Is Sudbury Valley a School?

When visitors arrive at the Sudbury Valley School for the first time, they usually get the impression that they’ve come during “recess.” Everywhere children are playing and happily enjoying themselves in various ways. If they stay a while, they start wondering when recess is over—as do many parents when they discover “recess” extending for years.

When people first encounter the Sudbury Valley environment they undergo a kind of culture shock. They bring their expectations of what it is that a school ought to be, but they immediately come face-to-face with a very different set of images, and they don’t quite know how to deal with the situation.

This kind of thing happens all the time in trans-cultural encounters. It’s what took place for hundreds of years when Westerners encountered indigenous peoples all over the world. From the vantage point of a Western industrial society, native peoples weren’t doing any of the things associated by the Westerners with “culture,” so it became common to label such peoples as “uncultured savages.” When people call a tribal culture “savage,” what this really means is that they do not recognize in the tribe any of the usual clues or images that indicate “culture” to them.

Now, one of the more humane lessons we’ve learned over the last fifty or so years is to be a little more cautious in our labelling, and to understand that when we encounter such a dramatic clash of expectations and images, we should pause before we call something that we’re not familiar with “barbaric.” We have learned to say, “Let’s try to understand that society and see what it’s about.” What I would like to explain here, from that perspective, is what’s behind the culture shock that makes people wonder whether Sudbury Valley is a school.

What is the Sudbury Valley culture? What are the expectations that the school set out to meet?

There isn’t much disagreement that a school is supposed to develop the intellectual potential and moral character of children and, at the same time, to prepare them to perpetuate the culture and to function as citizens in the community. There’s really a two-fold function that any educational system undertakes in any culture—a personal and a social function. These two have to work in harmony in order to make a viable school.

Usually educators start by saying, “What is it that we want to achieve on the social side?” That’s where we start as well, by asking, “What kind of people are needed in the late 20th century to make this country function?” And in order to answer this, we have to evaluate carefully what is going on in our society.

When we first opened, in the sixties, people had just started waking up to the fact that the United States was entering the post-industrial era. That was a new phrase back then; today it’s commonplace. A new social and economic environment was being created in this country, that went beyond the factory, beyond the industrial revolution, and looked toward a different kind of economic system, the key to which was the idea that repetitive routine work would no longer be done by human beings.

Such transformations don’t happen overnight. But we have always felt that our society is moving inexorably toward a future in which people will have to be imaginative, to find new ways to lead productive lives. This requires every child to grow to be creative, to be responsible, to have initiative, and to be self- starting. All these phrases are widely used in educational circles today, because by now everybody has realized it. Every school talks about producing people who will have these attributes.

A second, no less important, requirement in this country is that people have to know how to function as free citizens in a democracy. It used to be that when we talked about this, people would say, “What do you mean, you have to learn how to be free? What’s the big deal?” Nowadays, it’s a lot easier to explain what we mean, because within the last few years half of the world has suddenly rid itself an unspeakable tyranny, and there are literally hundreds of millions of people out there who do not have a clue how to function as free citizens in a democratic society where they all have to share in decisions, where they all have to make compromises, where they all have to make political judgments, day in, day out. Today, all you have to do is look across the ocean and you can see that it is no easy task to learn all this.

So all in all, any school has a very challenging, two-pronged task: to produce creative, self-starting, imaginative, responsible people, and also to produce people who know how to be free and know how to function in a democracy.

We started from scratch. We didn’t assume anything. We just said, “Given these requirements, where do we go from here? Let’s consider ideal situations and then see how much we can put into practice.”

The first thing we had to ask was, “What’s the raw material we’re working with?” Clearly, we are working with a child. “How much modification do we have to produce in that child?” If we had a glob of clay and wanted to make a pot out of it, we’d have a lot of work ahead of us. We’d have to throw it on the wheel, get it centered properly, and be sure that it doesn’t collapse or it’s not too wet or not too dry, or that it not crack in the kiln. These are big concerns because clay that comes out of the earth doesn’t have a natural tendency to form pots.

The raw material that we have when we work with children is, by contrast, much easier to deal with. It is “made to order”, because children are designed to become all the things we want. That’s their evolutionary inheritance. Children are born with the capacity to interact with their environment in a way that will process it, challenge it, work on it, and understand it in imaginative ways. This ability is something human beings were endowed with by nature. You don’t have to take a one-year-old and say, “Look around you,” or grab a two-year-old by the scruff of the neck and say, “Go explore the environment,” or a three-year-old and say, “Move around a little, don’t lie on your back all day.” You can’t stop them!

