A New Look at Learning
At the Sudbury Valley School, we have encountered a new version of the old story of the parent-child dialogue: “Where did you go?” “Out.” “What did you do?” “Nothing.” Our version is: “Where do you go?” “Sudbury Valley.” “What do you learn?” “Nothing.” All too often, that seems to be the refrain associated with the school by parents and by people in the community, and it has come to plague us more as time goes by. When the school opened, there was a whole catalogue of objections to what we were doing; as the years have passed most of them have slowly faded away. In the beginning, we were told that the problem was that we were new, and people didn’t want to try out a new school before they knew whether it would work or survive, or be accredited. Of course now we’re not new anymore, and we have survived, and we are even accredited. Earlier, there was always the question of how our students could get into college without courses, grades, or transcripts. We had to try to convince people on the basis of abstractions. Now there isn’t any question anymore, because we have dozens of former students in college, and anyone who has wanted to go to college has been admitted. In fact, just as many have been getting in without a high school diploma as with one. Then there was the question of how students would be able to transfer to other schools, in case their families moved, or they wanted to leave for other reasons. That too was an objection that people used as a reason for not enrolling their children – because perhaps at some later time they might have to go to a “regular” school, and then they wouldn’t be able to get back to “reality.” Now that argument has gone, because there are lots of former students who have gone back to “regular” schools and have done excellently, without losing time at all. There were so many objections in the early years! People said the school would be chaotic; it would be undisciplined; it would be rowdy; it would be a fiscal nightmare because so many people have access to money; and on and on. We used to think that when people finally saw that the objections were groundless, slowly but surely they would come around to our way of looking at things, or at least accept us and think that ours was a pretty reasonable kind of educational system for their children and/or themselves. Alas, how wrong we were! Because there is one fundamental objection that will probably stay with us for the foreseeable future: namely, that this is a place where children don’t learn anything. It is as simple as that. People say, “Whatever they do there – they may be happy, read, work, whatever – one thing is sure: they don’t learn anything.” This is something that the students enrolled at the school hear from their friends, and often from their parents. They hear it from grand-parents and aunts and uncles and cousins. We get it from all kinds of incredulous outsiders who walk into the school and say that it’s very impressive, but then end with the view that students don’t learn anything here. I think the persistence of this view has begun to have an undermining effect on some students who hoped that as time went by, the school’s philosophy would gain acceptance, but who found that this hasn’t happened. And I think, too, that this is probably the major factor that keeps new people from enrolling in droves.
The more this realization crystallized in my mind, the more I wondered what was really at the heart of the objection. Because it’s not enough to answer by saying, “Yes, they do learn.” We never really know how to handle it. The proposition seems so ridiculous, that we often end up saying, in effect, “What do you mean they don’t learn anything? Look at A – he’s learned this. Or look at B, he’s learned this. Or look at this student sitting and reading.” We respond with a flood of ad-hoc and ad-hominem counter examples, with no real effect. And it’s mostly because we really don’t know how to get a handle on the nature of the problem or the question. Our answers don’t really relate to the objectors. They look at A reading a book, and that doesn’t satisfy them either. So he’s reading a book! So what? That isn’t learning. Nothing seems to satisfy them.
What, then, is the heart of this objection? Is it actually true that students don’t learn anything at the school? If not, why do people think it is true? And what do students learn here? I’m going to address each of these questions in turn.
In order to get a handle on the whole problem, we have to analyze fairly closely the generally accepted view of learning. In this culture, the meaning of the word “learning” is closely determined by four fundamental assumptions. The first assumption is that one knows what ought to be learned by people. The second assumption is that one knows when it ought to be learned. The third assumption is that one knows how it ought to be learned. And the fourth assumption is that one knows by whom each thing ought to be learned. These four assumptions in essence determine the meaning of the concept “learning” for this culture. Let’s look at them one by one.
The first assumption is that we know what ought to be learned. That is to say, the prevailing view is that there is a basic body of knowledge that every human being should know. This assumption is not even discussed. The only thing that is ever argued is the exact composition of the “basics.”
