One way of understanding Sudbury is to imagine all schools on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum is a school that embraces an education philosophy of absolute control. Every single student takes the same classes on the same subjects in the same order. They have no choice. Uniformity is the rule and conformity is the goal. Everyone knows the stakes. And everyone is held strictly accountable by standardized tests.
One of the purest manifestations of this end of the spectrum is China’s notoriously competitive education system. Education scholar Yong Zhao details this system in his book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon?: Why China has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World. Zhao calls it “educational authoritarianism” and traces its roots back to China’s imperial examinations (Keju) which determined the career trajectory of its takers for 1300 years: The Chinese people were deprived of any other means to succeed in life, both spiritually and materially. Their only option was to pass the exams dictated by the absolute authority—emperors in the past, and the government today. When people are convinced that there are no worthy options to pursue in life except the narrow path prescribed by an authoritarian government, they are forced to comply, accept indoctrination, and be homogenized.
Although the imperial tests were eliminated in 1905 not much has changed. Today it’s the gaokao – the lone criterion for admission into a Chinese university. The stakes are extremely high. Those who fail to score high enough for university education are destined for a life of manual labor.
Zhao outlines how authoritarian education produces superior test takers and obsequious citizens. But it does so at the “cost of diverse, creative, and innovative talents.” Zhao worries that the American rush to adopt authoritarian education methods is a grave mistake. Although an “effective machine to instill what the government wants students to learn, [it] is incapable of supporting individual strengths, cultivating a diversity of talents, and fostering the capacity and confidence to create.”
On the opposite end of this spectrum is Sudbury. Instead of authoritarianism and control, Sudbury embraces democracy and freedom. Instead of taking responsibility from the students, Sudbury hands it back to them. Instead of telling students what or how to learn, Sudbury frees students to pursue their interests. If we want to cultivate a fundamentally different type of student, we need a fundamentally different type of school. And that school is Sudbury.
We are not aware of another school that empowers its students with more freedom and responsibility. Any attempt to dictate what or how a student learns without their consent, however minor, moves that school away from the Sudbury side of the spectrum. Just as a school with anything other than universal suffrage would do the same thing.
Sudbury is the type of school we need right now. Zhao writes: As traditional routine jobs are offshored and automated, we need more and more globally competent, creative, innovative, entrepreneurial citizens—job creators instead of employment-minded job seekers. To cultivate new talents, we need an education that enhances individual strengths, follows children’s passions, and fosters their social-emotional development. We do not need an authoritarian education that aims to fix children’s deficits according to externally prescribed standards.
We learn by doing. Giving young people real freedom and real responsibility at school creates an education environment where they can enhance their individual strengths, follow their passions, and enjoy healthy social-emotional development. It produces the diverse, creative, innovative, and collaborative adults we want. Zhao joins a growing chorus of people calling for a new type of education. Policy makers around the world undoubtedly hear the call but are unsure of what this new type of education would look like. We are here to tell them that it would look a lot like Sudbury.