The Significance of the Sudbury Valley School Diploma

 

Daniel Greenberg

 

 

The Question

For as long as I can remember, Sudbury Valley School has stated that its reason for existence, in a nutshell, is to provide an environment, suitable for our place and time, in which children can take responsibility for preparing themselves to be effective adults.  Our writings seek to explain how the school fulfills this goal, from the perspectives of a wide range of disciplines – developmental theory, political philosophy, psychology, evolution, history, and philosophy of education.  When children seek to leave the school with our high school diploma, we focus the procedure for obtaining a diploma on their ability to prepare an exposition on how that goal has applied to their lives.

There is one part of this goal that has received scant attention: the meaning of the phrase “effective adult.”  We usually ask diploma candidates what they mean by that phrase, but attempts in a thesis defense to explore this phrase by questioning the diploma candidate more deeply have usually caused discomfort in the community; such attempts have been viewed as digressions into vague philosophical analysis which deflects the thesis defense from its key purpose of finding how the student went about preparing him/herself.  In general, I have the feeling that just about every person associated with the school thinks it’s pretty obvious what it means to be an effective adult, and each attaches their own common-sense definition to the phrase.

Yet, I have concluded that the words “being an effective adult” contain within them the most profound aspects of our raison d’etre, and that exploring them in depth opens up whole new avenues for understanding what Sudbury Valley is about.  I would like to set out in this essay some of the reasons I feel this is so.

 

Self-Organizing Systems

The concept of a “system” has been explored in depth.  Briefly put, a system is an entity that performs a certain function, and consists of a number of parts that work in conjunction with each other.  None of the parts, alone, can perform the function that they perform together, nor is it possible to describe the function of the system as a whole just on the basis of knowing how the parts work.  In other words, when the parts work together, they become an entity with new properties that are not visible or knowable on the basis of knowing each of the parts separately.

All systems (with the exception of the universe as a whole) are themselves parts of one or more larger systems.

A simple example makes it easier to visualize the everyday reality underlying these abstract definitions.  Consider a standard gasoline engine, that delivers power to a rotating drive shaft.  This is a system whose function is just that: providing power to a drive shaft.  It is made up of many parts – pistons, cylinders, cams, valves, etc.  None of these, working alone, can execute the function of a whole engine; no one of them can deliver power to a drive shaft (which is, itself, a part of the machine).  If these parts were laid out in front of someone who did not know where they came from, and who never saw a disassembled engine, it would be impossible to deduce the function of the engine which a mechanic could put together from them.

The engine, in turn, is a part of another system: an automobile.  The function of that system is to provide people with transportation.  A car has many other parts in addition to the engine – transmission, axles, wheels, clutch, etc.  Once again, none of these parts, alone, can provide people with transportation; nor would anyone not knowledgeable about cars be able to picture these parts acting together as a car.

For the purposes of this discussion, the important thing to realize about a system is the fact that it has characteristics, and functions, that emerge only from the system taken as a whole, and do not appear in the parts of which it is composed.

A “self-organizing” system is a system which has an additional important feature: it is capable of modifying its operation in response to changes that take place either from within it or from without.  This feature is commonly referred to as “feedback”; it increasingly became the focus of industrial designers from the late nineteenth century on.  Going back to the automobile example: cruise control is a feedback mechanism that changes the response of the car’s accelerating system depending on the road conditions (uphill, downhill, flat).  A car using cruise control is a self-organizing system (with respect to its speed).  Automobile designers are busy working on cars that will drive themselves from one destination to another, without human intervention – the ultimate self-organizing automobiles of the future!

Living things are, one and all, self-organizing systems.  Even the simplest ones are hugely complex, have a staggeringly large number of components that scientists have identified (and doubtless many, many more yet to be named), and have an amazingly large variety of modes of response to internal changes and to changes in their external environment.  Their ability to self-organize – to adapt themselves to change – is one of their distinguishing features. 

