Kingdom of Childhood, edited by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg

Kingdom of Childhood

Kingdom of Childhood was the sixth book I read over the course of a few months on various forms of alternative schooling, and the fourth specifically on the Sudbury model. It consists of reminiscences by former students, describing what it was like to attend the Sudbury Valley School, how they spent their time, etc. It was published in 1994, so all the stories are from the first twenty years or so of the school’s existence. A fair number of the students in fact were among the pioneers that entered the school the first year or two.

There’s no question this kind of book is valuable in providing more information about the Sudbury model from the perspective of those most directly involved. By the same token of course you have to always be conscious of the unavoidable limitations of all these books written, edited, and self-published by the personnel of the school itself.

You’re not exactly getting a complete picture here. You’re not hearing from everyone who ever attended Sudbury Valley School, nor from a random or representative sample of those who did. You have to assume the book consists of only the accounts that are expected to put the school in the best light.

Not to mention, this is solely about Sudbury Valley School, and not about all Sudbury schools. It may be that students at other Sudbury schools have importantly different experiences.

I’d like to see a more thorough, objective work of research into Sudbury schools by someone not already committed to the model (nor opposed to it and wanting to trash it).

But anyway, Kingdom of Childhood is definitely a worthwhile read. What I’m struck by as much as anything when I read about the Sudbury model or talk to people who’ve experienced it is that there’s typically a greater maturity and emotional depth to Sudbury students than to those of the same age. Whatever else it does right or wrong, the Sudbury model requires people to be responsible for themselves. They’re not alienated from their childhood, not resentful toward someone else about their childhood.

When I read these books I had some hope of working in a Sudbury school, so I read them with an eye toward how well I would or wouldn’t fit in as a staff member. If I were fortunate enough to get a position, I looked forward to forming important friendships with many of the kids, since we could interact in a much more genuine way than would be the case with most other forms of schooling and child raising.

This book is not all that encouraging as far as that goes. The former students spend a lot of time talking about what they were doing alone and what they were doing with their peers, but mention of staff is pretty infrequent. The kids seem to prefer to be with their own kind, so to speak. One infers from their accounts that staff very much stay in the background, that deep and positive relationships with staff members are not the norm.

I also notice how often the former students mention how annoying it was to constantly get the same questions from visitors (like, “But what if the kids just play all day?” “But what about a kid who never bothers to learn to read?” etc.)

I actually think all those common questions are very legitimate questions. I would think when people ask such questions it would provide openings to talk about and defend the school’s philosophy.

I’m struck by how much the physical space matters at Sudbury Valley. The kids love the homey old building, and especially the spacious grounds out in the country with a pond and woods and such. It’s in Massachusetts, so I think of the climate as being horrific most of the time, with everyone presumably huddled inside waiting for the two months of the year or whatever that is fit for humans, but it sounds like the kids there spend a lot of time playing outside through all the seasons.

To graduate from a Sudbury school requires writing and orally defending a thesis before the community on the topic of how you are prepared for adulthood. From what I understand, most of the students take this very seriously and put a lot into it.

I was definitely not impressed in this book by one former student recounting how he insisted he didn’t need to put anything in writing, and that his merely declaring he was ready to be an adult should be enough. (Evidently he was indeed passed.)

He calls it “rebellious,” but I think it’s just lame, and disrespects the effort other people put into actually thinking the topic through and formulating their best answer. It puts me in mind of the hopefully apocryphal stories of pseudo-sophisticated Philosophy students who answer complicated essay questions with one word like “yes” or “no,” as their way of showing that all answers are equally valid, or that there is no way to express the right answer with words, or whatever they think they’re cleverly showing.

One of the main themes of the book is that what people remember about their time at the school is when they were really passionate about something and just wanted to do it all day every day (which they can at a Sudbury school).

For many of them it was an extraordinarily complex society made out of clay that was maintained collectively for years, kind of an advanced version of “playing house.” For others it was some activity in music or sports or something else.

I can relate to that, and I think it’s one of the best things about Sudbury schools. Kids can use their time as they choose, thus they can get intense about something like that and pursue it to their heart’s content.

I don’t know that it’s completely unproblematic, however. Some of the things I remember most fondly from my childhood are things like that—mostly not narrowly academic—that I threw myself into, alone or with my peers, and spent a lot of time at. But I knew even at the time that there were some things like that that constituted wasting time, and some that didn’t.

The Sudbury philosophy is pretty much that there is no such thing as wasted time if kids are doing what they choose to do. But if I spent ten hours a day watching television, or spent a whole afternoon playing solitaire because I was too lacking in initiative and too shy to get out of the house and interact with people, that may have been my chosen activity, but it’s certainly not what I remember fondly now.

A lot of that stuff really was a waste of time. I mostly didn’t even enjoy it while I was doing it. It was just something “easy” to fall back into out of habit when I didn’t know what else to do with myself, and then it got kind of addictive where I would just do more and more of it for no good reason.

In saying that some activities are more worthwhile than others, I’m not saying that therefore kids should be coerced out of time-wasting activities and required to do more valuable activities. That’s a separate question. I think it’s unfortunate when kids waste their time, but coercing them out of it may well be worse.

For the most part, I think getting into the habit of spending most of one’s waking hours playing video games or watching TV is a waste of childhood and a waste of life. I know there’s a case to be made for all the good video games do—they tend to be a social activity, they teach hand-eye coordination, they teach strategic thinking, they teach sticking with something and getting better at it, and so on—but I’m disappointed when I see kids with their head stuck in a video game all day. I’d like to see them getting more out of life.

As a Sudbury staff member, it’s the kind of thing I would tolerate—because people need to realize at their own pace in their own time that they’re wasting their life—but it’s not something I would celebrate. I suspect I would always be secretly cheered when someone came out of that stage and started devoting their time to something like most of the passions the former students talk about in this book.

As is brought home to me whenever I read one of these books, there is a lot in the Sudbury model that I find very attractive, there is a fair amount I only like in the sense that the alternatives are even worse, and I suppose there are a small number of things I don’t agree with and would do differently. Certainly on the whole it’s a philosophy that appeals to me a great deal.

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