During the eighteenth century, the ideas of freedom, democracy,
and self-determination were proclaimed by progressive thinkers;
and by the first half of the 1900's these ideas came to fruition
in the field of education. The basic principle of such self-determination
was the replacement of authority by freedom, to teach the child
without the use of force by appealing to his curiosity and
spontaneous needs, and thus to get him interested in the world
around him. This attitude marked the beginning of progressive
education and was an important step in human development.
But the results of this new method were often disappointing. In
recent years, an increasing reaction against progressive education
has set in. Today, many people believe the theory itself erroneous
and that it should be thrown overboard. There is a strong movement
afoot for more and more discipline, and even a campaign to permit
physical punishment of pupils by public school teachers.
Perhaps the most important factor in this reaction is the remarkable
success in teaching achieved in the Soviet Union. There the old-fashioned
methods of authoritarianism are applied in full strength; and the
results, as far as knowledge is concerned, seem to indicate
that we had better revert to the old disciplines and forget about
the freedom of the child.
Is the idea of education without force wrong? Even if the idea
itself is not wrong, how can we explain its relative failure?
I believe the idea of freedom for children was not wrong, but the
idea of freedom has almost always been perverted. To discuss this
matter clearly we must first understand the nature of freedom; and
to do this we must differentiate between overt authority and
anonymous authority. (A more detailed analysis of the problem
of authority can be found in E. Fromm, Escape from Freedom,
Rinehart and Co. Inc., New York, 1941.) Overt authority is exercised
directly and explicitly. The person in authority frankly tells the
one who is subject to him, "You must do this. If you do not, certain
sanctions will be applied against you." Anonymous authority tends
to hide that force is being used. Anonymous authority pretends that
there is no authority, that all is done with the consent of the
individual. While the teacher of the past said to Johnny, "You must
do this. If you don't, I'll punish you"; today's teacher says, "I'm
sure you'll like to do this." Here, the sanction for disobedience
is not corporal punishment, but the suffering face of the parent,
or what is worse, conveying the feeling of not being "adjusted,"
of not acting as the crowd acts. Overt authority used physical force;
anonymous authority employs psychic manipulation.
The change from the overt authority of the nineteenth century to
the anonymous authority of the twentieth was determined by the organizational
needs of our modern industrial society. The concentration of capital
led to the formation of giant enterprises managed by hierarchically
organized bureaucracies. Large conglomerations of workers and clerks
work together, each individual a part of a vast organized production
machine, which in order to run at all, must run smoothly and without
interruption. The individual worker becomes merely a cog in this
machine. In such a production organization, the individual is managed
and manipulated. And in the sphere of consumption (in which the
individual allegedly expresses his free choice) he is likewise managed
and manipulated. Whether it be the consumption of food, clothing,
liquor, cigarettes, movies or television programs, a powerful suggestion
apparatus is at work with two purposes: first, to constantly increase
the individual's appetite for new commodities; and secondly, to
direct these appetites into the channels most profitable for industry.
Man is transformed into the consumer, the eternal suckling, whose
one wish is to consume more and "better" things.
Our economic system must create men who fit its needs; men who
cooperate smoothly; men who want to consume more and more.
Our system must create men whose tastes are standardized, men who
can be easily influenced, men whose needs can be anticipated. Our
system needs men who feel free and independent but who are
nevertheless willing to do what is expected of them, men who will
fit into the social machine without friction, who can be guided
without force, who can be led without leaders, and who can be directed
without any aim except the one to "make good." (For a more detailed
analysis of the influence of our industrial system on the character
structure of the individual, see E. Fromm, The Sane Society,
Rinehart and Co. Inc., New York, 1955.) It is not that authority
has disappeared, nor even that it has lost in strength, but that
it has been transformed from the overt authority of force to the
anonymous authority of persuasion and suggestion. In other words,
in order to be adaptable, modern man is obliged to nourish the illusion
that everything is done with his consent, even though such consent
be extracted from him by subtle manipulation. His consent is obtained,
as it were, behind his back, or behind his consciousness. The same
artifices are employed in progressive education. The child is forced
to swallow the pill, but the pill is given a sugar coating. Parents
and teachers have confused true non-authoritarian education with
education by means of persuasion and hidden coercion. Progressive
education has been thus debased. It has failed to become what it
was intended to be and has never developed as it was meant to.
A. S. Neill's system is a radical approach to child rearing. In
my opinion, his book is of great importance because it represents
the true principle of education without fear. In Summerhill
School authority does not mask a system of manipulation. Summerhill
does not expound a theory; it relates the actual experience of almost
40 years. The author contends that "freedom works." The principles
underlying Neill's system are presented in this book simply and
unequivocally. They are these in summary.
1. Neill maintains a firm faith "in the goodness of the child."
He believes that the average child is not born a cripple, a coward,
or a soulless automaton, but has full potentialities to love life
and to be interested in life.
2. The aim of education - in fact the aim of life - is to work
joyfully and to find happiness. Happiness, according to Neill, means
being interested in life; or as I would put it, responding to life
not just with one's brain but with one's whole personality.
3. In education, intellectual development is not enough. Education
must be both intellectual and emotional. In modern society we find
an increasing separation between intellect and feeling. The experiences
of man today are mainly experiences of thought rather than an immediate
grasp of what his heart feels, his eyes see, and his ears hear.
In fact, this separation between intellect and feeling has led modern
man to a near schizoid state of mind in which he has become almost
incapable of experiencing anything except in thought.
4. Education must be geared to the psychic needs and capacities
of the child. The child is not an altruist. He does not yet love
in the sense of the mature love of an adult. It is an error to expect
something from a child which he can show only in a hypocritical
way. Altruism develops after childhood.
