Note: This essay is based on a talk given at Framingham State College in November 2007.
When people write about schools, they usually talk about curriculum, program, management, pedagogy, and other such matters. I’m not going to do that at all. Instead, I’m going to take you, the reader, on an intellectual journey which will cover some more basic questions. My hope is that, in the end, the ideal school for today will emerge from the discussion as an inevitability.
The questions I’ll deal with didn’t just come out of the blue. When a group of us, years ago, started thinking about founding a new school, we were all deeply dissatisfied with the educational system, each from his or her own perspective. For example, I used to teach physics at a university level. One of the things that I came to learn after many years was that what I said made very little difference: hardly any students paid the slightest bit of attention. The subject-matter retention rate was close to zero, except for the people who were physics majors. Physics didn’t interest the others in the least; it was something they had to do. I would work hard to make the subject interesting. I learned and employed many time-worn pedagogical tricks: motivate the students, make it interesting, give them a good time, make them enjoy the class, don’t make it tedious. I would have all kinds of wonderfully entertaining presentations about this or that subject – and then I’d give a quiz, only to discover that everything I taught had disappeared. The only thing that surfaced in the quiz was a repeat of what was in the textbook, because they hadn’t been paying the slightest bit of attention to what was going on in class.
I remember struggling with that for years. I talked to my colleagues. The usual reaction was: students these days aren’t what they used to be; they’re not intellectually interested in what’s going on. The bottom line was: get used to it! It made no difference what approach I used, nothing stuck. One day it dawned on me that it was absolutely pointless to try to drill stuff into the heads of people when they’re just plain not interested. What I was doing was futile. That was my personal experience. It took me a long time to realize it wasn’t me.
To give an idea of the diversity of the group that set up Sudbury Valley School, consider my wife. She almost failed every class she ever had in school, she never did a stitch of homework, she thought school was completely boring and irrelevant, and she simply didn’t pay attention for twelve years. When she was finished with high school, she decided she was really interested in biochemistry – which, by the way, they never let her study in high school because she was considered “too stupid” to learn science, since she was barely passing all of her courses. When she got to college and graduate school, they just cared about how she did in subjects in which she was interested; as a result, she came to her studies from a completely different viewpoint. She became a researcher in biochemistry and received a Ph.D. from Columbia University. As a child, she had understood that most of the stuff she was being taught was useless to her. Why waste her childhood? She was out there playing, while I was wasting my childhood getting good grades!
So the various founders of the school came with vastly different perspectives. What we had in common was our discontent. When we got together, we realized that there was no point in tinkering with the system. We realized that if so many people, from such varied backgrounds, have such a wide variety of discontents, there’s something deeper going on. What we did was ask ourselves some very basic questions. I’m going to review some of these questions here, in order to show how we answered them – how the outcome we reached from our considerations became Sudbury Valley School.
Let’s start at the beginning with the simplest question: what is education? If you look in the dictionary, or if you talk to educators, they’ll answer: education is about school, it’s about pedagogy, it’s about teaching things, it’s about getting knowledge into people. The American Heritage Dictionary, which is a good standard dictionary, also falls into that trap. It starts by saying that education is “the act of imparting knowledge or skill; systematic instruction; teaching; schooling.” But if you look at the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, which likes to tell you where the words have come from originally, you find that it begins with the definition: “the process of nourishing or rearing.” That comes from the Latin verb educare, which means “to lead out, to bring out, to elicit, to draw forth”. That’s what education meant to the ancient Greeks, the first people who talked explicitly about education. It was a process of bringing out what’s in you, of realizing your fullest potential.
It’s interesting how far the Greeks went with that. They were convinced that real education consisted of bringing out what’s inside you – not putting something into you, but bringing out what’s inside you. Plato has a fascinating dialogue that deals with the whole question of the nature of education. Socrates is struggling with the idea of education, and finally he comes to the conclusion that there is no way ever to learn something new. It’s one of those little vignettes that I wish everybody read, because it really mixes you up completely. There’s no way to learn something new, he says, because in order to learn something you’ve got to know what it is you want to learn. If you set out to go to New York, you’ve got to know where New York is. You don’t set out in some random direction! But if you know what it is you want to learn, it’s not new. Therefore, says Socrates, you may be under the illusion that what you’re learning is new, but the minute you say, “I’m trying to learn this new thing,” what you’re really doing is finding something that’s already inside you. He ends with the well known Greek myth that every person is born with all the knowledge that exists, and at the moment of birth it’s all forgotten; the rest of life consists of trying to recall it, a process called “learning” – i.e., discovering what’s inside you.
