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Private Lessons at Summerhill


In the past, my main work was not teaching but the giving of “Private Lessons.” Most of the children required psychological attention, but there were always some who had just come from other schools, and the private lessons were intended to hasten their adoption to freedom. If a child is all tied up inside, he cannot adapt himself to being free.


The P.Ls. were informal talks by the fireside. I sat with a pipe in my mouth, and the child could smoke, too, if he liked. The cigarette was often the means of breaking the ice.


Once I asked a boy of fourteen to come and have a chat with me. He had just come to Summerhill from a typical private school I noticed that his fingers were yellow with nicotine, so I took out my pack of cigarettes and offered it to him. “Thanks,” he stammered, “but I don’t smoke, sir.”


“Take one, you damned liar,” I said with a smile, and he took one. I was killing two birds with one stone. Here was a boy to whom headmasters were stern, moral disciplinarian to be cheated every time. By offering him a cigarette, I was showing that I approved of his smoking. By calling him a damned liar, I was meeting him on his own level. At the same time, I was attacking his authority complex by showing him that a headmaster could swear easily and cheerfully. I wish I could have photographed his facial expression during that first interview.


He had been expelled from his previous school for stealing. “I hear you are a bit of a crook,” I said “What’s your best way of swindling the railway company?”


“I never tried to swindle it, sir.”


“Oh,” I said, “that won’t do. You must have a try. I know lots of ways,” and I told him a few. He gaped. This surely was a madhouse he had come to. The principal of the school telling him how to be a better crook? Years later, he told me that that interview was the biggest shock of his life.


What kind of children needed P.L.s.? The best answer will be a few illustrations.


Lucy, the kindergarten teacher, comes to me and says that Peggy seems very unhappy and antisocial. I say, “Right, tell her to come and have a P.L.” Peggy comes to my sitting room.


“I don’t want a P.L.,” she says, as she sits down. “They are just silly.”


“Absolutely,” I agree. “Waste of time. We won’t have one.”


She considers this “Well,” she says slowly, “I don’t mind a tiny wee one.” By this time, she has placed herself on my knee. I ask her about her Daddy and Mommy and especially about her little brother. She says he is a very silly little ass.


“He must be,” I agree. “Do you think that Mommy likes him better than she likes you?”


“She likes us both the same,” she says quickly, and adds, “She says that, anyway.”


Sometimes the fit of unhappiness has arisen from a quarrel with another child. But more often it is a letter from home that has caused the trouble, perhaps a letter saying that a brother or sister has a new doll or a bike. The end of the P.L. is that Peggy goes out quite happily.


With newcomers it was not so easy. When we got a child of eleven who had been told that babies are brought by the doctor, it took hard work to free the child from lies and fears. For naturally, such a child had a guilt sense toward masturbation, and that sense of guilt had to be destroyed if the child was to find happiness.


Most small children did not require regular P.Ls. The ideal circumstance under which to have regular sessions is when a child demands a P.L. Some of the older ones demanded P.Ls.; sometimes, but rarely, a young child did too.


Charlie, aged sixteen, felt much inferior to lads of his own age. I asked him when he felt most inferior, and he said when the kids were bathing, because his penis was much smaller than anybody else’s. I explained to him how his fear came about. He was the youngest child in a family of six sisters, all much older than he. There was a gulf of ten years between him and the youngest sister. The household was a feminine one. The father was dead, and the big sisters did all the bossing. Hence, Charlie identified himself with the feminine in life, so that he, too, could have power.


After about ten P.Ls., Charlie stopped coming to me. I asked him why. “Don’t need P.Ls. now,” he said cheerfully; “my tool is as big as Bert’s now.”


But there was more involved than that in the short course of therapy. Charlie had been told that masturbation would make him impotent when he was a man, and his fear of impotence had affected him physically. His cure was also due to the elimination of his guilt complex and of the silly lie about impotence. Charlie left Summerhill a year or two later. He is now a fine, healthy, happy man who will get on in life.


Sylvia had a stern father who never praised her. On the contrary, he criticized and nagged her all day long. Her one desire in life was to get father’s love. She sat in her room and wept bitterly as she told her story. Hers was a difficult case to help. Analysis of the daughter could not change the father. There was no solution for Sylvia until she became old enough to get away from home. I warned her that there was a danger that she might marry the wrong man merely to escape from the father.


“What sort of wrong man!” she asked.


“A man like your father, one who will treat you sadistically,” I said


Sylvia was a sad case. At Summerhill, she was a social, friendly girl who offended no one. At home she was said to be a devil. Obviously, it was the father who needed analysis - not the daughter.


Another insoluble case was that of little Florence. She was illegitimate, and she didn’t know it. My experience tells me that every illegitimate child knows unconsciously that she is illegitimate. Florence assuredly knew that there was some mystery behind her. I told the mother that the only cure for her daughter’s hate and unhappiness was to tell her the truth.


“But, Neill, I daren’t. It wouldn’t make any difference to me. But if I tell her, she won’t keep it to herself, and my mother will cut her out of her will.”


Well, well, we’ll just have to wait till the grandmother’s gone before Florence can be helped, I’m afraid. You can do nothing if a vital truth has to be kept dark.


An old boy of twenty came back to stay with us for a time, and he asked me for a few P.Ls.


“But I gave you dozens when you were here,” I said.


“I know,” he said sadly, “dozens that I didn’t really care for, but now I feel I want them.”


Nowadays, I don’t give regular therapy. With the average child, when you have cleared up the birth and masturbation question and shown how the family situation has created hates and jealousies, there is nothing more to be done. Curing a neurosis in a child is a matter of the release of emotion, and the cure will not be furthered in any way by expounding psychiatric theories to the child and telling him that he has a complex.


I recall a boy of fifteen whom I tried to help. For weeks he sat silent at our P.Ls, answering only in monosyllables. I decided to be drastic, and at his next P.L. I said to him: “I’m going to tell you what I think of you this morning. You’re a lazy, stupid, conceited, spiteful fool.”


