Last year I spent my afternoons tutoring students who came to me mostly from high-powered traditional private schools. I didn't do much during sessions; I spoke casually with the students, commiserated, encouraged, laughed, asked occasional questions, and tried to stay out of their way as they navigated the difficulties of compulsory performance. But the students, their parents, and the owner of the company all thought I was doing a lot, and they happily bestowed upon me the credit for improvements in the students’ work and were delighted that the students actually enjoyed coming to tutoring after a full day of slogging through school. I admired and liked the owner of the company - my boss - and over the course of the year I described to him in detail the Sudbury philosophy and what I had been seeing at HVSS during my internship. He was interested, and understood and approved to an extent, but he did have a concern: “Matthew,” he told me, “you are an excellent teacher. You need to be working with kids and teaching them; I don’t want you to throw that away.” I was taken aback; alas, had I failed in my explanations of Sudbury?
There is a lot of play at Sudbury, and it could be said that play has a sacred place in the Sudbury philosophy because it is so often what kids want to do and what kids learn the most from doing. But it seems that in the process of learning the philosophy people often lose sight of the essential qualities of Sudbury education - freedom, trust, and responsibility, and come to believe that Sudbury only values play, or eschews other pursuits. But in the first instance - and in the last - Sudbury by definition does not approve of play or anything else over and above traditional academic pursuits, which have enormous value for me, personally. But any pursuit has little value outside the context of freedom, trust, and responsibility, and that’s the point.
One day at school a couple weeks ago I spent the morning quietly reading books about sticks, streams, and bunnies with a five year old girl. We paused to examine the illustrations, to read the expressions on the faces of the characters, and to guess at what else they might do in their imaginary lives. We talked about how lovely it might feel to just be a stick floating down a stream. Then, she was done, ready to move on. We walked down to the art room where an older girl taught us both how to make a potholder using a simple loom, which appealed to me because I've had it in the back of my head for years that I’d like to weave (now I have an extra potholder, too). Later in the afternoon I sat down with a teenager who was here on his visiting week. He had asked me to help him design a course of study focusing on human suffering and its causes, how chronically ill people are viewed in a society which privileges health, man’s pursuit of meaning despite suffering, and the roots of philosophy. We were beginning with Plato’s classic Meno. We each took roles in the dialogue and read aloud, pausing frequently to dissect Plato’s meaning and appreciate Socrates’ wit. At one point a group of younger kids came in to try to get the visiting student to come outside and play. “I need a little more of this, first,” he told them.
In the Meno, Socrates hypothesizes that knowledge lies latent within the hearts and minds of human beings, and we have only to “recollect” it. For Socrates, knowledge is found only by those who seek it honestly and diligently. When education is compulsory, so much of the work of the educator is figuring out how to get her students motivated. Games, rewards, punishments, and the passion of the teacher for the subject are all considered tools to achieve this. But these things very often fail, and in the process they debase students, telling them there is something essentially wrong with them (since they need to be compelled). For me, my own private play and imaginings have been the lodestar which has guided my investigation of life. Imagination has given me access to a wider scope of human activity than my tiny life could ever allow. When I am in a sword fight at Sudbury, I imagine that the swords are real. It takes concentration, but when it is done well - when the imagination is employed vigorously to polish the scene until it becomes real - the thoughts, emotions, and sensations of it spring to life - and later, questions, and the drive to investigate, and grow.
The next time I talk to my former boss at the tutoring company, I’ll tell him that I do get to “work with and teach students. I’d like to explain that freedom for students does not mean that formal learning does not happen at Sudbury; it means that when it does, there is a better chance for it to be authentic, because the student has chosen to engage in it - and meaningful, because it arises directly out of the student’s life - and fruitful, too, because students here come so often from the fecund fields of imaginative play.
Plato is rich and difficult; we moved slowly. We read a little more, spoke softly, laughed, concluded. Outside our window the group of kids ran by shrieking, pursued by goblins. The student got up and went out into the air and the sun, to play.