Acquiring Wisdom at Sudbury Valley School

Daniel Greenberg


            Acquiring wisdom is the highest goal of education. To be wise is to have the ability to lead a good, useful, and productive life, both as an individual and as a member of a community. From earliest times, wisdom has been recognized as the finest attribute a person can have. The greatest king in the Bible was Solomon, because he was the wisest of all kings. For Plato, the elite in a society are properly the wisest.

            Russell Ackoff and Sheldon Rovin, two of the most prominent social theorists of our time, have addressed the question of the relationship between wisdom and education. Here is an excerpt of what they have to say:

 

Educational systems should distinguish between data, information, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. These form a hierarchy with their value increasing as one moves from data to wisdom. . . .

Data are symbols that represent the properties of objects and events. But they have little value until they are processed, converted into information.

Information is what is contained in descriptions: answers to questions that begin with such words as who, where, when, what, and how many.

Knowledge is contained in instructions, answers to how-to questions. The product of knowledge is skill, ability to do something efficiently.

Understanding is contained in explanations, answer to why questions. Understanding enables us to evaluate the relative efficiency of different bits of knowledge; that is, to determine what knowledge is relevant in a given situation.

Finally, wisdom is what is contained in value judgments, of the outcome of our actions – evaluated relative to their long-run consequences. . . . Wisdom is preoccupied with the value to be obtained from the pursuit, with effectiveness rather than mere efficiency.1

Information, knowledge, and understanding are concerned with “doing things right,” but wisdom is concerned with doing the right thing. . . The righter we do the wrong thing, the wronger it becomes. When the right thing is done wrong, it provides an opportunity for learning and improvement.2


            They add, “schools generally allocate time to these types of mental content inversely proportional to their importance. Most of what schools at all levels deliver is information, less knowledge, and virtually no understanding or wisdom.” Reading this made me wonder: what about our school? What does it “deliver” within this hierarchy? Thinking about this question brought forth some interesting new insights that, for me, have hitherto never been quite as sharply revealed.


Information

            Traditional schools not only see it as their duty to pro-actively impart information to children at a time and place of the schools’ choosing; more importantly, they see it as their sacred mission to select the information that is appropriate for transmission to students, and to take great pains to assure that their selection is respected. In effect, schools form a cultural censorship body, deciding that certain material should be mastered by all children, and that other material should be left outside the classroom and relegated to a periphery that is considered unnecessary to a useful life.

            This selection process is central to the concept of universal schooling. The purpose of schools for the masses, as originally set up, was to make sure that children received just that information that they might require to serve an industrial society, and no more; and, in particular, to avoid filling the heads of children with information that might lead them to question the established order.3 In addition, and perhaps most important from the point of view of the educational authorities, the entire manner of transmitting information was geared to instilling in children the belief that useful information can best be obtained – and perhaps only be obtained – through the medium of someone who is an expert (a “teacher”), and that to learn something new, one has to find someone who will teach you. The teacher/information-filterer becomes the authority figure inextricably bound, in the minds of schoolchildren, with the activity of obtaining new information.

            One can hardly imagine something less suitable for today’s world. In a time of rapid change, of constant development and innovation, the ability to comfortably seek out and acquire information on one’s own is absolutely essential to effective functioning. To be dependent on finding a teacher is as crippling as being dependent on crutches to walk. In this key respect, SVS is clearly in sync with the needs of the times. Here, the only way children can obtain information is on their own initiative, by seeking it out – whether through books, through the Internet or, most frequently, through conversations with others who might help them along in their quest. Furthermore, and equally significant, SVS explicitly places no emphasis and expresses no preference for one category of information over any other. Children are, from the earliest age, instilled with the belief that any information they seek out is a legitimate object of inquiry, and that nothing in the vast array of information available is a priori of lesser relevance.

            It is important to realize that the desire to seek out information is part and parcel of the human condition; it is the essence of curiosity, an attribute universal to all people. From birth, children actively obtain information on their own, without prodding; indeed, their curiosity, left unchecked, knows no bounds. They are thus naturally equipped with the native tools necessary for searching out new information. SVS merely allows them to continue to use these tools without restricting them to a particular domain.


Knowledge

            Following the matrix set up by Ackoff and Rovin, I take knowledge to be the attainment of skill, or the ability to do something well. Once again, it should be clear that using available information to achieve skillful activity is a process in which every child engages from birth. Learning to control one’s eyes and one’s hands; learning to control the sounds one emits; learning to crawl, to sit, to walk, to speak; learning to relate to others, to communicate needs; the list is endless. And it is self-starting. No one has to encourage a child to seek to acquire any of these skills (although children will often actively seek help from others as they seek perfection).