It is important to realize that this assumption is not an objective reality. Rather, it is completely determined by the time and the place and the nature of the culture that makes it. In other words, far from being a general truth about knowledge and about learning, it is an assumption that is completely dependent on the state of the culture that makes it. In different eras and in different places, various societies have made – and still make – catalogs of what has to be learned. For example, not too long ago, in American culture, there was the simple tenet that the “three R’s” were the basics. During the 20th century, education in this country has been “modernized”, and to that list of three R’s have been added successively other subjects that were considered equally important. Consider the 19th century in Great Britain: then it was felt that an educated person has to know Greek and Latin literature. In fact, it was considered that only unsuccessful or stupid students would study scientific or technological subjects, or even the English language! Then you go back to the Middle Ages and you find out that the “basics” consisted of a course in natural philosophy, speculative philosophy, rhetoric, and so forth, and a very clear avoidance of practical subjects. I don’t want to go into a history of this subject. I only want to make the simple point that the assumption that we know what ought to be learned is determined completely by the cultural environment, and changes with time. Unfortunately, the one we’re stuck with right now in this country was determined by an industrial technological view of our culture that is obsolete.
Indeed, two of the three R’s are demonstrably obsolete. Nobody really needs to know arithmetic. Everybody uses pocket calculators, or calculating machines, or computers, or adding machines. No accountant will sit and add long columns of figures by hand, or multiply by long multiplication, or divide by long division. Even the best will make more mistakes by hand than by machine. I can’t think of anybody professional who uses arithmetic now, and certainly ten years from now I can’t think of anybody who will. Even people who go out shopping take along their little pocket calculators on which they tote up their expenditures. As far as writing is concerned, that word had many meanings, but certainly two of the main meanings were penmanship and spelling, which were considered very important because people communicated either orally or through writing longhand letters. Today, anybody who’s foolish enough to use handwriting is really at a disadvantage in any practical situation. Many schools and colleges don’t even accept handwritten papers. Your average letter of application for a job, or your average business correspondence, would never be done longhand. In fact, it’s considered an almost esoteric phenomenon if a person drops somebody a handwritten note. And it’s equally unimportant to know how to spell. An awful lot of people I know, some of whom are very famous people, don’t have the foggiest notion how to spell – and it’s not the least bit important! Not even for prominent people, because one of the things any good secretary is expected to do is to correct all the boss’s spelling, and even secretaries don’t have to know how to spell: all they have to do is get paid for the time it takes to look up words in the dictionary.
The point is simply that the concept of curriculum that prevails right through college was determined by the industrial society that this country had in the 19th century. There were certain fundamental skills, methods, procedures, and technologies that were needed in order to keep the industrial machine going. And I don’t mean on the blue collar level alone, not only for the people who worked the assembly lines, but also for the secretaries, the accountants, the bookkeepers, and even the executives. The whole industrial machine operated according to some relatively simple robot-like functions that enormous numbers of people had to perform, and for which it was indeed necessary to have a basic, universal, common curriculum for everybody. Of course, even then it was a question of whether or not a culture opted to have an industrial economy at all. The large agrarian economies didn’t bother with these things. For example, Russia at the time of the revolution was just beginning to decide that it wanted to get in to the industrial era, and the illiteracy rate was something like 95%. It just wasn’t important for a mass rural culture to know the three R’s. In fact, in the entire society there was only a small cadre of people who could write. Everyone else would go to these scribes to have all their letters and documents written or read for them. But for the population at large, it wasn’t essential to know how to read or write or calculate or do any such thing in order to till the land or build the houses or do the kinds of activities that were central to an agrarian society.
Times change. In this country, we have come to the point where most routine tasks do not have to be performed by people, even though often they still are. We have the inherent capability to eliminate from the humanly-operated domain the entire body of automatic, robot-like operations that had to be done by enormous numbers of people. Indeed, the revolution that the modern communications industry has brought about in society is quite as profound as the revolution that mechanization achieved a century or two ago, when it simply did away with the need for vast numbers of physical laborers to do heavy work. (That revolution, too, was not universal; and there are some societies today where heavy mass human labor is still used.) The new information-processing technology is now doing away with the need for droves of workers in industrial plants, or bookkeepers, or purchasers, or secretaries. Nowadays, once an industry is computerized, most of the operations are untouched by human hands. For example, when you place an order for a book with a major publisher, virtually everything is handled by computer. And when the inventory drops, and they need to order a new printing, the computer tells the presses to do it. You can imagine how many thousands of clerks have been replaced. I was in the publishing industry when this transition took place, and I worked for two companies, one of which was automated, and the other still had all its accounting done by bookkeepers standing behind tall desks just like you see in old movies – standing and writing longhand all the thousands of entries that had to be made day by day. Those bookkeepers don’t work there anymore; even that old-fashioned company has entered the computer era.