I’m not here to promote that idea, but rather the notion that the Greeks understood that the real point of education is to nurture what’s inside you and allow it to reach its highest potential.
Now, that’s quite abstract, so I’m going to focus on a second, related, question: what is the meaning of education in America?1 That’s when things become really interesting, because this is one area in which America, from the moment of its inception, was fundamentally different from any other country – self-consciously different. The founding fathers, when they wrote the Declaration of Independence, included a sentence that Americans are all familiar with: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. Nobody ever said that before. No country had ever been founded on those principles. The real giveaway that nobody had ever done it before is the phrase we hold these truths to be self-evident. When you want to make a point that you know is outrageous, it’s common to say: “Of course this is true,” or “as we all know.” You use that kind of language when you’re least sure!
The last thing on earth that was “self-evident” in 1776 was the idea that all men are created equal! Where in the world was this belief prevalent? Anywhere? And rights? Who had rights? Life? Life was all but worthless in those days, and all too close to worthless today in much of the world. Liberty? How many people enjoyed liberty back then?
And what did they mean by the Pursuit of Happiness? That’s an 18th century phrase that doesn’t mean what we take it to mean today. Happiness didn’t mean: “I’m having a good time,” or “let’s go out and party”. Happiness meant finding meaning in life. What they were saying was that every individual has a right to live his life, to be free, and to pursue a meaningful life.
That is an amazing statement in a universe in which nobody had ever said it before. The central idea is that the individual is an important person. I have a right to control my destiny; that’s the starting point. That literally means that I have a right that no other being can take away – not teachers, not bosses, not politicians – nobody. Each person has a right to walk away from anyone trying to coerce him and say: “I have chosen a different path.”
Right after that sentence in the Declaration of Independence is another remarkable sentence: that to secure these rights governments are established among men with the consent of the governed. What is the purpose of any social organization according to the Founding Fathers? The main purpose is to secure every individual’s right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – not to fulfill any national goal. The main function of any legitimate government is to secure individual rights. To be sure, we have a way to go in order to fully realize these ideals in our everyday lives here in America. But these are the ideals for which this country was founded. And they imply, quite directly, that when we say that education is about realizing a person’s individual potential, what we are really saying is that every person has a right to live as the founding document of our nation intended. Anything called “education” should be furthering that goal of self-realization rather than some externally imposed goal.
That is a profound concept, and a difficult one to accept. I want you to see how far this is from normal practice. Let me take an example that everybody uses in education. Everybody says: “Kids have to be prepared for life in the 21st century; we have to provide them with the skills that they need to live in the modern world.” That sounds really simple. But what is the premise underlying a statement like that? That it is society’s responsibility to impose its particular perspective on every child. Who is going to decide what those skills are? Society, not the child. Who is going to decide when each child should attain these skills? Society, not the child. What if the child doesn’t want to have the skills that society says he needs in the 21st century? What if he wants to have 19th century skills or 14th century skills? What gives society the right to override his desires?
The simplest things that we accept as givens fall by the wayside when we realize that the focus in any educational enterprise in this country, according to the ideals on which the country’s existence has been based, has to be on the self-realization of the individual child.
This takes us directly to the next question: assuming every person has a right to lead a meaningful life, what does it mean to have a meaningful life? What is a meaningful life? And who decides what a meaningful life is? Let’s say the most important thing to you is to make a million dollars. Suppose I come along and say to you: that’s crass materialism, that’s selfishness, that’s greed. What’s happening in this interaction? You have an idea of what you find gives your life meaning. Do I have a right to judge that? Do I have a right to tell you what’s meaningful to you?
A meaningful life is something that gives me as an individual the inspiration to work towards the goals I have set for myself. The only person who can decide what a meaningful life is, is the individual whose task it is to assign it meaning. No other person, not even society as a whole. It’s really that simple. Society today is telling everybody what’s meaningful – this, that, and the other. Thirty years ago a whole bunch of different things were meaningful. Thirty years from now a whole bunch of other things will be held to be meaningful. According to our national ideals, I’m the one who decides what’s meaningful for me. And one of the greatest mysteries in all of human existence is how an individual finds purpose in his or her life. Everyone in the world has some idea of what they think will give their lives meaning. Where does that idea come from? Nobody has an answer to that question.
