Fifty Years in Education: A Memoir
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of my first entry into the world of education, as a teaching assistant in the Physics Department of Columbia University (where I was a graduate student). I wanted to share some of my ruminations about my half-century’s-worth of experiences.
Why Have I Worked for and at Sudbury Valley School for Some Forty Years?
This is a question I have often asked myself. A person has to have a pretty good reason to stick to a particular line of work for an extended period of time – and still enjoy what he’s doing!
It all comes down to this: I think everyone needs to have goals in life, purposes that they feel give their life meaning and make it worth living. These purposes can take many forms, and arise from a wide variety of origins – family backgrounds, cultural influences, peer pressure, survival needs, to name a few. And they are strongly influenced, if not wholly determined, by a person’s unique inherent character, the origin of which is still a mystery. They give our lives overall direction, and enable us to carry on from day to day despite the inevitable difficulties, challenges, risks, and obstacles that we all face regularly.
My life goals underwent a series of developments as I matured. Having grown up in an intellectual home, and been surrounded during my adolescent years by accomplished academicians, I first set out to devote myself to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and perhaps also to the discovery or creation of something new of value to humanity. This appeared to me, in my naive youth, as the life purpose of the people I most admired, and seemed a highly worthy goal to adopt for myself.
I guess I never abandoned that goal, although I would phrase it today somewhat differently. “Knowledge” has become a more differentiated term for me1, and now I would say that this goal is better stated as the acquisition, and sharing, of wisdom, which is a precious human commodity and one that can be added to without limit.
Why did I, why does any person, want to share with others such wisdom as I may think I possess? This is, after all, the primary purpose of the enterprise of education, and one which seems to be universally lauded. Why should this be?
I am not sure I know a good answer to this question. Part of the answer lies in the fairly obvious observation that human beings are social animals; that we seek companionship, comrades who will participate in this or that aspect of our lives2. True companionship involves a fair degree of mutual sharing of goals, which in turn seems to point to the need to make those goals known, and to elaborate and justify them, to other people, so that they may accept them and join hands with you.
Part of the answer lies in the equally mysterious and apparently universal need people have to be altruistic, to do something they feel may benefit someone else other than themselves. Educators view themselves as benefactors of humanity, as individuals who create an environment that enables other people to better their chance of leading successful lives. More honestly, I should say that we educators view ourselves as benefactors of humanity.
So how do I see my work at Sudbury Valley as benefitting others? Simply put, I feel privileged to be part of an institution whose main purpose it is to enable children to gain the self-confidence, self-motivation, and self-acquired skills to become effective, high-functioning, independent adults in a free, democratic society. I am proud to be part of a movement to extend a full measure of respect, and the full bundle of human rights, to children, who constitute the last remaining class in our society to be the objects of legally sanctioned oppression by others.
Looking around me every day at the vibrant atmosphere that permeates Sudbury Valley, at the proud individuals who are my daily companions, and at the amazing collection of former students, I have no trouble renewing my satisfaction with the choice of goals that I have made for myself. That is why I have been here from the beginning, and delight in being here even now after all the years, all the heartaches, all the struggles. The bright eyes, the lively activity, the purposefulness, the intensity of emotions of the children of all ages who surround me are sustaining, and are a constant reaffirmation of purpose for me.
If This Is Such a Worthy Goal, Why Isn’t It Spreading More Rapidly Throughout our Society?
I can’t count the number of times I have heard that questions asked. The underlying assumption is clearly false – namely, that good ideas spread rapidly. One needn’t be a historian to know that. But it is nevertheless a question worth considering.
The answer is painfully simple, and can be summed up in one word: control. Every time basic rights are extended to a group that has been denied those rights, another group – the one that denied them the rights – loses the control it once exercised over them.
Domination and control are the engines of natural evolution. All species fight to gain enough control over their environment (including competing species) to survive; and within each species, individuals vie for positions of domination (at the expense of those who learn to submit in order to survive) in order to ensure that the strongest members pass on to future generations as many of their strengths as possible.
