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.