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Summerhill School, A New View of Childhood
by A.S. Neill, Albert Lamb, editor
St. Martin's Press, New York $21.95
Reviewed by Chris Mercogliano
 
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.. English edition ...............American Edition.....
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The function of a child is to live his own life - not the life his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best. All of this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots. ......................................................- A.S. Neill
 
Thanks to Albert Lamb, Neill's daughter Zoe and the Summerhill trust, A. S. Neill's best known book about freedom and democracy in education will not be passing out of the mainstream conversation regarding schools any time soon. When Lamb, a former Summerhill student who later returned to teach at his alma mater, learned that Summerhill was no longer in print in the U.S. and that therefore college education classes were no longer reading it, he received the go-ahead from Zoe, who assumed leadership of the school after her father died, and the Summerhill Trust to edit a new version.
 
And what a superlative job Lamb has done! This time around the book does not reflect the numerous marketing biases of a publisher and editor anxious to make Neill's radical concepts more palatable to a post-fifties American audience. Instead, here at last we get the real, unabridged Neill, including an entire chapter he had written about his association with Wilhelm Reich, the creator of a radical therapeutic model called "Orgonomy;" and, like Neill, a firm believer in children's capacity to regulate and govern themselves. The Reich chapter was omitted from the original American version because at the time Reich was a highly controversial figure in this country, his books having been banned and even burned by the FDA.
 
The series of forewords, prefaces and introductions at the beginning of the book in and of themselves make for fascinating reading. The foreword contains the memories of Neill's uncanny way of relating to kids of a former Summerhill student who attended the school in the early sixties, when the original version of the book was being released for the first time. Lamb then tells us in his preface that he was glad to have the opportunity to re-edit Summerhill because he had never felt that it very accurately reflected the school he had known either as a student or as a member of the staff. An editor's biases can have an enormous impact on the shape and tone of any book, and so here in this new version we find one that stands well apart from the original. My guess is that the irascible old Scotsman would be quite pleased with the results.
 
Lamb also points out - and quite rightly - that while only six hundred or so young people have passed through Summerhill's doors since Neill founded it in 1921, the ideas expressed in Neill's lectures and writings have altered the attitudes of millions around the world. While I am no Neill worshipper and do not consider myself a "Summerhillian," I will always honor Neill for his ability to articulate so adroitly the difference between freedom and license and for his unflinching belief in a child's right to determine his or her own reality.
 
For those who have never read Summerhill or who may need a little brushing up, here's a taste of classic Neill from the new edition: "The function of a child is to live his own life - not the life his anxious parents think he should live, nor a life according to the the purpose of the educator who thinks he knows what is best. All of this interference and guidance on the part of adults only produces a generation of robots."

May Summerhill live long and prosper, and thanks again to Albert Lamb for keeping the written wisdom of A. S. Neill alive for yet another generation.

 
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I would add that Albert also addresses the issue of Neill's deep and long-lasting friendship with pioneering scientist of the energy of life Wilhelm Reich (q.v.)- which was signally lacking in the original American edition.
 
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From the back of the book jacket:

Completely revised for the children, parents and teachers of the 1990s. Summerhill School presents the expanded version of A.S. Neill's experiment in education.

Founded in 1921, Summerhill was based on self-government and a simple underlying philosophy: "All crimes, all hatreds, all wars can be reduced to unhappiness. ... Children can be reared so that much of this unhappiness will never arise." Over seventy years later, the pioneering free school retains an immense international influence. Summerhill (1960), Neill's classic account, was a world-wide bestseller. Here, for this major new version, Albert Lamb has distilled over fifteen of Neill's published works to present undiluted his forthright views on sex and religion, creativity and discipline, problem children, the need for play, and the real nature of learning. In a second section, A.S. Neill gives his own life story. Combining autobiography, reflection, anecdote, and a richly detailed account of daily life at a unique school, it makes a perfect monument to one of the greatest educationalists of the twentieth century.

"Any parent can profit from reading this book. ... [It] will challenge him to rethink his own approach to his child."

- Erich Fromm, from the Foreword to Sunmerhill (1960) 

 

"Warmth, optimism, independence and self-reliance are contagious qualities of the school. The structure of the school lets kids be independent and at the same time accept their responsibilities toward each other just as the best families do.

- Albert Lamb, editor of Summerhill School