The Tapestry of Themes that Makes Up a Sudbury Model School

Note: This is an edited version of a talk presented to the 2002 Workshop for Staff of Sudbury Schools and for Startup Groups about to open new Sudbury Schools, held at Sudbury Valley School in July 2002.


For a long time I've held that as soon as people encounter a Sudbury school, as soon as they hit the campus, they sense what the school is about. I certainly feel that myself - not only when I come to Sudbury Valley every day, but when I go and visit other Sudbury schools. There's something about what we encounter that makes us "know" the school. One of the challenges that we've had from the very beginning is how to convey to other people what it is that we feel, what it is that makes our school a Sudbury school. We have always struggled to find a way to define the key ideas that make us what we are, so that we can recognize them ourselves, but primarily in order to be able to convey them during interviews, during public relations events, to the media, and in general to others outside the school. It's very important for us in spreading the word to find a way to focus on, and verbalize, that atmosphere that we recognize in a Sudbury school so that we know one when we see one.

In attempting to do this, all of us have tried to take a minimalist approach that goes back to the early part of the twentieth century, when Lenin formulated the idea that the best way to convey a new political concept is through short, concise slogans which say something pithily that people can remember. (The most famous slogan that he ever came up with was "Power to the People" which swept Russia - and subsequently much of the world.) His point was that one should find something (hopefully short) to focus on, that can give people a quick impression of the program being espoused. What I want to discuss is what turns out to be a fascinating walk through the history of Sudbury schools - namely, the development of the various themes that have appeared over the years as those that define a Sudbury school. It turns out to be a rather surprising and interesting set of themes. After identifying them, I'd like to discuss their usefulness, their limitations and then present my own assessment of what the problem is in conveying to others what a Sudbury school is. So let me take you on a little walk through history which I think you will find as fascinating as I found it when I started exploring this question.


I'll divide the school's history into four eras. The first one I'll call the founding period before the school opened. The first document that publicly appeared about the school came out in November of 1965; it was circulated at that time to various people who might be supportive of the enterprise. It was called "A Radical Proposal". This is how it begins:

A Radical Proposal

- - - To fulfill the educational needs of the community;

- - - To meet the challenge of increasing leisure time for all people;

- - - To arouse intellectual curiosity and, through its continued functioning, to promote creativity in all people;

- - - To raise the individual to the highest potential of his unique capabilities, and encourage introspection and meditation;

- - - To enhance meaningful communication between people;

- - - To revive the integral ties that unite all man's intellectual and aesthetic efforts, and expose the principals that underlie all human activity, by the creation of a Community Education Complex based, on the values: freedom, mutual respect and toleration.1

There are a lot of explicit and implicit themes in that short paragraph and I'd like to go over them just to make sure we don't miss any. In the beginning we have the first mention of the new reality of the post-industrial age - namely, an increase in leisure time. You have to remember that when this was written - in 1965 - very few people were writing about the post-industrial age, and the name "Information Age" really hadn't even been born. The country was embedded in the Industrial Era. Indeed, that time could reasonably be called the climax of the Industrial Era. Those of us who lived through those times remember clearly how the specter of other industrial nations taking over the lead in industrial production was haunting America - for example, the rise of German and Japanese industry out of the ashes of World War II. So the idea that there's a new post-industrial reality looming was something new that we felt was key to what we were going to be doing.

Another theme mentioned is curiosity as a driving force. A little later in the same document there's the following sentence: "Human beings are naturally curious and need only to be allowed to indulge their curiosity."2 "Human beings are naturally curious," is the oft-quoted opening phrase of Aristotle's Metaphysics, so it's not a very new concept, but it seems to be a new concept in the world of education. The idea that curiosity is a driving force in learning certainly was a fresh one.

Immediately following the mention of curiosity is the theme of creativity as an important social and educational goal: the idea that it's worthwhile and important for every individual to be creative. That idea is, even today, far from being accepted. I had a nightmare before the school opened, one that I remember as vividly as if it was yesterday. I remember waking up one morning and thinking that the worst thing that could happen was that we really succeeded, in that person after person would be coming out of the school as highly creative people, doing their own unique individual thing. I thought, "People will look at this and immediately want to close us because we are not producing people who 'fit' - they are all oddballs, they are all doing things that are off the beaten track." I was seriously worried about it. I told this to a good friend of mine, Joseph Agassi, who's an amazingly interesting character and who had many wise pieces of advice for me back then. He looked at me and said, "Don't worry, it won't succeed that well!" - a comment I'm not sure I found that reassuring!

Then there is the theme of the self-realization of the individual, that every individual should be allowed to realize their own internal destinies, as opposed to something that somebody else wants them to realize. Another theme is interpersonal communication as a significant skill - that some form of interpersonal communication is important. This is something that traditional schools discourage - the notion that people should be adept at talking to each other. The sixth theme in this little introductory paper is the equal importance to the human condition of the intellectual and aesthetic sides of an individual. That's an extremely interesting and intriguing theme which is never again mentioned in the literature. I'm going to come back to it later.

Finally, there's the wrap-up in the final sentence of the opening statement. Three more societal themes appear there: freedom, mutual respect, and toleration.

So you see there is a whole list of themes that appear in "A Radical Proposal". None of these individual themes are developed. They're mentioned, they're put out there almost like classic slogans. There are an awful lot of them for a first document! The document itself was not a long one, and after the introduction it went on to outline the school as an institution; but it really didn't go on to develop what was meant by any of these themes.