There are interesting attempts to provide an answer. I want to mention one briefly. It appears in a book written by James Hillman, called The Soul’s Code. It’s a wonderful title. Hillman is a practicing psychologist. His conclusion – without all the spiritualism that surrounds it – is that every human being is born with a unique “soul” that defines itself. Whether or not we accept this notion, the fact is that the only thing that keeps us going is meaning – whatever that meaning is for each of us. We have to have a reason to get up in the morning. We have to have a reason to go out and do something. The aggregate of those reasons is the meaning we seek in our lives.
So we are getting a little further on the path to understanding what education is about, because it is becoming evident that education must be highly individual, highly personal. It means something different for everybody – as different as every human being on the face of the earth is different from each other.
Let’s move on to the next question: How do we progress towards our goals? We progress by living and by learning from our experience. There’s a wonderful quote here that I want to cite about living and learning. It was written by a graduate of Sudbury Valley:
I didn’t really think about getting an education. I didn’t understand the idea of having to artificially get an education. I thought that you lived in the world and you got smarter because every day you were learning. I thought that there was no way to get dumber unless you were erasing stuff out of your brain. It seemed to me that one day you were talking to someone about one subject, and another day you were talking to someone about another and that eventually you’d get around to all of them. Outsiders would ask, “what classes do you do?” and you’d think “classes?” “We don’t do classes you know. Look around. There are no classrooms here.” They’d say, “Well, what did you learn today?” And we’d think, “What did we learn today? What are you talking about?” Because it wasn’t as if you went into the library and learned your facts for the day. You had a dozen conversations with people. We weren’t learning subject by subject. We were learning in a much more organic manner. You would be doing a lot of different things and you would learn them in little bits and pieces that would start adding up to much bigger pictures. You wouldn’t really know where it came from a lot of the time. By the time you were done learning about something, information was coming from so many different sources – from books and from people you were talking to and from a long drawn-out experience – that you had no idea how you learned it.
I submit that this is everybody’s story, not just one person’s story. That’s the story of our lives, of how we live. The fact is that every minute of the day we’re learning. There’s no such thing as a waste of time when you’re talking about learning, when you’re talking about evolving. You can’t not learn. Learning is about gaining experience and new insights into how to live, and to what the world is about. You’re doing it every minute of the day, no matter what you’re doing. You can’t really stop a person from learning. You can say to someone, “What you’re doing isn’t worthwhile, you’re wasting your time, what you’re doing is not really valuable.” But you can never tell a person he’s not learning.
I want to relate two experiences from Sudbury Valley which put things into a slightly different perspective for me. One has to do with a lunch wagon. Lunch wagons generally come to work sites, but in the early days of the school, we used to have a lunch wagon come to the school. The kids called it “the Roach Coach.” When the lunch wagon arrived, kids would rush out to buy from it. Many little kids went out too. From our perspective, as adults who grew in a world with all the usual do’s and don’ts, we would say to each other: this is really awful, they’re spending their money on candy, and on junk food in general. We’d watch the kids go up to the lunch wagon, and they were so intense, so wrapped up in their adventure – and we were so blind! What we were focusing on was the “bad food”, but what they were focusing on was the exciting experience of making real choices and spending real money. Not the little games that are being set up in so many classrooms – “let’s set up a play business with fake money to show children how the business world works.” Children know that’s fake. Real money is real. They know a real dollar from a piece of paper used in a play business. How many little kids have control over real money? They know they don’t. Here, at the “Roach Coach,” they had fifty cents in their hands that they controlled. Now it became an exercise in prioritization in the real world. These kids were growing up learning how to use real money on real decisions at a lunch wagon. By the time they’re teenagers they have a lot of experience. They know what it’s about. For years, they’ve been making real-life decisions. We had been completely blind to it at first; it took a long time for us to shake off old, sterile habits of thinking.
Another wonderful example of the same ilk goes on all the time with teenagers. A common complaint of parents, one we hear all the time, is that their teenage children spend all their time on the phone with their friends, hours and hours and hours, and they don’t talk about anything “significant”. All they’re talking about is clothes and parties and boys and “silly stuff” like that. They’re wasting time, they’re not doing anything serious, not reading books, just gossiping. Until you take them seriously and ask: Why are they talking about these things? The minute you take seriously the question of why they are putting all this energy into their conversations, you see them in a completely different light. Because the hardest thing for anyone to do is to figure out how to fit into the milieu that you’re in, whatever it is.
