Understanding Alpine Valley School
a response from Larry Welshon, March 1999
Ari Armstrong has allowed me to respond to his article, Exploring Alpine Valley School. I enjoyed reading his piece because it gave me the opportunity to experience the philosophy of Sudbury schooling through the eyes of a freedom loving person who is questioning the roots of American compulsory education. By confronting a philosophy of schooling that is rooted in the very ideals of American liberty, Ari and others will see that current "traditional" schooling has much more to do with the former Soviet Union and other dictatorships than it does with liberty and our own country's founding.
Generally, the article correctly identifies the philosophical underpinnings of the school and describes accurately some of the daily essence. I would invite the reader of this essay to take the hotlinks to the Alpine Valley School and also to the Sudbury Valley School web sites prior to reading further. (The web addresses for the schools are http://users.aol.com/alpineval/avs.htm and http://www.sudval.org.)
The substantive questions Ari raises need to be answered, and I thank him for the opportunity to do so and applaud his work for liberty. There is no greater cause than that of helping others understand the philosophical roots of America.
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It is true that Alpine Valley School is somewhat "paranoid" about letting adults influence the lives of the students. However, the paranoia is not without good reason and Ari's experience of it gives a misleading picture of the school. Before I make a couple of points about this, I must remark that Ari in fact behaved himself at the school and the following two points are not a reflection on him or his visit.
First, Sudbury schools across the nation are committed to protecting the privacy of the enrolled students. Over the years, all of the Sudbury schools have been deluged with requests from the curious who wish to come in and observe. It would become a circus if outsiders were not controlled. Because adults are accustomed to entering the world of children at will, with little or no regard for the privacy of the children being observed, all adult outsiders at Sudbury Schools are constrained by School Meeting regulations to keep silent until spoken to.
If the adult visitors would use the common decency they use when they visit a friend's house of worship, university, home, or business, these constraints would be unnecessary. But they do not. Most adults believe it is their right to approach students in schools and interrupt them, question them, probe them, and, in the end, invade their privacy. We take principle very seriously. When we say that students are free to engage in their own activities, so long as they are peaceful, we mean it. The fact is that many adults do not behave properly around children. Until more adults learn to treat children with respect, Alpine Valley School will request that visiting adults remain like flies on the wall, to be seen and not heard.
Ari in fact answers his own question in the paragraph after the one in which he raises the issue of paranoia. Adults in the school, who have been elected by secret ballot and hired by the School Meeting, are free to interact with the students and initiate conversations with them. The key is this: staff members should talk to students as they would a good friend. As a staff member, I have no qualms about initiating a conversation with a student. While eating breakfast prior to the daily opening of the school, I have often been engaged in heated discussions with students on any number of topics. Sometimes I initiate these conversations. Other times a student might. The important thing to remember is that I treat the student as I would a good friend. If I start to become pedantic, my adult friends would correctly say, "Larry, this is not a lecture, I've had enough." The students at Alpine Valley School must be free to say, "OK Larry, I've had enough," and be free to walk away without any guilt. In my government job I've seen kids sit and listen to an adult out of "duty" long after their curious probing has been satisfied. One of my saddest experiences is to see those who have had their curious probing so brutalized that they are unwilling to ask a teacher any question for fear of being subjected to a lecture they can't leave.
Another related point is the "taboo" on staff offering lists of classes. The problem with such lists is not that they "impinge on the child's autonomy," but rather that they have been used by parents at other Sudbury schools to control or badger their kids. Sudbury Valley School, the oldest American school based on these ideas, in fact had a bulletin board with class offerings on it. Unfortunately, parents came to look at that board as a curriculum and would quiz their kids, saying, "I noticed that staff member X is offering a math class -- have you signed up for it?"
Ari questions the practice of little kids having an equal vote in the School Meeting (along with older kids and staff members). I see no reason to deny them this opportunity to be full participants in the community. They are free to propose new rules, delete old rules, make purchase requests, form school corporations, hire and fire staff, suspend fellow students, etc. Why not let them have a say in the budget? In the 55 school meetings I've chaired at Alpine Valley School, I've never seen anyone (student or staff) vote on an issue that they were not aware of or intimately involved in. Can the same be true of our Senators and Representatives in Congress? On extremely rare occasions, when certain School Meeting members try to line up votes to support a particular motion, the only ones who end up voting are the ones who actually have an interest in the merits of the motion. By the time debate has ended, people who care little about the merits are long gone.
Regarding Danny Greenberg's alleged errors about democracy I can only help Ari in his understanding of Greenberg's words. When Greenberg claims that the school is apolitical, I believe that he is simply making the statement that the school does not subcribe to any particular political party's platform. Claiming, as Ari does, that being apolitical and endorsing universal suffrage represents a contradiction is not accurate. The idea behind universal suffrage is that all of the people in a self-governing community should have an equal say in running it. At Sudbury schools, the Assembly (parents, students, and staff) makes broad policy decisions such as the amount of tuition, wage scales, the calendar, the granting of diplomas, and approving the budget drawn up and submitted by the School Meeting.
The daily operational decisions of the school are handled by the School Meeting (students and staff members). Ari states that students need not participate in every decision of the school to learn responsibility. The important thing is that all of the School Meeting members are free to participate in the school's decisions. If they could not participate in some of them, they would see the ruse and know that they are not full members of the community. Speak to any member of a so called "student council" at a traditional school. They all know the power structure counts them merely as an advisory board.
Remember that in the original conception of American government, most decisions that affected the lives of people were left to the states and to the people. Ari's complaint that the democracy in the Sudbury schools is inconsistent with the democracy of our nation relates more to the perversion of American Constitutional government by collectivists and businesses in cahoots with bureaucrats than it does to a fundamental contradiction. The "coercive democracy" of which Ari and many other libertarians complain would be a non-issue if we followed the Constitution.
At Sudbury schools, the individual is free to pursue his or her happiness in exactly the way in which Thomas Jefferson meant it in the Declaration of Independence. We recognize that the inalienable right to life and liberty have their fullest expression in the pursuit of happiness. Any action by the "government" of a Sudbury school is guided by the precepts of our Declaration of Independence.
WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundations on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
To this date, no Sudbury school has abolished its form government. All of the Sudbury schools, including Alpine Valley School, have altered their form of government peacefully and with the participation of all those to whom it matters. Reread the words of Thomas Jefferson and think about what they mean. Students at Sudbury Schools have a unique opportunity to fully understand what it means to live in a society founded on the idea that people have the right to their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness without random interference by an omnipotent government.