That Moment of Freedom

“You know that moment when you are playing bass and it’s like surfing?” Sadly, I don’t, but I sure wish I did, because judging from the glowing expression of the student I overheard saying this, it must be great.

The recent music show helped me understand something about music and its role at SVS, and it started with this remark. You see, this student doesn’t surf, but the idea of riding the waves perfectly expressed for him what can happen when performing music, and something in connection with his remark finally fell into place for me after watching our students during the show.

Why we have music – and music shows – at SVS is an interesting question. The fact that shows can be good PR, and an opportunity for families and friends to obtain physical evidence of SVS students doing something tangible – organized all by themselves, to boot! – while at school, is wonderful, but absolutely secondary, I think, to something more essential to music, to music in our school, and to what actually happens during performances, when people “ride the waves”.

I think I understand – and am in awe of – the kind of mastery of the body and the elements involved not just in keeping afloat in water, but also in actually staying on top of a wave and moving in harmony with it, upright, and in control.

And I love how the image of surfing transfers to riding the other, more intangible waves of sound, with some interesting differences. In music, you and your fellow musicians are in fact producing the very waves you are riding. And you are sending them back and forth between one another and between you and your audience, creating patterns, motion, and feelings.

What hearing and seeing our students perform the show in February made me understand is the tremendous freedom of it: the freedom in staying upright and in command within an environment that can turn chaotic in an instant, the freedom of being able to do this thing that comes from trying, practicing, honing, and ultimately mastering yourself and the elements. Even more, I saw and heard the freedom of not only surviving in the element of sound, not only of playing a song, but of creating these waves, of setting sound in motion, of playing with the possibility of chaos, and of creating dynamic balances, by yourself and with others.

When I finally realized just how performing music can be an act of freedom, for me it answered not only the question of why there is always music at our school, but it also explained the particular kind of music students gravitate towards, most of it falling under the wide umbrella of rock and pop. This music has its roots in the blues, and in a yearning for freedom in self-expression. I saw and heard the beauty of this in yesterday’s show.

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Sudbury Valley Experiences

It was warm outside. It was raining a lot and of course lots of kids were thrilled. Oh what fun it is to stand outside and let the pouring rain drench you! The mother in me wants to tell them to go inside and put on dry clothes, but the child in me exults with them. I wish I could abandon myself like them and let the rain wash over me, wet me thoroughly – hair, clothes, even my shoes. What freedom, what abandon! Delicious! Needless to say the school has its rules: the creek is closed because it isn’t safe and if your cloths are wet you are not allowed to sit on upholstered furniture or on the rugs so as not to damage them; and the students comply since the rules make total sense and they are grateful that they were allowed to get so wet in the first place.

While I was standing outside six year old Nell came over to me and gave me a hug, a hug that got me wet as she was drenched from head to toe. She asked me for help.
Her problem was: “would you come with me to the smoking shed and help me to convince the kids there to leave the shed because it can get flooded like the creek and it isn’t safe.” When we got there I showed her that the shed is situated uphill from the pond, and since water flows downhill and not uphill the shed is safe. She was satisfied and walked away. As for me, I was awed by this tiny little girl who felt equal to the five or six quite tall teenage boys and took it upon herself to take care of their safety. When she had failed to convince them she didn’t give up but went to get a staff member to deal with this “dangerous situation!” What strength, what confidence, what a sense of responsibility to others!

Recently, the School Meeting had to vote about two issues. The first was about which of two teams would be granted the concession to sell snacks at noon every day for the coming school year. Each team brought their supporters to vote for them, but alas, by the time the item came up it was quite late and lots of students had left the meeting. Next day I was sitting in a room with two students and overheard their conversation. Elijah asked Josh, “How come you didn’t vote for Zach and Izzy? They lost because their friends left early.” Josh said, “I couldn’t vote because I didn’t want to dash a dream.” Elijah asked, “What dream?” and Josh explained that each team had a person who was going to graduate this year and he couldn’t participate in disappointing either one of them. That, from a fifteen year old boy!

The other election was for Chairman of the School Meeting. I asked the candidate who lost why his friends hadn’t come to vote for him. He explained to me that he didn’t ask them to because he felt that the Chairman has to deal with the people who attend more or less regularly, and those are the people who voted and chose his opponent. That seemed right to him. I was struck by the broad perspective of his reply.

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Floundering in Contradictions

I have been extremely puzzled for some time that our society seems to be eagerly pursuing mutually inconsistent goals, almost as if we are unaware that in so doing, we are trying to go in opposite directions at the same time!

Let me give you some startling examples from the realm of education, where I first noticed this phenomenon. Consider the matter of creativity and innovation. One of the things for which our country is justly famous is our ability to foster new ideas, create new inventions, develop new systems, and experiment with new lifestyles. You will look in vain throughout history for an example of a society that is more vibrant and original across the full range of human endeavors.