Let's go now to the next public document. In the spring of 1967 we put out the first brochure that we circulated widely. It was called "Announcing a New School".3 We didn't have a name yet, which is why we just called it "a new school", and in the brochure every time we mentioned the school we inserted blanks ("______ _______School"). Joanie delights in telling that this was the brochure that she received in a mailing, and that it first brought her to the school. Here is what it says:

______ _______ School bases its program on the assumptions that people learn best the things they are most interested in; that they do best the things they learn best and that society profits most from those citizens who are doing the things they can do best.4

One of the first things you notice is that none of the earlier themes is mentioned here - not one! They don't appear at all in that brochure. A whole new set of themes is introduced and these are interesting in themselves. First we are told that mastery of a field depends on interest and involvement. The implication is that forced learning doesn't produce mastery; you can't get people to be good at something by instructing them, making them do things over and over again, and by testing them. This theme is the opposite: people only get to be really good at something if they have a genuine interest in it. Otherwise, you will never get mastery; you may get people who have certain automated skills at it but you won't get mastery.

The second theme - and this is distinct from the first - is that mastery of performance in an area depends on mastery of the underpinnings of that area. In other words, you will be really good at doing something only if you understand what it is that underlies the thing that you're doing; just doing it mechanically won't produce top-level performance. That's not at all an obvious idea; discussions of it go back to Plato's dialogues, where one of the key questions asked by Socrates is: is it important for somebody who's really good at something to understand what he's doing? Socrates talks about it, as he usually does, in practical everyday terms. Is it important for a really great sculptor to understand what underlies the art of sculpture? Socrates, as you'd expect from an intellectual, concluded that it is indeed important. Again, that's a topic scarcely addressed in current traditional education.

Finally, most radical of all, is the theme that society benefits from everyone performing in their areas of mastery. What that says is that you can have a functioning society based completely on randomness. Let everybody do what they're best at, and that's going to end up being best for society as a whole. That idea, of course, harks back to Adam Smith's "Invisible Hand"; it's the free market idea, that it's best if you just let everybody do their thing. He applied it to economics. Here it is applied more generally to society as a whole: let everybody do what they're best at, and things will work out for the best for everyone. The idea was not at all popular in the sixties. In fact, the twentieth century as a whole saw the culmination of the Industrial Age mania for planned societies. The idea of planning a whole society follows naturally from the mechanical model of the universe. You don't build an automobile by throwing together a bunch of steel. You put it together by design, so that every part fits. If your view of the world is mechanical, then if follows that what you have to do with society is plan it thoroughly, so that all the parts fit together smoothly. Today, it's hard to remember how deeply rooted the idea was, only a short while ago, that a planned society is the way to go. We saw it in communism, in fascism, in all the flavors and varieties of socialism, in centralized countries like Japan and Singapore. So in 1965 the assertion that you can just let everybody do what they do best was considered to be way, way out there.

Still in the founding era of the school, we now move forward to the spring of 1968, when we had to write our corporate By-Laws, and the first catalog came out, along with an accompanying booklet. Article II of the By-Laws (Purposes) refers to the purposes for which the corporation was established:

The purpose for which this corporation is formed is to establish and maintain a school for the education of members of the community that is founded upon the principle that learning is best fostered by self-motivation, self-regulation, and self-criticism; provides a curriculum, determined by the interests of students and teachers, in which equal status shall be given to all pursuits; encourages members of the community to participate in teaching, learning and other school activities so that the school may become an integral part of the community; allows the opportunities and responsibilities of governing the school to be shared among students, parents, teachers, other employees, and representatives of the community; and maintains a flexible structure which, while being free to adhere to valid traditional forms, will be also free to create new ones.

That statement of purposes still stands today. It contains a whole new set of themes. With regard to the theme of self-motivation, here we have no hint of the earlier reference (in "Radical Proposal") of arousing curiosity. Here we have curiosity being the driving force from within. Even though there were hints of that in the earlier document, here it becomes explicit.

Self-regulation is introduced here for the first time. We rely completely on the child's idea of when, how, where and what to do. There's no way that we're going to adhere to any outside benchmarks of "age level" or "appropriateness".

Self-criticism is also introduced here for the first time: the idea that assessments have to be performed only at the child's initiative. The school recognizes that each child sets their own personal goals, has their own personal idea of what standards they want to achieve and then measures themselves against those standards. They might ask for help in making such assessments, but the school rejects explicitly any outside authority for assessing students. It rejects explicitly the idea that somebody else should tell you authoritatively whether you are writing a good essay, or whether the music that you've composed is up to par.

Finally, there is the theme of equal status to all pursuits, which is an overt break with the prevalent conception that there are certain things that are essential for every child to know - a conception that we have to struggle against all the time. For us, whatever the child decides to pursue is what we support for that child.

Another theme implicit in the content of the By-Laws is democratic governance. Indeed, the By-Laws contain the first explicit mention of a democratic structure for the school; they spell out in detail who the stakeholders are: students, parents, teachers, other employees - the concept of staff hadn't been born yet - and representatives of the community (namely, trustees and public members). This is really a new idea in education, to encompass all of the stakeholders in the various decision-making processes of the school.