The primary purpose of all living systems, a purpose for which all of the components work together, is to survive.  Each and every living thing is a system that has as its primary goal survival.  The goal of individual survival is the key to evolution, which is the name given to the self-organizing system of the biosphere as a whole.  Evolution describes how different species interact and evolve within the biosphere.  A key factor in this process is the struggle of each individual within a species to survive, and through that struggle to ensure the survival of those individuals who, of all members of a species, have the best likelihood of ensuring the survival of the species as a whole.1

Every self-organizing system has tools that enable it to fulfill its purpose.  For example, machines have sources of energy to power them.  Living things need chemical sources of energy to help them take responsive actions for survival.  In addition, a variety of other tools are at the disposal of different living beings – such things as the means for incorporating information from their surroundings, the means for taking offensive action against attackers, the means for identifying nourishment to keep them alive, the means for initiating movement away from danger or towards nourishment, and so forth.  The tools are built into the system.  All living things have some such tools; some have many such tools.

One particularly important built-in tool is the ability to communicate with other living things.  Communication allows for collaborative action to enhance individual survival, including cooperation in acquiring nourishment and in combating enemies.  The means of communication among living things that we are currently aware of include chemical signals, body movements and audio signals, all of which can be extremely complex.

The Effect of Human Consciousness

Human beings have an additional faculty that complicates and enriches their situation: they possess consciousness.  Humans are consciously self-organizing entities; they are aware of themselves, of their actions, and of the purposes which they act to fulfill.  While we do not understand the origins or nature of consciousness, we are conscious that we are conscious.

The implications of this faculty are far-reaching.  We not only think, but we can think about what we think; we not only strive to fulfill our naturally predestined, hard-wired purpose of survival, but can analyze how we go about fulfilling that purpose – and we can analyze that purpose itself.  As human beings, we know that we can control our actions, and are not automations wholly managed by forces beyond our control.  Most important of all, we can think about the very concept of purposeful actions, and create for ourselves other purposes (in addition to survival) which we then can organize ourselves to fulfill.

Indeed, because all self-organizing systems are organized to fulfill a purpose which they function to fulfill, and because all human beings are consciously aware of being self-organizing entities, it is a basic fact of human life that each person is aware, at every point of their lives, of some purpose (or purposes) around which they organize their activities.  This does not negate the possibility – indeed, the likelihood – that there will be purposes which a person strives to fulfill, of which he is not aware, such as those residing in his subconscious and not yet accessed.

This is what we mean when we say that people seek to live a meaningful life: we mean that all human beings seek to fulfill conscious purposes (“meaning”) which guide their actions.

Innate Human Faculties

Human beings have several tools that enable them to create, find, identify, and analyze their purpose for living.  These tools, while existing in some form in many other animal species, have reached a level of refinement in the human species that sets that species apart from all other species.2

The tool most commonly noted and discussed is language.  Language enables people to represent a huge variety of experiences in highly condensed form, as symbols (“words”), and to apply thought (“analysis”) to these experiences.  The use of words makes it possible for people to organize, and re-organize, all the almost infinite factors that contribute to their daily lives, by reducing the multiplicity of factors to manageable proportions.  The condensing power of words also enables much more than raw experience to be stored in a person’s memory.  Perhaps most important of all, language makes it possible for people to share their experiences and thoughts and, through sharing, to dramatically increase their individual ability to think.  Words connect each individual mind to the minds of all other people with whom they communicate, giving each person the potential to tap into the collective consciousness of the entire human species.

A second tool available to human beings is music, which gives voice to a wide spectrum of emotions and moods.  Music, by bringing forth feelings from the depths of each person’s emotional makeup, creates a whole new array of potential purposes for human existence, purposes which would remain buried in the recesses of the unconscious if not thus liberated.  Furthermore, music not only affects the individual creating it, but also serves to connect people to each other across a bridge of shared feelings.  Music is a language of sound rather than word symbols.

The third tool is visual art, another medium for expressing feelings directly, without the intervention of word symbols.  Art is a language of sight – of form and color.  It too not only expresses the feelings of the individual who creates it, but also serves as a bridge among people, connecting them directly through an emotional bond3.

