Summerhill: Growing up free and fearless
By Tapani Lausti
Hussein Lucas, After Summerhill: What Happened to the Children of Britain's Most Radical School? Herbert Adler Publishing 2011.
There is a new generation of young people emerging into a world which — in the words of the British journalist Laurie Penny — “didn't want us.” Penny writes about the anger among the youth who have woken up to the fact that any meaningful future is denied to them. She comments: “ It's the sort of anger that looks for answers and finds them on the streets and in the books our parents put aside when solidarity ceased to be a word for polite company.” (Rootless and Ruthless, The New Inquiry, 16 February 2012.)
Among those now half-forgotten books was undoubtedly A.S. Neill's Summerhill. The school by that name in England has existed for over 90 years, offering an experiment in children's freedom and self-rule. The experience should be highly relevant to the new wave of radicalism as young people are re-evaluating many aspects of life, education surely among them. Old Summerhillians on their part must be watching the Occupy movements with keen interest. For they entered the wider society often shocked by its “strange and twisted values”, in the words of Freer Spreckley, who was at Summerhill in 1955-1963.
Like the current generation of youngsters, the children of this unique school have also been entering a world which doesn't want them. They often observe with a shock the society with hierarchies which are meant to intimidate them, force them into submission and destroy their creative and libertarian instincts. These instincts of freedom are dangerous for a society which fears honesty and individual autonomy. The guardians of a society which is built on a pretense of freedom and democracy hate people who see through the lies.
Hussein Lucas's useful book consists of interviews with old Summerhillians, who then wrote their own updates. Practically everyone emphasizes the importance of the thrice-weekly General Meeting. Indeed, the “horizontalism” of current Occupy movements and their general assemblies had their counterpart in the Summerhill experience. The school has for decades been a laboratory of democratic decision making.
Freer Spreckley explains: “In the General Meeting kids were intelligent and objective, whereas outside they were almost totally subjective. You were able to vote against your best friend if you felt it was right, without any feeling of having betrayed him, and with no hard feelings aferwards. Kids have that gift of being able to be totally objective, whereas in many of the cooperative meetings I've attended since adults behave extremely subjectively.” (pp. 110-111)
Danë Goodsman (1962-1972) offers an interesting analysis of the General Meeting: “I describe it as being the public element of self. There is a private element of self, part of which chooses whether to go to lesssons or not, and you suffer the consequences of your decisions on a personal level. The meeting is the public self where you understand the implications of any decision you make on a public level.” (p. 151)
Not participating in lessons if one doesn't feel like going to them is possibly the best-known aspect of the Summerhill school. Many outsiders have sneered at this freedom but the truth is that Summerhillians realized that they were often more advanced academically than the pupils in ordinary schools. Neill believed that children will learn when they feel they are ready for it.
Hussein Lucas sums up the Summerhill experience as “the virtual absence of fear: fear of failure; fear of authority; fear of social ostracism; fear of life and the consequent failure to engage with it with a feeling of optimism and a positive outlook.” (p. 12) Neill believed that with the experience of freedom children grow up to be tolerant. They don't grow up with fear and hate. They are not at war with themselves and the world as unhappy children tend to be. Neill's view was that a child is innately wise and realistic. Psychologically damaged children have usually been healed by the Summerhill experience.
Summerhillians join outer society with a strong sense of self-confidence. They tend to be remarkably honest. They tend to choose professions with creative elements. They dislike “people who have the power and no imagination”, in the words of Danë Goodsman (p. 152). They dislike hierarchical work organizations which can be nasty and petty. In personal life they prefer choices which emphasise their freedom. For instance they prefer relationships without formal marriage. Their attitude to sex and nudity is unproblematic. Gender equality is seen as something natural. Summerhillians don't value formal educational achievements. The school gave them the ability to learn by living: not to be afraid of life. Summerhill may not be perfect in every aspect but it has kept important ideas of freedom alive.
I visited Summerhill in 1987 and was very impressed. The school was then already run by A.S. Neill's daughter, Zoë Redhead. (Neill died in 1973.) I talked to some pupils, among them Zoë Redhead's daughter Amy who was then 13 years old. At the time of my visit she didn't go to any of the classes. She simply didn't feel like it. But she knew that sooner or later she would resume her studies seriously.
Zoë Redhead told me that sometimes parents start worrying if their children's achievements don't meet their expectations. Zoë said that she tries to reassure them so that they don't unnecessarily send their children elsewhere.
The pupils come from all social classes. They are without prejudice, without racist attitudes. One change according to Zoë has been that the children's attitude to homosexualism is now unproblematic unlike in Neill's time when his prejudice in the matter was known. Children now have also sexual education including questions connected with contraception and AIDS. Unlike in surrounding schools, in Summerhill there had not been any teenage pregnancies.
Summerhillians tend to lean left in their politics. At times there has been a loose link with the left-wing politics of the day. In the 1940s many of the pupils came from Communist families. Some of these CP members had fought in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. Hylda Sims (1942-1947) explains: “At that time the Communist Party was far more radical in social terms than it later became and new educational ideas were very much on the agenda.” (p. 84)
Over the decades of Summerhill's existence there has been progress in how we see childrens' development. We have a better understanding of children's innate abilities. Noam Chomsky has emphasized how children can easily not only acquire the grammar of their language but very complex knowledge. He has also written about humans' innate need to create and then to control their own creative work, free from authoritarian command structures. People seem to have an instinct of freedom. All this indicates that the Summerhill experience has not been artificial. A.S. Neill and other contemporary progressive educationalists were ahead of their time in understanding the true nature of children.
Yes, Summerhill is still there and A.S. Neill's ideas live on. In a recent interview Zoë Redhead said that Summerhill is now more relevant than it has ever been. (Summerhill alumni: 'What we learnt at the school for scandal' by Sarah Cassidy, The Independent, 20 October 2011. The title of the article is an example of not unusual journalistic sneering.)
Go to the Summerhill web site