A Clearer View (excerpt)

Associated School: 
  • 12 September 2011

The following excerpt is taken from the book A Clearer View, by Daniel Greenberg.  The book is available from the Sudbury Valley School Press at their online store at: http://bookstore.sudburyvalley.org/product/clearer-view

Why Sudbury Valley School Doesn't Work for Everyone: Real Learning Disabilities

During our founding years, we thought that people would flock to the school. We thought we would be mobbed and we'd be turning people away at the door. We expected a cast of thousands. Who wouldn't want happy kids? More to the point, what kids wouldn't do everything in their power to gain their freedom? We expected, even if the parents weren't willing, that the kids would be knocking down the walls, making their parents' lives miserable. "Send us to Sudbury Valley, or we'll go on a hunger strike." We were very quickly disabused, and instead we underwent a long struggle to survive, to grow, to gain acceptance.

It's a fact that the whole idea of the school started spreading to other places only during our third decade. The question we were always asked in those first twenty years was, "If it's such a great idea, how come everybody isn't doing it? How come there are no other schools like this one?" I had an answer, but not in my heart. I didn't really know why. It took us a good two decades to become respectable in the educational community, to become accepted as a legitimate educational enterprise. We struggled to understand why it was so hard.

We weren't naive. We understood that cultural changes don't happen overnight. There have only been a handful of major cultural changes in human history. The shift from hunter/gatherer societies to urban society took hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. The shift from a pre-industrial to an industrial society took over a hundred years. These things take time. We were not ignorant of history. But we thought that the reason most shifts took time was that they ran counter to human nature. The hunter/gatherer state was a state of relative freedom, of a certain kind of relationship with the environment and with oneself. We felt that's the natural evolved human condition, so to shift from that, in a counter- evolutionary way, to urban living, or from an urban pre- industrial society to an industrial society -- that's hard. That's why there's resistance. Societies had to figure out if the tradeoff was worth it, if the benefits were worth the cost. In each case society made those major shifts only after struggling to understand that the benefits outweighed the costs. For example, the benefit in going to an urban society was a certain amount of stability -- political stability, safety, shelter, a more dependable food supply, a more organized social order. So society gave up its freedom in order to have certain things that enabled people to live in a way that was, overall, more satisfactory. That's why efforts to save hunter/gatherer societies today are all basically doomed to failure; Indians living in the Amazonian rainforest can resist the tradeoff only so long before they realize that there are benefits to living in an urban setting that they don't have. Similarly, we all know that the wrenching transition from a pre- industrial to an industrial society was almost a Faustian deal. Society lost even more freedom, but gained material benefits that were never dreamt of before, available to a much larger segment of the community than ever before.

We thought, "That's why these changes took so long. That's the reason for the resistance." But here we were talking about a transition from an industrial to a post-industrial age, which goes with evolution, which is consistent with human nature. We thought, "When we create a suitable educational environment for the post-industrial age, people should heave a sigh of relief, because finally they'll be able to act naturally." I remember using a phrase over and over again in the first ten or fifteen years, because it was so real to me: "Now you can have your cake and eat it too!" I thought, who wouldn't like to have his cake and eat it too? People can enjoy all the benefits that they had all along, even more so in post-industrial society, and they can also have the freedom that they had to give up way, way back in pre-history, when they gave up their original relatively free state of Nature. We thought people would respond eagerly to that. That's why we thought the change would occur fairly rapidly.

It was only much more recently that we realized that our problem was really part of a larger global ecological problem -- namely, the difficulty of restoring the natural balance once it has been ravaged.

People have come to understand this pretty well in environmental studies. If you have forests that have been clear cut, rivers that have been contaminated, oceans that have been rid of their fish and polluted, land that has been poisoned by toxic chemicals, we have learned that it takes decades, perhaps even centuries, to recover, even if you allow them to revert to their natural condition. It's not enough simply to suddenly stop the ecological degradation. In conservation circles, there's a great deal of discussion about ways to restore the natural balance. One method that is receiving a great deal of attention is to pick small environments to restore first. Conservation societies are buying a few hundred acres here, a few thousand there, and trying to accumulate a patchwork of small areas that might be amenable to restoration. They look for areas relatively close to their natural state, which are difficult to find. You cannot go anywhere just at random, put your finger on a map, and say, "I'm going to buy a million acres here and I'm going to make this into a great, wonderful, pure, natural preserve." If that million acres happens to be a Superfund area, you can't do it. So you have to look for small areas that are already somewhat in sync with nature, and the hope is that gradually people will see what it looks like for nature to be restored to its pristine beauty and come to say, "This is something we really want. Let's do more of it. Let's change our life pattern so that we, too, can be surrounded by a beautiful natural environment."