I wouldn’t take a million dollars to be sixteen years old again. It’s a terribly difficult age. You’re just beginning to grow up. You don’t know what the adult world is like – except that it seems totally scary. You have no idea how to behave with a person of the opposite sex. You have no idea what to wear, what’s cool, what’s not cool, whether you should even be cool. You don’t know any of that stuff. In that incredibly hard situation, the most important thing you have to do is to figure out how to become part of the larger world. And doing that takes lots and lots of conversation with as many people as you can collar.
The situation is no different for adults, actually. What is the hardest thing about starting a new job? You have no idea how to relate to the people around you, who they are, what they do, what their preferences are, what you’re going to say that hurts their feelings, what you’re going to say that advances you, that makes them happy, that advances your interests. You don’t have a clue. You have to figure it all out. You have to spend hours, days, weeks, with enormous concentration, in order to get your bearings in any new social milieu.
These are just two examples of what I’m talking about – examples of totally different activities children engage in that adults consider to be a waste of time (or money), because they don’t take seriously every individual’s choice of how to search for meaning in their lives, and how to learn what they need in order to conduct that search. As long as we’re alive, we’re learning, no matter how old or how young we are.
In fact, the younger we are, the more intensely we learn. Indeed, the infant years are the years during which the rate of learning is quickest, long before formal schooling sets in. Think about newborn children. They’ve got a huge problem: they’ve got to survive in this world. They don’t have language. They can’t ask you for advice. They can’t follow your instructions. Innumerable inputs assail their sensory apparatus all the time, and they have only a handful of skills hardwired to help them deal with all this. It’s almost impossible for us, as adults, to comprehend. Yet, between birth and the age of two or three, they become people who recognize faces, identify objects, learn words, and figure out how to locomote.
I love to contemplate the following example: one of the most amazing things to watch is a child learning how to crawl. For the child, it can be a frustrating nightmare. They have four limbs at their disposal, not one of which they know how to control effectively. They haven’t quite figured out how to make this one go here or that one go there – and certainly not how to coordinate them! They want to move from one place to another, because they see something they want to reach. Nobody is teaching them how to do this. They’re experimenting, they’re trying. Failure doesn’t phase them at all. Mistakes are the best thing that can happen to them, because mistakes are always the best teachers. When they try to go forward, they move backward instead, or they roll over and then they don’t know how to get right side up. For them, it’s an ongoing nightmare; but they continue to struggle until they succeed.
Or consider language acquisition. We cannot define a single word unambiguously. That’s an impossible task. Words are symbols that have references to a host of experiences. The Greeks found that out years ago. The Socratic Dialogues are all about the meanings of words. Every time somebody asserts that a word means something, Socrates demolishes the definition. By the end, everybody throws up their hands.
Try to define “chair” in your spare time. You’ll never be able to do it, because you’ll always be able to come up with an example that somebody, somewhere, has called a chair in a way that doesn’t fit your definition. All of which means that words are richly complex symbols, and their meanings are highly specific to each individual. Every word I use has a wealth of references unique to me. In fact, the most miraculous thing is that I can talk to other people at all. I don’t know how – or whether – they have any clear idea of what I’m saying. Everyone has certain experiences that are just shared in their own family, and certain expressions that are used in their family to describe those experiences. There are certain words that are used with close friends, or within a particular social or professional group.
So here’s a little child learning how to manipulate these incredibly messy word symbols; learning how to walk; learning how to recognize people, objects, and locations; learning how to form social connections – learning all these things between birth and the age of two or three. Isn’t that amazing? All without teachers, without classes, without a curriculum. It is learning that is totally driven from within the child.
So what tools do human beings possess that are most conducive to advancing this ability to learn? I would say the most important tool is language. Talking is the major tool of learning. That’s how we communicate ideas, information, knowledge, and feelings. The overwhelming majority of what we learn in life is through conversation. That, plain and simple, is why human beings are always talking!
Robinson Crusoe had nobody to talk to. That doesn’t mean he couldn’t learn. In fact, he was learning every day. But he could only learn through his own, internally driven, intellectual efforts. The minute you have somebody to talk to, you have the key to other people’s brains. People become enabled to learn from the entire universe of human beings, just because of their ability to use language. In fact, through cyberspace, this has become reality – one can actually communicate with vast numbers of people all over the world. So when seeking to promote learning, we should want more than anything else an environment where communication of all sorts among people is encouraged. We should encourage children to talk as much as they want in school!
