In the previous part of this post, I introduced an argument often heard when discussing Sudbury schools: “Some children need structure!”; in this series of posts – originally just one post which couldn’t stop writing itself – I am exploring this argument and explaining why I disagree with it (even though I accept that it is true). In this part, I will explain my protest to the argument as it is used to justify adults introducing academic structures into democratic schools – “children need structure” in the sense that some children are unhappy, or experience hardship, when lacking academic guidance (..and thus we must provide them with some). It’s a long one, but I could not cut it down any shorter.
It is a fact that some young people experience difficulty when not provided with an extrinsic academic structure. This is true, I cannot argue otherwise, so strictly speaking, those making the argument are right. Of course, applying this only to “some” severely limits the extent to which this fact alone should affect our actions. But even if we were to believe that these “some” who have this difficulty are a significant proportion of children, I do not think people are born this way. When you observe a young child in free play, it is clear they have no “need” of extrinsic structure in this sense – they are perfectly engaged and happy without any adults’ intervention. You see the same with the younger students in a Sudbury school, the ones who have never gone to a traditional school – these children have no problem finding use for their time and are often surprised when the school day is over because they have been happily busy in self-directed activity and didn’t expect it to abruptly come to an end because some clock struck 3.
But if this argument doesn’t apply to the youngest children (presumably the least experienced and skilled), which children does it apply to? In my experience, the best match is those who have spent a few years in a traditional school and have gotten used to receiving a full program of instruction from adults. I have compared the situation with substance dependency – structure is like heroin or nicotine, there are individuals who need it, and the need is real – but it is not inborn. It is the result of habit, or conditioning – although a psychological habit is certainly not the same as a physical addiction. This really makes sense; after having their school time tightly managed for a few years, it is easy to understand why they are used to having structure, why they struggle to cope when nobody provides them with classes – they are in the habit of consuming structures, classes and content, and not at all in the habit of creating them.
But is it really the right answer to just make it easy and decide on a curriculum for them? Are these students, who have essentially forgotten how to manage their own time, best off if their time is managed for them, to a degree? It’s pretty clear to me that the answer is no. If we do this, where will it end? When people turn 18 or 19 – depending on where they live – they are considered adults and soon stop going to school. Suddenly, they are confronted with a lot of choices. Even for students used to academic freedom, the variety variety of choices faced by a new high-school graduate can be very difficult to deal with.
In Israel, where mandatory military service usually postpones this confrontation until the age of 20 or 21, it is stereotypically common for a young adult to go spend a few months – or a couple of years – somewhere in southern Asia, “clearing their head” (usually with the help of intoxicants) and figuring things out. In Germany, where this is less of a present issue, I know several people who, after completing high-school (or Germany’s civilian service, or the shorter military service), chose their university major almost at random because they had no clue what they wanted to study. It seems a kind of folk stereotype here, echoed by many in my environment in university, that many become teachers because all they ever knew is school and they rather go back there as teachers than try something new. The common thread is young people who find themselves suddenly faced with more choice than they know what to do with it. This looks to me like a natural consequence of a system that does not give young people an opportunity to confront the real variety of choices typical to “real life”, putting people on railroad tracks with a promise of eventual success and teaching them that they need these rails in order to find their way. Of course there are also high-school graduates everywhere who know exactly what they want to do – but in many places, this is the exception rather than the rule. Yet somehow, amongst fresh Sudbury graduates, it is cluelessness that seems the exception, and motivation the norm. This appears to be affected by the system, not only by the individuals going through it.
I’ll be the first to admit my plans were flawed when I got up and moved to Germany right after my civilian service, but even I certainly had plans and ambitions. I know that so far, each and every one of the other Sudbury Jerusalem graduates has had a clear idea of what they want to do when they graduated. Some of these plans change, for many of them it is still far too soon to tell, but what is clear is that these are people who can deal with a bit of choice. And this when all of the graduates of Sudbury Jerusalem so far (including myself) have been people who had already spent most or all of elementary school (if not middle school) in a conventional school, before arriving at the Sudbury school. We all came in used to a lot of structure, and we all had to deal with not having that any more. We each dealt with it in different ways. At the end, we were all okay with not having extrinsic structure handed to us. For me, this is an ongoing process that I am still not entirely done with (a fact I only understood about a year and a half after graduation.) But I imagine it would have been a great deal harder to deal with if I hadn’t had those four years of Sudbury Jerusalem where I had to create structures in my life rather than only consume them. This is something each of us has to go through and figure out sooner or later. Feeding children artificial structures when they could be working out their own is a tremendous disservice to them and to society.
In the next installment of this series, I will discuss a version of this argument often presented by proponents of traditional schooling who believe imposing extrinsic structure is necessary for a person to succeed.