Sunday, February 13, 2011


In the comments on one of last week’s posts, Indie pointed out that progressivism “has always contained a strand of technocracy,” and that “standardized education in America reflects: a belief that everything can be systematized, data-mined, analyzed, and improved under the eye of a well-trained specialist. In short, it reflects a belief in the primacy of science--and the belief that education is, in fact, a science.” Indie also asked what I think about Sudbury schools. At the risk of writing a pretty long post, I’d like to address both of those subjects here, because I think they are more closely related than they seem.

Indie’s point about progressivism is a great one. “Progressive” means different things to different people, but it does still carry that echo of a zealous faith in science as the solution to social problems. A lot of good came out of the Progressive era, but it had a dark side as well. At their worst, Progressives lived up to the caricature of do-gooding “expert” busybodies who always knew what was best for everyone else and were determined to impose their Utopian program on the benighted people around them. Eugenics, for example, was a progressive cause. (“That famous Western rationalism,” as Marilynne Robinson has written, “old enemy of reasonableness, always so right at the time, always so shocking in retrospect.”)

In that light, it’s easy to see Progressivism as the immediate forerunner of today’s regime of “evidence-based,” “accountability-driven” educational policies that promise to transform America into a nation of multilingual scientists and engineers. (Confession: I chuckled when I wrote that last part.) If that’s progressivism, I’m happy to be a reactionary. If the twentieth century should teach us anything, it’s that we should be suspicious of people with grand hubristic schemes to transform society. Science, in that context, is usually a thin veneer over ideology and blind faith.

So what do I think of Sudbury schools? First, for those who haven’t heard of them: under the Sudbury model, as I understand it, a school is run as a genuinely democratic community. The school community -- composed mostly of the kids themselves -- votes on what rules to have and how to enforce them, and on every aspect of the school experience. The kids even vote on whether to renew the teachers’ contracts at the end of each year. Even the kindergarten-age kids get an equal vote. Unsurprisingly, these schools tend to look very different from conventional schools; for starters, attendance in classes is usually not compulsory -- if they even have classes at all. (A while back I read some accounts written by graduates who had attended the Sudbury Valley School in the seventies; several of the alums reminisced about time spent hanging out in the smoking room.)

So a Sudbury school, too, is a form of Utopian experiment, and attracts its own kind of true believers. Maybe for precisely that reason, I’m skeptical about the idea. I suppose I’d prefer a school modeled on a town meeting over one modeled on the employer-employee relationship, but I still think the best way to think of school is as an extension of the family, especially in the early grades. Parents love their children; citizens at a town meeting, on the other hand, don’t always have the warmest feelings toward each other. I’m not ready to abandon all parental influence on my kids’ school environment in the name of some Big Idea.

But there is arguably another impulse at work in the Sudbury schools, and also to some degree in the modern “unschooling” movement: a kind of self-restraint in the face of that old Progressive urge to be a busybody. The idea that we should be less quick to coerce other people in the name of bettering them, and less inclined to elevate ends over means, and more humble about our ability to foresee the consequences of our grand schemes, and more skeptical of claims that human development can be scientifically micromanaged, is one that I feel a lot of sympathy with. Just what the balance is, among Sudburyers and unschoolers, between those two impulses -- fervent Utopianism and skeptical restraint -- I don’t know.

Here’s one thing I like about Sudbury schools. The schools would probably like you to think that their students are forever changed by the Sudbury experience, but what’s most striking, when you read about their graduates, is how ordinary their lives sound. Most of them go to college, some of them don’t. They get married, or they don’t. Maybe they stay married, or maybe they don’t. They work for a living. They go on and live lives that sound, in the aggregate, a lot like the lives everyone else goes on to live. They may never have taken a standardized test, but somehow, magically, they’re not helpless morons. (I suspect there are some real differences between Sudbury grads and conventional school grads, but many of those differences are surely attributable to the fact that attendees at a Sudbury school are far from a random sample.)

So I’m just glad they’re there, because their mere existence can provide a little perspective as we have our tunnel-visioned debates about what we “need” to do in our schools. Once you’ve spent some time reading about Sudbury school graduates -- or people who were homeschooled -- it’s hard to feel quite the same panic over the prospect that little Zachary will end up in the gutter if we don’t do something about his sub-median score on the phonemic awareness component of his latest assessment test.

Sure, the way you spend thirteen years of your childhood can have a big effect on your later life. (I suspect many people never fully recover from some of the social dynamics in school, for example.) And yes, I do worry that our current educational policies will yield adults who are better suited to be subjects of an authoritarian state than citizens of a democracy. But not only do we ignore the likely costs of our increasingly extreme and coercive educational policies, we wildly exaggerate the supposed benefits. Even Sudbury graduates, it turns out, can read and write and get a job! You don’t have to be a Sudburyer to conclude that you should err on the side of taking a humane, empathetic, and relatively gentle approach to education, and to resist the people who want to use your kids and your family life as cannon fodder for their latest pseudo-scientific fad.

But my main response to Indie’s question about Sudbury schools is . . . the topic of my next post, because I don’t want it to get lost down here below the fold.


Unknown said...

Chris, great post. The office manager at my child's school sent me a letter telling me my child's school career (she was in second grade at the time) was being diminished because she was late five times (she even worked out the mathematical percentage for the five times!) I thought of going in and debating her re: a "career" for a seven year old but eventually chose to leave the school instead. Much of what the public school system does to young children, they do because they rationalize away the harmful effects of such harsh treatment in the name of responsibility or accountibility. What stuns me is how many parents agree with the authoritarian treament of our children.

Chris said...

Caitlyn -- I agree, there's a lot of rationalization going on. Of course, as soon as "They're going to need to learn to follow other people's rules," and "They need to learn that life isn't always fair" become acceptable justifications, virtually any form of mistreatment can be rationalized.

Chris said...

By the way, sorry to leave people hanging about that next post. It's just been a very busy week. I should be posting again in a few days.

Chris said...

In the meantime, anyone who wants to read about Sudbury schools should read some of Peter Gray's posts at Psychology Today, for example here, here, here, or here.

Unknown said...

Chris... the school system specializes in double speak. If you ask why your child's grade is lowered when test scores are in the 90th-100th percentile and some homework is missing for that subject, they will tell you they lowered it because "it isn't fair to the kids who turn in all their homework." If you question a draconian policy, they will tell you "kids need to learn that life isn't always fair."