            As children grow, their propensity for skillfulness in particular areas becomes more differentiated, and is as varied as people are varied. One child perfects his physical skills, another her singing, another his drawing, another her writing, and so it goes. Just as Nature provides us with a stunning display of variation in form and color, so too Nature provides an endless array of variation in skill-orientation. Left alone, children follow their innate propensities, seek to acquire new skills, and in general chart out a course for themselves of progressive skill acquisition. The end result is an adult who is confident in their ability to acquire and perfect any skill they desire or need in order to lead a fulfilling life.

            It should be obvious that traditional schools limit the number of skills they determine to be useful for children in adult life, thus more often than not shunting children away from those areas in which they would perform in a manner most satisfying to themselves. The desires and propensities of individual children are of no interest to such schools. Indeed, for the Industrial Age, this attitude was understandable and perhaps appropriate. For today’s world, it diminishes the ability of children to perform at their maximum skill potential in a world in which almost any skill well done can be of use to the society at large.

            SVS, of course, has no truck with such an approach, and allows each child to develop the knowledge they want, with whatever help they need. A glance around the campus at any moment will find children practicing music, basketball, unicycling, skateboarding, handwriting, drawing, reading, role-playing, debating, interpersonal communication, and a host of other skills that, to the children practicing them, are of deep importance at the moment, and thus the focus of intense concentration and rapid improvement.


Understanding

            To understand is to comprehend the why of something. Here we enter an entirely new kind of human activity, explanation; not only new, but qualitatively different from the prior ones we have been discussing.

            Explanations reside in the realm of theory. They are creations of the human mind, and depend entirely on the world view of the creator.4 They depend on the era, on the location, and on the culture of the person making them. How an ancient Greek understood something is quite different from how an ancient German did, or a contemporary Egyptian or Indian; and it is no less different from how a Greek, German, Egyptian or Indian understands the same thing today. Even within one society at any given time there coexist a wide variety of explanatory schemes considered legitimate by their presenters.

            This chaotic situation, which is nothing more nor less than the human condition, presented a headache to the people who developed and maintained Industrial Age schools. The last thing they needed was to convey to children the notion that in the realm of understanding there is no single dominant truth; this, they felt, would be a devastatingly destabilizing state of affairs, and could give the masses the notion that, for example, there are many valid ways to organize a socio-political system. We know, after all, what mischief has resulted from certain trouble-makers getting it into their heads that the established order is not the only proper one . . .

            From the outset, then, and till this day, traditional mass schools had to champion the idea that there are true explanations – the ones favored at any given time by the authorities – and that those are the only ones that children may legitimately learn. From this idea emerged the standardized textbook, containing the proper doctrines for transmission to students. Explanations that differ from those in the textbooks are not allowed, and children who insist on introducing them, say, into their test answers are penalized for doing so.

            This approach, obviously, is the arch-enemy of creativity, innovation, invention, exploration, and disagreement. It is the antithesis of the principles of free speech and free inquiry that have been at the heart of the American experience, and as such has created lasting tension within the school system. It is also the most damaging attitude that can be instilled in a modern day child who, if she is to exist within the framework of 21st century institutions and ideals, must be comfortable with diversity and debate and, above all, must be adaptable to modifying her understanding, and adept at creating new world models for new realities.

            At SVS, doctrine and dogma have no place; standardization is an alien concept; and the community revels in articulating its different outlooks and in learning to understand not only the world but also other people’s understanding of the world. I know of no better way to gain confidence in one’s ability to learn, comprehend, and if necessary modify, the explanations that are currently available, and eventually to contribute to the creation of new ones.


Wisdom

            When all is said and done, it is wisdom that we seek more than anything, and that we wish our children to possess as adults throughout their lives. We want them to be able to make value judgments, to know the consequences of their (and others’) actions – to do the “right thing” if possible, and to learn from their mistakes.

            The only way to develop values and judgment about one’s actions is to be able to exercise judgment and apply values in everyday life, in a way that is meaningful and relevant to you. Wisdom is not something that one teaches, in a course, or even through the lectures of a person we acknowledge to be wise. To be sure, if we honestly seek out the sources of wisdom of a person we admire, we may absorb some of the experience and attitude that inform that person’s life. But to be wise is to own wisdom, as yours, not as someone else’s, and to do that one must constantly be faced with situations which call for the practice and application of wisdom.

