In psychology, no man knows very much. The inner forces of human life are still largely hidden from us.
Since Freud’s genius made it alive, psychology has gone far; but it is still a new science, mapping out the coast of an unknown continent. Fifty years hence, psychologists will very likely smile at our ignorance of today.
Since I left education and took up child psychology, I have had all sorts of children to deal with - incendiaries, thieves, liars bed-wetters and bad-tempered children. Years of intensive work in child training has convinced me that I know comparatively little of the forces that motivate life. I am convinced, however, that parents who have had to deal with only their own children know much less than I do.
It is because I believe that a difficult child is nearly always made difficult by wrong treatment at home that I dare address parents.
What is the province of psychology? I suggest the word curing. But what kind of curing? I do not want to be cured of my habit of choosing the colors orange and black; nor do I want to be cured of smoking; nor of my liking for a bottle of beer. No teacher has the right to cure a child of making noises on a drum. The only curing that should be practiced is the curing of unhappiness.
The difficult child is the child who is unhappy. He is at war with himself; and in consequence, he is at war with the world.
The difficult adult is in the same boat. No happy man ever disturbed a meeting or preached a war, or lynched a Negro. No happy woman ever nagged her husband or her children. No happy man ever committed a murder or a theft. No happy employer ever frightened his employees.
All crimes, all hatred, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness. This book is an attempt to show how unhappiness arises, how it ruins human lives, and how children can be reared so that much of this unhappiness will never arise.
More than that, this book is the story of a place--Summerhill --where children’s unhappiness is cured and, more important, where children are reared in happiness.
The Idea of Summerhill. This is a story of a modern school--Summerhill.
Summerhill was founded in the year 1921. The school is situated within the village of Leiston, in Suffolk, England, and is about one hundred miles from London.
Just a word about Summerhill pupils. Some children come to Summerhill at the age of five years, and others as late as fifteen. The children generally remain at the school until they are sixteen years old. We generally have about twenty-five boys and twenty girls.
The children are divided into three age groups: The youngest range from five to seven, the intermediates from eight to ten, and the oldest from eleven to fifteen. Generally we have a fairly large sprinkling of children from foreign countries. At the present time (1960) we have five Scandinavians, one Hollander, one German and one American.
The children are housed by age groups with a housemother for each group. The intermediates sleep in a stone building, the seniors sleep in huts. Only one or two older pupils have rooms for themselves. The boys live two or three or four to a room, and so do the girls. The pupils do not have to stand room inspection and no one picks up after them. They are left free. No one tells them what to wear: they put on any kind of costume they want at any time.
Newspapers call it a Go-as-you-please School and imply that it is a gathering of wild primitives who know no law and have no manners.
It seems necessary, therefore, for me to write the story of Summerhill as honestly as I can. That I write with a bias is natural; yet I shall try to show the demerits of Summerhill as well as its merits. Its merits will be the merits of healthy, free children whose lives are unspoiled by fear and hate.
Obviously, a school that makes active children sit at desks studying mostly useless subjects is a bad school. It is a good school only for those who believe in such a school, for those uncreative citizens who want docile, uncreative children who will fit into a civilization whose standard of success is money.
Summerhill began as an experimental school. It is no longer such; it is now a demonstration school; for it demonstrates that freedom works.
When my first wife and I began the school, we had one main idea: to make the school fit the child--instead of making the child fit the school.
I had taught in ordinary schools for many years. I knew the other way well. I knew it was all-wrong. It was wrong because it was based on an adult conception of what a child should be and of how a child should learn. The other way dated from the days when psychology was still an unknown science.
Well, we set out to make a school in which we should allow children freedom to be themselves. In order to do this, we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, and all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had--a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being. For almost forty years, this belief in the goodness of the child has never wavered; it rather has become a final faith.
My view is that a child is innately wise and realistic. If left to himself without adult suggestion of any kind, he will develop as far as he is capable of developing. Logically, Summerhill is a place in which people who have the innate ability and wish to be scholars will be scholars; while those who are only fit to sweep the streets will sweep the streets. But we have not produced a street cleaner so far. Nor do I write this snobbishly, for I would rather see a school produce a happy street cleaner than a neurotic scholar.
What is Summerhill like? Well, for one thing, lessons are optional. Children can go to them or stay away from them--for years if they want to. There is a timetable-but only for the teachers.
The children have classes usually according to their age, but sometimes according to their interests. We have no new methods of teaching, because we do not consider that teaching in itself matters very much. Whether a school has or has not a special method for teaching long division is of no significance, for long division is of no importance except to those who want to learn it. And the child who wants to learn long division will learn it no matter how it is taught.
Children who come to Summerhill as kindergartens attend lessons from the beginning of their stay; but pupils from other schools vow that they will never attend any beastly lessons again at any time. They play and cycle and get in people’s way, but they fight shy of lessons. This sometimes goes on for months. The recovery time is proportionate to the hatred their last school gave them. Our record case was a girl from a convent. She loafed for three years. The average period of recovery from lesson aversion is three months.
Strangers to this idea of freedom will be wondering what sort of madhouse it is where children play all day if they want to. Many an adult says, “If I had been sent to a school like that, I’d never have done a thing.” Others say,” Such children will feel themselves heavily handicapped when they have to compete against children who have been made to learn.”
I think of Jack who left us at the age of seventeen to go into an engineering factory. One day, the managing director sent for him.
“You are the lad from Summerhill,” he said. “I’m curious to know how such an education appears to you now that you are mixing with lads from the old schools. Suppose you had to choose again, would you go to Eton or Summerhill?”
“Oh, Summerhill of course” replied Jack.
“But what does it offer that the other schools don’t offer?”
Jack scratched his head. “I dunno,” he said slowly; “I think it gives you a feeling of complete self-confidence.”
“Yes,” said the manager dryly, I noticed it when you came into the room.”
“Lord,” laughed Jack, “I’m sorry if I gave you that impression”
“I liked it,” said the director. “Most men when I call them into the office fidget about and look uncomfortable. You came in as my equal. By the way, what department did you say you would like to transfer to?”
This story shows that learning in itself is not as important as personality and character. Jack failed in his university exams because he hated book learning. But his lack of knowledge about Lamb’s Essays or the French language did not handicap him in life. He is now a successful engineer.
All the same there is a lot of learning in Summerhill. Perhaps a group of our twelve-year-olds could not compete-with a class of equal age in handwriting or spelling or fractions. But in an examination requiring originality, our lot would beat the others hollow.
We have no class examinations in the school, but sometimes I set an exam for fun. The following questions appeared in one such paper:
Where are the following:- Madrid, Thursday Island, yesterday, love, democracy, hate, my pocket-screw driver (alas, there was no helpful answer to that one).
Give meanings for the following:- 9 the number shows how many are expected of each)- Hand (3)…. Only two, got the third right – the standard of measure for a horse. Brass (4)…. Metal, cheek, top army officers, department of an orchestra. Translate Hamlets, To-be-or-not-to-be speech into Summerhillese.
These questions are obviously not intended to be serious, and the children enjoy them thoroughly. Newcomers, on the whole, do not rise to the answering standard of pupils who have become accustomed to the school. Not that they have less brainpower, but rather because they have become so accustomed to work in a serious groove that any light touch puzzles them.
This is the play side of our teaching. In all classes much work is done. If, for some reason a teacher cannot take his class on the appointed day, there is usually much disappointment for the pupils.
David, aged nine, had to be isolated for whooping cough. He cried bitterly. “I’ll miss Roger’s lesson in geography,” he protested. David had been in the school practically from birth, and he had definite and final ideas about the necessity of having his lessons given to him. David is now a lecturer in mathematics at London University.
A few years ago someone at a General School Meeting (at which all school rules are voted by the entire school, each pupil and each staff member having one vote) proposed that a certain culprit should be punished by being banished from lessons for a week. The other children protested on the ground that the punishment was too severe.
My staff and I have a hearty hatred of all examinations. To us the university exams are anathema. But we cannot refuse to teach children the required subjects. Obviously, as long as the exams are in existence, they are our masters. Hence, the Summerhill staff is always qualified to teach to the set standard.
Not that many children want to take these exams; only those going to the university do so. And such children do not seem to find it especially hard to tackle these exams. They generally begin to work for them seriously at the age of fourteen, and they do the work in about three years. Of course they don’t always pass at the first try. The more important fact is that they try again.
Summerhill is possibly the happiest school in the world. We have no truants and seldom a case of homesickness. We very rarely have fights - quarrels of course, but seldom have I seen a stand-up fight like the ones we used to have as boys. I seldom hear a child cry; because children when free have much less hate to express than children who are downtrodden. Hate breeds hate, and love breeds love. Love means approving of children, and that is essential in any school. You can’t be on the side of children if you punish them and storm at them. Summerhill is a school in which the child knows that he is approved of.
Mind you, we are not above and beyond human foibles. I spent weeks planting potatoes one spring, and when I found eight plants pulled up in June, I made a big fuss. Yet there was a difference between my fuss and that of an authoritarian. My fuss was about potatoes, but the fuss an authoritarian would have made would have dragged in the question of morality--right and wrong. I did not say that it was wrong to steal my spuds; I did not make it a matter of good and evil--I made it a matter of my spuds. They were my spuds and they should have been left alone. I hope I am making the distinction clear.
Let me put it another way. To the children, I am no authority to be feared. I am their equal, and the row I kick up about my spuds has no more significance to them than the row a boy may kick up about his punctured bicycle tire. It is quite safe to have a row with a child when you are equals.
Now some will say: “That’s all bunk. There can’t be equality. Neill is the boss; he is bigger and wiser.” That is indeed true. I am the boss, and if the house caught fire the children would run to me. They know that I am bigger and more knowledgeable, but that does not matter when I meet them on their own ground, the potato patch, so to speak.
When Billy, aged five, told me to get out of his birthday party because I hadn’t been invited, I went at once without hesitation --just as Billy gets out of my room when I don’t want his company. It is not easy to describe this relationship between teacher and child, but every visitor to Summerhill knows what I mean when I say that the relationship is ideal. One sees it in the attitude to the staff in general. Rudd, the chemistry man, is Derek. Other members of the staff are known as Harry, and Ulla, and Pam. I am Neill, and the cook is Esther.
In Summerhill, everyone has equal rights. No one is allowed to walk on my grand piano, and I am not allowed to borrow a boy’s cycle without his permission. At a General School Meeting, the vote of a child of six counts for as much as my vote does.
But, says the knowing one, in practice of course the voices of the grownups count. Doesn’t the child of six wait to see how you vote before he raises his hand? I wish he sometimes would, for too many of my proposals are beaten. Free children are not easily influenced; the absence of fear accounts for this phenomenon. Indeed, the absence of fear is the finest thing that can happen to a child.
Our children do not fear our staff. One of the school rules is that after ten o’clock at night there shall be quietness on the upper corridor. One night, about eleven, a pillow fight was going on, and I left my desk, where I was writing, to protest against the row. As I got upstairs, there was a scurrying of feet and the corridor was empty and quiet. Suddenly I heard a disappointed voice say, “Humph, its only Neill,” and the fun began again at once. When I explained that I was trying to write a book downstairs, they showed concern and at once agreed to chuck the noise. Their scurrying came from the suspicion that their bedtime officer (one of their own age) was on their track.
I emphasize the importance of this absence of fear of adults. A child of nine will come and tell me he has broken a window with a ball. He tells me, because he isn’t afraid of arousing wrath or moral indignation. He may have to pay for the window, but he doesn’t have to fear being lectured or being punished.
There was a time some years back when the School Government resigned, and no one would stand for election I seized the opportunity of putting up a notice: “In the absence of a government, I herewith declare myself Dictator. Hell Neill!” Soon there were mutterings. In the afternoon Vivien, aged six, came to me and said, “Neill, I’ve broken a window in the gym.”
I waved him away. “Don’t bother me with little things like that,” I said, and he went. A little later he came back and said he had broken two windows. By this time I was curious, and asked him what the great idea was.
“I don’t like dictators!” he said, “and I don’t like going without my grub.” (I discovered later that the opposition to dictatorship had tried to take itself out on the cook, who promptly shut up the kitchen and went home.)
“Well,” I asked, “What are you going to do about it?”
“Break more windows,” he said doggedly.
“Carry on,” I said, and he carried on.
When he returned, he announced that he had broken seventeen windows. “But mind,” he said earnestly, “I’m going to pay for them.”
“Out of my pocket money. How long will it take me!”
I did a rapid calculation. “About ten years,” I said.
He looked glum for a minute; then I saw his face light up “Gee:’ he cried, “I don’t have to pay for them at all.”
“But what about the private property rule?” I asked.
“The windows are my private property.”
“I know that but there isn’t any private property rule now. There isn’t any government, and the government makes the rules.”
It may have been my expression that made him add, “But all the same I’ll pay for them.”
But he didn’t have to pay for them. Lecturing in London shortly afterward, I told the story; and at the end of my talk, a young man came up and handed me a pound note “to pay for the young devil’s windows” Two years later, Vivien was still telling people of his window, and of the man who paid for them. “He must have been a terrible fool, because he never even saw me”
Children make contact with strangers more easily when fear is unknown to them. English reserve is, at bottom, really fear; and that is why the most reserved are those who have the most wealth. The fact that Summerhill children are so exceptionally friendly-to visitors and strangers is a source of pride to my staff and me. We must confess, however, that many of our visitors are people of interest to the children. The kind of visitor most unwelcome to them is the teacher, especially the earnest teacher, who wants to see their drawing and written work. The most welcome visitor is the one who has good tales to tell - of adventure and travel or, best of all, of aviation. A boxer or a good tennis player is surrounded at once, but visitors who spout theory are left severely alone.
The most frequent remark that visitors make is that they cannot tell who is staff and who is pupil. It is true: the feeling of unity is that strong when children are approved of. There is no deference to a teacher as a teacher. Staff and pupils have the same food and have to obey the same community laws. The children would resent any special privileges given to the staff.
When I used to give the staff a talk on psychology every week, there was a muttering that it wasn’t fair. I changed the plan and made the talks open to everyone over twelve. Every Tuesday night, my room is filled with eager youngsters who not only listen but also give their opinions freely. Among the subjects the children have asked me to talk about have been then: The Inferiority Complex, The Psychology of Stealing, The Psychology of the Gangster, The Psychology of Humor, Why Did Man Become a Moralist?, Masturbation, Crowd Psychology. It is obvious that such children will go out into life with a broad clear knowledge of themselves and others.
The most frequent question asked by Summerhill visitors is, “Won’t the child turn round and blame the school for not making him learn arithmetic or music?” The answer is that young Freddy Beethoven and young Tommy Einstein will refuse to be kept away from their respective spheres.
The function of the child is to live his own life--not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.
You cannot make children learn music or anything else without to some degree converting them into will-less adults. You fashion them into accepters of the status-quo - good thing for a society that needs obedient sitters at dreary desks, standers in shops, mechanical catchers of the 8:30 suburban train--a society, in short, that is carried on the shabby shoulders of the scared little man--the scared-to-death conformist.