Another important tool of learning, which is mostly neglected, is art. Art is about expressing emotion directly to the observer. A painting can make you weep. A piece of music can make you joyous. Indeed, what do we see kids doing more and more? Listening to their iPods! They’re using a superb tool for accessing their own feelings and for relating to the feelings of the others who have produced that music. When I was growing up there were turntables, and an arm with a needle attached to it played vinyl records. I still remember the thrill of accessing music through records. Think about it! The world was transformed a century ago when people could suddenly hear great performers and performances even in the remotest corners of the earth. Yet, in traditional schools today, for the most part the arts are considered a relative waste of time, a deflection from the academic curriculum.
The primary tool that enhances learning is the mistakes you make. When you do something wrong, the experience gives you a key to doing it better. If you run a business and end up declaring bankruptcy, you learn something from that. One of the splendid things that distinguishes this country from the rest of the world is our attitude towards bankruptcy. Here, bankruptcy has no shame attached to it. Bankruptcy here means that a person took a risk, tried to live their dream, and failed in the attempt – so get up and try again! Some of the greatest success stories in American lore involve people who went bankrupt and tried again and succeeded. The whole idea that mistakes are the best way to learn is something deeply embedded in our culture.
In fact, if I had to choose one topic to place at the very core of every child’s educational experience, I would have no trouble identifying it: how to deal with failure.
Yet, this is the subject most assiduously ignored in traditional mainstream schools. On the contrary, the motto of our schools might just as well be the maxim one of my old friends used to repeat, jokingly, every morning to his entire office crew: “Never do anything wrong; always do everything right!”
When Niels Bohr, one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, was asked to what he attributed his fabulous creative success, he answered without hesitation: “I simply made more mistakes than anyone else.” When we study the lives of people we admire, over and over again we read about their majestic grappling with failure, like Thomas Edison, trying hundreds and hundreds of materials to use as the filament for his electric light bulb.
We learn from history that most highly original people were scarcely recognized in their own lifetimes – indeed, were usually considered odd by their contemporaries, and often deemed crazy. We have endless examples of situations where some of the most valued contributions to civilization were made by people who never knew the meaning of success.
Indeed, one of the most common aphorisms we hear bandied about is that “people should learn from their mistakes”, and that mistakes are in fact the best instructors of all in the art of living.
All this sounds almost too obvious to require being said. Yet, in the one forum where you would expect to hear it resound repeatedly, it is virtually entirely absent. For it turns out that our schools, whose goal is to prepare young people for life, treat a mistake as something to be avoided at all costs, something to be ashamed of, something degrading. A “good” student is one who always gets the answers right; the very “best” student gets a grade of 100% on every exam.
Instead of allowing children to try out all sorts of solutions to problems, and reach their own conclusions as to which solutions are best, we teach them the “right” solutions, or how to arrive at the “right” solutions, and expect them to follow our instructions faithfully.
Worst of all, we send a clear and consistent message to children in school that people who make mistakes are missing the mark; that the more mistakes you make, the dumber you are, and the less likely to succeed in life. Schools try to link high self esteem to correct performance, and invariably produce low self esteem in people who perform “inadequately”.
In fact, the sensible thing to do would be to give the opposite message. It’s no trick to handle life if everything goes absolutely well, with no hitches. But real life is a succession of hitches, and the person who can take them in stride, evaluate them, and recover from them and go on functioning – such a person is a true survivor in the struggle for existence.
Rather than avoiding failure, school should encourage failure, and encourage children to take failure with equanimity. We should be sure to give out clear signals that a child who tries and doesn’t succeed is not doomed, or worse in any way than the child who tries and succeeds. Actually, the child who tries and doesn’t succeed may well be ahead of the game, as long as s/he feels comfortable figuring out how to try again, and improve the odds of success.
At the heart of traditional schooling’s devastating misunderstanding of failure is the testing and grading system, which promotes the idolatrous worship of “success” and deals harshly with the “evil” of error. Until the entire system of grading and evaluation is thrown out, lock, stock, and barrel, there will be no significant progress in this domain. Getting rid of evaluative judgments of success by adults is a key to building an educational system where children can explore freely, try out approaches to their hearts’ content, and emerge as truly splendid problem solvers able to take on any challenge and to overcome any obstacle.
I would like to pull together the various threads of the discussion. It turns out that we have arrived at a point that is polarly opposite to where the traditional educational system is. We have encouraged everybody to realize their own individuality. That’s the exact opposite of standardization, grade levels, particular benchmarks that every student at a particular age should reach. Actually, standardization of child development and learning is utterly meaningless. Does anyone really know what is right for every seven-year-old? Where does that concept even come from? We don’t say that about adults. But we apply this absurd idea to children.
