That Dreadful Educationalist:
Answering A. S. Neill's Critics
By John Potter
1. Neill: Influential but 'Misunderstood'
The influence of the educationalist A. S. Neill has been considerable. At the beginning of the twenty-first century there were schools around the world which had been founded because of Neill's inspiration or which had borrowed or adopted many of his ideas for their philosophy. David Gribble's recent study Real Education discovered democratic schools offering varieties of freedom in countries ranging from Japan to Ecuador and from New Zealand to India, and these were found in a number of different settings intended for children of all ages and from many backgrounds. Adaptations of Neill's philosophy were present in many of them. Prior to this, Neill's ideas had also found some partial acceptance in the state schools of his native Britain and his philosophy was already being taught in teacher training colleges and universities there at the time of his death in 1973. The writer's own first encounter with the ideas of A. S. Neill and of his radically free school Summerhill, was in the mid-1970s as a student at what was then Northampton College of Education.
However, Ray Hemmings in his 1972 book Fifty Years of Freedom, was already finding at this early stage that many of Neill's ideas had been misunderstood or were being diluted in the process of their adoption by other schools. Despite the award of three honorary degrees by British universities and Neill's emergence as an educational celebrity the most important tenets of his philosophy were often not taken very seriously or were overlooked especially in the state sector - in favour of the view of Neill as an eccentric who had some good ideas but was just a little bit mad. Hemmings discovered that although Neill had had some influence on state schools, particularly in such matters as the development of friendlier relations between teachers and pupils, other things advocated by him such as sexual freedom or the right to stay away from lessons forever if you wanted to, were much more frightening for the mainstream education system. The establishment of some school councils was also a pale shadow of the full self-government envisioned by Neill. Most schools were still run by adults, and children were merely allowed a modicum of democracy or freedom by the more benevolent ones. This has continued to be the case in the state system. It seems there is always a danger that we defuse the threat of radicals such as Neill by paying lip service to their importance and by embracing some of their less 'dangerous' ideas while ignoring their more fundamental or important messages. In this way the philosophies of Neill and other radicals can be absorbed into the mainstream while nothing really changes.
Hemmings' study is valuable even now as a comparatively rare and sympathetic attempt to get to grips with wbat Neill was really saying and it also illuminates the problems of gaining general acceptance for such unusual ideas. He accurately pinpoints what the school Summerhill is all about by referring to it in one chapter heading as 'The Bare Minimum of a School'. For this is what Summerhill was and still is, and Neill often pointed out that he saw it more as a big family than a school. Croall's later biography of Neill also follows the difficulties which Neill faced in his lifetime, while Matthew Appleton's book A Free Range Childhood takes the story of Summerhill well past Neill's time and almost up to the present to show a picture of a remarkably thriving and successful school but one still largely ignored by the mainstream world. It is significant that two of the rare books which best explain sympathetically and with understanding the real nature of life at Summerhill should be by Hemmings and Appleton who had both experienced life as members of the staff at Summerhill.
A typical problem has also been that Neill has often been seen as an educator of 'problem children' and his methods only deemed appropriate for them. Some children have always refused to accept the lives forced upon them in schools in which they have no say and where they have to attend lessons that are compulsory. Only when violence or truancy is the result have governments and educational 'experts' been quick to support alternative and free methods such as those advocated by Neill. But this is seen as a temporary measure with the ultimate goal being a return of the individual child to the orthodox system. Neill has shown that most of what children do in schools is in fact a complete waste of time and that there are much better things that they could be engaged in: exploring their own interests, acquiring new skills, making friends, chatting, playing, thinking or daydreaming. This is all dangerous stuff and cannot be taken seriously by the majority of people as it doesn't sound like anything they've heard of before which might be called education.
While Hemmings was writing his book back in the early 1970s, Neill's philosophy as embodied in his work at Summerhill, had already come under attack from the British government as a series of inspections found things not to their liking. This was an uncanny forerunner of the later troubles to befall the school after Neill's death when in the 1990s it suffered what amounted to harrassment from a series of unsympathetic and completely inappropriate inspections from Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education), only managing to free itself after an expensive court case which effectively found in favour of the school.
