Since the beginning, almost
thirty years ago, I have been wondering about the
kinds of people the graduates of Sudbury Valley School
(SVS) would turn out to be. More to the point, I
wondered what kinds of people I wanted them to be -- a
very personal judgment, to be sure, but something
anyone interested in education places first among
their considerations. Put another way, the
question has to do with "outcomes", a very
popular word these days: What outcomes do we
look for, do we expect, do we want, and do we get in
our schools in general, and in SVS in particular?
Every spring, as thesis
defense season draws near, this question takes on a
renewed urgency in my mind. I watch generation
after generation of young people struggling to decide
whether or not to go through the graduation procedure
this year, trying to figure out what it all means,
working their way through it, and then ultimately
making their way into the world. Every spring,
as our alumni news gets distributed to all our former
students, I think again of the lives they have been
leading after their years at SVS, and of the kinds of
adults they have become. And I ask myself, over
and over, "Is Sudbury Valley School doing a good
job, as an educational institution, in preparing young
people to go out into the world and lead successful
lives?" This essay is an attempt to give an
answer to this question, based on my very subjective
and personal observations and thoughts, accumulated
and refined and revised and reworked over the past
Let me start with an
extremely broad, qualitative statement, that provides
the setting for all that follows: What I have
come to realize with greater clarity each passing year
is that, by and large, SVS's graduates are fine human
beings, who are well equipped to experience life to
its fullest and cope with its uncertainties.
That's it, in a nutshell. I will try to explain
what I really mean by this statement, using a series
of attributes that describe for me the predominant
characteristics of our former students. These
attributes are closely inter-related to each other and
fundamentally not separable. They combine to
form a coherent whole, and are listed individually
only because of the limitations forced upon me by
language. The order in which I am presenting
these attributes has no significance whatsoever; they
are not hierarchical or given to prioritization, and
their order is essentially random.
Here, then, are some of the
salient characteristics of Sudbury Valley graduates
that have impressed themselves upon me:
They are decent people.
For a long time, I used to wonder why it was that I
liked virtually all of our graduates, and loved so
many of them. It's because they're decent human
beings. They are not mean, vindictive,
dissimulating, dishonest, violent, short- tempered,
ill-tempered, arrogant, intolerant, or disrespectful.
They are open, friendly, carefully trusting,
relatively easygoing, and honorable. They are
the kind of people you like to hang out with, to
converse with, to work with, to spend time with.
They are good friends.
They know the art of friendship, with their peers, and
with people of all ages. They are giving, as
well as taking. They are for the most part quite
generous, rarely greedy or grasping. They are
extremely loyal, through thick and thin. (I
never cease to be amazed at the way friendships formed
during student years at SVS survive the test of time,
despite the many intervening years and often huge
distances separating the people involved.) They
are supportive in times of distress, celebrative in
times of joy. They are friends in their hearts,
sharing deep feelings of mutual empathy and
They know how to get along
Sudbury Valley graduates realize
that human beings are social animals, and that an
important component of life is the ability to
integrate into the social setting in which you find
yourself. They have learned how to figure out
the subtle, uncatalogued, undeclared rules under which
each group functions; how to find a way to adapt to
these rules without compromising their personal
integrity; and how to pursue their personal goals
within the framework of the group's overall style.
They are pretty good at getting what they want,
largely because they know how to frame their needs in
a way that can be acceptable to the society around
They love life. They
are eager to experience everything, to go out and
conquer the world, to travel, to find new horizons, to
be adventurous. They do not live in a fog of
fear. They want to live, and they relish the
complexities of real life. They can be joyous,
happy, miserable, and sad; they can be enthusiastic,
frustrated, disappointed, exhilarated, ecstatic, and
depressed. They are not afraid of feeling
intensely, and enjoying -- as well as suffering -- the
consequences of such intensity.
They have a strong sense of
. Sometimes many of us get a bit tired of
hearing SVS graduates say, "I found out who I
am". But the fact is, most of them did, and
most of them have a degree of self-knowledge that is
striking, especially in people that young. SVS
graduates are not followers. They have
confronted their strengths and their weaknesses; made
a good start at figuring out how they want to conduct
their lives; and gotten themselves a basic system of
values that is uniquely individual to each of them
even while it somehow fits into the values of the
culture. They understand thoroughly how to
remain whole in the face of the many pressures exerted
upon them daily by the outside world.
They have self-confidence.
Most graduates feel that they have the inner strength
and the ability to cope with whatever life throws
their way; and to do whatever it takes to attain their
goals at any particular phase of their lives.
It's important to distinguish self-confidence from
foolhardiness. A self-confident person has a
certain inner voice that guides him/her through the
twists and turns of fortune, and offers constant
reassurance that somehow s/he will be able to work
his/her way out of any difficult spots. A
foolhardy person thinks that s/he already has in
his/her possession all the tools necessary to cope
with everything that comes down the pike. The
difference is significant: the quietly self-confident
person knows that s/he lacks many tools at any given
time, but also knows that with persistence and
patience those tools can be acquired.
They are adaptable.
graduates do not fear instability and change.
They know that the world around them is undergoing
rapid transformation, and they accept this as a given;
it does not paralyze them, nor does it lead them to
yearn for a stability and permanence that will never
be (if it ever was). They do not think in terms
of fixed life-long situations. They expect to be
doing different things at different times in their
lives, and usually welcome the ongoing challenge that
this fact represents.
They are acquainted with
passion. Most SVS graduates have experienced the
feeling of being overwhelmed by an intense interest in
something or someone; all of them have seen this in
someone else at close quarters, even if they have yet
to experience it themselves. Eventually, one or
more passions catches hold of virtually all of them.
