Alexander Sutherland Neill
* October 17, 1883 in Schottland
† September 23, 1973
was a Scottish educationalist recognised as one of the leading pioneers in education. He is most famous and admired for recommending personal freedom for children, and has been correspondingly attacked as the instigator of permissiveness by his critics.
Neill was born in Forfar, the son of a schoolteacher. 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: 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 believed that the happiness of the child was a paramount consideration in the child's upbringing and that a fundamental contribution to this happiness was the maintenance of a sense of personal freedom in the child. This idea was extremely controversial at the time; today, while not nearly universally accepted, the concept does have other advocates, such as some in the unschooling movement.
He felt that deprivation of this sense of freedom during childhood and all the consequent unhappiness experienced by the repressed child was responsible for much if not all of the psychological disorders of adulthood.
Neill founded Summerhill school on the basis that children should not be compelled to attend lessons. In addition to this novel attendance policy, the school is democratic. Meetings are held to determine school rules and pupils have equal voting rights with school staff.
Many consider the ongoing success of the school a repudiation of William Golding's book Lord of the Flies which aims to represent the introduction of freedom to children as a recipe for suffering, impaired survival chances, brutality, tyranny and chaos.
What Neill's experiences with Summerhill confirmed was his belief that the self-confidence which resulted from personal freedom—far from producing a lack of educational achievement, self indulgence and selfishness—produced children whose motivation to learn and attend lessons was in most cases at least as high as those of children subjected to 'coercive education'. The attitude of Summerhill pupils to other children and adults was actually found to be more likely to develop into that of mature and responsible individuals, whose response to authority, whilst not naively disregarding, was more likely to be thoughtfully sceptical rather than deferential.
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.
Nonetheless, the public image of Neill and Summerhill is generally coloured by the view that parents would generally not accept that their children were attending an educational establishment where education, in terms of study and examination, was not an activity in which their children could be guaranteed to be engaged.
A school (described derisively by the press as the 'do as you please school') where children are not forced to learn and where the children can set the rules, is often seen as a place where 'the lunatics have taken over the asylum' but Neill had essentially redefined school as being a place where perpetuating the potential tyranny of parental coercion, was replaced by a faith in the essential common sense of the individual where any punishment of their actions was limited to the reciprocal and proportionate response of peers rather than the overwhelming force of 'superiors' committed to maintaining 'control'.
A Freudian, Neill was also strongly opposed to sexual repression and the imposition of the strict Victorian values of his childhood era. He said that to be anti-sex was to be anti-life. For this, he was also roundly criticized; Max Rafferty, California Director of Education, wrote "I would sooner send my children to a brothel ..."
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. (His innovation was that attending classes was optional, not that the teaching was in any way soft or other than rigorous.) He also had special "private lessons" with pupils, which included discussions of personal issues and amounted to a form of therapy.
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 Learning (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 second wife Ena Wood Neill administered Summerhill school with him for many decades until their daughter, Zoe Readhead, took over the school as headmistress.
Influences on Neill's thought
Neill's biggest mentor in education was the British educator Homer Lane. Neill was also an admirer and close friend of psychoanalytical innovator Wilhelm Reich and a student of Freudian psychoanalysis.
Another major contributor to the field of Libertarian Education was Bertrand Russell whose own self-founded Beacon Hill School (England) (one of several schools bearing this name) is often compared with Summerhill. Russell was a correspondent of Neill and offered his support.
Criticisms of Neill
Other than the predictable accusations of naivety and unrealistic idealism, or moral indifference, some of the criticisms are more empirical, along the lines of Russell's 'post-Beacon Hill' concern, which was that there was a risk that the tyranny of repressive parents could be replaced by the tyranny of the 'over-indulged child'.
Modern educational responses to this claim tend to revolve around techniques of 'boundary setting' such that a child becomes aware of and learns to respect the limits of other people's preparedness to tolerate certain types of behaviour.
To be fair to Neill, the extent to which he was having to overturn the preconceptions and predispositions of a 1920's system which 'knew nothing but boundaries' means that it would be unreasonable to expect him to have solved all the problems which his new approach might produce.
It is as if someone had personally invented democracy and found that instead of praise, all that they received was condemnation, as a result of not having produced a perfect formula for integrating judicial review into bicameral governance.
John Holt, another non-coercive direction
The primary basis for Neill's rejection of coercion of children was that he believed coercion had an undesirable impact upon their emotional development. The fact that he believed that this impact had the potential to impede their educational development was not in fact Neill's primary reason for striving to minimise coercion.