Evolution does not ask species to grant “rights” to other species, nor does it ask individuals to grant “rights” to other individuals. The concept of human equality (the “self-evident” truth that “all men are created equal”) and the idea that “rights” flow from this concept (“that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”) run counter to the natural order. It takes what can be called an anti-evolutionary societal [r]evolution to introduce these rights into a community, and the task is difficult, lengthy, and fraught with setbacks, contradictions, and individual acts of hypocrisy. The Founding Fathers recognized this when they added the phrase “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men,” governments being themselves agents of domination that enforce social norms upon their subject populations.3
How difficult it is to absorb these concepts into one’s life can be seen from the simple fact that, of all the Founding Fathers, the most eloquent spokesman for American ideals was Thomas Jefferson, himself an owner of African-American slaves. Nor would he have had the slightest inclination to include, among the body of “men” created “equal”, the other half of the human race who happened to be created “women” and hence quite unequal to men in his, and his contemporaries’, minds.
There is no need to recount the history of the slow and painful spread of human rights within America, a process still incomplete even for all adults, and the even slower and less complete spread of rights to the rest of the world.
With children, there is an additional problem: at birth, they are entirely dependent on adults for survival, and lack the ability to communicate their thoughts and needs clearly. It is quite easy for parents to confuse the notion of nurturing their children with the notion of controlling their children, since the former entails a great deal of the latter for a considerable length of time after birth. Giving up the desire for parental control that the parent-infant relationship requires to a certain extent, and that all adults possess through normal evolutionary channels, is a hard task for the vast majority of parents.
It is no surprise, then, that the ideas underlying the Sudbury model of schooling are taking a long time to spread and become the norm.
These facts notwithstanding, there has been a steady march towards acceptance of an increased level of equal treatment for children within society. The very fact that the term “democratic schooling” has been gaining ever wider currency is testimony to the inexorable historical pressure to accept children as full and equal members of society, from a very early age. Since the Sudbury model takes this acceptance to its full logical conclusion, with no compromises or residual powers reserved for adults only, it is natural to expect our model to be the hardest for people to adopt into their lives.
But this should no more deter us from working towards that goal, than the difficulty of obtaining full equal treatment for women, minorities, and other disenfranchised members of the population should deter us from working tirelessly to attain that goal.
Summing It Up
So why do I continue working at Sudbury Valley? And why do I believe that, as the future unfolds, Sudbury Valley and other Sudbury model schools will continue to attract an ever larger group of talented, creative people who will find that working at such a school is a worthy goal in life?
Perhaps the answer can best be summed up in a statement made recently by a Sudbury Valley graduate who has undertaken the daunting task of applying for staff candidacy at the school. Here is what she wrote:4
My recent alumni visit to the school . . . gave me a new perspective on SVS. I don’t know how to describe it, but there is something really powerful about the kids who who chose to go to Sudbury Valley, and it’s something I couldn’t see as clearly when I was attending. The kids at SVS are compelling and magical, without trying to be either. Ten years after my own graduation, I have seen my friends from SVS go into every part of the world with the assurance they can conquer any challenge set before them, yet still knowing they have nothing to prove to anyone but themselves. Former and current SVS students are not all necessarily happier or smarter or more career-oriented, and they don’t necessarily end up with higher incomes or a longer list of quotes memorized from the works of Shakespeare, but they do appear to have a one hundred percent success rate when it comes to figuring out what they want and going for it. In a world where many people still aren’t sure what they wanted to do with their life by the time it’s over, I believe that the Sudbury schooling community is an essential starting point for improving the way our world works. This strength is overwhelmingly evident in the current student body, and I am inspired by this. The school is truly growing, and I want to be a part of this continued growth.
I could not say it better. What this person has described is the outcome of the trust and respect extended to all of our students, and the freedom they enjoy in a community of equals.
1. See my article “Acquiring Wisdom at Sudbury Valley School” (Sudbury Valley School Journal, Vol. 33, #1, October 2003, pp. 13ff.).
2. The Book of Genesis views this as an inherent, divinely-ordained aspect of human character. In that book, God is represented as declaring, “It is not a good thing for human beings to be alone. I must find them companions with whom to share their lives.” (Genesis 2:18) Modern secular social science and evolutionary biology view this as a biological and psychological characteristic of the human species.
3. The Founding Fathers recognized this apparent paradox – rights enforced by authority – and tried to mitigate it by adding the phrase, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The great 16th century political theorist Etienne de La Boetie, one of the first to write clearly about the rights of man in his classic treatise The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, basically saw all government as an enemy of equality. The text of his remarkable treatise, translated into English by Harry Kurz, is available online at http://www.mises.org/rothbard/boetie.pdf.
4. Cited with the permission of the author. Bold added.
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