The point is that robot-like individuals are not needed any longer in large numbers to man the industrial machine, and this fact has, at a stroke, rendered obsolete the entire pedagogical conception of a basic set of things that have to be known by everybody. Now we are faced with a completely different educational problem. I’m not talking about the Sudbury Valley School, or about our particular philosophy. What I’m saying applies to anybody planning an educational system for the modern era in this country. Nowadays, instead of preparing a list of subjects that are necessary for everybody to know, all you can do is draw up an enormous catalogue of different subjects and activities that are available in the culture, and then proceed from that point. If you believe in a planned society, you can try to apportion a certain number of people to each of these various fields for the good of society as a whole. That’s a political decision, one which still doesn’t mean, of course, that everybody is going to learn the same thing. It implies a complete lack of freedom of choice on the part of the students, but at least it’s modern, and it doesn’t make the basic mistake of thinking that everybody ought to be trained in the same way. The other major political philosophy that is prevalent in the world today is that of personal freedom. In that system, it seems to me that you have to end up saying that each person should be able to decide for himself what he wants to do. But the chief point I want to make is that regardless of political philosophy, the idea that there is a basic curriculum that everybody ought to know is gone.
Let us return now to the original question, and let me bring it down to specifics. Say we have a twelve-year old in the school and somebody asks, “Is he learning anything?” What they mean is that they know that every twelve-year-old should be studying social studies, advanced arithmetic, and English grammar. This is the assumption that underlies the question. So if we answer, “He is not learning social studies. He is learning photography, or music, or Greek history” – indeed, if we answer that he is learning anything else but social studies, English grammar, and advanced arithmetic, the questioners will not be satisfied. As far as they are concerned, as long as the students in this school who are twelve years old aren’t learning what the society today thinks every twelve-year-old ought to be learning, they are not learning. And it’s only when people realize that it’s a mistake, no matter what your philosophy of education is, to think in the 1970’s that twelve-year-olds ought to be learning a certain specific set of subjects – only when people realize that this just isn’t a viable educational view anymore for modern American society, only then will they be able to say, “Well, I don’t have to insist that they learn social studies, arithmetic, and English grammar when they are twelve. I can accept other subjects, other activities, as valid learning for a twelve-year-old.”
The second underlying assumption is that one knows when a subject ought to be learned. This has a more modern origin than the first assumption. It’s only been recently that people have become arrogant enough to think that they understand the human mind well enough to know in detail how and when it absorbs and handles knowledge. To be sure, people always knew that little children don’t quite have the ability to handle things as well as adults, overall. But people saw that there was such variety in how children develop that no one dared become dogmatic. A Mozart might play the piano at age three, and a John Stewart Mills might speak a dozen languages when he was four; and one child would do one thing, another child something else. It was only when psychology became “modern” that it got the idea that there is a specific, universal track that every mind follows in its development, and that all healthy minds proceed at pretty much the same rate along this track. One of the consequences of this view is that it’s bad to be learning the wrong thing at the wrong time. For example, if you are expecting somebody by age two to do a particular thing, and you find that he is not, then you conclude that you have an incipient learning disability. I’m not exaggerating when I say age two. It is becoming much more common to extrapolate into earlier years, and engage in what is called “early detection” of alleged learning disabilities and psychological problems.
Likewise, it is considered a property of the human mind that certain mathematical skills, certain scientific skills, and certain skills of reasoning are acquired at certain ages. As a result, it becomes important (according to this view) that schools provide exactly the “right material” at the right age. Third, it is considered bad to give third grade work to first grade students, because this doesn’t develop their minds along the proper track. I think everybody is aware of these views.
