What the Sudbury Model is Really About

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  • 11 May 2018

As a child of the 90’s, I grew up a cultural orphan, vulnerable to every sweet-talking pirate and ancient sage who popped into my field of vision. The philosophical foundation of my psychic environment was materialistic and nihilistic, and for much of my childhood I tottered about swollen with anxiety like a balloon on legs. Unsubstantial legs. I felt, experienced, and lived all this rather than understood, thought, or articulated it; I was engulfed in a cloud of uncertainty which masqueraded as freedom. These days, I know this to be a phenomenon rather new to the human scene, and that it is called “postmodernism,” but at the time it was the only world I knew - the lonely, drifting planet of my birth.

The 90s were the first full decade when the postmodern worldview predominated in mainstream American culture.; All values were equally valid, all cultures equally correct, and all beliefs were socially constructed. Even individuals were mere products of their historical context. A hundred years earlier Friedrich Nietzsche had announced that God was dead, and now, apparently, truth was dead too. Meaning was up for grabs, or - more precisely - it was too slippery to grab at all, or - more precisely - it didn’t “really” exist in the first place, or the last place, or...whatever.

This post is not intended as an analysis of postmodernism, even if my opinion bleeds onto the page here and there.  The point is just that tradition, lineage, and moral continuity have been abandoned by mainstream culture; whether you think that equates to freedom or confusion, it is the psychic environment we inhabit. The presence of traditional school in it created cognitive dissonance for me, because school - with its structured path and proscribed curriculum - suggests that there is truth, moral authority, a correct way of doing things, and a destination which is reliable and good. School made sense “once upon a time,” but its stubborn presence in the postmodern world is anachronistic and confusing, like an outmoded machine too massive to move.

Grand Perspectives

In his book A Place to Grow, Sudbury Valley School founder Daniel Greenberg shares his epiphany that SVS is really “an American immersion school, where children and adults exist in an environment that fully embodies the American ideals that have inspired this country from the time it was founded.”

Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist at Boston University, considers Sudbury to be uniquely  evolutionarily appropriate model because it “contains precisely those elements of a hunter-gatherer band that are most essential for children’s self-educative instincts to operate well.” Gray believes that the instinct to play is of paramount importance in education. Free to Learn p.100

At HVSS, we’ve lately been describing our program as “education for the creative age,” because we believe it fosters qualities (such as flexibility, creativity, and collaboration) well-suited to the  globalized economy and the relentless advance of technology.

The Sudbury Model is all these things, but it’s something else, too - it’s education for the Postmodern World.

The Requirements of Postmodern Living

In the past, when good and bad were more clearly defined and widely agreed upon, life was - in at least one important way - far easier than it is now, because each individual didn’t have to figure it out for themselves. Each didn’t have to “find themselves,” choose their values, define what the “good life” is for them, and decide what standards - if any - to measure themselves against. But in the postmodern world, we are each called upon to do this, and our success or failure at it is at least as important as the degree to which we are professionally successful.;

The capable subject in the postmodern era is the one who is able to think clearly and create or voluntarily adopt the rules, structures, and values that will support them to live a good life.

The Sudbury model provides a space to practice postmodern life.  We have been set adrift (or, “free”), and we need to be able to move through that uncertainty; we can no longer rely on churches and states and traditions.  Sudbury schools have an intricate structure of governance, designed to protect personal liberty, but no belief structure, and no political or even educative agenda for their students.  Hence, we don’t imply to students that education, growth, and maturation are automatic. We don’t fool them into complacency by maintaining a path for them to travel; they need to learn how to think, move with confidence, take the right risks, and make the right friends.  They need to get sane and reliable guidance, but they need to know that nobody is going to figure life out for them - that ship has sailed. They need to do the work, make the decisions, and write the stories themselves, now more than any other period in history.

Art provided by Raghava. See more at raghavakk.com

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