A. S. Neill
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|Alexander Sutherland Neill|
Neill on his birthday
|Born||17 October 1883
|Died||23 September 1973 (aged 89)
Aldeburgh, Suffolk, England
|Known for||founding Summerhill School, advocacy of personal freedom for children, progressive education|
Alexander Sutherland Neill (17 October 1883 – 23 September 1973) was a Scottish progressive educator, author and founder of Summerhill School, which remains open and continues to follow his educational philosophy to this day. He is best known as an advocate of personal freedom for children.
Life and background
Neill was born in Forfar in the Scottish Lowlands, one of thirteen children. Both parents were schoolteachers. After acting as a pupil-teacher for his father, he studied at the University of Edinburgh and obtained an M.A. degree in 1912. In 1914 he became headmaster of the Gretna Green School in Scotland. During this period, his growing discontent could be traced in notes which he later published. In these notes, he described himself as "just enough of a Nietzschian to protest against teaching children to be meek and lowly" and wrote (in A Dominie's Log) that he was "trying to form minds that will question and destroy and rebuild".
Neill worked with Homer Lane, a US educator then living in England and founder of the Little Commonwealth school in Dorset, and later at King Alfred School in Hampstead, a school founded by a group and parents in 1898 and led by John Russell from 1901 to 1920.
In 1921 Neill left England for the Continent. In Hellerau near Dresden he visited Lilian Neustätter, whom he had met at King Alfred School and who later became his wife. In Hellerau, Neill, Lilian Neustätter and Christine Bear, who had studied with Émile Jaques-Dalcroze, founded the International School. Jacques-Dalcroze, a Swiss composer and music educator, had founded a school in Hellerau in 1910 that closed in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. The International School in Hellerau gave Neill the first opportunity to lead a school based on his own principles.
Summerhill School arose out of the International School in Hellerau, which in early 1924 moved to Sonntagberg (Sonntagsberg) in Austria, and in late 1924 to Lyme Regis in England, where it acquired the name Summerhill. In 1927 it moved to its present site in Leiston, Suffolk. After Neill's death in 1973, the school was run by his wife Ena until 1985, then by his daughter Zoë Neill Readhead.
A.S. Neill sat for sculptor Alan Thornhill for a portrait in clay. The correspondence file relating to the A.S. Neill portrait sculpture is held in the archive of the Henry Moore Foundation's Henry Moore Institute in Leeds and the terracotta remains in the collection of the artist. Bronzes are in the public collections of The College of Orgonomy, New York and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (collection reference PG2204).
Neill believed that the happiness of the child should be the paramount consideration in decisions about the child's upbringing, and that this happiness grew from a sense of personal freedom. He felt that deprivation of this sense of freedom during childhood, and the consequent unhappiness experienced by the repressed child, was responsible for many of the psychological disorders of adulthood. Neill's ideas, which tried to help children achieve self-determination and encouraged critical thinking rather than blind obedience, were seen as backward, radical, or at best, controversial.
Many of Neill's ideas are widely accepted today, although there are still many more "traditional" thinkers within the educational establishment who regard Neill's ideas as threatening the existing social order, and are therefore controversial.
In 1921 Neill founded Summerhill School to demonstrate his educational theories in practice. These included a belief that children learn better when they are not compelled to attend lessons. The school is also managed democratically, with regular meetings to determine school rules. Pupils have equal voting rights with school staff.
Neill's Summerhill School experience demonstrated that, free from the coercion of traditional schools, students tended to respond by developing self-motivation, rather than self-indulgence. Externally imposed discipline, Neill felt, prevented internal, self-discipline from developing. He therefore considered that children who attended Summerhill were likely to emerge with better-developed critical thinking skills and greater self-discipline than children educated in compulsion-based schools.
These tendencies were perhaps all the more remarkable considering that the children accepted by Summerhill were often from problematic backgrounds, where parental conflict or neglect had resulted in children arriving in a particularly unhappy state of mind. The therapeutic value of Summerhill's environment was demonstrated by the improvement of many children who had been rejected by conventional schools, yet flourished at Summerhill.
Strongly influenced by the contemporary work of Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich, Neill was opposed to sexual repression and the imposition of the strict Victorian values of his childhood era. He stated clearly that to be anti-sex was to be anti-life. Naturally, these views made him unpopular with many establishment figures of the time.