The school's first catalog repeats several of the themes I've mentioned. However, when we get to About the Sudbury Valley School, which went into the school's goals in greater depth,5 we find a chapter entitled "Key Educational and Organizational Features of the School". The key features are listed and discussed. Here is the list, without the attached discussions and explanations:

Learning through self-motivation and self-regulation.
Equal status to all pursuits.
Evaluation through self-criticism.
Teaching based on interest.
Spontaneous formation of learning groups centered on common interests.
All can learn and all can teach.
[equal status]
Parents are directly involved in the education of their children.
All members of the school community participate in regulating the school's activities.
[stakeholders, again]
The school is an integral part of the community.

The booklet goes on to declare for the first time that we're not dealing with a cumulative list here, but with a mutually related list. This is the first glimmer of what I'm calling here a "tapestry":

Although all the key features of The Sudbury Valley School can be found exemplified somewhere in the educational scene, no single school incorporates all (or even most) of them. Yet, our school is not simply distinguished by an accumulation of independent educational innovations. It is not a question of compiling a list of novelties. We feel that all the features are organically related, that they require one another.

The use of the word "organically" here isn't an accident - it's not used loosely, but rather it's used in the sense that the distinguished philosopher Max Kadushin used it in his seminal work Organic Thinking. I'll return to this later because it's a very important concept, one that is necessary for an understanding of virtually any culture's set of values.

In addition there's a section in the booklet entitled "Some of the things We Hope to Achieve in the School" where two new themes are introduced. The first of these is joy of learning:

The openness of the school, the variety of its offerings, and the lack of coercion all should maximize the inherent pleasure we all get from learning what interests us. We expect people to derive satisfaction out of what they are doing, and pleasure out of their self-attained achievement.

The joy of learning should not be confused with the idea that all learning is "fun," where by "fun" we usually mean "entertainment." We are not concerned with entertaining people in the school; indeed, since we do not force people to do things against their will, we have no need to keep them "happy" while being coerced. The joy we are referring to is a deeper joy, which stems from the satisfaction everyone feels at a job well done - a satisfaction that usually increases with the difficulty of the achievement.

The second new theme is moral sensitivity:

In an environment where every person has genuine responsibility for his actions, we expect every individual to develop heightened sensitivity to ethical issues, of both private and interpersonal nature. Real options will constantly be offered, and real choices will have to be made. It is against a real-life background such as this that ethical questions are cast, that discussions of moral principles are held, and that meaningful answers are sought. Thus, in the school, the development of moral sensitivity will not be a matter for preachment, or for pure abstraction. Conceptual analyses will be integrally linked to daily actions, and will be refined through growing experience.

Anybody who has ever been at a School Meeting or in a JC meeting knows exactly what we're talking about, but it's worth noting that this was written before the school opened, before we had a chance to see the school in action.

You can see that during the founding period we had identified no fewer than eighteen themes associated with the project. Most of them set the school apart from traditional education, and it's a daunting prospect for any kind of focused exposition or PR if you've got eighteen themes! It was even more daunting during the early years, when all of these had to be carried around in our heads in order to be aware that we were actually doing what we said we were going to do. It's a lot of themes to keep fresh in your memory.

An interesting question to consider is the following: In advance of the opening, what did we think the school was going to look like? In fact, these themes created in our minds a picture that was radically different from the school that actually happened - we had a picture of a place with a lot of non-compulsory classes, a smorgasbord of instruction, lots of teachers (both hired and volunteers), lots of free time, and a complex government with different loci of self rule (School Meeting, staff, Trustees, Assembly). As it turned out, the closest actualizations of the kind of school that we envisioned before we opened are Hadera and it sister schools in Israel, which came into being decades later. For us, however, in the summer of 1968 when we opened, the reality of what happened changed our perception of what it was that we were thinking about very quickly. We had opened on July 1 with the hope that people who came in the summer would experience us and then want to stay in the fall. As you might expect, we had tons of volunteers - professors, famous people from all over; it was the sixties! Everybody wanted to be part of this great new "free school", the first in the region. They came out here, announced all their classes - there was a big list all on the bulletin board - and they stationed themselves on porches and under trees and in rooms. And nobody came! Or worse, some students would come the first time and then not return. This engendered a large contingent of very bitter and angry people in the academic community who were convinced that the reason this happened was because we were "anti-intellectual" and somehow discouraging "serious" learning. That quickly got the smorgasbord idea out of our heads.


The second era consists of the early years of the school, when we gained some new perspectives based on the practices of the school. Let me turn to the first book published by the school, The Crisis in American Education.6 This was the first time that the school was linked directly to themes that underlie American culture. Specifically, the book identifies three of them:

The first of these is the idea of Individual Rights: every person is endowed with certain "inalienable rights," rights that belong to him as his own, as his inherent possession - not granted as a gift by some benevolent ruler, not given as a privilege by an all-powerful state, but belonging to him, without qualification, as his rights. They cannot be removed, or explained away; nor can they be violated by any person, government, or power, as long as law and order prevail. . . . [p. 20]

The second root idea is Political Democracy: all decisions governing the community are decided by the community in a politically democratic way. The first root idea, of Individual Rights, covers those actions in a person's life that primarily affect himself, and for which he is individually responsible. The second root idea, of Political Democracy, covers those actions that primarily affect other people, and for which the community is responsible. . . . [p. 23]

The third root idea is Equal Opportunity: every person has an equal chance to obtain any goal. There is no privilege in America, a phenomenon stressed even in our written Constitution. People are born equal, and they start out with equal chances in life.

