Empowerment [1]


Daniel Greenberg


Sudbury Valley School is, as we know, based on principles that are radically different from those underlying traditional schools.  What Id like to do here is discuss one of those principles in its historical context, involving not only educational systems, but more generally, how society treats individuals and, in particular, how it treats children.

When we look back on this period that we live in, I think it will be fair to say that the main theme of the opening years of the 21st century has been the empowerment of the individual.  You can probably date the effective beginning of the 21st century from about 1990, because with the collapse of the Soviet Union, something major was unleashed:  the whole world could now move ahead to the next great agenda item, which is caring for the welfare of the individual as a primary goal.  This was a staggering departure from what had taken place earlier.  The central theme of prior centuries was very different indeed:  that of nation-building.  The place of the individual within that theme was that of a servant of the nation.  The concept of nation turns out to be relatively recent.  It did not really exist before the 18th century, and only reached full strength in the 19th and 20th centuries.  I am referring to the idea of a nation as opposed to an ethnic group, or tribe, or religious group; the notion that there is such a thing as a country, defined by geographical boundaries, but more important, by a civic population whose major loyalty is to the cultural entity defined as a nation.  Its hard for us today to have a picture of what the world was like before nations were created.  Countries like France, even as late as the late 1600s and 1700s, consisted of a collection of provinces which were, for all intents and purposes, autonomous.  They were ruled by powerful noblemen, who had their own armies, formed alliances and often went to war with each other.  This is something almost incomprehensible in modern terms.  Try to imagine, today, that Alabama has decided to go to war against Georgia!  England, that little island, was a bunch of powerful earldoms.  Italy wasnt united until the middle of the 19th century.  Germany did not become a country until 1870.  Today, we think of these countries as if they were always there.  But in fact they were historical creations, put together for specific reasons, very deliberately, for the most part in the 19th century.  And the key theme of all these nations was:  you as a citizen owe your loyalty to the country.  Thats first.  A distant second was you as an individual, with your own personal goals.  We even have a remnant of this thinking in one of the most famous speeches made in our own country as late as 1961, in the inaugural address of Jack Kennedy a speech hailed as a great milestone, which by now looks archaic.  When he declared, Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country, he was echoing a European theme, born in the 19th century, a theme that has been peripheral to this country, as we shall see.

Go back a step before the building of nations, and ask yourself, What was the role of the individual before the individual suddenly became a >citizen of a nation?  Even the word citizen, by the way, got new meaning in the French Revolution, when suddenly individual Frenchmen were called upon to serve the new French state devoted to liberty, equality, and brotherhood.  What did being a citizen mean to the French?  It meant, basically, serving a new nation whose very first actions were to go out and conquer Europe!

So what was the individuals role before such citizenship was invented?  What about individuals throughout the ancient world, the Middle Ages, and early modern times? The expression the great chain of being represents quite accurately the order of the cosmos, as people saw it: a world that has a well-defined order, divinely ordained, fixed and determined, not to be disturbed by human intervention.  God sits above it all, then you have supernatural beings, then humans, animals, the vegetable kingdom, and the inanimate world.  Within each of these groups, too, there are fixed hierarchies.  For example, a basic law of physics described the natural place that all materials had in the cosmic sphere: solids at the center, liquids next, then gases, then heat, and outside everything, the celestial matter that comprises the heavens.  Among humans, every person had his place, also divinely ordained: kings above all; the nobility; the rich; tradespeople and professionals; and the vast mass of ordinary people, whose function in the world was to work and to produce the things that are required for human survival.  Each level was destined to serve the people above them, just as the destiny of the human race as a whole was to serve God.

What, then, was the individuals role for most of history?  Certainly not to ponder such questions as, What are my dreams for my life? or even, To what nation do I owe loyalty?  Every person knew that he was to do whatever God had determined for him, and to do it loyally without complaint, and that in so doing his ultimate reward would be an afterlife that itself was part of the great chain of being. 