“Am I?” he said, red with anger. “Who do you think you are anyway!” From that moment, he talked easily and to the point.


Then there was George, a boy of eleven. His father was a small tradesman in a village near Glasgow. The boy was sent to me by his doctor. George’s problem was one of intense fear. He feared to be away from home even at the village school. He screamed in terror when he had to leave home. With great difficulty, his father got him to come to Summerhill. He wept and clung to his father so that the father could not return home. I suggested to the father that he stay for a few days.


I had already had the case history from the doctor, whose comments were, in my estimation, correct and most useful. The question of getting the father to return home was becoming acute. I tried to talk to George, but he wept and sobbed that he wanted to go home. “This is just a prison,” he sobbed. I went on talking and ignored his tears.


“When you were four,” I said, “your little brother was taken to the infirmary and they brought him back in a coffin. (Increased sobbing.) Your fear of leaving home is that the same thing will happen to you - you’ll go home in a coffin. (Louder sobs.) But that’s not the main point George, my boy: you killed your brother!”


Here he protested violently, and threatened to kick me.


“You didn’t really kill him, George, but you thought that he got more love from your mother than you got; and sometimes, you wished he would die. When he did die, you had a terrible guilty conscience, because you thought that your wishes had killed him, and that God would kill you in punishment for your guilt if you went away from home.”


His sobbing ceased. Next day, although he made a scene at the station, he let his father go home.


George did not get over his homesickness for some time. But the sequel was that in eighteen months he insisted on traveling home for the vacation--alone, crossing London from station to station by himself. He did the same on his way back to Summerhill.


More and more I come to the conclusion that therapy is not necessary when children can live out their complexes in freedom. But in a case like that of George, freedom would not have been enough.


In the past I have given P.Ls. to thieves and have seen resulting cures, but I have had thieves who refused to come to P.Ls. Yet after three years of freedom, these boys were also cured.


At Summerhill, it is love that cures; it is approval and the freedom to be true to oneself. Of our forty-five children, only a small fraction receive P.Ls. I believe more and more in the therapeutic effect of creative work. I would have the children do more handiwork, dramatics, and dancing.


Let me make clear that I gave P.Ls. only for emotional release. If a child were unhappy, I gave him a P.L. But if he couldn’t learn to read or if he hated mathematics, I did not try to cure him with analytic treatment. Sometimes, in the course of a P.L., it came out that the inability to learn to read dated from Mommy’s constant promptings to be “a nice, clever boy like your brother” or that the hatred of arithmetic came from dislike of a previous teacher of arithmetic.


Naturally, I am the father symbol for all the children; and my wife is the mother symbol. Socially, my wife fares worse than I do, for she gets all the unconscious hate of mother displaced on her by the girls, while I get their love. The boys give their love of their mother to my wife and hatred of their father to me. Boys do not express hate so easily as girls. That is due to their being able to deal so much more with things than with people. An angry boy kicks a ball while a girl spits catty words at a mother symbol.


But to be fair, I must say that it is only during a certain period that girls are catty and difficult to live with--the pre- adolescent and the first-year-of-adolescence period. And not all girls go through this stage. Much depends on their previous school and, more still, on the mother’s attitude toward authority.


In the P.Ls., I pointed out relationships between reactions to home and school. Any criticism of me I translated as one of father. Any accusation against my wife I showed to be one against mother. I tried to keep analysis objective; to enter into subjective depths would have been unfair to the children.


There were occasions, naturally, when a subjective explanation was necessary, as in the case of Jane. Jane, aged thirteen, went round the school telling various children that Neill wanted to see them.


I had a stream of callers—“Jane says you want me.” I told Jane later that sending others to me meant that she wanted to come herself.


What was the technique of a P.L? I had no set method. Sometimes, I began with a question, “When you look in the mirror, do you like your face?” The answer was always no.


“What part of your face do you hate most?” The invariable answer was, “My nose.”


Adults give the same reply. The face is the person as far as the outside world is concerned. We think of faces when we think of people, and we look at faces when we talk to people. So that the face becomes the outside picture of the inner-self. When a child says he dislikes his face, he means he dislikes his personality. My next step was to leave the face and to go on to the self.


“What do you hate most in yourself?” I asked.


Usually, the answer was a physical one. “My feet are too big.” “Too fat.” “Too little.” “My hair.”


I never gave an opinion--never agreed that he or she was fat or lean. Nor did I force things. If the body was of interest, we talked about it until there was nothing more to be said. Then we went on to the personality.


I often gave an exam. “I am going to write down a few things,” I would say, “and examine you in them. You give yourself the mark you think you deserve. For example, I’ll ask you what percentage out of a hundred you would give yourself for, say, ability at games or for bravery and so on.” And the exam began.


Here is one given to a boy of fourteen.


Good looks: “Oh, not so good, about 45 per cent”


Brains: “Um, 60.”


Bravery: “25.”


Loyalty: “I don’t let my pals down-go.”


Musicality: “Zero.”


Handiwork: (Mumbled answer unclear.)


Hate: “That’s too difficult No, I can’t answer that one.”


Games: “66.”


Social feeling: “90.”


Idiocy: “Oh, about 190 per cent”


Naturally, the child’s answers allowed an opportunity for discussion. I found it best to begin with the ego since it awakened interest. Then, when we later went on to the family, the child talked easily and with interest.


With young children, the technique was more spontaneous. I followed the child’s lead. Here is a typical first P.L. with a six-year-old girl named Margaret. She comes into my room and says, “I want a P.L.”


“Righto,” I say. She sits down in an easy chair.


“What is a P.L.?” she asks.


“It isn’t anything to eat” I say, “but somewhere in this pocket I have a caramel. Ah, here it is.” And I give her the candy.


“Why do you want a P.L.?” I ask.


“Evelyn had one, and I want one too.”


“Good. You begin it. What do you want to talk about?”


“I’ve got a dolly. (Pause.) Where did you get that thing on the mantelpiece? (She obviously does not want to wait for an answer.) Who was in this house before you came?”