Present-day realities fall far short of realizing this idea, but that should not blind us to the existence of the idea and to the immense role it has always played in our history. [pp. 26-27]

We have here two explicit new themes that haven't appeared before. The first is children's rights. This is the first time that the school gets identified specifically with the movement for children's rights which, by the way, had not started yet back then in any real sense. The second is equal opportunity: one shouldn't differentiate between people on the basis of any kind of external criterion - age, gender, intelligence, class, wealth, or anything else. Every child must have equal a priori access to all aspects of the school.

In the mid 1970's we decided to produce a new catalog. It's a little confusing because we called it About the Sudbury Valley School, but it was not at all like the booklet of that name, referred to earlier, that had accompanied our first catalog. We were very proud of the new catalog because, for the first time, it incorporated (black and white) photographs of life at school. Once again, the catalog sets out to explain what the school is about to people in ways that they can grasp. To help matters, we came up with a new concept to be emphasized in that catalog:

More than anything, we wanted people to experience the full meaning of responsibility. We wanted them to know what it is to be a responsible person - not just from books, or lectures, or sermons, but from every day experience.

The way we saw it, responsibility means that each person has to carry the ball for himself. You, and you alone, must make your decisions, and you must live with them. No one should be thinking for you, and no one should be protecting you from the consequences of your actions. This, we felt, is essential if you want to be independent, self-directed, and the master of your own destiny.

The last sentence repeats old themes but the new theme front and center is responsibility. That word came to be used with increasing frequency over time, and is central to our criterion for graduation, which reads:

Sudbury Valley offers a diploma to students who have, in the judgment of the school community, adequately defended the thesis that they have taken responsibility for preparing themselves to be effective adults in the larger community.7

A bit further in the catalog we read:

More than anything [sic - again!] we sought an environment that is open, honest, trustworthy, and free of fear.

Here we come face to face with two new themes. One is trust. We expect and value trustworthiness in everybody. This is reflected, for example, in the absence of locks, or of any monitoring of JC sentences. Trust is paramount: that's one of the reasons that in Sudbury Valley - and I imagine in other Sudbury schools - when people steal, for example, the community reacts strongly. Theft is a violation of trust. It's considered one of the most destructive acts a student can do, not because someone lost fifty cents or a dollar, or whatever it is that the victim has lost, but because trust is crucial to the whole community.

The second new theme here is freedom from fear. This is one of the four freedoms that Roosevelt and Churchill announced in 1941 in the famous Atlantic Charter which they promulgated well before the United States entered the Second World War. It was out of a sense of solidarity between the United States and Great Britain (which was deeply involved in the war by then) that the two leaders declared their support for "four freedoms" for all people as their right; one of these was freedom from fear. Here is what we said about it:

Fear of power and authority was another thing we wanted to abolish from the school. We were not concerned about people having authority. Authority in and of itself can be good or bad, depending on many things. Some situations need persons in authority - an apprentice learning situation, for example, or a business.

The main question is how people get their authority, and how it is controlled once they get it. You are not afraid of a person in a position of power if you understand why he is there, if you had a hand in putting him there, and if you can keep an eye on everything he does. What you are afraid of is arbitrary authority, authority that excludes you from participation, over which you have no control. We were determined that no person in the school, whether student or staff or parent or guest, should have any cause to fear the authority of anyone associated with the school. This more than anything would make it possible for one person to look another straight in the eye regardless of age or sex or position or knowledge or background.

This is something we talk about a lot: the ability of children to look adults in the eye. People of all stripes from all corners of the earth who come to the school, whether they like us or hate us, all comment on the fact that the minute that they arrive on our campus students of any age - four year olds, eight year olds, teens who are usually sullen and surly towards adults - will look them in the eye and say, "Can I help you?" and if they say, "Where's the office?", they'll be directed to their proper destination in a very friendly way.8


Let's proceed to the third era, the middle years, the 1980's. In the 1980's we published the book The Sudbury Valley School Experience.9 It is a collection of essays that first appeared in The Sudbury Valley School Newsletter (now called The Sudbury Valley School Journal). One essay was entitled, "Sudbury Valley's Secret Weapon: Allowing People of Different Ages to Mix Freely at School"10. That's the first time two related themes were mentioned and discussed. One is freedom of assembly: the importance of allowing children of all ages, and adults, to mix freely. We have always taken that for granted here at school, but it is an idea that is totally alien to the traditional educational community. There's a reason it's totally alien, a reason connected to freedom from fear - namely, that if you mix kids of all ages freely in traditional schools, they'll beat the living daylights out of each other11. Often, people who hear about age mixing for the first time and have never experienced a Sudbury school will ask, "Don't the teens beat each other up? Don't the older teens beat up the younger teens? Don't teens beat up little kids? Don't ten year olds beat up seven year olds? Especially little kids - aren't they in constant danger of being mauled?"

