring out for ourselves anew all kinds of modifications of how we now think the world works, because what we think today isn’t exactly what we thought yesterday.

All of these tools, which are absolutely essential to creating an individual, separate, independent human being, are there from the beginning. So there it is. Freedom: it’s natural, you’re born with it, you’re born with the desire for it, you’re born with the tools for it. But at the very same time, you’re born totally dependent. You’re totally dependent as an infant. You’re dependent on the adults around you for your survival, and for nurturing. You’re dependent on them for food, for shelter, for guidance on how to stay safe, how to stay alive, how to have a stable environment. And that dependency is just as inherent and just as natural to a child as the desire for independence and freedom.

Right from the beginning, you have this paradoxical situation that the desire to be free and independent is natural, and therefore easy and comfortable, but it’s also hard because it’s a plunge into the unknown. And being guided and controlled is also natural. And it’s also easy and comfortable. And it’s also hard because it cramps their style. Anybody who has observed children sees that conflict close up. The interesting thing is, just in case you think I’m just focusing on children, the parents encounter exactly the same paradoxical situation. The parents are in the same boat. They have a need to guide and control their children because they’re concerned about all the things that the children want them to be concerned about—like safety! For them, that’s the natural and easy thing for them to do, that’s the maternal/paternal instinct. But it’s also hard to do because it’s hard to control a child. The same applies to the parental desire to encourage their children to be independent. What parent doesn’t want their kids to be independent? “Look at my kid, look at what she’s doing! She can walk!” What parent has not exulted at the ability of a child to get up and take their first steps? But what does that mean? That means they’re taking their first steps towards mobility, towards independence—and it’s wonderful! At the same time, it’s really hard to watch your kid become independent. You’re going to lose them.

So this paradox that we have with children and parents is deeply rooted in the human condition. It extends to societies as well as to individuals, which shouldn’t surprise us, because societies are collections of individuals, and societies experience the same paradox—only it’s harder because a society is more complex, it’s created of a lot of complex individuals. The society itself is a tremendously complex organism. If we don’t know how individuals really work, we sure as heck don’t know how societies work yet. If you study societies, you know that societies in general have a tremendous fear of chaos and instability. This is something that hovers over every social group—instability, which is inherent in freedom of choice. How are we going to survive? For societies, in a way, guidance and control has an even greater appeal because they seem to solve such difficult problems even better than they solved those problems for people as individuals.

I have a few examples for you because they point the conflict out in a better way than anything I could say. The first striking example puzzled me just as much as the one I mentioned earlier did. When the Israelites left Egypt, they were in the desert; they had just gotten out of 400 years of bitter slavery. They had really worked hard, even harder when they started agitating about freedom, because when they talked about freedom, Pharaoh said, “Double their work load!” So here they are free, they’re out in the desert, they’re being taken care of, and the whole congregation “murmured against Moses and against Aaron in the wilderness. And the children of Israel said unto them, Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh-pots, and when we did eat bread to the full.” This was the generation that knew slavery. It wasn’t their kids or their grandchildren. They had just been there. But, where could they get food in the desert? Where would they get water? If you read the story of the wandering in the desert, you’ll know that was the constant problem. It was really nice to think about how easy it was in Egypt when they knew at least that they were going to eat.

If you think that’s the only time, it isn’t; it comes back later. Fast forward 40 years, and they are in Palestine, they’re all freed, they’ve got their own independence. This is during the period of the judges; there was no king or anything. Things were really relatively easy and independent. And what happens all of a sudden? They implore their spiritual leader, the prophet Samuel, for a king. Samuel said, you guys are crazy, “this will be the manner of the king that shall reign over you. He will take your sons. He’ll appoint them unto him . . . He will take your daughters to be perfumers and to be cooks . . . He will take your fields and your vineyards.” And he goes on. He gets this list of things that this king is going to do to them, but “the people refuse to hearken unto the voice of Samuel and they say, nay: but there shall be a king over us that we also may be like all the nations and that our king may judge us, and go out before us and fight our battles”—safety. A strong leader would mean we’d be able to defend ourselves, have law and order. A king would set up courts, which they didn’t have in this free-going society. Who knows what’s going to happen next? They said, we want a king like all other nations. That’s very easy, they’re all doing it. We want to do what all the other people do. It’s hard not to be like everybody else.

