I’d like to share some thoughts about why democratic schools should not have even a little bit of curriculum or mandatory guidance. Imposing even a single mandatory class, even just a mentorship or a morning meeting, is disrespectful towards students, and signals that the school does not take self-directed learning seriously. Sometimes, motivated by fear, parents attack this notion, demanding more guidance and railroading to make sure their children get where they want them to go. Every school responds in a different way. Only a clear “no” — the typical Sudbury response — makes sense, especially considering what democratic schools are for.
People, especially parents, always ask why the school can’t guide its students a little more actively. It is not that the guidance itself is a bad idea — in fact, I would say it’s vital that guidance be available in the school to those who feel they need it. But forcing guidance on students, even “just a little”, even just implicitly, by making some form of educational activity mandatory, is a signal of distrust. It’s saying, “we trust you to decide what to do with your time, so long as we have some influence on it”, or in other words, “we trust you entirely, except that we actually don’t”. It’s not only a mixed signal, it’s implicitly disrespectful, patronizing and demeaning — even if the guidance itself is presented by people who are respectful towards the students, and even if it’s done in a respectful way.
Schools should strive to produce graduates who are independent, creative, know how to manage their own time, and know how to plan out their own path towards their own goals. For this, the message must be crystal clear: we trust you to make your own choices. This is not part of what a Sudbury School does — it’s what the entire project is about. The opposite message, that there’s a standard “right” way to do things, is already on offer at every traditional school and from almost every person who ever went to one. Any student today is exposed to that message more than enough, even if they attend a school that is different. We do not need to do anything to integrate it in democratic schools, because the students’ families and hometown(s) already do that for us, whether we like it or not. Our mission is different. As person-centered schools, our job is to trust the students entirely.
Having a curriculum is bad, and not only when it’s mandatory. It is not better to “merely” encourage students to pursue some course of activity. When it is mandatory, at least everyone knows what’s going on, at least it is transparent. When you don’t force it but only make it clear that it is better, or that it is expected, or that it is the right thing to do, it’s no less distrustful, but you’re also endangering the relationship of trust between staff and students, giving students every reason to be cautious about the staff. Why trust someone with some external agenda, with some plans for what you’re supposed to do? Is that the kind of person you will want to turn to when you have questions? Is that the kind of person you will turn to when you need help? When you need someone trustworthy to talk about difficult issues with? The staff at Sudbury Jerusalem are the kind of person you would turn to, and I think a big part of this is that when they think you should do something, they just say so, and you know that’s just their own personal opinion. They’re not there to guide you, but they do offer advice when you need it (or when they feel like it), and they can kind of be guides when that’s what you need. To this day I still trust them like family. It’s not that staff should be forbidden from offering guidance, it’s that it should never be their job to offer unsolicited guidance in order to educate people. When that’s your job, you’re not someone to trust — just look at traditional schools.
But let’s look at another aspect, one of the goals I proposed above: creative problem-solving. It seems to me that any kind of focus, on behalf of the school, on state standards, goes against that goal. Many democratic schools today still make it clear to students that they should take state exams at the end of their secondary school years. Some schools quietly encourage it, in some it’s just the thing that everyone does, the goal you are there to work towards. This shows students, for better or for worse, that like most of society, the school endorses the standard path through life. However, unless you specifically really want to become a medical doctor, the standard way is not the only way. There are alternative ways, funner and less arbitrary, if you look for them. But unless a person already knows they have a goal that makes the standard way necessary, the school should be equally supportive of following alternative routes. The problem is that when everyone expects you to just take the standard route, you probably won’t even look for alternatives — why bother? If a school supports the standard way, its students will usually take that standard way.
If we are truly committed to producing the kind of graduates we should, there is no place for arbitrarily supporting any particular curriculum, any guidance not asked for, or any kind of standardized testing. These are anathema to our goals, poison against our success.
But I may be too radical about this. I’d love to hear some dissent. Feel free to leave a comment.