In comparison with verbal language, much less attention has been paid to music and visual art as core aspects of human existence, central to each person’s ability to function effectively as a consciously self-organizing being.  This is understandable, since we can use words to analyze and describe how words affect us (“philosophize”), while it is much more difficult – indeed, impossible – to use words to fully analyze and describe how music and visual art affect us.  But it is also regrettable, as this relative neglect of the centrality of music and visual art to effective human functioning has meant that many people lack an appreciation of these important avenues to finding and creating purpose in life.  This neglect is most evident in schools – both at the elementary and high school level as well as at the university level – where music and visual arts are given short shrift.  Just how important these two elements are to the human spirit can be seen clearly in a place such as Sudbury Valley School, where children who are allowed to develop freely according to their individually created self-organizing principles can be seen to engage in music and visual art freely and extensively.

These three tools – verbal language, music, and visual art – are used by all people, consciously and unconsciously, to design purpose for their lives at every moment, and to act in fulfillment of that purpose.  Furthermore, these tools make it possible for people not only to strive to fulfill their primary purpose of survival, but also to create for themselves additional purposes beyond bare survival4 – purposes which they try to organize their lives to fulfill.  As Aristotle first pointed out, the more people succeeded in organizing themselves efficiently to further their bare survival, the more time they had on their hands to create for themselves additional purposes, the sum total of which constitute the cultural content of human existence (philosophy, art, etc.).  And the more purposes created by a person for himself, the more likely it is that these purposes will make conflicting demands for action on his part – demands that lead him to act at “cross purposes” and to live with inconsistency and a sense of unfulfillment.

People As Social Beings

These tools also serve to connect people – in particular, to connect people who have shared purposes and who, together, find their individual purposes enhanced through joint endeavor.  The social aspect of human existence is not only a matter of joint action for the sake of survival, but also a matter of joint action for the sake of fulfilling purposes that have been consciously created by people – purposes to which their individual lives are devoted, and for the furtherance of which their actions and thoughts are organized.

Thus people are drawn to social groups for a variety of purposes.  Individuals will become members of different groups, with different constellations, depending on the purpose.  A person can be a member of one group for the purpose of survival, others for the purpose of fulfilling intellectual or ethical goals, yet others for fulfilling various artistic goals.  This fact alone guarantees that every person will contain, within himself, factors that will promote internal conflict and conflict with others, and will thus provide him with a life filled with pain and distress.

Furthermore, every group organized around the common purpose of its members becomes, itself, a consciously self-organizing entity.  The group itself acts to fulfill its purpose for existence.  There is, however, little likelihood that the evolving nature of the group’s purpose, and the group’s means of fulfilling it, will at all times coincide with the precise view of that purpose that each member has, and the precise actions that each member would like to undertake.  The fact that there is a large overlap in the sense of purpose among members of the group – an overlap which created the group in the first place and keeps it going as long as it continues to function – does not mean that there will be agreement between all the views of all the members.  On the contrary, such agreement can never occur in groups that have more than one person!  Consciously self-organizing groups built around a common purpose have built into them a virtual certainty of perpetual internal conflict among their members.

The Eternal Tension in the Human Condition

The human condition, then, is by its nature one of perpetual conflict in a number of areas.  Within each individual reside conflicting goals.  Between individuals there are struggles involving survival, and conflicts surrounding incompatible goals.  Within groups there are conflicts between various individual views of the common group goals, as well as conflicts between the group as a whole and individual members.  Among groups there are conflicts involving incompatible groups goals.

This is also the condition of the biosphere as a whole.  The normal natural state of the biosphere is one of constant conflict.  Humans do not differ from other species in this regard, but they differ in being aware that they find themselves in this condition.

Given this rather bleak situation, it is no surprise that from earliest times people have asked, “What can be done to reduce the perpetual state of conflict, internal and external, in which I find myself, which threatens my ability to achieve the purposes to which I am devoting my life?”

The Search for Ways to Relieve the Tension

In every era, people have existed whose lives have been devoted to finding a way to enhance their ability, and the ability of their fellow human beings, to lead meaningful lives in which their respective goals are advanced.  From the dawn of history, there have been individuals who declare that they have found the key to maximizing the ability of each person to realize their life purposes, and minimizing the extent to which internal and external factors interfere with that process.  To the extent that other people developed an interest in “the key”, these individuals gained a following – and a self-organizing group came into being for the purpose of putting “the key” into effect.

