Last week a motion to ban sleeping at school(!) came before our School Meeting. Although sleeping isn’t a widespread practice here, it is common to see one or two students sawing logs at some point on any given day, and occasionally certain of the cozier nooks in the building become de-facto napping spots; it’s the “flipped classroom” concept taken swiftly to its apocalyptic conclusion. Anyway, there’s a feeling, at least amongst a few of the staff members, myself included, that there is something just a little weird about it. While it’s true that our students have full responsibility for deciding how to spend their time, sleeping is unique among human activities because the sleeper is unconscious (and can therefore hardly be responsible for themselves). Besides, sleeping is generally a private act, not a social one, and it comes wrapped in an aura of intimacy - and blankets, and all those blankets and limbs strewn about willy-nilly look sloppy; it’s a little hard on the eyes and it’s probably pretty bad PR.
But when the motion hit the floor the student body was wide awake and ready to go, and in the ensuing discussion they developed examples of classic argumentation without necessarily knowing it. This is one of the more beautiful aspects of school meeting: students develop the skills they need to operate effectively in a democracy by participating in one (rather than by merely studying one), and by actually defending their rights, writing legislation, and creatively working through the implications of the decisions they have to make.
Here’s a rundown of how it went:
The very first student to speak on this issue hit on the old “slippery slope argument,” saying, “First, you ban sleeping, but then what’s next - a ban against sitting around ‘doing nothing’?” This drew excited murmuring from the assembled, a sort of parliamentary tittering.
The next speaker paraphrased scientific research to support the argument: “If this is about being idle or something like that, I’d like to point out how important sleep is to proper functioning. It’s all over the news. The more you sleep the more you can learn, really.”
Another student pointed out that the very same day he had taken a 20 minute nap because he wasn’t feeling well and woke up feeling refreshed. Several more students piled on, adding arguments about how much sleep teenagers need and how difficult it is to get enough during the night. School districts across the country are grappling with sleep research which shows that the hours their schools keep are harmful to teenage biology, but we’ve already solved this problem by...well, letting sleepy people sleep, so why recreate the problem? And besides - sleeping is one of our basic biological needs! What could be more natural than sleeping?
But what about people who might take advantage of their freedom at school and choose not to sleep at home because they can “just sleep at school?” Well, it doesn’t seem fair to punish the whole population because a few people might take advantage of the rule. Well perhaps we should just ban bedding. Or maybe it would work to limit the amount of sleeping someone can do at school? Or to deduct the time spent asleep from the attendance requirement? Eh, not a bad idea, but probably too difficult to enforce, and besides, there’s something ridiculous and even Orwellian about it.
Another option is to place restrictions on the locations sleep is permitted, maybe it should only be permitted in side rooms, or in the quiet area. This was received with nodding and various other barely discernible signs of approval from among the assembled, and with that, the motion was withdrawn to be reconsidered and perhaps amended and resubmitted by the mover. Most usually, our School Meeting works like this to find consensus rather than a mere majority.
But the most powerful argument of the day, and the most basic, was that the liberty of the students must be jealously protected. Student freedom - the responsibility for choosing what to do - is the essential fact of our school, and that’s pretty cool. Any incursions into this responsibility are so not cool; they represent existential threats, and everyone here knows that instinctively. Sleep, after all, was not the issue. The students here know well what they have, and they’re willing - and very able - to protect it.
In this election season, discussions like these seem all the more relevant. Our students are preparing to be responsible citizens of The Republic, while students elsewhere are clamoring for more information about democratic process.
So, after the motion was rejected and the meeting ended, we turned out the lights and took a celebratory nap on the spot. Just kidding. But anyone who wanted to could have made the choice to actually do that, which, I think, is pretty cool.