Open Letter (rant) to Those Who Advocate the “Tough Love” of Traditional Schools

Associated School: 

One criticism of the Sudbury model that comes up again and again is that it fails to “prepare kids for the ‘Real World’” because Sudbury provides too ideal an environment.  Sudbury spoils them by daring to respect children and teenagers as full-blooded human beings.  In contrast, the Real World is anti-human and is going to disrespect, subjugate, and crush them as soon as it gets its hooks into them.  This means that schools should crush children a bit now to get them ready; the traditional system, with its plainly authoritarian structure, outdated and strange curriculum, and narrow agenda is actually a good thing!  Not because it is actually good, but because it will thicken our kids’ skin, get them used to the way things really are out there, and teach ‘em some tough lessons about life!  Here’s an example I saw recently, from a comment made on The Sudbury Valley School’s November 4 blog post:

"I think that when people reference the “real world” they may be talking about HOW it is, rather than WHAT it is. You can teach children all kinds of things, but if they go out into the world expecting fairness, or that people will respect them, they will have a rude wake up call. Bullies, unfair teachers, and having to do things I didn’t want to do taught me that in the real world you don’t always get to do what you want, life isn’t always fair, and people can (and WILL) be jerks. How are you preparing them for the parts of life that are NOT fun and creative?"

In this post, I'd like to discus this criticism.  If you believe that kids need to learn "tough lessons" from the strictures of traditional school,  please respond in the comments sections below; I'd like to hear a little more about what you're thinking.

I'll begin working under the assumption that the criticism - essentially that the Real World is crappy and an important function of traditional schools is to get kids get accustomed to how crappy it is because the sooner is gets crappy the better prepared they’ll be - is, indeed, true.  But is that really what we want for our children?  I would rather my daughter grow up at Sudbury and then be battered around and bewildered a bit more than average (again, assuming your argument is true) as she emerges into the Real World, because she might have a sense that things could - and should - be better, and that’s important, that vision of a better world, that striving to grow and change; I think we need to have that. I do not wish for my child that she merely be comfortable - a good Egyptian clinging to her place in the pyramid; I wish for her to be bold enough to be fully herself, even if that’s hard, and even if it hurts sometimes.  So, even granting the premises of the argument, I dismiss the conclusion. 

But I dismiss the premises, too.  There’s lots of evidence to suggest that the preparation for the parts of life that are NOT fun and creative can actually be fun and creative (think tiger cubs learning to hunt). Not only that, but in my experience onerous tasks themselves can become fun and creative through focus, discipline, and imagination.

This is not the industrial age (it has been noted that our traditional schools are modeled on factories); this is the twenty first century, which has been widely hailed as the century of creativity, innovation, and originality.  Are there people to tell us what to be and what to do with our lives in the real Real World, particularly in the emerging, uncertain, and new Real World? Or do we have to decide ourself?  In traditional schools, adults tell kids what to do, and if kids do it they get stamps of approval.  Succeeding in school is as simple as following directions.  That’s like the real world?  As far as I can tell, we have to figure out how to make a living, how to build a life that is authentic and meaningful. 

So which is more Real – having authorities telling us what to do, and what success is, and how to achieve it for the first 18 years of our life, or being responsible from the beginning (because everyone is responsible at the end)? 

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