The second new theme in that essay is age mixing as an aid to learning. Again, this is not a theme that was common back then. Today, the resurgence of interest in the work of the Russian psychologist Vigotsky has popularized the idea of children learning from other children of different ages. He talks about a "zone of proximal development" ("ZPD") which is a nice turn of phrase referring to a setup where children relate to other children who are within a certain range of their own skills. This situation benefits both sides: the kids reaching up a little beyond themselves to attain new achievements, and the kids further advanced who perfect their knowledge by serving as master teachers for the younger kids. To be honest, we had never heard of Vigotsky. Very few people had heard of Vigotsky back then. But our concept of age mixing is more far-reaching than his. Ours talks about the aid to learning provided by mixing of all ages. That is a different idea, and it's still not an idea that's widely accepted.12 There are no other educational environments in which such diverse cross-age interactions take place, and what we often see is something very different from "proximal development". We see people reaching way out, leaping over huge chasms of age separation, taking as examples people way ahead of them or mentoring children way younger. This is something crucial to the way people learn in the Information Age. Today, young kids turn on the TV, or their CD players, or their VCR's, and they connect to the best in the world. So in real life we're not seeing proximal development. We're seeing a far more exciting and far-reaching phenomenon.

We learned the value of that in a striking way in our own family. When the school first opened, we had a smoking room in the building. The kids who were in the smoking room in '68 and '69 were flower children, and their conversations often consisted of accounts of their various drug experiences. Of course, they also listened to rock 'n roll all day. Lo and behold, two of the children who had the best time in that smoking room for hours on end were our son and Joan's son, both seven years old at the time. Let me tell you, that puts you to a test of your convictions: is it really okay for seven year old kids to be hanging around kids who are talking about their trips and highs and whatever else? We stayed our course, but I can't say we weren't anxious. It was many years later, when our son was in his teens, that out of the blue one day he said to us that one of the best things that ever happened to him was hanging out in the smoking room when he was a little kid. We casually asked, "What do you mean?" and he answered, "I loved the music - I loved the rock 'n roll - but I saw how drugs screwed up these kids' heads and I never wanted to have anything to do with them when I grew up."

Now I'm not saying that the same result will happen with every seven year old, but that's the challenge of allowing age mixing to take place.

That was also the year we produced our first flyer to put in libraries and other public places. Despite its brevity, the flyers adds a new theme: "in our free environment the natural differences between children are respected and encouraged." This is the first mention of the theme of diversity. What this is saying is that anytime you have a group of people who are really free to develop their own unique personalities, you have diversity. That real diversity is a universal human phenomenon, as opposed to diversity based on external characteristics such as race, income, or any other criterion. This theme states explicitly that, in our view, diversity lies in people being different by their very nature.

The new catalog format we started adopting in that period was a significant departure from the About I mentioned earlier. We decided to scrap the verbiage and go for minimalism in words. In addition, we added lots of photographs. Over the years, we have gone through two different sets of black-and-white pictures and two different sets of color pictures, but the text has remained fairly constant up to the present. The introduction repeats no less than eleven of the themes that we've already discussed, on one short page! It's really asking a lot of the reader!

Sudbury Valley School is a place where people decide for themselves how to spend their days.

Here, students of all ages determine what they will do, as well as when, how, and where they will do it. This freedom is at the heart of the school; it belongs to the student as their right, not to be violated.

The fundamental premises of the schools are simple: that all people are curious by nature; that the most efficient, long lasting, and profound learning takes place when started and pursued by the learner; that all people are creative if they are allowed to develop their unique talents; that age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group; and that freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility.

In practice this means that students initiate all their own activities and create their own environments. The physical plant, the staff, and the equipment are there for the students to use as the need arises.

The school provides a setting in which students are independent, are trusted, and are treated as responsible people; and a community in which students are exposed to the complexities of life in the framework of a participatory democracy.


Let's go to the last era, the nineties up to the present. In 1997-98 there was a series of lectures called "The Twenty-fifth Anniversary Lectures" in which we reviewed what it was that we were about and what we had learned from our experience. In them, we tried to deepen our understanding of some of the themes that made up the school. Those lectures,13 and the book A Clearer View that was published from them,14 brought to the fore two themes that weren't really adequately appreciated in the earlier years. One of these is play - the inherent value of unfettered, free play, and how central it is to the idea of the school. Play was always there as an activity. When people would ask, "What do kids do at SVS?" we always replied that they play. But over the years the importance of play became clear to us, as an essential activity in the growth of children and in the lives of adults as well. Even seeing staff members at play is not seeing staff members wasting their time when they should be doing something "useful"!

The second theme that was stressed was the importance of conversation to human development - once again, free, unfettered conversation; the idea that there's no distinction between trivial conversation and significant conversation. People would ask us,"What do the kids talk about at school? Do they talk about important things? Do they talk about ethical issues, history, politics?" The idea that free-flowing conversation is important is something that only really came to be appreciated after several decades in the school. I don't think it can be put better than it was in the essay taken from an interview with Michael Greenberg entitled "The Magic of Conversation":15

Then there's the relationship between talking and thinking. That's another reason I think people spend a lot of time talking. The human mind is in a flow that's very like a conversation in a certain sense. One's own internal self isn't neatly organized into chapters and paragraphs and nice conventions of writing. It's much more like talking, because who you are and who you become over the years of being yourself has, in a certain grand scale, a lot of the same elements that a long, deep conversation has. 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 and yet, at the same time, its character is its own definition. Who you are is this weird accumulation of all those random thoughts you've had lined up in a row, the way a conversation is, the way all those things you talk about line up in a row. How you talk and who you are are very much linked together somehow, and you can't just separate one from another without a feeling of falseness or a feeling of being removed from the reality of the situation.