One of the things that set me to thinking about this whole subject was a nightmare I had one night. I dreamt that just as we have schools now where all six-year-olds are put through drills in reading, and are drilled and drilled at it, whether or not they are interested in it – and if they don’t achieve at the proper rate, they are immediately tagged and put into a special category and given special teachers – what I dreamt was that the same thing was happening to one and two-year-olds with regards to speaking. I suddenly saw a school for toddlers where they were all being taught how to speak, just the way we teach how to read, syllable by syllable, word by word. And if they weren’t proceeding at the programmed pace they were going to be placed immediately into the “speaking disability category”, and so forth. Perhaps this sounds ridiculous, but after all, we’ve totally accepted this attitude when it comes to reading. Why not speaking? And if you have a three -year-old who is speaking at a “two-year-old level”, why not put him in the special ed. Class? It’s a nightmare, and I think it’s well on its way to happening.
So again you ask yourself, where does this come f rom? How do these psychologists pull it off? Why was the society in general, and the professionals in psychology in particular, so eager to accept this kind of approach? Again, I think the answer goes back to my old theme. The so called science of psychology today is the natural child of the 19th century industrial-technological-scientific world view, which insisted on reducing everything in the world to a linear, tracked, simple series of progressions. This was essentially the definition of knowledge in any field. There was no such thing as real, solid knowledge that was not perfectly ordered, in an exact sequence of rational steps. If it wasn’t ordered in that way it was non-scientific, it was “art”, and as art it was allegedly the product of the emotions and of the feelings and not of the mind. Products of the intellect, by contrast, had to be “scientific”. I don’t think it’s surprising people reached this view, because they were living in an era when everybody was drunk with the success of linear technology in the material world. After all, the view was appropriate to machines – to mass production – to the assembly line – to industrialization – to any enormous technological venture. It was true that those enterprises were ordered in a precise, linear fashion. So central was the industrial materialistic view of the world, that it engulfed all of knowledge, and the universal aspiration of the intellectual world was to be included under the umbrella of “science”, in order to be legitimate. Indeed, if anybody came along and said, “My field doesn’t want to be organized in a logical, rational way,” they ran the risk of being called a non-intellectual field, of being told “If you can’t show us the track of knowledge in your field, you’re not really worthy of being a bona-fide subject.” This approach was a perfectly natural product of the enthusiasm with technology that gripped Western society in the 19th century. People were consumed with a passion to extrapolate the technological world view to absolutely everything. And the fields of social theory and psychology were swept right along with all the others.
If you understand, then, that there is a deep yearning on the part of social scientists and psychologists to be “scientific”, and along comes a person who purports to give, on the basis of what looks to be very nice scientific work, a good linear theory of the mind, you can see why they will jump at it. And it comes then as no surprise that people like Piaget or Skinner rapidly become widely accepted by their colleagues, because they rescued the profession from the oblivion of being an “art” and turned it into a scientific discipline. I think that this idea is going to fall by the wayside eventually, but it’s only going to happen when the whole culture begins retracting from the technological world view. You can see a trend in that direction in modern thinkers today. There are books being published by very eminent social scientists who are beginning to say, “This view of human knowledge really isn’t valid. It doesn’t take into account the subtleties. It doesn’t take into account the complexities. It doesn’t take into account innovation. It doesn’t take into account change. It doesn’t take into account the emergence of new theories, new ideas. It simply isn’t adequate to explain what the human mind has done with the world.” This is being said not only by one or two mavericks. It’s being said by more and more people who have a name in their fields. Whether their voice is going to prevail in the long run I don’t know, because certainly in the short run the trend is toward a more feverish technologization of the social sciences. I think we are going to have a major struggle on this issue in this country, although for the time being the forces of technology are probably winning in the short run.
The third assumption generally made is that one knows how any subject ought to be learned. That there is a “proper” approach. That there is a “correct way” to study a subject. Even if we have in our school a person who is learning what “ought” to be learned – for example, social studies – at the “right” time – namely, at age twelve – if the person isn’t learning it in the “right” manner from the “right” textbook it’s not considered valid. The extent to which this has taken over education is astounding. It used to be widely accepted that there were a tremendous variety of approaches to any subject. One went to different schools, even traveled to different countries, to hear different people develop a specific subject in different ways. One went to a particular teacher because he had a fascinating way of presenting a certain subject. This was an accepted feature of learning. Any subject was thought to be varied, complex and intricate, and every original mind was thought to have a different way of looking at it. It was once considered the height of absurdity to say that there is a “best” way to teach physics, or social studies, or anything. Alas, pedagogy, too, wanted to become a science, no less than psychology. Pedagogy too had to become an exact, technological field. The obvious result was that everything had to be done in the same way or it wasn’t valid. All textbooks in a given field have to be the same. That’s almost an axiom of publishing today. If you submit a textbook manuscript to a publisher that deviates from the accepted way, you’ll get a rejection slip. It may be a great book, but if it is not the way the subject is taught in the schools, they won’t want to publish it. Of course, in a sense publishers are just representing the prevailing view. They are marketing agents, and they don’t want to get stuck with a book that won’t sell. What they are saying is that nobody out there in the educational world is going to use a book that is any different from the book that is used by everyone else.
