Book Review: Summerhill School

Neill, A.S. Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood. New York: St. Martin’s
Press, 1992.

OBJECTIVE:

A.S. Neill writes about Summerhill, the self-governing Free School he founded in 1921. Summerhill is a place where children are free to do as they please under compliance of the rules set by their own voting. Creativity and confidence blossom in all children as they expand their horizons through the freedom to do and act as they choose. Summerhill is a place where children learn and grow through experience and mistakes.

One of the main goals of the school is to allow children to grow and develop naturally, on their own, without the confinements of strict rules and regulations. The children are free to attend lectures if they desire, but if they choose to spend their time elsewhere, that is acceptable. If the children do not want to go to lecture, they are actually encouraged and asked not to attend. Even one disgruntled child has the potential to hinder the education of many others.

A.S. Neill believes that children should be children. They should run and play and explore. Children should be encouraged to use their energy and curiosity to learn about what interests them. They should not be forced to sit in desks and listen to boring lectures while their minds are wandering and retaining little if any information on the given topic. Given the opportunity, children will find ways to learn about what interests them, and eventually they will attend lectures, because they will want to learn what is being taught. But until that point, children should be given the chance to “run loose” while they still are children and still have the energy and motivation to explore. People are only children once, and the opportunity to act like a child should never be taken away.

Summerhill is a place where freedom reigns. The only rules are those dictated by the self-government, and everything else is based on respect and common sense. Neill believes that every person goes through a phase or phases in life during which the desire to rebel is felt. This rebellion might be through breaking windows, or swearing, or who-knows-what, but the only way this desire will go away and stay away is if it is lived out. Summerhill is a place where children can swear all they want, because there is a point in time when a child feels it no longer necessary to swear, and that child will stop. As with attending lectures, Neill believes that this desire must be lived out—the “rebellion” must be gotten out of the child’s system, before he or she will go on with life. Just get it all out, then the desire to do that particular thing is no longer, and the child will no longer swear, break windows, or who-knows-what. In the case of attending lectures, not going to classes for a long period of time is in a sense “getting it out of their systems,” and eventually the children will want to learn, and they will attend lectures.

This freedom Neill writes about is priceless. The children have the freedom to learn and explore and to achieve great things—they are only limited by their creativity. And at Summerhill, it is their creativity that is nurtured and is positively stimulated, thus allowing children to be children, and allowing those children to grow and develop to the heights of their potentials with great joy and happiness. Happiness, true happiness, is the lasting goal for the children at Summerhill.

SUBJECTIVE:

A.S. Neill had great ideas and a great image of what education and development is all about. Children are full of energy and curiosity, and they are eager to explore and learn about the world. In the very early ears of life, a baby is already staring at bright lights in bewilderment, putting objects in his mouth trying to learn more about them, and constantly crawling or running around exploring his environment. This natural curiosity will continue into adulthood if stimulated. However, in the American public school system, this curiosity is unfortunately brought to an abrupt halt almost as soon as children enter school. Instead of moving about and exploring at their will, children are taught and expected to stand in straight lines when told, sit down, stand up, and do what the teacher asks without question. Our children lose their independence and creativity in the early years of schooling due to insecure parents and teachers. Such parents and teachers feel the need to be in control of children and approach this in such a way that diminishes creativity, curiosity, and the desire to learn.

Students are “forced” into learning things they may not want to learn at a particular time, but learn the information only because it is required. This kind of learning is not learning—it is merely memorizing the facts so they can be regurgitated onto the paper at test time. The students forget the information soon after the test, and this same process is repeated with various courses. Unfortunately, this is my best effort to describe the schooling in the American public school system, with the exception of a few students of course.

However, curiosity and creativity are revived during college when students are expected to make their own decisions and good choices. By this time, it almost seems too late. It is as if we must “undo” all the militant-style learning we have endured to make the most of that curiosity. It seems to me that there is a considerable amount of “wasted” years between the first bout of curiosity and the later episode.

At Summerhill, children are encouraged during these years to explore and learn about those things that interest them. This way, they are learning because they want to, and not because it is required. This information will be retained for much longer and will be useful to them. Also, there is no “wasted” time at Summerhill. Of course one might see the innumerable hours a child spends playing and looking at bugs as a waste, but this time is precious, and is well used. Children need time to go out and explore the world. They need to have fun and do what makes them happy. That’s what life is all about, happiness.

A.S. Neill claims there is no greater thing in the world than happiness. High status, money, great achievements, popularity, and success—these things have no value close to that of happiness. Once happiness is found, nothing else is nearly as important. If you have many expensive tangible “things,” but lack happiness, your world is empty. You will not be able to enjoy your riches without happiness, and that true happiness is found most often in children, especially children with freedom.

I am happy. Many people, however, are not as happy as they could be “if they would have or have not…” or “if they wouldn’t have had to…” These are the kinds of phrases Summerhillians do not know. They have the choice and the opportunity to do anything—they are only limited by their creativity. I like to think about how different I would be today if I would have attended Summerhill. That would have been an amazing experience.

Starting school there before anywhere else is best, because there is no chance of dead curiosity. Going from public school to Summerhill would be more difficult, however, because there are so many drastic changes. My biggest struggle might have been lack of direction. Not being told what to do or how to do it may have left me lost and confused. That have been my biggest struggle, but that would have helped me the most. There are many obstacles in finding true happiness, but the rewards are endless.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

A.S. Neill had great ideas and found a great way of putting his thoughts into practice through the founding of Summerhill and the writing of this book. I did not have the opportunity to attend Summerhill, and I most likely will not visit it, but after reading the book, I am informed enough about free schools to realize that the American public school system is degrading to children. I believe that by setting standards and limits as to what we teach our children in classrooms we are in a sense limiting their creativity and potential. Having standards and guidelines for what is taught is a great way of producing standardized students—students being objects and not humans. I feel that creativity should be stimulated and the desire to learn about anything should be encouraged.

This book has really opened me up to new ideas and ways of thinking about things. In a sense, it has stimulated my curiosity and creativity!!

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