The “keys” have fallen into several major categories.  Perhaps the first to appear is religion, in its various manifestations, all of which claim to be the recipients of supernatural revelation that provides a detailed guide for living a good individual life and for creating a good community – where by “good” is meant “in conformity with the will of the supernatural being(s) that rules the world and determines the fate of the human race.”  Observation of the precepts and commands of the religion are, in themselves, the primary purpose prescribed for every individual and community, the fundamental source of meaning and worth in human existence.  Religion purports to provide the specific means and actions required for each person to realize the purposes for which he is consciously self-organized, and for each community to realize the purposes for which it is consciously self-organized.  Every religion, each according to its own light, provides a ready answer to the question, “What is the meaning of my life, and the lives of my fellow human beings?”

Another category of “keys” is political theory, which provides guiding principles for the conscious self-organization of groups, with an eye to satisfying the purposes around which their individual members organize their lives.  For example, the emergence of monarchy as a principle of political organization is a result of people’s desire for clear lines of authority in resolving internal community conflicts, for unified leadership in facing external conflicts, and often also for individual inspiration arising from devoting oneself to a clear cause defined by the ruler.  No better expression of this situation can be found than in the pleas directed to the prophet Samuel by the ancient tribes of Israel for the anointing of a king to rule over them: “We wish to be like all other peoples – to have a king who will be our judge, and who will lead us in fighting our battles.”5

As in religion, so in monarchy, having someone define a purpose for you around which you can consciously self-organize your life avoids a lot of the angst associated with creating and finding your own purposes in life.  You get to live a life of fulfillment, without the need to do the hard work of defining for yourself what you want to fulfill.  Many people enjoy getting this advantage from joining a religious group or a political entity.  At Sudbury Valley School, we see this same process occurring in school-age children who prefer the world of traditional education, where the purposes are laid out for them, to a world where they must define their own purposes and self-organize to fulfill them.

In both of the instances mentioned above, the primary purposes around which each person’s life is organized are defined by the group – or, more precisely, by the group leaders – and the individual’s idiosyncratic purposes, where they exist, play a secondary role.  A different key to solving the problem outlined above is offered by the political principle of democracy, that focuses first on the individual and his life goals, and invents a way to form a collaborative group whose very purpose it is to further the ability of each individual to realize those goals.  Democracy does this in two ways: by calling on each member to participate in defining the group’s purposes, and by creating a rule of law, which guides behavior and resolves conflict in a manner that enhances the freedom of action of each individual.

Democracy for a community larger than a tribal unit was first instituted in ancient times.  It foundered on its failure to balance the purposes of the group and those of the individuals who made up the group.  Its critics accused it of being “mob rule”, by which they meant that, in all forms of ancient democracy, the group’s will rode roughshod over the will of individuals (where the two were in conflict).  Nor were adequate means ever developed to assure continuity and organic change, as opposed to the sudden and often radical shifts to which groups (like individuals!) are often prone.  The political system of monarchy (or similar autocratic rule) offered the same defects as democracy, but turned out to be easier to live with, overall, and quickly became the prevailing system throughout the world.

Among the six billion people who populate this planet, there are a countless number who claim to have found the “key” to a better, satisfying, and fulfilling life for all; and of these, thousands have succeeded in gathering around them groups of followers who have accepted their teachings.  Sadly, the very purpose for which a “key” is sought – maximizing the ability of each person to realize their life purposes, and minimizing the extent to which internal and external factors interfere with that process – is the one that ultimately is almost always most poorly served by the creators of their “key”, for the various groups devoted to their various “keys” have been in constant conflict with each other throughout history.  At best, each “key” has provided, for the individuals in its group, a measure of internal peace, but this is rarely matched by peaceful coexistence with groups devoted to other “keys”.  Overall, the natural state of conflict continues to prevail.

The Place of Liberal Democracy

The Founding Fathers of this country were presented with a unique historical opportunity:  to create a new political system for a brand new country with no burden of historical tradition to weigh them down, but with the collective experience and wisdom of human history to guide them.  They were keenly aware of the fact that every person, as a consciously self-organizing entity, requires purpose in order to define his self-organizing principles; and they knew that, regardless of the nature of the community in which a person lives, he will, of necessity, devise a purpose that enables him to carry on with life.

The great historical innovation of the Founding Fathers was to understand, as no political leaders before them had understood, the tremendous power of freedom, both on the individual and collective levels.  For an individual, they grasped that offering freedom to choose among a wide variety of purposes around which to organize one’s life creates a significant benefit: it enhances the likelihood that a person will find the purposes which best fulfill his potential and his destiny, and it thereby increases the value of the contribution that person makes to the community in which he lives.  The founders made this realization the cornerstone of the political and cultural structure they set out to build in the United States.

They were not subtle about their position; rather, they stated it openly and clearly.  They singled out as key “unalienable rights” of every human being the oft-quoted triumvirate, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” – in other words, the threefold right of each person to live as a free person and pursue the purposes for which he, as an individual, has chosen to live.  It is instructive to compare this to the slogan of the French Revolution, which followed so closely on the heels of our own War of Independence: “Liberte, egalite, fraternite” – “liberty, equality, brotherhood” – which accentuates the dominance of the community (“brotherhood”) over the individual.

In case anyone missed the point, the Founding Fathers follow up immediately with the statement that “to secure these rights governments are established among men,” so that there could be no doubt that, in their eyes, whatever purposes the group develops, by whatever means it chooses, the advancement of the goals of each individual citizen is the first priority of a healthy society.  To be sure, to make this happen in the real world, they struggled mightily to write a convoluted Constitution, which is still evolving, in which they strove to embody the principles they enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

Ethics

So far, no mention has been made of morality.  I would like to explain why this is the case.

A code of ethics is the system of rules set up by any group to regulate the behavior of its individual members, in furtherance of the goals of the group.  Individuals either accept the ethical principles of the group to which they belong – whether or not they have some personal qualms about some of these principles – or they leave the group and seek another with which to associate, with ethical principles that are, overall, more congenial to them personally.  Since there are innumerable different groups in existence, it should come as no surprise that there exist in the world a wide range of ethical codes, which offer rules of behavior as varied as the groups which spawn them.

A glance at the record of human experience from ancient times to the present would seem to make this statement a simple truism.  Nevertheless, for reasons which I will now address, there is a persistent tendency on the part of most people, and most groups, to consider their ethical code to be the only “right” one. 

This tendency arises from the universal human practice of objectivization: people seem to insist on endowing their perceived world with a reality that transcends the uniquely personal world that they have created out of their experiences.  Here is how this happens: I form a world view – a picture of what exists around me – based on my perceptions of my environment.  Rather than say, “This is the way I see the world, whatever the world may actually be,” I prefer to say, “This is the way the world is.”  “That is a chair,” not “I perceive a chair,” or “As I see it, I am interacting with something that I choose to identify as a chair.”  In fact, we are so accustomed to this process that we look askance at someone who uses the circumlocutions that objectivizing avoids.

Groups engage in this process as well, and they extend it to the rules of behavior they establish for their members.  What starts out, perhaps, as a tentative exploration for a rule – “We think that it makes sense for people to behave in this way . . .”  – often becomes a declaration that the rule specifies a behavior that reflects an objective, unchallengeable truth – “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . ”The Declaration of Independence is an excellent case in point.  The founders could have said, “We, the colonists, have decided that it makes sense to behave in a way that treats all people equally, etc.”, which would have opened them, naturally, to the objection from their British rulers, and perhaps from most of the rest of the world, that “We, the British Government, along with all other civilized governments of the world, have learned from long experience that it decidedly does not make sense to behave that way,” and so forth.  Such a weak statement, had it been made by the founders, would certainly not have inspired action in the same way that the ringing objective statement made in the Declaration did.

Ethical rules thus tend to become absolute, objective statements defining the good and the bad for groups, endowing the earmarked behaviors with meaning that transcends mere opinion.  Often, this process is strengthened by ascribing them to a source that is supernatural and hence presumably authorized to prescribe human behavior here on earth.  In such cases, ethics becomes subsumed under religion.