The raw material is perfect. Our major task as adults is to get out of the way, to provide an environment where we don’t interfere, where we minimize to every extent possible the barriers that prevent children from doing what they want to do naturally. To the extent that we succeed, they’ll be alert, they’ll explore, they’ll be active, they’ll be healthy. They’ll be solving problems all day, problems that they set for themselves and attack with a passion. Leave children alone and what’s the first thing you notice? Their intensity. Their involvement. Their focus.

Where does the social part fit in, that has to do with living in a free society? The only way to accustom children to democracy is to practice it. There’s no escaping that conclusion. We certainly aren’t going to teach them by telling them the virtues of democracy. To take people you’ve been pushing around for twelve years in the authoritarian environment of traditional school, and sit them down for fifty minutes of talking about this being a free country, and what freedom is about, and what their rights are, is laughable. The only way to bring up free citizens is to make them free citizens from day one. And there’s no reason not to. There’s no reason for a school not to be an operating democracy. There’s no reason for four-year-olds not to have the same voluntary access to decision-making as fourteen-year-olds or thirty-four-year-olds.

When we opened the school, we were told that there’s no way to give four year-olds a vote. People predicted that within a year we’d be closed. “They’re kids. They’ll buy candy with all the budget. They’ll do something crazy. You can’t give kids responsibility. They’re not capable of thinking about the future.” What is there to say, twenty-five years later, when a school that has been run by the School Meeting, in which every child regardless of age has the same vote as every adult, started out in 1968 with a per-pupil cost equal to that of the public schools and today is operating at less than half the per-pupil cost of the public schools? Never a moment’s reliance on government money, grants, or fund raising. So much for kids who spend all the money on candy! There isn’t a person who graduates from the school who doesn’t understand what it means to be a responsible member of the community. And there isn’t an adult in the school who is uncomfortable with the fact that they share their power equally with the children.

All this sounds like a lot of abstraction. Is this really a school? Of course it’s a school! It’s a school that really makes sense for where we’re headed as a society. The only problem is, it doesn’t feel like one. We’re back to the culture shock. Sudbury Valley doesn’t have all the road signs that people have been used to in schools.

So let me end with the following observation to help bridge this culture gap. People come to SVS and see it as being in “perpetual recess,” and it gives them a little twinge and perhaps they start worrying. But just remember this: these schools that we all grew up in, with their classes, their curricula, their SAT’s and Achievement Tests and Placement Tests, their grade levels and exams, these schools are relative newcomers to the scene! They’re only about one-hundred-fifty years old. They were started by people who sat down and thought about education and said, “This is the kind of school we need to create a great industrial society.” And do you know what happened? People in the 19th century used to walk into those “newfangled schools” and experience culture shock! They’d say, “This is a school? My kids could be spending their time productively out in the fields on the farm. They could be apprenticing as tradesmen, or as craftsmen, or doing all sorts of useful things. You mean to tell us that taking kids and sitting them at desks and having them write on chalkboards, that’s a school? You’re calling that education?” They had just as weird a feeling then as people have today looking at Sudbury Valley! It took many, many years for people to get used to the industrial-age schools which are so accepted now!

Nothing exemplifies these culture clashes around the subject of education better than a wonderful story recorded by Benjamin Franklin, who was sent to talk to a group of Native American leaders. He made them an offer, to take some of their brightest children and give them scholarships to Harvard, so that they could get the most advanced education available. Franklin recorded their reply to his offer. They said, “That’s very gracious. We thank you. But we must decline the offer because we’ve had some experience with what you call a ‘school.’ Some of our young men once went to Harvard and their heads were filled with the weirdest things! When they came back, they didn’t know the art of skinning, the art of hunting, the art of tanning, the art of shelter building. They didn’t know any real medicine. They didn’t know how to survive in the wild. In fact,” they said, “those young men were good for nothing!” And as a gesture to Franklin they made a counter offer. They said, “If you, on the other hand, would like to send us some of your young people, we would be glad to train them, and make real men of them!” That story puts the culture shock of encountering Sudbury Valley into perfect perspective.

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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.