Is Sudbury the cure for our social malaise?

Andrew Sullivan has written a post called Things are better than ever. Why are we miserable?

The gist of it is that while the world is objectively better on many fronts (reduced poverty, increased lifespan, reduced crime rate), people don’t seem to be especially happy about it. There are a few ways we can respond to this.

One option is to question the claim that people aren’t getting happier. Even if lots of people are miserable nowadays, maybe everyone was more miserable 100 years ago. That seems pretty plausible to me.

Another option is to take people’s complaints more seriously, and diagnose the modern world with some sort of spiritual deficit, some sort of strange social malaise. If it’s true that this vague feeling has gotten worse over time, then maybe we’re encountering the unintended consequences of modernity. Maybe the march of technology, the glorification of individual rights and the gradual loss of religion have caused these strange new problems.

But then again, what about Sudbury schools? Because it seems to me like they have the magic formula. I’ve seen such schools in person, for weeks at a time, and what I’ve observed is a modern world without the social malaise. These kids have plenty of computers and smartphones, and they’re encouraged to grow as unique individuals, and the community isn’t based on religion (though they’re not explicitly atheistic either), and yet….and yet everyone is happy and active and engaged, and there’s a wonderful sense of community alongside the wonderful sense of freedom and individuality.

In fact, psychologist Peter Gray has shown that one thing has definitely gotten worse over the last several decades: mental health scores in children. Children are more depressed now than they were 50s. Kids are more depressed now than they were during the Great Depression! And there's a clear reason why: Kids have less free time nowadays. They have less time for self-directed play and exploration. I'm willing to bet that this has had huge impacts on society, not just for kids but for adults as well. (Because today's children are tomorrow's adults.) In which case, Sudbury clearly provides a solution. Sudbury gives kids the freedom that they dearly need. This makes for happier kids, which in turn produces happier adults.

I highly suspect that such concepts can be scaled up beyond schools. In fact I saw a documentary once about the Hotel Associa in Nagoya, Japan, whose staff had a marvelous sense of community, much like the ethos of Sudbury schools. (Note: I don't think this is related to the other Hotel Associa, which is run by Marriott and is probably a perfectly standard place.)

Whatever problems we have are not inherently connected to technology or individuality or the decline of religion; there’s a way to live well without jettisoning the entire modern world. So let's embrace it!