Since the beginning I have been wondering about the kinds of people the graduates of Sudbury Valley School would turn out to be. More to the point, I wondered what kinds of people I wanted them to be – a very personal judgment, to be sure, but something anyone interested in education places first among their considerations. Put another way, the question has to do with “outcomes”, a very popular word these days: What outcomes do we look for, do we expect, do we want, and do we get in our schools in general, and in SVS in particular?
Every spring, as the season when candidates try to graduate draws near, this question takes on a renewed urgency in my mind. I watch generation after generation of young people struggling to decide whether or not to go through the graduation procedure this year, trying to figure out what it all means, working their way through it, and then ultimately making their way into the world. Every spring, I think again of the lives our alumni have been leading after their years at SVS, and of the kinds of adults they have become. And I ask myself, over and over, “Is Sudbury Valley School doing a good job, as an educational institution, in preparing young people to go out into the world and lead successful lives?” This essay is an attempt to give an answer to this question, based on my very subjective and personal observations and thoughts, accumulated and refined and revised and reworked over the past three decades.
Let me start with an extremely broad, qualitative statement, that provides the setting for all that follows: What I have come to realize with greater clarity each passing year is that, by and large, SVS’s graduates are fine human beings, who are well equipped to experience life to its fullest and cope with its uncertainties. That’s it, in a nutshell. I will try to explain what I really mean by this statement, using a series of attributes that describe for me the predominant characteristics of our former students. These attributes are closely inter-related to each other and fundamentally not separable. They combine to form a coherent whole, and are listed individually only because of the limitations forced upon me by language. The order in which I am presenting these attributes has no significance whatsoever; they are not hierarchical or given to prioritization, and their order is essentially random.
Here, then, are some of the salient characteristics of Sudbury Valley graduates that have impressed themselves upon me:
They are decent people. For a long time, I used to wonder why it was that I liked virtually all of our graduates, and loved so many of them. It’s because they’re decent human beings. They are not mean, vindictive, dissimulating, dishonest, violent, short-tempered, ill-tempered, arrogant, intolerant, or disrespectful. They are open, friendly, carefully trusting, relatively easygoing, and honorable. They are the kind of people you like to hang out with, to converse with, to work with, to spend time with.
They are good friends. They know the art of friendship, with their peers, and with people of all ages. They are giving, as well as taking. They are for the most part quite generous, rarely greedy or grasping. They are extremely loyal, through thick and thin. (I never cease to be amazed at the way friendships formed during student years at SVS survive the test of time, despite the many intervening years and often huge distances separating the people involved.) They are supportive in times of distress, celebrative in times of joy. They are friends in their hearts, sharing deep feelings of mutual empathy and understanding.
They know how to get along with people. Sudbury Valley graduates realize that human beings are social animals, and that an important component of life is the ability to integrate into the social setting in which you find yourself. They have learned how to figure out the subtle, uncatalogued, undeclared rules under which each group functions; how to find a way to adapt to these rules without compromising their personal integrity; and how to pursue their personal goals within the framework of the group’s overall style. They are pretty good at getting what they want, largely because they know how to frame their needs in a way that can be acceptable to the society around them.
They love life. They are eager to experience everything, to go out and conquer the world, to travel, to find new horizons, to be adventurous. They do not live in a fog of fear. They want to live, and they relish the complexities of real life. They can be joyous, happy, miserable, and sad; they can be enthusiastic, frustrated, disappointed, exhilarated, ecstatic, and depressed. They are not afraid of feeling intensely, and enjoying – as well as suffering – the consequences of such intensity.
They have a strong sense of self. Sometimes many of us get a bit tired of hearing SVS graduates say, “I found out who I am”. But the fact is, most of them did, and most of them have a degree of self-knowledge that is striking, especially in people that young. SVS graduates are not followers. They have confronted their strengths and their weaknesses; made a good start at figuring out how they want to conduct their lives; and gotten themselves a basic system of values that is uniquely individual to each of them even while it somehow fits into the values of the culture. They understand thoroughly how to remain whole in the face of the many pressures exerted upon them daily by the outside world.
They have self-confidence. Most graduates feel that they have the inner strength and the ability to cope with whatever life throws their way; and to do whatever it takes to attain their goals at any particular phase of their lives. It’s important to distinguish self-confidence from foolhardiness. A self-confident person has a certain inner voice that guides him/her through the twists and turns of fortune, and offers constant reassurance that somehow s/he will be able to work his/her way out of any difficult spots. A foolhardy person thinks that s/he already has in his/her possession all the tools necessary to cope with everything that comes down the pike. The difference is significant: the quietly self-confident person knows that s/he lacks many tools at any given time, but also knows that with persistence and patience those tools can be acquired.
They are adaptable. SVS graduates do not fear instability and change. They know that the world around them is undergoing rapid transformation, and they accept this as a given; it does not paralyze them, nor does it lead them to yearn for a stability and permanence that will never be (if it ever was). They do not think in terms of fixed life-long situations. They expect to be doing different things at different times in their lives, and usually welcome the ongoing challenge that this fact represents.
They are acquainted with passion. Most SVS graduates have experienced the feeling of being overwhelmed by an intense interest in something or someone; all of them have seen this in someone else at close quarters, even if they have yet to experience it themselves. Eventually, one or more passions catches hold of virtually all of them. The special ecstasy that only a person consumed by passion has known is something quite common to SVSers. In ancient times, it would have been considered a gift of the gods.