Her questions point to a desire to know some vital truth, and I have a good suspicion that it is the truth about birth.


“Where do babies come from?” I ask suddenly.


Margaret gets up and marches to the door.


“I hate P.Ls.:’ she says, and departs. But a few days later, she asks for another P.L.-and so we progress.


Little Tommy, aged six, also did not mind P.Ls. as long as I refrained from mentioning “rude” things. For the first three sessions he went out indignantly, and I knew why. I knew that only rude things really interested him. He was one of the victims of the masturbation prohibition.


Many children never got P.Ls. They did not want them. These were the children who had been properly brought up without parental lies and lectures.


Therapy does not cure at once. The treated person does not benefit much for some time, usually about a year. Hence, I never felt pessimistic about older pupils who left school in what we might describe as a half-baked psychological condition.


Tom was sent to us because he had been a failure at his school. I gave him a year’s intensive P.Ls. and there was no apparent result. When he left Summerhill, he looked as if he would be a failure all through life. But a year later, his parents wrote that he had suddenly decided to be a doctor and was studying hard at the university.


Bill seemed a more hopeless case. His P.Ls. took three years. He left school, apparently, an aimless youth of eighteen. He drifted about from job to job for over a year, and then he decided to be a farmer. All reports I’ve heard say that he is doing well and is keen on his work.


P.Ls. were really a re-education. Their object was to lop off all complexes resulting from morality and fear.


A free school like Summerhill could be run without P.Ls. They merely speed up the process of re-education by beginning with a good spring-cleaning before the summer of freedom.




Summerhill is a self-governing school, democratic in form. Everything connected with social, or group life, including punishment for social offenses, is settled by vote at the Saturday night General School Meeting.


Each member of the teaching staff and each child, regardless of his age, has one vote. My vote carries the same weight as that of a seven-year-old.


One may smile and say, “But your voice has more value, hasn’t it?” Well, let’s see. Once I got up at a meeting and proposed that no child under sixteen should be allowed to smoke. I argued my case: a drug, poisonous, not a real appetite in children, but mostly an attempt to be grown up. Counter arguments were thrown across the floor. The vote was taken. I was beaten by a large majority.


The sequel is worth recording. After my defeat, a boy of sixteen proposed that no one under twelve should be allowed to smoke. He carried his motion. However, at the following weekly meeting, a boy of twelve proposed the repeal of the new smoking rule, saying, “We are all sitting in the toilets smoking on the sly just like kids do in a strict school, and I say it is against the whole idea of Summerhill.” His speech was cheered, and that meeting repealed the law. I hope I have made it clear that my voice is not always more powerful than that of a child.


Once, I spoke strongly about breaking the bedtime rules, with the consequent noise and the sleepy heads that lumbered around the next morning. I proposed that culprits should be fined all their pocket money for each offense. A boy of fourteen proposed that there should be a penny reward per hour for everyone staying up after his or her bedtime. I got a few votes, but he got a big majority.


Summerhill self-government has no bureaucracy. There is a different chairman at each meeting, appointed by the previous chairman, and the secretary’s job is voluntary. Bedtime officers are seldom in office for more than a few weeks.


Our democracy makes laws-good ones, too. For example, it is forbidden to bathe in the sea without the supervision of life-guards, who are always staff members. It is forbidden to climb on the roofs. Bedtimes must be kept or there is an automatic fine. Whether classes should be called off on the Thursday or on the Friday preceding a holiday is a matter for a show of hands at a General School Meeting.


The success of the meeting depends largely on whether the chairman is weak or strong, for to keep order among forty-five vigorous children is no easy task. The chairman has power to fine noisy citizens. Under a weak chairman, the fines are much too frequent.


The staff takes a hand, of course, in the discussions. So do I, although there are a number of situations in which I must remain neutral. In fact, I have seen a lad charged with an offense get away with it on a complete alibi, although he had privately confided to me that he had committed the offense. In a case like this, I must always be on the side of the individual.


I, of course, participate like anyone else when it comes to casting my vote on any issue or bringing up a proposal of my own. Here is a typical example. I once raised the question of whether football should be played in the lounge. The lounge is under my office, and I explained that I disliked the noise of football while I was working. I proposed that indoor football be forbidden. I was supported by some of the girls, by some older boys, and by most of the staff. But my proposal was not carried and that meant my continuing to put up with the noisy scenes of feet below my office. Finally, after much public disputation at several meetings, I did carry by majority approval the abolition of football in the lounge. And this is the way the minority generally gets its rights in our school democracy; it keeps demanding them. This applies to little children as much as it does to adults.


On the other hand, there are aspects of school life that do not come under the self-government regime. My wife plans the arrangements for bedrooms, provides the menu, sends out and pays bills. I appoint teachers and ask them to leave if I think they are not suitable.


The function of Summerhill self-government is not only to make laws but to discuss social features of the community as well. At the beginning of each term, rules about bedtime are made by vote. You go to bed according to your age. Then questions of general behavior come up. Sports committees have to be elected, as well as an end-of-term dance committee, a theater committee, bedtime officers, and downtown officers who report any disgraceful behavior out of the school boundaries.


The most exciting subject ever brought up is that of food. I have more than once waked up a dull meeting by proposing that second helpings be abolished. Any sign of kitchen favoritism in the matter of food is severely handled. But when the kitchen brings up the question of wasting food, the meeting is not much interested. The attitude of children toward food is essentially a personal and self-centered one.


In a General School Meeting all academic discussions are avoided. Children are eminently practical and theory bores them. They like concreteness not abstraction. I once brought forward a motion that swearing be abolished by law, and I gave my reason. I had been showing a woman around with her little boy, a prospective pupil. Suddenly from upstairs came a very strong adjective. The mother hastily gathered up her son and went off in a hurry. “Why,” I asked at a meeting, “should my income suffer because some fathead swears in front of a prospective parent? It isn’t a moral question at all; it is purely financial. You swear and I lose a pupil.”