The later inspections and subsequent court case in 2000 were not least remarkable for the government's stubborn refusal to try and understand anything at all about Neill's real philosophy. This attitude seems to have contributed largely to their defeat in the appeal made by the school and heard at the Independent Schools Tribunal. Despite this the HMI Report claimed that it did not pass judgment on Summerhill's philosophy. Clearly, though, its own rigid view of what constitutes education was greatly at odds with the reality of Summerhill. The expert witness statement by Professor Ian Stronach on behalf of the school which was heard at the Tribunal catalogues an incredible ignorance on the part of the HMl inspection which failed completely to address Summerhill's unusual aims and methods. Stronach takes apart the Ofsted argument piece by piece to devastating effect and shows that the inspectors were in effect trying to judge 'tennis by the rules of basketball' or 'entering a racoon at a dog show'. Not surprisingly, the question most frequently asked of the Summerhill children was "How often do you go to lessons?".
This association of education with the academic side only, to the detriment of everything else, goes hand in hand with the idea that education is a preparation for some undetermined future. Therefore the present must always be sacrificed to the contingent future. This is found almost as much with those who purport to have some understanding of Neill's ideas or who imagine that they are sympathetic to Summerhill. Therefore, even parents of students at Summerhill are doubtless weary of being asked questions concerning their children's 'learning' progress.
Parents of Summerhillians who understand and support the school must also be very strong and clear in expressing their opinions to others. Misunderstandings though seem almost inevitable given that the true nature of Neill's ideas put into practice is still shocking in a world where it is assumed that adults know best what is good for children.
Educationalists and university professors, who on the surface may be sympathetic or reasonable in their discussions of Neill, are by no means immune to this problem either. A stumbling block here is that Neill is not quite like other educational philosophers. He was comparatively little read in educational theory and even less impressed by the ideas of other educationalists, and claimed his initial inspiration to come from psychology rather than education. Although often described as a progressive educator he held no 'progressive' theories about learning or the classroom and is completely different from those such as Rudolf Steiner or Maria Montessorl with whom his writings are frequently (and wrongly) grouped. For Neill, Steiner's spirituality, his attempts to mould and guide children, and his disapproval of self-government were enough to put him beyond the pale.
Similarly, he saw Montessori as a religious woman who placed too little importance on the child's fantasy life and too much on learning and intellectual development. Neill felt that Homer Lane's one book, Talks to Parents and Teachers, was of greater value than all the work of Pestalozzi, Rousseau, Froebel and Montessori put together, because Lane touched on deeper things to do with child nature rather than learning and the classroom. Moreover, Neill's own books do not read the way that many people think a book on educational philosophy should read. For one thing the books, although often repeating the same ideas in different ways, are immensely readable, enjoyable and entertaining. They are heavily biased towards Neill's own experiences and full of anecdotal material to support his theory and practice at Summerhill. And of course he is irreverent and, needless to say, always on the side of the child. (Hence titles such as That Dreadful School and The Problem Teacher). This is a tough one for teachers and educationalists to come to terms with as opinions like these question the whole validity of their existence and so Neill's ideas have a tendency, if not to be dismissed, then to be written about with many reservations. He is often damned with faint praise.
2. Neill: The Usual Criticisms
Peter Hobson, an associate professor in the School of Education Studies of an Australian university, wrote a short chapter on Neill as a contribution to the book Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education which claims to look at "fifty of the most significant contributors of modern times to the debate on education." The book is a companion to the earlier history, Fifty Major Thinkers on Education, and was published by Routledge in 2001. Neill rubs shoulders here alongside names such as Heidegger and Wittgenstein, as well as Jean Piaget, Paolo Freire, Ivan Illich and Howard Gardner. All the essays are brief and summarize the life and works of each thinker ending with a list of major writings and suggested further reading. The four page essay on Neill summarizes very well his development as an educationalist and his work at Summerhill and gives a good deal of credit where it is due. But the final page and a half contributes criticisms of Neill which are by now very familiar. In an introduction of this kind the author must feel duty bound to find something to criticize if only to show he's done his homework and has been paying attention. Hobson's is in some ways a useful introduction and has not been singled out here because of any unusual animosity towards Neill. It is simply that his reservations are such standard fare nowadays that they serve as a good example of the kind of thing continually said about Neill. They also deserve a response. His final section contains three broad complaints: that Neill lacks a systematic, considered philosophy of education; that he had a simplistic and outdated view of moral and religious education; and that he had an anti-intellectual bias.
