The Reality of Sudbury Valley School

Daniel Greenberg



I

            From the beginning, the goal of Sudbury Valley was to embed children in the culture of the society into which they would grow up to be adults—to treat them as full members of that society from the earliest age at which they could understand the ideals of that society. We considered children to be capable of functioning as responsible citizens endowed with the same unalienable rights as adults. We sought to complete the historic progression through which those rights were extended to unpropertied males, then to men of all ethnic origin, and ultimately to women. For us, in 1968, it was clear that the time had come to fully empower children, the last legally suppressed segment of our society, whose contributions to human productivity from earliest times have been exploited, and repaid in the same way as those of slaves, servants, and women had been until recent times. We believed that the quarter of the population under 18 years of age possessed an enormous potential that could be released, to the benefit of all members of society.

            That was our reality, from the day in July of 1968 when we first opened our doors. It turned out that the reality of Sudbury Valley also reflected the reality of the broader society in a way that we had not anticipated: the world of the school provided a glimpse into the future world in which they would be adults, a world the adults of that day did not recognize. This essay is about the reality of Sudbury Valley, and how it changed and evolved over the many decades that we have been privileged to experience it.


II

            The world of 1967 is almost impossible for us, today, to recall. Let’s look at how people experienced some of its salient cultural features.

            The key concept here is that of “experiencing” reality. There are several ways to experience something. One, is to have direct physical contact with it. I can experience the playing of a great pianist by actually hearing him in a concert;
I can experience the performance of a great actor by watching her on stage. To do that, I had to be present in the location at which the event takes place and, unless that location is nearby, this involves travel. And travel, in the 1960s, was rather limited and expensive. Commercial jet airplanes were just beginning to operate. Propeller planes were slow (it took me fourteen hours to fly from Amsterdam to New York in 1961) and costly. Trains took forever; it was, and still is, an overnight train ride to go from New York to Chicago, several days to reach west coast destinations. Going by boat from the U.S. to Europe took at least five days. As a result, only a small proportion of the population traveled at all, and direct encounters with the major factors that determined the culture—the people who created literature, the arts, science, and philosophy—were relatively rare and granted to only a few privileged persons.

            The two main sources for encountering the broader culture were conversations with people who had been fortunate to experience its many facets directly, and printed material (books, magazines, pamphlets, newspapers), “hard copy” in today’s parlance. Conversations almost always would take place then only with people who were physically with you. One wouldn’t dream of using the phone for a long conversation unless it was a “local” call—“long distance” calls were too expensive to allow any but the wealthy to chat at length with someone who lived far away. And there was only so much hard copy a person could afford to buy or store; the rest had to be accessed in libraries, limited in hours and in materials.

            There were other sources for accessing the broader culture. One was by radio, where you could hear a limited number of programs on a handful of stations; another was by television, then still in its infancy, even more narrow in scope than radio; and then there were “records”, plastic discs of varying diameter on which sound could be recorded and later retrieved. There were only a handful of companies producing records, and a limited selection of items. A person could also see movies, which gave a brief glimpse into the world the movie producers saw fit to film for the public at large; but these had the least variety of all the media.

            I am describing how one experienced cultural reality in 1967 because without this background, one cannot understand Sudbury Valley’s origins—the philosophy behind the school, and the design of the school when it opened. From the preceding paragraphs you can see why we appreciated the central importance of conversation—how every student’s knowledge of the culture was vastly increased by using conversation to tap into the experiences of other members of the school community. The diversity of the school population, both in background, life experience, and age, ensured that conversation would open broad avenues of the culture to every member of the community.

            In addition, the importance of a good, diverse collection of books in the school was clear to us. We encouraged people to donate volumes from their personal libraries, books they had initially chosen for themselves that reflected their individual judgments of cultural value. Such donations gave the school a large collection of volumes in a wide range of subjects, placed throughout the school, openly accessible to everyone. And, to compensate for subjects that were not covered by our collection, some reference books were purchased or solicited.

            That was the school in 1968, when it opened. It was a community of persons, all treated as responsible individuals, free to follow their curiosity, and pursue their passions, its access to information mirroring that of the world at large.

