What the Sudbury Model is Really About

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  • 11 May 2018

As a child of the 1990’s, I grew up a cultural orphan, severed from the traditions and worldview of my ancestors, even of my grandparents.  I had no religion, or explicit system for understanding and thinking, and I experienced this lack as a bewildering vertigo. Nevertheless I longed for meaning, and I was thus vulnerable to every sweet-talking spiritual terrorist and ancient sage who popped into my field of vision.  The philosophical foundation of my psychic environment was materialistic and nihilistic, and for much of my childhood I tottered about swollen with anxiety like a balloon on legs. Matchstick legs. I felt, experienced, and lived all this rather than understood, thought, or articulated it; I was engulfed in a cloud of uncertainty which masqueraded as freedom.  These days, I know this to be a phenomenon new to the human scene, and that it is called “postmodernism,” but at the time it was the only world I knew - the lonely, drifting planet of my birth.

The 90s were the first full decade when the postmodern worldview predominated in mainstream American culture.  All values were equally valid, all cultures equally correct, and every aspect of identity as well as all beliefs were socially constructed.  Even individuals were mere products of their historical context. A hundred years earlier Friedrich Nietzsche had announced that God was dead, and the institutions which used to structure people’s lives everywhere followed suit by crumbling like so many sun-baked acropoleis, and among the ruins lies everything from the church, marriage, family, and the nation, to philosophy and rationality - even science is up for burning at the stake of postmodernism.   Meaning is up for grabs, or - more precisely - it’s too slippery to grab at all, or - more precisely still - it doesn’t exist in the first place, or the last place, or...any place. The only thing that exists is power. There is no place left to plant a flag; truth is dead, too.

This post is not intended as a commentary on postmodernism.  The point is just that tradition, lineage, and moral continuity have been abandoned by mainstream culture; whether you think that equates to freedom or confusion, and for better or worse, it is the psychic environment we inhabit.  The presence of traditional school in that environment creates cognitive dissonance, because the concept of school - with its structured path and proscribed, official curriculum - implies that there is truth, predictability, moral authority, a correct way of doing things, and a destination which is reliable and good.  It endows science with oracular power, sufficient to explain and nourish life. School made sense in the modern era, but its stubborn presence in the postmodern world is anachronistic and confusing, like an outmoded machine too massive to move.

Grand Perspectives

In his book, A Place to Grow, Sudbury Valley School founder Daniel Greenberg shares his epiphany that SVS is really “an American immersion school, where children and adults exist in an environment that fully embodies the American ideals that have inspired this country from the time it was founded.”

Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist at Boston University, considers Sudbury to be an uniquely appropriate educative model evolutionarily, because, as he writes in his book Free to Learn, it “contains precisely those elements of a hunter-gatherer band that are most essential for children’s self-educative instincts to operate well.” Gray believes that the instinct to play is of paramount importance in education.

At HVSS, we’ve lately been describing our program as “education for the creative age,” because we believe it fosters qualities (such as flexibility, creativity, and collaboration) well-suited to the  globalized economy and the relentless advance of technology.

The Sudbury Model is all these things, but it’s something else, too - education for the Postmodern World.

In the past, when good and bad were defined and widely agreed upon, life was - in at least one way - far easier than it is now, because each individual didn’t have to figure things out, or “find themselves,” choose their values, define what the “good life” is for them, and decide what standards - if any - to measure themselves against.  But in the postmodern world, we are each called upon to do this, and our success or failure at it is far more important than the degree to which we are professionally successful, because those tasks represent the difference between meaninglessness and meaningfullness.

The capable subject in the postmodern era is the one who is able to think clearly and create or voluntarily adopt the rules, structures, and values that will support them to live a good life. The Sudbury model provides a space to practice living in the postmodern world.  We have been set adrift (or, “free”), and we need to be able to move through that uncertainty; we can no longer rely on churches, states, and traditions. Sudbury schools have an intricate structure of governance, designed to protect personal liberty, but no belief structure, and no political or even educative agenda for their students.  It is the most basic, flexible model, able to include divergent philosophies and lifestyles and also keep pace with technology and information. We don’t imply to students that education, growth, and maturation will be automatically achieved by following instructions. We don’t fool them into complacency by maintaining a path for them to travel; they need to learn how to think, move with confidence, take the right risks, and make the right friends.  They need to get sane and reliable guidance, but they need to know that nobody is going to figure out their lives for them - that ship has sailed. They need to do the work, make the decisions, and write the stories themselves - now more than any other period in history.

Art provided by Raghava. See more at raghavakk.com