Summerhill School – Quotes from A.S. Neill on his living free school

The book Summerhill School – A New View to Childhood tells the experience and observations of  A.S. Neill running a free school in Suffolk, England for fifty years. The book was originally written in 1960, when Neill was 88-years old. It’s amazing to see the story of a school that was founded in 1921 on revolutionary principles for today.

When Neil died in 1973, his wife Ena took on the school for 12 years. The school is now run by their daughter Zoe.

The pupils are free to attend classes whenever they want. The kids can play for days, weeks or years. There’s freedom from any indoctrination, whether religious or moral or political and freedom from molding. And the pupils and staff self-govern the school through weekly meetings.

Neill admits some problems the school had too, bullying being the main one. He tells a few times how he would have liked to not take in problem-children that could disrupt the harmony of the younger simply because he knew that the problem-child would have no other better school (that could do him some good) to go to.

Things are different now. Children can only enroll before they are 12.

¨The goal of Summerhill was to use childhood and adolescence to create emotional wholeness and personal strength. Neill thought that once this wholeness had been achieved children would be self-motivated to learn what they needed academically.

The key to this growth was to give children the freedom to play for as long as they felt the need in an atmosphere ‘of approval and love. The children were given freedom, but not license, they could do as they pleased, as long as it didn’t bother anyone else.¨ (from the editor´s introduction)

It is common that pupils among 10-12 year old’s, stay away from classes most of the time. It´s hard to imagine a child not in a class at that age, isn’t? Today, there some free schools in the world, like Sudbury Valley School in the USA but none near anywhere I lived…  I think main idea of a free childhood remains mostly among homeschoolers and unschoolers.

Although there’s something that homeschoolers can’t give to their children which is to live among many other children, like in a very big family.

In the book, Neill talks a lot of how important it is to let children self-regulate themselves, and now I want to leave you with some quotes I selected:

¨Self-regulation implies a belief in human nature, a belief that there is not, and never was, original sin. Self-regulation means the right of a baby to live freely without outside authority. It means the baby feeds when its hungry, that it becomes clean in habits only when it wants to, that it is never stormed at nor spanked, that it shall always be loved and protected. Of course, self-regulation, like any theoretical idea, is dangerous if not combined with common sense¨.

¨Self-regulation means behavior coming from the self, not from outside compulsion¨.

¨There is no case whatever for the moral instruction of children. It is psychologically wrong. To ask a little child to be unselfish is wrong. Every child is an egoist. The world belongs to him. His power of wishing is strong, he has only to wish and he is king of the earth. When he is given an apple his own wish is to eat that apple. And the chief result of mother´s encouraging him to share his very own apple with his little brother is to make him hate the little brother.¨

¨The happiest homes I know are those in which the parents are frankly honest to their children without moralizing. Fear does not enter these homes. Love can thrive. In other homes, love is crushed by fear. Pretentious dignity and demanded respect hold love aloof. Compelled respect always implies fear.¨

¨We do not mold children in any way, we do not try to convert them to anything. If there is such a thing as sin it is the propensity of adults to tell the young how to live, a preposterous propensity seeing that adults do not know themselves how to live¨.

¨I have said it many times and say it again that you cannot teach anything of importance. Maths, English, Science, yes, but no charity, love, sincerity, balance, or tolerance.¨

¨Most of my work seems to consist of correcting parental mistakes. I feel both sympathy and admiration for the parents who honestly see the mistakes they have made in the past and who try to learn how best to treat their child. But other parents, strangely enough, would rather stick to a code that is useless and dangerous than to try to adapt themselves to the child.¨

¨… In heaven´s name what does it matter if Tommy sits down to eat a meal with unwashed hands? It matters in America where the nation is germ mad, it matters in suburbs where cleaningless is considered to be quite a long way ahead of godliness. By continually correcting children we must make them feel inferior and we injure their natural dignity¨.

Talking about Homer Lane, who Neill repeatedly says was the biggest influence on him:

¨That night he showed me the solution that the only way was to be, as he phrased it, on the side of the child´. It meant abolishing all punishments and fear and external discipline, it meant trusting children to grow in their own way without any pressure from outside, save that of communal self-government. It meant putting learning in its place – below living. As a schoolmaster, I had used knowledge as the criterion of success. Lane showed me that emotions were infinitely more powerful and more vital than intellect¨

Talking about humanity and the world:

¨One evil of humanity is that we persist in telling children how to live. All our educational systems strive to mold them in the image of their elders, and the children in turn mold their children, and one result is a very sick world full of crime and hate and wars. The weight of this tradition is so heavy that only one man in a thousand can ever challenge or even want to challenge the morals and taboos of society. When such a challenger comes along, society will destroy him…¨

¨Our school´s chief function is to kill the life of children. Otherwise the Establishment would be powerless. Would millions of free men allow themselves to be sacrificed to causes they had no interest in and did not understand? Is the future of humanity one of slaves ruled by an elite of powerful masters?¨

¨But now let me be more optimistic. In fifty years of free children I have detected not only an absence of the competitive spirit, but also a total indifference to leaders. One can reason with free children but one cannot lead them. True, my pupils lived their own herd, but not with leadership¨