They are bright. One of the characteristics of SVSers most frequently remarked upon by new students is their brightness, their innate intelligence. Being bright – being, in other words, sparklingly intelligent – is a trait with which all healthy infants are endowed from birth. Some retain it throughout their lives, however they have been brought up; others lose it, as a result of any of a variety of repressive experiences that force them to shut down. Most SVS graduates, by the time they are ready to leave school, have regained possession and use of their innate brightness, and are able to relate to the world in a highly intelligent manner on a regular basis.
They are imaginative. SVS graduates rarely fall into some predetermined societal category or cultural box. They are generally quite creative and independent in their thinking, and have little respect for authority per se. They feel comfortable exploring new and untried paths, and even taking risks in pursuing unusual avenues.
They are empowered. They do not accept authority unquestioningly in social settings either. They are keenly aware of their rights, their strengths, their ability to stand for what they believe. They do so even if it costs them, even if they meet resistance or aggressiveness or abusive behavior. They speak up for themselves and for others.
They are ethical. Of course I do not mean that they are always good, always do everything right, never do anything wrong. I mean that they – all of them – have a highly developed moral sense, even those who don’t always act in a manner consistent with it. You can always appeal to an SVS graduate’s sense of right and wrong in any discussion, and know that you will be heard, if not always agreed with.
They are tolerant. SVSers are deeply respectful of other people, and accepting of all the many differences that distinguish us from each other. They do not form a-priori judgments of people according to their color, their religion, their political views, their social standing, their clothes, their hair, their language, their age, or their demeanor.
They have a deep sense of justice. They are highly sensitive to social ills, and to wrongs that are inflicted upon victims. They understand deep inside them that what creates a stable and livable social order is a system of justice that deals fairly with everybody, is accessible to everyone, and has avenues of redress and appeal.
They are intensely curious. They are alive to what goes on around them, and are constantly exploring the nooks and crannies of their environment, physical, social, and intellectual. Their conversations roam over a variety of topics that is almost unimaginably varied, from the most arcane philosophical points to the most mundane aspects of daily existence.
They are life-long learners. SVS graduates enjoy learning for its own sake – the more so, the longer they have been at the school. They like to read, to study, to use whatever human or other resources are available in order to acquaint themselves and master new domains that catch their interest.
They are articulate. They are superb conversationalists; they know how to talk, how to get an idea across. They are also excellent listeners, and they understand that to have a good conversation where all parties benefit, all parties must listen as well as talk.
They are politically astute. SVS graduates understand how to use the existing political system in order to further their aims. They know how to present their ideas, how to petition, how to debate, how to muster support for their positions among their friends and acquaintances. They know how to formulate political positions, and how to go back to the drawing board and re-formulate them in a more acceptable fashion if they have to.
They are physically fit. Most of them are comfortable with their bodies, and are happy when they are physically active. They enjoy the outdoors, they enjoy climbing and running and walking and playing; many like to dance, to ski, to skate or skateboard, to ride bikes, generally to challenge their bodies. They are aware of the difference between good food and junk food, between healthy personal habits and damaging ones – aware, if not practicing, and awareness is, after all, the essential first step towards practice.
I’ve probably forgotten some traits that I once was aware of, and there are doubtless others that other people have noticed that have eluded me. But by and large the ones above, taken together and integrated with each other, form a fair picture of the character of the typical SVS graduate (or former students who has spent some time at the school and left without a diploma for whatever reason).
None of these traits is measurable or quantifiable. Each of them means something slightly different to different people, even people existing within the same cultural context. Still, they represent enough shared meaning to people within the Sudbury Valley community, and to people within American culture, to allow us each to form our own judgment as to whether I am right in identifying them as belonging to most of our graduates, and whether I am justified in claiming that a school whose graduates possess these traits can be considered successful.
Notably absent from my list are the outcomes most often referred to as the important ones for schools – namely, the quantifiable outcomes that measure the degree of retention of particular amounts of data and particular skills in manipulating data. Test results, in common parlance. These are absent for two reasons: (1) We have no way of knowing how much any of our graduates knows about this or that field, or how well they manipulate this or that assigned material. As a matter of principle we don’t and won’t test them, or ask them. When they decide to test themselves, as some of them do when they take SATs or Achievement Tests or go on to other traditional schools, they invariably do well (that is, certainly no worse than students from traditional schools, and well enough to go on to do what they want, whether it be enter college or embark on a career). (2) I don’t think these are meaningful or useful outcomes for young people who are entering the post-industrial world of the Information Age. People who think that such quantifiable outcomes are important, and who have reason to believe that their children do not possess such outcomes, will probably not be comfortable enrolling their children at Sudbury Valley for any length of time.
The traits I have listed paint a rather good picture of the average Sudbury Valley graduate. From where I sit, this adds up to a highly successful school. Most of our success is due to the very simple fact that we have gotten out of the way, that we have removed barriers, that we have allowed tendencies that are innate in human nature to flourish without interference, judgment, or suppression. As the years have gone by, the school has established a culture which increasingly assures that these traits will be welcomed and respected by all members of the school’s community.
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