Sudbury and the Sophistry of Lifelong Learning

death-of-socrates-ABThe sophists, much derided by Socrates, were professional teachers who traveled throughout the ancient world educating the wealthy for profit.  Some sophists made fortunes teaching young men the art of rhetoric.

But Socrates’ critique of the sophists ran deeper than concerns about manipulative rhetoric.  In Plato’s famous dialogue Protagoras, Socrates points out that the great sophist was revered, not for his wisdom, but because he used it to accumulate power, prestige and possessions.  By using his great intellect to such ends Protagoras revealed himself to be nothing more than a rarefied version of the vulgar multitudes he condemned.  By hiring himself out as a man of wisdom in order to achieve worldly gain Protagoras transformed learning into a profitable business.  And it was this transformation that Socrates found distasteful, hypocritical, and dangerous.

In many ways the sophist model is the predominant model of education throughout the world today.  We allocate enormous sums of money to build and staff schools where our young people will hopefully learn from professionals the skills we think they need in order to succeed in the world today.  This model requires a great deal of trust in everyone except our young people.  They have virtually no say in the entire process.  Young people must walk the path and clear the hurdles established for them by others.  And, just like the sophists of ancient Greece, it’s done so with the implicit, if not explicit, promise that this process will lead to worldly gain.

We see this promise quantified again and again in terms of money.  How the promise is fulfilled by comparing the income earned by high school graduates against college graduates.  Or how the promise is broken when those with the same education earn different wages.  Perhaps this simplistic formula is driven by convenience.  But most would agree that income is a poor measure of one’s worth.

One of the skills we repeatedly say we want to impart is a love of learning.  But research shows that healthy motivation comes from within.  External rewards and other attempts to condition behavior have deleterious effects.  This is common sense.  Nobody likes to be told what to do – even when it’s in our best interest!  We must learn, as the older generations put it, the hard way.  We must choose freely in order to fully experience the liberating power of freedom.  So the best way to create lifelong learners is to give young people the freedom to learn on their own in the first place.

Forcing young people to “learn” diminishes their innate love of learning.  And promising them worldly gain distorts their inherent motivation.  Like Protagoras, it suggests that learning is merely a path to power, prestige, and possessions instead of being a reward in its own right.  And skewing these motivations during the formative years sets a young person on a track that may not be their own but is not easily altered.

Sudbury cultivates our innate love of learning by giving students the freedom to learn on their own in the first place.  Learning how to learn takes time.  It takes space.  It takes freedom because everyone is different.  Sudbury gives its students all of these things and more.  One must learn freely in order to experience the satisfying intrinsic rewards of learning.  It cannot be forced.  Learning how to learn at Sudbury reveals the great reservoir of power that lies within each individual.  It unlocks a wellspring of confidence that guides the student for the rest of their lives.  It teaches them to recognize the difference between what they know and what they do not know.  And learning this is true wisdom.


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