Neill's philosophy was inextricably linked with his work at Summerhill and so attempts to respond to criticisms of the ideas will also inevitably address the situation at the school in which they were put into practice. In attempting to offer a reply to these criticisms I would like first to draw attention to the following quotes:
You cannot have a school based on respect for the individual if the ultimate governing system is authoritarian. A school must be run from within because when you go outside it you cannot see what is going on. To give people authority over an institution is to make them believe that they understand it. A school which allows children to find their own values cannot avoid providing ammunition for its critics ... Only people inside the school, seeing the many children who succeed without any problems, seeing the children with difficulties change and progress, can form any true picture of its merits.

-- David Gribble, 'Dartington Closes' in Lib Ed Vol.2 No.3 Leicester, 1986, p.6.

Would we expect a zookeeper to be able to hold forth on the natural behavior of animals in the wild without studying it first? The conclusion we might reach in the case of a tiger, for example, is that in its natural state it spends its day pacing listlessly up and down and is unable to fend for itself. Expertise in one field does not justify judgment in another. We must first gain experience of and familiarity with the new field before we can comment with authority on its content. As such, the world of the "free range" or selfregulated child lies outside of the auspices of any academic institution or tradition, be it psychological, sociological, or educational. Until such time as these disciplines embrace this world seriously and practically it remains the province of those who have; namely the handful of parents, educators, physicians, and others who have had hands-on experience, and the children themselves.

-- Matthew Appleton, A Free Range Childhood, p.2.

What follows are Hobson's three criticisms as quoted by me from his essay, followed by the comments of some of those best able to respond as they are all in some way connected with Neill, Summerhill or with what can very loosely be called Neillian ideas. They are therefore unlikely to have any of the common misunderstandings or misconceptions about this kind of education and in all cases have had the benefit of being 'insiders'.
Dr Dane Goodsman was a Summerhill pupil, then teacher, and now Summerhill parent. She completed a doctoral study on Summerhill and is now Education Adviser at King's College, London. David Gribble was a teacher at Dartington Hall School and then at Sands School which he helped to found. He is the author of Real Education: Varieties of Freedom, a book which investigates schools around the world where respect for the individual child is central. Albert Lamb was a pupil at Summerhill School, is married to an ex-Summerhillian and was a Summerhill parent. He is the editor of the Penguin edition of A.S.Neill's writings, The New Summerhill. Bryn Purdy was the founder of Rowen House, a school for 'girls under stress' which was largely inspired by Neill's example. He is also the author of a book on A.S. Neill. All were asked to comment in any way they liked on the criticisms and to send their replies to me independently of each other. Their answers provide an interesting and fitting conclusion which presents clear and informative arguments in a much needed response to these criticisms of Neill.
Criticism 1:
"(Neill) lacks a systematic, considered philosophy of education, especially a coherent theory of knowledge. His ideas are based primarily on his own experiences and observations, supplemented with some study of psychological (especially psychoanalytic) theory. Certainly one's own experiences are an important part of any educational theory but they need to be supplemented by some more systematic philosophical position such as the nature of knowledge, learning, morality, human nature, society etc .... He also tends to oversimplify complex philosophical issues such as the crucial distinction between freedom and licence, where he thinks it sufficient to merely distinguish the two conceptually and give some random examples of acts he calls either freedom or licence."
Dane Goodsman:
Neill always claimed that Summerhill itself was an experiment. It is my view that this critique would itself have to address/question its own notion 'systematic'. A term that could be challenged simply by referring it back on itself: 'because I name x and ascribe it meaning - therefore it is'. 'Systematic' is, in itself, a particular and value-laden term. Educational theories, especially theories of knowledge, tend to simply stand to prove themselves e.g. IQ tests etc. Neill could argue that by creating Summerhill as a longitudinal, ongoing 'experiment' he could and did prove his basic tenets relating to children's behaviour, development, meanings and purposes.
