Dan Greenberg is one of the founders of Sudbury Valley School, a radical, democratic, libertarian, free school, or however you want to categorize it, which started in the ’60s and has inspired dozens of similar schools around the country and around the world.
Sudbury believes in self-directed learning, to a far greater extreme than even most progressive schools that claim to believe in it. At Sudbury, the only rules (other than matters of legality, like prohibitions on murder, counterfeiting, rape, whatever) are those instituted democratically by the school community as a whole, which in practice means the students, since they greatly outnumber staff. Staff takes a largely hands off approach, only directly assisting or in any way teaching the students if they are asked. They function more like a computer or a book or any other valuable resource that the students can make use of if and when they choose to.
This book consists of edited transcripts of six lectures delivered by Greenberg upon the 30th anniversary of the school.
I find myself largely in agreement with Greenberg and with the Sudbury approach. Not a hundred percent; there are certainly areas where I either disagree or am undecided.
For example, he seems to go beyond tolerating certain dubious aspects of capitalism on libertarian grounds to actively championing them. In response to accusations that consumerism warps people’s values and entices them into expending all their time and effort chasing after useless baubles in order to enrich capitalists, he contends that anything that people are that excited to chase after and sacrifice for like that must be worth it and enhance their lives. His view is if people use all their available resources obtaining the latest fancy TVs and video games and other gadgets, and they use all their available time mesmerized by these things, that just shows how wonderful those things are to be able to engage people like that.
That I find dubious, but even if I don’t agree with every aspect of what he sees as the foundation for Sudbury’s philosophy, or what he sees as analogous applications of that philosophy to other areas of life, I can still agree with (most of) the philosophy itself.
And that philosophy is to provide children an environment where they can live their lives, pursue their own interests in their own way at their own pace, and acquire education through doing so, with adults present to facilitate this process by being role models and by assisting more directly when called upon to do so, where children run their own affairs democratically.
This may not work miracles, it may not produce every ideal outcome for every student that anyone might desire, but I’m convinced it blows away the traditional model of schooling that’s so ubiquitous that most people can’t imagine any viable alternative.
The first essay of the book, The Meaning of Play, argues that play itself is beneficial and educational, that it doesn’t need to be artificially made educational. The approach of too many adults, even adults somewhat open to the idea of allowing kids to play and enjoy their childhood and their schooling, is to find ways to incorporate conventional lessons–teaching arithmetic, spelling, shapes, animal sounds, what have you–into some sort of game or playlike activity that they’ve constructed, in order to make it more palatable.
So play becomes a sweet that you hide the medicine pill in so kids will be more willing to take it. The sweet, the play, is something of a necessary evil, a means to the end of getting them to swallow the pill.
Greenberg insists that, no, play itself is good, especially when it’s spontaneous play of the child’s own choosing and creation, not some adult-imposed pseudo-play. Look at how engaged kids are when they’re lost in play, how able they are to maintain concentration, how eager they are to improve, how eager they are to learn necessary skills for doing so, how willing they are to coordinate with others. And not least, how happy they are. Contrast that with the dullness in the eyes of most kids most of the time in a conventional classroom setting. Where do you think more learning is happening?
In Conversation: The Staple Ingredient, Greenberg remarks how incredibly misguided it is that there’s such an emphasis in conventional schools on keeping kids quiet, where conversation is grimly tolerated on their own time in recess, on breaks between classes, etc., but the expectation otherwise is that they sit down and shut up and not “disrupt” the adult-led activity.
Conversation, he says, is absolutely crucial in developing language skills and social skills, and transmitting substantive knowledge in other areas, certainly far better than anything the educational system seeks to replace it with.
What Is the Role of Parents? exposes a part of the Sudbury experience with which Greenberg is clearly not fully comfortable. Philosophically, while the Sudbury model does not require the kind of exclusion of, or even hostility toward, parents displayed by Summerhill (the school in England that Sudbury could loosely be said to be modeled on), there’s a sense in which the school is intended to be a haven from parental influence and control.
Yet at the same time, Sudbury schools are disproportionately staffed by parents of their students. It’s mostly parents who care enough about educational issues to want to be involved in something like this, and of course if they believe in the model they want their kids to be enrolled. Plus there are budgetary constraints limiting the capacity to hire and pay staff.
So, often most or all of the staff at a Sudbury school are parents who’ve come together to volunteer their time to provide a better education for their kids than conventional schools can. The schools become like little communities of home schoolers, or even more so little communities of unschoolers.
