The Elephant in the Room

Associated School: 

Recently, Sudbury hosted an open house for prospective families to come and see what we are all about. In addition to the tours of our beautiful school, there was a panel comprised of several students, parents, and a recent graduate. The faces of the prospective Sudbury parents were characterized by that mixture of wonder, eagerness, curiosity, doubt, and pure terror that so many of us are used to encountering when we share our stories out there in “the real world.” (The element of anger, a surprisingly common response, was thankfully absent. These were, after all, families that had sought us out.) I was not on the panel, but at a certain point I felt compelled to say something about the elephant in the room. Here, more or less, is what I said:

I have been a Sudbury parent for four years. I also teach at Bard. I teach incoming freshmen at Bard. I teach incoming freshmen before they become incoming freshmen. The program in which I am faculty is the program upon which the students’ matriculation into freshmen year is entirely dependent. If they don’t survive the program, which is called Language & Thinking, they can't start Bard. Their acceptance, in other words, is provisional. The program is not for the faint of heart. It lasts virtually the entire month of August, every weekday for the whole day and several evenings a week, and involves a crash course in critical thinking and written expression that comes with an anthology that will fracture your metatarsal if you are unlucky enough to drop it on your foot. This anthology covers every imaginable subject, from physics and computer science and natural science, to poetry and music and visual art, to literature, philosophy, economics, political and legal theory, history and translation and theology… the list goes on and on. The purpose of the program is not to “prepare students for college,” as if college is the end-station of the education system, from which well-trained specialists in high-demand fields are produced for the workforce. The purpose of the program is to foster fearlessness and fluidity and prepare students to learn from their college experience in such a way that they can take up residence in the world in a purposeful, conscious and civically-responsible manner. The purpose of the program is to help students understand that their “work” lives and their “life” lives can merge and fuse so that they can become adults who are whole and self-identical rather than fragmented and self-alienated. The purpose of the program is to radically expand the way that these students define a text and to help them understand that divisions between subjects have been created not so much to meet the demands of a given discipline but to meet administrative criteria that is the child of the rationalization of education in modernity. In other words, these are divisions that are largely specious and were designed to serve large-scale industrialized needs during a certain period of human history. At the particular period of history we now find ourselves in, we would do well to question the validity of this model.

Every August, I am presented with 14 students out of an incoming class that ranges between 450 and 550 on average per year. Many of them have worked very hard to achieve outstanding grades. They will often prepare me for the worst by saying, “I struggled with English” or “I’m not the best writer in my class.” I always try to assure them that the writing is a tool for discovering what they think and not an end in itself. I also explain to them that if they hand me “the well-made essay,” I will hand it back to them and tell them to go back and make a mess of it because it has no life in it and no discovery in it. “We’re trying to build you a tool kit,” I tell them. “Not a resume.” One of my favorite exercises to use at the start of the program is “Writing About Something I Know Nothing About.” By the end of the program, the students have discovered that there is no subject that they no nothing about, because they can always refer to something that they do know about and work backwards from there. (The process is similar for the “Writing from Boring, Impenetrable, Pointless Texts” workshop.) For most of the students, the experience is painful and scary—and fun and joyous and life-changing. For most of the students, the month is a vast process of de-programming, and every inch gained is an ordeal, hard-won and full of labor pains. Not so for the students who come from direct democracy schools and other alternative learning environments. They understand that they have to figure it out on their own and that the stakes are not life or death. The stakes are about process. The stakes are about what is emergent. They are willing to take risks, to fail, to look foolish in front of me and in front of their peers. They are able to leap and make connections between seemingly unrelated or disparate concepts with an ease that is astonishing to me even after this many years of teaching in this program. They know how to discern and identify patterns and they understand that everything is somehow connected. In other words, they come equipped with the tools to solve the big pressing problems of our age, whether the frame they will choose to view those problems through is social or environmental or economic or artistic or any of the limitless ways we can conceptualize each and every issue our kids’ generation is being confronted with.

Yes, I, too, deal with the “white noise” that is part and parcel not just of Sudbury parenthood but of parenthood in general. But it is just that: white noise. I put it in the drawer along with my other chronic worries, which is where it belongs. I don’t have to anxiously keep checking to see if it is there; I know it will be there every time I look, every time my daughter has what I feel is an unproductive day or a behavior issue. Or when I myself have an unproductive day or a behavior issue, which is what really kickstarts my need to have her produce for the sake of production. It is there every time I get another viewpoint from a parent or relative or friend who is afraid of the possible consequences of a Sudbury education. “But what happens when she has to go to ‘real school’?” they ask derisively, sensing, wrongly I believe, that in our educational approach there is an implicit and personal condemnation of them as people. Perhaps what they are sensing deep down is their own feeling of powerless in the face of the entrenched system, a system to which they return for shelter whenever the possibility of freedom and change becomes too terrifying. I tell them that I see the process at the other end, when the kids have gotten into college and have a chance to embark on an intellectual journey of self-discovery, because that’s what I believe we do at the institution of higher learning where I am fortunate to be able to teach. I tell them that there is no real virtue, in and of itself, of having our kids tough it out in a system that is often at odds with itself and is certainly at odds with its professed mission—that of education—because we are afraid of formlessness and anarchy and squandered time. Because that kind of fear is exactly what is feeding the broken system, keeping it hobbling along, and making it fail. Discipline, like politics, is not an odious chore that has to be grudgingly completed so that it is then neatly out of the way. Nor is discipline something that we should rely on a vast entrenched system to create for our kids because enforcing it “at home”—the place routinely most disconnected from “at school”—is simply too stressful and unpleasant and we are afraid of alienating our kids. Discipline is an ongoing process that is, one hopes, directed and driven by a desired goal. Discipline comes through self-love and self-direction in our model, not through adhering to standards because that’s just the way life is and one has to know how to survive in the system. Change the system. That’s what our kids are prepared to go out and do, out there in “the real world.”

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Hudson Valley Sudbury School

84 Zena Road
Kingston, NY 12401
Phone: 845-679-1002
Fax: 845-679-3874