In one of the summer workshops for staff of other Sudbury schools, I was introduced to a political philosopher that I had never heard of before, La Boetie. He’s fascinating. He wrote in the middle of the 16th century and he was probably the first modern political philosopher. He wrote a wonderful tract called The Politics of Obedience: the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude. It makes Karl Marx’s call to revolution tame by comparison. It’s a call to arms. He says that, since freedom is our natural state, we’re not only in possession of it, but we have the urge to defend it. So, he asks himself, why do people submit? His theory is that in the beginning men submit under constraint and by force. But those who come after them obey without regret and perform willingly what their predecessors had done because they had to. “This is why men born under the yoke are content without further effort to live in their native circumstance unaware of any other state or right and considering as quite natural the condition into which they are born. The powerful influence of custom is in no respect more compelling than in this, namely habituation to subjection.” That gives us some insight into the fact that controlled societies have a very easy side to their members. It gives them security. But they also have a very hard side because they’re always unstable. There’s a constant fear in controlled societies, because the individual members are always liable to yearn for freedom and to try to break the yoke, and you never know when that’s going to happen.

There’s a wonderful example from our own history of that fear of the desire of individuals to push forward and push against control, and the controlling forces are always—that’s the hard side of it—wondering when that’s going to break through. The best example that I can think of is the antebellum South. The tension there was after the successful rebellion in Haiti—that was probably the first successful slave rebellion in history. It was the early 19th century, and right at the back door of the United States. The South never recovered from the absolute panic and fear that what happened in Haiti instilled in them, because before that slavery was common throughout the world and certainly common throughout the Americas. But only here, where we had free news, free press, did the Southerners really start saying we’ve got to clamp down because of that instability. That’s the hard side of controlled societies.

I want to talk about two illustrations of this hard/easy paradox in society in the 18th century, because they give you a feel for how delicate that balance is between freedom and control, between what’s easy and what’s hard in social settings. The first is the French Revolution. We all know the motto of the French Revolution: “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood!” It served as a huge banner of freedom, of freeing yourself from the yoke of servitude, and both rocked and changed the face of Europe. Of course, the French exulted when they had their freedom, when they overthrew their king. It seemed such a wonderful thing. How long did it take for that freedom to degenerate into one of the most controlled societies that ever existed? The freedom just couldn’t be tolerated, it was too chaotic. The French haven’t really recovered from it to this day. They’re still struggling, politically, with the question of how much authority to give the central government. It’s something that was there in big neon signs after the second World War when Charles De Gaulle emerged as a great French leader, with the question of how much to concentrate centrally. The French Revolution had once spread the word of freedom throughout Europe. How ironic and how bizarre that Napoleon’s conquest of Europe—Napoleon who was much more repressive an emperor than Louis XIV had been, or could have been—putting everybody under his yoke, and what does he spread? He spread the doctrine of the French Revolution—of liberty, equality and brotherhood—wherever he went.

Same century, a continent away, the American Revolution was very different in character but the same kind of thing—people yearning for freedom, throwing off the yoke. Only here, freedom survived. It wasn’t replaced by some very repressive central government. But the founding fathers were a little wary of it. And the Constitution is an interesting study in how wary they were of total freedom. They rigged the legislative bodies so you can’t be too dependent on popular vote. The Senate was the American equivalent of the House of Lords really: solid people, Senators—the creme de la creme—and you’re going to need their agreement before you can get any law. That’s the way it looked back then. As for the House, that’s a little looser. They were wary, and yet they didn’t make a king. But they finagled the government to make sure that it wouldn’t be too controlling. You’ve got to take a close look at the American Constitution and say wow, what an amazing structure! It suppresses mob rule because you have a House, but you also have a Senate. They both have to agree on exactly the same thing. And then you have a President who’s completely independent of them who has to sign on to it. Plus a Supreme Court that’s independent of all of them, that can tell them all to go to blazes. And none of them controls the other. The chances of this thing ever doing anything really constructive are minimal. And that’s what they wanted. They were explicit about it. They wanted to create a mess. So, do you see that’s the struggle, the paradox. And it’s wonderful to see how two different societies in the 18th century dealt with it.