David Gribble:
Only a professor in an education department could complain that Neill lacks a systematic, considered philosophy of education. He embodies such a philosophy. What he did not do is express this philosophy in the sort of abstract terms that professors of education, alone in the world, seem to savour. If Neill had written about the nature of knowledge, learning, morality, human nature and society in an abstract and academic way then no one would have listened to him. He threw light on such ideas by his interactions with the world which he described wittily and provocatively. It is up to those of his readers who wish to know the abstract theories behind his work to deduce them for themselves.
Albert Lamb:
Neill never claimed to have a systematic, considered philosophy of education. He would probably have questioned whether such a thing were possible or of any value. Educational theory, as applied to young people, always presupposes some form of compulsion, some way in which Adults Know Best and should continue to have the right to impose their program on children. It was enough for Neill that his Summerhill children, when not under compulsion, were sometimes able to perform little miracles of high-speed educational attainment.
Neill wrote as a gadfly and his first intention was to drop a bomb into the accepted patterns of educational thought and get people to look at children and schooling in new ways. A lot of his stories were like Jesus' pavables - intended to work as puzzles that would help people along to their own direct understanding of the truth that was already before them. Part of his sense of life and education included an acceptance of paradox. If you don't force kids to learn, they will want to learn. If you don't teach morality but simply put kids in a situation where morality will be required, they will explore the subject themselves.
Neill definitely simplified philosophical issues but I think he was pretty good on the distinction between freedom and licence. If his readers didn't get it that could be because it is hard for people to see the distinction when they are only used to a top-down social order. Your modern paternalistic, or materialistic, family tends to spoil their children in the little things while being extremely pushy about whatever they perceive to be the big things.
To see the difference between freedom and licence clearly you first have to embrace your own freedom and grant it to those around you.
Bryn Purdy:
I read the title, which included the word 'thinkers', and the Neill that I knew, albeit too briefly, would have harrumphed his protest at being included in their company. Neill was, I submit, not so much a 'thinker' as a 'practitioner', a 'doer'. He was, to me at least, a shining example of sane priorities set in a world of crass 'academicism'. I submit that the author is among those "highly educated men" whom Pestalozzi argued did not "confine themselves ... to the simple starting-point" to which both he and Neill aspired.
Would not the criticisms be best answered by quotation from my book, that the author purports to have read, having included it in his bibliography? My quotation, happily Neill's own, on page 22 and at the foot of my page 71 answers, if not wholly rebuts, the author's criticism above: "You won't want to visit the classrooms if you are interested in education".
So I would replace the author's criticism that "Neill lacks a systematic, considered philosophy of education" with: "Neill possesses a boundless, faith in the child".
Criticism 2:
"Similarly it could be argued that Neill had a rather simplistic and outdated view of moral and religious education as necessarily authoritarian and didactic. Modern educational notions of moral and religious autonomy in which children are introduced to such areas through open-ended discussion seem not to have been part of his understanding."
Dane Goodsman:
What Neill may have thought personally about moral and religious education does not have much bearing on his views on who should have the right to choose for others (in this instance children) what their beliefs should be. His views on the right of the individual to choose, given the context of their lives within the community, are viewed by some as an indication that Summerhill was/is a truly spiritually fulfilling experience.
David Gribble:
I can't believe there are any conventional schools where religious and moral ideas are introduced exclusively through open-ended discussion. Before the discussion starts respect must be demanded and discipline imposed. Moral and religious education are indeed not necessarily authoritarian and didactic, but Neill's assumption that in most schools that is precisely what they are is just as true today as it was fifty years ago.
Albert Lamb:
Neill's moral education, built into the fabric of Summerhill life, was light years ahead of what is done in other schools. He looked at conventional morality as mostly cant. On the other hand he was prejudiced, for some good personal reasons, against religious education and he never considered ways in which it could be taught effectively at his school. In his writing he told a stretcher and said that no Summerhillian ever became religious when he knew that it was not true. I have a Talking Meeting for teenagers at a local Quaker Meeting and the kids love it. They talk freely about a topic of their choice and then have to agree on a joint statement that goes no further than any individual in the room.