In that same article there's something quite striking that has moved front and center for me recently. It took me a while in my own developing understanding of things before I really understood what it meant:

I've argued for a long time that there are three activities everybody does regardless of culture: make music, decorate things, and talk. The rest is up for grabs. Not every culture by a long shot even has writing. Talking, making music, and decorating things are the three things that seem to be basically hardwired into the brains of everybody, that seem to happen in every group no matter how large or how small. The fact is that people invent their own languages, no matter how tiny the group; all have a very specific way of decorating their pottery or their bodies or something - whatever it is they can decorate, they decorate; and all have some kind of music that comes out of their own experience. To me, this says there are three modes of expression that almost tumble out of the human brain unbidden, as it were. They're just part of who we are.

That's the theme of the arts as an essential component of the human experience: the centrality of arts in the development of children as full people and in their subsequent lives as adults. This theme is completely unrecognized in mainstream education where the arts are regulated to some sort of a sideshow - an occasional music or art class. In Sudbury schools the arts are allowed to take their natural central place in the lives of children. In every Sudbury school they're listening to music, they've got their CD players, they've got their Walkmans, they've got their stereos, they're performing, they're playing, they're in the art room, they're decorating - the arts are ubiquitous and virtually universal.


I've taken you through all the various periods of the school, and I've taken you through an awful lot of themes. I think by now we can see that the number is ridiculous if looked at from the vantage point of propaganda, as something you can grab to make a slogan, as something you can use to convey easily what the school is about in an hour's interview.16 This paper could easily have been book-length if I had elaborated on each of these themes - for example, if it were written for an audience that didn't know at all what I was talking about. What I want to end with is a brief discussion of the nature of "a tapestry of themes", because that's what this is. It's not a mere collection. It's a tapestry. To understand this, I have to turn to Max Kadushin's work that I mentioned earlier. A summary of Kadushin's key insight is presented in an appendix to the book A New Look at Schools,17 and I want to quote some relevant excerpts here:

Social values or ideals cannot be coordinated into a logical system. Whenever this has been attempted, religion has been constricted into dogmas and ethics hardened into the rules of the doctrinaire. Logic has its rightful place, to be sure, in these enterprises of the human mind and spirit, but when it seeks to lay the foundations of conduct its efforts are futile when they are not harmful. A well-ordered, logical, hence uniform, system negates that very complexity which is the chief characteristic of human motives and conduct. It takes no account of the differences between individuals, nor of the uniqueness of every ethical situation. In short, it runs counter to all the forces and factors that make the human scene human.

Every historic group possesses its own distinctive traditions, every individual his own peculiar character, every ethical situation its own unique quality. If no order whatsoever inhered within such variety, then any attempt to study human institutions were foredoomed to failure. On the other hand, should we impose a logical order upon these institutions, then the variety which distinguishes them disappears from view. Is there no alternative here between chaos and logic? . . . I believe that there is an alternative; and that in discovering it we come upon an articulation of thought and values more complicated than that which can be devised by logic, complicated and flexible enough, indeed, to allow for both the variety of mankind's traditions and the distinctiveness of the individual's character. . . . This type of thinking, . . . is universal, whilst local in content and individualistic in configuration. It is not logical but organismic: Each organismic pattern of thought or organic complex has its own distinctive individuality, - each social pattern and each individual variation of it . . .

All the organic concepts . . . are integrated with one another, inextricably intertwine with each other. Every organic concept possesses its own individuality and cannot be inferred from any other concept. . . . And, finally, the individuality of the organic concepts and the process of the integration of the organic complex as a whole are not separable, in other words, the wholeness of the organic complex and the particularity of the individual organic concept are mutually interdependent. Our definition, then, would be: Organic concepts are concepts in a whole complex of concepts none of which can be inferred from the others but all of which are so mutually interrelated that every individual concept, though possessing its own distinctive features, nevertheless depends for its character on the character of the complex as a whole which, in turn, depends on the character of the individual concepts. Each organic concept, therefore, implicates the whole complex without being completely descriptive of the complex, retaining, at the same time, its own distinctive features. . . .

There is a continuous process of the concretization of the concept. We must always remember that we are dealing here with facts of moment-to-moment experience; hence, as the concept is concretized the facts of experience take on meaning thus given them by the concept, are colored by the concept, and to that extent are determined by the concept. . . . Being concrete situations, they need not always be explicitly characterized by the concepts which illumine them with significance or meaning. Even when organic concepts are but implicit or imbedded in events, situations, attitudes, facts, the latter are nonetheless seen to be concretizations of the concepts. . . . The organic concepts, then, are continually applied to the constant stream of experience. They canalize that stream, or, to drop the figure, they continually interpret or determine the facts, give meaning to them.

That passage is right to the point. We've got a set of concepts that are interlinked. They're not definable by logic and this is the reason so many of these concepts, when they're applied logically by other people, end up being mockeries of what our system is like. This is why you cannot take one, or two, or three of these concepts and adapt them in a meaningful way to an existing school based on a wholly different model. That's what a tapestry of themes is about. It's an organic complex - it cannot be broken up into isolated, independent components. The Sudbury model is based on such a tapestry. Put another way, this implies that the Sudbury model is basically a culture. We've been trying to say this over the years in different ways. We tried for a while to talk about the school being "a community", but that's not what it is. We tried to talk about it being "like a village", but that's not what it is. The school is a culture. It's defined by an organic complex of themes, and I'm sure we haven't even discovered all the themes yet. But as we discover new ones over the coming years, they will integrate themselves into the tapestry.18

Kadushin also makes the crucial point that the complex of themes that make up a culture become realized on a daily basis unconsciously, in all the many actions performed by members of the culture, and the actions in turn give the themes their vitality, enrich them, and deepen our understanding of them.19 Kadushin calls this process "the concretization of the values". We see it all the time. We see it in all of our debates. When we're sitting in the JC or in a School Meeting and we're trying to understand a rule, or make sense out of some situation, or wonder whether some proposal is compatible with the school, what we're talking about is how the tapestry of themes realizes itself in a daily event, in a real life experience. Every time we have another experience our understanding of the themes deepens, so that as we become older and more mature in our understanding of the culture we can say, "Oh, yes, that theme. That's like what happened in the School Meeting back then"; or, "That resembles what happened in the JC that particular time." In this way, we can call upon the rich experience of concretizations to deepen our understanding of the themes.

