Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept, edited by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg

Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept

Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept is another of the self-published books from the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. It is a compilation of essays, many by the folks who have written so much of the material in the other Sudbury books, including Daniel Greenberg, Mimsy Sadofsky, and Hanna Greenberg.

Not only is it mostly the same people as from the earlier books, but there’s considerable overlap of material. Many of these essays have multiple lengthy quotes—sometimes taking up as much as half of the essay—from the oral history Kingdom of Childhood. So consider Kingdom of Childhood the raw material, and this book the reflections on that raw material by the school founders and others who have had the most experience with and thought the most about Sudbury schools.

Or really not Sudbury schools plural, because the essays in this book are almost solely about the Sudbury Valley School itself, the original. That’s true of many but not all of their books; there are some that include the perspectives of people from other Sudbury schools as well.

That distinction between the Sudbury Valley School and Sudbury schools in general is an important one, because the Sudbury Valley School really is unique in various ways.

Sudbury Valley has had 200-300 students for most of its history I believe, which may sound small, but not compared to the other Sudbury schools, who typically have 5, 12, 20, or maybe 40-50 students if they’re really “big.” Some of the essays compare the school to a village; I’d say most Sudbury schools are more like families.

The Sudbury Valley School has also been around by far the longest. Because of its size and its longevity, it has built the most vibrant culture, it has well-established customs, it has a bigger budget, it doesn’t have the same struggles to get enough people to fill the various offices and get everything done that needs to be done to keep the school functioning.

A community of that size has plenty of people with plenty of skills, knowledge and interests, engaged in plenty of ongoing activities. There is a lot of stimulation for a kid, a lot to pick and choose from. I wonder about a school of, say, 10 kids, one paid staff member, and two or three part time volunteer staffers. Can that be as rich an environment, especially given the educational philosophy that the adults should avoid introducing material and activities on their own initiative for the kids?

Then again I would imagine there are other factors that favor the smaller schools, or at least where it’s questionable whether size is an advantage or disadvantage. For instance, it seems like it would be a lot easier to get lost, be anonymous, not really connect with people at Sudbury Valley School than at a more “family” style Sudbury school of 10 or 20 kids and staff.

But in any case, whether better or worse, Sudbury Valley School is different. Its pros and cons, and the nuts and bolts of how it works as described in a book like this cannot be automatically transferred to other Sudbury schools.

One thing that I found interesting in this book has to do with the philosophy of allowing the kids to pursue their own interests in their own ways. In principle this means that an interest in learning modern European history and an interest in collecting Pokémon trading cards are equally worthwhile.

Now for most ordinary people, that’s already a radical, indeed outrageous, position. But in practice, the book notes, it’s really more extreme even than it sounds, as there’s a sense in which they aren’t treated as equal, but the Pokémon-type interest is given more respect.

This manifests itself in how adults at the school tend to react to conventional academic interests versus non-academic interests. When a kid asks for help with the latter, they generally assist them however they can, whereas when a kid asks for help with the former, they are more hesitant and less encouraging. “Are you sure you’re really interested in that?” “Maybe that’s something you can pursue on your own for now, and if you get deeper into it and you want help, check with me then.”

The reason for this is that they know from experience that kids routinely express interest in academic things that they’re not genuinely interested in. Why? Because they think they’re supposed to. Because it was the kind of thing that brought the approval of adults when they were in a conventional school. Because their parents are pushing them to find academic interests to pursue at school rather than “wasting” all their time in play.

So a decent percentage of the time, the kid who asks about modern European history isn’t particularly keen to pursue it after all. He just wants to be able to tell his parents “Oh yeah, I asked about it. But no one on staff seemed to know much about it or encourage me to pursue it,” so he can pin the blame on staff instead of himself. On the other hand, virtually zero kids who express an interest in collecting Pokémon cards are faking it.

So the interests are equally legitimate, according to the Sudbury philosophy, but only if they’re equally sincere and deep.

Sudbury Valley has done a certain amount of research into how their alumni fare according to the kind of measures that most people care about when it comes to education—SAT scores, being accepted into college, adult income, etc.—and they claim, though I think there are different ways to interpret this self-reported data, that they do quite well. But one thing I like about the Sudbury folks is that they recognize that there are countless other outcomes that are more significant, albeit harder to quantify.