            The role of staff at that time was understood by the school population in ways compatible with the school’s reality. Here is what the School Meeting looked for in the staff:

            (1) Adults fully sympathetic to the school’s cutting-edge, unorthodox approach to schooling, both philosophically and practically.

            (2) Adults who were comfortable socially with the students, and with whom the students were comfortable as fellow members of the community. They had to be interesting to talk to; they had to have had life experiences more extensive than those of the students in general, and they had to have accumulated life wisdom in a way that could be shared with students when students wanted to call on it.

            (3) Staff had to be willing to share their knowledge in specific areas when students sought it. Although such requests were relatively infrequent, they did occur, and they led to the formation by students of groups meeting with staff members, or to one-on-one sessions revolving around specific subjects.

            In addition, the School Meeting always was careful to hire at least some staff members who could use their adult experience to administer the school as a functioning institution—to keep it running smoothly, to take care of the finances, to keep the physical plant in order, and to manage such specialized areas as risk control, relations to outside authorities, insurance, and legal matters.


III

            The reality of the culture when the school opened was so far from today’s culture that it could well be describing life on a different planet. In what way, then, was the school prescient when it opened, as I claimed in my introduction? How did the school foresee the future of our culture, even as it was embedded in the reality prevailing when it was founded in 1968?

            To understand this, we have to see some of the underlying destabilizing factors that were already shaking the culture at that time, but which were considered by most people to be only marginally significant. The most important of these was the invention, in the 1940s, of the electronic computer, which was capable of processing complex calculations at a speed far exceeding that attainable by human beings. What we think of today when we say the word “computer” has little relationship to what people were referring to half a century ago. I remember vividly the excitement generated at Columbia University when, in 1960, construction of a new gigantic building was completed, a structure designed to house the university’s “computer”; the apparatus occupied most of the building proper. Miracle of miracles, it was able to process the payroll of the university at a rate, and accuracy, much higher than an army of bookkeepers could. It was also made available to researchers, who had to apply for time slots well in advance—time slots of many hours at a time, occasionally several days and nights—in order to calculate the outcomes of their experiments, any of which would take a few minutes, at most, to process on the average desktop computer now.

            That this invention would spell the end of the industrial age was imagined by very few people, and we were fortunate to be numbered among those few. In fact, as late as the 1970s economists and political leaders in this country were lamenting the exodus of factories from this country to other countries where labor was cheaper—industrial labor, manning machines as it had since the 18th century, being seen as the key to prosperity. There were, to be sure, people who understood the potential of computers to replace all robotic human activity—enough far-seeing people to provide the nucleus of a growing number of specialists who began to design factories without factory workers and, taking off from that, all sorts of automated activities that rendered repetitive, mind-numbing human labor increasingly obsolete.

            But all this was far from obvious in the 1960s, and in the decades to follow. In fact, the transformational potential of most new ideas that turn out to herald a new era in some field is difficult to appreciate when they first appear. I happened to be present in the 1950s when (and where) the laser was invented, for the sole purpose of studying the structure of certain large molecules. It was a long time before it became a key tool in almost every domain—media, medicine, architecture, surveying, and so forth—because the potential for such varied and revolutionary applications was not even glimpsed at the time of its invention.

            Being alert to the changing reality that was to encompass the world in a generation was a major factor underlying the founding of Sudbury Valley. We knew that the world of information storage and retrieval, as well as the world of communication, would soon bear little resemblance to the world of the 1960s, and that any school claiming to be a place where children could grow up to be at home in the newly emerging world had to be distanced as far as possible from the schools that had been developed to serve children in the Industrial Era. It was clear to us that the time had passed for environments that strove to break the free spirits of children through rigid training that accentuated obedience, discipline, and the robotic learning of pre-determined skills appropriate for the industrial socio-economic reality that defined “the developed world” since the early 19th century. In that respect, the reality of Sudbury Valley in 1967 departed from the reality of the country at the time, and instead prepared students for the reality they would face when they would become adults.


IV

            In the years after Sudbury Valley opened, the reality of the surrounding culture changed in a gradual, almost imperceptible way. The world of 1987 was not all that different from the world of 1967, and the same was true to a large extent in the school. But how very different the world of today is from that of 1987!