My question was answered by a lad of fourteen. “Neill is talking rot,” he said. “Obviously, if this woman was shocked, she didn’t believe in Summerhill. Even if she had enrolled her boy, the first time he came home saying damn or hell, she would have taken him out of here.” The meeting agreed with him, and my proposal was voted down.


A General School Meeting often has to tackle the problem of bullying. Our community is pretty hard on bullies; and I notice that the school govermnent’s bullying rule has been underlined on the bulletin board: “All cases of bullying will be severely dealt with.” Bullying is not so rife in Summerhill, however, as in strict schools, and the reason is not far to seek. Under adult discipline, the child becomes a hater. Since the child cannot express his hatred of adults with impunity, he takes it out on smaller or weaker boys. But this seldom happens in Summerhill. Very often, a charge of bullying when investigated amounts to the fact that Jenny called Peggy a lunatic.


Sometimes a case of stealing is brought up at the General School Meeting. There is never any punishment for stealing, but there is always reparation. Often children will come to me and say, “John stole some coins from David. Is this a case for psychology, or shall we bring it up?”


If I consider it a case for psychology, requiring individual attention, I tell them to leave it to me. If John is a happy, normal boy who has stolen something inconsequential, I allow charges to be brought against him. The worst that happens is that he is docked all of his pocket money until the debt is paid.


How are General School Meetings run? At the beginning of each term, a chairman is elected for one meeting only. At the end of the meeting he appoints his successor. This procedure is followed throughout the term. Anyone who has a grievance, a charge, or a suggestion, or a new law to propose brings it up.


Here is a typical example: Jim took the pedals from Jack’s bicycle because his own cycle is in disrepair, and he wanted to go away with some other boys for a weekend trip. After due consideration of the evidence, the meeting decides that Jim must replace the pedals, and he is forbidden to go on the trip.


The chairman asked “Any objections?”


Jim gets up and shouts that there jolly well are! Only his adjective isn’t exactly “jolly.” “This isn’t fair!” he cries. “I didn’t know that Jack ever used his old crock of a bike. It has been kicking about among the bushes for days. I don’t mind shoving his pedals back, but I think the punishment unfair. I don’t think I should be cut out of the trip.”


Follows a breezy discussion. In the debate, it transpires that Jim usually gets a weekly allowance from home, but the allowance hasn’t come for six weeks, and he hasn’t a bean. The meeting votes that the sentence be quashed, and it is duly quashed.


But what to do about Jim! Finally it is decided to open a subscription fund to put Jim’s bike in order. His schoolmates chip in to buy him pedals for his bike, and he sets off happily on his trip.


Usually, the School Meeting’s verdict is accepted by the culprit. However, if the verdict is unacceptable, the defendant may appeal, in which case the chairman will bring up the matter once again at the very end of the meeting. At such an appeal, the matter is considered more carefully, and generally the original verdict is tempered in view of the dissatisfaction of the defendant. The children realize that if the defendant feels he has been unfairly judged, there is a good chance that he actually has been.


No culprit at Summerhill ever shows any signs of defiance or hatred of the authority of his community. I am always surprised at the docility our pupils show when punished.


One term, four of the biggest boys were charged at the General School Meeting with doing an illegal thing selling various articles from their wardrobes. The law forbidding this had been passed on the ground that such practices are unfair to the parents who buy the clothes and unfair as well to the school because when children go home minus certain wearing apparel, the parents blame the school for carelessness. The four boys were punished by being kept on the grounds for four days and being sent to bed at eight each night. They accepted the sentence without a murmur. On Monday night, when everyone had gone to the town movies, I found Dick, one of the culprits, in bed reading.


“You are a chump,” I said. “Everyone has gone to the movies. Why don’t you get up?”


“Don’t try to be funny,” he said.


This loyalty of Summerhill pupils to their own democracy is amazing. It has no fear in it, and no resentment I have seen a boy go through a long trial for some antisocial act, and I have seen him sentenced. Often, the boy who has just been sentenced is elected chairman for the next meeting.


The sense of justice that children have never ceases to make me marvel. And their administrative ability is great. As education, self-government is of infinite value.


Certain classes of offenses come under the automatic fine rule. If you ride another’s bike without permission, there is an automatic fine of sixpence. Swearing in town (but you can swear as much as you like on the school grounds), bad behavior in the movies, climbing on roofs, throwing food in the dining room -these and other infractions of rules carry automatic fines.


Punishments are nearly always fines: hand over pocket money for a week or miss a movie.


An oft-heard objection to children acting as judges is that they punish too harshly. I find it not so. On the contrary, they are very lenient. On no occasion has there been a brash sentence at Summerhill. And invariably the punishment has some relation to the crime.


Three small girls were disturbing the sleep of others. Punishment: they must go to bed an hour earlier every night for a week. Two boys were accused of throwing clods at other boys. Punishment: they must cart clods to level the hockey field.


Often the chairman will say, “The case is too silly for words,” and decide that nothing should be done.


When our secretary was tied for riding Ginger’s bike without permission, he and two other members of the staff who had also ridden it were ordered to push each other on Ginger’s bike ten times around the front lawn.


Four small boys who climbed the ladder that belonged to the builders who were erecting the new workshop were ordered to climb up and down the ladder for ten minutes straight.


The meeting never seeks advice from an adult. Well, I can remember only one occasion when it was done. Three girls had raided the kitchen larder. The meeting fined them their pocket money. They raided the kitchen again that night and the meeting fined them a movie. They raided it once more, and the meeting was graveled what to do. The chairman consulted me. “Give them tuppence reward each,” I suggested. “What? Why, man, you’ll have the whole school raiding the kitchen if we do that.” “You won’t,” I said. “Try it.”


He tried it. Two of the girls refused to take the money; and all three were heard to declare that they would never raid the larder again. They didn’t--for about two months.


Priggish behavior at meetings is rare. Any sign of priggishness is frowned upon by the community. A boy of eleven, a strong exhibitionist, used to get up and draw attention to himself by making long involved remarks of obvious irrelevance. At least he tried to, but the meeting shouted him down. The young have a sensitive nose for insincerity.


