The Distribution of Power

This week’s post was written by Alan White.

My purpose in writing is to help parents who are thinking about Sudbury Valley School. Those parents who are attracted to this model for their children need to provide them with the support that will make their SVS experience most effective. They do support their children by paying the tuition and providing transportation, but one of their most important contributions is to protect them from well-meaning relatives and friends who have a different understanding of what it means to be educated. It is my hope that this will be part of the ongoing dialog that is necessary to enable parents to protect their children from being undermined by those who do not understand the model or reject its philosophy.

Since we are born with the ability to solve difficult problems, and, our current mainstream educational system undermines this gift of nature, it is important to look for new models of education that are able to capitalize on nature’s gift. SVS was the one of the first to demonstrate that to be effective learners, children should be in a culture where there is distribution of power.

I have participated in the Sudbury Valley School educational experiment these past 45 years, and I think I have a much better understanding of why we are not solving our societal educational problems. The critics of our current model of education will help me to make that case.

Ralph Waldo Emerson:
I pay the schoolmaster, but ’tis the schoolboys that educate my son.

Henry Adams:
They know enough who know how to learn.

John W. Gardner:
Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers
when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.

Chris Dede’s written statement to the Presidential Council of Advisors on Science and Technology panel in 1997:
The most dangerous experiment we can conduct with our children is to keep schooling the same at a time when every other aspect of our society is dramatically changing.

Mainstream schools were needed to make the Industrial Revolution a success when it was in its early, primitive stage of development and needed human “robots” to supplement the technology available at that time. We owe those schools a debt of gratitude for their help in making the Industrial Revolution fulfill its promise that the basics of life [food, clothing, and shelter] can be provided to everyone.

During the past half century, industrialized societies have entered The Post Industrial Age.

For the first time in the history of our species, those of us who have entered The Post Industrial Age are able to take the basics of life for granted.

The reason so many children are having so much trouble now is that we are living in this new era, but they are still forced to attend a coercive educational system.  The following excerpt is taken from page 19 of Peter Gray’s recent book, “Free to Learn.”

And yet, the hue and cry that we hear from pundits and politicians today is for more restrictive schooling, not less. They want more standardized tests, more homework, more supervision, longer school days, longer school years, more sanctions against children’s taking off a day or two for a family vacation. This is one realm in which politicians from both major parties, at every level of government, seem to agree. More schooling and more testing are better than less schooling and less testing.

Schools are the institution that we have chosen to prepare children to meet the needs of society, but our schools are failing us, for we are not prepared for The Post Industrial Age. Nature has provided us with the gift to innovate but our schools have undermined that gift and substituted a controlled curriculum taught by “experts” who are forced to ignore nature’s gift.


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Serious frolicking

By Mimsy Sadofsky

This year we had a three-week summer session at Sudbury Valley, open to those who were regular students during the school year. It is hard to explain how lovely it was. I don’t think there were more than 15 or 16 kids for any of the three weeks, and few of them — I can only think of three right now — were there for the entire time. So how could it be school?

Well, how could it not be? They all know each other. There was a different atmosphere each week – different sorts of friendships were formed – but the basic SVS atmosphere, the ability to be and let be, was always there. While the dominant feeling of our regular school year is intensity, it seemed to me, as an observer but not a participant in summer session, that the dominant feeling this summer was spontaneity. Yes, they were all intense. Always. Wherever they were, whatever they were doing. But the particular configuration of students, including those who were there to help, gave everything a different flavor.

As a leitmotif of the three weeks, though one that caused no problem, the school was half unusable. Three porches and three entrances were off limits since they were being worked on, as were any adjacent rooms. A large portion of the outside area was roped off. There were tons of construction vehicles. But not one person crossed any yellow tape — or complained about any part of it. You couldn’t rip-stik everywhere? No sweat. You could do it plenty of places.

There were Zombie games in the building. Too loud. They took them into the cellar! There was a game called Mafia. Mafia is also for the cellar. What, you may ask is Mafia? I asked, too.

