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The Man Who Trusted Children: Daniel Greenberg

An educational giant has died. Long live the lessons he taught us.

Drawing by Scott Gray. Creative Commons
Daniel Greenberg
Source: Drawing by Scott Gray. Creative Commons

Daniel Greenberg (1934-2021) was the primary educational theorist among the group who founded the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1968. He stayed with the school as a staff member through the rest his life. Along the way, he authored or co-authored at least 20 books (see titles listed below) and countless essays. I have never known anyone who was more committed to a cause or worked harder at it than Daniel Greenberg. I'll call him Danny, as that is what his students (from age 4 on up), colleagues, and friends have always called him.

Danny never stopped learning, never stopped sharing what he learned, never stopped challenging conventional thought, and never wavered in his devotion to Sudbury Valley School and the students who came and went during his 53 years there. He died on December 2, 2021, days after a series of strokes. He is mourned by his wife Hanna (who is also a cofounder of the school and lifelong staff member); his children Michael, Talya, and David; his grandchildren; and the many hundreds of students, parents, and colleagues who gained from his compassion and wisdom over his lifetime.

If I were to summarize Danny's beliefs and accomplishments in one sentence, it would be this: He believed in democracy (REALLY believed in it), trusted children (REALLY trusted them), played the major role in building a school that affords the rights and responsibilities of democracy to children, and taught everyone who was willing to pay attention that it works and why it works.

Danny showed us that freedom works in education. Children do not need to be forced to learn. They educate themselves brilliantly when we provide the conditions that allow them to do that. This is no longer a theory; it is proven fact, thanks in great part to Danny and the many others who created Sudbury Valley and, later, the many democratic schools modeled after Sudbury Valley. Given such proof, it is a crime that we continue to use methods of coercion and forced uniformity in our standard schools. We no longer have Danny to tell the world about this, so the rest of us must take up the slack now, and more.

I have written about Sudbury Valley elsewhere (here, here, and in my book Free to Learn), but better yet you can read about it in some of Danny’s books listed below. Here is a sample of quotes from his writings and talks, which help us understand where he was coming from and where he was going:

  • This quote, from an interview published in Technos Quarterly, 10(#1) in 2001, describes how, as a faculty member in physics, at Columbia University, in his 20s, he began to think about the problem of education. “It really began for me when I was teaching in college. I tried all the pedagogical tricks; I tried to entertain them; I used all kinds of motivational techniques. I would deliver lectures that got standing ovations, but later, in the tests and essays, it was clear to me that the students just didn’t get it. I wasn’t getting through to them, and it was very frustrating, very disappointing. I asked my colleagues about it, and they all said the same things: ‘Don’t feel bad. It’s these kids today. They don’t work hard, they don’t care about studying and learning.’ But I just refused to believe it was the students’ fault! Gradually, I came to understand that learning occurs when it is self-initiated, when kids are self-motivated. You can’t make someone learn something—you really can’t teach someone something—they have to want to learn it. And if they want to learn, they will.”
  • In a podcast interview, in 2019, he said: “For us it made no sense at all to think that you could create citizens of the United States of America—adults who understand the country and respect what it’s about—if you place them for the first 12, 16 or 20 years of their lives in a completely autocratic setting. Schools are run like a monarchy… The monarchy decides the rules, the monarchy metes out punishments, the monarchy decides whatever it says is right and you have to conform to it. If you are going to make a school that is appropriate for children to grow into American society, it has to give every single child the same rights as adults. It cannot distinguish between children and adults.”
  • Concerning the media-touted problem that people are growing up in America ignorant of democratic principles, he wrote, in his book Education in America (1992): “Although I fully agree that a problem exists, I am afraid that the proposed cure—more classes on democracy—is no better than the disease. Why is it that people persist in thinking that the solution to real-life problems is talking about them? Does anyone really believe that subjecting children to yet another course will achieve really meaningful goals? We can’t even get our kids to read or write or do arithmetic properly, despite endless hours of classroom effort. Are we going to make them into defenders of freedom by adjusting the curriculum once more?

"The simple fact is that children are not committed to democratic principles, or political freedom, or the bill of rights, because they themselves do not experience any of these lofty matters in their everyday lives, and in particular, in their schools. Children do not have rights in school, they do not participate in meaningful decision-making at school (even where the decisions directly affect their own lives), nor do they have the freedom of self-determination in school. In fact, the schools are models of autocracy—sometimes benevolent, sometimes cruel, but always in direct conflict with the principles on which our country is based.

“The way to ensure that people of any age will be deeply committed to the American Way is to make them full participants in it. Make our schools democratic, give our children freedom of choice and the basic rights of citizenship in the schools, and they will have no problem understanding what this country is about.”

  • And finally, this, from a statement celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sudbury Valley, in 2018: “The emancipation of children is a beautiful thing to observe, and the results are inspiring to experience.” ---- Amen to that!

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Books by Daniel Greenberg. [All, after the first, are available at the Sudbury Valley School Bookstore.]

  • 1964, Anaxagoras and the Birth of Physics with Daniel E. Gershenson, OCLC 899834
  • 1973, Announcing a New School: A Personal Account of the Beginnings of the Sudbury Valley School, ISBN 1-888947-11-X
  • 1974, Outline of a New Philosophy, ISBN 1-888947-17-9
  • 1987, Child Rearing, ISBN 1-888947-06-3
  • 1988, Early lessons : some recollections of my youth and what it taught me, ISBN 1-888947-09-8
  • 1991, Free at Last: The Sudbury Valley School, ISBN 1-888947-00-4
  • 1992, The Sudbury Valley School Experience with Hanna Greenberg, Michael Greenberg, Laura Ransom, Mimsy Sadofsky and Alan White, ISBN 1-888947-01-2
  • 1992, Legacy of Trust, Life After the Sudbury Valley School Experience with Mimsy Sadofsky, ISBN 1-888947-04-7
  • 1992, A New Look at Schools, ISBN 1-888947-03-9
  • 1992, Education in America: A View from Sudbury Valley, ISBN 1-888947-07-1
  • 1994, Worlds in Creation, ISBN 1-888947-10-1
  • 1994, Kingdom of Childhood, Growing Up At Sudbury Valley School with Mimsy Sadofsky and Hanna Greenberg, ISBN 1-888-94702-0
  • 1995, Sudbury Valley School Handbook, ISBN 1-888947-14-4
  • 1998, Starting a Sudbury School: A Summary of the Experiences of Fifteen Start-Up Groups with Mimsy Sadofsky, ISBN 1-888947-19-5
  • 1999, Reflections on the Sudbury School Concept with Mimsy Sadofsky, ISBN 1-888947-20-9
  • 2000, A Clearer View: New Insights into the Sudbury School Model, ISBN 1-888947-22-5
  • 2004, The Pursuit of Happiness: The Lives of Sudbury Valley Alumni with Mimsy Sadofsky and Jason Lempka, ISBN 1-888947-25-X
  • 2008, Turning Learning Right Side Up: Putting Education Back on Track with Russell L. Ackoff, ISBN 0-13-234649-4.
  • 2016, A Place to Grow: The Culture of Sudbury Valley School, ISBN 1-888947-26-8.
  • 2018, America at Risk: How Schools Undermine Our Country's Core Values, ISBN 1-888947-32-2.
  • 2018, Constructing reality: The Most Creative of All the Arts,.
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