At Summerhill we have proved, I believe, that self-government works. In fact, the school that has no self-government should not be called a progressive school. It is a compromise school. You cannot have freedom unless children feel completely free to govern their own social life. When there is a boss, there is no real freedom. This applies even more to the benevolent boss than to the disciplinarian. The child of spirit can rebel against the hard boss, but the soft boss merely makes the child impotently soft and unsure of his real feelings.


Good self-government in a school is possible only when there is a sprinkling of older pupils who like a quiet life and fight the indifference or opposition of the gangster age. These older youngsters are often outvoted, but it is they who really believe in and want self-government. Children up to, say, twelve, on the other hand, will not run good self-government on their own, because they have not reached the social age. Yet at Summerhill, a seven-year-old rarely misses a General Meeting.


One spring we had a spate of bad luck. Some community- minded seniors had left us after passing their college entrance exams, so that there were very few seniors left in the school. The vast majority of the pupils were at the gangster stage and age. Although they were social in their speeches, they were not old enough to run the community well. They passed any amount of laws and then forgot them and broke them. The few older pupils left were, by some chance, rather individualist, and tended to live their own lives in their own groups, so that the staff was figuring too prominently in attacking the breaking of the school rules. Thus it came about that at a General School meeting I felt compelled to launch a vigorous attack on the seniors for being not antisocial but asocial, breaking the bedtime rules by sitting up far too late and taking no interest in what the juniors were doing in an antisocial way.


Frankly, younger children are only mildly interested in government. Left to themselves, I question whether younger children would ever form a government. Their values are not our values, and their manners are not our manners.


Stern discipline is the easiest way for the adult to have peace and quiet. Anyone can be a drill sergeant. What the ideal alternative method of securing a quiet life is I do not know. Our Summerhill trials and errors certainly fail to give the adult a quiet life. On the other hand they do not give the children an over noisy life. Perhaps the ultimate test is happiness. By this criterion, Summerhill has found an excellent compromise in its self-government.


Our law against dangerous weapons is likewise a compromise. Air guns are forbidden. The few boys who want to have air guns in the school hate the law; but in the main, they conform to it. When they are a minority, children do not seem to feel so strongly as adults do.


In Summerhill, there is one perennial problem that can never be solved; it might be called the problem of the individual vs. the community. Both staff and pupils get exasperated when a gang of little girls led by a problem girl annoy some people, throw water on others, break the bedtime laws, and make themselves a perpetual nuisance. Jean, the leader, is attacked in a General Meeting. Strong words are used to condemn her misuse of freedom as license.


A visitor, a psychologist said to me: “It is all wrong. The girl’s face is an unhappy one; she has never been loved, and all this open criticism makes her feel more unloved than ever. She needs love, not opposition.”


“My dear woman,” I replied, “we have tried to change her with love. For weeks, we rewarded her for being antisocial. We have shown her affection and tolerance, and she has not reacted. Rather, she has looked on us as simpletons, easy marks for her aggression. We cannot sacrifice the entire community to one individual.”


I do not know the complete answer. I know that when Jean is fifteen, she will be a social girl and not a gang leader. I pin my faith on public opinion. No child will go on for years being disliked and criticized. As for the condemnation by the school meeting, one simply cannot sacrifice other children to one problem child.


Once, we had a boy of six who had a miserable life before he came to Summerhill. He was a violent bully, destructive and full of hate. The four- and five-year-olds suffered and wept. The community had to do something to protect them; and in doing so, it had to be against the bully. The mistakes of two parents could not be allowed to react on other children whose parents had given them love and care.


On a very few occasions, I have had to send a child away because the others were finding the school a hell because of him. I say this with regret, with a vague feeling of failure, but I could see no other way.


Have I had to alter my views on self-government in these long years? On the whole, no. I could not visualize Summerhill without it. It has always been popular. It is our showpiece for visitors. But that, too, has its drawbacks, as when a girl of fourteen whispered to me at a meeting, “I meant to bring up about girls blocking the toilets by putting sanitary napkins in them, but look at all these visitors” I advised her to damn the visitors and bring the matter up-which she did.


The educational benefit of practical civics cannot be over-emphasized. At Summerhill the pupils would fight to the death for their right to govern themselves. In my opinion, one weekly General School Meeting is of more value than a week’s curriculum of school subjects. It is an excellent theater for practicing public speaking, and most of the children speak well and without self-consciousness. I have often heard sensible speeches from children who could neither read nor write.


I cannot see an alternative method to our Summerhill democracy. It may be a fairer democracy than the political one, for children are pretty charitable to each other, and have no vested interests to speak of. Moreover, it is a more genuine democracy because laws are made at an open meeting, and the question of uncontrollable elected delegates does not arise.


After all, it is the broad outlook that free children acquire that makes Self-government so important. Their laws deal with essentials, not appearances. The laws governing conduct in the town are the compromise with a less free civilization. “Down- town”-the outside world--wastes its precious energy in worrying over trifles. As if it matters in the scheme of life whether you wear dressy clothes or say hell. Summerhill, by getting away from the outward nothings of life, can have and does have a community spirit that is in advance of its time. True, it is apt to call a spade a damn shovel, but any ditch digger will tell you with truth that a spade is a damn shovel.




In most schools there is a definite plan to separate boys from girls, especially in their sleeping quarters. Love affairs are not encouraged. They are not encouraged in Summerhill either-- but neither are they discouraged.


In Summerhill, boys and girls are left alone. Relations between the sexes appear to be very healthy. One sex will not grow up with any illusions or delusions about the other sex. Not that Summerhill is just one big family, where all the nice little boys and girls are brothers and sisters to one another. If that were so, I would become a rabid anti-co-educationist at once. Under real coeducation--not the kind where boys and girls sit in class together but live and sleep in separate houses -- shameful curiosity is almost eliminated There are no Peeping Toms in Summerhill. There is far less anxiety about sex than at other schools.


