Among the many gifts my Sudbury experience has bestowed is a much deeper appreciation for abilities and talents typically not prized by the prevailing educational paradigm.
In my own conventional schooling, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I had the magical combination of traits which that system most values: high verbal and mathematical aptitude with an icing of compliance. Amply rewarded by the powers-that-be, over time my unique personality cramped and warped itself to fit this structure, throwing myself into others’ assignments and reaping their praise (and cringing at their criticism.) Sadly, though, for all the gold stars I received I also suffered the inestimable loss of an internal sense of worth and direction; I became deaf to my own intuition.
This is a loss from which, in my mid-40s, I am still working to recover. And to think, I succeeded by the terms of conventional schooling! Consider how much worse it is for those told by that system that they are less able, less worthy. Ponder how many years of aimless wandering, struggling, and/or therapy might be required for people to begin unlearning the disempowering lessons and negative messages of their schooling.
Upholding one narrow set of qualities in schools leads to an ongoing and potentially crippling association of inferiority with those who lack the “right” sort of interests and skills. As open-minded as I thought I was, I must confess that an unconscious effort to justify my own path had me viewing my book-learnin’ as somehow making me more gifted or talented than people who couldn’t do what I could. In most of our schools, this obsession with academics tends to marginalize any other sort of activity (with the qualified exception of athletic ability).
Thankfully, immersion in Sudbury schooling quickly sparked in me a major reassessment of what constitutes ability, skill, talent, and success, resulting in—as I indicated above—a true appreciation for people who can do things at which I am at best an amateur or beginner.
Indeed, I’ve come to admire people who can work with their hands, making, maintaining and repairing things. Every day I rely on people who are skilled with individuals and groups, who can relate and organize and inspire and facilitate: those who know when more conversation is needed and when to leap into action elicit my respect and gratitude. Thirdly, I can relate better than ever to entrepreneurs, people who take big risks to align their working life with their dreams. In launching and growing school communities these past several years—schools that, as small businesses, depend on a wide range of talent and an incredible depth of dedication—I have seen firsthand the literal truth of the cliché, “It takes all kinds.”
Consequently I consider successful all those who derive joy from shaping the world around them, figuring out how things work and then making it so that they work better and better. This way of living maximizes well-being not just for the individuals who adopt it, but for the world in general. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from Howard Thurman (one which I’ve quoted here before): “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
And so I’ve come to believe strongly in the need to foster a world in which diverse people remain true to who they are and fling themselves joyfully into a life of pursuing their passions. As Thurman implies, it’s the most alive people who are most needed and successful, most capable of making the world a better place. If that’s something we truly desire, then we must start by truly honoring the responsible pursuit of each person’s unique constellation of aptitudes and interests, in our schools and beyond.