Over Exposure

It’s one of the most frequent of the Sudbury FAQs: I couldn’t possibly count the times I’ve seen the question of exposure arise in the past sixteen years.

Actually, there are two different types: what we might call positive and negative exposure. On the one hand, people will ask how kids can possibly learn what they need, or even what they like, unless adults  carefully orchestrate their encounters with the world. At the same time, others are concerned young people will be exposed to the wrong things unless those same adults are also protecting them, screening from them things they’re not ready to observe.

What experts we professional educators must be, to know for any given child, at any given moment, what things must be brought to their attention and which must be kept from them! Seriously, one of the wonders of Sudbury schools is the way in which both types of exposure, the positive and the negative, help young people practice exactly the skills needed for successful lives in the larger world.

When it comes to “positive” exposure—introducing youth to subjects they need and might enjoy—I’ve developed a deep appreciation over the years for the intensely rich randomness of Sudbury schools. My experience in conventional schools was of grouping students into same-age clusters of two dozen or so and then walking them through the same five subjects per day at the same plodding pace. In that setting, students are shown not how to confront life, but the sorts of thing adult experts believe might be important to them eventually…somehow…maybe.

In contrast with this basic, managed curriculum, Sudbury students are free to experience life itself, directly, in all its messiness. Indeed, given access to technology and a full spectrum of ages, personalities, and interests, there’s scarcely a limit to what Sudbury students can encounter. That is, the range of subjects is virtually limitless: time, on the other hand, is absolutely finite, and so one of the most critical lessons these students learn is  how to sift through a veritable flood of information, think critically, and decide what’s accurate and useful. (As I sit here with over three dozen tabs open in my browser, the importance of screening and prioritizing floods of data in this Information Age becomes abundantly clear.)

So the good news is, Sudbury students will in fact encounter a much broader range of things (subjects, potential careers and avocations, great questions) than they would if the adults in their lives imposed on them their own ideas of what’s important. And yes, within this range are not only the things these young people want to explore and the things they want to ignore: there are also things that some would say they should not be exposed to.

Typically, so-called negative exposure involves content deemed inappropriate due to a person’s age. Whether it’s media content or conversation, whether the objectionable material is scary, adult-oriented or violent in nature, many people believe it’s essential to pick some age (relying on, perhaps, game and movie ratings) and categorically prevent access to everyone below that cutoff. However, I argue that such children are not merely “protected” from accidental exposure:  more significantly, they’re denied the choice and practice in deciding for themselves what they’re ready for, what they can handle, and what to do when they don’t want something in their environment.

I need to make it clear that, despite the susceptibility of blogging to black-and-white, right-and-wrong thinking, in day-to-day Sudbury life these questions receive all the nuance and thoughtfulness they deserve. What sorts of language and media are partaken of, by whom, in what parts of the campus at what times of day, are frequently the subject of conversation, debate—even judicial complaints. Sudbury students and staff learn to be sensitive not only to the ages of the people around them, but also their varying standards of what’s acceptable. As communities, we decide how to handle issues of unintended and unwanted exposure, as well as how to balance an individual’s right to choose his or her activities with everyone’s responsibility for the general welfare of the school.

As with so much of the Sudbury model, the issue of exposure comes down to basic principles of trust and responsibility, a vision of how best to support young people in growing to effective adulthood. Rather than getting caught a false dichotomy of nurturing versus empowering, we believe children and youth deserve to learn for themselves how to encounter what they need to learn, how to sift through floods of information, and how to prioritize their time in communities where they’re trusted and can seek support when they wish. This way, they learn what they’re good at and enjoy, what they’re not so good at but wish to practice, and what they don’t want to be exposed to and how to deal with it.

Not only do young people deserve these opportunities, this is how they learn best what they most need: by directly encountering life in a supportive, mixed-age, democratic environment—what my friend Jim Rietmulder of The Circle School has called “a scaled-down version of real life.” And thus, the question of what to expose them to and what to protect them from is not taken out of students’ hands, but rather allowed to help them develop their amazing potential.

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