Every now and again an adult comes to the school, and asks, “But don’t they all sleep with each other?” And when I answer that they do not, he or she cries, “But why not? At their age, I would have had a hell of a good time!”


It is this type of person who assumes that if boys and girls are educated together, they must necessarily indulge in sexual license. To be sure, such people do not say that this thought underlies their objections. Instead, they rationalize by saying that boys and girls have different capacities for learning, and therefore should not have lessons together.


Schools should be coeducational because life is coeducational. But coeducation is feared by many parents and teachers because of the danger of pregnancy. Indeed, I am told that not a few principals of coed schools spend sleepless nights worrying over that possibility.


Conditioned children of both sexes are often incapable of loving. This news may be comforting to those who fear sex; but to youth in general, the inability to love is a great human tragedy.


When I asked a few adolescents from a famous private coed school if there were any love affairs in their school, the answer was no. Upon expressing surprise, I was told, “We sometimes have a friendship between a boy and a girl, but it is never a love affair.” Since I saw some handsome lads and some pretty girls on that campus, I knew that the school was imposing an anti-love ideal on the pupils and that its highly moral atmosphere was inhibiting sex.


I once asked the principal of a progressive school, “Have you any love affairs in the school?”


“No,” he replied gravely. “But then, we never take problem children.”


Those against coeducation may object that the system makes boys, effeminate and girls masculine. But deep down is the moral fear, actually a jealous fear. Sex with love is the greatest pleasure in the world, and it is repressed because it is the greatest pleasure. All else is evasion.


The reason that I entertain no fears that the older pupils at Summerhill who have been here since early childhood might indulge in sexual license is because I know that I am not dealing with children who have a repressed, and therefore unnatural, interest in sex.


Some years ago, we had two pupils arrive at the same time: a boy of seventeen from a boy’s private school and a girl of sixteen from a girl’s private school. They fell in love with each other and were always together. I met them late one night and I stopped them. “I don’t know what you two are doing,” I said, “and morally I don’t care, for it isn’t a moral question at all. But economically I do care. If you, Kate, have a kid, my school will be ruined.”


I went on to expand upon this theme. “You see” I said, “You have just come to Summerhill. To you it means freedom to do what you like. Naturally, you have no special feeling for the school. If you had been here from the age of seven, I’d never have had to mention the matter. You would have such a strong attachment to the school that you would think of the consequences to Summerhill.” It was the only possible way to deal with the problem. Fortunately, I never had to speak to them again on the subject.




In Summerhill, we used to have a community law that provided that every child over twelve and every member of the staff must do two hours of work each week on the grounds. The pay was a token pay of a nickel an hour. If you did not work, you were fined a dime. A few, teachers included, were content to pay the fines. Of those who worked, most had their eyes on the dock. There was no play component in the work, and therefore the work bored everyone. The law was reexamined, and the children abolished it by an almost unanimous vote.


A few years ago, we needed an infirmary in Summerhill. We decided to build one ourselves, proper building of brick and cement. None of us had ever laid a brick, but we started in. A few pupils helped to dig the foundations and knocked down some old brick walls to get the bricks. But the children demanded payment. We refused to pay wages. In the end, the infirmary was built by the teachers and visitors. The job was just too dull for children, and to their young minds the need for the sanatorium too remote. They had no self-interest in it. But some time later when they wanted a bicycle shed, they built one all by themselves without any help from the staff.


I am writing of children--not as we adults think they should be--but as they really are. Their community sense - their sense of social responsibility--does not develop until the age of eighteen or more. Their interests are immediate, and the future does not exist for them.


I have never yet seen a lazy child. What is called laziness is either lack of interest or lack of health. A healthy child cannot be idle; he has to be doing something all day long. Once I knew a very healthy lad who was considered a lazy fellow. Mathematics did not interest him, but the school curriculum demanded that he learn mathematics. Of course, he didn’t want to study mathematics, and so his math teacher thought he was lazy.


I read recently that if a couple who were out for an evening were to dance every dance they would be walking twenty-five miles. Yet they would feel little or no fatigue because they would be experiencing pleasure all evening long--assuming that their steps agreed. So it is with a child. The boy who is lazy in class will run miles during a football game.


I find it impossible to get youths of seventeen to help me plant potatoes or weed onions, although the same boys will spend hours souping up motor engines, or washing cars, or making radio sets. It took me a long time to accept this phenomenon. The truth began to dawn on me one day when I was digging my brother’s garden in Scotland. I didn’t enjoy the job, and it came to me suddenly that what was wrong was that I was digging a garden that meant nothing to me. And my garden means nothing to the boys, whereas their bikes or radios mean a lot to them. True altruism is a long time in coming, and it never loses its factor of selfishness.


Small children have quite a different attitude toward work than teenagers have. Summerhill juniors, ranging from age three to eight, will work like Trojans mixing cement or carting sand or cleaning bricks; and they will work with no thought of reward. They identify themselves with grownups and their work is like a fantasy worked out in reality.


However, from the age of eight or nine until the age of nineteen or twenty, the desire to do manual labor of a dull kind is just nor there. This is true of most children; there are individual children, of course, who remain workers from early childhood right on through life.


The fact is that we adults exploit children far too often. “Marion, run down to the mail box with this letter.” Any child hates to be made use of. The average child dimly realizes that he is fed and clothed by his parents without any effort on his part. He feels that such care is his natural right, but he realizes that on the other hand he is expected and obliged to do a hundred menial tasks and many disagreeable chores, which the parents themselves evade.


I once read about a school in America that was built by the pupils themselves. I used to think that this was the ideal way. It isn’t if children built their own school, you can be sure that some gentleman with a breezy, benevolent authority was standing by, lustily shouting encouragement. When such authority is not present children simply do not build schools.


