Note: A version of this first appeared in the Journal of Alpine Valley School (JAVS) in 2003.
The Sudbury model comprises a tapestry of elements, perhaps the most critical of which—the motive force behind all our principles and structures—is passion. Schools like Alpine Valley wouldn’t be what they are without an emphasis on freedom, respect, and responsibility: but when students are given freedom and respect, when they assume responsibility, it is passion that drives them onward.
What do I mean by passion? Anything that seizes the imagination and refuses to let go. Passion makes time vanish; it turns bodily necessities like food and sleep into mere distractions. Your passion is something for which you would undertake any chore, overcome any obstacle. It is something you know intimately, an essential part of you.
Passion is that state in which your very soul is tingling with energy and enthusiasm. It bestows significance and meaning, for when you are responsibly pursuing your passion, you don’t have to ask whether it’s something you should be doing, whether it’s worthwhile. Passion is nothing less than life lived abundantly and purposefully.
But what does passion look like? More to the point, what function does it have in a school, of all places? Well, as I envision it, passion encompasses a host of traits and appears in many forms: curiosity and skill, focus and persistence, intensity and desire, frustration and dissatisfaction. Yet while its specific manifestations vary, passion lies at the core of human nature; it’s the fuel on which we run.
Sudbury schools work because they allow students’ innate passions to awaken or revive; here their capacity for life can unfold organically. We strive to provide a setting where, over time, a student’s vision can become unclouded, where each individual can come to hear the call of his or her soul.
Passion works: we see this all the time at Sudbury schools. Our students are extremely passionate about…well, about practically everything. Inquiry, imagination and strongly held (and expressed) opinions abound. Sudbury students—which is to say, people allowed to be themselves—are passionate about creating things, about connecting with others, about incessantly pushing the boundaries of their capabilities.
When someone spends hour upon hour on a project, for days at a time, when he or she sets forth an articulate, heartfelt argument at a meeting, that’s passion. Over the years, I’ve seen students with abiding passions for animals, languages, construction, writing, art, gaming and music—to cite just a few examples.
Even the adults associated with Sudbury schools have a great deal of passion. Thus, our students have as role models people who have found something they love and are pouring their heart and soul into it, doing whatever it takes to realize their passions.
What do young people need in order to prepare for adulthood? Is an arbitrary assortment of facts and skills, approved by experts, really the answer? Or are the strength and persistence—the drive—of a life governed by the responsible pursuit of passion more likely to give students valuable real-life skills?
Some may doubt passion, citing examples of people who seem to lack it. Yet this is not the natural human condition. Sadly, passion can (and often does) atrophy when opposed over time. This does not invalidate passion: it merely implies that some people hold other values in higher esteem, and therefore marginalize passion.
I believe negative assessments of passion arise from a place of fear. Unlike passion, fear holds people back and shuts them down; it constricts and diminishes life by restricting the perceived range of possibilities. In extreme cases, fear can even transform life into a constant struggle to withstand opposition, a perpetual hunkering down against the next disaster.
Fear is willing to make concessions for the promise of security in this world where guarantees simply aren’t possible. It sacrifices vigorous, healthy growth for superficial signs of learning. At heart, fear wants to control the vicissitudes of life, when life refuses to yield to that kind of control. The most we adults can do in this regard is let our children develop their natural strength of character—their integrity, and their passion.
In the end, we face a fundamental choice, whether to act more from fear or passion. Should we educate our children in a life-affirming manner, to believe that great things are possible, or in a manner that advises them to compromise and settle, do as they’re told, and then hope for the best?
My vote is for passion—for empowering children and letting them maximize their capacity for full, enjoyable, and worthwhile lives. If we want the best for our children, ourselves and our world, passionate people are by far the most capable of bringing such a happy reality into being.