I don’t have to belabor this. It’s an exact consequence of the kind of thinking that I was talking about earlier with regard to psychology. And in order to please somebody who is looking at Sudbury Valley in terms of the prevailing educational atmosphere, our shelves should be filled with the 1976 editions of textbooks in all fields that are being studied in other schools. That would be a “good” library. Our library has a lot of books in it, and they are very varied, but it basically cannot be considered a “good” school library as far as educators are concerned because in any given subject they are going to look around here and not going to find the “right” book in most fields. And the same applies to any student learning with the aid of any of these books.
I think, again, that in this regard a lot of people who stop to think about it realize that there is a basic flaw in the idea, regardless of their philosophy of education. The flaw is that it rules out completely any concept of innovation in a field. What’s missing is any reference to how any one of the subjects being taught in school has ever changed or progressed. Because the textbooks always deal with static subjects presented “correctly”. To me this is an internal inconsistency that should be obvious to anybody. I can only hope that eventually this contradiction will come to somebody’s attention in the teachers’ colleges. Or perhaps this view will disintegrate on its own, because they never seem to get things right. As long as you assume that pedagogy is an art, or has variety, you are never under pressure to be right. You only have to have your own approach. You go to hear a teacher, and you either like his approach or you don’t like his approach, but you don’t ask whether his approach is “right”. You say it is self-consistent, or interesting, but it is not a question of being right or not. But in the present educational system people are constantly plagued with the problem of finding the “right” approach, and each time they find one they label it “right”, and it becomes very embarrassing a year or two later to be faced with a situation where it turns out that it wasn’t right after all. That leads to a lot of problems. There is always a “new” reading program. Every two or three years there is a whole new “right” way to teach reading, because the last “right” way didn’t work. The educational world is constantly being embarrassed, only they don’t ever seem to be ashamed of the fact that they were wrong. I guess there is always a hope that between the fact that they never seem to do the right thing, and the fact that actually there is no right thing, it may dawn on people eventually that the whole approach is invalid from beginning to end.
The fourth assumption is that one knows how to identify by whom any given subject ought to be learned. In a way this is the most insidious of all assumptions, but it follows directly from all the other points I have made. Our schools have a sophisticated and ever-improving system for tracking people, and for finding out at an ever earlier age what specific “aptitudes” a person has, so that a precise, narrow track can be determined for this person to follow throughout life. In this society, such a process is exceptionally subtle, because it involves an authoritarian approach within a free culture. By employing a variety of ruses the system produces a process which allows it to inhibit personal freedom without really feeling th at this is what is going on. Because the person doesn’t feel that something arbitrary is being done to him – which is in fact what is happening. Instead, the system creates the impression that it is simply looking out for his own best future; trying to find out what his needs are, and helping him fulfill them. The fact that others are deciding what his needs and interests are, what he is going to do with his life, is covered over by the illusion that really it is only his needs that are being considered. Now this is a combination of all the evils we have talked about. The assumption is that psychologically one knows enough about the mind to identify aptitudes; and a further assumption is that once one knows aptitudes, one also knows how to track a person so he will in fact reach the goal that is being set out for him. The whole approach is the ultimate in pedagogical and psychological technology. The only trouble is that it is humanly absurd. All you have to do is read biographies to discover how, time and again, attempts to identify a person’s interests at an early age failed. To be sure, sometimes a person of three or four does give very definite indications of where he is heading, but most of the tine quite the opposite is the case, and very often people show their true aptitudes only in their 20’s and 30’s and sometimes much later. Truly, there is not much to argue if we only look at the real world around us.