Now that I think of it, Summerhill kids did have similar discussions, led by Neill.
Bryn Purdy:
May I quote a clergyman who visited Summerhill?
"It's a wonderfully happy bunch of children you have here, Mr Neill... What a pity they're pagan".
Yes, Neill's view about moral and religious education probably was "outdated": it could be argued, however, that it was 'timeless'.
Criticism 3:
"Another significant problem with Summerhill is the anti-intellectual bias that Neill brought to it. Is learning as unimportant as he maintains? Are books really 'the least important apparatus in a school'? Do children always know what is in their best educational interest? Can one fully utilize one's freedom without a solid core of knowledge and understanding on the basis of which to make meaningful choices? Why does educational relevance have to be always of an immediate and practical nature?"
Dane Goodsman:
Here is an interesting quote from an ex-Summerhillian who at the time was a Professor of Maths at a university in London: 'I learnt to do my thinking at Summerhill.' It is my view that the author of the critique has a mixed-up understanding of the notion 'self-direction'. Summerhill would take the view that the individual is worthwhile per se and not simply as a result of their academic endeavours or achievements. Therefore academic activity is granted back to the individual to make their personal choice - and not seen as a purpose for adults to have over children - thus academic endeavour is fully supported by teachers but remains the responsibility of the individual child.


David Gribble:
My interpretation of Neill's allegedly anti-intellectual bias is that it was not a dislike of learning - he tells of ex-Summerhillians who have gone on to be university lecturers and doctors and so on - but a dislike for rote learning at the expense of personal development. To take the points one at a time:
Learning without understanding is not just unimportant, it is harmful, and puts many people off learning altogether.
No, books are not the least important apparatus in the school, but nor are they the most important. Neill was exaggerating to emphasise this point.
Does anyone actually understand the term "best educational interest"? Children may not always know what is in their "best educational interest", but do adults always know what is in a given child's "best educational interest"? Isn't the attitude behind this whole question rather authoritarian and didactic? I'd back the child who made a choice between a range of possibilities against an adult who required everybody to do the same thing.
That's what the adults are for -but they are not around to impose choice, but to illuminate them.
When children's interests are immediate and practical, then their learning will be immediate and practical. There is no point in teaching children to parrot abstractions when they are not ready for them.
Albert Lamb:
I'd have to agree that Summerhill has had an anti-intellectual bias that Neill built into it. I suppose he was afraid that once the teachers got in the saddle his school would turn into another kind of beast, a tamed one, so he kept them somewhat neutered - with a few exceptions.
Neill never said, to my knowledge, that educational relevance always has to be of an immediate and practical nature. That is more like the ideas of John Dewey and the Progressives.
This anti-intellectual bias is a real criticism and means, to my mind, that Neill's school never tested out how valuable an education, in the sense that people conventionally think of one, it could offer to its kids. So many things at Summerhill worked through the culture but there was never an effort, as there often is in intelligent families, to create a culture where learning is prized. I can see why Neill feared the academics holding sway but Summerhill in his time, certainly in my time there, could have offered a richer and more questing intellectual experience. Other aspects of the culture were carefully looked after but that one was rather neglected.
When I was at Summerhill there was a tradition of kids learning to play the piano by copying boogie woogie figures played by the older kids and ex-pupils. The kids gave you praise for your efforts and the school's administration kept a couple of pianos going in different parts of the school. I went away for twenty years and when I came back there were no pianos in the school and the tradition had died. The adults had only a small part to play in that particular tradition but if they didn't attend to it the tradition couldn't continue. I don't think the staff saw it as their role to monitor issues to do with the ongoing culture and traditions of the school. Many of these things don't apply to the school in its current incarnation.
But I don't want to give too much weight to this side of things. Teacher types always think it is so important - but it isn't that important. 1 do believe that if it is really valuable to get a conventional education, people will find a way. My son Roland, who has had only one year of schooling - not counting his five years at Summerhill - in the last 13 has just been accepted into Harvard University to study philosophy, and on what passes today for a full scholarship.