And we judge every minute kids spend in school, every single thing they do, by standards that are essentially counterproductive to learning. In classrooms, only the teacher can talk, unless the teachers, by their grace, allow questions or some element of discussion. Art is hardly a factor in schools. What do we do with mistakes? We rebuke a child who makes one, and fail a child who makes “too many”! The more mistakes you make, the worse student you are. Everything done is inimical to what education is about.
If you go back 100 years, virtually every trade and profession went about training people by apprenticeship. What’s been done is to take the worst aspects of the traditional school system and transmit it to the training of professionals. Recently, I was talking to a physician who teaches at an eminent school of medicine. He instructs interns and residents who are walking the rounds and treating people in his hospital, helping them develop an understanding of illness and health. He also teaches theoretical courses to students in the first two years of medical school. As far as he is concerned, the courses are a complete waste of time; nobody remembers the stuff that is taught there. It’s the same with law school, business school, music school, art school, etc.
Where did the idea come from that you should go to college to learn to be a writer? Just sit down and write! Throughout history, aspiring writers sat down and wrote, and they submitted their material for feedback. How does it make sense that the way to become a writer is to get some other person – 99% of whom are not writers themselves but are classroom teachers of writing – to tell them what writing is about? Business school may be the biggest mystery of all. We have a graduate who is now a senior vice president of a large retail food corporation. He never went to college. He certainly never went to business school. He learned from the inside. He worked his way up from being a cashier in a grocery store. How did he do it? He was focused, he was interested, he was talented, he worked at it and he was recognized for his developing skills.
A common belief is that it is necessary to pro-actively engage students in specific fields, and take pains to introduce them to various subjects. People ask, “Unless this had been done for me, how would I have learned about geometry?” Indeed, you may not have. Do they expose children to Albanian History in their schools? Why is geometry more important than Albanian History or the ecology of Transylvania? The fact is, that whatever you’re learning, if you find joy in it, then that’s its own reward, and you can move on from there.
We all have our interests; overall, people’s interests range over just about everything. I recently traveled to Lithuania to participate in a conference, and I encountered something fascinating. Lithuania became independent fifteen years ago, and since then many young people have become engrossed in their country’s history. I met a group who were studying the history of Zionism in Lithuania in the ‘20s and ‘30s and it blew me away. Nobody taught them that, no curriculum contained that subject. I asked them where this interest came from. They couldn’t really answer; some piece of information grabbed them, and led them to devote years of their lives to study that arcane subject. A Lithuanian Christian studying Zionism in Lithuania in the ‘20s and ‘30s hardly is an obvious combination. Could anybody have predicted that? I doubt it. If someone had taken them aside and said, “Don’t waste your time on that, study geometry instead,” would that be doing them – or the world – a favor?
That’s what I mean by searching for meaning in your life. Why would I want to introduce somebody to something in particular, when the world of knowledge is infinite? Would I choose something just because I like it? Every person has interests that spring from somewhere inside. Even when you are inspired by somebody, more likely than not that is purely accidental.
Forty years ago, the founding group of our school concluded that the prevailing practices of the educational system make no sense. We didn’t even want to begin thinking of education in those terms. We wanted to create an environment where kids are allowed to develop themselves in their own way, to spend their time the way they want, to interact with whom they want, to do what they want all day and to figure out their lives on their own all day. We wanted them to be able to make joint decisions about their lives in the school, and about the way the school should operate, in just the same way our country’s ideals expected decisions to be made for the larger community. The genius of the Founding Fathers was to realize that the greatest strength of any society lies in the individual freedom for self-realization. All we did at Sudbury Valley was say: if, in the 18th century – an era of worldwide autocracy and universal contempt for individual rights – they could envision an entire country thriving on this basic principle, we could do no less than that in a school for the 20th century. We did; the school has thrived; its ideas have spread worldwide; and it has provided a model and an inspiration for creating ideal schools for the 21st century.
In my forty years at the school, I can honestly say I have never had any doubts about the validity of the underlying approach. Indeed, my belief in it has only strengthened. I often wonder about that myself. How come I haven’t burned out? Everybody that I talk to in other schools talks about burnout. There’s no way to burn out in our school. I can look out the window and see kids totally focused and engaged and having the best time, having a wonderful childhood. I can see children engaged in conversation, excited about life and about themselves, proud of themselves. For me that’s the reward. There is no way to burn out from that.
1. As we’ll see, most of this discussion is relevant to societies that we today label “liberal democracies.”
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