Every global transformation in communication heightened this societal tension. There have been several times in human history where there have been really significant breaks in the way human beings communicated with other. And each time one of these big breaks happened, the tension between freedom and control was exacerbated. Printing is a good example. Communication was suddenly advanced, suddenly the written word became a powerful tool because everybody can see it. You can print it, you can make lots and lots of copies. We talk about the books that were written in ancient times, these wonderful books. Who could read them? Do you know how long it takes to copy out a book longhand? Today the only document I know of that is of any significance that has to be copied longhand is the Jewish Torah—five little books. That takes a year, for a good scribe. Imagine all these people writing their books—one copy! When printing was invented, all of a sudden people could communicate widely. It works to encourage independence and freedom because now you can find other like-minded people a lot easier. I have an idea; I write a book, I publish it, I print it. I send it out to a lot of people. And now all of a sudden I’ve stirred things up.

The same considerations apply to the other side of the coin. Consider a king. Consider how hard it was for kings or central governments to control any area before printing. We talk about ancient empires, but it’s such a lot of nonsense. There were no ancient empires. There was no way for any cental government in the ancient world to control anything effectively. When there was a great rebellion in Judea in the year 70 against the Roman Empire, it took weeks for any letter to reach from Judea to Rome and back. By the time the people were reacting, what they thought they were reacting to had changed months earlier. They didn’t control anything. There were a bunch of independent fiefs, and that’s why all these empires broke up into little fiefdoms throughout the Middle Ages. After printing, now it could be done. Now you could print directives, now you can print laws, you can print a manual of how to behave. You can send it out, and keep an eye on what’s going on because people can write newspapers and tell you what’s going on and publicize it widely. Every transformation in communication heightens this tension and it works to make it both easier and harder to have freedom and to have control.

If anything actually defines the 20th century as a societal phenomenon, it’s the playing out of this tension in large. We’ve seen the most effective controlled societies of different kinds, not just one kind. Just look at the various societies that evolved during the 20th century. The one in Germany, during the Nazi period, the one in Russia during the Cold War period, the one in Italy which was such a wonderful model that people all over the world wanted to copy it. “Mussolini made the trains run on time.” Don’t knock Mussolini and his trains. That government actually got Italians to do something in an organized way. The Italians have not had a stable government since the second World War. The idea of “Italian government” is almost an oxymoron. But Mussolini actually got a society together, and they were working together.

There were so many attempts at testing out various theories of how to control a large society. All of the resistance that built up to these attempts meant that the end result of the 20th century was that all of these experiments failed, and we’ve emerged into a new global transformation, the Information Revolution, which has now exacerbated this tension to an extreme. Now the tension between social groups that yearn for the stability of control and societies that yearn for freedom is global.

The thing that makes the situation today different than it ever was before, is that now there’s absolutely no clue as to what the future holds. This is really the first time where the whole idea of futurology is a joke. Think about it. First of all, nothing really changed that much for thousands of years. It’s really hard to imagine. If you take a fellow out of Rome, 100 BC, stick them down somewhere in the middle of Europe in the year 1500 or 1400, he’d know what was going on. Things might be a little strange, language is a little strange, but it’s the same kind of farming, same kind of life, same kind of family life, same kind of homes. Life wasn’t really that different. In fact people in the 1400’s in some parts of Europe considered that they were continuations of the Roman Empire. But, take a person from the 1400’s and stick them anywhere in Western Europe in the 18th century and he’ll think he landed on Mars. He won’t even know where he is. Of course it was more gradual. People who lived in 1780 could say, “Now we have steam power, I can foresee these big engines producing things.” And thirty years later, there they were.

You begin to see a breakdown of that in the 1939 World’s Fair, which had a big exhibit about the technology of the future. That fair is still famous for the exhibit! They didn’t do such a good job. A lot of the things that they thought might happen, happened. But a lot of the things were way off because that’s when things started to change at a more rapid pace. We started to get things, for example, called “computers”, which surfaced during the Second World War.

