The Summerhill School, the Radical Educational Experiment That Let Students Learn What, When, and How They Want (1966)

Among the polit­i­cal and social rev­o­lu­tions of the 1960s, the move­ment to democ­ra­tize edu­ca­tion is of cen­tral his­tor­i­cal impor­tance. Par­ents and politi­cians were entrenched in bat­tles over inte­grat­ing local schools years after 1954’s Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion. Sit-ins and protests on col­lege cam­pus­es made sim­i­lar stu­dent unrest today seem mild by com­par­i­son. Mean­while, qui­eter, though no less rad­i­cal, edu­ca­tion­al move­ments pro­lif­er­at­ed in com­munes, home­schools, and com­mu­ni­ties that could pay for pri­vate schools.

Most of these exper­i­men­tal meth­ods drew from old­er sources, such as the the­o­ries of Rudolf Stein­er and Maria Montes­sori, both of whom died before the Age of Aquar­ius. One move­ment that got its start decades ear­li­er was pop­u­lar­ized in the 60s when its founder A.S. Neill pub­lished the influ­en­tial Sum­mer­hill: A Rad­i­cal Approach to Child Rear­ing, a clas­sic work of alter­na­tive ped­a­gogy in which the Scot­tish writer and edu­ca­tor described the rad­i­cal ideas devel­oped in his Sum­mer­hill School in Eng­land, first found­ed in 1921.

Neill’s school “helped to pio­neer the ‘free school’ phi­los­o­phy,” writes Aeon, “in which lessons are nev­er manda­to­ry and near­ly every aspect of stu­dent life can be put to a vote.” His meth­ods “and a ris­ing coun­ter­cul­tur­al move­ment inspired sim­i­lar insti­tu­tions to open around the world.” When Neill first pub­lished his book, how­ev­er, he was very much on the defen­sive, against “an increas­ing reac­tion against pro­gres­sive edu­ca­tion,” psy­chol­o­gist Erich Fromm wrote in the book’s fore­word.

At the extreme end of this back­lash Fromm sit­u­ates “the remark­able suc­cess in teach­ing achieved in the Sovi­et Union,” where “the old-fash­ioned meth­ods of author­i­tar­i­an­ism are applied in full strength.” Fromm defend­ed exper­i­ments like Neill’s, despite their “often dis­ap­point­ing” results, as a nat­ur­al out­growth of the Enlight­en­ment.

Dur­ing the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, the ideas of free­dom, democ­ra­cy, and self-deter­mi­na­tion were pro­claimed by pro­gres­sive thinkers; and by the first half of the 1900’s these ideas came to fruition in the field of edu­ca­tion. The basic prin­ci­ple of such self-deter­mi­na­tion was the replace­ment of author­i­ty by free­dom, to teach the child with­out the use of force by appeal­ing to his curios­i­ty and spon­ta­neous needs, and thus to get him inter­est­ed in the world around him. This atti­tude marked the begin­ning of pro­gres­sive edu­ca­tion and was an impor­tant step in human devel­op­ment.

What seemed anar­chic to its detrac­tors had its roots in the tra­di­tion of indi­vid­ual lib­er­ty against feu­dal tra­di­tions of unques­tioned author­i­ty. But Neill was less like John Locke, who includ­ed chil­dren in his cat­e­go­ry of irra­tional beings (along with “idiots” and “Indi­ans”) than he was like Jean Jacques Rousseau. Fromm sug­gests this too: “A.S. Neill’s sys­tem is a rad­i­cal approach to child rear­ing because it rep­re­sents the true prin­ci­ple of edu­ca­tion with­out fear. In Sum­mer­hill School author­i­ty does not mask a sys­tem of manip­u­la­tion.”

Stu­dents decide what they want to learn, and what they don’t, with no cur­ricu­lum, require­ments, or test­ing to speak of and no struc­tured time or manda­to­ry atten­dance. Is such a thing even pos­si­ble in prac­tice? How could edu­ca­tors man­age and mea­sure stu­dent progress, or ensure their stu­dents learn any­thing at all? What might this look like? Find out in the 1966 Nation­al Film Board of Cana­da doc­u­men­tary Sum­mer­hill, above, full of “can­did moments and scenes,” Aeon writes, “that evoke the rhythms of dai­ly life at the school and give a sense of the children’s lived expe­ri­ence.”

