Democratic schools and social gaps

I went out for a drink with a friend in a Tel-Aviv pub, and got into a discussion about democratic education and disadvantaged social groups.

My friend works in a democratic school and is doing research on democratic education. She recently visited my school, Sudbury Jerusalem – her first real live encounter with a Sudbury school. We were at an outdoor bar on Tel-Aviv’s famous Rothschild Avenue, and it was the middle of the night. On tall wooden barstools, across a long and narrow wooden table, we sat drinking an Irish stout as she recounted her visit.

My friend loved what she saw at Sudbury Jerusalem and saw in it a place that truly lives the ideals of democratic education. But she also raised a concern: that Sudbury schools are too unusual to attract many families from disadvantaged backgrounds. All I could do is nod sadly.

Radically different

Needless to say, Sudbury schools are open to people of all backgrounds. But Sudbury schools also completely reject traditional ideas of education – curricula, evaluation, adult guidance, etc. – approaching schooling from a radically different direction. It’s difficult for most people to understand, and seems to only attract few families from low-income backgrounds.

When you first tell people about schools like ours, the reaction is often one of shock and disbelief. “So they don’t have to take any classes? How do they ever learn anything? But children need structure!”

Other democratic schools can answer, for instance, that “students have a mentor who helps them identify goals and follow through on them.” This calms a lot of people down.

Sudbury schools, on the other hand, can only answer that the children learn to be responsible for their own time and identify what they want to do and how to do it.

I, of course, consider this correct, both in principle and in practice.

Between freedom and compromise

In Sudbury schools, students are wholly responsible for their own choices, first and foremost in choosing how to spend their own time.

Other democratic schools say the same thing, to some degree or another. But they typically integrate elements of traditional education as well. Though far from the overzealous, paternalistic control exercised by adults in traditional schools, adults in these schools typically take over some of the student’s responsibility, gently guiding them in some way.

Many in the movement view it as a compromise, but it makes the school easier to accept and understand, and as a result, makes it likelier to serve disadvantaged groups. Making no such compromise, Sudbury schools are not very well-equipped to serve them.

Like my friend, I too see this as a problem. Democratic schools are a good thing, and it seems unfair that they be the privilege of those who already enjoy social privilege.

Schools as a tool of change

My friend argued that democratic schools are a vital tool for social change, and that they should compromise in favor of common norms, so as to be more attractive to disadvantaged groups. This is important because democratic schools can be a great influence for children – of all backgrounds – and help them help themselves, their families, and their communities. If we care about disadvantaged groups and consider democratic education good, we should be concerned with bringing it to them.

I see the merit of that approach, but I’m not convinced that the tiny proportion of democratic schools in society right now can have significant impact on social gaps. And even if it does, I think there are other, more effective ways to work on these gaps than starting democratic schools.

Maybe it isn’t in the details

I also think there’s a limit to how much the conceptual minutiae of a democratic school matter in this regard. People from underprivileged backgrounds actually don’t want democratic schools, and for a good reason: they need socially-approved education that can help them get ahead in society. Democratic schools are not generally recognized as a good thing and are not an obvious tool for social advancement.

Attaining prestige

Appeal to disadvantaged groups, I argued, will come with time, by democratic schools establishing themselves as a viable and successful model and becoming socially desirable. Once the general public considers a democratic education prestigious, low-income families will aspire to send their children to our schools. But the more we compromise, as a movement, the less we can establish ourselves as a distinct and superior alternative.

Like so many other innovations, the early adopters will enjoy the benefits of democratic education first, paving the way for others to follow. In a perfect world, we would be spared this injustice – but we don’t live in a perfect world.


My friend could see merit in my argument as well. No conclusion was reached that night.

Ultimately, I think it’s great that different groups are trying different approaches to democratic education. We all have a lot to learn from one another, and the more different things we try, the more we will know about what works.

6 thoughts on “Democratic schools and social gaps”

  1. Welcome back homeland, Michael.

    Sudbury schools are not so unusual as to not attract families from disadvantaged backgrounds — or any other background.

    The problem by now is Democratic schools in most cases are private schools. You have to pay tuition to attend. So far as the state “pays” for education, who wants to pay twice for sending their kids to school ?: first, to the state, and then, to the private school.

    I am sure you can get ahead in society without socially-approved education. Watch Sir Ken Robinson’s “Do schools kill creativity?” or the whole lecture: (starting at 15:08), about Gillian Barbara Lynne, choreographer and dancer, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera – .

    Check also this (in Hebrew):

    1. Obviously, I agree that it is possible to get ahead with education considered unusual. The point is rather than when you are labelled with an underprivileged background, people judge you in a different way. I get the impression that this causes underprivileged groups to aspire towards social stamps of approval in the form of achievements, academic and otherwise, which are broadly and easily recognized by mainstream society as desirable and/or impressive.

      Two years before we started Sudbury Jerusalem, I started going to the “experimental school”, which is far, far less radical in the freedom it gives students. (From a Sudbury perspective, it’s just a traditional school.) Nonetheless, I remember people around me talking about that school with disdain, as though allowing students freedom means giving up on any chance of their achieving anything in life. These attitudes are out there, and I think they are part of the picture.

      And of course, tuition is a very important piece of the puzzle as well. Thanks for bringing that back into the discussion! :)

  2. I just wonder if it would be possible to go to a democratic school as a dati person. Not as a conservative or reform jew – for them it shouldn’t be a problem – , but if you are orthodox. Of course no Haredi kid will find his way to Sudbury, but did there ever send MO parents their children to your school?

    1. Actually, at least during my time at Sudbury Jerusalem, a small *majority* of the students were from orthodox and modern orthodox families.

  3. Michael, thank you for your answer. That is great to hear. I can’t really imagine how this works – since in Orthodoxy hirarchy and obedience are strong issues – and it would be wonderful to hear more about it. Maybe you have time one day to interview some orthodox people from Sudbury or to write more detailed about it.
    Thank you!

    1. I gather that for many of them, the children were unhappy in the religious official schools and their unhappiness there also caused them to distance themselves from the religion. The one thing all Sudbury Jerusalem parents tend to have in common is caring a lot about their children’s happiness, and being able to put it above other things which deter them from sending their kids there. Over time we saw many kids from Orthodox families rediscover Judaism in a non-coercive way while at school. In addition, parents who cared a lot about their children’s religious education took it into their own hands, and I recall some of them being very pleased with the connection this formed between them and their children, as well as their children’s reconnecting to Judaism through it.

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