A S Neill and Summerhill. Essay number 2

The second essay asked us to look at some of the Innovative Thinkers within education, and asked our opinions. It had to be a critical essay with peer review articles to support our views and findings.

I chose A S Neill and Summerhill as the subject of my second essay.

I disagree with A.S. Neill’s statement that “A child is inherently wise and realistic…if left to himself will develop as far as he is capable” ( Neill 1968). Wisdom comes with age and experience. This is not inherent in a child but must be nurtured and encouraged to grow to maturity.

I believe Neill’s ideas in education are admirable but simplistic. I certainly admire his goal to produce happy individuals, but his view on how to produce children that are happy, functioning individuals is simplistic and based on the notion that a free child is a happy child. It doesn’t take into account external factors and fails to acknowledge that feeling sad is a natural part of life.

The style of education presented at Summerhill, while producing happy creative people, is not realistic or conducive to producing a responsible member of society and does not consider the personal and social implications for the child who attends nor the community in which He is to integrate.

In my opinion, an educational institution should provide:

  • Guidance in the learning of basic skills such as reading, writing and elementary arithmetic
  • A framework which provides guidance to learners from those with the ability to make informed decisions
  • Basic tenets for individuals on how to function within a structured community
  • Situations which allow the child to recognise that life will include the full gamut of emotions.

For a person to be able to survive successfully in a society basic literacy and numeracy skills are vital. “The school enables the children to develop their numeracy and mathematical skills based on their individual needs and choice and at their own pace. Summerhill Numeracy Policy “If a child doesn’t want to study mathematics, it is nobody’s business. (Neill 1964)

Neill’s vision of creating happy children rather than knowledgeable ones while admirable does not do the child or society justice where assessment is based on Summerhill being an academic facility. Neill claimed often that “Summerhill was not a boarding school, it was a children’s community.”(Neill 1964) I agree that it should not be considered an education facility however with its provision of teachers it is on some level striving to be one.

Education should be designed to prepare a young person for the future, both as an individual and as a member of the community. Summerhill does neither of these. Summerhill houses a child until they are 16 (maximum), and then thrusts them into the community to try to survive. Neill’s view of producing “happy street-sweepers” doesn’t work in a society where one is expected to know how to fill in an application form and communicate at an interview.

A child is not inherently wise. Wisdom comes with age and experience. A child is far from realistic. A child both then and even now lives in an instant society. They want things and they want it now. Children cannot fully comprehend that each action has consequences that are far reaching.

Freedom at Summerhill included freedom to be yourself, freedom to play and general freedom. (Neill 1964) Children enjoy as much freedom as is given. The self governing system at Summerhill while helping children see that there are consequences, needed far more guidance from those with the ability to make informed decisions; people who are able to foresee problems and able to circumnavigate any disasters rather than simply let them happen, and pick up the pieces afterwards. It was because of the self – governing aspect of Summerhill that the buildings were in disrepair, were dirty and the electricity was not operational. ( Cassebaum 2003)“This is a children’s community not a boarding school” (Neill 1964)

The community meetings were held weekly to discuss problems within the school and the breaking of the rules. Each person has an equal say in the community regardless of age or status. Fines are issued for misdemeanours and recompense overseen. The act of stealing from another student is not punished per say but if the offender confesses, the debt is to be repaid and then the matter is closed. There is no societal debt. If a child should commit a crime in the community outside Summerhill however, the child is berated at the meeting and given punishment that fits the crime, as this affects not only the victim but the reputation of Summerhill as a whole. Profanities were not dissuaded in Summerhill; rather swearing is an accepted form of communication at the institution.

Rules and Laws are generally put in place for the benefit of all society and as guidance for individuals on how to act within a functioning society. Summerhill itself had rules governing limits put on children of certain ages, and times. For example different bedtimes were allotted to children of a specific age group.

Happiness should not be the ultimate goal of an educational institution.   Happiness is not just a matter of “freedom to be oneself”. It is not a bad thing to be unhappy, it is a part of life and one should know that it’s ok to feel that way. Happiness is desirable but only one of the emotions that make up a full life.

In conclusion, it is my opinion that children at Summerhill do not benefit from such a liberal method of education and that the capabilities of children are extended by more formal educational facilities. When the wisdom of ex-students has matured, they discover they do indeed need more instruction in the three R’s and further their education later in life.

Ainsworth.S, Cunningham. I, Gray. H, Hannam.D, Honey.P, Horsburgh.J, Reid.C, Rosen.M. (2000)REPORT OF AN INQUIRY INTO SUMMERHILL SCHOOL – LEISTON, SUFFOLK JANUARY 2000

Cassebaum.A. (2003). Revisiting Summerhill:  The Phi Delta Kappan , Vol. 84, No. 8

pp. 575-578

Appleton.M. (2002) A Free Range Childhood: Self Regulation at Summerhill School

Review by: Donald Stucky Utopian Studies, Vol. 13, No. 1, pp. 171-172

Neill. A.S. (1968). Summerhill, 1968 Middlesex: Pelican books

UEA East Anglia TV (1964) Recorded interview with A.S. Neill

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