Happy birthday Alexander Sutherland Neill. 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. It later moved to Sonntagberg in Austria, and in 1923 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.
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 greatest 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 Hill School (one of several schools bearing this name) 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
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 behavior; 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.
No recipe today. In honor of my great mentor – make one up. Send it to me!