Neill's biggest mentor in education was Homer Lane, US-born but British based. Neill was also an admirer and close friend of psychoanalytical innovator Wilhelm Reich and a student of Freudian psychoanalysis, though in his autobiography he wrote that "Much of what I thought I had learned from the psychoanalysts has disappeared with time".
Another major contributor to the field of Libertarian Education was Bertrand Russell whose own self-founded Beacon School is often compared with Summerhill. Russell was a correspondent of Neill and offered his support.
Neill did not consider himself a theorist, but a practitioner, and saw himself as guided by intuition.
Neill credited Summerhill's environment instead of himself for the school's reformatory successes. Neill used to offer psychoanalytic therapy ("Private Lessons", since he was not a licensed therapist) for children who arrived as delinquents from other institutions, but later found love, affirmation, and freedom to be a better cure.
The Summerhill classroom was popularly assumed to reflect Neill's anti-authoritarian beliefs, though their classes were traditional in practice. Neill did not show outward interest in classroom pedagogy, and was mainly interested in student happiness. He did not consider lesson quality important, and thus there were no distinctive Summerhillian classroom methods. Leonard Waks wrote that, like Homer Lane, Neill thought all teaching should follow student interest, and that teaching method did not matter much once student interest was apparent. In a review of an algebra lesson taught by Neill as recounted through Herb Snitzer's Living at Summerhill, Richard Bailey described Neill's teaching technique as "simply awful" for his lack of student engagement, inarticulate explanations, and insults directed at students. Bailey criticized Neill's absolution of responsibility for his pupils' academic performance, and his view that charismatic instruction was a form of persuasion that weakened child autonomy. Ronald Swartz referred to Neill's method as Socratic, about which Bailey disagreed.
Neill felt that children (and human nature) were innately good, and that children became virtuous and just naturally when allowed to grow without adult imposition of morality. In this way, children did not need to be coaxed or goaded into desirable behavior, as their natural state was satisfactory and their natural inclinations "in no way immoral". If left alone, children would become self-regulating, reasonable, and ethical adults. Together with Homer Lane, Neill supported personal freedoms for children to live as they please without adult interference, and called this position "on the side of the child". Neill's practice is summarized as providing children with space, time, and empowerment for personal exploration, and with freedom from adult fear and coercion.
The aim of life, to Neill, was "to find happiness, which means to find interest." Likewise, the purpose of Neill's education was to be happy and interested in life, and children needed complete freedom to find their interests. Neill considered happiness an innate characteristic that deteriorated when children were denied personal freedom, and that this unhappiness led to repressed and psychologically disordered adults. He blamed a "sick and unhappy" society for widespread unhappiness. Neill claimed that society harbored fears of life, children, and emotions that were continually bequeathed to the next generation. He felt that children turned to self-hate and internal hostility when denied an outlet for expression in adult systems of emotional regulation and manipulation. Likewise, children taught to withhold their sexuality would see view those feelings negatively and fuel disdain for self. Neill thought that calls for obedience squelched the natural needs of children. Moreover, their needs could not be fulfilled by adults and a society that simultaneously prolonged their unhappiness, though perhaps a school like Summerhill could help.
As for "interest", Neill felt it came organically and spontaneously and that it was a prerequisite for learning. Neill considered forced instruction (without pupil interest) to be a destructive waste of time. Earlier in his career, Neill wrote that human interest was the emotional release that otherwise congests a person. He added that education's role is to facilitate that release, with Summerhill actualizing this concept. Neill never defines "true interest" and does not account for the social influences on child interest. Richard Bailey felt that this omission discredits Neill's position against external influence. Bailey also cited "adaptive preferences" literature, where human interests change based on their surroundings and circumstances, as evidence of how intrinsic interest can be externally influenced. Bailey also characterized Neill's views on intelligence as "innatist" and fatalist—that children had naturally-set capabilities and limitations. Neill found contemporary interventionist practice to create harm through emphasizing conformity and stifling children's natural drive to do as they please.
Neill did not identify with the progressive educators of his time. They advocated for gentler authority in childrearing, which Neill considered more insidious than overt authority, and furthermore, that any such authority was altogether unnecessary. All imposed authority, even if meant well, was unjustified. He felt that adults asserted authority for its feelings of power, and that this motive was a type of repression. In Neill's philosophy, the goal was the maintenance of happiness through avoidance of repressive habits from society. Despite Neill's common citation as a leader within progressive education, his ideas were considerably more radical, and he was called an extremist by other radicals. Unlike Friedrich Fröbel, Neill did not view children with romantic innocence, yet saw their animalistic traits as qualities to be "outgrown with time and freedom". He also saw himself as emotional support.
