WRONG QUESTIONS, WRONG ANSWERS

Everyone has heard the aphorism, “To get the right answers, you have to ask the right questions.” Much energy has been expended on trying to discover how to formulate “right questions” in any field of endeavor. But people seldom give much thought to the obverse dictum. At Sudbury Valley, it has more significance than the original.

No matter how much people read or hear about the school, no matter how many students or parents they meet, no matter how many graduates they encounter, they inevitably come around to the same old query: “What courses do you have?” In an era characterized by the quest for simple, unambiguous solutions, “courses” are thought to cure ignorance much as penicillin cures bacterial disease. They are the magic bullet, the universal panacea. In high school, a certain specified number of courses means a diploma. In college, the right mixture produces a degree. In the professions, course credits mean financial and career advancement. In business, they mark the road toward the Executive Suites. Do you want your car repaired properly? The TV ad tells you to go to the dealer whose servicemen have course certificates on the wall. Courses are the rites of passage, everywhere. It hardly makes a difference what the contents are, or whether they are retained for any length of time. (When I was teaching Physics at the university level, I remember sitting around with colleagues on the faculty who would laughingly admit that they couldn’t come close to passing the courses that were being taught to their students.)

To ask students at Sudbury Valley what courses they are taking is to ask the wrong question. No conceivable reply can be proper. If the students being queried change the subject, they are being evasive. If they say “none,” they are being outrageous (or hopelessly anti-intellectual). If they rattle off a list, they are saying nothing meaningful, and they know it.

What is, after all, a “course”? The very name is the answer to the question. It is a designated path for the flow of a selected collection of information. The instructor, the person who determines the course, picks the material, the method of presentation, the connections, and the rate of progress. The instructor’s path is not the only path, nor is there any reason to believe that it is the best of the infinite number of paths available. The “best” cannot even be said to exist at all. More important, there is no possible way that any two people’s paths for organizing a subject could possibly be the same. No two minds work the same way.

A course, then, is a glimpse into the instructor’s way of organizing, and thinking about, a subject. As such, it is a curio. For the most part, for the overwhelming majority of instances, it is of no more lasting value to the listeners than a glimpse of a passing scene. At best, in some rare and lucky instances, it serves as a spark to provide insight, to trigger another person’s own private train of thought. When courses are given to willing participants, it is a form of entertainment — like a movie, a play, a reading, a concert, a show. When courses are given to unwilling participants, it leaves behind scars of hostility, anger, and apathy.

Sudbury Valley School was established not as yet another institution to enshrine courses, but as its antithesis, a place where the internal growth and personal path of each student is sacrosanct. The processes that have value at Sudbury Valley are the private ones that take place within the minds and souls of each student. To find out the real value of Sudbury Valley, one has to ask personal questions; and to do that, one has to first take the trouble to forge a relationship that enables such questions to be answered. Parents who have close personal bonds with their children, peers who are friends, teachers who have shown real caring, these people can ask, at our school, “What is going on with you these days?” They will be graced with real answers — not with course lists, or with silence, or with anger, but with the flow of internal revelation that constitutes truth.

Ask the wrong questions – get the wrong answers.

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The Best Dance Ever

For many years now a Halloween dance has taken place in the barn. Wearing a costume is optional but most people come wearing something funky, beautiful or amusing.
The dances are totally organized by students, while staff serve as chaperones who are willing to lend a hand when asked but do not affect the way the dance is run.


Every year the ambiance is unique: the decorations are different, the music chosen by the DJ is different, and the people attending are whoever wishes to come. On the other hand firm traditions have evolved over the years of which I will name just a few. The age range of the kids is from five to twenty, and they all observe and comment on each others outfits, join in the dancing and participate in the Limbo Contest. It is so lovely to see how kids of all ages and sizes attempt to pass under the pole without touching it or falling, until the two who hold the pole are down on their knees and all but one person manages to get through it.

