A.S. Neill and Summerhill
Twenty years of friendship with Alexander Sutherland Neill had convinced me that his gentleness, insight and courage were rare. Gradually, and especially during the last weeks of his final illness – my last sight of him was on the evening before he died as he dozed, exhausted, in a brief respite from long spasms of breath-taking pain – I have come to realise that he is one of the truly great men of the 20th century.
Between bouts of pain he would talk of his hopes for the young and about the deep pessimism he had long felt as he watched power-mad psychopaths seek, in the name of ‘security’ or ‘democracy’, to mould them for the purposes of this or that set of political dogmas. Even in his last hours he was preoccupied with the problems that had been with him for seventy years: how to enable the warm, squirming, lovable infant to retain and develop the infinite range of sensitivity with which he arrives from his mother’s womb. How, in home and school, to inoculate the individual against the social sickness that generates the hating ‘little man’ who in the massive anonymity of industrial society spawns the bureaucrat, the party politician and, ultimately, the Hitler. How to protect man’s specific human birthright – love.
His autobiography, Neill! Neill! Orange Peel!, is packed with material at conscious and unconscious levels that reveal a personality purged of duplicity and pettiness. It reveals the sweep and subtlety of his vision of education, couched, not in current educational jargon, but in the language of everyday reality accessible to any ordinary parent. Most critics have responded to the inherent integrity of this chatty, rambling and disarmingly honest self-revelation with generous acknowledgement of Neill’s stature and achievement. A few, represented by Maurice Punch’s sad, sad exercise in nit-picking and by the fatuous ineptitude of Crucifer’s comment in New Statesman, have completely missed the whole point of Neill’s life – the quest for forms of education that preserve love as the mainspring of community.
To read Summerhill or to visit that school is to be struck by the uncanny resemblance to Leo Tolstoy’s little school on his estates at Yasnaya Polyana. The children have the same vitality, joy and confidence.
Whatever they do is marked by the absorption of healthy young animals. Curiosity, activity and argument is the hallmark of Summerhill as it was of Tolstoy’s school. Adults are addressed with the affectionate familiarity that pervades a happy family.
Both Tolstoy and Neill set out with some preconceptions of what education should do. Both being what Herbert Read calls ‘consistent pragmatists’ – anarchists who are ‘nearer to deflators of idealism such as John Dewey and Karl Popper than to Utopian socialists such as Karl Marx or Lenin- - abandoned those preconceptions one by one as they found that they did not work, and arrived steadily at the point of realising that the only condition possible for the fullest development of human potential is – freedom.
The struggle to secure the maximum of freedom for the child is the theme of Neill’s work. Nowhere does he set down a sustained and logically unassailable analysis of what constitutes freedom. He makes a number of cryptic utterances to the effect that freedom is not licence; he is aware of the tension between the drive for personal freedom in the individual and the need in the group for an harmonious resolution of different interests if the group is to survive. The realisation of different interests can come about only if the survival of the group is important to its members; and that resolution is best effected by conflicting interests being argued in the open so that the collective experience of all the members can be brought to bear on the issues under debate.
The psychological and social processes at work in open discussion of this kind makes the Meeting in Summerhill the crucible of the democratic process. When there is an argument in process between two opponents a number of important things happen; first the mere presence of the group inhibits any urge to physical violence; second, any dishonesty of motive, conscious or unconscious, is soon discovered because the group contains so many people who know the contestants intimately; third, the collective interests of the group act to keep the argument on important issues; fourth, since it is in the interest of the group to resolve conflict that is destructive to the normal life of the community, their collective experience is often able to suggest compromise solutions acceptable to the contestants; fifth, since the normal activity of the group as a whole includes the feeding, care and general welfare of all its members, any forms of disapproval expressed against an offender are realised by the offender to be in that context of care much as in a family.
