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On Summerhill

The book Summerhill is a description of the principles and ideas behind school by the same name. This is what the wikipedia introduction for the school says:

“Summerhill School is an independent (i.e. fee-paying) boarding school in Leiston, Suffolk, England. It was founded in 1921 by Alexander Sutherland Neill with the belief that the school should be made to fit the child, rather than the other way around. It is run as a democratic community; the running of the school is conducted in the school meetings, which anyone, staff or pupil, may attend, and at which everyone has an equal vote. These meetings serve as both a legislative and judicial body. Members of the community are free to do as they please, so long as their actions do not cause any harm to others, according to Neill's principle "Freedom, not Licence." This extends to the freedom for pupils to choose which lessons, if any, they attend. It is an example of both democratic education and alternative education.”

Summerhill, both as a physical school and as a deeper idea as represented in Neill’s writings, goes right to the heart of what education and school is.

Neill was a firm believer that the traditional schools at their best only developed student from the neck upwards. In other words, only was concerned with the development of the intellect. Leaving the emotions and the being at large untouched and underdeveloped. He proposed that this is a backwards approach trying to stuff the head with what is seen as useful information. Most of the learning is then either quickly forgotten or not of use for later life. Neill suggests that the process of education should be driven by an approach where the emotions are developed and matured as the primary emphasis. Leaving the mind to develop along the lines of interest of the specific person.

Contemporary schools may give lip service to ideals such as independence, agency and curiosity. But prescribing exactly what should happen when for everyone as is the case with predetermined curriculums, compulsory attendance and homework does much to dispense with what natural independence, agency or curiosity is present in the student.

“My motto for the home, in education as in life, is this: For heaven’s sake, let people live their own lives. It is an attitude that fits any situation. This attitude is the only possible attitude that fosters toleration. It is strange that the word toleration has not occurred to me before. It is the proper word for a free school. We are leading the children along the way of being tolerant by showing them tolerance.”

“A school should make a child’s life a game. I do not mean that the child should have a path of roses. Making it all easy for the child is fatal to the child’s character. But life itself presents so many difficulties that the artificially made difficulties which we present to children are unnecessary. I believe that to impose anything by authority is wrong. The child should not do anything until he comes to the opinion – his own opinion – that it should be done. The curse of humanity is the external compulsion, whether it comes from the Pope or the state or the teacher or the parent. It is fascism in toto.”

Neill certainly agreed that some of his students would often need to take tests in order to gain admission to university. But, he found that the students who themselves found that they had a need to take these tests were sufficiently motivated to prepare for these tests specifically and often managed to prepare in less time than students from ‘normal schools’.


“I speak with personal feeling about this question of backwardness, for as a boy I simply couldn’t learn. My pockets were full of bits of scrap iron and brass; and when my eyes were on my textbook, my thoughts wandered to my gadgets. I have seldom seen a backward boy or girl who has not the potentialities of creative work; and to judge any child by his or her progress in school subjects is futile and fatal.”

“How much of our education is real doing, real self-expression? Handiwork is too often the making of a pin tray under the eye of an expert. Even the Montessori system, well-known as a system of directed play, is an artificial way of making the child learn by doing. It has nothing creative about it.”

To equate excellence in school with future success in life is the source of much human misery. It is highly unlikely that Neill would have looked kindly on more recent developments in the school system: the widespread adoption of standardized testing or government dictated curriculums for that matter.

Another thing of note here is that the scope and duration of schooling has been continuously growing since compulsory schooling came into existence. The scope has certainly increased greatly since the publishing of Summerhill in 1949. Today schooling is compulsory in the UK up until age 18.

One of the primary arguments in support of this expansion is that society today is more complicated and fundamentally requires more learning before you can succesfully expect to navigate it. Does this actually stand up to scrutiny? Scarcely anyone learned how to use the main modes of communication of this age in school. Almost everyone today learned how to use computers, smartphones and tablets by themselves – by trial and error – and with a little help from friends and family. In fact most of what we do on a day to day basis was learned outside of school.

Many adults have a darkening realization that they did not learn anything of any real use in school.

How do we learn? And where do we learn? There is much that suggests that we learn by osmosis rather than as a consequence of planned learning. For instance whether or not you come from a ‘text rich household’ is a much better predictor of whether or not you will be a good reader than what school you go to. When you are surrounded by books sooner or later it becomes imperative that you learn how to decipher their obscure and hidden meaning. Not because someone has decided that it is time to learn to read, but because the compulsion is there.

The process of learning to read for someone who is motivated to learn is a relatively short and inexpensive. Despite this the price of schooling is continuously growing, whereas the level of proficiency in reading is either flatlining or declining. One grim example of this, in Massachusetts reading ability peaked in the 1840es before compulsory schooling was enacted. Since then reading ability has been in continuos decline despite a huge increase in funds being allocated for schools. What we do learn in school is as likely to be learned from friends and peers as the teacher and the subject of the lessons.