This year it was Ansel who was grinning with happiness when his nine year old brother Leander hugged him in delight. Another tradition is to have prizes for all kinds of things like scariest costume, most original one, best dancer, and more. Each winner gets a fun gift and wild applause and good natured taps on the back. I for one was horrified when these “competitions” were first introduced, but the kids love them and it seems that no hard feelings happen or bother any of the kids, so this tradition is here to stay.

Kids these days like their music loud, very loud. I myself am bothered by loudness, and I was very touched when the DJ came over to me to ask me if the volume was too high for me. Often the younger kids are bothered as well, and compromises are made with the hope that all will be able to enjoy the dance. (This year one four-year-old had to leave early because of the volume, but all the rest remained.)

The whole event was exuberant, and fostered a sense of caring and community.


The dance lasted from seven to ten, at which time the organizers sent me home, refusing my help, saying that it was their responsibility to clean up, not mine. I came home elated by what I experienced with these students, many of whom came to SVS as young kids and have grown to be amazing teens: they are good organizers, they know how to work hard while having lots of fun, and above all, by never losing sight of the big picture, see to it that the event is a success.

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A New Year Message

By: Menachem Goren

 An Introduction, by Hanna Greenberg

“In Israel, where I come from, there are two “Sudbury” schools, and both are thriving.  One is in the heart of the city of Jerusalem, and the other, Kanaf (which means “wings”) is in the Golan Heights, in the North. 

We, at SVS, often exchange our writings with them.  The following is a translation from the New Year’s message that Menachem Goren, a staff member as well as one of the founding staff, of Kanaf sent to their families.  I think it is inspiring, deep and beautiful.” 

 

In September 1994 we celebrated the first (Jewish) New Year in our school.

Today, we are celebrating the New Year for the 24th time, with an apple, a pomegranate, and honey, as is the traditional custom.

We started the year with smiles, with joy, with sparkling eyes, with an abundance of activity, and with an explosion of creative energy in our students, who are privileged to live in a community in which they are responsible for themselves and for the way they conduct their lives.

What wishes should we make for ourselves and for the school community – aspirations that are not often-used cliches?

* that we will continue to meet boredom and to experience the black hole of emptiness – because in this era of increasing leisure time it is essential to learn to welcome boredom with open arms.

* we will learn that it is permissible – and desirable – to make contact with the monsters within us, and we will continue to examine them with care; because in that compressed, repressed and shuttered realm lies the fiery core of our life force.  For it is in places of terror, of emptiness, and of boredom that creativity and action flourish.

* we will know how to observe reality with wide open  eyes, without deluding ourselves and those around us, and without viewing hardships, sorrow, suffering, anger, hatred and enmity through pink glasses; because when we are able to plunge our hands into the fermenting dough of life to overcome fear, boredom and emptiness, we create the opportunity to take responsibility for building a new community and creating a new culture, founded on something that is true, honorable, and whole.

* we will know how not to take ourselves too seriously – and that no matter how strongly we believe in something, our belief doesn’t turn us into gods.

* we will know how to fall, cry, and get up.

* we will find in ourselves the courage to hear what our critics say about us, and the strength to listen to our own inner voice (the most severe of all critics), and nevertheless to find within ourselves the capability to carry on (and, from time to time, to pause for a respite).

* we will enjoy our progress and recognize its dangers; enjoy what is, and know how to let go of things.

* we will, with open ears and a loving, smiling heart, experience fear but never stop creating.  We will talk things over with others and then proceed to act; we will encounter obstacles, barriers, and opposition and, paying them due respect, we will overcome them and continue on our path, all the while remaining aware of the reactions of others around us.

* and perhaps most important of all: that we will be able to find as many occasions as possible to take a deep breath, get off the treadmill, and realize how what we are doing is unique, magical, moving and extraordinary.

* may this year be a good one – interesting, fascinating and enjoyable, at least as much as past years have been.

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