FAQs / It would seem that the population of a school such as Sudbury Valley is a self-selected one and unlikely to represent a cross-section of society in terms of race, ethnicity, economic level, etc. What makes you think this self-directed approach would work as well for minorities and working-class kids?

On its surface, this question seems highly discriminatory—akin to suggesting that African-Americans or women shouldn’t vote due to their lack of adequate intellect, rational decision-making, or some other inherent (or culturally induced) defect.

At the same time, there is a legitimate question about the ability of certain individuals—or category of individuals—to thrive, at least initially, in a setting that requires a certain significant amount of self-direction. Democratic schools almost always require a trial period of at least a week, sometimes more, during which time both the student and the community develop a sense as to whether or not this is likely to be a good “match.” Resource centers catering to self-directed learners have the same issue—in fact, so do all private schools, from the progressives to the military academies. There is no “one-size-fits-all” community, if for no other reason than normal human diversity.

With self-directed schools and centers, even the average student is likely to go through some period of adjustment—especially if he or she is coming from a traditional school where most of the major choices were made by adults, but also for some who had previously been left to their own devices to the point that they weren’t required to take the needs or interests of other youths into consideration on a regular basis.

It’s not at all unusual for the newly liberated public- or private-school student to celebrate a new lack of scholastic requirements by choosing to listen to music or play video games “all day, every day,” or shoot hoops or read comic books or simply “hang out” and talk with peers. This period has been referred to as “de-schooling,” and the rule of thumb has often been deemed to be “a month or more of de-schooling for every year that one was in school.” Sometimes a youth may seem to be “avoiding” sinking their teeth into anything “meaningful”—meaningful to the traditional adult eye, that is. And then they surprise the heck out of you, launching with gusto into some project or another, or mastering three “years’” worth of math in two months, becoming voracious readers and budding philosophy nerds, etc. In other words, once they realize there are no hoops they must jump through (except to be a decent citizen, which they learn quickly in a peer-led judicial system that is based on fairness, not domination), they become free to flourish in whatever ways they choose to become engaged.

As for those youths who are new to the world of intellectual engagement, due to the absence of adult as well as older peer models, they, too, are most likely to “get with the program” once they learn there is nothing to fight against, no “should” that is always demanding compliance and evoking rebellion. When all is said and done, Nature takes over. In this case, it is our human nature to learn, grow, and create. Only if someone is so badly wounded that they cannot process what is going on around them (or not going on) would they be incapable of benefiting from a self-directed environment—especially with a caring adult staff and youth population there to help with the transition. If there are no such models available, and suddenly all of the rules change without any provision for new and healthier models, then, yes, that is likely to present greater challenges. But would they be worse than the drugs and guns and everyday violence encountered in some of our current schools?

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