As far as those other outcomes, they claim that children who had a Sudbury education tend to surpass the general population by a substantial margin as adults. Daniel Greenberg in one of the essays in this book lists the characteristics he sees most often and is most impressed by in Sudbury Valley alumni:

They are decent people.
They are good friends.
They know how to get along with people.
They love life.
They have a strong sense of self.
They have self-confidence.
They are adaptable.
They are acquainted with passion.
They are bright.
They are imaginative.
They are empowered.
They are ethical.
They are tolerant.
They have a deep sense of justice.
They are intensely curious.
They are life-long learners.
They are articulate.
They are politically astute.
They are physically fit.

That’s quite a list. For each, Greenberg explains why the Sudbury environment tends to foster this outcome, and I find what he says mostly plausible. It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that from his other writings I know he tends to exclude from consideration a lot of kids who pass through Sudbury Valley and maybe don’t turn out so hot. If they aren’t there long enough, or their parents aren’t supportive, or they were already too damaged by regular school before they ever arrived at Sudbury Valley, etc., then their failings don’t really count against the Sudbury model, or so he seems to say.

Obviously if you allow yourself the luxury of explaining away a lot of the people who didn’t turn out so great on the grounds that they didn’t really fully partake of the model and absorb its values, that’ll bring up the average considerably.

But even given that, I suspect his list has much truth to it, that the Sudbury philosophy really is conducive to kids developing in a lot of positive ways. And again, I agree that it’s things like these that really matter. I would care a lot more about whether a child of mine grows up to be an adult who treats others well, is self-confident, is adaptable, pursues life with passion, etc. than about how well or poorly he or she is at figuring out what answers adults want on multiple choice tests.

When I read these Sudbury books, I continue to feel mostly agreement, and at times inspiration, though I also regard them as works of advocacy, trying to “sell” the model, or give a pep talk to those who are already committed to the model in some way. So I believe in the Sudbury philosophy, but in a more critical, incomplete manner than what I see in these books.

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2 thoughts on “Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept, edited by Mimsy Sadofsky and Daniel Greenberg

  1. Jason Preater December 31, 2014 / 9:27 am

    Good review, thanks. I think I would be more interested in an impartial account by someone with no vested interest in supporting the model. I would certainly be interested in hearing the voices of Sudbury alumni as they go through their lives.

    Whatever they are doing, however, cannot be as bad as the shit that goes down in mainstream education. The kids are well out of it and the parents are doing them a favour by having the courage to take them out.

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    • Philo December 31, 2014 / 12:55 pm

      Jason, I have to agree with you on both points.

      As to the first point, I’ve found that the overwhelming majority of material written about these most radical of alternative schools is by the folks who run them. (One of the few exceptions is a Psychology Today columnist who has written multiple laudatory pieces about Sudbury Valley School.)

      Still, there are “vested interests” and “vested interests.” The Sudbury folks have the potential for bias due to the psychological factor that people tend to interpret evidence and convey information so as to fit what they already believe, especially if they’ve already committed their careers and such to it. But it’s not like they benefit in a more crude and obvious financial sense by advocating for this philosophy of education. The majority of people working in Sudbury education do so on a volunteer basis, and the rest get paid a mere pittance. I’ve not only read a lot about these schools but have spent time at quite a few, and the people who run them are very sincere folks engaged in a labor of love who typically devoted enormously more research, thought, and conversation to the decision to commit to this model than did the people who chose to work in mainstream education, which is the default after all and therefore often not a conscious “choice” at all.

      So I’m wary of relying too heavily on material about Sudbury schools by Sudbury people, but certainly the potential bias is only a tiny fraction of, say, that of advocates for corporate charter schools and the like, who typically really are just propagandists for their paymasters.

      As to the second point, that’s very much how I feel. Having read about and observed in person the Sudbury model, certainly there are things I can criticize about it, or things I’m still undecided about. But I’m convinced it is light years ahead of mainstream education, which I regard as hugely harmful to children and their development.

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