I was in the Physics Department at Columbia in 1960. We were so proud at Columbia because we had one of the first big computer centers. The computer lab was a giant building. And we were “computerized”, which meant that when they did a payroll, a giant stack of cards this high came out, cards with holes punched in them. If anything went wrong, forget it. When the first computerized payrolls came out, I got my first check and it said “Pay to Daniel Greenlery”. I called them and said, “that’s not my name. The bank will never cash this check.” They said, “Listen, it’s easier for you to change your name than for us to change that name on your check.” And they meant it. They never changed it. But of course the banks cashed it because they never look at the checks, which tells you a little about the current financial situation.

That whole building didn’t have the computing power of the desktop today—the whole building! Never mind the cards and all that messy stuff. A bunch of us from the SVS environment started a food business in the mid ‘70’s. It was the first natural foods supermarkets in the country. It was called “The Natural Grocer”. We were very modern. Among the things that we did was computerize our business. Nobody in the natural food industry had supermarkets, let alone computers. We had what was called a “mini-computer”. A mini-computer was a computer that was as big as a large refrigerator. Our cutting edge mini-computer had a disk that stored a whole five megabytes! And that five megabyte disk weighed about twenty pounds. Because we always wanted backups, we were always moving the disk and replacing it. We had to carry the disk from one place and put it in storage and bring another disk and put it in.

Life today is hurtling ahead. Nobody, absolutely nobody, can picture the future. It’s hard enough to try to understand the present, because the present is already the future. Really important to the main point of this talk is that all the phenomena that you’re reading about, and seeing, that are happening to us right now—the financial crisis, the economic crisis, the social, political, and moral crises that are happening in the world—if you stand back and look at it, the one thing that has to impress you is that nobody really understands what’s going on. Nobody.

Economics used to be called “the dismal science” because economists never agree, but now all the social sciences are dismal sciences. Nobody has a clue. And it has nothing to do with party, it has nothing to do with political affiliation. It has to do with the rapidly evolving society that this new communication revolution has created that has made every change, every advance, immediately accessible to everybody and has made it possible for everybody, whether they have a good idea or a hare-brained idea, to get the word out; which means that there’s going to be an awful lot of hare-brained stuff going on, an awful lot of stuff that nobody can understand going on. Which is why one guy in Hong Kong could trade $11 billion for Barclay’s Bank and lose it and nobody even knew he’s lost it. How do you lose 11 billion dollars and nobody notices? And that was before AIG, before $11 billion became pocket change. People judge these things using old ways of thought—“somebody cheated”, “somebody wasn’t on top of things”—but it’s rarely that simple any more.

I remember what happened with Enron. A lot of those people were not cheaters, in the sense that they were setting out to cheat somebody. Everybody said the accountants were lax, they didn’t have standards, but did all the new accounting standards prevent the current fiscal implosion? Even the heads of Enron had no idea of what was going on. There was no way to follow it because it was too quick in its evolution, and too complex. It was populated by creative people who were doing new things that nobody else could understand, and that they barely understood, but that often produced wonderful short-term results that made them self-confident until everything imploded. This is happening across the board. It’s clearly happening in the political and diplomatic area. Who has any idea what’s really happening on the international scene?

I worked very closely for many years with a cousin of mine who, during much of the first half of the 20th century, was a highly placed diplomat in Europe, and intimately knew the European leaders—all the people whose names you’ve seen in the books. And one day he turned to me and he said, “I want you to remember one thing: Never, ever believe a single word you hear in any public pronouncement from any political or diplomatic leader. It is never what’s really going on.” As I watched these decades develop, I have seen the disconnect between all the things that have been said and what actually transpires. But here’s the point I’m trying to make:—that even if people weren’t trying to spin it, you wouldn’t be able to follow it. There are too many things going on. And all of the things that people are so worried about—“Is this sinister? Is it sinister the way people are using the internet now in U.S. politics? Is this fair game or not?”—forget it! These questions are academic. It’s happening regardless of anyone’s wishes. And nobody knows where it’s all headed.

The important thing to understand is that right now we’re at an explosion of this tension between creativity, freedom and imagination, on one hand, and the fear of it and the danger that’s felt with it on the other. The only problem is that today you can’t control anymore, and that’s the most important thing to remember when we address the question before us. The genie is out of the bottle and you cannot control it.