In a sense, what we learned is that we have to view Sudbury Valley as a cultural restoration program. We have to realize that not every person is in a position to benefit from this because of the damage that's been done by urbanization and industrialization.

In a sense, what we learned is that we have to view Sudbury Valley as a cultural restoration program. We have to realize that not every person is in a position to benefit from this because of the damage that's been done by urbanization and industrialization. That's when we began to understand why we had to start with a very small number of people. It's inevitable. The people we had to start with are the ones who are somehow more in touch with their naturally evolved state. Slowly, we would add a group here and a group there in the hope that, eventually, people would see that these little restoration projects that happen all over the country, or all over the world, are something that they want to adopt and emulate.

That picture gives you a perspective on what's happening. That's the basis for two questions that I want to address. The first one is, "Why are so few people still adapted to their natural state? What is the nature of the damage that's been done -- culturally, emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually -- that so alienates people from their natural state?" The second question, which I'll address later, is: "Who are those few people who are able to benefit from this environment?"

Let's begin with the question, "What's the nature of the damage?" Or, stated another way, "What are real learning disabilities, things that really stand in the way of people adapting to their natural evolutionary state?" It shouldn't come as a surprise that the material of the first five talks gives the framework for the answer.

Let's consider the first subject we talked about, play. We talked at length about the importance of play -- how crucial, how central play is to the natural development of all the skills that are important to a creative life. Yet, over and over again, we find that kids coming to Sudbury Valley have forgotten how to play. This is an absolutely staggering phenomenon. For example, young kids are the ones you really expect to be able to romp freely, to do their thing, to be joyous. Yet, occasionally we see young kids who have no idea how to play! When we get to know them a little better, we see that what they learned at home, or from some other environment, was that play is something directed -- the opposite of what play really means. Play has become, for them, what commercial and educational groups have turned it into: something oriented in a visibly educational direction. They have to learn their alphabet from play, their shapes from play, their colors from play. I could never understand any of this when I first encountered it; and when I saw the damage it does to kids, it became even more amazing. Why do you have to teach kids shapes? What is going on? What child who has grown up in even the most remotely normal environment doesn't figure out at some age or another that there's a difference between a square and a triangle, and what that difference is. What child (who isn't color blind) doesn't eventually learn that something is called red and something else is called blue? Do we really have to create games for which that is the goal? We get kids who have been brought up on that, and they come to our school, and they're at a loss because we're not doing it. They've simply forgotten how to play freely.

With older kids, it's even more sad. The whole point is to retain that ability to play throughout life. Older kids, however, have been taught to "put aside childish things." They're embarrassed about the idea of play. A lot of teenagers will look at the younger kids who are playing and tell you, "Gee, I wish I had come here when I was seven"; and you know exactly what they mean. Some of them will start playing with the little kids, which they feel is OK, because they're "being nice to little kids," so that justifies it. In reality, they're trying to learn how to play again themselves. That's a terrible disability, when you've forgotten how to play. Anybody who's forgotten how to play cannot begin to comprehend how an environment like Sudbury Valley is a school, how it has anything to do with education. They can't possibly take it seriously. That's the first thing you hear, "Is this a school? People play all day!" They don't get it, because they've forgotten how to play, and they've never had a chance to realize the tremendous benefit that play gives you.

Let's turn to conversation. Sometimes, children come to the school who are almost mute. They just don't talk. It's not shyness. It's a response to something they've been told all their lives: children should be seen and not heard. "Shut up!" is probably something that's been said to children more than any other two words. At school? You're never supposed to talk to other students at school! You get demerits if you talk to your neighbor in class. You can't get up out of your seat and talk to somebody on the other side of the room. You certainly can't talk to the teacher whenever you please, because that's disrupting the class, unless you're answering a specific question. You're not supposed to speak unless spoken to. As a result, many children never learn how to converse, how to tap into somebody else's world, to probe it, to appreciate it, to listen, to share their own world with others. Children in that position tend to be closed in on themselves. They have to reinvent the wheel. They have to discover everything on their own. It's like being cut off from the culture.

Conversation is, as we have seen, a tremendous key to learning. It's that "open sesame" that relates you to global knowledge. People who don't have the ability to converse and to articulate their thoughts are at a tremendous disadvantage in an environment like Sudbury Valley. They can't use one of our most important tools. I'm not talking about children who are naturally reserved. I'm not talking about children who know that there's a time to talk and a time to listen, who sometimes just keep quiet and watch what's going on. I'm talking about children who really haven't learned how to converse. For children like that, the vibrant atmosphere of the school is sometimes absolutely frightening. What you encounter as soon as you walk into the school is a cacophony of live, vibrant conversation. The child who cannot converse doesn't benefit from that at all.