There is not an educator I know of who does not believe wholeheartedly that our schools should be in the forefront of preparing young people to be creative adults. Yet, there is scarcely a school or pedagogical approach in existence that considers creativity in children to be a virtue, or fosters it in practice. On the contrary, children are given no leeway to challenge or reject the accepted curriculum, to question what their textbooks or teachers tell them, or to take the initiative in designing their own paths of learning. At every turn, students are told to stick to what they are supposed to be doing – not to daydream in class, not to deviate from their homework assignments, not to engage in extracurricular activities until they have thoroughly mastered the required materials.

This profound inconsistency in our outlooks leads to another one when the basic virtue of responsibility comes into focus. Everyone praises this virtue, and every school seeks to inculcate a sense of responsibility in its students. Adults carry on about the importance of teaching children to behave responsibly, and educators follow suit by trying to instill such behavior from an early age.

The problem arises from a basic misunderstanding about what the term means. Here’s how the American Heritage dictionary defines “responsible”: “Involving personal accountability or ability to act without guidance or superior authority.” The whole point of this virtue is the exercise of personal choice in an ethical situation, where one has the freedom to act in a number of different ways. Thus, for example, we call parents responsible if they perform caring acts towards their children, as opposed to letting their children go hungry, or be poorly clothed, etc. A parent is not considered to behave responsibly if s/he only provides for their children under a court order, under the threat of a fine or imprisonment if they should fail to do so.

What do our schools do with this concept? They turn it upside down! Children are assigned tasks – homework, in-school projects, whatever – under the threat of punishment if they do not fulfill these tasks (a poor grade, or detention, or repeating the course), and then they are considered to be acting responsibly if they perform these tasks according to the required specifications! You hear it all the time: a student model of responsibility is one who performs as told; the fact that this is done under coercion is ignored, as if it made no difference. This is truly the world of double-think that Orwell predicted for the year 1984 (and come to think of it, he wasn’t off by much. . .).

Then there is the oft-heard call to have our schools produce graduates who are “life-long learners”, an admirable goal if there ever was one. Let’s think for a moment what the term means. We want everyone to be able to master new areas of knowledge throughout their lives – to have the self-confidence, the tools, and the passion to broaden their horizons and to confront the unknown without fear. The key here is the inner motivation of each individual human being to better themselves, to take the trouble to seek out new knowledge at every turn. Life-long learning begins with the actions of the learner, and does not await the intervention of outsiders.

Once again, schools reverse the process, and vitiate the concept. The dominant message of our educational system is that in order to learn something, there must be a teacher who will provide you a “class” that enables you to learn it. For schools, the learning that counts is the learning that is taught – and not just by anybody, but by particular “experts” who have themselves been taught how to teach learners and have received certificates from special schools, and from the state, attesting that they are the particular people from whom children should learn. Overlooked is the obvious contradiction between becoming a life-long learner and being told throughout your childhood that you need teachers and classes in order to learn.

Or, to touch on a less abstract theme, consider the enormous effort being put forth to keep children from becoming dependent on controlled substances. There are classes, seminars, inspirational talks given by former addicts, advertisements, threats of punishment, a host of different approaches used by our schools to convey the message that abusing drugs is dangerous, unhealthy, and self-destructive (to say nothing of being illegal and subject to punishment). Although the motto “Just say no” is much ridiculed, the gist of what children are taught is precisely that: psychoactive drugs are harmful in all sorts of short-term and long-term ways, and should be avoided.

That is all well and good, until we look at the other message the schools convey at one and the same time – namely, that the appropriate way for schools and parents to deal with children who exhibit behavior that deviates from abstract norms established by educational and psychological “experts” (that term again!) is to administer one or more drugs to those children, in order to render their behavior “acceptable”. And woe to the child, or the parent, who “just says no” to these drugs when the “professionals” have demanded that they be taken. The full force of society’s legal system is brought to bear on these people, to make them conform.

Contradictions abound. Parents are told that they must play a more active role in their children’s education (for example, by helping them with their homework every day), and at the same time parents are told that they really cannot assume responsibility for their children’s education, since that is a job belonging exclusively to the State. Schools are given the task of preparing children to be good citizens in a democratic society, and yet they are the least democratic institution in existence in this country, ones in which most of the “citizens”, the students, have no real voice in determining anything of significance to their lives. And so it goes.

How can we live with these contradictions, year in and year out? How is it possible that people as intelligent, reasonable, and open-minded as we like to think we are can blithely go on supporting a logic-defying educational system in which our children spend a dozen or more of their most formative years? When will we wake up, rub our eyes, and see the absurd reality we are foisting on our children – and finally free them from its grip?

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