Sudbury: a Healthy Response to an Unhealthy World

On Friday, December 14, I was slated to give a presentation as part of a community discussion at Clearview Sudbury School here in Austin. The following is adapted from the remarks I made that evening—which, as you’ll see, were a complete departure from the talk I’d planned on giving. After a disclaimer alerting people to the sensitive nature of my topic (so they could be mindful of how it might affect them and their children, if present), I proceeded to explain why I’d changed subjects.

Twenty-four hours ago I’d written this nice speech that I was rehearsing and polishing, because that’s how I usually go about this: I’ll improvise, but on a foundation of being sure of what I want to say. However, when I started reading the news out of Connecticut it quickly became clear to me that I had to scrap my planned talk. It would have been a lot safer and easier to stick to the original script, but this is so much more compelling. I do promise that my message is ultimately an uplifting one, so hopefully I can get to that part as soon as possible.

I’m not a parent myself, but I have worked with children my entire adult life, and so I find myself deeply affected by today’s news. Early in my career, when I was teaching at a public high school, two students were killed in a car accident early one morning: a very different situation from what happened in Connecticut today, to be sure, and one contrast in particular sticks out. While extra counselors were brought in and allowances made for people who needed time, the bells kept ringing right on schedule: to me, at least, there seemed to be a palpable tension between the normal curriculum and this terrible event, a gap between what we were supposed to be doing and what we had to do in that moment.

Fast forward seven years: on the morning of September 11, 2001 I was at Alpine Valley School. What was our response? What did we do? Someone brought in a TV, so that the people who wanted could sit and watch the news, talking with and otherwise supporting each other. Those who weren’t ready or didn’t want to do that were of course free to go elsewhere and take care of themselves however they needed. The point is, we didn’t have some allegedly important curriculum that had to be set aside for this huge public tragedy.

This is why I felt I had to talk about today’s horrific news this evening, as risky as it feels to do so: to me it underscores, like almost nothing else could, how important what we’re doing here is, the kind of education and opportunities we’re providing for our kids. A big lesson of Sudbury, in my opinion, is that when life happens, when important things come up, you re-prioritize and go with what’s real, what matters. As school communities, we support each other in doing so.

A couple years before 9/11, I was also at Alpine Valley—in fact, I’d just moved to Colorado a few months prior—on the day of the Columbine shootings. AVS is half an hour from Littleton, so there was a real sense of immediacy. And I remember not long afterward, there was a column—I’m not sure what newspaper it appeared in, but I’m pretty sure it was written by a Sudbury Valley School parent—that said tragedies like this give us the opportunity to reflect on what we’re doing in schools, and what values do our schools embody; whether they empower and respect people, or whether they tend toward the opposite.

That’s my basic message tonight: that Sudbury schooling is one of the healthiest possible responses to an unhealthy and dangerous world. What do I mean? I don’t think I need to make a case for the “unhealthy and dangerous world” part. But in what way is Sudbury healthy and safer? Well, first of all we’re fundamentally based on respect and empowerment. Individual differences, beliefs, personalities, quirks, and so forth, enjoy a remarkably wide range of tolerance and respect. As a staff member, as an adult, this is the most respectful environment I’ve ever known. Here, people actively defend values of freedom and responsibility; they wrestle with issues of right and wrong, fair and unfair. Instead of authority figures telling people they did something wrong, it’s community effort and dialogue that maintain this positive culture.

That leads to my next point about how Sudbury is a healthy response to an unhealthy and dangerous world. Having been at these schools the past fifteen years, I’ve listened to and grown to understand and respect viewpoints that otherwise would have provoked a negative, knee-jerk reaction. This is because I’ve connected with people I might not even have met in other settings, gotten to know them and understand them. So when people say things that initially sound outrageous, I’m much more willing to hear them out. Also, because Sudbury schools are run democratically, you get used to making your case for something, engaging in rational debate with people who see things differently from you.

So now we know that once again we’re about to hear pros and cons on gun control legislation. And I know that I’m willing to listen to people make their best arguments, on both (or all) sides. It’s not that we’re going to come to consensus: that’s not the point. This country, and these schools aren’t run by consensus, but through democratic processes, so we don’t all have to agree: we just have to agree on a common process and some common values, like due process and respect.

I think that’s really critical—not just with this issue, but anything contentious. If you were at all conscious during the last election cycle, for instance, the level of public discourse (if it even merits that term) is nothing like what we see at school, where it’s so much more respectful and reasonable. I have to think this means we’re doing something right, preparing people to go out into the world and be willing to hear out those whose viewpoints may seem outrageous at first—as well as to think critically, to look for the parts of people’s arguments they can understand and respect. I just don’t see much understanding and respect in the political process at large, and I think that’s a huge problem.

Sudbury schooling is also a healthy response to an unhealthy and dangerous world because, here, we allow young people to grow up healthy and intact. They don’t have to deny or mask who they really are: they they don’t have to conform in order to get people’s approval; they follow their own agenda, not someone else’s. When you experience doubt about whether Sudbury is right for your kids, I think it can be a little too easy to wonder, well, if there’s just playing around all day, where’s the value in that? If they’re just goofing off and they’re not learning, where’s the value in that?