The idea that we hold so precious today, that empowerment of the individual is a key goal of society, is something very new and very revolutionary.  There can be no doubt that it is sweeping the world in a way that is almost independent of political systems.  We can trace the birth of this concept quite clearly in that amazing group of people called the founding fathers of America.  It is mind-boggling to imagine that in this backwater, in this provincial outpost of the world, there existed a collection of people so deep and so original Benjamin Franklin, Sam Adams, John Adams, George Washington, James Monroe, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry the list goes on and on.  We can read accounts of their debates and their discussions; happily for posterity, they wrote voluminously.  They created something new and unique, and they were completely aware of it.  And when they wrote, We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, and they are endowed with inalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness where the pursuit of happiness meant, according to current usage in their time, the realization of individual goals[2]   they were declaring something that had never, ever been said in a political manifesto.  They were making a statement that defined the framework for this country and that eventually came to be a fundamental principle for the entire world. 

When you take a leap like that, you can never make it all at once.  They all knew the meaning of what they were writing, but they were all steeped in tradition.  So if you asked the founding fathers, Did you mean women? they probably would have to admit that they didnt really mean women, because nobody meant women back then.  It wasnt because they were hypocrites, or fools, it was just that nobody in the environment in which they lived included women among legally responsible adults.  The concept of universal equality was much larger than their ability to comprehend it in its entirety, even though they created it full-blown, without qualification.  Thats the beauty of a great new idea.  It can be created full-blown, but the complete understanding of its ramifications can take generations to be realized.  Gradually, the concept of all men are created equal included people who didnt own property; people who were ever younger 25, 21, 18 years old; people of all races; and then, finally, women.

What does empowerment mean?  First I want to mention two things that it does not mean.  Individual empowerment doesnt mean that everyone gets the same thing in life.  It doesnt mean that every single person has the same size house, the same set of clothing, the same income.  Empowerment means giving opportunity, giving power; it does not mean equal outcomes.  Thats a very important distinction to understand, because the only way to achieve equal outcomes is to negate empowerment.  By empowering individuals, you empower difference; you empower uniqueness, and theres no way to have everybody unique and at the same time to have everybody the same.

The second thing empowerment does not mean is social anarchy.  It does not mean the abolition of all order.  Indeed, there is much historical evidence to show that empowered people are people who best know how to define, re-define, and refine their sense of community and of peaceful, productive coexistence.

Lets turn to the things that individual empowerment does mean.  First and foremost, it means that everyones individual dreams and goals are worthy of respect and consideration. It means that if I come and say to you, I want to be X, whatever that may be a railroad conductor, a politician, a doctor, an artist whatever my dream is, I deserve to be heard and to be allowed to take my shot at achieving my aspiration.  And as a person, I have a right to be respected for what my aspirations are.

Individual empowerment means that no inherent privilege resides in anybody in society at large.  Our Constitution, for example, bans the privilege of nobility.  We may not under any circumstances create a noble class.  There arent any inherent privilege in a society where individuals are empowered.  Money doesnt endow a person with innate privilege.  Money might buy you a nice car, a spacious condo, all kinds of things that maybe somebody else might like to have.  But it buys you no special privilege.  Nor is there any other innate privilege that exists by virtue of birth, or by virtue of place in society.  All people, from whatever origin, have a right to the same respect. 

Individual empowerment means that society is organized to benefit the individual.  The individual is not organized to benefit society.  Whenever society seeks to impose its authority on a person, it must ask, Why is it necessary to limit the individuals freedom of action?  Pace President Kennedy, you dont ask what your country can do for you, or what you can do for your country!  You ask, What do I want to do for myself?  And then, when your country tries to thwart you, or maneuver you in some way, the next question is, Why is this happening?  Why are they doing this? 

Which brings me to the next thing that empowerment means: democracy.  The whole idea of democracy is that when you make group decisions in a society, everybodys voice is equal.  Plato and Aristotle said it all, really, when it comes to political science: democracy is a ridiculous way of making decisions.  After all, who should be making big decisions, if you think about it rationally?  Wise people, who really understand the issues.  Average citizens dont know anything about the major problems facing a society.  Why should they have anything to say?  It doesnt make sense.  That is why, from ancient times, philosophers and intellectuals have concluded that the way to govern a society is through highly trained experts, philosopher kings@ (as Plato called them), who make the best decisions possible, based on analysis of the best available information.  The only way to get to democracy is through the concept of individual empowerment.  That forces it.  That leads you to sacrifice expertise on the altar of equality, creating a society where every individual is equally respected and has the same say in matters concerning the body politic.