My own opinion is that a sane civilization would not ask children to work until at least the age of eighteen. Most boys and girls would do a lot of work before they reached eighteen, but such work would be play for them, and probably uneconomical work from the viewpoint of the parents. I feel depressed when I think of the gigantic amount of work students have to do to prepare for exams. I understand that in pre-war Budapest nearly fifty per cent of the students broke down physically or psychologically after their matriculation exams.


The reason we here in Summerhill keep getting such good reports about the industrious performance of our old pupils on responsible jobs is that these boys and girls have lived out their self-centered fantasy stage in Summerhill. As young adults they are able to face the realities of life without any unconscious longing for the play of childhood.




Summerhill might be defined as a school in which play is of the greatest importance. Why children and kittens play I do not know. I believe it is a matter of energy.


I am not thinking of play in terms of athletic fields and organized games; I am thinking of play in terms of fantasy. Organized games involve skill, competition, teamwork; but children’s play usually requires no skill, little competition, and hardly any teamwork. Small children will play gangster games with shooting or swordplay. Long before the motion picture era, children played gang games. Stories and movies will give a direction to some kind of play, but the fundamentals are in the hearts of all children of all races.


At Summerhill the six-year-olds play the whole day long-- play with fantasy. To a small child, reality and fantasy are very close to each other. When a boy of ten dressed himself up as a ghost, the little ones screamed with delight; they knew it was only Tommy; they had seen him put on that sheet. But as he advanced on them, they one and all screamed in terror.


Small children live a life of fantasy and they carry this fantasy over into action. Boys of eight to fourteen play gangsters and are always bumping people off or dying the skies in their wooden airplanes. Small girls also go through a gang stage, but it does not take the form of guns and swords. It is more personal. Mary’s gang objects to Nellie’s gang, and there are rows and hard words. Boys’ rival gangs are only play enemies. Small boys are thus more easy to live with than small girls.


I have not been able to discover where the borderline of fantasy begins and ends. When a child brings a doll a meal on a tiny toy plate, does she really believe for the moment that the doll is alive? Is a rocking horse a real horse? When a boy cries “Stick’em up” and then fires, does he think or feel that his is a real gun? I am inclined to think that children do imagine that their toys are real, and only when some insensitive adult butts in and reminds them of their fantasy do they come back to earth with a plop. No sympathetic parent will ever break up a child’s fantasy.


Boys do not generally play with girls. Boys play gangsters, and play tag; they make huts in trees; they dig holes and trenches.


Girls seldom organize any play. The time-honored game of playing teacher or doctor is unknown among free children, for they feel no need to mimic authority. Smaller girls play with dolls; but older girls seem to get the most fun out of contact with people, not things.


We have often had mixed hockey teams. Card games and other indoor games are usually mixed.


Children love noise and mud; they clatter on stairs; they shout like louts; they are unconscious of furniture. If they are playing a game of touch, they would walk over the Portland Vase if it happened to be in their way--walk over it without seeing it.


Mothers, too often, do not play enough with their babies. They seem to think that putting a soft teddy bear in the carriage with the baby solves things for an hour or two, forgetting that babies want to be tickled and hugged.


Granting that childhood is playhood, how do we adults generally react to this fact? We ignore it. We forget all about it --because play, to us, is a waste of time. Hence we erect a large city school with many rooms and expensive apparatus for teaching; but more often than not, all we offer to the play instinct is a small concrete space.


One could, with some truth, claim that the evils of civilization are due to the fact that no child has ever had enough play. To put it differently, every child has been hot housed into an adult long before he has reached adulthood.


The adult attitude toward play is quite arbitrary. We, the old, map out a child’s timetable: Learn from nine till twelve and then an hour for lunch; and again lessons until three. If a free child were asked to make a timetable, he would almost certainly give to play many periods and to lessons only a few.


Fear is at the root of adult antagonism to children’s play. Hundreds of times I have heard the anxious query, “But if my boy plays all day, how will he ever learn anything; how will he ever pass exams?” Very few will accept my answer, “If your child plays all he wants to play, he will be able to pass college entrance exams after two years’ intensive study, instead of the usual five, six, or seven years of learning in a school that discounts play as a factor in life.”


But I always have to add, “That is - if he ever wants to pass the exams!” He may want to become a ballet dancer or a radio engineer. She may want to be a dress designer or a children’s nurse. Yes, fear of the child’s future leads adults to deprive children of their right to play. There is more in it than that, however. There is a vague moral idea behind the disapproval of play, a suggestion that being a child is not so good, a suggestion voiced in the admonition to young adults, “Don’t be a kid.”


Parents who have forgotten the yearnings of their childhood --forgotten how to play and how to fantasy--make poor parents. When a child has lost the ability to play, he is psychically dead and a danger to any child who comes in contact with him.


Teachers from Israel have told me of the wonderful community centers there. The school, I’m told, is part of a community whose primary need is hard work. Children of ten, one teacher told me, weep if--as a punishment--they are not allowed to dig the garden. If I had a child of ten who wept because he was forbidden to dig potatoes, I should wonder if he were mentally defective. Childhood is playhood; and any community system that ignores that truth is educating in a wrong way. To me the Israeli method is sacrificing young life to economic needs. It may be necessary; but I would not dare to call that system ideal community living.


It is intriguing, yet most difficult, to assess the damage done to children who have not been allowed to play as much as they wanted to. I often wonder if the great masses who watch professional football are trying to live out their arrested play interest by identifying with the players, playing by proxy as it were. The majority of our Summerhill graduates do not attend football matches, nor is it interested in pageantry. I believe few of them would walk very far to see a royal procession. Pageantry has a childish element in it; its color, formalism, and slow movement have some suggestion of toyland and dressed-up dolls. That may be the reason that women seem to love pageantry more than men do. As people get older and more sophisticated, they seem to be attracted less and less by pageantry of any kind. I doubt if generals and politicians and diplomats get anything out of state processions except boredom.


There is some evidence that children brought up freely and with the maximum of play do not tend to become mass-minded. Among old Summerhillians, the only ones who can easily and enthusiastically cheer in a crowd are the ones who came from the homes of parents with Communist leanings.