Let me go back to the question I began with: Sudbury Valley—is it the easiest school or the hardest? There is a new dimension, because now we’re talking about a school, and what is a school? A school is an artificial environment that’s been created where kids can go through a certain maturing state into adulthood. Schools didn’t even exist before; people just matured in society. But ever since the middle of the last century, we’ve had schools. The question of easy and hard now has to do with the role of the school. Is it easy for somebody who goes through a school to emerge into the society in which that school’s embedded, or is it hard to emerge into that society? Because that’s the function of school—to provide an environment in which kids can grow up to be ready to emerge into the society. So now we have a new layer of discussing easy or hard; not just whether it’s easy or hard on individual students or on parents, on societies, but whether the school itself is making it easy or hard to fulfill its mission.

As I said, historically, there were no schools. People just grew up. The exception is that throughout history there were schools for specialists, particularly for priests, in all religions. Priests were specialists who had certain things that they had to learn in order to fulfill a very important religious function in every society, whether pagan, Christian, Jewish, or Moslem, it didn’t make any difference. These people needed special training. For that, a certain number of members of the society were not allowed to just grow normally into adults, but taken out and given over to specialized training institutions to develop them into priests. In the middle of the 19th century, suddenly society had to train a whole bunch of people to something that they never knew how to do before and never wanted to—namely, to serve the industrial machine. Now people were doing something human beings never did before—working on an assembly line, or in the service part of the assembly line, in sales and production, etc. Therefore, training institutions for those people were created, just like training institutions for priests had been created. They had formulas that they had to follow in order to grow up as adult who fit into society—like learning “the three R’s”. So in a sense, mass education was education that was introduced to make everybody specialists, specialists in being industrial workers. Within the industrial environment, traditional schools made it hard for the individual student because they were really unpleasant, but they made it easy for a student to get a job, to emerge into society. So was the traditional school easy or hard in the Industrial Era? It was both.

Today we don’t have that kind of society anymore, we don’t need those kinds of people, but everyone is accustomed to it. Remember la Boetié? People are accustomed to the old way. And parents and society sort of look at traditional schooling as something that maybe, maybe, will slow down this rush away from the society that we’re accustomed to. And that almost makes some sense. If we can keep these things going the way they used to, and we can immerse our younger generation in environments in which they had always been immersed, maybe that will slow down the whole process of change a little. Parents go along with it because they’re accustomed to it. They still think you’ve got to have a traditional education to get a good job; you even have to get a traditional college education. Society is trying to stick to the same training to which it has been accustomed, only we can’t do that today. So traditional schools turn out to be really hard, because traditional schools produce graduates who are not prepared to fit into this modern world. And people have been aware of that for the last forty years; the cry has been, “we’ve got to reform education”. Traditional schools are clearly not producing students who are ready to function in the modern world. Everybody knows that.

So where does that leave us? We’re in an interesting situation because we tell kids something completely different at Sudbury Valley. We say to students that when you become adults you’re going to find yourselves in a world where all is risk, all is unknown. And your ability to survive will depend on your ability to negotiate the same shoals of uncertainty, the same risk and exploration and trial and error and learning and excitement and fear and ecstacy that you negotiated in your early, formative years. That’s what we tell kids here. And the reason we tell kids that is because SVS is a setting which will make it easy for them to transfer into the ambient society that exists today. That’s the “easy” part. If kids are here from a very young age, it’s a piece of cake because they’ve never lost their childhood skills. For kids who come here older, it takes a while, but they regain those skills because it’s natural.

On the other hand, SVS is really hard because the kids and the parents who come to this school have to work against all the things that people around them are accustomed to. And they’re hearing it all the time. They are flying in the face of custom, they’re flying in the face of what society has been doing for a long time. That is really, really hard not just for parents. Sure, it’s hard for parents, because they’ve all grown up in that other era, at least in the tail-end of it. But it’s hard for the kids too, because they hear it from their parents, they hear it from their peers, they hear it from society. And that’s on top of how hard it is for them in the first place to just negotiate freedom and creativity, because it’s so damned risky.

So here we are. SVS is the easiest school from which to transition into society, and it’s the hardest school to endure against all of these other pressures from the outside. So which is it? Is Sudbury Valley the easiest school or the hardest? And the answer is: it’s both.

Copyright © The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc. ®

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.