I think that we can understand why people in this society are going to feel, no matter what, that students at Sudbury Valley don’t learn anything. They are bound to feel that way. There is just no way out. Because we are not fulfilling any of the four basic assumptions that define the meaning of “learning” for our culture. And there is no way our philosophy allows us to act on any of these assumptions. So there is no point answering a person, “look, A is reading a book, and B is learning this and that.” Our approach just doesn’t fit the whole society’s frame of reference, and it’s not going to fit until the outside world drops the assumptions that underlie its view of education.
Still, the question remains: Do people learn anything at Sudbury Valley? Obviously to us, the answer is “yes”, from our perspective on the word “learning” – a perspective that may not be current, but is nevertheless rooted in our culture’s history. I think that if we start looking at the question and writing about it and analyzing it from, our own viewpoint, it will be enormously helpful to us in defining for ourselves what is actually going on here. And it would be helpful to outside observers too if we wrote more about the kinds of learning processes that we see occurring here. That would at least give people something to mull over when they are thinking about us and perhaps trying to form their own idea of what learning is.
The kinds of learning processes that I see occurring at the school all the time fall into four major categories. I’m just going to mention them, and I am not going to go into them at length at this time. First, I think we have learning going on here in the development of personal character traits. Right off, that doesn’t sound like “learning”. But actually, character education has always historically been considered an important part of education, and even today gets a lot of lip service paid to it. Unfortunately, in the current educational system, it’s talked about but nobody has any idea what to do about it. I think that we have developed a setting in which it can be shown that certain character traits are enhanced – traits like independence, self-reliance, confidence, open-mindedness, tolerance of differences, the ability to concentrate, the ability to focus, and resilience in the face of adversity. Every one of these traits tends to thrive in people who stay here for any length of time. Indeed, the society at large sees the opposite traits being enhanced in their educational institutions and they worry about it. They worry about the fact that their settings seem to encourage dependence, a “follower” mentality that relies on others’ judgments rather than on one’s own. They worry about the fact that such a high percentage of people are insecure, intolerant, unable to concentrate on their work, and not resilient to failure. All these are phenomena that people in general are worried about, and I think that at Sudbury Valley we can show that we foster the first set of character traits where the prevailing educational system fosters its opposites.
The second major type of learning that goes on here is in the domain of social etiquette. That will probably amuse a lot of people, because often one of the first impressions people get from the children in this school is that they are brash. But I don’t think that this is a lasting impression. More important, I think that there are many aspects of social etiquette that flourish here in a striking manner: for example, being at ease with people of all ages and backgrounds and types (instead of the widespread trait that you see among children of the same age in public schools whose tendency is to turn aside, not to look an adult in the eyes, to be ill at ease, to shuffle, and to mumble). There is the characteristic of being considerate of other people’s needs – a trait that I think is fostered mainly by our judicial system. There is a fundamental acceptance that other people have rights, that other people have needs, that other people have domains of their own that have to be respected. Then there is the trait of being articulate (people are often so inarticulate in the outside world!). And the traits of openness and trust – I am very reluctant to use those words, but not quite as reluctant as I was in 1968, when they were catchwords for a social fad – as opposed to the suspicion and paranoia that seem to be rampant in the society, especially among teenagers. And also, there is a certain basic friendliness and courtesy that pervades relationships in the school.
A third category of learning that goes on is in the domain of academic subjects, where we not only see the acquisition of knowledge occurring, but we also find it taking place in ways that other schools would find unusual. For example, people do learn how to read in this school, sooner or later. It’s intriguing to watch closely how this happens in each case, because it happens at different ages, and in completely different ways. I don’t want to go into details now, but just by way of example: some learn how to read by being read to over and over and practicing a book until they learn it by heart and start memorizing the words; others learn by piecing together syllables that they have picked up one by one; others learn by trying to associate letters with phonetic sounds. Each one does it in his own way, and at his own initiative. And I think it is very important for us to point out not only that substantive knowledge is being acquired but also that the ways in which it is being acquired are so varied that we would clearly be doing irreparable damage if we intervened and tried to direct the process from the outside.