Emotional education trumped intellectual needs, in Neill's eyes, and he was associated with anti-intellectualism. In actuality, he had a personal interest in scholarship and used his autobiography near the end of his life to profess the necessity of both emotion and intellect in education, though he often took jabs at what he saw to be education's overemphasis on book-learning. Neill felt that an emotional education freed the intellect to follow what it pleased, and that children required an emotional education to keep up with their own gradual developmental needs. This education usually entailed copious amounts of play and distance from the adult anxieties of work and ambition. Neill was influenced by Sigmund Freud's theories of psychoanalysis, Homer Lane's interpretation of Freud, and later, Wilhelm Reich's emphasis on drive theory. In this theory of inner forces, expression of this force led to happiness and unexpressed forces led to repression and unhappiness. His psychoanalytic Private Lessons for individual children were designed to unblock impasses of their inner forces. Neill also offered body massage, as suggested by Reich. Neill later found that freedom cured better than his therapy. He was not a licensed therapist.
Richard Bailey placed Neill alongside William Godwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Robert Owen in Thomas Sowell's "unconstrained vision" tradition, where human potential is naturally unlimited and human development is dependent on environment and not incentives. Bailey also compared Neill's thoughts on coercion to those of Godwin, who felt that regulation through reward and punishment stunted growth. Neill saw moral instruction as a wedge between natural instinct and conformity and thought children were best off without it. Neill trusted the natural inclinations of children and saw no need to externally and purposefully influence their behavior. Denis Lawton likened Neill's ideas to Rousseauan "negative education", where children discover for themselves instead of receiving instruction. Neill is commonly associated with Rousseau for their similar thoughts on human nature, although Neill claimed to not have read Rousseau's Emile, or On Education until near the end of his life. John Cleverley and D. C. Phillips declared Neill "the most notable figure in the Rousseauean tradition", and Frank Flanagan credited Neill with actualizing what Rousseau envisioned. Marc-Alexandre Prud-homme and Giuliano Reis found the comparison "inappropriate" on the basis of Rousseau's views on gender.
Peter Hobson found Neill's philosophy of education incomplete, oversimplified, without a "coherent theory of knowledge", and too dependent on his experience instead of philosophical position. When presented with Hobson's position, four experts on Neill and Summerhill considered his assertions "irrelevant".
Freedom, not license
When Neill said children should be free, he did not mean complete freedom, but freedom without license—that everyone can do as they like unless such action encroaches upon another's freedom. As such, adults could and should protect children from danger, but not trample their self-regulation. Neill emphasized that adult removal from child affairs was distinct from disregard for their security. He felt that children met their own limits naturally. Neill believed in equal rights between parents and children, and that undesirable "disciplined" or "spoiled" homes were created when those rights were imbalanced. He felt it unnecessary to fulfill all of childhood's requests and had great disdain for spoiled children. Summerhill children were naturally restricted by the school's limited teaching expertise and low funds.
Bailey wrote that Neill did not have full faith in self-regulation due to his emphasis on the necessity of making specific environments for children. Robin Barrow argued that Neill's idea of self-regulation was contradictory, when its intent was, more simply, the extent to which children need to abide by external restraints. Bailey added that children cannot know the extent to which dull and unknown subjects can be exciting without guidance. He felt that Neill's belief in children's innate and realistic wisdom did not accommodate human characteristics "such as error, prejudice, and ignorance", ascribed genius-level intelligence to children, and did not consider social aspects in child decision-making.
Self-governance was a central idea to Summerhill, and is perhaps its "most fundamental feature". Summerhill held a weekly general meeting that decided the school's rules and settled school disputes, where every member of the community—staff and student alike—had a single vote. Almost everyone in the school attended the meeting, and children always held the majority. Meetings were managed by an elected Chairperson. At times, the school had over 200 rules.
Summerhill sought to produce individualists conscious of their surrounding social order, and Neill chose the self-governance of Homer Lane's Little Commonwealth for the basis of that lesson. The general meeting replaced teacher authority with communal control, which freed teachers from their roles as disciplinarians and instructed children in the role of democratic participation and the role of rules. Additionally, reports of teacher–student disputes were rare. Neill felt that the community's authority never created resentment in those subject to sanctions. Sven Muller contended that the meeting was more useful than discipline for creating civic-minded citizens. An ex-pupil recalled some of the wild ideas Neill would propose at the meeting, and while the students would vote him down, she later recounted how the exercise was also intended as a lesson for the staff on the power of the meeting and communal authority. Neill considered self-governance "the most valuable asset in education and life" and the general meeting "more important than all the textbooks in the world".