That’s the subject for a whole other talk (or series of talks), of course. For now I’ll just say that I see these young people learning who they are, what they want, and how to pursue those goals responsibly. Sudbury students essentially get a head start on their adult lives. That is, they don’t have to spend their 20s and 30s (and beyond) sorting through so many of the things a lot of us did. They’re ready to meet the world, witha good sense of their strengths and weaknesses and their passions, how to get things done and how to speak up for themselves effectively. I deeply hope none of us ever underestimates the power of growing up healthy and intact.

There’s really just one other point I wanted to make tonight. One of the questions I’ve been asked most over the years goes something like this: it’s all well and good that students are free here and that they’re respected, that they’re part of the process. But what happens when they go out into the world, where they’re not going to necessarily be as free or respected or empowered, where things are hierarchical and you have a boss who tells you what to do or policies that hem you in? How are they being prepared for that kind of world?

I have two responses to that. One is that what students here get is a sense—partly because they’re involved in creative pursuits so much of the day, and because they play games—of how every situation is a structured one. The structure may be loose or open-ended, but it’s always there. And the structure in Sudbury schools is participatory in the sense that if you don’t like something about it, there are avenues for you to pursue change.

To get back to the analogy of a game, in any situation there are players and rules; there’s some kind of objective and you adjust as need be. So I think our students go out into the world and these other settings accustomed to figuring out what the rules of the game are, mastering them and working them to their advantage. Or if they find themselves in a game they don’t want to play, then they’re comfortable finding a different game or making their own (e.g., by going into business for themselves). Thus, they’re actually quite well prepared for more hierarchical and less respectful cultures.

Moreover, what we’re doing here is modeling what’s possible in education; we’re showing people a better way of going about it. And not just modeling, but actually making the world better one student at a time, sending these students out into the world to be models everywhere else. Our alumni have this unmistakable quality about them: they’re willing to speak up, and they have intelligent things to say; they’re engaged, and not simply showing up or passing time.

I didn’t cover all the things that I wanted to tonight, but that’s probably a good thing. It’s just that, like I said earlier, when difficult things come up, one of the things I like most about this type of school is that we have a supportive community: we allow people the space, time, and respect to deal with what is real and important. And so it’s hard for me to imagine a better way of giving our kids the chance to grow up with the strength and the qualities we hope they’ll develop.

At this point the group went into an extended period of discussion. If you have questions or observations on anything I’ve said here, I hope you will add your voice to the discussion by leaving a comment below.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Sudbury: a Healthy Response to an Unhealthy World

  1. Hi Bruce. Great talk, great facilitation, great post. One thing that struck me, and I think I said it Friday night, was that I also think that part of the reason Sudbury is a healthy response is that the freedom students are allowed, both in terms of being who they are and directing their educations, teaches them that the world does not have to be so scary and stressful. Bad things will always happen, and we cannot prepare for most of them. Overreaction is not a healthy response though unless we want a very paranoid generation. But they don’t happen often and I prefer my kid to have some faith in humanity instead of living in fear. We can talk gun control, like you I’m not that interested. But I am very saddened by the knee jerk reaction to put armed guards in schools and even arming teachers. I appreciate the small learning community where people don’t fall through the cracks. In a community like that I don’t believe it is possible for someone to wind up so far gone that such a thing could happen.

    That said, I am also one of the most terrified parents of discussing this with my child as the youngest kid in the school who is also a little, um, high strung and anxious? I really enjoyed the discussion on parents wanting to be partners in the process. From everything I have read there is some concern about parents getting too involved because it can undermine the model. I hope it was just as beneficial for the staff to hear that we want to back up the staff, follow the protocols, and not get in the way while maintaining some parental authority and very much wanting to partner with the school and be a part of the process as helpfully as possible. Also, some kind of answer to the perennially frustrating what did you do today question we all ask our kids, Sudbury students or not! 🙂

    Thanks again,
    Shannon

  2. Thanks, Shannon, for your kind words, as well as for being there Friday night and sharing your perspective. You remind me that other key aspects of Sudbury include risk-taking (e.g., mine in changing topic to a very sensitive one at the last minute; yours in enrolling your son without fully knowing what you were getting into) and trust (in ourselves, each other, our children, and the process). So much of the time (most? all?) we don’t know the best course of action, so we develop our intuition and follow it as best we can, relying on each other for support.

    It’s curious that I just started reading the chapter in the Dalai Lama’s _Art of Happiness_ entitled “Finding Meaning in Pain and Suffering.” It reminds me of the value of being open and vulnerable, how that both softens and strengthens us. Sudbury points to an authentic and challenging approach to life: but the way I see it, it’s also that much more vibrant and enjoyable as well, meeting challenges head-on and cultivating respect.

    It’s great to have you and your family at Clearview!

  3. Thank you. 🙂 And yes, as for trust… well, I’m not super religious, but sometimes things are put in your path and you have to trust your gut. The good news is my gut tends to be pretty competent. 😉

  4. Pingback: Sudbury: Theme & Variations (Part I) | Write Learning

  5. Pingback: Agreeing to Disagree | Write Learning

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