Not long ago a parent told me that her son had “never been happier” since he enrolled earlier this spring. And indeed, that very morning I had seen him running across the back hill with his arms outstretched and his head thrown back; it was like a scene from Free Willy. His parent told me that, while his former school had stretched itself to make things work for him, he remained miserable there. His needs, for space and time and companionship, were not being met. I hear it a lot: it was like trying to fit the old round peg into the unforgiving square hole, but here, at last, there was no hole to conform to. Out the window at this moment I can see three little bands of kids wandering the grounds, gesticulating excitedly, creating worlds beyond my kin. One of them has green hair and no shirt. One of them is carrying a bag by a strap around his forehead. And one of them is being led by another...on a leash. It’s so easy to forget that homo sapiens have developed a complex set of needs - and the skills to meet them - over 200,000 years of evolution, and they are embedded in us like algorithms that find expression one way or another. We need to explore our identities and forge them in the context of intense social interaction in order to be successful, healthy, and happy. Welcome to our “school.”
But something downright insidious has been popping up a lot around here lately. It’s that old shade of capitalism’s angst - a 20th century zombie staggering relentlessly into the 21st - the fear of “falling behind.” At our school, a sanctuary in a world which works relentlessly to colonize places, bodies, and minds, it manifests as the fear of “being stupid,” or, “dumb.” Compulsory universal schooling has such a hold on us that even parents bold enough to send their kids to HVSS sometimes worry about academic achievement - and the kids do, too. But the idea that everyone should be instructed in a uniform curriculum of academic minutiae, or even study academics at all, is a yarn spun by the past. Even the belief that it’s necessary to study academics in order to attend college is no longer tethered to reality. It’s the fakest news this side of Trump Tower, and there’s no more reason to worry about it than about Vladimir Putin influencing your choice of breakfast cereal. Kids here do not “fall behind,” they attend to their real needs and learn how to thrive. They are not pushed, pushed, pushed to do and be things opposed to their reality. So I would suggest that the kids crammed into classrooms are the ones missing out, and anyway, as my grandmother used to say, “the hurrier I go, the behinder I get.”
It’s become cliche to critique the current system of education by comparing it to a “factory model” and describe it as an artifact of the industrial age. While it seems obvious that the traditional model - classrooms, desks, chairs, teachers, students, textbooks, bells, etc. - is outmoded, this narrative is really just a caricature that serves more as a rhetorical device to shape the future of education rather than as the true story of its complex history (and as a fan of history, I have noted many times how, the more I read about a particular era, the less confident I am that I can explain its basis). To me, though, the interesting aspect of the “factory model” narrative is the broad implication of it, which is that school is designed to meet the needs of society - to maintain cultural stability and eternal economic growth - rather than the needs of real people, and what’s more, the societal needs it serves have already been left in the dustpan of history. This appears to me to be mostly true. Neither we nor the system needs us to study academics any longer, or to learn the lessons of traditional school.
One thing our model maximizes is flexibility, and in a world which is changing at an exponential rate, flexibility is an inherent good. As society and technology change, certain of our needs change too. But our model also maximizes opportunities to develop timeless skills - the ones that aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Take for example this quote from Wes’s thesis:
"Sudbury has equipped me with a lot. I can talk and think in the realest way there is. I can make choices about what I want, choose things that I will work incredibly hard for, stick with those things, and succeed at them. I can lead and listen and I work well with others. I am not afraid of a challenge and I have the strength and problem-solving to overcome what’s in my way. I feel prepared to go on to college and both have a great time and succeed at what I hope to do there, which is figure out what’s next. I am looking forward to finding out what that will be, and navigating that path once I do. I think what Sudbury has given me, in the simplest terms, is to be prepared to always make the next choice and then the next one and every one after that."
Wes has learned how to function interdependently - that is, to listen, speak articulately, reflect, evaluate options, and make decisions. And when he needed to write a thesis, he figured out how to write a damn good one. Thank goodness he wasn’t distracted by minutiae and the judgements of random adults while he was in high school. There may be holes in his academic knowledge when he goes to Sarah Lawrence next fall (and there are absolutely no holes in our academic knowledge, having attended traditional school, isn’t that right dear reader), but he’s become such a solid person that any challenge posed by that deficit will be trivial to him. Unfortunately, many students coming out of traditional model schools can't say the same, and in fact there is a mental-health epidemic well underway on our college campuses.
And then there’s the simple truth that none of us remembers most of the academic knowledge we learned in school. My wife studied advanced mathematics in high school, but yesterday in the car she whipped out her smartphone to compute 14 x 3. 14 x 3?! And you know what? It didn’t matter - she got the information she needed. Dare I say it, I doubt it will be necessary to even know how to read or write a few generations from now (sue me!) There’s so much to learn, so much we have to know and be able to do to be a successful adult, and the traditional domain of schools is a tiny and mostly irrelevant sliver of it. The world races madly along, increasing production to meet the manufactured needs of the economy, afraid to “fall behind;” thank goodness again that we have this sanctuary where we can work to meet our own authentic needs together.