That's why you feel a Sudbury model school, because that's what happens with cultures, and only with cultures. When foreigners come to the United States they don't feel a list of things - "freedom", "democracy", "the bill of rights", and so forth. They feel that they've landed in a particular culture, and it's hard for them to "get it", just like it's hard for me if I land in France or in China or in a culture that I don't have a way to understand. I feel I'm in a different culture, I feel things happening around me and values concretizing themselves in actions that I don't understand, but that appear to have a wholeness about them.20

How do you get acclimated to a culture? That's something we know all too well: only by immersion, and even then you're lucky if you succeed. Indeed, many staff members have told me, in Sudbury Valley and in other schools - not to mention the original founders of Sudbury Valley, who would echo the same thing - that it took them three to four years to become really good staff members. That doesn't mean that they couldn't be reelected and that doesn't mean that the kids didn't like them or that they weren't useful; it means it took them years to become immersed and to understand the tapestry of themes that make up the culture and concretize themselves in the thousands of activities and events that go on every day. That's what it means when students say, as they so often do, "It took me two years until I really understood the school." Even students who are comfortable in the school right away will tell you a year later, two years later, "Wow, it really took me a while to get what this place was about." We haven't truly understood what they're saying until now. What they're saying is that to comprehend the culture in its complexity you have to be immersed in it for a long time.

That means that the challenge of telling people what the school is about is more than daunting; it verges on the impossible. How impossible it is you can see from the experience of a national culture, that of the United States. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we're seeing the United States trying to export its culture all over the world, and a lot of the world trying hard to import that culture. But it doesn't work, because it can't be done. They'll institute democratic elections, and they'll find out that democratic elections don't make American culture. Stalin was elected "democratically" with 99.8% of the vote every time! Every single communist country was called a "democratic republic". American culture does not consist of a laundry list of characteristics. Often immigrants will tell you, "Now I'm an American," after three or four years. They don't mean they're glad to get rid of their native culture, because a lot of times they'll maintain that culture; but they finally feel that they're American. In fact, it's part of the American complex of ideas to keep your native culture. But at the same time you become an American by immersion.

So how do we Sudbury schools deal with this situation? I don't know. We're not going to stop giving interviews, we're not going to stop writing brochures, we're not going to stop doing PR. But what we've got to stop doing is thinking that when we engage in those activities, we're actually succeeding in explaining what the school is about. We've got to understand that, no matter what we say at the interview, the people we're talking to can't hear it. They hear it, but they also don't hear it, because they can't relate what they hear organically to the rest of their experience. It doesn't fit their culture yet, so it drops out of their consciousness.

I don't have an answer for this problem. I don't think there is a satisfactory answer. I think the solution is for us to understand that we are a culture, and all that this implies. All I wanted to do here was to convey that I felt that I now understood something for the first time in a fullness that I had never experienced before. And all that means is that I look at the problem differently and I know that I have different kind of challenge than what I thought I had, because I thought it meant drawing up the right list or the right sales document, or the right catalog, or the right whatever, and it isn't. That's all. It's the best I can do.

How, then, do we define Sudbury schools? I have never been able to figure out how to do this. No list of attributes ever made sense to me, in and of itself, but I couldn't say why. Now I can say why. The truth of the matter is that you define a Sudbury school by visiting it and feeling it. When you walk into it, you will know very quickly whether or not it's a Sudbury school. It can have five students, fifty students, or a hundred and fifty students; it makes no difference. Since I don't know how to define a culture, I don't want to go around making believe that I do. Because in the last analysis, it's a tapestry of themes that makes up the Sudbury model, a tapestry that defies simple logical analysis.


1. Announcing a New School (The Sudbury Valley School Press; Framingham, 1973), Appendix 1, p. 111.

2. loc. cit.

3. Which is the reason the book about the founding of the school was called Announcing a New School.

4. Ibid., Appendix 3, p. 161

5. The booklet was widely distributed along with the catalog before and after the school was opened.

6. The Sudbury Valley School Press, 1970. This book was a "best-seller". We sold over seven thousand copies in a very short period of time - which was a lot for that time.

7. To give credit where credit is due: in the early years when we were trying to figure out how we could possibly structure a diploma requirement, the person who solved that dilemma for us was Alan White. The essence of the criterion he suggested has survived all subsequent revisions of the school's diploma procedure.

8. As a recent visitor wrote to us: "My brief visit to Sudbury Valley School was pleasurable. The grounds are exquisite, students are purposefully interacting or moving about without adult directives and everyone that I encountered greeted me with a friendly smile" [emphasis added].