Dis­or­ga­nized, but not chaot­ic, class­room bus­tle con­trasts with idyl­lic, sun­lit moments on Summerhill’s ver­dant grounds and hon­est crit­i­cism, some from the stu­dents them­selves. One girl admits that the free play wears thin after a while and that “there prob­a­bly aren’t such good facil­i­ties for learn­ing here, after a cer­tain lev­el. But you can always go some­where else after­wards” (though many would have dif­fi­cul­ty with entrance exams). Anoth­er stu­dent talks about the strug­gle to study with­out struc­ture to help min­i­mize dis­trac­tions. Despite Neill’s philo­soph­i­cal aver­sion to fear, she says “you’re always afraid of miss­ing some­thing.”

We also meet the man him­self, A.S. Neill, a rum­pled, avun­cu­lar fig­ure at 83 years old, who pro­claims free­dom as the answer for stu­dents who strug­gle in school, and for stu­dents who don’t. If we’re hon­est, we might all admit we felt this strong­ly as chil­dren our­selves. It may nev­er be an impulse that’s com­pat­i­ble with con­tem­po­rary goals for edu­ca­tion, which is often geared toward work­place train­ing at the expense of cre­ative think­ing. But for many stu­dents, the oppor­tu­ni­ty to pur­sue their own course on their own terms can become the impe­tus for a life­time of inde­pen­dent thought and action. I can’t think of a lofti­er edu­ca­tion­al goal.

via Aeon

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Noam Chom­sky Spells Out the Pur­pose of Edu­ca­tion

Noam Chom­sky Defines What It Means to Be a Tru­ly Edu­cat­ed Per­son

Lyn­da Bar­ry on How the Smart­phone Is Endan­ger­ing Three Ingre­di­ents of Cre­ativ­i­ty: Lone­li­ness, Uncer­tain­ty & Bore­dom

Buck­min­ster Fuller Rails Against the “Non­sense of Earn­ing a Liv­ing”: Why Work Use­less Jobs When Tech­nol­o­gy & Automa­tion Can Let Us Live More Mean­ing­ful Lives

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (6)
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  • Lonnie says:

    I won­der how they turned out? 1966 to now is enough time to see if they turned out ok or not.

  • sfemet says:

    I had the same teacher for 4th & 5th grade (late 1960s), a very unusu­al thing in our school. She did a sim­i­lar thing, self-paced edu­ca­tion. When I got to 6th grade, my math skills were so abysmal, I had to take reme­di­al lessons to catch up. I’ve been math­e­mat­i­cal­ly chal­lenged ever since. Some top­ics, I feel, need to be required.

  • Robert Dunton says:

    While chil­dren need to be treat­ed with regard and not dis­count­ed as they are in most con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can schools, it hard­ly ever works out well for the adults to refuse to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for the well being of the chil­dren around them.
    Han­nah Arendt seems to me to have found a good bal­ance. ‘Between Past and Future’ is a great read.

  • Lo Meg says:

    I think this is a good way to have kids chill for some time. Isn’t it?

  • Roger Branch says:

    Chil­dren need a com­bi­na­tion of free­dom and struc­ture. Free­dom with­out struc­ture is chaos, while struc­ture with­out free­dom is indoc­tri­na­tion. Any edu­ca­tion­al sys­tem needs to find a bal­ance. Nat­u­ral­ly, the 1960’s Sum­mer­hill approach was an abre­ac­tion to what was per­ceived as an over­ly author­i­tar­i­an 1940’s and 1950’s approach. The pen­du­lum swings one way and then the oth­er.

  • Lyndsay Moffatt says:

    Hi there, I am not sure what your cri­te­ria would be for “ok” but I turned out pret­ty good I think… I went to a Cana­di­an pub­lic alter­na­tive school mod­eled on Sum­mer­hill. I tried the reg­u­lar school sys­tem for a few years and then went back to pub­lic alter­na­tive schools. I went on to become a teacher, did my Mas­ters and PhD …I have had an inter­est­ing life so far and I have what I con­sid­er to be mean­ing­ful friend­ships and rela­tion­ships… so I think I am doing ok gen­er­al­ly speak­ing..

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