Starting a Sudbury School, by Daniel Greenberg and Mimsy Sadofsky

Starting a Sudbury School

Starting a Sudbury School is the fourth book on alternative education, and the second book specifically on Sudbury schools (the most extreme of the democratic school models), that I read at a point in my life when I became very interested in the topic of alternative education.

Certainly of those three I read earlier, the Sudbury one—Free at Last—was the one I found most interesting and appealing.

Starting a Sudbury School was worth reading certainly, but it did not rise to the same level as Free at Last for me.

Mostly that’s because of the subject matter. This book is specifically for people starting their own Sudbury school, with many long passages from founders of such schools over the years detailing their experiences. Which is interesting to me, but also somewhat peripheral, in that it’s not starting a school specifically that I am trying to do, or learn more about.

I would also say that this book is slightly less well-written than Free at Last. Dan Greenberg wrote Free at Last and co-wrote this one some years later, and they’re from the same publisher (the school’s own in-house press), so you’d think they’d be very similar in quality. But this one has a moderate number of typos and misspellings that I didn’t notice in the other.

Actually one of the most distracting ones might not even be an error. “Focussed” and “focussing” occur throughout the book. I looked it up later, and apparently that’s an accepted spelling in British English. However, there’s no other evidence this book is written in British English. It’s for a primarily American audience, and it doesn’t have “colour” or “favour” or spellings like that. So they probably are just errors. In any case, my eye tripped over them every time.

The theme of the book, or at least what stood out to me most, is just how hard it is to get one of these schools going. It doesn’t have to be super expensive—some starting groups have more money than others—but there’s usually minimal if any pay for the founders while they’re putting it together and for the first little while after it opens. Given that it’s a full time job—or probably closer to two full time jobs based on how they describe pulling all-nighters and such—that’s typically a matter of years where you’re having to forego making a living to devote yourself to this. So in that sense, it’s a big, big financial sacrifice.

But beyond the money, every step along the way sounds torturous, including getting along with the other founders, since no one wants to sacrifice for something unless it’s a hundred percent in line with their values, so everyone is constantly trying to reshape it to make sure it is.

Routinely, the authors say, there will be at least one major knock-down drag-out fight right before or right after the school opens, between factions that just can’t give up their competing visions. And as often as not, that splits the group. A big chunk of the group drops out, in some cases to try to start a different school.

Though if there is a silver lining—and bear in mind the authors could be spinning this and presenting only the evidence that is favorable to their school model—it’s that if and when one of these schools does actually get off the ground, it lives up to the founders’ expectations. That is, they may be unhappy about the hours they’re working, and the lack of money, and the conflict, and dealing with government bureaucracy, and wishy washy parents not sending their kid to the school after they said they would, and on and on, but the actual functioning of the school they love. It sounds like few if any people are disillusioned and don’t like working with children in the Sudbury fashion, don’t think it’s a good environment for children after all.

The closing appendix in the book is a reprint of an essay by Greenberg from 1971, contrasting reformers with revolutionaries, and saying that at its core the Sudbury model falls into the latter category.

I mostly understand the distinction and can see some value in it. The revolutionaries want a paradigm shift; the reformers want only incremental changes in an existing system whose presuppositions they don’t have a problem with.

But what I don’t find convincing is how dismissive he can be of the so-called reformers, the way he sometimes treats them as the enemy. His position is that people who aren’t questioning or fighting the system at all are at least potential allies of the revolutionaries, because it may be they’ve just never thought about it, or don’t know that there’s even a chance to change things. Whereas the reformers, by choosing to work within the system have more definitively committed to it, and are least capable of ever rejecting it entirely in favor of a revolutionary alternative.

I think a lot of this is hyperbolic rhetoric. There hardly is some black and white distinction between “reformers” and “revolutionaries.” They’re all people who are dissatisfied with how things are and want to change them. From time to time they differ on how far they want those changes to go, they may disagree on what degree of change is possible independent of the desirability of it, and they may disagree about whether it’s best to be pragmatic and try just for what looks possible or to be purer and try for more, but they’re a lot closer to each other than either is to the establishment folks who think they’re all a bunch of irresponsible or dangerous loons.

I consider myself an ally of those who favor the extreme “hands off” Sudbury approach, as well as of those who favor schools with a little more structure and a little more input from adult staff members. It’s not that I don’t “get” that in a sense they’re working from different paradigms. I just think the “open classroom,” “free school” whatever end of the conventional paradigm is a heck of a lot closer to this other paradigm than are the middle and the right wing of the conventional paradigm.

I think of it like this: As a Gandhian, I know that the Gandhian philosophy, or a Tolstoyan philosophy based on a purist reading of the “turn the other cheek” doctrine of the Sermon on the Mount, isn’t just some slight variation on the norm. It isn’t just the belief that if we’re a little “nicer,” a little “softer,” a little more willing to use diplomacy instead of force, etc., that somehow it’ll turn out the bad guys aren’t so bad after all and we’ll end up in a peaceful world. It’s a completely different way of looking at the world, looking at your fellow man, that turns a lot of our normally unquestioned assumptions upside down.

That being said, it hardly follows that I have to equate the non-Gandhian foreign and military policy of contemporary Sweden with the non-Gandhian foreign and military policy of Nazi Germany (or worse yet claim the former is actually worse), just because in some loose sense they both operate from the paradigm that nation-states need standing armies and need to be willing to use violence to defend themselves and achieve their legitimate ends when talking and using a carrot rather than a stick isn’t working. I’d much rather live in a world of Swedens, even though they haven’t made that paradigm shift to relying solely on nonviolent means of struggle against evil.

I like the Sudbury model, and in fact it’s my favorite of the alternative education options that I’m aware of, but there are a lot of good people working within other, less extreme, models who are doing good things and enabling children to have far better, more autonomous childhoods than they would have otherwise had.

I do want to clarify, though, that relative to its purpose, Starting a Sudbury School is excellent. Newcomers wanting to found their own Sudbury school in their area will find this a highly valuable resource in informing them in considerable detail just what they’re up against, and showing them what others before them did that resulted in them succeeding (or in some cases failing) against those difficult odds.

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