The Sudbury literature is full of assertions like the following: “Here, young people learn only what they choose to learn, what they’re most passionate about.” On the one hand, this is certainly true, in that no one imposes—directly or subtly—the expectation that our students should study particular things at particular times. Yet this “learn what you want” principle could lead one to conclude that students at Alpine Valley School have it easy, that they’re enabled in avoiding life’s hard lessons or confronting things they find unpleasant.
As they say, nothing could be further from the truth.
AVS students own a unique and full responsibility for ensuring their lives are, or become, what they want. Indeed, what more awesome responsibility can young people have than setting their own goals and then deciding for themselves what has to happen if they’re to achieve them? Within a supportive and respectful school community, they know that, ultimately, their happiness and success—as well as whether they’re making adequate progress toward those ends—are up to them. And they learn early and often that in order to get what you want, you have to do plenty of things you’d rather not.
How does this work? Unlike most places, at Alpine Valley School students make important decisions all the time. They don’t have their days scheduled down to the minute, with adults entertaining or distracting them, nor are they given empty promises and guarantees (Do what we tell you, and everything will turn out okay. Study these things, perform well on those tests, and life will be good). On the contrary: at Alpine Valley School, students have to grapple with the daunting realities of boredom and uncertainty; they have to judge for themselves what constitutes a good use of their time. And if there’s something they don’t like, they’re expected to take the initiative in doing something about it.
I can’t imagine this is always so enjoyable. After all, blaming others can be so satisfying—you get to complain, but you’re off the hook for doing anything about it; you don’t have to accept responsibility for your confusion, dissatisfaction, or mistakes. While being told what to do and how may be irritating, it’s certainly easier than having to make your own decisions. On the other hand, learning how to set goals and get things done, how to sort through infinite possibilities and chart a course for yourself—and on top of that, deciding how well you’re doing—these things are really, really hard! And so the term “unsought learning” occurred to me recently as a way to describe this important backdrop to pursuing one’s passions.
For example, I don’t believe many students who get attendance fines for not signing in; who are charged and sentenced for leaving things out; or who are caught in an intense, angry argument would say that they sought out these learning opportunities. I doubt they’d happily proclaim that their passion involves being held accountable or having cherished beliefs challenged. (Imagine a student in the throes of boredom proclaim, “This is exactly what I want to be learning right now!”) In my experience, though, unsought learning is just as much a part of a Sudbury education as spending hours plumbing the depths of the subjects nearest and dearest to one’s heart.
More importantly, it’s also a very authentic kind of difficulty. I think we can all agree that growing up (really, life) is full of challenges, and that the role of school is, to a large degree, to support students as they prepare to meet these challenges. Yet in most schools, most challenges that students encounter are either artificial or imposed—or downright unnecessary. Too many people seem to confuse inflicting unpleasant things on students with preparing them for life’s difficulties.
Authentic struggles, on the other hand, emerge out of the fabric of daily life, from the difficulties of the unknown as well as life in a community full of personalities and standards different from, even inconsistent with, your own. But these are the relevant, meaningful struggles; these are the ones that most frequently result in the sort of learning that sticks with you and helps you achieve your dreams.
Whether it’s discovering that your chosen career requires you to confront your math anxiety; learning that you can, in fact, speak up for yourself; figuring out how to defuse tense situations; or learning how to let go of a pursuit or a connection that’s no longer working for you—just to cite a few examples—Alpine Valley School students learn the things that matter most. Some of these they seek, while others seek them. In the end, this combination of freedom, trust, and responsibility enables people to find their way to some very powerful learning and growth.