We talked a lot about the parental role. That's another huge area for potential damage. Kids whose chief motivation is pleasing their parents don't know how to please themselves. They don't know how to tap into their inner voice. They're looking to see what is it that their parents really want them to do in this school, and they try to do that, with the result that they miss the whole point of the school. We see that in so many different ways, some so subtle and seemingly so harmless. The parent who leads their younger child to the bulletin board and says, "Let's see what's posted here today" -- there doesn't seem anything wrong with that. "My kid can't read and I'm helping him see what's going on." But actually, there's a lot wrong with that. You're signaling to your child, "I don't really trust you to find out for yourself what's going on in this place." In reality, even the youngest children know what's going on in the place when they care about it. They can recite half the Lawbook. They can't read, but they can tell you that there's no running, no abuse of property, no this, no that. They know what their sentences are. They can smell the smells coming out of the kitchen and they can see the other kids going skating. They're not deaf, dumb and blind. But the combination of parental anxiety and the desire to please the parent suffuses that little interaction at the bulletin board, and the kid goes away feeling, "I should be doing this. If I did this, I'd make my mom real happy."

With older children, we get that all the time with classes. I'm not talking about the parent who stomps in like a bull in a china shop and flatly says, "I want you to take classes at school." That's beyond the pale. I'm talking about the parent who is gently inquiring, "Have you found anything interesting going on in the school?" Or, more commonly, "You're interested in so and so. Have you found somebody in school to do that with?" Innocently, thinking: "I'm not pushing. I'm just asking." My mother would always say, "I'm only asking." But I knew she wasn't asking. She was telling me exactly what she wanted. We get a similar problem with children trying to please parents when we have two parents in a family who are conflicted about the school. It's perfectly legitimate for a person to say, "I don't think Sudbury Valley is the right environment." That's a right any parent has, to say this is or isn't good for my kid. But when a child is in a family where one parent is saying, "I'm behind the school and I think it's a wonderful place," and the other parent is saying, "I really have my doubts about the place. I'll go along with it, but I sure hope I see some progress" -- that kind of conflict will tear a student apart; not only is there the problem of pleasing parents in general, but s/he doesn't even know which parent to please. Something like that often crops up in families where one child goes to Sudbury Valley and the other children don't, especially if the reason, as we so often hear, is that "He (or she) is the only one who is having problems. The others are doing fine." There's only one possible message that a child can get from that. "If I was OK like my brothers and sisters, I wouldn't be here. This isn't a place where what goes on is really learning. I've just been parked here because I can't do the right thing." Many of these children are plagued by a nagging sense of having failed their parents. That's a terrible thing to carry through life.

"I'm not pushing. I'm just asking." My mother would always say, "I'm only asking." But I knew she wasn't asking. She was telling me exactly what she wanted.

Let's talk about democratic empowerment. Almost all the children who come to Sudbury Valley, even the youngest kids, have had other outside experiences where they have suffered from a lack of respect. The fact of the matter is that in society at large, kids are treated like dirt. It can be at the shopping mall, it can be driving on the road, it can be at a party, it can be in school -- anywhere. Kids are non-people in a very real sense. They don't have rights, and they can be abused in many ways without consequence. The more original and creative, the more maverick, the more full of life the child is, the more likely s/he'll be treated with disrespect, because s/he doesn't even have the "courtesy" of going along with the standards that the adults want them to obey.

This is something that was almost impossible for me to understand when we first opened in 1968. I remember many conversations about it. I couldn't comprehend why children who were given full respect and equality in the school, who were completely empowered from the word "go", still felt powerless. I just couldn't get it. When they would try to explain it, I would say, "But that's the past. It's not like that here. I don't have power over you. I can't tell you what to do. Even if I want to, even if I stand over you and I say, 'Do this,' you could look at me and say, 'I don't want to do it,' because I don't have that kind of authority. This is an environment in which you have full respect and in which you are empowered." They couldn't let go of that deep feeling of powerlessness with which they had first arrived. Year in, year out, it leads to a kind of "us vs. them" mentality, especially in older teenagers, where they just can't help feeling: "This is a hoax. There's something fishy about it. There must be a hidden agenda. I don't know what it is. But I know in my bones that the adults must run this place. Somehow."