“It’s very complicated.”
“Too complicated for me to understand?”
“No . . . .”  Then silence.

I got the message. In Judicial Committee meetings, we often have to understand a complicated game. The explanations can be entertaining, but they’re often time-consuming, and take a lot of patience and insight. Just asking a question in passing won’t garner an explanation. You have to really care.

Several times throughout the day, the sewing room would be a mass of Minecraft players. A few minutes later the computers and shoes and lunches would still be strewn around, but the game players and the other kids would be out playing “Nuke ‘em” (All I know about this particular game is that it involves a volleyball net and Jean enjoyed playing it.) Or Frisbee. Or climbing trees. Or there would be rain. Rain trumped everything — even Minecraft.

Hannah and Tinuviel, who both graduated in May, were the summer staff, under Mikel’s hands-off supervision, and they were like angels. I can’t describe them any other way. They were everywhere and always sweet. All of the kids, I think, felt very good about them. At some point in Week One they decided to try out an old ice cream freezer that was sitting in the attic. Their first ice cream was chocolate chip. Yum! But it was more of a practice ice cream. The flavors the next time were peach maple and mint chocolate chip. The grand finale, Week Three, was Oreo cookie ice cream. Best ice cream ever. I remember making ice cream at school years ago as a lot of work. This group, including the staff, didn’t feel that way. “Who cranked,” I asked the first time. “Everybody!”

They initiated chalk art on the driveway. That kept changing over the three weeks. One day, almost everyone brought something in to tie-dye. The results were lovely. Not just beautiful objects. Beautiful activity.

Ava had a birthday during one of the weeks. Her mom, Robyn, asked if she could come with cupcakes. She brought three different kinds, which really amazed me and gave me a(nother) glimpse into why her children are so careful, so sensitive, so caring. There were chocolate cupcakes with chocolate frosting, vanilla with vanilla frosting, and gluten-free chocolate with vanilla frosting. It blew me away. To cater to all the desires, needs and preferences of the little group so sweetly and naturally was extraordinary. Oh, and they were homemade and plentiful!

To me that one little moment was all about what Sudbury Valley is and the way in which it is just a spot softer in the summer! These kids are so joyous and so easy. My last impression was Harriet jumping into a tree for a last climb. She looked utterly free.






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Men at work

Mimsy took the following photograph at school recently:


She gave the photo the title “Men at Work.” At first sight, the title seems whimsical, though the photo itself is a perfect gem.

I couldn’t stop thinking: is there more than whimsy to the title? And it got me pondering the meaning of the word “work.” The dictionary defines it as “productive activity.” But the more I considered it, the clearer it became to me that, like so many other words, its meaning has undergone major transformations over time.

For thousands of years, people considered all their activities to be productive. Everything they did was seen to contribute to their survival. As soon as a child was old enough to contribute something beneficial to the community, s/he was enlisted to help. There was no gender or age discrimination. There was also little coercion. It was assumed that children want to grow to be adults who contribute to sustaining the community, and therefore will welcome opportunities to learn how to do that. In general, people of all ages were expected to do their share for their own good and for the good of their community. Spontaneous activities were considered no less productive than others, since they contributed to the overall well-being of the individuals concerned, and thereby to the community as a whole.

The Industrial Revolution changed all that. Machines dominated the scene, and what they did was the primary productive activity of industrialized societies. Work came to mean anything that contributed directly to industrial output, and that in turn was highly standardized, not subject to deviation or spontaneity. “Playing around” was detrimental to the improvement of the condition of society or of the individual. “To play” came to mean “to do something in sport that is not to be taken seriously.”

Our post-industrial Information Age has freed human beings from the tyranny of standardized and routinized activities, leaving those to be managed by the new information technology. The distinction between productive and non-productive activities has vanished. Anything to which people voluntarily turn their minds contributes to their growth and deepens their understanding of the world around them. There is no longer a distinction between “work” and “play.”

Look again at the photograph. Don’t you see “men at work?” I do.

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