Bryn Purdy:
This is the area in which I permitted myself to come into most overt conflict with Neill's thinking when I came to write my book for the Educational Heretics Press. My opinion is so equally passionate for the two apparently antithetical points of view that it must seem schizophrenic. On the one hand, I am passionate for my own study and on my pupils' behalf over the years. On the other, it was deeply repugnant to me to 'encourage' the pupils to attend class. Indeed, it didn't last more than a few weeks before we decided to close the school.
What I think is important about my experience is that I introduced Summerhillism or at least 'Summerhillery' into the State system for a period of seven years (which must be regarded as 'successful', according to the statistics provided). It may be added at this point that Rowen House had its first two university graduates in 2002, one with a First in Mathematics.
As a devout bibliophile myself, I dissent from Neill's quoted opinion that "books are the least important apparatus in school", but I know what he means. But when he asserts 'Hearts, not Heads' in school, then I must fall silent. Children have as equal a right to learn intellectually as emotionally. In an ideal world, I affirm the equal importance of Hearts and Heads in school.
Robert Owen said on entering what he judged a too zealous classroom in New Lanark: "Don't annoy the children with books". I conjecture that Owen emphasised the word 'annoy'; he does not say, 'Do not enthuse children with books'. So I declare myself in favour of 'the book', but, at a higher level still, I can see that the human race might have been better without 'learning'.
The trajectory of the author's criticisms of Neill are below the water-line of Neill's aspirations. One does not expect the Captain on the Bridge to attend to the menu in the messroom, or shovel coal in the engine room. You might as well tax Socrates for not having left us with a canon of principles of sartorial elegance, as Neill for not setting out the principles of running a 'good school'.
May I re-cast the author's third criticism: Another significant boon of Summerhill for the child is the anti-intellectual bias with which Neill has endowed it. The following story was not included in the book published by Educational Heretics Press. Neill is a silent witness to an uncongenial on-ship conversation about criminality. Bored, he gets up to leave. One lady asks him, "What do you think we ought to do with the criminal, Mr Neill? " Over his shoulder, Neill replies, "Reward him". "And, as I left the company, they laughed at my little joke".
What did Matthew Arnold say about Shakespeare, which encapsulates what I think of Neill the educator, and also addresses the issue of 'knowledge'?
Others abide our question.
Thou art free.
We ask and ask:
Thou smilest and art still,
Out-topping knowledge.
Or, if one's interests are cricketing rather than literary, one might quote from another book published in Australia last year, on the cricketer Don Bradman:
"The argument will go on as to whether Nicklaus was better than Woods, Pele better than Maradona, or Ali than Louis, but, if cricket is still around in 10,000, no-one will be claiming that anyone was better than Bradman".
Let us not stretch ourselves so far. May we not claim, however, that A.S Neill was the Greatest, if not the most complete, Educator of the Twentieth Century?
Many thanks to the above contributors. Thanks also to Professor Ian Stronach of the Institute of Education, Manchester Metropolitan University for his help.
This article is dedicated to another great educator, my friend Ozaki Mugen (1942-2002) of Kansai University.
Books referred to:
Appleton, Matthew. A Free Range Childhood: Self Regulation at Summerhill School. Vermont: Foundation for Educational Renewal, 200 0.
Croall, Jonathan. Neill of Summerhill: The Permanent Rebel. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1983.
Gribble, David. Real Education: Varieties of Freedom. Bristol: Libertarian Education, 1998.
Hemmings, Ray. Fifty Years of Freedom: A Study of the Development of the Ideas of A. S. Neill. London: Unwin Education Books, 1972.
Hobson, Peter. 'A. S. Neill' in Fifty Modern Thinkers on Education: From Piaget to the Present. (Editor: Joy A. Palmer). London: Routledge, 2001.
Lane, Homer. Talks to Parents and Teachers. London: Allen and Unwin, 1928.
Neill, A. S. That Dreadful School. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1937.
Neill, A. S. The Problem Teacher. London: Herbert Jenkins, 1939.
Neill, A. S. The New Summerhill. (Editor: Albert Lamb). Penguin, 1992,
Purdy, Bryn. A. S. Neill: "Bringing happiness to some few children". Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press, 1997.