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A Benevolent Dictator is Still a Dictator
Recently, Houston Sudbury School was included in a video on unschooling for reason.com. See how the school came to that decision, working through differences of opinion regarding participation.

Each year, I see more schools opening that employ a variety of approaches, and that claim to offer Self-Directed Education to young people. I think, for the most part, these schools do offer freedom for kids to play, learn as they please through their interests, and experience agency and autonomy– freedoms that are not offered in conventional public and private schools. Every progressive or self-directed school is founded by a deeply caring adult (or group of adults) who wants something better for kids. Their intentions are benevolent, but often they have an idea of what constitutes the idyllic childhood they will offer kids. They have a particular idea of what kids should be doing, often founded in ideas of creating certain kinds of “good” people: healthy, politically active, creative, or innovative. The kids attending these schools may grow up to be all these things, but conventional schools also produce “good” people.

My question is: do these adults trust kids or not? Do they trust them to be themselves, really? Do they trust them to find their own way, to develop their own opinions and value systems? Or do they secretly want to mold kids into their vision of a “good” person, under the guise of Self-Directed Education?

The Benevolent Dictator Syndrome, as I call it, is not exclusive to self-directed schools. I was an unschooling parent for six years before opening Houston Sudbury School. And by unschooling, I mean unschooling with a capital U. Our family was deep into it. I ran a large, very active, unschooling group in Houston. I read everything, went to conferences, talked extensively with more experienced unschooling parents, and spent almost every day of the week with other unschooling families. I saw a lot of benevolent dictating among the adults in these unschooling circles. I saw parents who claimed to trust their kids and wanted their kids to be able to pursue personal interests, as long as those interests were “Parent Approved” (or worse, looked good on social media). I saw kids who hated the outdoors dragged to park playdates. I saw kids who wanted to run around and play freely dragged to classes. I saw kids agree to do many things they would not have otherwise chosen just for the chance to hang out with other kids or due to boredom from staying home with mom and siblings all the time. I have no doubt that every single one of these parents had the most honorable intentions, made huge sacrifices for their kids, and wanted the absolute best for the children they loved with all their hearts. But I would argue that the same is true of the classroom teachers that so many denigrate. Public school teachers also think they know what is best for kids, that they love the kids in their charge, and that they are giving them the best opportunities. Yet, in both cases, it is the adults deciding. Worksheet or park? The adults know best, right?

What sets Sudbury apart is that the adults get out of the way. Their egos are not running the show. Adults in Sudbury schools make a conscious effort to give kids space to figure out the world and who they are. It is a fact, in our culture, that adults are given more power and privilege than children. Staff in Sudbury schools are conscious of their privilege and are careful in their interactions with students, knowing that most kids are taught, purposely or accidentally, to please or comply with adults. The adults at Sudbury schools are not strewing or molding or gently coercing, and they are not afraid of the students having real power. In the Sudbury model, the School Meeting, which is composed of all the students as well as staff (who are usually greatly outnumbered by the kids), runs the overall show. The kids run their own personal shows. The kids are responsible for themselves and also the school. The adults in a Sudbury school have opinions, for sure, and share those freely, but there are limits on how much their values can affect the community. The students must agree and give consent through their vote. Sudbury schools provide an environment with no ulterior motives or secret agendas for the students. Additionally, students have the power to hire and fire staff, unlike other schools or in unschooling families, making the adults truly accountable.

