At our March informational meeting, a skeptical father asked me a very straight-forward question. He explained that after reading about the graduates of Sudbury Valley School he was convinced that this kind of education did not harm kids in their future academic pursuits and careers. But if it didn't make any difference one way or the other, why send a kid to a Sudbury-model school? That question stayed with me for several days. It had been such a great opportunity to explain why this form of education is so important and I had somehow not risen to the occasion. I'd like now to answer him again, this time with the luxury of a little more forethought.
If academic skills and measurably "successful" careers were everything in life, I would, indeed, wonder whether this skeptical father had a point. But life is vastly more rich and complex than G.P.A.'s and salary levels. In fact, the really important things in life are immeasurable by any "objective" standard. So logical reasoning and intuitive understanding will have to suffice in what I'm about to argue. And perhaps, at a future get-together, we can lure a Sudbury Valley graduate or two to come serve as specimens or case studies to support (or contradict) what I contend.
Kids who are told what to do and how to do it, day in and day out; kids who are seldom allowed to make mistakes; kids who are kept busy in prescheduled activities from dawn to dusk; kids who are labeled in negative ways if they don't keep perfect pace with the "average"; kids who are taught to prove everything they learn, and to let someone else decide whether they've learned it. These kids are bound to be different from kids who are allowed to take risks and fail sometimes, and then have the chance to try again; kids who are allowed to decide what they are interested in; to figure out how to make it happen; to find people they want to do it with; to decide for themselves when they've accomplished what they want to accomplish; and to generally run their own lives within a community in which they have a say. They will be very different. Just exactly how will depend a lot on the individual. It is safe to say, though, that certain characteristics or attitudes are learned in a Sudbury-model environment, especially by kids who spend several years there.
I see clearly six qualities (and many other related ones that I wish I had space to discuss) which Sudbury model schools have a much greater chance of fostering than traditional schools. Identifying these is clearly an oversimplification of a complex process, so please bear with these categories.
- Self-respect. Students gain self-respect through a combination of having the time to really learn to know themselves and to trust their own judgment about their lives. Self-respect is also a direct by-product of being treated with respect. This quality serves to enrich their lives by allowing them, for example, to approach a college admissions officer aggressively or speak forcefully in a public hearing and also to sustain the reservoir of self-love which is necessary to be caring and respectful to others.
- Self-motivation. When kids do what they care about, they really care about what they are do. Little kids never need to "learn" this skill. Its as natural as breathing. But older students often need time to rediscover intrinsic motivation. Students who were "unsuccessful" in traditional schools are burned out. Students who were "successful" are addicted to the extrinsic rewards they received for being a "good student." When people are self-motivated, they can take the risks that make life worth living -- starting their own businesses, pursuing goals that stretch their hearts and minds. They prefer activity to passivity. They are interested in finding out what makes other people tick.
- Persistence. Watch a kid learning how to walk if you want to see persistence -- two steps, fall, struggle back up, three more steps, fall, back up... Relentlessly pursuing a goal takes uninterrupted time and concentration. At Sudbury schools, students can spend weeks or months focused on a single subject. Musicians improvise for hours at a time. A group of youngsters builds onto the same block city for days on end. No clean up bell rings, no lunch period interrupts, no one is permitted to disturb another's activity. In traditional schools, a change of subject or class every forty minutes or so is devastating to one's ability to persist. Being required to do tasks one has no interest in is a lesson in energy conservation -- do only as much as you have to to get by. No one needs to be told what persistence does for a person in the workplace. It could also be the difference between the appeal of watching a series of 30 minute TV shows (whatever happens to be on that night), and the attraction of digging into a book on a subject one cares about.
- Personal Responsibility. Responsibility and freedom are two sides of the same coin. If kids are not allowed to make real decisions about their own lives, they cannot learn personal responsibility. If Johnny's fish die because he forgets to feed them, or Susie is fired from her job because she keeps coming late, an invaluable lesson in responsibility has taken place. Our tendency in this culture is to protect our children, from the dangers of high climbing, from the cold weather they'll be exposed to if they forget a coat, from the mistakes they could make in preparing for college. Our protectiveness continually reminds them that they are not responsible for themselves, that they don't have to be because someone else is. When responsible students grow up, they don't make excuses for their behavior. They know they are in charge of their own lives. They are not victims, unwilling participants. They choose their path prepared to follow through, and prepared to accept responsibility if they fail.
- Creativity. Creativity at Sudbury model schools is exercised in every facet of school life. Students at Fairhaven School will by necessity rely on their own creativity for everything from building a bridge over the stream to raising money for a camcorder to proposing an appropriate J.C. consequence for spitball warfare. A great deal of lip service is given to the importance of creativity these days. And rightly so. The twenty-first century will be brimming with challenges which old solutions will not satisfy. The job skills required of twenty-first century workers will be so different from those of our generation that our human creativity and flexibility will be a fundamental requirement for survival.
- Competence. This characteristic of people from Sudbury model schools might not be quite fair. It is really a combination of self-confidence, creativity, and persistence. But over time, people who are continually using their hearts, hands, and heads to pursue their own goals get pretty good at it. Being able to teach oneself something is a skill -- it gets better with practice. Sudbury students pursuing a piece of knowledge ask questions of everyone they think can help, they search the internet, they read, they fiddle and doodle and think, they try and fail and try again ... They get to know their own best way of grasping information or skills. They know how to pace themselves and when they've learned enough.
So, if we put all these qualities or characteristics together, we can imagine, for example, a Sudbury-educated car mechanic. He has the self-respect to know he can tackle a tough job and to treat his customers with dignity, the responsibility to do his job right, the motivation to keep up in his field, the creativity to think through a tricky engine problem and try new angles, the persistence to work at it until he's got it right, and the competence to know how to access help when he needs it, to ask the right questions, and to apply them. He goes home to live a life where he's curious about the world around him, he is caring and respectful in his relationships with family and friends, and takes responsibility for his own actions at home and in the larger community... Am I going too far here? Maybe. But Fairhaven School will do a better job at preserving and encouraging these qualities in its students than any traditional school. And the experience of being in a community where these qualities are truly valued will enrich the lives of Fairhaven students long after they've left the school.