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Lessons of history. At Summerhill, freedom still reigns

WHATEVER happened to Summerhill? This feisty little school on the English coast was started in 1924 on the then-radical premise that children are born good and should grow up ``free.'' It was thrust into the spotlight in the '60s when ``Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child-Rearing,'' by its founder, A.S. Neill, was published.

The reaction was extreme: Summerhill was both excoriated as a hotbed of permissiveness and lauded as an educational utopia. Visitors besieged this school, where children and adults voted on all laws and meted punishment for lawbreakers; where students could choose whether or not to go to classes; and where they are regarded with affection and tolerance. Not much has been heard about Summerhill since its founder passed on in 1973. Is this original ``alternative'' school still functioning? Does it have a future in the educationally conservative '80s?

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It's still functioning, although financially pressed. There is still a steady flow of students, especially from the country with perhaps the most demanding educational system in the industrialized world: Japan. This year, 30 percent of the students are Japanese.

Neill founded Summerhill in reaction to the repressive Scottish schools of his childhood, where children were flogged and learning was by rote.

Fiercely proud of its role as eccentric outpost in a conventional world, Summerhill continues to defy glib definitions.

Today, the school is run by Zo"e Readhead, Neill's daughter. Zo"e, as she's called by everyone, was sitting in her office on the day of this reporter's visit, rocking her seven-week-old son in the sunlight as school life eddied about her. She was affable about the many interruptions and happy to see each child. Students broke in politely to get money from the bank, and wrote down what they borrowed; sometimes she told them simply to get it from her purse.

Fifteen-year-old Damien, who has a Cockney accent, came in and sat quietly at her feet. When the phone rang, Zo"e rose to answer, plopping the baby into Damien's arms.

Summerhill was originally a therapeutic haven for troubled children, but later on, Neill took in a broader range of students. While things have improved greatly for children since the turn of the century, the problems of the '80s, says Zo"e, have their own severity.

``We have children whose parents basically don't love them. They think they love them but aren't prepared to put themselves out for them.''

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For the Summerhill staff, ``putting themselves out'' includes letting the children go through a ``gangster phase.'' Paneling in the main house has been carved up, there's food splattered on the ceiling, and things are generally disheveled. The phase ends, she says, when they find there's nothing to rebel against and begin to govern themselves.

On this sunny Thursday, kids were zipping around the grounds on bikes. Others were fixing rabbit hutches, while still others played in a band in a nearby garage. There wasn't a sullen, closed-off face to be seen by this observer. But the atmosphere sometimes does call to mind the story, mentioned in Jonathan Croall's book, ``Neill of Summerhill: the Permanent Rebel,'' of the student who once asked, ``Do we have to do what we like all day tomorrow as well?''

Four 14-year-old boys sat against the side of a long classroom building, some smoking. Over the course of the day, some of the teen-agers said they didn't go to classes often. Shie, a 14-year-old Japanese girl, who earlier was playing classical music on the school's battered piano, has ``no idea'' what she'll do after Summerhill. University? Her face brightened: ``Yeah! I want to go to San Francisco!'' Does she worry about getting in? ``Yeah.'' Does she get bored? ``Yeah.''

Still, it's hard to measure in one day the kind of development that Summerhill seeks to promote. Over the years the school has recorded numerous instances of students shunning classes for long periods, only to have them catch fire, study like crazy, and pass the state-level exams. Neill argued that a self-motivated child could learn more in two years than peers in conventional schooling could learn in eight.

One place the students learn self-government is the weekly meetings, at which they vote on such things as bedtimes, how many 13-year-olds are needed to accompany the younger children into the village after dark (three), and punishment for breaking rules (the loss of a pudding, for example). ``Around 24 [$38] worth of tapes have been nicked from Eric this term. You can put them in Bozy's room if you want to put them back,'' read one meeting record posted on a bulletin board.

The students seem to cherish this sense of community, to the point of exasperation with those who don't join in. I asked some of the English boys how it worked out, having so many fellow students from a totally different culture. ``Not very good,'' concedes one. ``They stick together and don't mix with us. They don't go to the meetings and don't talk.''

The teachers didn't seem to be bothered by students not coming to class. ``I know that when they come, they'll want to be there,'' says Laurence Johnson, whom they all call ``Boom.'' ``It's demanding, though, because when they do come, they're very keen. One has to be on the ball.''

Sarah Barker usually has four students in her 5:15 p.m. biology class. On this day, however there was only one, and he was being mildly scolded. ``People can't miss a lesson in genetics and expect to catch up just like that.'' She then tested him for his state-level exams using an ancient scale with gram weights. It had to be one of the more relaxed exams on record; when he called out ``I got it,'' Sarah beamed and patted him on the back.

Several students were in the woodworking shop, power tools whining away to a Rolling Stones tape. ``You learn things higgledy-piggledy, as you need them,'' said instructor Bruce Davis. ``Like if you need a shelf, rather than everyone sitting around doing screws at the same time.''

The staff is much leaner than in Neill's day: 11 total, including houseparents and kitchen help. Teachers make only 2,000 ($3,250) a year. This, plus the isolation of the school, make for high turnover.

What happens when children leave this unusual sanctuary? Over the years Summerhill has turned out an opera singer, a speech therapist, a knitwear designer, a truck driver, a bricklayer, writers, teachers, artists, lawyers, and doctors. One study of 50 graduates published in 1969 in Psychology Today magazine found that those who were assertive came out better than the shy and retiring types. While few graduates were sending their children to Summerhill (usually because of lack of funds), all interviewed were raising their children in the Summerhill fashion.

Mr. Croall found that ex-students generally did not turn out to be the world-changing pioneers that Neill had hoped for. Instead, they had a relaxed attitude toward work, comfortable relationships with the opposite sex, and were tolerant and sincere. Some came away feeling underskilled, while others felt that the school was ``positively conducive to a real interest in work for its own sake.'' One commented, ``Ultimately, it is better to be a bit ignorant or late learning than frightened all your school days.''

It is no easier to assess Summerhill's influence on American education today than it was when the school was all the rage back in the '60s. The argument persists in some quarters that children need more academic and moral guidance than the school provides. And while Summerhill was without question a beacon for the alternative school movement, those schools never have represented more than 1 percent of total US schools, says Pat Montgomery, president emeritus of the National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools, in Glenmore, PA.

``Most of the kinds of things [Neill] wanted to be rid of in schools in turn-of-the-century Scotland were gotten rid of in American schools some time ago,'' says Patricia Graham, dean of the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. ``But the freedom that he sought for children is something we're undecided about.''

``The future of Summerhill itself may be of little import,'' Neill once wrote. ``But the future of the Summerhill idea is of the greatest importance to humanity. New generations must be given the chance to grow in freedom. The bestowal of freedom is the bestowal of love. And only love can save the world.''

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