The special ecstasy that only a person consumed by
passion has known is something quite common to SVSers.
In ancient times, it would have been considered a gift
of the gods.
They are bright. One
of the characteristics of SVSers most frequently
remarked upon by new students is their brightness,
their innate intelligence. Being bright --
being, in other words, sparklingly intelligent -- is a
trait with which all healthy infants are endowed from
birth. Some retain it throughout their lives,
however they have been brought up; others lose it, as
a result of any of a variety of repressive experiences
that force them to shut down. Most SVS
graduates, by the time they are ready to leave school,
have regained possession and use of their innate
brightness, and are able to relate to the world in a
highly intelligent manner on a regular basis.
They are imaginative.
SVS graduates rarely fall into some predetermined
societal category or cultural box. They are
generally quite creative and independent in their
thinking, and have little respect for authority per
SE. They feel comfortable exploring new and
untried paths, and even taking risks in pursuing
They are empowered.
They do not accept authority unquestioningly in social
settings either. They are keenly aware of their
rights, their strengths, their ability to stand for
what they believe. They do so even if it costs
them, even if they meet resistance or aggressiveness
or abusive behavior. They speak up for
themselves and for others.
They are ethical.
course I do not mean that they are always good, always
do everything right, never do anything wrong. I
mean that they -- all of them -- have a highly
developed moral sense, even those who don't always act
in a manner consistent with it. You can always appeal
to an SVS graduate's sense of right and wrong in any
discussion, and know that you will be heard, if not
always agreed with.
They are tolerant.
SVSers are deeply respectful of other people, and
accepting of all the many differences that distinguish
us from each other. They do not form a-priori
judgments of people according to their color, their
religion, their political views, their social
standing, their clothes, their hair, their language,
their age, or their demeanor.
They have a deep sense of justice.
highly sensitive to social ills, and to wrongs that
are inflicted upon victims. They understand deep
inside them that what creates a stable and livable
social order is a system of justice that deals fairly
with everybody, is accessible to everyone, and has
avenues of redress and appeal.
They are intensely curious.
They are alive to what goes on around them, and are
constantly exploring the nooks and crannies of their
environment, physical, social, and intellectual.
Their conversations roam over a variety of topics that
is almost unimaginably varied, from the most arcane
philosophical points to the most mundane aspects of
They are life-long learners.
SVS graduates enjoy learning for its own sake -- the
more so, the longer they have been at the school.
They like to read, to study, to use whatever human or
other resources are available in order to acquaint
themselves and master new domains that catch their
They are articulate.
They are superb conversationalists; they know how to
talk, how to get an idea across. They are also
excellent listeners, and they understand that to have
a good conversation where all parties benefit, all
parties must listen as well as talk.
They are politically astute.
SVS graduates understand how to use the existing
political system in order to further their aims.
They know how to present their ideas, how to petition,
how to debate, how to muster support for their
positions among their friends and acquaintances.
They know how to formulate political positions, and
how to go back to the drawing board and re-formulate
them in a more acceptable fashion if they have to.
They are physically fit.
Most of them are comfortable with their bodies, and
are happy when they are physically active. They
enjoy the outdoors, they enjoy climbing and running
and walking and playing; many like to dance, to ski,
to skate or skateboard, to ride bikes, generally to
challenge their bodies. They are aware of the
difference between good food and junk food, between
healthy personal habits and damaging ones -- aware, if
not practicing, and awareness is, after all, the
essential first step towards practiced.
I've probably forgotten
some traits that I once was aware of, and there are
doubtless others that other people have noticed that
have eluded me. But by and large the ones above,
taken together and integrated with each other, form a
fair picture of the character of the typical SVS
graduate (or former students who has spent some time
at the school and left without a diploma for whatever
None of these traits is
measurable or quantifiable. Each of them means
something slightly different to different people, even
people existing within the same cultural context.
Still, they represent enough shared meaning to people
within the Sudbury Valley community, and to people
within American culture, to allow us each to form our
own judgment as to whether I am right in identifying
them as belonging to most of our graduates, and
whether I am justified in claiming that a school whose
graduates possess these traits can be considered
Notably absent from my list
are the outcomes most often referred to as the
important ones for schools -- namely, the quantifiable
outcomes that measure the degree of retention of
particular amounts of data and particular skills in
manipulating data. Test results, in common
parlance. These are absent for two reasons:
(1) We have no way of knowing how much any of our
graduates knows about this or that field, or how well
they manipulate this or that assigned material.
As a matter of principle we don't and won't test them,
or ask them. When they decide to test
themselves, as some of them do when they take SATs or
Achievement Tests or go on to other traditional
schools, they invariably do well (that is, certainly
no worse than students from traditional schools, and
well enough to go on to do what they want, whether it
be enter college or embark on a career). (2) I
don't think these are meaningful or useful outcomes
for young people who are entering the post-industrial
world of the Information Age. People who think
that such quantifiable outcomes are important, and who
have reason to believe that their children do not
possess such outcomes, will probably not be
comfortable enrolling their children at Sudbury Valley
for any length of time.
The traits I have listed
paint a rather good picture of the average Sudbury
Valley graduate. From where I sit, this adds up
to a highly successful school. Most of our
success is due to the very simple fact that we have
gotten out of the way, that we have removed barriers,
that we have allowed tendencies that are innate in
human nature to flourish without interference,
judgment, or suppression. As the years have gone
by, the school has established a culture which
increasingly assures that these traits will be
welcomed and respected by all members of the school's
Reprinted from The Sudbury Valley School Press
Newsletter, May 1996.
Daniel Greenberg, the author of this article is
one of the founders of the Sudbury
Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts.