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A Look at Summerhill

 

Let me describe a typical day in Summerhill. Breakfast is from 8:15 to 9. The staff and pupils carry their breakfast from the kitchen across to the dining room. Beds are supposed to be made by 9:30, when lessons begin.

 

At the beginning of each term, a timetable is posted. Thus, Derek in the laboratory may have Class I on Monday, Class II on Tuesday, and so on. I have a similar timetable for English and mathematics; Maurice for geography and history. The younger children (aged seven to nine) usually stay with their term teacher most of the morning, but they also go to Science or - the Art Room.

 

No pupil is compelled to attend lessons. But if Jimmy comes to English on Monday and does not make an appearance again until Friday of the following week, the others quite rightly object that he is holding back the work, and they may throw him out for impeding progress.

 

Lessons go on until one, but the kindergarteners and juniors lunch at 11:30. The school has to be fed in two relays. The staff and seniors sit down to lunch at 1:30.

 

Afternoons are completely free for everyone. What they all do in the afternoon I do not know. I garden, and seldom see youngsters about. I see the juniors playing gangsters. Some of the minors busy themselves with motors and radios and drawing and painting. In good weather, seniors play games. Some tinker about in the workshop, mending their bicycles or making boats or revolvers.

 

Tea is served at four. At five, various activities begin. The juniors like to be read to. The middle group likes work in the Art Room-painting, linoleum cuts, leather work, basket making. There is usually a busy group in the pottery; in fact, the pottery seems to be a favorite haunt morning and evening. The oldest group works from five onward. The wood and metal workshop is full every night.

 

On Monday nights, the pupils go to the local movie at their parents’ expense. When the program changes on Thursday, those who have the money go again.

 

On Tuesday night, the staff and seniors bear my talk on psychology. At the same time the juniors have various reading groups. Wednesday night is dance night. Dance records are selected from a great pile. The children are all good dancers, and some visitors say that they feel inferior dancing with them. On Thursday night, there’s nothing special on. The seniors go to the movies in Leiston or Aldeburgh. Friday is left for any special event, such as rehearsing for a play.

 

Saturday night is our most important one, for it is General School Meeting night. Dancing usually follows. During the winter months, Sunday is theater evening.

 

There is no timetable for handiwork. There are no set lessons in woodworking. Children make what they want to. And what they want to make is nearly always a toy revolver or gun or boat or kite. They are not much interested in elaborate joints of the dovetail variety; even the older boys do not care for difficult carpentry. Not many of them take an interest in my own hobby - hammered brass work-because you can’t attach much of a fantasy to a brass bowl.



 

On a good day you may not see the boy gangsters of Summerhill. They are in far corners intent on their deeds of derring-do. But you will see the girls. They are in or near the house, and never far away from the grownups.

 

You will often find the Art Room full of girls painting and making bright things with fabrics. In the main, however, I think that the small boys are more creative; at least I never hear a boy say he is bored because he doesn’t know what to do, whereas I sometimes hear girls say that.

 

Possibly I find the boys more creative than the girls because the school may be better equipped for boys than for girls. Girls of ten and over have little use for a workshop with iron and wood. They have no desire to tinker with engines, nor are they attracted by electricity or radio. They have their artwork, which includes pottery, cutting linoleum blocks and painting and sewing work, but for some that is not enough. Boys are just as keen on cooking as girls are. The girls and boys write and produce their own plays, make their own costumes and scenery. Generally, the acting talent of the pupils is of a high standard, because the acting is sincere and not show-offish.

 

The girls seem to frequent the chemical lab just as often as the boys do. The workshop is about the only place that does not attract girls from nine up.

 

The girls take a less active part in school meetings than the boys do, and I have no ready explanation for this fact.

 

Up to a few years ago, girls were apt to come late to Summerhill; we had lots of failures from convents and girls’ schools. I never consider such a child a true example of a free education. These girls who came late were usually children of parents who had no appreciation of freedom, for if they had had, their girls would not have been problems. Then when the girl was cured here in Summerhill of her special failing, she was whisked off by her parents to “a nice school where she will be educated.” But in recent years we have been getting girls from homes that believe in Summerhill. A fine bunch they are, too, full of spirit and originality and initiative.

 

We have lost girls occasionally because of financial reasons; sometimes when their brothers were kept on at expensive private schools. The old tradition of making the son the important one in the family dies hard. We have lost both girls and boys through the possessive jealousy of the parents, who feared that the children might transfer to the school their loyalty toward home.

 

Summerhill has always had a bit of a struggle to keep going. Few parents have the patience and faith to send their children to a school in which the youngsters can play as an alternative to learning. Parents tremble to think that at twenty-one their son may not be capable of earning a living.

 

Today, Summerhill pupils are mostly children whose parents want them brought up without restrictive discipline. This is a most happy circumstance, for in the old days I would have the son of a die-hard who sent his lad to me in desperation. Such parents had no interest at all in freedom for children, and secretly they must have considered us a crowd of lunatic cranks. It was very difficult to explain the thing to those die-hards.

 

I recall the military gentleman who thought of enrolling his nine-year-old son as a pupil.

 

“The place seems all right,” he said,” but I have one fear. My boy may learn to masturbate here.”

 

I asked him why he feared this. “It will do him so much harm,” he said. “It didn’t do you or me much harm, did it?” I said pleasantly. He went off rather hurriedly with his son.

 

Then there was the rich mother who, after asking me questions for an hour, turned to her husband and said, “I can’t decide whether to send Marjorie here or not”

 

“Don’t bother,” I said. “I have decided for you. I’m not taking her.”

 

I had to explain to her what I meant. “You don’t really believe in freedom,” I said. “If Marjorie came here, I should waste half my life explaining to you what it was all about, and in the end you wouldn’t be convinced. The result would be disastrous for Marjorie, for she would be perpetually faced with the awful doubt: Which is right, home or school?”

 

The ideal parents are those who come down and say, ‘‘Summerhill is the place for our kids; no other school will do.”

 

When we opened the school, the difficulties were especially grave. We could only take children from the upper and middle classes because we had to make ends meet. We had no rich man behind us. In the early days of the school, a benefactor, who insisted on anonymity, helped us through one or two bad times; and later one of the parents made generous gift - a new kitchen, a radio, a new wing on our cottage, a new workshop. He was the ideal benefactor, for he set no conditions and asked for nothing in return “Summerhill gave my Jimmy the education I wanted for him:’ he said simply, for James Shand was a true believer in freedom for children.

 

But we have never been able to take the children of the very poor. That is a pity, for we have had to confine our study to only the children of the middle class. And sometimes it is difficult to see child nature when it is hidden behind too much money and expensive clothes. When a girl knows that on her twenty-first birthday she will come into a substantial amount of money, it is not easy to study child nature in her. Luckily, however, most of the present and past pupils of Summerhill have not been spoiled by wealth; all of them know that they must earn a living when they leave school.

 

In Summerhill, we have chambermaids from the town who work for us all day but who sleep at their own homes. They are young girls who work hard and well. In a free atmosphere where they are not bossed they work harder and better than maids do who are under authority. They are excellent girls in every way. I have always felt ashamed of the fact that these girls have to work hard because they were born poor, whereas I have had spoiled girls from well-to-do homes who had not the energy to make their own beds. But I must confess that I myself hated to make my bed. My lame excuse that I had so much else to do did not impress the children. They jeered at my defense that you can’t expect a general to pick up rubbish.

 

I have suggested more than once that the adults in Summerhill are no paragons of virtue. We are human like everyone etc, and our human frailties often come into conflict with our theories. In the average home, if a child breaks a plate, father or mother makes a fuss--the plate becoming more important than the child. In Summerhill, if a maid or a child drops a pile of plates I say nothing and my wife says nothing. Accidents are accidents. But if a child borrows a book and leaves it out in the rain, my wife gets angry because books mean much to her. In such a case, I am personally indifferent, for books have little value for me. On the other hand, my wife seems vaguely surprised when I make a fuss about a ruined chisel. I value tools but tools mean little to her.

 

In Summerhill, our life is one of giving all the time. Visitors wear us out more than the children do for they also want us to give. It may be more blessed to give than to receive, but it certainly is more exhausting.

 

Our Saturday night General Meetings, alas, show the conflict between children and adults That is natural, for to have a community of mixed ages and for everyone to sacrifice all to the young children would be to completely spoil these children. The adults make complaints if a gang of seniors keeps them awake by laughing and talking after all have gone to bed. Harry complains that he spent an hour planing a panel for the front door, went to lunch, and came back to find that Billy had converted it into a shelf. I make accusations against the boys who borrowed my soldering outfit and didn’t return it. My wife makes a fuss because three small children came after supper and said they were hungry and got bread and jam, and the pieces of bread were found lying in the hallway the next morning. Peter reports sadly that a gang threw his precious clay at each other in the pottery room. So it goes on, the fight between the adult point of view and the juvenile lack of awareness. But the fight never degenerates into personalities; there is no feeling of bitterness against the individual. This conflict keeps Summerhill very much alive. There is always something happening, and there isn’t a dull day in the whole year.

 

Luckily, the staff is not too possessive, though I admit it hurts me when I have bought a special tin of paint at three pounds a gallon and then find that a girl has taken the precious stuff to paint an old bedstead. I am possessive about my car and my typewriter and my workshop tools, but I have no feeling of possession about people. If you are possessive about people, you ought not to be a schoolmaster.

 

The wear and tear of materials in Summerhill is a natural process. It could be obviated only by the introduction of fear. The wear and tear of psychic forces cannot be obviated in any way, for children ask and must be given. Fifty times a day my sitting room door opens and a child asks a question: “Is this movie night?” “Why don’t I get a P.L. [Private Lesson]?” “Have you seen Pam?” “Where’s Ena?” It is all in a day’s work, and I do not feel any strain at the time, though we have no real private life, partly because the house is not a good one for a school--not good from the adult’s point of view, for the children are always on top of us. But by the end of term, my wife and I are thoroughly fatigued.

 

One noteworthy fact is that members of the staff seldom lose their tempers. That says as much for the children as for the staff. Really, they are delightful children to live with, and the occasions for losing one’s temper are very few. If a child is free to approve of himself, he will not usually be hateful. He will not see any fun in trying to make an adult lose his temper.

 

We had one woman teacher who was oversensitive to criticism, and the girls teased her. They could not tease any other member of the staff; because no other member would react. You can only tease people who have dignity.

 

Do Summerhill children exhibit the usual aggression of ordinary children? Well, every child has to have some aggression in order to force his way through life. The exaggerated aggression we see in un-free children is an over-protest against hate that has been shown toward them. At Summerhill where no child feels he is hated by adults, aggression is not so necessary. The aggressive children we have are invariably those whose homes give them no love and understanding.

 

When I was a boy at a village school, bloody noses were at least a weekly phenomenon. Aggression of the fighting type is hate; and youngsters full of hate need to fight. When children are in an atmosphere in which hate is eliminated, they do not show hate.

 

I think that the Freudian emphasis on aggression is due to the study of homes and schools as they are. You cannot study canine psychology by observing the retriever on a chain. Nor can you dogmatically theorize about human psychology when humanity is on a very strong chain--one fashioned by generations of life haters. I find that in the freedom of Summerhill aggression does not appear in anything like the same strength in which it appears in strict schools.

 

At Summerhill, however, freedom does not mean the abrogation of common sense. We take every precaution for the safety of the pupils. The children may bathe only when there is a life-saver present for every six children; no child under eleven may cycle on the street alone. These rules come from the children themselves, voted in a General School Meeting.

 

But there is no law about climbing trees. Climbing trees is a part of life’s education; and to prohibit all dangerous undertakings would make a child a coward. We prohibit climbing on roofs, and we prohibit air guns and other weapons that might wound. I am always anxious when a craze for wooden swords begins I insist that the points be covered with rubber or cloth, but even then I am always glad when the craze is over. It is not easy to draw the line between realistic carefulness and anxiety.

 

I have never had favorites in the school. Of course I have always liked some children better than others, but I have managed to keep from revealing it, possibly the success of Summerhill has been in part because the children feel that they are all treated alike and treated with respect. I fear the existence in any school of a sentimental attitude toward the pupils; it is so easy to make your geese swans, to see a Picasso in a child who can splash color about.

 

In most schools where I have taught, the staff room was a little hell of intrigue, hate, and jealousy. Our staff room is a happy place. The spites so often seen elsewhere are absent. Under freedom, adults acquire the same happiness and good will that the pupils acquire. Sometimes, a new member of our staff will react to freedom very much as children react: he may go unshaved, stay abed too long of mornings, even break school laws. Luckily, the living out of complexes takes a much shorter time for adults than it does for children.

 

On alternate Sunday nights, I tell the younger children a story about their own adventures. I have done it for years. I have taken them to Darkest Africa, under the sea, and over the clouds. Some time ago, I made myself die. Summerhill was taken over by a strict man called Muggins. He made lessons compulsory. If you even said Dash, you got caned. I pictured how they all meekly obeyed his orders.

 

Those three- to eight-year-olds got furious with me. “We didn’t. We all ran away. We killed him with a hammer. Think we would stand a man like that?”

 

In the end, I found I could satisfy them only by coming to life again and kicking Mr. Muggins out the front door. These were mostly small children who had never known a strict school, and their reaction of fury was spontaneous and natural. A world in which the schoolmaster was not on their side was an appalling one for them to think of--not only because of their experience of Summerhill but also because of their experience at home where Mommy and Daddy were also on their side.

 

An American visitor, a professor of psychology, criticized our school on the grounds that it is an island, that it is not fitting into a community, and that it is not part of a larger social unit. My answer is this: If I were to found a school in a small town, attempting to make it a part of the community, what would happen? Out of a hundred parents, what percentage would approve of free choice in attending lessons! How many would approve of a child’s right to masturbate? From the word go, I should have to compromise with what I believe to be truth.

 

Summerhill is an island. It has to be an island, because its parents live in towns miles apart, in countries overseas. Since it is impossible to collect all the parents together in the town of Leiston, Suffolk, Summerhill cannot be a part of Leiston’s cultural and economic and social life.

 

I hasten to add that the school is not an island to Leiston town. We have many contacts with local people, and the relationship on both sides is a friendly one. Yet fundamentally, we are not a part of the community. I would never think of asking the editor of the local newspaper to publish success stories about my old pupils.

 

We play games with the town children, but our educational aims are far apart. Not having any religious affiliation, we have no connection with religious bodies in the town. If Summerhill were part of the town community center, it would be obliged to give religious teaching to its pupils.

 

I have the distinct feeling that my American friend did not realize what his criticism meant. I take it that it meant: Neill is only a rebel against society; his system can do nothing to weld society into a harmonious unit, cannot bridge the gulf between child psychology and the social ignorance of child psychology, between life and anti-life, school and home. My answer is that I am not an active proselytizer of society: I can only convince society that it is necessary for it to rid itself of its hate and its punishment and its mysticism. Although I write and say what I think of society, if I tried to reform society by action, society would kill me as a public danger.

 

If, for example, I tried to form a society in which adolescents would be free to have their own natural love life, I should be ruined if not imprisoned as an immoral seducer of youth. Hating compromise as I do, I have to compromise here, realizing that my primary job is not the reformation of society, but the bringing of happiness to some few children.

 


Date: 2015-12-11; view: 720


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