It's interesting and sad to watch this sense of powerlessness play itself out. For example, you can come to School Meetings where there is an issue that is really important to a lot of teenagers. The room will be packed with teenagers. So, you think, they're obviously coming to vote; they're participating in the democratic process this school developed and nurtured. And then, even as they talk and exercise their empowerment, the content and the feeling of what they say is, "We are powerless, and we resent the fact that somebody is trying to push something down our throats." It's inside them. It's a tremendous impediment. People who grow up feeling powerless are not going to go out into the world and be powerful adults.

This brings us to Nature vs. nurture, the subject that we took up most recently. I am referring to the damage that's been done to children who grow up in an environment where the adults have not let Nature take its course, have not been patient, and where each child's unique destiny has not been treasured as a valued life goal.

Now, that may be all very high-sounding, but in fact I talk to parent after parent who says to me, "My kids are not that special. They're not Einsteins or Mozarts. This kind of education may be OK for that type of person, but not for my kid." It's an expression of a basic parental belief that "My kid isn't really unique. My kid is mediocre." Such parents look at the life projected for that child of theirs as basically a life of drudgery, to be slogged through somehow.

I think this is the damage that we see most frequently at Sudbury Valley: kids who don't believe that they can do something really special with their lives, whatever it is -- to excel at something that they love and to contribute in some way to the betterment of society, to the enhancement of culture, to their own personal joy. In many ways, that's the worst of the learning disabilities. What happens in that situation is that since you're destined for mediocrity, the pressure that is put on you by society, by your parents, by everybody, is to be a successful mediocrity. That's really important. You can at least be a comfortable drudge. There's time pressure, career pressure, expectations, a whole panoply of eternal forces. "Let's get on with it. Don't waste time. Focus on something. Go to school. Do this. Do that." It's pressure, pressure, pressure.

The most common result that we see of that kind of pressure is depression or anxiety, and a complete inability to be at peace with the concept that you should learn and do what you really want to learn, do what you really want to do, and follow your own star. I think the saddest example we see of this particular learning disability is the "A" student who excels in all of his/her studies. I myself am a lifelong recovering "A" student. When I think about all the energy I spent in validating someone else's concept of what's important to my destiny, it's just mind boggling. What on earth did I get A's in? What did I get 100's on tests for? They were inane. They had nothing to do with my life. They had nothing to do with reality. But there I was, slogging away, getting the first prize in Latin. The first prize in Latin! Do you know how useful that's been to me?1

Children totally focused on getting A's are like any person who's hooked on something, or who has a major problem: if they don't recognize the problem, and they're not ready to fight to free themselves of whatever it is that their problem is, somebody else can't do it for them. There's no point in lecturing them; they have to be ready to get themselves out of it. We've had some pretty remarkable situations like that over the years. One that comes to mind is the young lady who came to us at age 16 after having been a totally successful student in public school. She had decided that wasn't what she wanted. She was very conscious of this, and she left her high school career right in midstream. All she had to do was hang in there for another year and a half and she would have been out, but she wasn't ready to play along any more. She knew she had to save herself and she worked very, very hard during the two years that she was here. Did she get back to her natural evolutionary state? Probably not. But because of her intense desire to make a change, she did make huge strides.

It's important to distinguish between giving good grades and providing encouragement through positive feedback. The kind of positive feedback we're interested in is saying, "We're listening to you. We respect you. What you're doing is worthwhile because you want to do it." It's a whole different way of looking at things. We don't substitute our judgment for the child's judgment. What we give them instead is the consistent reply that what you do, what you value, is valuable because you value it, not because we think it's great.

There's a wonderful story in Kingdom of Childhood,2 which is a book we publish consisting of reminiscences of former students. The student was on her visiting week when this happened. She entered the art room as a little four year old and drew a sun. The sun was green. She probably didn't get enough color training in her early play. She showed it to Joan. Joan's response wasn't, "That's an 'A' drawing," or "That's an 'F' drawing." It was, "That's fine! It's your drawing, and if that's the way you want to draw the sun, it's perfectly OK." She remembered that all her life because, being four and very smart, she was testing Joan on that first day to find out, "Is this another school like all the others? Is she going to tell me the sun is yellow and I don't know my colors?" So that's the kind of feedback they get: if they value it, it's fine. That's not always easy. If you walk into the sewing room on an average day, there are thirty people having three or four different very animated conversations. Some of the stuff these kids say is off the wall, having no relation to any reality whatsoever that I can detect. But there they are, going at it, this one sure of his point of view and that one sure of her point of view and that's the point, that this is a place where they're each saying, "OK, if you want to have this world view, I'll listen to it. I'll interact with it, and I'll tell you mine, without us necessarily agreeing with each other." There is that fundamental respect for other ways of doing things.