Finally, and perhaps most important, individual empowerment implies that every individual has inherent rights that even society cannot infringe upon.  No matter how important the issue, government cannot take away from individual citizens a specific collection of rights that they possess by virtue of their being born into the human race.  Ours is the first country to make this concept explicit and put it in writing.  As a matter of fact, to this day there are very few other countries that have put this in writing; even the British, who certainly played a key role in developing this idea, do not have a Bill of Rights.  Our Constitution, and the case law based on it, serves therefore as a remarkable paean to individual empowerment.

Individual empowerment is the foundation of our school.  We asked ourselves: how come children were left out?  Theyre as nonexistent as slaves were before emancipation.  Theyre as nonexistent as women were before they were granted the rights due to them.  Do we know anything that demonstrates that children should not be as fully empowered as adults?  Do we have evidence to sustain this deprivation?  Lets look back.  How do you think men justified not empowering women?  By alleging that women didnt have judgement, that they were flighty and changeable. It was said over and over again that women are like children!  People in this country overcame that eventually.  They finally understood that women should be empowered.  At Sudbury Valley School, we took the next step.  If women can be empowered, why shouldnt children be empowered?  Whats stopping it?

If you understand that there is no demonstrable evidence that should bar children from being fully as empowered as adults are, you understand what our school is about. 

In this day and age kids are becoming more and more aware of the dissonance between how theyre treated in traditional schools and how society empowers people.  They resent not being trusted, they resent not being respected.  They resent it at home, and they resent it even more at school.  They resent being treated as if they are somehow not people.  That resentment comes out in all kinds of surly, angry, self-destructive behavior the whole catalog of behaviors that you expect in a group that is disempowered.  In adult society, we always say, Its understandable that this or that minority, or this or that disempowered group, behaves self-destructively and angrily.  Its understandable that they engage in crime, that they harbor resentment, that theyre rebellious, that they abuse drugs and alcohol; because theyre disempowered, and this is their way of turning their anger either against those who disempowered them or, failing that, against themselves.  This is just what children do, much more than they did when I was young, because theyre becoming more conscious of the dissonance.  And theyre also becoming more conscious of the ways they have at their fingertips today to gain what they want and to circumvent the people who are disempowering them.  Theyre more conscious about circumventing school.  Schools are becoming irrelevant to young people.  Today, kids all over use computers, kids all over are hooked into the Internet, kids all over know where to find stuff that they need, how to meet people in cyberspace, how to connect, how to communicate.  When they get to be sixteen they drive, they get jobs they can start working at the age of fourteen, and they often dont do it out of financial necessity.

Kids seek empowerment every way they can, and try to overcome the barriers that deny it to them.  For the most part, we dont even notice it; theyre subversive about it.  Theyre buying what they want to buy; theyre in chat rooms, interacting with people all over the world; they use the phone freely. They show their desire for empowerment in a million different ways that we frequently are unaware of.

Sudbury model schools provide a unique environment in which children are as empowered as adults.  Children have the same freedoms for example, to decide how to spend their time, who to associate with, how to prepare for the next stage of their lives.  They are free to exercise their own judgement every minute of the day that theyre at school, and their decisions are respected.  This is what we mean when we empower an individual.  We say: we trust you to think of your own interests better than anyone else can think of them.  Are you going to make mistakes?  Absolutely. We all do. But they are your mistakes, and you are going to learn from them.  If someone else is telling you what to do, youll be making their mistakes, and chances are you wont learn very much from them.

You must be brave to send your kids to a Sudbury school.  Indeed, it took courage for the founding fathers to create this country.  They were in effect saying, Were going to take a leap into the unknown, and create a society different than any that has ever been created in history, and make it work.  Most cultured people Old Europe, if you will thought the experiment was crazy; that it could never work.  In fact, the urge human beings have to become empowered is so strong, and has become so global in the 21st century, that children will ultimately be granted this right no matter what.  Of that we can be sure, and when it happens, Sudbury model schools will be the norm, not the exception.


1.  This paper is based on a talk delivered in October 2002 to a graduate course in the Education Department of Framingham State College.

2.  See my article, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, The Sudbury Valley School Journal, Vol. 32, No. 2, November 2002, pp. 5-23.


Copyright The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc.