Of all the different versions of schooling that fall under the broad umbrella of “alternative,” “democratic,” “free,” “self-directed,” etc., perhaps the most extreme in allowing free rein to children is the Sudbury model, which has existed since the 1960s at Sudbury Valley School itself (which in turn bears some resemblance to a much older school in England called Summerhill), and has been replicated at a few dozen small schools around the country and around the world. At Sudbury schools, children are free to spend their time as they please, as long as they stay within the law and within the rules that the community as a whole democratically adopts.
Free at Last was written by Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders of the Sudbury Valley School, about twenty years into its existence.
Prior to picking up Free at Last, I had read a small number of other books on democratic education or free schools, but none so far that had spoken to me as deeply as this one. Even though I would say of both those books and this one that I agreed with most but not all of what they advocated, something about the Sudbury model described here won me over to a greater degree, gave me even more the feeling that even though I may not be in agreement on every issue, there’s something very right-headed about this.
The childhood that kids experience in this environment, I’m convinced, is vastly better than what 99% of kids experience in other environments, be they public schools, private schools, religious schools, home schooling, or whatever.
Multiple times reading this I had a lump in my throat, I was so caught up in how it seemed to capture what is so insulting and damaging and patronizing about how children are conventionally treated. Intellectually there was still a part of me holding back, because it’s my nature to be a contrarian, to be devil’s advocate, etc., but on a gut level I was moved by this book more than 99% of books I’ve read.
As far as the contrarian or cynical side of me, I suppose what I most missed in this book is more acknowledgement of the main arguments against the model. My position is that Sudbury schools probably fail miserably with a certain percentage of their students, but a far, far smaller percentage than conventional schools. So compared to some utopian system, they don’t look so good, but compared to the existing alternatives they look great.
But in books like this by advocates of alternative schools, it’s success story after success story. That smacks of overselling to me.
I should say also that an important thing the book has going for it is that the author comes across as a good, insightful, interesting person. He seems like someone who would be wonderful to just sit and talk with for hours about this stuff.
At some level, he “gets it.” Again, I don’t mean that every detail of the model they’ve worked out over the years seems just right to me; I’m sure I could still nitpick this and that. But this educational philosophy speaks to what frustrated me when I was a child myself. It embodies what I somehow knew children need but that I would never have known how to articulate. At his core–again, not in every particular–he’s speaking my language.
Let me mention a few specifics that happened to stick with me from the book, though really it’s the totality of the book, the philosophy as a whole, that is important.
One intriguing thing he mentions only in passing is that they’ve never had a dyslexic student. He says so little about it that you have to read between the lines and do your own speculation, but here’s what I take from that, as a possibility anyway:
At Sudbury, they don’t directly teach kids anything, except in an ad hoc manner when they’re asked explicitly by the student for assistance. Not even basic reading and writing. The kids learn it on their own, when they want, in their own way.
And yes, that means in principle they could be there for a dozen years and leave at age 18 without having ever chosen to learn to read. But no one does. Some don’t bother until they’re 7 or 10 or once in a blue moon even 12 or 13–which scares the hell out of their parents–but surrounded by books and surrounded by other kids their age and older (and younger) who can read, they never forego it entirely.
But they learn it however works for them, and no one seems burdened with dyslexia. Why?
Perhaps, and this is my speculation, when we teach reading and writing in conventional ways, we do what works for 80% or 85% or whatever of kids, which means there are 15%-20% really struggling and feeling frustrated. So we label them as dyslexic, fall all over ourselves assuring them and everyone else that they’re different and not stupid or inferior, and we try various alternative ways that might work better for people wired the way they are, which sometimes succeed and sometimes don’t.
At Sudbury, nobody subjects themselves to the torture of a method that isn’t working long enough for them to acquire a label. They pick up the skills in different ways, at different paces, as individuals. They don’t wait for “one size fits all” to fail before looking for alternatives; “one size fits all” never exists for them from the get go.
Maybe some of the kids who waited to make the effort to read until they were 10 or 12 or whatever are dyslexic, or would be labeled as such in a conventional school. Who knows? But in the end they read and write as well as anyone else. They aren’t having to unlearn conventional methods that failed before they can do it their own way.
It’s like Greenberg mentions in the book, imagine how messed up people would be if school started at age 1 instead, and people were taught in unison in a classroom how to walk and talk? (And by the way, do any kids choose not to learn to walk and talk, just because it’s not part of their schooling? Then why worry they’ll choose not to learn to read?) Anyone who fell behind learning to talk in the prescribed way by first making this kind of sound and then learning this type of word, etc., would be labeled as having some speech defect, and would be singled out for some sort of special treatment, something that could help them overcome their “problem.”