9. The Sudbury Valley School Press; currently available in its 3rd edition, 1992.

10. Ibid., pp. 121-136.

11. This is the observation that creates the underlying premise for the infamous book Lord of the Flies, a premise that assumes a universal condition extrapolated from the situation that prevails in traditional schools.

12. Research published recently by Peter Gray along with Jay Feldman, a Ph.D student of his, studied this phenomenon in Sudbury Valley. See "Patterns of Age Mixing and Gender Mixing Among Children and Adolescents at an Ungraded Democratic School," Peter Gray and Jay Feldman, Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, January 1997, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp67ff. Hopefully this work will spawn new studies that elaborate on the value of age mixing in an educational environment.

13. Available as a 6 tape boxed set, A Clearer View: The Thirtieth Anniversary Lectures: What We Know Now That We Didn't Know Thirty Years Ago, The Sudbury Valley School Press, 1998.

14. The Sudbury Valley School Press, 2000.

15. The Sudbury Valley School Journal, November 2001.

16. The number I have identified and listed here comes to a total of twenty-nine.

17. The Sudbury Valley School Press, 1992.

18. In fact, during the Question and Answer period after the talk on which this paper is based, a new theme was brought up by a person in the audience who is a staff member at a Sudbury school in Illinois: "Another thing that I've noticed, and it's really from seeing M. [a fellow staff member whose entire schooling was at Sudbury Valley]. What I see as risk, kids who grow up in this model don't see that way. It doesn't mean that they're reckless. It's this organic living. I see M. having a career and getting really good at it, at which point most people then go into coast mode, and his thing is, 'Ok, been there, done that, move on.' That risk thing, that's the essence of being a lifelong learner. That's confidence that you can succeed." The value involved here is risk-taking (and the self-confidence that this involves).

In the interim between the time of the talk and the final preparation of this paper, I realized that another value that has played a huge role in the history of the school was entirely omitted from my discussion - namely, excellence. This has been written about a great deal; for example, in the chapter entitled "The Pursuit of Excellence and Democratic Schools" in my book Worlds in Creation (The Sudbury Valley School Press, 1994), pp. 65ff.

19. During the Q&A period, the following exchange took place, which illustrates this point excellently: [A staff member at a Sudbury school in Illinois] "When we first started out I felt like we felt that we as staff couldn't play at all - that we had to just constantly be doing work so that we would leave the kids alone and not interfere with them. I learned so much from watching M. because he was so natural there and he did play. It wasn't like an adult deciding, 'I'm going to play with the kids now.' It was just a very natural extension of who he was and that made me realize I had to reassess what I thought about the role of staff.

[D.G.] "This is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. Treated linearly and logically, play and responsibility are two isolated concepts that seem to clash, that you can't define adequately, and that you don't know what to do with. So you're looking at a staff member playing and you're saying, "Is he responsible?" Or you're looking at a staff member sitting in the office and doing paper work and you're saying, "Why isn't he spending more time with the kids?" In a culture you don't ask those kinds of questions. You don't analyze them every minute. You do them. For people who have grown up in the model, their value system is being acted on all the time. It's the essence of an organic complex - you never think about it. You can analyze it later, but when you're doing it, you're not thinking about it. Later you can say, 'Let me see now, what I was doing was A, B and C. I wonder how that fits into the Sudbury model.' But when you're actually living the model, you don't stop to analyze it.

"I don't know how to help new staff; it's all I can do to help myself in situations like that because I'm still learning. But I know that the people who have grown up in the school don't need that kind of help. They are comfortable living within the organic complex."

20. This ability to feel a culture is related to another factor that was elucidated in the Q&A period. An attendee commented: "When I came to my first Workshop several years ago I noticed how the teenagers were with the kids. What I noticed was peripheral attention. It came to me that there's not a 'Oh, let me entice you into this activity,' or, 'Let me judge whether what you're doing is good or bad or useful or not useful to your life,' but, 'I'm going to watch and see what each other person does here.' One of the teenagers saw my young child and didn't come close, just said 'Hi.' I know he adores her because he's told me that, but it was the perfect thing. Another time, one of the teenagers saw she was unhappy and said, 'Do you want to color in H.'s book?' So there's something in that I'd love for you to address, because it reached me as a foreigner that it's part of the culture, but I needed more understanding."

[D.G.]: "The peripherality is exactly the point. Using the word 'peripheral' is a reflection of the logical way of thinking, because the logical way of thinking separates out what you're focusing on and treats everything else as peripheral. The whole point of an organic complex is that your peripheral vision is an integral part of your whole vision. That's what a culture is. It links everything. It's so hard to convey this to parents in an interview: for example, you tell parents that the school is such a safe place, because all the kids are always looking out for each other. People simply don't understand it, because what it means to them is that all the kids are constantly going around asking, 'Are you ok? Are you ok?' And since that clearly isn't happening, they tend to dismiss our claim. After all, it looks as if is the kids are 'doing their own thing' all day. Yet, anybody who's been part of a Sudbury school knows that if somebody across the way falls and scratches themselves and starts crying there are twenty people going beeline across to them, tending to them, sending one person down to find a staff member - a much quicker response than any monitoring adult could give. They're not aware or conscious of the fact that they're watching each other. They're not thinking about 'taking responsibility,' even though their actions are a perfect concretization of communal responsibility. They're not stopping to analyze their value system, because the whole complex is in their heads. It's what their culture is. So the 'peripheral' part is really what it's all about. It's all peripheral, and at the same time it's not peripheral at all."

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