Substantive learning goes on here in the fundamentals of arithmetic. It goes on in the principles of democratic government, and in current events. (This is actually rather interesting. The children in this school are probably more up to date on what’s going on in the world than their peers in other schools even though we don’t have “social studies” classes. I think it can be shown why and how this happens.) There is substantive learning going on here in the domestic arts, including money management, taking care of yourself, survival, cooking, sewing, childrearing – a whole group of subjects which in other schools are relegated to a tertiary place, for poor learners or for girls, though the subjects are clearly central to living a good life. Where it goes on in ways that I think are worth documenting, ways that have nothing to do with age or sex or even with future career intentions. The list of different specific subjects learned by different people goes on and on – writing, management, painting, music, etc. – and it clearly deserves study and documentation.
Finally, there is a fourth category of learning that goes on here in a way that is not even remotely matched by any other environment, and that is the category of methodology. To be sure, there is a tremendous amount of writing done, for example, on the techniques of problem solving. But again, it’s assumed in the usual technological way that there is a “method” for solving problems, and what one should do in school is teach this method. The only trouble is, the basic assumption is again false. If there was a method for solving problems, we wouldn’t have any problems left .The whole point of a problem is that you don’t know either its solution or the exact right method to solve it – if there is one. The idea that there are multiple approaches to problem solving, that there are lots of parallel paths that can be explored, that some are better than others, that they have to be compared, that there are all kinds of consequences that have to be followed out in order to make these comparisons – the really complex notions of what problem solving entails are an everyday feature of this school. Students have to deal with them every minute of the day in different areas. From small problems like how to get hold of a piece of equipment, or what to do next, to major problems like what am I going to do with my life, or how do I study a certain field, or how do I answer the questions posed in the book I am reading, and so forth. Sudbury Valley does it better than anybody else, and we should document this. Students here also learn how to use resources, both human and archival. To be sure, in other schools somewhere around fifth or sixth grade they take the children to the library and describe the Dewey decimal system, and the librarian gives a talk on how to use the library. We all went through this, but most people never can figure out how to use the library anyway, and don’t. Anybody who has taught in college or graduate school knows that many graduate students have difficulty using the resources at their disposal. It’s something that they have got to learn, and they have also got to figure out how to find the people who can help them. At Sudbury Valley we take all this for granted – the idea that when you want to learn something you have got to find someone who is an expert in it to help you, and you have got to figure out where you can find the resources in our library, or in an outside one. These ideas, and how to implement them, are commonplace around here.
Is anything learned at Sudbury Valley? I think there is an enormous amount learned here, and I think we can document it and should.
I want to end with one point. The more we succeed, the harder it gets in many ways. It brings back a fear which I voiced in l967 to a friend of mine one day. I said to him, “What happens if we open and right off we are an enormous success? What if we have a school full of people who are creative and original and innovative and self-reliant, each following his own path? People are going to look at them and say that they are a bunch of mavericks who are not doing any of the right things. The end will be that we will be closed, if we succeed.” And my friend replied, “Don’t worry. You won’t succeed.” And this re-assured me. As long as I wasn’t too worried about large-scale success, everything was fine. But that fear has come back to plague me. We are in our ninth year, and we are ever more successful – and the more we succeed, the harder it’s getting, because the more we succeed the more the people in the school are doing things that diverge from the norms.
So you ask yourself, where does it go from here? Are we eventually going to succeed to the point of closing? I don’t really think that is at all a danger, but I think that you always have to ask yourself when people will finally wake up and see the value of what is going on here. I don’t know the answer. It is going to take a long time. I don’t know what will trigger the insight, or how long it is going to take. I don’t think any of us has a choice of returning to any other way of doing things, so we’re sort of stuck with it anyway.
Perhaps it is fitting to end with something that Tolstoy wrote about 100 years ago. He was writing about instituting a freer system of education which in many ways resembled ours. And he wrote: “Don’t be afraid! There will be Latin and rhetoric, and they will exist another hundred years, simply because the medicine is bought, so we must drink it (as a patient said). I doubt whether the thoughts which I have expressed perhaps indistinctly, awkwardly, inconclusively, will become generally accepted in another hundred years; it is not likely that within a hundred years all those ready-made institutions – schools, gymnasia, and universities – will die, and that within that time there will grow freely formed institutions, having for their basis the freedom of the learning generation.” Here was a great thinker writing in the 1860’s that it would take another 100 years for these ideas to come to fruition. A century later, we were founded. It’s uncanny. Perhaps it will take another 100 years to catch on.
Copyright © The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc. ®