I tried to write something about Christian prayers in a religiously pluralistic society. I thought about the difficult job these board members are taking on and the many reasons it is that way. I am old enough to actually remember segregation, integration, white flight, and the upwelling of private schools created to keep “them” out.
But I kept coming back to the ambivalence of my own public school years. What I remember most is boredom, stifling frustrating years of sitting in alphabetical order, trapped. It had been so dinned into me that I had to go to college that I reasoned the only thing to do was go to school during the summers, take a full load and get out as fast as I could; which I did. I can count on less than both hands the teachers who cared a dime about me. Droning along, bringing in the paycheck, they too were trapped. It was a miserable time.
My mom was a school teacher. She had a two year lifetime teaching certificate, which, by the late 1950s was not enough, so she returned to college when I was in 5th grade. The following years of public school and state college were paired with getting Mom a college degree, and then a master’s degree. When I was a junior in college she earned her Ph.D. in educational philosophy.
Mom was lots of fun to help. Her undergraduate degree was in elementary education. My younger sister and I made sure she was ready for every test. She would type up her notes and we would drill her. I read her textbooks because they were interesting. There was a lot more in her textbooks than I was learning in my classrooms–reading around the room one stumbling sentence after another.
In high school, through one of Mom’s course readings, I found out about Summerhill, a school in England started by an educator named A. S. Neil in 1921. I read and re-read his book and being an introspective kid, I reflected on my situation and yearned to be free.
Here is an excerpt from the introduction to the book ‘Summerhill – a radical approach to child rearing’ by A. S. Neill:
“I hold that the aim of life is to find happiness, which means to find interest. Education should be a preparation for life. Our culture has not been very successful. Our education, politics and economics lead to war. Our medicines have not done away with disease. Our religion has not abolished usury and robbery. The advances of the age are advances in mechanism – in communications and computers, in science and technology. New wars threaten, for the world’s social conscience is still primitive.
“If we feel like questioning today, we can pose a few awkward questions. Why does man hate and kill in war when animals do not? Why does cancer increase? Why are there so many suicides? So many insane sex crimes? Why the hate that is racism? Why the need for drugs to enhance life? Why backbiting and spite? Why is sex obscene and a leering joke? Why degradation and torture? Why the continuance of religions that have long ago lost their love and hope and charity? Why, a thousand whys about our vaulted state of civilized eminence!
“I ask these questions because I am by profession a teacher, one that deals with the young. I ask these questions because those so often asked by teachers are the unimportant ones, the ones about French or ancient history or what not when these subjects don’t matter a jot compared to the larger questions of life’s fulfillment – of man’s inner happiness.
“How much of our education is real doing, real self-expression? Handwork is too often the making of a wooden box under the eye of an expert. Even the Montessori system, well known as a system of directed play, is an artificial way of making the child learn by doing. It has nothing creative about it. In the home the child is always being taught. In almost every home there is at least one ungrown-up grown-up who rushes to show Tommy how his new engine works. There is always someone to lift the baby up on a chair when the baby wants to examine something on the wall. Every time we show Tommy how his engine works we are stealing from that child the joy of life – the joy of discovery – the joy of overcoming an obstacle. Worse! We make that child come to believe that he is inferior, and must depend on help.
“Parents are slow in realizing how unimportant the learning side of school is. Children, like adults, learn what they want to learn. All the prize-giving and marks and exams side-track proper personality development. Only pedants claim that learning from books is education.
“Books are the least important apparatus in a school. All that any child needs is the three R’s the rest should be tools and clay and sports and theatre and paint and freedom.
“Most of the school work that adolescents do is simply a waste of time, of energy, of patience. It robs youth of its right to play and play and play: it puts old heads on young shoulders.
“When I lecture to students at teacher training colleges and universities, I am often shocked at the ungrownupness of these lads and lasses stuffed with useless knowledge. They know a lot: they shine in dialectics: they can quote the classics – but in their outlook on life many of them are infants. For they have been taught to know, but have not been allowed to feel. These students are friendly, pleasant, eager, but something is lacking – the emotional factor, the power to subordinate thinking to feeling. I talk to these of a world they have missed and go on missing. Their textbooks do not deal with human character, or with love, or with freedom, or with self-determination. And so the system goes on, aiming only at standards of book learning – it goes on separating the head from the heart.
“It is time that we were challenging the school’s notion of work. It is taken for granted that every child should learn mathematics, history, geography, science, a little art and certainly literature. It is time we realized that he average young child is not much interested in any of these subjects.
“I prove this with every new pupil. When told that the school is free, every new pupil cries, ‘Hurrah! You catch me going to lessons!’
“I am not decrying learning. But learning should come after play. And learning should not deliberately seasoned with play to make it palatable. Learning is important – but not to everyone. Nijinsky could not pass his school exams in St. Petersburg, and he could not enter the State Ballet without passing those exams. He simply could not learn school subjects – his mind was elsewhere. They faked an exam for him, giving him the answers with the papers – so a biography says. What a loss to the world if Nijinsky had really to pass those exams!
“Creators learn what they want to learn in order to have the tolls that their originality and genius demand. We do not know how much creation is killed in the classroom with its emphasis on learning.
“I have seen a girl weep nightly over her geometry. Her mother wanted her to go to university, but the girl’s whole soul was artistic.
“The notion that unless a child is learning something the child is wasting his time is nothing less than a curse – a curse that blinds thousands of teachers and most schools inspectors.
“Classroom walls and the National Curriculum narrow the teacher’s outlook, and prevent him from seeing the true essentials of education. His work deals with the part of the child that is above the neck and perforce, the emotional, vital part of the child is foreign territory to him.
“Indifferent scholars who, under discipline, scrape through college or university and become unimaginative teacher, mediocre doctors and incompetent lawyers would possibly be good mechanics or excellent bricklayers or first rate policemen.
“I would rather Summerhill produce a happy street sweeper than a neurotic prime minister.
“In all countries, capitalist, socialist or communist, elaborate schools are built to educate the young. But all the wonderful labs and workshops do nothing to help Jane or Peter or Ivan surmount the emotional damage and the social evils bred by the pressure on him from his parents, his schoolteachers and the pressure of the coercive quality of our civilization.
“The function of the child is to live his own life, not the life that his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows best. All this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots.
“We set out to make a school in which we should allow children freedom to be themselves. In order to do this we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had – a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being. Since 1921 this belief in the goodness of the child has never wavered: it rather has become a final faith.”
UNESCO lists A.S. Neil as one of the 100 most influential educational thinkers.
What would happen if the combined City of Memphis and Shelby County School system, as is stated on the front page of the Summerhill website,
Imagined a school…
Where kids have freedom to be themselves…
Where success is not defined by academic achievement but by the child’s own definition of success…
Where the whole school deals democratically with issues, with each individual having an equal right to be heard…
Where you can play all day if you want to…
And there is time and space to sit and dream…
…could there be such a school?