Re: DSM: about Sudbury model

Melissa Bradford (
Tue, 20 Mar 2001 08:06:59 -0600

Dear Marko,

It seems you are saying two things with which I disagree: 1) Sudbury
schools do not provide an atmosphere where cultural norms are adequately
challenged, and 2) that you have the ability to determine which cultural
norms are irrational, and should therefore exert influence as a staff member
to challenge them.

One person's rational norm can be another person's irrational norm. Who
gets to be the judge? It's a slippery slope, if you ask me.

For example, there are people out there that believe that the cultural
sexual norm that "adults should not have sex with children" is irrational.
There are people who think the predominant religions are irrational. There
are people who believe that disabled children should be killed, so they are
not a burden on their family. Should they therefore, if they are staff,
actively fight those norms, since there might be some students who can't
express their burning desire to have sex with adults, condemn Christianity,
or kill their disabled sibling, because of the peer pressure of cultural

Nonsense! It's not their place to do so. Students should be able to freely
embrace (or reject) whatever cultural norms they choose, without feeling
they are being judged by staff. If someone wants to conduct a Bible study
at school, I think they should feel free to do so, whether staff find that
to be an "irrational cultural norm" or not. The idea that a staff member
would tell a student, for example, "Christian beliefs are irrational and you
conducting a Bible study makes non-Christians feel peer pressure that they
cannot express their feelings" would be totally out of line. If a
homophobic student who thinks being close to members of the same sex is a
terrible thing, he or she has every right to have those beliefs without a
staff member breathing down his or her neck telling him or her that he/she
has an irrational belief that makes gay students feel peer pressure. A
student should not be made to feel uncomfortable because of his/her beliefs,
as long as he/she is not imposing on anyone else's right to exist peaceably
at the school. That's not to say the people who entertain the opposite
beliefs should be made to feel uncomfortable either. If the homophobe won't
shut up about his/her beliefs around a gay student, they could, and should,
be written up for harassment. I'm not saying it is a bad thing to fight
against cultural norms, if you believe them to be irrational. I just don't
think Sudbury schools are the place for staff to fight cultural norms. It
should be a personal choice, not an institutional choice, and if staff are
fighting what they believe are "irrational cultural norms" I believe they
are acting inappropriately on behalf of the institution and infringing on
students' rights to self-determination.

Maybe this is not what you are suggesting, but it sounds to me that you are
trying to enforce a certain political correctness. I would never send my
child to a Sudbury school if such subtle coercion were taking place. I
think staff should not "fight" any cultural norms, at least not on school
time. It sounds like you are suggesting that staff should be activists who
advocate certain positions as staff members. I have a BIG problem with

Now, do I think staff can't say, "Wow, I really disagree with your opinion
on religion, homosexuals, boys crying, fat people, etc and here's why"? No,
of course not. I think staff should freely express their opinions if the
subject comes up and their opinions are welcome. Staff can wield a great
deal of influence, but not by being agendized, not by specifically seeking
out to challenge cultural norms they believe are irrational. They do so by
earning the respect of those around them, which leads them to being are
sought out for their opinions. It is up to each individual student, just
like it is up to each individual human being, to determine for themselves
which cultural norms they accept, and which ones they reject. Sudbury
schools create an environment where both support of cultural norms and
opposition to cultural norms are tolerated. If that is what you mean, then
I don't disagree with you. But I don't want anyone telling my child certain
norms are irrational. I have faith that my child can figure that out for
herself. Isn't that the point of sending her to a Sudbury school?

You posted some examples of what you consider to be "irrational cultural
norms". I think reasonable people could make valid arguments that those
cultural norms are not "irrational". For example (and I am making
statements for the sake of argument here, NOT expressing personal opinions):

- People shouldn't be fat because it is unhealthy.

- Sex is dangerous because you can acquire diseases that can kill you or
render you infertile.

- I'm not responsible for what my brother does, because everyone makes their
own decisions, and if my brother chose to rob a bank, he should be
responsible for his actions, not me.

- Emotions aren't rational because emotions can lead you to making decisions
that are irrational, like lashing out at your family when you had a bad day
at work and are feeling angry and frustrated.

At a Sudbury school, it would not be unusual at all to see intense
discussions and earnest debates about all sorts of issues, including ones
that challenge cultural norms. What I have observed with both SVS staff,
and people who have attended SVS as students, is that they listen without
showing prejudgement to all sides of different issues, whether someone is
supporting an so-called irrational cultural norm, or fighting an irrational
cultural norm. Then, they might make some points that might lead others to
seeing things a different way. But it's not because they have a hidden
agenda to challenge what they might consider irrational cultural norms. If
they are vegetarian and eat organic food and believe it is an irrational
cultural norm to eat meat, (and hey, maybe it is) they don't say one word to
me about what I am eating, even though I might be eating a big, juicy burger
that has been injected with growth hormones and I am putting myself at risk
for mad cow disease. I'm sure if I asked they would give me a well-reasoned
argument for why I should change my diet, but it would not be because they
are trying to challenge a cultural norm. They would respect my right to
self-determination, whether my beliefs are irrational to them or not.

I want a Sudbury staff member to protect freedoms as much as possible, to
uphold individual rights and responsibilities, to protect SM members from
having their rights infringed, and to challenge one cultural norm: the norm
that children are not capable of self-determination. In a Sudbury
environment where so many opinions are expressed freely and debated, I see
cultural norms challenged all the time. What I don't see is that one
opinion is valued more highly than another, that certain opinions are
considered by staff to be "irrational", and that others are not.
Questioning of cultural norms is going to happen in a Sudbury environment,
regardless of what staff do. I don't think it is the role of staff to
police the imposition of cultural norms.

Melissa Bradford, LVS, Joliet, IL

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