In preparation for a freshman seminar I’ll be teaching in the fall, I’ve just read A.S. Neill’s Summerhill. I remember the book lying around the parental home — I seem to recall that it spent years in the bathroom. A while ago, when my parents had their Big Book Sale (a thousand books laid out on the front lawn, the leavings from my father’s recently relinquished, book-stuffed office; takings of $1,700) I noticed all the education books in a row: Montessori, Piaget — and there it was. My brother beat me narrowly in a dash to snag it. I’m not sure why, only maybe it seemed to us like the last vestige of our parents’ long-abandoned hippydom. I don’t think Dad could dig up his beady necklace for love or money.
Summerhill School was founded in 1921 in Suffolk and became the model for free schools around the world. The students didn’t have to go to class, and weren’t taught anything they didn’t ask to learn. Mostly they spent their time in the wood shop, outside playing, or in the theatre — though many did attend classes and some even wrote exams. In the years Neill ran the school, he also gave “private lessons,” at most of which he seems to have suggested that the child was jealous of a younger sibling, explained where babies came from, or encouraged him to masturbate. School problems were dealt with by a government at which each person — teachers, staff, and students as young as five — had one vote. At these meetings rules were instituted and repealed, administrative problems solved, and bullies punished with fines of a few pence.
Neill’s two watchwords were freedom and happiness. He believed that if children were left as free as possible, they would grow into happy adults. It worked for him. He produced few students who achieved great success as it would usually be defined, but for the most part he produced happy people.
His theory did not, however, lend itself to wider application. There were American free schools which, in an attempt to apply his principles, let the children run wild — and bully one another to boot. What the Americans seem to have missed is the line Neill drew between “freedom” and “license.” That’s a handy distinction, eh? St. Augustine uses it too, and it means the same thing for both of them: what I think is healthy for the human being defines freedom, and what I think is damaging defines license. In other words Summerhill wasn’t really free at all. It was governed with rules; it was fired with Neill’s ideas; and it was rife with social pressure.
What strikes me most forcefully when I read is that a great deal of what Neill calls “freedom” is what I call “discipline.” For what he really means is that children’s desires should be respected by adults, and that children will return the respect. Before children have learned to return respect — when they are too young to have learned not to jump on his grand piano as a result of him not having jumped on their beds — he is perfectly content to teach them in the traditional way, by telling them firmly that his piano is off-limits (though he would be more likely to express it with a friendly shout of “get the hell off my damn piano!” — a style we employ in our house too). He is disgusted by corporal punishment, despises homework, and hates the parent who makes the child do chores she doesn’t do herself. He believes children should spend most of their time in play and particularly in fantasy play. Almost no one today would give him much of an argument on any of these points.
Nobody reads Summerhill any more: this I learned from a scholarly article on educational theory. And it’s pretty clear to me why this is. To a great extent, Neill won his war. We don’t read him because we don’t need to: the problems he addressed we don’t much face, and this is because a good deal of his advice was heeded. But then there’s the loony side: the idea that if children were left entirely without moulding — which Neill’s never were — they would build utopia; the idea that utopia is constructed of healthy-minded wood-workers; and finally all the Freudian humbug. It’s the combination of the good and the bad that sank him. We don’t want to admit that we drew the bones of our pedagogical understanding from someone this naive.