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The Pursuit of Happiness – Book Review

15 September, 2010

The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni

Daniel Greenberg, Mimsy Sadofsky, and Jason Lempka

The Sudbury Valley School Press.

Sudbury Valley School (SVS)is a democratic learning centre in Massachusetts, USA. for people aged 4-19. While there is not a thorough description of the school in the book, more information about the school can be gleaned from the school’s website http://www.sudval.org. The school was founded in 1968 and has a very similar philosophy to unschooling, within different environment. Students choose what they want to learn and enter into agreements with others who have knowledge in that area. There is a clear emphasis on the students as people with a right and ability to choose what they would like to learn and the way they would like to live. To quote from the school’s website:

“Trust and respect are the keys to the school’s success. Students enjoy total intellectual freedom, and unfettered interaction with other students and adults. Through being responsible for themselves and for the school’s operation, they gain the internal resources needed to lead effective lives.” http://www.sudval.org

In 1999, several people (including staff and ex-staff members of the school) embarked on a research project, contacting and interviewing ex-students, to see what they had done with their lives. The purpose of the research was to validate the claims of the school that it provides “an ideal environment in which children can develop into effective adults in the modern world” (pg 11). The conditions were that the student had to have left the school at least four or five years prior and all the students had to have spent at least three years at the school, entering before seventeen and leaving after the age of sixteen so that the sample group would represent people who had been to the school long enough to have been impacted by it and were at an age to be ready to go out into the world at the time they left the school.

Of the199 students that fell into this category, 119 were found, contacted and consented to taking place in the research (60%). The Alumni’s ages ranged from 21 to 49, with the median age of respondents being 30, giving them a sufficient range of experience to establish the direction the lives of these students took. The students interviewed had been at the school between three and fifteen years, with the median being five years at the school.

The students’ careers showed an enormous amount of variety and talent. There was a disproportionately high number of ex-students in management, technical and artistic jobs as well as small business owners, and very few in unskilled and low-skilled jobs when compared with the general population of the United States. The group included ballet instructors, librarians, self-styled gypsies, managers, lawyers and inventors, to name a few.

Ex-students of SVS seemed to overcome any difficulties resulting from an alternative education. 82% percent of the surveyed Alumni went on to pursue further education. One story in the book describes a student entering a university course requiring a great deal of mathematic knowledge. The student spoke to his lecturer, explaining that he had not studied mathematics since he was eight years old and wanted to know what he would need to learn to be able to complete the course. With the lecturer’s direction towards textbooks and areas of knowledge, the student quickly caught up on the required knowledge and went on to complete the course.

This is just one of many examples of students overcoming the perceived inadequacies of their alternative education to become successful at their chosen field. Many had no leaving certificates to show they had completed secondary education, and still went on to complete degrees and be leaders in their field. Some created careers that suited their interests and abilities or built their own businesses doing what they loved.

As a group, the SVS Alumni were passionate, driven individuals pursuing education or careers in areas they were interested and talented in. The Alumni seemed articulate, driven and balanced. They were largely content with their lives, while always looking for new challenges to avoid becoming stagnant.

The only criticism I would have with this book is the format in which it took. The book quotes extensively from the interviews with the students, without naming them. Unfortunately it does not give each student a pseudonym, so it is difficult to establish which student is quoted where, as many students are quoted numerous times. The book is full of graphs, showing the distribution of responses, which makes the book easy to read, but perhaps they could have not relied so heavily on them to convey the information. On a few occasions the quotes didn’t seem to say exactly what the researchers suggested they were saying, but on the whole the book was well researched, and well set out. It is a reassuring look at the lives of adults who received an unconventional education.

The Pursuit of Happiness is available from the school’s website or amazon.com

This review was originally written for Education Choices magazine.

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