Offences against laws made by the whole community are, therefore, dealt with in various ways according to the consensus of feeling in the Meeting. Often the mere discussion of the issues and the consequences of the offender’s behaviour is held to be enough. Where restitution is relevant, as in damage to another’s property or stealing, then restitution is demanded. Otherwise a fine is imposed. In very serious cases of, for example, repeated bullying after warning, the name of the offender may be published so that potential victims may be warned to take evasive action or seek help from older children or adults. The disapproval of the community is probably the most powerful factor in getting the offender to reconsider his behaviour. In 50 years the number of children for whom these usual measures have proved ineffective and who, for the protection of others or themselves, had to be withdrawn from the school, can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
Because the full subtlety of psychological and social interactions can only occur in a group small enough to meet face-to-face, Neill has always kept Summerhill small, even when there have been so many applicants that he could have filled it several times over. Although rejecting much of Jung’s psychological theories, Neill agreed with him in the matter of size of institutions when he wrote:
‘It is a notorious fact that the morality of society as a whole is in inverse ratio to its size; for the greater the aggregation of individuals, the more the individual factors are blotted out, and with them morality, which rests entirely on the moral sense of the individual and the freedom necessary for this …
‘Without freedom there can be no morality. Our admiration for great organisations dwindles when once we become aware of the other size of the wonder: the tremendous piling up and accentuation of all that is primitive in man, and the unavoidable destruction of his individuality in the interests of the monstrosity that every organisation in fact is.’
Neill is impatient of verbal formulations and for very good reasons. No verbal formulation or theory can make sense to both A and B unless they have undergone forms of experience sufficiently identical to make the meanings of the words they use identical. Hence the need for conceptual analysis in discussions about education. Further, he saw how ineffective in changing our educational system had been the libraries of educational discourse accumulated even in his own lifetime. For him freedom is defined in action. His understanding of its meaning, therefore, comes through in the numerous examples of conflict between individuals and groups and their resolution.
He was never as foolish as to suppose that anyone can find perfect freedom, though some of his critics foist such an Aunt Sally on him, the better to knock it down and demonstrate their own cleverness. His refusal to compel children to attend lessons was no cranky theory but the pragmatic application of what he had found to work in experience. Children who came to Summerhill from schools where attendance at lessons was compulsory stayed away from lessons for as long as they needed to re-discover their freedom. Those who had begun to find freedom attended lessons as and when they needed to. Neill, of course, provided the best teachers he could find so that children who wished to learn should do so was well as possible, but the impetus to learn had to come from the child and had to take whatever direction the child needed. A child who said: ‘Neill, what shall I do?’ would be likely to get the answer, ‘I don’t know’. One who said, ‘Neill, how can I fix these two pieces of wire together?’ would get a careful demonstration of soldering or brazing with as much theoretical explanation as the child wanted.
So Neill set out no general aims for education beyond freeing from hates and hang-ups. Education was its own end. He always claimed that he could not understand what philosophers were talking about when they discussed education, though what he was putting into practice, with little money, was as close an exemplar of Dewey’s philosophy as I have ever encountered. Intuitively he had arrived at a philosophical position identical with Dewey’s – pragmatism.
Why, as he grew older, was he more and more convinced that nothing mattered so much as the struggle for freedom? His own deep self-knowledge and his close observation of children make it quite clear that, given enough freedom, children come to terms with themselves, with others and with their surroundings, and reveal themselves as rational, sociable and gentle people. His experience caused him to reject that part of Freud’s teachings that stressed the innate aggression in man. Later he found his ideas most fully expressed in Wilhelm Reich’s concept of ‘self-regulation’.
In engineering the concept of self-regulation is commonplace in the form of automation based on the system of ‘feedback control’, a system in which the effects of action initiated at point A are automatically measured at point B later in the process and the results of that measurement automatically fed back in such a way to point A as to modify the action now initiated at A in a desired direction. Within the human body numerous systems work on much more complex forms of feedback control to regulate breathing, temperature, pulse, skin texture, digestion and so on, so as to maintain the whole body in a homeostatic condition relative to the environment. Reich’s discovery was that the principle of self-regulation operates in psychological functioning and human behaviour and that, given conditions of freedom from distorting influences, the body will put itself right if it has been thrown out of balance physically or psychologically. Virgina Axline’s book, Dibs: in search of self, is a well-known account of such spontaneous recovery by a young deeply disturbed child.
Both Tolstoy’s and Neill’s discovery of the importance of freedom resulted from actual work with children. Neill’s discovery of the principle of self-regulation was closely associated with his intuition about freedom and is now supported, not only by Reich’s clinical findings, but by the results of widespread application in medicine and psychotherapy. When Neill died letters started to pour in from all over the world, testifying to the influence he had had on the writers. Last year the first serious study of Summerhill and Neill’s work appeared as Ray Hemmings’ Fifty Years of Freedom.
Now that Neill is dead he may be thought to be less of a threat to the educational Establishment, and a more widespread discussion of his work and its relevance to ordinary teachers may begin.
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