But as Greenberg points out in this essay, staff are supposed to be trusted resources and, when needed, mentors, who most of the time keep their nose out of the students’ affairs. They’re supposed to be neutral role models who are maximally respectful of the students’ autonomy. They aren’t supposed to be the people you then go home with who are most intimately involved in your life and most anxious to have you turn out the way they desire.
Parents, he says, unavoidably influence kids in pseudo-coercive ways by the slightest word or gesture, or even by their mere presence. The approval or disapproval you’re getting from a parent is always going to be relevant to you, always going to skew what you would otherwise choose. And remember, the Sudbury model is precisely for kids to find their own way, to run their own affairs, to make their own mistakes.
This could all be solved if parents who worked at a Sudbury school simply sent their kids to a different Sudbury school, but that isn’t an option. Sudbury schools are still rare; you’re not going to find multiple of them in the same community.
So they muddle through as best they can, with this tension between the philosophy and the practice.
In The Significance of the Democratic Model: Self-Esteem, Self-Rule, and Self-Motivation, Greenberg recounts an eye-opening moment well into the life of the school that revealed to him the importance of democracy at the school.
A student was asked what he most valued about the school. He immediately responded “democracy,” when one would think kids would be most aware of and most appreciative of the freedom, of being able to mostly do whatever they want with their time.
But it isn’t just being free of restraints that’s welcome and empowering; it’s knowing you–individually and also democratically as a group–decide what restraints if any to operate under and why.
Kids get to decide what’s fair and what’s unfair, how the money in the budget should be spent, what sanctions if any should be imposed on someone who has violated the rules, etc., and hammer all these matters out amongst themselves and vote on them.
One can see why that would be exhilarating.
Or at least why it would be a big deal like that to some of the kids some of the time. Because in reality, my understanding is with the school meetings and judicial committees and such that decide these things, a lot of kids skip them, a lot don’t really pay attention, a lot get emotional and don’t understand what’s going on, and they can quickly degenerate into chaos.
But like a lot of things at these schools, there are those shining moments amidst the chaos where the process engages someone at a deep level and changes them for the better.
Much of Developing Each Child’s Unique Destiny: Age Mixing, Positive and Negative Role Models, and Personal Independence is a discussion of nature versus nurture that is OK, but not particularly meaningful or memorable to me. There are some interesting points along the way however, including a discussion of the benefits of age mixing.
I’m sure most people are aware of these benefits in the context of siblings, but they don’t then transfer it to school. They think for school you want people to be grouped together such that as much as possible they’re all at the same level of development, except the teacher of course. But in fact, children of different ages benefit from interacting with each other. Especially, he says, when they’re within a couple years one way or the other. A 10 year old will occasionally interact with a 5 year old or 17 year old in a positive way, but more often they’ll forge positive relationships with 8 year olds and 12 year olds, involving them in what they’re doing, seeking and offering help, etc.
The final essay is Why Sudbury Valley School Doesn’t Work for Everyone: Real Learning Disabilities. This one tickles me in the sense that he pretty brazenly makes the point that if the Sudbury model doesn’t fit your kid, then that just shows how messed up your kid is, not that there’s a problem with the model.
What kids won’t get as much out of Sudbury? Those who have lost the ability to play because their time and activities, even “play” activities, have always been controlled by adults. Those who can’t naturally converse with others because they’ve been told to shut up their whole lives. Those who’ve so trained themselves to seek the approval of parents and conventional teachers and authority figures that they have no independent standards of their own to live up to. Those who are so used to being powerless at school that when they come to Sudbury they can’t help but think it’s all a ruse and there’s no point in participating in running the school because no doubt adults are behind the scenes pulling the strings anyway.
So basically the last essay ties together a lot of the themes of this book. The kids who will be least successful in a Sudbury school are those who have been most damaged by being deprived of what Sudbury provides. They’ll either not take advantage of the freedom of Sudbury, or they’ll use it irresponsibly and overdose on it.
At first anyway. In time, even these “learning disabled” kids can adjust and benefit from a Sudbury school, as long as their parents don’t yank them out of it quickly when it’s not working for them in the beginning. They may need months or even a year or more to waste time, sit around bored, shyly refrain from interacting with others, whatever, but to varying degrees they come around if left in the environment. They may not get as much out of it as if they hadn’t arrived so damaged, but, Greenberg says, most of them will still be better off for having spent part of their childhood at a Sudbury school.