            Frankly, I know of no venue in traditional schools that affords an opportunity for learning wisdom. SVS, by contrast, is a place where acquiring wisdom is perforce a daily activity of every member of the community. Let me explain.

            There are two domains relative to which wisdom is acquired at our school. The first is the personal domain. Every student, from the moment they first enter the school, is keenly aware that they bear full responsibility for their actions, and for the long-term consequences of their actions. There is no escaping this at SVS; there is no one on whom you can cast your responsibility, no one you can blame for failing to grasp it. This means that students are constantly evaluating their actions relative to their future, to their long-term personal goals, to their relationship to others, and to their own set of ethical values. They cannot escape this exercise, and for many its culmination at school is the thesis they prepare in order to obtain a diploma, in which they have to defend the proposition that they have taken responsibility for preparing themselves to be effective adults in the community at large. Even a cursory reading of the written presentations made by diploma candidates reveals the extent to which learning wisdom is central to their existence at school.5

            The second domain in which students at school learn wisdom is that of the larger community. Through the School Meeting, which governs every aspect of the school’s operation (and in which every student, regardless of age, has a full voice and a full vote), and through the Judicial Committee, which adjudicates allegations of rule violations (and on which every student serves at one time or another during their stay at school), students encounter issues that require the exercise of value judgments on a daily and weekly basis; and these issues are generally the subject of informal discussions throughout the school community outside the venue of the formal meetings. Since the matters discussed are of direct concern to the lives of the students, so that they have a serious stake in their elaboration, it is commonplace for a high degree of attention to be centered on the discussions and debates surrounding them. In over thirty-five years of attending School Meetings and JC meetings, I have never ceased to marvel at the depth and range of the debates, at the intensity with which ethical and intellectual issues are analyzed, and at the seriousness with which all participants take the matters at hand. If ever there was a learning laboratory for the acquisition of wisdom, it is certainly Sudbury Valley School.


            An interesting aspect of this side of the school is its relationship to the role of staff here. One of the most common questions asked about SVS is: what does the staff do? And indeed, even after one lists the various activities towards which staff members make a significant contribution, one is left with the feeling that something important – perhaps even the “something” that is most important – has been left out. I now realize that the subject of wisdom is that something.

            According to Ackoff and Rovin, “Wisdom . . . is the most difficult to acquire without help. The help of an educated or experienced person is increasingly valuable as we move up the scale [mentioned above, from data to wisdom].” With those two sentences, the authors have put their finger on the key role of staff. The staff are the adults whom the students choose from year to year to be available to them, when and if and in such manner as they wish, for the primary aim of being sources of experience to whom the students can turn for help in acquiring wisdom. This is not to say that the staff are held up as icons, as gurus, as the embodiment of enlightenment. Quite the opposite: the students know the strengths and particularly the weaknesses of each and every one of us, and are far indeed from placing us on a pedestal. The staff is, however, recognized collectively as a group of people who have experienced various aspects of adult life, who are devoted to the welfare of the students and of the school, and who are willing to share freely whatever they have learned from their successes and failures. Some students never turn to staff for help in acquiring wisdom; some rarely do; some often do. Regardless, staff serve as models of adults who have made a host of value judgments throughout their lives, and who are ready to recount whatever wisdom they have managed to scrape together to any student who wishes to hear about it.

            Parents of SVS students cannot be guaranteed that their children will grow up to be wise. But they can be assured that during their time at school, their children will have ample opportunity to learn wisdom from their own experience and from the experiences of staff and other students.





1. Wisdom is defined in the American Heritage dictionary thus: “Understanding of what is true, right, or lasting; common sense; sagacity; good judgment.” (I have combined the two primary definitions of the term.)

2. Russell Ackoff and Sheldon Rovin, Redesigning Society (Stanford Business Books; Stanford, California, 2003), chapter entitled “Education”, pp. 82ff.

3. Schooling for the elite, even during the industrial era, was entirely different. For them, the accent was placed on information that specifically had little or no practical value, in order to instill in them from earliest childhood the realization that their place in society was based on inherent privilege, and had nothing to do with their ability to contribute to the activities that make up daily living.

4. For an extended discussion of the nature of explanation, see Daniel Greenberg, Worlds in Creation (Sudbury Valley School Press; Framingham, 1994), especially Part II.

5. A collection of these presentations is available in book form: Thesis Presentations (Sudbury Valley School Press; Framingham, 2003).





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