Why I Love Summerhill School

A few days ago I excitedly shared links to a great new TV show about Summerhill School in the UK. A great recent ally of Freechild, Margaret, shared some wonderful reflections as well as her reaction to the show: Just like me, she watched every episode in a row! Its that good.

But why Summerhill and the focus on it? Entering my eighth year of working in schools promoting student voice, I am confident to share that there are a lot of reasons, but they boil down to this: Summerhill is real. Rather than a half-boiled conception of what youth could do, instead of a compromised perspective of what society could be, more than 80 years ago A.S. Neill built the foundation of a wonderful place built on absolutism, just like public schools, only opposite.

Instead of telling students what they can do and what they can’t, instead of instilling an idea of what you should learn and what you shouldn’t, Summerhill is a complete environment that embraces the student’s conception of learning from the ground up. This type of freedom exists in few other places around our world, and it is fantastic that Summerhill has been able to carry through this vision in its most genuine, most absolute form.

Do I think Summerhill is for every student? Surely not – but every student should be able to choose that form of schooling as an option. Do I think there are problems in the Summerhill model? Maybe. I just listened to a Lupe Fiasco song where he says, “Wings don’t make you fly and a crown don’t make you king.” That reminds me that having a voice doesn’t make you heard, and I am afraid that a Summerhill experience might program students to expect that experience of radical democracy everywhere they go. Maybe that’s a problem.

But overall, I deeply admire everything inherent within and throughout the school. If you want to read more about Summerhill I would suggest you start at their website, much of which Zoe Redhead has written herself. Then check out the Wikipedia article about the school – its growing nicely. There are also several books about the school. Did I mention the television show?

Written by Adam Fletcher, this article was originally posted to http://commonaction.blogspot.com. Learn more at adamfletcher.net!

2 thoughts on “Why I Love Summerhill School

  1. Margaret here again (check out my blog on adultism at http://adultism.blogspot.com/) I disagree with your comment:”[the] Summerhill experience might program students to expect that experience of radical democracy everywhere they go.” I think that would be a GOOD thing! They should expect radical democracy and that’s precisely how things will change. As it is, the majority of young people have given up on being respected. It’s a hopeless quest after all, in most cases, to be respected by adults. But, if the majority of young people expected respect, they would soon change the adults around them to give respect. I think that’s why adultism is the most insideous of the oppressions; it begins at birth, and by the time a child is in school, or shortly thereafter, it’s already internalized to a large degree. I’m surprised there aren’t more Summerhills. Like I said in an earlier post, there was a charter school in Santa Clara, CA modeled after Summerhill, but I’ve never heard of any others. Have you?

  2. For what it’s worth, we ex-summerhillians tend to think that “expecting radical democracy everywhere” is rather a blessing. We live in a society which is very often democratic in name only, and a Summerhill education teaches one to recognise this fact. How this is supposed to be detrimental on an individual level, I really am not sure.

    It is a common criticism of Summerhill, that the real world is a terrible place, and so Summerhill must provide a rose-tinted world, that creates naive helpless people, with no expectation of anything bad ever happening. School should be hard, boring unjust and painful, because that’s what life is like.

    Well it turns out that most Summerhillians are bright enough to tell the difference between the school and the wider world. And amazingly, we are able to apply the lessons we learned in school to the real world, even though the real world is nothing like school!

    A traditional school council acclimatises kids to the idea that democracy is actually about other people making decisions about their lives, based on an infrequent popularity contest. The impotence of the average school council reinforces the notion of the impotence of an adult citizen, in a modern democracy.

    If more schools practised participative democracy, maybe the representative democracy many of us live in would be a good deal more representative.

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