This process of objectivizing ethics leads groups to demonize other groups that approve of “bad” behavior.  If it is an objective truth that all people should be treated as equals, then those who treat people unequally are bad people, and should be reproved, removed, dealt with somehow.  Any group that is exercised enough over another group’s ethics is thus liable to whip itself into a frenzy of righteous action to eliminate the offensive behavior – and, if necessary, the offending group – from the scene, in the same way as groups, in determining their ethical rules, grant themselves by implication – and in practice – the power to eliminate offending behavior, or people who engage in offensive behavior, from their midst, one way or another.

This way of thinking leads directly to ideological or religious wars, fought to eliminate heresies that pollute the human environment.

Digression: Science

The birth of modern science introduced an interesting twist into this scenario.  Science, otherwise known as Natural Philosophy, has from ancient times been viewed as a way of understanding the world.  Greek philosophers early on believed that, through a combination of close observation and disciplined analysis, the rules governing the way the world works can be uncovered.  Implicit in this belief were three beliefs:

                 - that such rules existed (the world must behave as if it were governed by strict rules);

                 - that human beings can uncover those rules (the rules are not beyond human comprehension);

                 - and that the world we observe is the real world that must be explained (objectivization).

Greek science was a bold statement that there exist truths about the world (“we hold these truths . . .”) and that these, once displayed, are beyond dispute.  Indeed, Aristotelian science was held in such high repute that it remained the measure of all scientific thinking for over a thousand years.

Modern science departed from this ancient Greek model in a significant way.  It basically abandoned the link between the real world – still assumed to exist – and direct human experience.  Modern science was based on the notion that ideas about human experience have a reality all of their own.  Theory was objectivized, in addition to direct perception, and statements about human experience were endowed with truth-value on a par with experience itself.

Thus, when Isaac Newton declared that all massive bodies attract each other with a force proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, he stated this as a truth about reality, on a par with the truth that the bodies attracting each other themselves existed.  The latter statement was an objectivization of experience (I perceive massive bodies, and I declare them to exist separately from my perception); the former statement, about gravity, was an objectivization of an idea, a theory (gravity exists, it is real). 

Modern science became the province of a group of people called “scientists”, who formed their own set of ethical principles and who, in turn, decried all those who rejected their current set of accepted ideas as “unscientific” people whose view of reality was wrong.

The Ethics of Liberal Democracy

Liberal democracy holds that there is a rule of personal behavior that trumps all other rules:  that any person or group may hold any beliefs or opinions concerning the world, and adhere to any set of ethical rules, so long as these beliefs, opinions, and rules do not interfere with any other person or group’s ability to hold their beliefs or opinions concerning the world, and adhere to their preferred set of ethical rules.  This is a meta-principle of universal tolerance, which is the defining characteristic of societies characterized as liberal democracies.

The purpose of this new principle is to promote peaceful coexistence among all people, a condition that (as we have seen) is in direct conflict with the imperatives of natural evolution, and that has always been regarded as unattainable and utopian.

There are historians who claim that human history has, on its own, moved inexorably towards a universal human society based on such a meta-principle.  Western liberal democracies have been organized according to it, and have managed to comprise within themselves individuals and groups with strong opinions about the nature of reality and truth, while avoiding intramural violence deriving from disagreements concerning these opinions.  Whether the rest of the world will follow suit, or whether these liberal democracies will manage to survive, is still open to question.

At any rate, the present lack of widespread agreement, even within this country, about the content of a code of ethics makes it pointless to include a moral dimension in the discussion of the meaning of “effective adult”.  Every person acts at all times within the boundaries of what he considers to be appropriate rules of behavior for himself.  Every person considers himself to be “ethical”, given his own interpretation of the word.  It would seem reasonable to expect that a person defending the proposition that he has taken responsibility for preparing himself to be an effective adult should, among other things, make mention of the ethical framework within which he is formulating that defense, and respond to questions and challenges about that framework.

Being “An Effective Adult”

All of which brings us back to the question with which we began: what does it mean to be an “effective adult” in American society today?  And what does that have to do with Sudbury Valley School, which uses that concept as the core of its graduation procedure?

