Exploring Alpine Valley School
Educating Students Sudbury Style
by Ari Armstrong, March 1999
I could observe, but not initiate conversation, I was told. That didn't matter -- as soon as I walked through the doors of Alpine Valley School (between Wheat Ridge and Golden on 32nd Avenue) January 14, three bright, excited students approached me and, knowing my restrictions, said, "We'd like to initiate conversation with the visitor!"
If libertarians critique government schools, they had better be able to point to a better alternative. One such alternative in the Denver area is Alpine Valley, started in September, 1997. The school now holds around 16 students and six part-time staff. Alpine Valley was started primarily by Larry Welshon, an educator in the government system who spends his spare time working to develop the independent school, where he plans to eventually work full-time. I first met Welshon through Ken Riggs, who is on Alpine Valley's advisory board and who also supports The Colorado Freedom Report. Welshon himself holds libertarian views and has pledged to oppose all types of government financing, including vouchers.
Alpine Valley is modeled after Sudbury Valley School of Massachusetts. (The respective web addresses of the schools are http://users.aol.com/alpineval/avs.htm and http://www.sudval.org.) Sudbury, which has been operating for over three decades, bases its philosophy of education largely on the works of John Holt. The Alpine Valley web page begins with Holt's words, "Children do not need to be made to learn, told what to learn, or shown how. If we give them access to enough of the world, including our own lives and work in the world, they will see clearly what things are truly important to us and to others, and they will make for themselves a better path into that world than we could make for them."
Thus, Alpine Valley does not structure academic studies for its students. Students may initiate projects with other students and staff members, and they may initiate classes. They are not required to study anything in particular, or even do anything in particular, other than obey the basic rules of the school. And every student has a say in those rules. As described on the web page, "When students arrive at Alpine Valley School they will not be given a class schedule, list of course requirements, or any other form of assignment. Students will, instead, be welcomed warmly by other students and staff, shown around the facilities, and told that they may do whatever they are interested in doing. Students will discover that this is how every day, from the first day through graduation, is structured."
The common reaction to this approach in education is similar to the common reaction to libertarian theory: "But that's anarchy!" The general feeling seems to be that people of all ages must be controlled.
Sudbury, however, boasts highly successful graduates, many of whom have gone on to top colleges. Certainly the young people I met at Alpine Valley were more enthusiastic about their projects than practically any student I've ever seen in government classes. In fact, the only times I can remember students getting excited over their intellectual pursuits in government schools were when the students were involved with extra-curricular or self-chosen activities such as newspaper or debate.
For the first hour or so of my visit to Alpine Valley, I chatted with three of the older students who seemed to be the social leaders of the school. Kelly Nash, Jim Black, and Mandy Rawlins shared their experiences and thoughts on Alpine Valley and growing up in general. (The names have been altered for internet publication.) The three have been involved with writing and producing school plays for the past several months. Nash, who plays softball for a city league and who has recently initiated classes for math, science, and Spanish, said, "If you're bored and you want people to tell you what to do, this isn't the place for you."
I asked Rawlins about her expressed interest in college. She's a Freshman now (by age -- grade levels mean little at Alpine Valley), but she's already thinking about college entrance requirements. Though she hasn't studied math since joining Alpine Valley, she said she would learn more math if she needed it to enter a particular college. "But if I go to college it's because I choose to, not because I have to." Currently, Rawlins participates in the Judicial Committee, which evaluates complaints about students and staff who may have broken the school rules, and she works on her writing.
"WHAT?! No math?" many are sure to wonder. No, nobody in the school suggests to Rawlins that she ought to take a math class. Most of us are trained, usually in government schools but sometimes in equally authoritarian private schools, that without strict requirements, drills, homework, rules, teachers, and the like, we will be colossal failures. However, as I reflect upon my own experiences, I agree with the Alpine philosophy that this simply isn't the case.
First, we don't have to be experts in everything to succeed in life. As the Alpine philosophy suggests, it is appropriate to develop according to our own individual interests. Ask yourself honestly: how much of the information you learned in school do you use in your life or even remember?
Second, we tend to learn what's important to us on our own, not when people are telling us what to learn. I believe a broad knowledge of history, science, and language is a natural part of leading a rich life. Yet I learned most of what I know by reading on my own or talking with my peers. Much of my math, philosophy, economics, and political theory came from my personal reading. I have learned a great deal in a number of classes, but in every case it was when I was enthusiastic about the material and chose to participate.
The essential element of the Alpine philosophy is that students cannot be forced to learn. They must be permitted to make their own choices about their intellectual development. Drawing on my own experiences in education, I agree with this view completely. Learning cannot be forced. A disinterested student can memorize and parrot information and make good grades, but he or she cannot learn.
