An essay in an occasional series on great Scots unjustly ignored or forgotten.
The dark days
I think it prescient to discuss teacher and dominie [headmaster] A.S. Neill at a time politicians are jumping all over the Scottish Education system for no valid reason than to score political points, anything to derail the cause of self-determination.
(For readers abroad: Scotland has its own education system distinct from England’s.)
It’s helpful to begin by putting Neill into historical context. Neill was a Forfar man. He left school without qualifications but that didn’t stop him becoming a journalist before the First World War, and then schoolteacher and author. A quizzical intellect helped jettison a bleak, harsh Calvinist background where guilt and divine authority commanded the day.
When he was in charge of Summerhill, his own private school, (founded in Lyme Regis, later at Leiston, Suffolk) Scottish education was still the envy of the world as it had been since the Enlightenment, with one glaring exception – we used corporal punishment.
To progressive teachers, and some parents, the use of the ‘belt’ was considered regressive, a hangover from religious discipline, hellfire and damnation. Most Christian schools, which meant all state schools, argued they had the right to hit pupils.
The ‘tawse’ or ‘Lochgelly’ was a thick leather strap used on the palm to quell boisterous behaviour, or a stray unwanted remark, and sometimes across backsides by over-zealous teachers suffering from repressed paedophilia. Sleeve pulled up, hand stretched out, the tawse could blister a wrist for days when used with too much length and force.
England retained the cane, again used on a hand or buttocks.
Published research came to unsurprising conclusion ‘belting’ or ‘strapping’ children did little lasting harm, but it did no good whatsoever. There had to be other methods to sanction unacceptable behaviour, such as loss of privileges or removal from class.
Do as you are told
Examinations of all sorts were mandatory, from late primary school onwards. Everything learned had to be tested. Critical thinking was not encouraged. When in power the Labour party imposing one sets of tests, the Tory party removed them and imposed another set. Little consideration was given to slow learners, or ‘modified’ pupils as they were called, an offensive euphemism for pupils categorised as unruly or uncooperative.
Life in a state school was one of a top down hierarchy. The headmaster ruled the roost, heads of departments ruled their junior colleagues, and the janitor was a pal to everybody. Teachers were expected to give up to eight sermons a day. School students were expected to listen carefully to each and only speak if spoken to. Overworked, unimaginative teachers wrote term reports on each pupil’s progress explained by meaningless hackneyed phrases, ‘could do better’, or ‘shows some improvement.’ Homework was every evening.
Can anybody imagine a pupil saying to their teacher, “Sir, I think that’s a stupid assignment, I’d rather do something else.” That opinion would meet with a sudden chill from the other pupils and probably the belt. And that rigor, that conformity, that obedience goes on through college and career, and so on.
It was also a time of psychoanalysis, child-centred theories, and classroom experiments in progressive educational thinking. Educationists in England, Europe, and the USA were publishing studies and data faster than a pupil could smoke a cigarette behind the toilets. It was a time of exploration.
For those attending state school it was sit at a desk, face a teacher at a blackboard, and after an hour, move to another classroom to another desk and teacher, and a different subject. Teachers gave seven or eight sermons a day.
Now and then an inspirational teacher appeared on the horizon, bucking the system and overturning the rules – no homework! He was cherished. They told us we were special, that we had ability, that we could achieve. We all have one to whom we owe a great deal.
A.S. Neil was a great inspirational dominie, and much more. He was an innovator, a radical, and unlike educationists of his day, he put his ideas into practise.
A simple philosophy that riled the establishment
Simply put, pipe smoking Neill, a social democrat, anti-authoritarian, believed a child should not be forced to learn, but should in preference be left to find his or own way. A child’s happiness was paramount. In many respects Neill was right, for the children placed under his care grew to trust him and to love him, and become well-adjusted adults.
Neill’s own handling of pupils was controversial. He was friendly and relaxed with pupils yet would treat some with disdain, answering back in the same manner an angry pupil talked to him. He was abrasive, quick to tell a pupil he was acting the idiot. One educationist avers Neil’s technique ‘simply awful.’
Neill’s attitude appeared intolerant, stooping to the language of delinquents, but it taught children to understand hard criticism didn’t necessarily mean the other person disliked you. A tongue lashing will teach you more than a lashing from hard leather.
