A parent’s fear of the future affords a poor prognosis for the health of his children. This fear, oddly enough, shows itself in the desire that his children should learn more than he has learned. This kind of parent is not content to leave Willie to learn to read when he wants to, but nervously fears that Willie will be a failure in life unless he is pushed. Such parents cannot wait for the child to go at his own rate. They ask, if my son cannot read at twelve, what chance has he of success in life? If he cannot pass college entrance exams at eighteen, what is there for him but an unskilled job? But I have learned to wait and watch a child make little or no progress. I never doubt that in the end, if not molested or damaged, he will succeed in life.
Of course, the philistine can say, “Humph, so you call a truck driver a success in life!” My own criterion of success is the ability to work joyfully and to live positively. Under that definition most pupils in Summerhill turn out to be successes in life.
Tom came to Summerhill at the age of five. He left at seventeen, without having in all those years gone to a single lesson. He spent much time in the workshop making things. His father and mother trembled with apprehension about his future. He never showed any desire to learn to read. But one night when he was nine, I found him in bed reading David Copperfield.
“Hullo,” I said, “who taught you to read?”
“I taught myself.”
Some years later, he came to me to ask, “How do you add a half and two-fifths?” and I told him. I asked if he wanted to know any more. “No thanks,” he said.
Later on, he got work in a film studio as a camera boy. When he was learning his job, I happened to meet his boss at a dinner party, and I asked how Tom was doing.
“The best boy we ever had,” the employer said. “He never walks-he runs. And at weekends, he is a damned nuisance, for on Saturdays and Sundays he won’t stay away from the studio.”
There was Jack, a boy who could not learn to read. No one could teach Jack. Even when he asked for a reading lesson, there was some hidden obstruction that kept him from distinguishing between b and p, l and k. He left school at seventeen without the ability to read.
Today, Jack is an expert toolmaker. He loves to talk about metalwork. He can read now; but so far as I know, he mainly reads articles about mechanical things and sometimes he reads works on psychology. I do not think he has ever read a novel; yet he speaks perfectly grammatical English, and his general knowledge is remarkable. An American visitor, knowing nothing of his story, said to me, “What a clever lad Jack is!”
Diane was a pleasant girl who went to lessons without much interest. Her mind was not academic. For a long time, I wondered what she would do. When she left at sixteen, any inspector of schools would have pronounced her a poorly educated girl. Today, Diane is demonstrating a new kind of cookery in London. She is highly skilled at her work; and more important, she is happy in it.
One firm demanded that its employees should have at least passed the standard college entrance exams. I wrote to the head of the firm concerning Robert, “This lad did not pass any exams, for he hasn’t got an academic head. But he has got guts.” Robert got the job.
Winifred, aged thirteen, a new pupil, told me that she hated all subjects, and shouted with joy when I told her she was free to do exactly as she liked. “You don’t even have to come to school if you don’t want to,” I said
She set herself to have a good time, and she had one -for a few weeks. Then I noticed that she was bored.
“Teach me something,” she said to me one day; “I’m bored stiff.”
“Right!” I said cheerfully, “What do you want to learn?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “And I don’t either,” said I, and I left her.
Months passed. Then she came to me again. “I am going to pass the college entrance exams,” she said, “and I want lessons from you.”
Every morning she worked with me and other teachers and she worked well. She confided that the subjects did not interest her much, but the aim did interest her. Winifred found herself by being allowed to be herself.
It is interesting to know that free children take to mathematics. They find joy in geography and in history. Free children cull from the offered subjects only those which interest them. Free children spend most time at other interests--woodwork, metalwork, painting, reading fiction, acting, playing out fantasies, playing jazz records.
Tom, aged eight, was continually opening my door and asking, “By the way, what’ll I do now!” No one would tell him what to do.
Six months later, if you wanted to find Tom you went to his room. There you always found him in a sea of paper sheets. He spent hours making maps. One day a professor from the University of Vienna visited Summerhill. He ran across Tom and asked him many questions. Later the professor came to me and said, “I tried to examine that boy on geography, and he talked of places I never heard of.”
But I must also mention the failures. Barbel, Swedish, fifteen, was with us for about a year. During all that time, she found no work that interested her. She had come to Summerhill too late. For ten years of her life, teachers had been making up her mind for her. When she came to Summerhill, she had already lost all initiative. She was bored. Fortunately, she was rich and had the promise of a lady’s life.
I had two Yugoslavian sisters, eleven and fourteen. The school failed to interest them. They spent most of their time making rude remarks about me in Croatian. An unkind friend used to translate these for me. Success would have been miraculous in this case, for the only common speech we had was art and music. I was very glad when their mother came for them.
Over the years we have found that Summerhill boys who are going in for engineering do not bother to take the matriculation exams. They go straight to practical training centers. They have a tendency to see the world before they settle down to university work. One went around the world as a ship’s steward. Two boys took up coffee farming in Kenya. One boy went to Australia and one even went to remote British Guiana.
Derrick Boyd is typical of the adventurous spirit that a free education encourages. He came to Summerhill at the age of eight and left after passing his university exams at eighteen. He wanted to be a doctor, but his father could not afford to send him to the university at the time. Derrick thought he would fill in the waiting time by seeing the world. He went to the London docks and spent two days trying to get a job - any job--even as a stoker. He was told that too many real sailors were unemployed, and he went home sadly.
Soon a schoolmate told him of an English lady in Spain who wanted a chauffeur. Derrick seized the chance, went to Spain, built the lady a house or enlarged her existing house, drove her all over Europe, and then went to the university. The lady decided to help him with his university fees. After two years, the lady asked him to take a year off to drive her to Kenya and build her a house there. Derrick finished his medical studies in Capetown.
Larry, who came to us about the age of twelve, passed university exams at sixteen and went out to Tahiti to grow fruit. Finding this a poorly paid occupation, he took to driving a taxi. Later he went to New Zealand, where I understand he did all sorts of jobs, including driving another taxi. He then entered Brisbane University. Some time ago, I had a visit from the dean of that university, who gave an admiring account of Larry’s doings. “When we had vacation and the students went home,” he said, “Larry went out to work as a laborer at a sawmill.” He is now a practicing physician in Essex, England.
Some old boys, it is true, have not shown enterprise. For obvious reasons, I cannot describe them. Our successes are always those whose homes were good. Derrick and Jack and Larry had parents who were completely in sympathy with the school, so that the boys never had that most tiresome of conflicts: Which is right, home or school?
Has Summerhill produced any geniuses? No, so far no geniuses; perhaps a few creators, not famous as yet; a few bright artists; some clever musicians; no successful writer that I know of; an excellent furniture designer and cabinetmaker; some actors and actresses; some scientists and mathematicians who may yet do original work. I think that for our number about forty- five pupils in the school at one time--a generous proportion has gone into some kind of creative or original work.
However, I have often said that one generation of free children does not prove anything much. Even in Summerhill some children get a guilty conscience about not learning enough lessons. It could not be otherwise in a world in which examinations are the gateways to some professions. And also, there is usually an Aunt Mary who exclaims, “Eleven years old and you can’t read properly!” The child feels vaguely that the whole outside environment is anti-play and pro-work.
Speaking generally, the method of freedom is almost sure with children under twelve, but children over twelve take a long time to recover from a spoon-fed education.