Houston Sudbury School on Reason.com

Recently, our school was featured in a video produced for Reason.com, a libertarian-leaning media platform with strong ties to the Koch Brothers (right-wing billionaires). Our participation has generated a bit of controversy because of the implication that participating in the video shows support for the Koch brothers and their right-wing values. If you were talking to me, Cara, the individual, I would agree that the Kochs are deeply problematic and that Reason.com publishes some highly questionable information that I don’t agree with. I’m your basic liberal, progressive, socialist-leaning democrat who lives in my own little bubble most of the time. But, honestly, I had never really even looked at Reason.com until video journalist Zack Weissmeuller contacted me. (By the way, the Koch Brothers also own Time magazine, and are major donors to NPR, and I’m pretty sure we would have said yes to a journalist from those media organizations without much hesitation). And, I am also the PR Clerk for HSS. This is an elected position. My job is to get the word out about the school. Here was a media platform with over 300K subscribers wanting to cover our school and include us in a video with Pat Farenga, a prominent author in the unschooling world. If I had been an individual unschooler, offered the chance to be included with my family, I would have said no (and, in fact, have done so in the past, with a write up from a prominent mainstream publication). That is how it works in most families. The adults decide. But I am not the parent in a family at Houston Sudbury School. I am a staff member. My job is to serve my “boss” – the School Meeting (the adults and the kids) and the school. So I took the opportunity to be featured on Reason.com to the School Meeting to decide. Over the course of 10 days, the issue was discussed in 2 school meetings (1st and 2nd readings of the motion to participate in the video), and informally during the week between those meetings. School Meeting Members looked at the website, watched videos from the Reason.com YouTube channel, particularly some by the journalist that was coming to visit us. Students talked among themselves, with staff, and with parents. One staff person was very much against participating, so a student who was in favor of participating sat with him and heard all his concerns. I reached out to staff from older Sudbury schools for feedback. Students asked many questions, which I presented to Mr. Weissmeuller for answers. Our concerns were not just about the slant of Reason.com, but also about the story itself. These were questions we would have had for anyone wanting to write about our school, no matter who they represent: Have you done your homework and have you read about Sudbury schools from good sources? Do you have an agenda? What is the larger context of your story?

Houston Sudbury School School Meeting

After much research, thought, education, questioning, and discussion of risks and benefits, the motion came to a vote. It was an almost unanimous vote in favor of participating. I abstained and another staff member voted no. As he said, upon being outvoted, “Well, that is how it works and how it should work.” And he’s right. Not everyone at our school is the same. The kids are individuals with differing political (or no political) beliefs and from families with diverse backgrounds. This is what makes a community great– the differences and the ability to live with, respect, and listen to those differences. Although the decision for the school to participate in the video was approved, individuals in the school were free to decline being filmed or interviewed, and a few did. I chose to participate in the video because I felt it was my job to represent the school to the best of my ability, but did so only after many students were included. Again, this was not about me. This was about honoring the School Meeting’s decision.

Our participation was not without thought among the students and staff. Opinions were heard and considered. Research was done and questions asked. Everyone became a bit more media literate through the whole process of coming to a decision, having the crew on campus to interview us, and then seeing the finished product and the reaction to it. But most importantly, the adults trusted the kids with their decision. Even if they did not agree, they, in the most real and radical way, respected the rights of the students to make this decision for themselves and their school. The adults do not “own” the school, which was illustrated in a very real way through this decision. Another Sudbury school might have made a different decision. A different configuration of individuals at our own school might have made a different decision. The decision belongs to the community, whoever that community is.

I’ve heard that a founder/staff at a non-Sudbury self-directed school does not approve of our participation. I agree with him on most things political and deeply respect his activism. But, it wasn’t his decision to make for us nor, I would argue, for his own school. If the kids at his school had political beliefs that differ from his, what would happen? Would he alone decide and impose his beliefs on kids who don’t share them? Or would the community decide with all its (I hope) varied worldviews and come to a compromise? How confusing this must be to the children, to be told over and over, “Be free! But be me!” A prominent author in the unschooling world called out unschoolers’ participation in the video for the traffic it drove to Reason.com. Personally, I agree with her. But I wonder what she would have thought if she had seen the students going through the process of deciding, if she had been able to sit in those School Meetings, state her opinion clearly and passionately, but still let the kids decide. Counter to her personal opinion, they concluded that they would rather promote their school to a wider audience, and perhaps attract new students and increase the health and longevity of the school, than to turn it down. To have kids listen thoughtfully, then make their own decisions, even if that decision differs from the adults, is the heart of Self-Directed Education in my mind. This process is what Sudbury schools do so well.

Houston Sudbury School student being interviewed

So, I ask you, Benevolent Adults who support SDE, do you trust kids or not? Like, really really trust them with real decisions? Do you trust them to think, consider, research, understand, and form their own ideas? Do you believe they have the right to have a say in their own lives and what happens to them? Or do you, perhaps almost unconsciously, want them to follow your ideas? Do you respect them when they disagree? Do you honor their right to be their own person, even if that person is different from you? Because if you don’t, how can you claim to really support their self-directed lives?

The video in question now has over 64K views and over 1K comments. It has generated a lot of worthwhile discussion at our school, in the homes of the students, and on social media. Several HSS students have taken it upon themselves to set the commenters straight when they say ridiculous things about Self-Directed Education and kids in general. The kids are owning this. They are owning their decision and learning from it in unpredictable ways. It would have been easy for the adults in our community to impose their will in this situation, but by doing so, we would have robbed the students of their rights to decide for themselves. We would have become Benevolent Dictators.