Although he felt that the absence of coercion would potentially have a beneficial impact upon certain children's willingness to participate in an educational regime, Neill felt that if the child, through personal choice, refused to allow themselves to be educated, this was no reason to deny the child the choice, or to deny the value of giving any child that choice.
An educational radical who 'came to the coercion issue from the opposite direction' was John Holt. Holt had developed his own doubts about coercion by systematically observing the classroom teaching process and determining from his observations that classroom coercion (or at least 'teacher-imposed learning') was having an undesirable impact upon the learning progress of certain children, or was having insufficient positive impact on children who might be deemed as educationally unreceptive, resistant or non-retentive. Holt concluded that removing coercion from the teaching process was not a policy that schools could be persuaded to support (an attitude which Neill experienced in terms of the educational authority's attitude to Summerhill) so Holt began to advocate homeschooling. Later, Holt grew critical of some homeschooling when he discovered that homeschooling parents were merely reproducing the coercive environment of the classroom for their own children in their own homes.
From Neill's perspective, Holt's findings on classroom activity (in terms of revealing the negative impact that coercion has on the child's interest in the learning process) are an important contrast with Neill's own practices, because Neill was generally quite 'conventional' in the classroom (in terms of making the learning experience very 'teaching-centric', rather than Holt's 'child-interest-centric' approach).
From Holt's perspective, there is an important distinction from Neill's agenda: Neill is more interested in the child's overall experience, in which formal education is a mere detail.
For Neill, the real 'lessons' are to be learned in the successful development of interpersonal capabilities, from which the child can be expected to develop a more practical and realistic view of themselves and the world.
Neill is convinced that the value to the child of the rest of the formal educational agenda can be something which the child can, should and will determine for themselves, because coercing a child into educational activities, either through fear, appeasement, or any means other than inspiring genuine interest, consistently introduces an unnecessary distortion in the child's experience of learning, typically associating most learning activities with 'work', punishment and coercion itself.
Perhaps, by switching the environment from school to home, Holt became aware of the possibility that the impact that coercion 'outside the teaching environment' can have on children may be more fundamental than merely 'hampering educational attainment'.
Neill's educational legacy
Although it is true to say that some of Neill's ideas, if not necessarily responsible for directly influencing modern educational policy, have certainly 'become part of the orthodoxy', in that 'child unhappiness' is no longer seen as being as irrelevant (or even as beneficial) to educational development as it was when Neill became headmaster in Gretna Green in 1914, it is also true that even today, the sense of personal freedom which he sought to develop in children through the avoidance of unnecessary coercion, is still something which is conspicuous by its absence in every educational system in the world today.
Whatever advances there may have been in techniques of non-coercive education, many would claim that these developments have yet to make their definitive mark upon the typical modern school, where the maintenance of sufficient order to conduct lessons still manifests itself as a struggle by educational professionals to impose a hierarchical command and control of pupils, rather than being the mutual and cooperative experience that Neill envisaged and pursued at Summerhill.
Neill's detractors today still dismiss his approach as unacceptably anarchic and as a recipe for unnecessarily impotent teaching staff, dangerously unruly and uneducated children and future generations of ignorant, indolent and irresponsible adults, though there is little to no evidence of this.
However, merely 'appeasing children' by 'making sure they do interesting and constructive things' which is an accepted modern educational ethic, whilst it does unquestionably contribute positively to both their childhood happiness and their educational requirements, would not, on its own, satisfy Neill.
In fact this development might constitute a basis for a response, from Neill's perspective, to the general dissatisfaction with modern education, where the persistence of coercion, combined with the provision of imaginative educational resources, has merely produced extremely confused generations of adults (no less confused than the Victorians of his childhood) who have experienced a childhood permeated by a seemingly arbitrary and bewildering experience of half-hearted and wholehearted intimidatory 'instruction' combined with 'edutainment'.
If both the old fully-coercive model and the newer partially-coercive model have failed to satisfy educationalists, Neill would be perplexed as to why his 'minimally coercive' model was at least not the subject of more research into childhood education.
Non-coercive methods certainly have been researched for adult education, especially in crisis management and leadership training, where the absence of coercion, hierarchy or instruction in particular role playing exercises, to those accustomed to it in work and life situations, often exposes both weaknesses and hitherto unrecognised potential.
A less than minimally coercive educational system will, from Neill's perspective, at best have failed to recognise such issues and at worst, been largely responsible for the resulting problems in adult life.
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