The dictionary defines the word “effective” as follows: “producing, or capable of producing, a desired effect.”  Every person, as a consciously self-organizing entity, has purposes which he strives to attain.  An effective person is one who not only has, and is aware of, his purposes, but produces, or is capable of producing, the desired effect of fulfilling his purposes.  He is, in other words, adept at finding ways to realize his goals, and at devising strategies to overcome the obstacles that will inevitably stand in his way.

Furthermore, being an effective adult in American society today means being an effective American citizen.  Such a person must be aware of, and in tune with, the overall purposes for which this country has been establish – purposes that we have discussed earlier – and must be able to be a member of American society who helps his fellow citizens pursue those purposes and achieve them.

How does one prepare to be an effective adult in American society today?  How does a child progress through childhood, and transform himself from an inexperienced and unskilled infant to a person who is ready to function effectively in the adult world?

The answer that appears to make most sense is to provide children with an environment which has the following characteristics:

 

                 - It enables them to discover their unique purposes, by giving them the time and freedom to look within themselves – to “know themselves,” as the students at Sudbury Valley frequently articulate this process – and to eliminate authoritarian intervention by outsiders that seeks to impose on the developing child life purposes defined by others.6

                 - It enables them to develop strategies for achieving their purposes, through experimentation, trial and error, and unhampered contemplation – strategies that enable them to produce, or become capable of producing, the desired effect of realizing their goals.

                 - It enables them to grow up and function in a social system whose purposes mirror the purposes of the social system of America.

Such an environment is the ideal one for the development of children into effective adults in American society.  It describes, in brief, the environment created and sustained at Sudbury Valley School for the past 39 years, and at other Sudbury model schools that have come into being.

The graduation procedure developed by the school for the award of diplomas can thus be seen to be a request made by the school of the diploma candidate to try to be aware of, and articulate, the essential elements of the process by which he has taken responsibility to prepare himself to become an effective adult.  The school believes that all those who grow up in its environment, through long habit and practice, in fact have done just that.  What is asked of a diploma candidate is to put into words, through self-examination, some description of the process they have undergone internally as they have grown into effective adults.7

Those who choose to go through the diploma procedure thus end up endowing the school with a special gift: they leave behind them a written record of the way each of them has defined their purposes, developed life strategies to achieve them, and done this all within the framework of a social system devoted to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

 

 

1. Why should the universe contain self-organizing systems whose purpose is to survive?  From the vantage point of physics, this is a serious question.  The 19th century saw the introduction of a new principle – namely, the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that the sum total of all processes in the universe take place in a manner that increases the overall degree of disorder and dissolution; in other word, that things inexorably tend to fall apart in the overall order of things.  That new principle negated the underlying assumption of physics from ancient times, that the world was inherently stable, and that the changes that occur in the physical universe do not affect its overall stability and permanence.  (This view of underlying stability still informs physics today, in the form of various “conservation laws” that are seen as central to any explanation of reality.)  It is therefore puzzling, from the vantage point of physics, to find within the universe living organisms, whose cardinal property is the drive to survive, to adapt themselves to the changes that assault them from within and from without in such a manner that each of them, as a system, can nevertheless go on surviving as a coherent whole.

To respond that, nevertheless, the disorder in the universe as a whole increases from the activities of living systems, does not solve the puzzle of systems within the universe that seem to operate locally in defiance of the Second Law.

 

  1. I am indebted to Michael Greenberg for a key insight into the nature of these tools.  He identified them on the basis of the reasonable – and, in hindsight, almost obvious – conclusion that any type of activity that is universally engaged in by all people in all cultures at all times must represent a fundamental tool available to, and actively taken advantage of, by humans qua humans.

 

3.  For a discussion of a number of examples of this, see Simon Schama, The Power of Art (HarperCollins; New York, 2006).

 

4.  By “bare survival” I mean the factors commonly considered essential to human life: water, food, shelter and clothing.

 

5.  I Samuel:8:20.

 

6.  Such an environment, for adults, defines what we mean by a “free society.”

 

7.  The fact that every year there is a group of students who go through this procedure enables the school to collect, over time, a written record of the way students have perceived their development towards being effective adults.

 

 

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