The Art of Doing Nothing
by Hanna Greenberg
"Where do you work?"
"At Sudbury Valley School."
"What do you do?"
Doing nothing at Sudbury Valley requires a great deal of energy and discipline,
and many years of experience. I get better at it every year, and it amuses me to
see how I and others struggle with the inner conflict that arises in us
inevitably. The conflict is between wanting to do things for people, to impart
your knowledge and to pass on your hard earned wisdom, and the realization that
the children have to do their learning under their own steam and at their own
pace. Their use of us is dictated by their wishes, not ours. We have to be there
when asked, not when we decide we should be. Teaching, inspiring, and giving
advice are all natural activities that adults of all cultures and places seem to
engage in around children. Without these activities, each generation would have
to invent everything anew, from the wheel to the ten commandments, metal working
to farming. Man passes knowledge to the young from generation to generation, at
home, in the community, at the workplace and supposedly at school.
Unfortunately, the more today's schools endeavor to give individual students
guidance, the more they harm the children. This statement requires explanation,
since it seems to contradict what I have just said, namely, that adults always
help children learn how to enter the world and become useful in it. What I have
learned, very slowly and painfully over the years, is that children make vital
decisions for themselves in ways that no adults could have anticipated or even
Consider the simple fact that at SVS, many students have decided to tackle
algebra not because they need to know it, or even find it interesting, but
because it is hard for them, it's boring, and they are bad at it. They need to
overcome their fear, their feeling of inadequacy, their lack of discipline. Time
and again, students who have made this decision achieve their stated goal and
take a huge step in building their egos, their confidence, and their character.
So why does this not happen when all children are required or encouraged to take
algebra in high school? The answer is simple. To overcome a psychological hurdle
one has to be ready to make a personal commitment. Such a state of mind is
reached only after intense contemplation and self analysis, and cannot be
prescribed by others, nor can it be created for a group. In every case it is an
individual struggle, and when it succeeds it is an individual triumph. Teachers
can only help when asked, and their contribution to the process is slight
compare d to the work that the student does.
The case of algebra is easy to grasp but not quite as revealing as two examples
that came to light at recent thesis defenses. One person to whom I have been
very close, and whom I could easily have deluded myself into thinking that I had
"guided" truly shocked me when, contrary to my "wisdom," she
found it more useful to use her time at school to concentrate on socializing and
organizing dances than to hone the writing skills that she would need for her
chosen career as a journalist. It would not have occurred to any of the adults
involved with this particular student's education to advise or suggest the
course of action that she wisely charted for herself, guided only by inner
knowledge and instinct. She had problems which first she realized and then she
proceeded to solve in creative and personal ways. By dealing with people
directly rather than observing them from the sidelines, she learned more about
them and consequently achieved greater depth and insights, which in turn led to
improved writing. Would writing exercises in English class have achieved that
better for her? I doubt it.
Or what about the person who loved to read, and lost that love after a while at
SVS? For a long time she felt that she had lost her ambition, her intellect, and
her love of learning because all she did was play outdoors. After many years she
realized that she had buried herself in books as an escape from facing the
outside world. Only after she was able to overcome her social problems, and only
after she learned to enjoy the outdoors and physical activities, did she return
to her beloved books. Now they a re not an escape, but a window to knowledge and
new experience. Would I or any other teacher have known how to guide her as
wisely as she had guided herself? I don't think so.
As I was writing this another example from many years ago came to mind. It
illustrates how the usual sort of positive encouragement and enrichment can be
counterproductive and highly limiting. The student in question was obviously
intelligent, diligent an d studious. Early on, any test would have shown he had
a marked talent in mathematics. What he actually did for most of his ten years
at SVS was play sports, read literature, and later in his teens, play classical
music on the piano. He studied algebra mostly on his own but seemed to have
devoted only a little of his time to mathematics. Now, at the age of
twenty-four, he is a graduate student in abstract mathematics and doing
extremely well at one of the finest universities. I shudder to think what would
have happened to him had we "helped" him during his years here to
accumulate more knowledge of math, at the expense of the activities he chose to
prefer. Would he have had the inner strength, as a little boy, to withstand our
praise and flattery and stick to his guns and read books, fool around with
sports, and play music? Or would he have opted for being an "excellent
student" in math and science and grown up with his quest for knowledge in
other fields unfulfilled? Or would he have tried to do it all? And at what cost?
As a counterpoint to the previous example I would like to cite another case
which illustrates yet another aspect of our approach. A few years ago a teenage
girl who had been a student at SVS since she was five told me quite angrily that
she had wasted two years and learned nothing. I did not agree with her
assessment of herself, but I did not feel like arguing with her, so I just said,
"If you learned how bad it is to waste time, why then you could not have
learned a better lesson so early in life, a less on that will be of value for
the rest of your days." That reply calmed her, and I believe it is a good
illustration of the value of allowing young people to make mistakes and learn
from them, rather than directing their lives in an effort to avoid mistakes.
Why not let each person make their own decisions about their use of their own
time? This would increase the likelihood of people growing up fulfilling their
own unique educational needs without being confused by us adults who could never
know enough or be wise enough to advise them properly. So I am teaching myself
to do nothing, and the more I am able to do it, the better is my work. Please
don't draw the conclusion that the staff is superfluous. You might say to
yourself that the children almost run the school themselves, so why have so many
staff, just to sit around and do nothing. The truth is that the school and the
students need us. We are there to watch and nurture the school as an institution
and the students as individuals.
The process of self direction, or blazing your own way, indeed of living your
life rather than passing your time, is natural but not self evident to children
growing up in our civilization. To reach that state of mind they need an
environment that is like a family, on a larger scale than the nuclear family,
but nonetheless supportive and safe. The staff, by being attentive and caring
and at the same time not directive and coercive, gives the children the courage
and the impetus to listen to their own inner selves. They know that we are
competent as any adult to guide them, but our refusal to do so is a pedagogical
tool actively used to teach them to listen only to themselves and not to others
who, at best, know only half the facts about them.
Our abstaining from telling students what to do is not perceived by them as a
lack of something, an emptiness. Rather it is the impetus for them to forge
their own way not under our guidance but under our caring and supportive
concern. For it takes work and courage to do what they do for and by themselves.
It cannot be done in a vacuum of isolation, but thrives in a vital and complex
community which the staff stabilizes and perpetuates.
originally appeared in the Sudbury Valley School newsletter. It is available in
a book of essays which appeared in that forum titled The
Sudbury Valley School Experience. This book, and others by the SVS press, are
available by writing to The Sudbury Valley School, 2 Winch Street, Framingham,
MA 01701 or calling (508) 877-3030.
Permission to freely copy and distribute this document is given. For other free
literature about SVS available electronically, write to Scott
29 November 2016