Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Revisiting Summerhill

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

Revisiting Summerhill

Article excerpt

Remember Summerhill? After decades of interest in the school, Ms. Cassebaum finally realized her wish to see it firsthand. She was not disappointed.

IMAGINE a school that has no grades or required classes, a school that posts or boasts no scores, a school that measures its success by the happiness of its students. A day's visit to Summerhill convinced me that A. S. Neill's school represents a reality that is quite different from the academic ones most of us live in.

Although Summerhill was founded 80 years ago, the belief that children can best guide their own development is still radical. At Summerhill, this core tenet is put into action by allowing students the freedom not to attend classes and by giving them a voice in running the school. Indeed, children's votes in the weekly meetings are equal to those of adults.

I have wanted to visit the school ever since, decades ago, my students and I first embroiled ourselves in debate over Neill's Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing. What would giving children such freedom lead to? Would an environment based on such equality actually work? Since I teach on a campus that is quite conventional in its power structure, I continued to feel the pull of Neill's ideas.

Over the years, I had done Web searches on "Summerhill" and come up with nothing. Had the school dwindled and gone under? Had it been destroyed by a drug crisis? Had it been unable to survive without Neill's presence?

When teaching in London, I found that will get you there and that the school indeed survives. In fact, Summerhill triumphs, you might say, if you visit the website and learn about the drama of Summerhill's vindication in court on 23 March 2000, following a decade of intense inspection. With all of the Summerhill community in court arguing for the defense, the school won the right to carry on without requiring students to attend their lessons and without being inspected for four years.

My e-mail asking to visit the school received a positive response. So on the morning of March 9, I walked to Summerhill with a heart full of hope. A cheery, white-haired woman riding a bicycle to the Leiston market passed me as I turned onto the street named Westward Ho.

* * *

The entrance to the school grounds appears: the two stone sculptures and "Summerhill" painted in white on the low curve of a brick wall. Familiar and expected, the brick Victorian house that is the main building sprawls below, and huts, trailers, and buildings of all sorts form a village in front of acres of fields. Two other visitors -- Julia and Andy -- and I are escorted into the general meeting room, past Zoe Readhead (Neill's daughter and the school's current principal), and down the hallway to find our student guide, Jesse.1

"Did you see Zoe?" I ask Andy excitedly.

"Who's Zoe?" he asks. Just the kind of visitor Neill would have loved. This is no earnest teacher and disciple. Instead, he is just a man beginning as a teacher and curious about this place that someone has told him he ought to check out. So he is here, toting a whole lot less baggage than I've brought with me.

Jesse obliges by taking pictures for me as he shows us around. With the students' permission, we enter the art and woodwork rooms, where the creativity outshines the chaos and the children seem intent and satisfied. In other, empty rooms, we can see the generous proportions of the windows, feel the expanse of space, and still notice the grubbiness -- this is, after all, a kids' community with a healthy, funky sense of what is important.

Jesse lingers longest outside at the great beech, the oldest in Suffolk. Its elephantine branches beckon toward the sky, and Jesse talks of those who have climbed to the top. But the students make the rules here, and no one is allowed to pursue that mossy climb today, when it is rainy.

Back inside, Jesse explains the bulletin boards to us. …

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