            Much has been said about the rapid and fundamental transformations that have occurred during the past 25 years. It is widely understood that the underlying driver for these transformations has been the digital world in all its manifestations: personal computers, miniaturization, the internet, the cloud, sophisticated search algorithms, satellites, and the interconnectedness that they have nurtured. These have created the socially and economically revolutionary “long tail” of digital exchange—the ability, for the first time, to connect people anywhere in the world with common interests, and to access arcane information buried in history or in remote locations. Coupled with steady progress in transportation and the movement of hard goods, the cyberworld has given birth to the “global village” so widely talked about.

            The result of all this has been an enormous and unprecedented explosion of human creativity which feeds on itself, and leads to an exponential rise in the rate of innovation and in the development of new models of reality. That this has happened, and will continue to happen, should come as no surprise. From earliest times, every new development in the technology of information exchange and transportation has brought about a huge increase in human creativity. Consider the invention of writing some ten thousand years ago; the invention of printing with movable type, and of oceangoing vessels five hundred years ago; or the invention of electricity-based connectivity and steam-driven land and water conveyances two hundred years ago. The first led to the cultural revolutions in tiny Greece and the Middle East that to this day define Western civilization; the second led to the beginning of the “modern era”, the third to the creation of a flourishing industrial economy and the invention of theories that promised the ability to dominate vast regions and large populations.

            Global connectivity, and the creativity it has generated, has turned millennials1 into staunch individualists. Think about it: each person has complete control over their access to the world. No outside force can limit what they want to see or hear—or at least, in their view, no outside force should be able to set limits. Nor can any outside force limit what they want to say to the world—their personal messages, whether verbal, oral, or visual. Their preferred world is a world of pure anarchy in its classic meaning—no authority restricting their self-expression.

            The “long tail” helps further the idea that such a world is viable. It makes it possible to seek like-minded individuals anywhere in the world. No need to languish in isolation; put it out there, and more likely than not, someone will connect with you. No need to negotiate; if you see things the same way, you can join hands, and if it turns out that after all, you don’t, then you can often break off contact with no adverse consequences. Any idea, any cause, any activity, can quickly locate sympathizers, or at least others with whom to interact about them.

            As a result, millennials have little interest in the mechanisms of societal organization. The tedious processes of traditional politics—formulation and re-formulation of policies, repeated negotiation to find common ground, invention of complex institutions to deal with complex socio-economic issues—seem slow, muddy, and fraught with ambiguity. The rugged individualism typical of millennials is certainly present in the school. Interest among students in the administrative mechanisms that must be maintained in order to sustain the school, never extensive, has waned here too.

            On the other hand, every student is keenly aware that they have a voice in how the school operates. When they feel a need to express themselves, they do not hesitate to show up at School Meeting and seek to influence the way the school functions. In addition, and perhaps more important, student dominance in the Judicial Committee (where student participation is obligatory under the School Meeting’s rules) means that they have a direct influence on the practical, day to day interpretation of the rules they have passed—an influence that extends to revealing areas in which the school’s governance has to be modified.

            All this has impacted the role of staff significantly. As the 21st century progressed, the hiring process adopted by the School Meeting has undergone a major change. Before, the main criterion for hiring staff was how comfortably they were integrated, as individuals, into the life of the community, and it was assumed that the “invisible hand” would see to it that staff hired in this way would somehow help keep the school going. The newer procedures spell out specific management needs that the school wants staff to fulfill. The students are in this way freer to pursue their personal passions, assured that there are professionals around who could administer the institution’s needs.

            So even as the long tail connects them with others living all across the globe having similar interests, the environment of the school connects them directly with others who are passionate about protecting their freedoms. Their school is a community of individuals with a common goal: to maintain a fair system of governance that protects each of their rights. How strongly this common goal binds the members of the Sudbury Valley community together is evidenced by the many instances that former students from widely different eras feel an immediate connection whenever they chance to cross paths.


V

            The new reality has opened a chasm between the present and the past—a generation gap not merely between the world of children and the world of their parents, but a deep rift between the world of children and the world of all earlier generations. People growing up in this century are deeply alienated from the past, and from those who look to the past for guidance.