Alpine Valley promises to allow children to develop in ways the government schools and private authoritarian schools cannot. That said, I question a few of the practices and beliefs at Alpine Valley.
There is almost a paranoia against letting adults influence the childrens' decisions. For instance, the rule against initiating conversations with the children during my visit struck me as unnecessary. (As it turned out, the rule was irrelevant as I was immediately approached by the students.) More significantly, staff members may not even suggest to children what activities might be interesting or useful.
This is simply too restrictive. I'm all for recognizing children as autonomous people and treating them as peers whenever possible. However, in the real world, I often make friendly suggestions to my adult friends. If I know of a class or a meeting I think is particularly interesting, I might tell a friend about it. With The Colorado Freedom Report I offer a calendar of events as well as a list of contacts and resources in the state. Offering an Alpine Valley student a list of classes or activities is taboo -- it is thought that this impinges on the child's autonomy.
The Sudbury Schools' reaction to adult authoritarianism is understandable. In the modern age when teaching is generally seen as synonymous with compelling and controlling, the Sudbury philosophy asks adults to afford children the same respect as other adults. But Alpine Valley goes too far: adult friends do not avoid talking to one another about possibilities and making friendly recommendations. "I saw this great movie the other day you've just GOT to see, too!" "I'm attending this art class and I think you'd really love it!" That's the adult world. We won't help the Valley children develop into autonomous adults by ignoring them. In the real world, adults initiate conversations with one another.
An important concept related to this issue is "rational ignorance" versus "utter ignorance." For example, I am "rationally ignorant" of how to fill out an IRS tax form. I don't want to learn about it, because I'd rather have someone else do it for me. "Utter ignorance" is when I don't even know what I don't know. For instance, had I been born a thousand years ago, I would have been utterly ignorant about the DNA molecule.
Children even more than adults are "utterly ignorant" about different things in the world. For instance, a young child might not even be aware of the careers that use advanced mathematics. In such cases, it is more than appropriate to initiate a conversation with the child about the subject. (A friendly conversation is of course different from a one-sided sermon.) What if a child is utterly ignorant about the existence of Alpine Valley -- should I refrain from telling him or her about the school, for fear of interfering with the decision to attend? As an adult, I am filled with gratitude when others dispel my utter ignorance, and I cannot imagine that younger people react any differently.
A lesser problem with the Alpine philosophy is that the school, like Sudbury Valley, is self-consciously a training ground for democracy. In many cases, a schoolwide vote makes sense. In general, a democracy one voluntarily joins (and may voluntarily leave) can be healthy and just, and Alpine Valley's seems to work out well. For instance, the school children recently voted to implement chores, in which the students must now participate. (Both children and staff members may vote.) The children are also involved with the judicial process, in which students' misdeeds are evaluated. The children vote to accept, or expel, students.
The democracy is taken too far, though. I raised the possibility of a seven year old voting on the appropriation of funds for a new building. The younger children don't have to vote on such issues, and generally don't, I was told, but the mere possibility is a bit silly.
Daniel Greenberg, a founding member of Sudbury Valley, makes several errors about democracy. In his essay, "Subtleties of a Democratic School," printed in The Sudbury Valley School Experience, Greenberg claims that Sudbury Valley is "apolitical," but then he goes on to explain that it supports democratic "universal suffrage," an odd contradiction.
More significantly, he conflates the voting of Sudbury Valley with the democracy of the United States (pages 172-3), when in fact the types of democratic systems are radically different. In the school, children are free to enter and leave the organization. If they don't want to live by a rule, they may simply drop out and attend school elsewhere. In the United States, people are subjected to the rules of the State automatically when they are born, and leaving the system is practically impossible. The democracy of the United States is fundamentally coercive, whereas the democracy of Sudbury Valley is fundamentally voluntaristic.
Within voluntaristic democracy, an initial framework delineating those aspects of the organization open to democratic processes does not run counter to the ideals. In other words, the Sudbury schools could with full consistency say, "If you choose to come to this school, you agree that major financial decisions will be made by the Board, but that minor financial decisions, in-school rules, and even hiring of staff will be accomplished by democratic majority, with each student and staff member holding a vote." Such a structure would be no less voluntaristic than a system in which every decision is made by vote.
To take the analysis further, even a school with rigid rules set down by a single owner, but where children could freely seek to enroll and freely leave, would be voluntaristic, whereas a democratic school a student was forced into would be coercive. It so happens that democracy in circumscribed arenas tends to help students develop responsibility and create an environment they're happy with. That hardly means the students must participate in every decision to experience autonomy.
Alpine Valley is worth considering, despite my (relatively minor) criticisms of it. I don't have children yet, but I'll be sending them to Alpine Valley when the time comes. Correction: I imagine my children may choose to attend Alpine Valley, which makes all the difference.