But What About Academics?

Associated School: 

This is part 2 of the 3 part blog: Special Snowflake Syndrome and Other Good Questions.

But what about academics!?

The whole theory of their so-called education was that it was necessary to shove a little information into a child, even if it were by means of torture, and accompanied by twaddle which it was well known was of no use, or else he would lack information lifelong. -William Morris, News from Nowhere, 1890(!)

Indeed, what about them!? Formal academic study constitutes perhaps 5% of the total activities of our students; Horace Mann would have a conniption fit, but - he’s dead! The way I see it, the reason academics plays such a peripheral role (and why that is totally acceptable to us) in our program is threefold:

1. Kids learn the “basics” without academic instruction

Learning to read in the abstract, without intrinsic motivation, is difficult; it takes several years to get most students to do it in traditional school environments. In fact, deep and substantial learning of anything absent of such motivation is, perhaps, impossible. But kids are motivated to have fun, connect, and explore, and meaningfully engaging virtually any activity requires, at some point anyway, literacy, so our students learn to read directly from the material from which they want to get information. Some learn because they are fanatical about Minecraft and need to communicate with other players and understand instructions. Some learn because they want to text with their family and friends on their smartphone. Others learn because reading is a gateway to story as well as enormous amounts of information, and they want it. Either way, kids are usually able to accomplish basic literacy if adults simply provide a text-rich environment, stay out the way, and answer questions and provide requested assistance in a straightforward manner.

Our students learn the basics of arithmetic because...well, they have to, in order to get what they want, just like with reading. And they’re inundated with it, too. If you stop to consider, every day is chock full of numerical transactions and evaluations, so the ability to do simple calculations is critical. An example from school of an explicit and practical use of math is our little store, which is enormously popular. Many students adore the chance to be a cashier, but they have to be able to make change and keep the books, and a more formal study of basic arithmetic often begins right there. Another example from school is baking, always popular; try to follow a recipe without a basic understanding of numbers, and you’ll end up with hardtack - if you’re lucky (we have shelves stocked with it in the basement, if you’re hungry). When our students choose to go beyond the simple arithmetic of everyday life, they do so with ease, as evidenced by the five young teens who took up formal study of math for the first time last year and scored highly on the state Regents Algebra Examination in the spring.

Really, the traditional “basics” don’t deserve to be included in the category of “academics” at all. Rather, they are prerequisites for academic study, and as such they belong in the category of “basic skills”, like chewing, walking, and talking.

2. Academic instruction is inappropriate for kids

Whaaaaaat?! He’s wacky, bonkers, off his rocker, a total schmlocker, a fool, a neophyte, a chryptootyte, a shananaginagain (sorry, I’ve been reading Roald Dahl to my daughter)! Ok, ok, I don’t mean it entirely. But - they certainly aren’t central to the healthy development of children. The general arc of our student population goes something like this: our “elementary” kids play pretty much all day every day, which, from the school’s perspective, is exactly what they should be doing. Peter Gray, a Boston College psychologist and expert on evolutionary psychology, offers a clear explanation of exactly why in his book, Free to Learn,

“In free play, children learn to make their own decisions, solve their own problems, create and abide by the rules, get along with others as equals rather than as obedient or rebellious subordinates. In vigorous outdoor play, children deliberately dose themselves with moderate amounts of fear - as they swing, slide, or twirl on playground equipment...and thereby learn how to control not only their bodies, but also their fear. In social play children learn how to negotiate with others, how to please others, and how to modulate and overcome the anger that can arise from conflicts.”

Kids are learning important things all the time in their apparently frivolous games and interactions. In fact, this is how education worked for hundreds of thousands of years; it suits us, biologically and psychologically. We don’t actually need adults to induce us by carrot and stick to learn, nor do we need an academic environment to cultivate our intelligence; it’s what we do, without necessarily “trying” or being aware of the process, throughout childhood, and hopefully adulthood, too.

As students here transition to the “middle school” years, most of them devote their time to more intensive socializing, forging their social identities and working through the attendant issues, and when they reach what is typically the “high school” years, then, having been built up by all those years of play and socializing, they tend to develop a genuine interest in the world beyond them and their peer group. It’s at this time that most of them undertake more rigorous courses of academic study, to consider what will come after their time here, and to prepare for it.

The school does value academic skills, just not any more than all the other skills necessary to being a competent person. That’s why our program is designed to foster a state - that of independence - rather than any particular skill set. Even if we could somehow coax students into learning the things we (in our infinite wisdom) deem valuable, the notion of coaxation itself implies dependence, and thus contradicts what we understand to be the aim of education. Ultimately, in order to be successful, materially, psychologically, and spiritually, it is necessary to take ownership of one’s life, to move with confidence, and to speak with conviction. The school offers as its piece-de-resistance an opportunity to master this infinitely valuable set of “basics.”

3. Kids don’t care about the future

Most of our students are not interested in preparing for their adulthood; they want to engage their lives right now, and live it up, dude! Sometimes doing so includes some academic study, but more often it doesn’t. Either way, good for them! Anyway, the healthy development of children is grounded in their enjoyment and appreciation of the experience of being alive. When kids attend to the present, as they are want to do, the future takes care of itself .

The traditional model of schooling postulates a dreamy kind of goal drifting around somewhere in the future. Arriving at this destination, however, is always deferred. School, then college, then (often) a series of dreary jobs, and the accumulation of things - and debts - always onward, (apparently) towards that place where you may rest and relax and be satisfied and live your good life. We spent so much of our childhood preparing for the future that it’s difficult to switch gears and enjoy our lives right now. This is not an argument for hedonism, but it is an argument for supporting kids in maintaining their basic present-moment orientation.

The point of our program is not that it accomplishes the same goals as traditional school, or that it does so better, or that it does so but without causing the (troublingly ubiquitous) harms commonly attributed to the traditional system. The point is that is accomplishes different, more sincere, and worthier goals. At the risk of sounding like a beady-eyed well-fed electoral candidate, I’ll say that it consummates that most beautiful dream of our marvelous republic: that people should be free to choose their own values and to pursue them on their own terms. At the risk of sounding like Eckhart Tolle, I’ll say that it promotes living in the present moment (by allowing kids, who do that so well, to continue doing it). And at the risk of sounding like John Dewey, I’ll say that it allows students to learn how to make a life, rather than (merely) a living. But- proud of sounding like a lazy fart, I’ll say that what it really does is nothing at all. It simply exists, thereby protecting kids’ right to just be kids. Doing this is inevitably disappointing for the eager interventionist in all of us, and it can test our patience, but- well, we manage :)

Contact Us

Hudson Valley Sudbury School

84 Zena Road
Kingston, NY 12401
Phone: 845-679-1002
Fax: 845-679-3874