Over Exposure

It’s one of the most frequent of frequently asked questions: I lost track long ago of how many times we've fielded concerns about exposure over the years. In general, there are two different types of exposure, positive and negative. Many people ask how kids can learn all that they need, or even discover what they like, unless adults carefully manage the process. Others are concerned that kids will be exposed to the wrong things unless adults are sheltering them from what they’re not ready for.

What geniuses we must be to know for any given child, at any given moment, what things must be brought to their attention and which must be kept from them! The truth is, at Alpine Valley School exposure naturally helps young people practice exactly the skills needed for successful lives in the larger world.

When it comes to “positive” exposure—introducing children to subjects they need and might enjoy—the intensely rich randomness of Sudbury schools is not to be underestimated. Conventional schools group students by age and walk them through the same limited set of subjects at the same plodding pace. In that setting, students are shown not how to confront life, but only allowed to encounter what the experts deem appropriate.

In contrast, Sudbury students are free to experience life in all its messiness. Indeed, given access to technology and a full spectrum of ages, personalities, and interests, the sky's the limit for what Sudbury students can encounter. Yet while the range of subjects is virtually limitless, time is obviously finite, and so one of the most critical lessons our students learn is how to sift through a flood of information, think critically, and decide what’s accurate and useful.

So the good news is, AVS students will in fact encounter a much broader range of things on their own in this vibrant school community than they would if adults imposed on them their own ideas of what’s important.

And yes, this can include things some would say they should not be exposed to. Whether the objectionable material is scary, “mature,” or violent, many people believe it’s essential to pick some age and categorically prevent access to everyone below that cutoff. However, this doesn’t merely protect kids from accidental exposure: they’re denied the choice and practice of deciding for themselves what they’re ready for, what they can handle, and what to do when they don’t want something in their environment.

In day-to-day Sudbury life these questions receive all the nuance and thoughtfulness they deserve. What sorts of language and media are permitted, in what parts of the campus and at what times of day, frequently become the subject of conversation and debate—even judicial complaints. Sudbury students and staff learn to be sensitive not only to the ages of the people around them, but also their varying standards of what’s acceptable. As communities, we decide how to handle unintended and unwanted exposure, as well as how to balance an individual’s right to choose his or her activities with everyone’s responsibility for the general welfare of the school.

As with so much of the Sudbury model, the issue of exposure comes down to basic principles of trust and responsibility, a vision of how best to support young people in growing to effective adulthood. We believe young people deserve to learn for themselves how to find what they need, how to sift through information, and how to prioritize their time in trusting, supportive communities. This way, they learn what they’re good at and enjoy, what they want to get better at, and what they don’t want to be exposed to (and how to deal with that).

Not only do young people deserve these opportunities, this is how they learn best. Here, the question of what to expose them to and what to protect them from is not taken out of students’ hands, but rather becomes part of the process by which they develop their amazing potential.

Bruce Smith