5. Discipline, dogmatically imposed, and punishment create fear;
and fear creates hostility. This hostility may not be conscious
and overt, but it nevertheless paralyzes endeavor and authenticity
of feeling. The extensive disciplining of children is harmful and
thwarts sound psychic development.
6. Freedom does not mean license. This very important principle,
emphasized by Neill, is that respect for the individual must be
mutual. A teacher does not use force against a child, nor has a
child the right to use force against a teacher. A child may not
intrude upon an adult just because he is a child, nor may a child
use pressure in the many ways in which a child can.
7. Closely related to his principle is the need for true sincerity
on the part of the teacher. The author says that never in the 40
years of his work in Summerhill has he lied to a child. Anyone who
reads this book will be convinced that this statement, which might
sound like boasting, is the simple truth.
8. Healthy human development makes it necessary that a child eventually
cut the primary ties which connect him with his father and mother,
or with later substitutes in society, and that he become truly independent.
He must learn to face the world as an individual. He must learn
to find his security not in any symbiotic attachment, but in his
capacity to grasp the world intellectually, emotionally, artistically.
He must use all his powers to find union with the world, rather
than to find security through submission or domination.
9. Guilt feelings primarily have the function of binding the child
to authority. Guilt feelings are an impediment to independence;
they start a cycle which oscillates constantly between rebellion,
repentance, submission, and new rebellion. Guilt, as it is felt
by most people in our society, is not primarily a reaction to the
voice of conscience, but essentially an awareness of disobedience
against authority and fear of reprisal. It does not matter whether
such punishment is physical or a withdrawal of love, or whether
one simply is made to feel an outsider. All such guilt feelings
create fear; and fear breeds hostility and hypocrisy.
10. Summerhill School does not offer religious education. This,
however, does not mean that Summerhill is not concerned with what
might be loosely called the basic humanistic values. Neill puts
it succinctly: "The battle is not between believers in theology
and non-believers in theology; it is between believers in human
freedom and believers in the suppression of human freedom." The
author continues: "Some day a new generation will not accept the
obsolete religion and myths of today. When the new religion comes,
it will refute the idea of man's being born in sin. A new religion
will praise God by making men happy."
Neill is a critic of present-day society. He emphasizes that the
kind of person we develop is a mass-man. "We are living in an insane
society" and "most of our religious practices are sham." Quite logically,
the author is an internationalist, and holds a firm and uncompromising
position that readiness for war is a barbaric atavism of the human
race. Indeed, Neill does not try to educate children to fit well
into the existing order, but endeavors to rear children who will
become happy human beings, men and women whose values are not to
have much, not to use much, but to be much.
Neill is a realist; he can see that even though the children he
educates will not necessarily be extremely successful in the worldly
sense, they will have acquired a sense of genuineness which will
effectually prevent their becoming misfits or starving beggars.
The author has made a decision between full human development and
full market-place success-and he is uncompromisingly honest in the
way he pursues the road to his chosen goal.
Reading this book, I have felt greatly stimulated and encouraged.
I hope many other readers will. This is not to say that I agree
with every statement the author makes. Certainly most readers will
not read this book as if it were the Gospel, and I am sure that
the author, least of all, would want this to happen.
I might indicate two of my main reservations. I feel that Neill
somewhat underestimates the importance, pleasure, and authenticity
of an intellectual in favor of an artistic and emotional grasp of
the world. Furthermore, the author is steeped in the assumptions
of Freud; and as I see it, he somewhat overestimates the significance
of sex, as Freudians tend to do. Yet I retain the impression that
the author is a man with such realism, and such a genuine grasp
of what goes on in a child, that these criticisms refer more to
some of his formulations than to his actual approach to the child.
I stress the word "realism" because what strikes me most in the
author's approach is his capacity to see, to discern fact
from fiction, not to indulge in the rationalizations and illusions
by which most people live, and by which they block authentic experience.
Neill is a man with a kind of courage rare today, the courage to
believe in what he sees, and to combine realism with an unshakable
faith in reason and love. He maintains an uncompromising reverence
for life, and a respect for the individual. He is an experimenter
and an observer, not a dogmatist who has an egotistic stake in what
he is doing. He mixes education with therapy, but for him therapy
is not a separate matter to solve some special "problems," but simply
the process of demonstrating to the child that life is there to
be grasped, and not to run away from.
It will be clear to the reader that the experiment about which
this book reports is necessarily one which cannot be repeated many
times in our present-day society. This is so not only because it
depends on being carried out by an extraordinary person like Neill,
but also because few parents have the courage and independence to
care more for their children's happiness than for their "success."
But this fact by no means diminishes the significance of this book.
Even though no school like Summerhill exists in the United States
today, any parent can profit by reading this book. These chapters
will challenge him to rethink his own approach to his child. He
will find that Neill's way of handling children is quite different
from what most people sneeringly brush aside as "permissive." Neill's
insistence on a certain balance in the child relationship - freedom
without license - is the kind of thinking that can radically
change home attitudes. The thoughtful parent will be shocked to
realize the extent of pressure and power that he is unwittingly
using against the child. This book should provide new meanings for
the words love, approval, freedom.
Neill shows uncompromising respect for life and freedom and a radical
negation of the use of force. Children reared by such methods will
develop within themselves the qualities of reason, love, integrity,
and courage, which are the goals of the Western humanistic tradition.
If it can happen once in Summerhill, it can happen everywhere -
once the people are ready for it. Indeed there are no problem
children as the author says, but only "problem parents" and a "problem
humanity." I believe Neill's work is a seed which will germinate.
In time, his ideas will become generally recognized in a new society
in which man himself and his unfolding are the supreme aim of all