During the winter, Sunday night at Summerhill is acting night. The plays are always well attended. I have seen six successive Sunday nights with a full dramatic program. But sometimes after a wave of dramatics there will not be a performance for a few weeks.


The audience is not too critical. It behaves much better than most London audiences do. We seldom have catcalls or feet thumping or whistling.


The Summerhill Theater is a converted squash-rackets court, which holds about a hundred people. It has a movable stage; that is, it is made of boxes that can be piled up into steps and platforms. It has proper lighting with elaborate dimming devices and spotlights. There is no scenery--only gray curtains. When the cue is Enter villagers through gap in hedge, the actors push the curtain aside.


The tradition of the school is that only plays written in Summerhill are performed. And the unwritten code is that a play written by a teacher is performed only if there is a dearth of children’s plays. The cast makes its own costumes, too, and then are usually exceptionally well done. Our school dramas tend toward comedy and fame rather than tragedy; but when we have a tragedy, it is well done--sometimes beautifully done.


Girls write plays more than boys do. Small boys often produce their own plays; but usually the parts are not written out. They hardly need to be, for the main line of each character is always “Stick’ em up!” In these plays the curtain is always rung down on a set of corpses, for small boys are by nature thorough and uncompromising.


Daphne, a girl of thirteen, used to give us Sherlock Holmes plays. I remember one about a constable who ran away with the sergeant’s wife. With the aid of the sleuth and, of course, “My Dear Watson” the sergeant tracked the wife to the constable’s lodgings. There a remarkable sight met their eyes. The constable lay on a sofa with his arm around the faithless wife, while a bevy of demimonde women danced sinuous dances in the middle of the room. The constable was in evening dress. Daphne always brought high life into her dramas.


Girls of fourteen or so sometimes write plays in verse, and these are often good. Of course, not all the staff and children write plays.


There is a strong aversion to plagiarism. When, some time ago, a play was dropped from the program and I had to write one hastily as a stopgap, I wrote on the theme of one of W. W. Jacob’s stories. There was an outcry of “Copycat! Swindler!”


Summerhill children do not like dramatized stories. Nor do they want the usual highbrow stuff so common in other schools. Our crowd never acts Shakespeare; but sometimes I write a Shakespearean skit as, for example, Julius Caesar with an American gangster setting--the language a mixture of Shakespeare and a detective story magazine.


Mary brought the house down when as Cleopatra she stabbed everyone on the stage; and then, looking at the blade of her knife, read aloud the words “stainless steel,” and plunged the knife into her breast.


The acting ability of the pupils is of a high standard. Among Summerhill pupils there is no such thing as stage fright. The little children are a delight to see; they live their parts with complete sincerity. The girls act more readily than the boys. Indeed, boys under ten seldom act at all except in their own gangster plays; and some children never get to act nor have any desire to do so.


We discovered in our long experience that the worst actor is he who acts in life. Such a child can never get away from himself and is self-conscious on the stage. Perhaps self-conscious is the wrong term, for it means being conscious that others are conscious of you.


Acting is a necessary part of education. It is largely exhibitionism; but at Summerhill when acting becomes only exhibitionism, an actor is not admired.


As an actor, one must have a strong power of identifying oneself with others. With adults, this identification is never unconscious; adults know they are play-acting. But I question if small children really do know. Quite often when a child enters and his cue is “Who are you?” instead of answering, “I am the abbey ghost!” he will answer, “I’m Peter.”


In one of the plays written for the very youngest, there was a dinner scene with real viands. It took the prompter some time and concern to get the actors to move on to the next scene. The children went on tucking in the food with complete indifference to the audience.


Acting is one method of acquiring self-confidence. But some children who never act tell me that they hate the performances because they feel so inferior. Here is a difficulty for which I have found no solution. Such a child generally finds another line of endeavor in which he can show superiority. The difficult case is that of the girl who loves acting but can’t act. It says much for the good manners of the school that such a girl is seldom left out of a cast.


Boys and girls of thirteen and fourteen refuse to take any part that involves making love, but the small children will play any part easily and gladly. The seniors who are over fifteen will play love parts if they are comedy parts. Only one or two seniors will take a serious love part. Love parts cannot be well played until one has experienced love. Yet children who have never known grief in real life may act splendidly in a sorrowful part. I have seen Virginia break down at rehearsals and weep while playing a sad part. That is accounted for by the fact that every child has known grief in imagination. In fact, death enters early into every child’s fantasies.


Plays for children ought to be at the level of the children. It is wrong to make children do classical plays, which are far away from their real fantasy life. Their plays, like their reading, should be for their age. Summerhill children seldom read Scott or Dickens or Thackeray, because today’s children belong to an age of movies. When a child goes to the movies, he gets a story as long as Westward Ho in an hour and a quarter--a story that would take him days to read, a story without all the dull descriptions of people and landscapes. So in their plays children do not want a story of Elsinore; they want a story of their own environment.


Although Summerhill children perform the plays that they themselves write, they nevertheless, when given the opportunity, respond enthusiastically to really fine drama. One winter I read a play to the seniors once a week. I read all of Barrie, Ibsen, Strindberg, Chekhov, some of Shaw and Galsworthy, and some modern plays like The Silver Cord and The Vortex. Our best actors and actresses liked Ibsen.


The seniors are interested in stage techniques and take an original view of it. There is a time-honored trick in playwriting of never allowing a character to leave the stage without his making an excuse for doing so. When a dramatist wanted to get rid of the father so that the wife and daughter could tell each other what an ass he was, old father obligingly got up, and remarking, “Well, I’d better go and see if the gardener has planted those cabbages,” he shuffled out. Our young Summerhill playwrights have a more direct technique. As one girl said to me, “In real life you go out of a room without saying anything about why you are going.” You do, and you do on the Summerhill stage, too.


Summerhill specializes in a certain branch of dramatic art, which we call spontaneous acting. I set acting tacks like the following: Put on an imaginary overcoat; take it off again and han

Date: 2015-12-11; view: 866

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