On occasion, Neill exercised unilateral decision-making as the owner of the school, despite his emphasis on the authority figure-less nature of the school. Instances include when he once made a decision after the group's discussion protracted, and when he once asserted himself dictator. Ultimately, the school's freedom was Neill's to structure.
Reception and legacy
Critics regard Neill's influence and importance with mixed opinion. Supporters counted Neill amongst the world's most influential educationists. UNESCO listed Neill within its 100 most important educationists worldwide. The Times Educational Supplement listed him in its 12 most important British educationists of the millennium. Herb Kohl declared Neill "one of the greatest democratic educators of the last century" in 2005. Academics and teachers cited Summerhill as the common ancestor for free schools, and Neill was poised to become a public figure during Summerhill's heyday in the 1970s. Its detractors do not classify Summerhill as a school. Max Rafferty called Summerhill "a caricature of education" and felt threatened by the implications of "the spread of Neill's hedonism to the majority of the next generation". Others criticized Neill for his progressive ideals despite agreement on his critique of traditional schools, and bemoaned his "outdated radicalism" and "dangerously enthusiastic following in teaching training institutions".
Neill is generally associated with democratic schools as a leader in its tradition. H. A. T. Child associated Summerhill with the Bedales School, Alfred the Great, and Child's Dartington Hall School, and David Gribble wrote about schools around the world following Neill's teachings in 1998. Timothy Gray linked the release of Summerhill with the rise of writers Herb Kohl, Jonathan Kozol, Neil Postman, and Ivan Illich. Scholars debate whether Neill fits best in a progressive or more radical tradition.
Few of Neill's acolytes continued his work after his death. His family maintained Summerhill, with Neill's daughter as its headmaster as of 2013[update]. Others influenced by Neill included John Aitkenhead, Michael Duane, and R. F. Mackenzie. Richard Bailey wrote that Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner's followers were more evangelical in character, and that Neill deterred would-be devotees. He specifically discouraged American association with his school in both name and likeness.
Life at Summerhill
As headmaster of Summerhill, Neill taught classes in Algebra, Geometry and Metalworking. He often said that he admired those who were skilled craftsmen more than those whose skills were purely intellectual. Neill held that because attendance was optional, the classes themselves could be more rigorous. Students learned more quickly, and more deeply, because they were learning by choice, not compulsion.
Neill also had special "private lessons" with pupils, which included discussions of personal issues and amounted to a form of psychotherapy. He later abandoned these "PLs", finding that children who did not have PLs were still cured of delinquent behaviour; he therefore concluded that freedom was the cure, not psychotherapy.
During his teaching career he wrote dozens of books, including the "Dominie" (Scottish word for teacher) series, beginning with A Dominie's Log (1916). His most influential book was Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing (1960) which created a storm in U.S. educational circles. His last work was his autobiography, Neill, Neill, Orange Peel! (1973) He also wrote humorous books for children, like The Last Man Alive (1939).
A. S. Neill was married twice. His first wife Lillian Richardson was an Australian, the sister of the novelist Henry Handel Richardson; his second wife Ena Wood Neill administered Summerhill school with him for many decades until their daughter, Zoë Neill Readhead, took over the school as headmistress.
Many within the educational establishment felt threatened by Neill's work, and criticism of Neill was correspondingly harsh. Many published attacks accusing Neill of various failings including naivety and unrealistic idealism, or even downright moral indifference. Neill was similarly criticized for bringing notions of Freudian repression into an educational setting.
Neill's notions of freedom and education, considered controversial in their time, influenced many of the progressive educators who came after him. He was named one of 12 great educators of the millennium by the Times Educational Supplement.
Modern advocates, such as John Taylor Gatto, John Holt and many others in the unschooling, democratic education and homeschooling movements, have taken Neill's ideas further and updated them, providing energetic and radical critiques of the compulsion-based schooling which is still prevalent in most countries. There are now many schools all over the world based the ideas of democratic education (see list); many take part in the annual International Democratic Education Conference whose initial meeting was held in Israel in 1993.
Summerhill School, which Neill founded, was in 2007 accepted by OFSTED as providing a good quality of academic education for children. Summerhill has also been recognised by the United Nations for its exceptionally good treatment of children.
