A Sudbury Valley School Glossary

When talking about the school, we all find others confused about what we believe, and about what we do. As with most confusion, much of the confusion can be reduced to language.

People casually use certain terms loosely and interchangeably as a shorthand way to say “this is a good thing.” Educators, in particular, use certain terms loosely, because their aim in speaking is to send an emotive signal that they “believe in good things,” rather than as an actual expression of their organizational philosophy. Consider, for example, the huge number of schools around the globe labeled “democratic” in which not one vote is ever taken on any matter of substance.

At Sudbury Valley we try to use language very precisely. And sometimes it is hard for a visitor to understand that we mean what we say. For example, it can take visitors to the school weeks to understand that when we say “freedom” we mean that the students own their time, rather than meaning that they get to choose among a set of choices that the adults lay out for them.

Here is a short glossary of terms that have meaning in a Sudbury context, but which tend to be misunderstood and ignored in other schools. It is not presented in alphabetical order, but in the sequence that seems best for the presentation of the discrete ideas:

Freedom. Freedom is the environment in which people are responsible for themselves. Period. No gently guiding hands. No protecting people from themselves.

Cooperation. Cooperation is the act of working together. Dividing the work, so that A does what A is best at, and B does what B is best at, and they are able to trade and work together, each becoming wealthier, happier, and safer. Freedom is the environment which – despite what its detractors say – maximally encourages cooperation. Free cooperation is the only cooperation; compelled cooperation, as with all slavery, is done grudgingly, angrily, and without full attention and careful thought. Cooperation freely entered into leads to one actually caring about those one is cooperating with just as one cares about oneself.

Equality. Equality is a funny term. We talk about it as an absolute, and in one sense it is: Equality by definition means that each being that we understand as equal is absolutely equal, in terms of deserving the presumption of equal ability to be responsible for themselves. But we do not start with a presumption that, say, chairs or tea-kettles, are equal to humans. Very few of us start with a presumption that a cat or a dog is equal to a human. Very few of us start with the presumption that any person capable of language (and thus capable of organizing her/his thoughts) is equal to any other human capable of language – and that is the presumption that our school starts with, that lead us to embrace four-year-olds fourteen-year-olds forty-year-olds and eighty-year-olds as equal members of our community.

Pluralism. Pluralism goes hand-in-hand with Freedom and Equality. If one holds to freedom and equality, one holds to pluralism. If you are free, and others are your equal, then you endeavor to create an environment in which the differences between those individuals are accepted.

Democracy. Democracy on its own isn’t a value. It is a tool for resolving conflicts. If one believes in equality and pluralism, it is impossible to justify a King or Oligarchy of any sort. A respectful pluralistic society uses democracy to resolve sovereign fights between individuals. As Churchill put it, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Some democracies are not egalitarian (consider the Athenian democracy), but all egalitarian societies will find it awkward to govern by any method besides democracy. The saving grace, which rescues egalitarian societies from the excesses of democracy, is the concept of Rights.

Rights. A respectful pluralistic society does not believe that its democracy has authority over everything. A right is an understanding about what the limits of government (including democratic government) are. Rights define those areas that others may only touch with the individual’s consent.

Sovereignty. Sovereignty is the question about where control resides. Freedom comes from the idea that sovereignty resides in and with each individual, and that those individuals, sometimes, loan some of their sovereignty to groups of individuals, generally as part of an understanding that the same sovereignty has likewise been lent to one’s co-equal citizens. Sovereignty is the area of muddiest thinking in many quarters. Consider the oft-repeated question “whose life is it anyway?” Rights are those areas in which personal sovereignty is understood to be total, where they cannot and have not been loaned to any other sovereign body.

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One Response to A Sudbury Valley School Glossary

  1. Jay Cleary says:

    An additional definition for consideration is Infringement. I know my boys talked about that during their time at SVS and have taken its value into adulthood. It also goes hand and hand with freedom, because one can only enjoy the benefits of freedom without infringement on their decisions; “the action of limiting or undermining something” or “the action of breaking the terms of a law or an agreement”. My boys learned quickly the importance of pluralism and their responsibility to not infringe upon the rights of others within their community. They took this agreement seriously as members of the SVS community and still strive to live in that world today.


    Jay Cleary

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