Maybe then the problem is that school is becoming increasingly contrived and controlled. It is loosing touch with what children care about and for that reason engagement and participation is declining.

Much is being said about the inherent plasticity of children. Few are taking this to its natural conclusion. If children are plastic, proverbial learning machines – when sufficiently motivated to learn what they are exposed to – why does school not reflect this?

“Do you believe in homework? I don’t even believe in school lessons unless they are voluntarily chosen. The homework habit is disgraceful. Children loathe homework, and that is enough to condemn it.”

Neill’s goal was not to develop Einstein’s. He contended that you could not restrain Einstein from becoming Einstein. He should be fully allowed to follow his inherent genius wherever it would like to go.

The underlying fear here, sometimes silent other times uttered, pertains to the non-Einsteins. If children aren’t cajoled and harassed they wont learn anything and will end up as no-good-for-nothing drop outs; who wont be able to have anything but the lowest paying job. Neill had two things to say on that score. First of all, that he viewed it as a much better outcome that a person be content with being in a ‘lower position’ if it is a position that made him happy and fulfilled as a human being. Rather than forcing and manipulating the person to strive for a superior position, making him neurotic in the process. Secondarily, despite having a freedom loving approach to education Neill argued that to that point no drop outs or street sweepers had graduated from the school. Meaning that this often raised fear is baseless.


“We have learned that children have entirely different values from adult values. If a school tries to uplift a child by hanging beautiful classical paintings on the walls and placing beautiful furniture in the rooms, it is beginning at the wrong end. Children are primitives; and until they ask for culture, they should live in as primitive and informal an environment as we can give them.”

“Many people believe down deep: If children have nothing to fear, how can they be good? Goodness that depends on fear of hell or fear of the policeman or fear of punishment is not goodness at all – it is simply cowardice. Goodness that depends on hope of reward or hope of praise or hope of heaven depends on bribery. Present-day morality makes children cowards, for it makes them fear life. “

Summerhill is certainly a critique of the school system as it stands. A critique that only has become more relevant today more than 70 years after its publishing. In that way it can gainfully be read together with other critiques of school as an institution: Understanding it’s history, goals and inner workings. The works of John Taylor Gatto or Ivan Illich comes to mind. However, that would also be doing Neill’s work a disservice if we stop there. For one Summerhill is not written in a negative or dismissive tone. For it is primarily a life affirming tome, that explores that education might be if one ruthlessly takes the approach of being on child’s side.

In that way, Summerhill is as an exploration of how a child’s natural development isn't obstructed. It is highly suggestive that Neill has a few sections devoted to the care of infants and very young children. In these sections he adamantly suggests that young children should be kept close and held as much as possible. These particular suggestions are almost word for word the same suggestions as the ones given (much later) by Jean Liedloff in the The Continuum Concept. A book which explores how tribal populations care for their children, and how this concept applies to us in the modern world. The thesis here is that the feeling of safety and innate goodness in an infant is essential for the development of a satisfying emotional life later in life. And that the infant in-arms experience is what allows for this to develop. In this light Summerhill is asking how we may take these insights into education at large.

Neill drew much of his inspiration from the work of early psychoanalysis. Particularly the work of Freud, but also being personal friends with Wilhelm Reich. On a societal level it is all the better to prevent the development of complexes, rather than trying to cure it years after it has ossified into the soma.

There is no denying that Neill wanted all schools to be like Summerhill. To abolish and do away with normal schools completely. At the same time he was a realist, he knew that if he created too much noise that his school would be history. And so he saw it as his goal to help as many children as he could. One at a time.

It is important to remember that if all of this sounds like a hippie experiment to you, dear reader, that the school was founded over 100 years ago. Antedating hippies and cultural revolutions by nearly half a century. And it still stands despite uproar and attacks from school inspectors and boards alike. It has proven that it can produce a high standard despite assumptions to the contrary. Most utopian experiments fail in a fraction of that time.

The point here is not to suggest that this school is perfect. It is rather that if we look into the case of Summerhill it might open up questions. Questions that we would never have dared to ask ourselves otherwise.

In many countries a school could never be founded today. It would be closed by zealous school inspectors in very short order. Perhaps the age of Summerhill is its saving grace; it is hard to close something that has a century long track record. Even so, there is still hope for other experiments like this to take place in the future. What these experiments will be, what they will look like – that is for courageous individuals to figure out. Circumstances and talents vary after all. And even if those experiments in their outer form does not exactly look like Summerhill, may they all be in this spirit. Always, be on the child’s side.

[Sources and further reading]

1966 Summerhill Documentary:

Alexander Sutherland Neill - Summerhill John Taylor Gatto – Weapons of Mass Instruction

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