"The convention of the Rights of the Child makes particular reference to children's rights to participate in decisions affecting them and Summerhill, through its very approach to education, embodies this right in a way that surpasses expectation." - Paulo David, Secretary, UN Committee on the Rights of the Child
Biographer Richard Bailey referred to Neill as a "savant" and "gifted teacher who was guided by his innate wisdom".
- A Dominie’s Log (1916)
- A Dominie Dismissed (1916)
- Booming of Bunkie (1919)
- Carroty Broon (1920)
- A Dominie in Doubt (1920)
- A Dominie Abroad (1922)
- A Dominie’s Five (1924)
- The Problem Child (1926)
- The Problem Parent (1932)
- Is Scotland Educated? (1936)
- That Dreadful School (1937)
- The Last Man Alive (1938)
- The Problem Teacher (1939)
- Hearts Not Heads in the School (1945)
- The Problem Family (1949)
- The Free Child (1953)
- Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing (Preface by Erich Fromm) (1960)
- Freedom, Not License! (1966)
- Talking of Summerhill (1967)
- Children's Rights: Toward the Liberation of the Child (with Leila Berg, Paul Adams, Nan Berger, Michael Duane, and Robert Ollendorff) (1971)
- Neill, Neill, Orange Peel! (1972)
- Record of a friendship: the correspondence between Wilhelm Reich and A. S. Neill, 1936-1957 (1982)
- All the Best, Neill: Letters from Summerhill (1984)
- Neill, A.S. (1915). A Dominie's Log. READ BOOKS, 2007 Page 66. ISBN 1-4067-6353-5, ISBN 978-1-4067-6353-9
- portrait head of A.S.Neill image of sculpture
- http://www.henry-moore-fdn.co.uk/matrix_engine/content.php?page_id=584 HMI Archive
- The American College of Orgonomy
- Neill, A.S. (1973). Neill! Neill! Orange Peel!. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. p. 163. ISBN 0-297-76554-X.
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- "On giants' shoulders;Millennium Edition - magazine article - TES". Times Educational Supplement. 31 Dec, 1999. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
- Bailey, Richard (2013). A. S. Neill. London: Bloomsbury Academic. ISBN 978-1-4411-0042-9. Retrieved 27 September 2013.
- Gagliano Giuseppe,La pedagogia del dissenso tra ottocento e novecento, Editrice Uniservice,2010 ISBN 978-88-6178-622-6
- Neill, Alexander S.: Summerhill School - A New View of Childhood. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1996 ISBN 0-312-14137-8.
- Croall, Jonathan: Neill of Summerhill - The Permanent Rebel. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983 ISBN 0-7100-9300-4
- Croall, Jonathan (ed): All the Best, Neill. Letters from Summerhill. London: André Deutsch, 1983 ISBN 0-233-97594-2 (A collection of letters by Neill to people like H.G. Wells, Bertrand Russell, Henry Miller, Wilhelm Reich, Paul Goodman, Homer Lane, and others)
- Hobson, Peter (2001). "A. S. Neill, 1883–1973". In Bresler, Liora; Cooper, David; Palmer, Joy. Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present Day. Routledge. pp. 1–5. ISBN 978-1-134-59259-3.
- Lawton, Denis (1977). Education and Social Justice. London: Sage. ISBN 978-0-8039-9946-6.
- Prud'homme, Marc-Alexandre; Reis, Giuliano (Summer 2011). "Comparing A.S. Neill To Rousseau, Appropriate?". Journal of Unschooling and Alternative Learning 5 (10). ISSN 1916-8128.
- Walmsley, John. Neill & Summerhill: A pictorial study. Baltimore: Penguin, 1969 ISBN 0-14-080134-0
- Sims, Hylda: Inspecting the island. Ipswich (UK): Seven Ply Yarns, 2000 ISBN 0-9538797-0-4 (A novel by an ex-Summerhill pupil)
- Vaughan, Mark (ed) with contributions from A. S. Neill, Zoe Neill Readhead, Tim Brighouse and Ian Stronach: "Summerhill and A. S. Neill". Maidenhead: Open University Press, McGraw-Hill Education, 2004 ISBN 0-335-21913-6.
- The New Summerhill - A. S. Neill, edited by Albert Lamb & Zoe Readhead, London 1992,Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-016783-8
- Waks, Leonard J. (1975). "Freedom and desire in the Summerhill philosophy of education". In David A. Nyberg. The Philosophy of Open Education. London: Routledge. pp. 144–154. ISBN 978-0-203-86109-7.