            After all, from their vantage point, what is the main lesson of history? It is this: human history is a repetitive series of catastrophic and brutal wars, oppression, corruption, and deception, coupled with a complete disregard for the value of individual lives or aspirations. To them, no essential current need can be met by studying that, especially when each of them is occupied with self-realization, and understands instinctively that, to achieve this goal, they must somehow respect the same pre-occupation in others, and support it. The study of history thus joins other fields that are not inherently significant, but rather may or may not excite curiosity.

            An extension of this devaluation of history is a highly skeptical attitude towards the “wisdom” of adults, not to mention the “wisdom” of earlier generations. The main thrust of that wisdom, from the perspective of millennials, is a desire to control all the human instincts and talents that they value.

            All of this has affected Sudbury Valley as well, in particular, once again, the role of the staff. For decades, students organized groups that drew on the knowledge of the adult staff. They saw staff as members of the community who had accumulated information that could be quickly accessed, and was complementary to that found in books. In addition, staff was considered to have life experience that was interesting to tap into, especially in an era when young people believed that their lives would basically be conducted in the same cultural environment as the staff.

            Students today do not look to the staff to serve as the “wise elders” of the community, whose views one should seek out. Rather, staff is expected to serve as people who are alert to the ongoing needs of the school as an institution, and who can arrange for those needs to be met. The challenge for the staff is to remain current and relevant, and a key characteristic of new staff must be a clear comprehension of the new world of today.


VI

            To me, the most notable characteristic of millennials is their embrace of risk as a key element of a life worth living. I am referring to risk in its broadest manifestations—physical, intellectual, and psychological.

            Most adults, especially those steeped in the values of the pre-Information-Age world, eschew risk; that is what underlies the need for control that I addressed earlier. But the love of risk is inherent in being human. What defines us as humans is self-awareness, the ability to think about ourselves and about our world. With this self-awareness comes the basic need to create models of reality that enable us to navigate the world successfully.2

            We cannot design those models of reality without exploring our environment, and the act of exploration, by definition, involves plunging into the unknown, and welcoming the risk that comes with that act. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but that is because the cat was not in a position to cogitate about the pros and cons of pursuing that curiosity. By contrast, as Aristotle pointed out long ago, curiosity is an essential feature of human life, and with it comes the risk that satisfying curiosity entails.

            In the long span of history before the Industrial Era, society was organized in a way that discouraged risk-taking in all but a small ruling elite, a fact that rendered the lives of most people miserable and dull. The elite, by contrast, reveled in risk-taking, and invented the concept of the “hero” centered totally on the willingness to endure risk—the more the better—and to survive it. The Industrial Era extended the glorification of risk far beyond the borders of old-time heroics, into the world of commerce, industry, invention, science, and geographic exploration. Indeed, the world in which I grew up in the 1950s was a risky world for everyone, regardless of age, and that was considered not only tolerable, but actually a good thing.

            In recent years, risk has been suppressed due to increased fear that has gripped the adult, pre-millennial population3, but millennials have put it back in its proper place, at the center of their lives. In any field or domain of activity, the greater the risk, the greater the satisfaction in achievement. And since taking a risk is inherently the result of an individual’s decision, the embracement of risk has gone hand in hand with the renewed triumph of individualism.

            Sudbury Valley has embraced risk from the outset. In its early days, that embrace was entirely in sync with the attitude of the outside world. Our attitude has never changed. The school has done everything in its power to protect the ability of students to take risks according to their judgment.4


VII

            What, then, is the reality of Sudbury Valley School?


            It is a reality that evolves as the reality of the world outside the school changes.


            It is a cutting edge reality that heralds a future reality even as it reflects the current reality of the outside world.


            It is a reality that provides a fitting environment within which children can grow up and develop into productive denizens of the 21st century world.





1. I use this term in its generally accepted meaning to refer to people born from the late 1980s on.

2. I have written about this at length in The Meaning of Education, Daniel Greenberg, Sudbury Valley School Press, 2011.

3. I have written at length about this in my recent essay, “Banishing Fear: A New Look, Two Decades Later”, Daniel Greenberg, SVS Journal, Fall 2014, p.3.

4.The staff, however, under prevailing law, has a high degree of personal responsibility for the safety of students. This places another demand on staff being hired nowadays, one that was not significant in the early years: the staff must be sensitive to the aversion to risk prevailing in the outside world, and be able to negotiate carefully the divergence between its attitude towards risk and that of the school.





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