But in fact we have no such formal walking and talking lessons, and somehow kids learn it anyway. Maybe some learn to walk by first standing still and balancing in a certain awkward way, and some keep a hand on furniture or something else to stay upright, and some always take their first step with their left foot when they try to walk, and some scurry forward a little more rapidly to get a couple extra steps in when they sense they’re about to fall on their face, but one way or another they walk. No one is labeled a “dys-walk-ic” because they were pushed and pushed to learn to walk the “standard” way and failed until adults finally relented and pushed some “alternative” way on them instead.
Another thing I really liked–and I don’t know that this is even a part of the school philosophy or just an insight Greenberg came to as an individual–is when he recounts an occasion where he offered the usual boilerplate praise for the efforts of some very young child who had written a poem or drawn a picture or something. And the kid basically responded with disgust that he knew himself it was a piece of crap he’d put no real effort into, and why was Greenberg lying to him about it?
On the one hand, I understand that you want to bolster kids’ self-esteem, and always be encouraging, and always assure them that everything they do is just wonderful, but something about the kid’s ability to see through that baloney and resent it tickled me. And Greenberg says he immediately realized the kid was right, and we do children no good by offering false praise to make them feel better.
If they’re doing something they’re not emotionally invested in and don’t much care about, your excessive praise isn’t going to have much effect, beyond making them think you’re pretty clueless to not see how bad it is, and maybe a little pride that they put something over on you by getting praise without having earned it. On the other hand, if they are emotionally invested in it and it really matters to them to be good at this, you owe them accurate, constructive feedback that will help them to get better.
I was struck by his discussion of what kind of student does least well at Sudbury, what kind of student takes the longest to adjust. Who would you think that would be?
He says it’s the students who were never disciplinary problems and always got good grades in conventional schools, the kids who, even if they weren’t cynically “playing the game,” had sincerely and instinctively internalized the rules for gaining the approval of adult authority figures.
Now they’re given all this freedom to do what they want, told to pursue the areas of inquiry where they have genuine curiosity, told to do what makes them happy, and they flounder. “But tell me what you want me to know, I’ll learn it, you can test me on it, I’ll ace the test, and we’ll all live happily ever after.”
“No, you have to choose yourself.” But they can’t choose. They’re empty inside. They can function when they have the beacon of adult expectations to steer toward, but they don’t have their own values, their own priorities, anything internal with which to direct themselves.
The troublemakers and the rebels and the bored kids who hated regular school may have made poor choices in how they made up their own mind and did their own thing, but at least it gave them some experience in making their own choices. It’s not as hard for them to adjust to making positive choices instead of negative, reactive choices to unwanted authority, as it is for the approval-seeking teacher’s pet to suddenly run his own life.
He also insists–and maybe he’s engaged in some degree of wishful thinking or spinning in favor of his model–that the kids are surprisingly responsible about running the school. That is, in the school meetings, where proposals are debated and voted on, and the judicial committee, where students (and staff) are given a trial and punishment for allegedly breaking rules.
Yes, he admits, the little kids especially can sometimes wander off, or cease paying attention, or just start acting silly and not taking it seriously, and things more or less break down, but on the whole, a lot more gets done, and the arguments put forth are more reasonable, and the outcomes more just, than people unfamiliar with the model would ever expect.
In a way I can understand that. Though the kids lack certain knowledge, experience, and maturity due to their age, on the other hand they aren’t trained liars yet. Lawyers, politicians, etc. are engaged in a kind of ritual, where a substantial percentage of the time they’re saying things they know are untrue because it’s in their self-interest to do so, which is all just kind of winked at. And everybody does it, because if they stopped, they’d immediately get run over by the less scrupulous folks who put no such restraint on their behavior.
But two 9 year olds debating in front of their peers whether it’s fair to hold someone to a promise they were tricked into making really are exploring the merits of the matter. Maybe not with perfect logical acumen, but sincerely. They aren’t pretending to address the substantive matter while really playing rhetorical games or whatever; they’re genuinely trying to articulate why they’re aggrieved, why they believe that things should be this way instead of that way.
Plus the students are more responsible about their decisions at a Sudbury school because the stakes are higher. No one’s going to step in and set things right if they mess up and make a stupid decision. This isn’t like “student government” at a conventional school, where they’re just playacting but have no authority. They’re going to have to live with the rules they make, the people they hire, the punishments they dish out.
The book is full of little tidbits that made me feel more favorable toward the author and toward this model of education. Sudbury schools are far, far from utopia, but what a refreshing contrast they are to how most people are forced to spend their childhood.