That's the kind of feedback students get here. And they leave thinking, "I guess there is a place where what I do is valued for the fact that I do it and I want it." That's the gift we can give them.

The sad part of it is that the public school kids who are most creative, the kids who really, really don't care about school, who cannot pay attention to what their teachers are saying, who cannot tolerate the discipline of the inane classroom, are labeled as mentally challenged in one way or another and are even often medicated, while the kids who are most damaged are treated as healthy.

Let's turn now to the second question that I posed: "Who are the mavericks?" In other words, who are the ones who are suitable, who can be successfully reclaimed? How have they managed to maintain their individuality, to retain some initiative, to somehow be in touch with their evolutionary nature? We've been asking these questions for thirty years, but the fact is, we don't have a clue to the answer. People ask it all the time. Why me and not my brother? Why you and not somebody else? We know it's not a question of class, because we have people from every class, every economic level. We have people from every religion. We have people from every cultural background. It's funny to hear the assumptions that other people make about who comes to this school. People say, "You probably have a lot of university people, because this is something that has been given so much thought." We say, "No, we don't do too well with those." We have some, but not too many. They say, "You must have people who are left of center politically because it sounds like a leftist-radical place -- empowerment of the common man and all that." We have some, but we also have a lot of very non-left people here, a lot of old Yankee conservatives. They make all these assumptions about the kind of people who they're sure populate this school. The fact of the matter is, we haven't been able to make any generalizations at all. We don't know.

In every case, it seems to be an accident of individual genetics and personal background that brings each member of this strange collection of people to Sudbury Valley. I mean that quite literally. When we started working on the school in 1966, it was the same kind of phenomenon. We hoisted our flag and declared, "We're starting this kind of school." We sent out mass mailings hither and yon, and people just appeared from all kinds of different places, people we never knew. It wasn't our friends. It wasn't some group that had a lot in common with each other. We didn't know any of the founders. Most of the founders didn't know each other. They just came; where, how, and why has been a puzzle ever since.

Let me conclude by addressing the question of why Sudbury Valley isn't for everyone. The answer is that Sudbury Valley is for everybody in a stable, self-sustaining, post-industrial society where everyone is on board. It's not a special kind of school for special kids. It's really a place where people in their natural state can flourish. But because there are so many real disabilities that exist during this transition period in history, the full benefits of the school are basically available only to mavericks, to those who haven't sustained a lot of damage that's made them incapable of living in their evolutionary natural state. To be sure, a lot of people who have sustained some damage, if they stick it out, seem to get considerable benefit from being here. That's more than a little consolation. In a sense, they get a glimpse of the Promised Land, like Moses on the top of Mount Nebo, just before he died. He looked at the Promised Land and then he died. They get a view of what the school is about, and then they move on. We often hear that from former students, even those who have been here a very short time. It's our hope that as these benefits become more widely recognized and accepted, the whole culture will adapt, and the disabilities and damages will fade away

1I guess Latin is useful sometimes. Isaac Newton wrote a book when he was twenty-one, his first real production. It was a new theory of optics. It was a fabulous book. Physicists still read it with joy, and a lot of the ideas that he put into the book are still talked about. But they ran contrary to the accepted theories of optics in his day and, in particular, they ran contrary to the theories that the elders in the English physics establishment held to be sacrosanct. So he was lambasted for being an upstart, for not toeing the line, and he decided to never write another book. "I'm happy. I'm doing my thing. I know what I like." He had a professorship, so he didn't have to worry about his income, and he just sat in his place in Cambridge and did his stuff. Twenty years later the rumor got out that he had solved the problem of gravitation. So a couple physicists who heard about this in London came up and said, "We heard that you solved the problem of gravitation. Is it true?" He said, "Yes, that's true." They said, "What is it?" He showed them. He wrote it out, and they were flabbergasted, because they immediately saw that he was right. They said, "Write it." He said, "I've done my writing for my lifetime." They begged him and begged him to write it, and he finally wrote it in a book called Principia Mathematica, which was written in Latin. The optics book had been written in English. His new book was written in Latin that almost nobody could understand, and all the simple proofs that were easy to read he replaced with obscure proofs that were very difficult to follow. So perhaps I could have used my Latin. Maybe Free at Last should have been written in Latin. But I didn't.

2 Kingdom of Childhood is available from the Sudbury Valley School Press.

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A Clearer View (excerpt) | Hudson Valley Sudbury School


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