The watchword at Summerhill was “Do as you like, kids.”
On arrival, this maxim was met by new recruits with utter incredulity, followed by scepticism, uncertainty, and when the offer was proven true, pure joy. It was genuine. You didn’t have to attend classes. You could play outside all day. Every day.
There was no corporal punishment. Exhibit bad behaviour, have a fellow pupil complain about you, and a meeting was called where everybody was equal, teachers and Neill too, one person one vote. Self-governance was Neill’s principle guiding doctrine.
Bad behaviour was discussed, peer pressure imposed. Students – he disliked the term ‘pupil’ – participating in weekly community meetings helped them define limits to their actions and establish community rules.
In a state system hidebound by suffocating uniformity and conformity, Neill’s ideas were revolutionary. It did not take long for the school’s fame to spread, and it’s notoriety to reach the ears of British traditionalists and state inspectors of schools. He gathered as many fierce critics as he did admiring adherents.
Many in the educational establishment felt threatened. Some lashed out in intemperate language, others cloaked their criticism in research papers. Yet, on each visit inspectors could find no damning instances to close the school. In fact, some remarked on how motivated pupils were to the task of learning.
Neill understood from his own days at school, and his university where he studied English literature, that left to your own devices an individual (and children) will gravitate to a situation where they acquire knowledge of one sort or another. Natural human inquisitiveness soon overrides boredom and repetitious activity.
A time of great enquiry into the working of the human mind
Neill’s vocabulary in A Dominie’s Log [see Recommended Reading below] connected to traditional psychoanalysis, but it was not until he visited “Little Commonwealth,” educator Homer Lane’s community for delinquent adolescents, that he became familiar with the work of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. There, according to Lane, he “introduced Neill to Freud’s New Psychology, to the notion that children possessed innate goodness, and to the pedagogical practice of student self-government.”
Neill’s emerging understanding of education seemed to be heavily influenced by other psychologists of his time as well, including Wilhem Stekel and Wilhem Reich, the latter with whom he corresponded until Reich’s demise at the hands of the American right.
Good versus evil
Neill felt human nature was innately good. He believed a child should be left to grow without the imposition of good and bad morality, and that in time the child would become a virtuous adult. He created a self-regulatory atmosphere, giving them the space, time and empowerment to make their own decisions. That did not mean a disregard for children’s safety. Neill created opportunity for the children to discover things for themselves, and without overt guidance from teachers, all within the confines of the school.
As far as pupils free to miss lessons was concerned, boredom and the isolation of being outwith the herd soon motivated pupils to choose classes and then knuckle down to study. Summerhill boasted a large percentage of its pupils went on to university, a claim verified by school inspectors. And that was in the days of few universities, exceptionally high entry standards, and for the most part, lecturers of proven intellectual ability.
There were two flaws in Neill’s philosophy. The teacher had to attend the classroom. They did not have freedom to dog classes. That was a practical rule. Neill could hardly hold open-classroom lessons – the teacher out for the day.
Secondly, it was Neill’s school. He could be the dictator if he wanted, and indeed on a couple of occasions when anarchy broke out at successive meetings with no solution in sight to the problem debated, he imposed a decision. “Dictators arise”, he said “when anarchy prevails.
“I am only just realising the absolute freedom of my scheme of Education. I see that all outside compulsion is wrong, that inner compulsion is the only value.“
Neill’s legacy and followers
Few of Neill’s acolytes continued his work after his death. His family maintained Summerhill, with Neill’s daughter as its headmaster. Others influenced by Neill included John Aitkenhead of Kilquhanity House School in Castle Douglas, Dumfries and Galloway, (Aitkenhead worked at Summerhill) and Michael Duane, and R. F. MacKenzie. Nevertheless, Neill is considered among the ten most influential educationists of the twentieth century.
A.S. Neill was not a great man, but he was an extremely interesting one, a notable progressive in the renaissance mould. He was captivated by ways to nurture happiness in youth, a joy in life and learning that they would retain throughout adulthood, and that is admirable. He lived a long and productive life, from 1883 to 1973. His ideas were never taken up by state education, but he influenced thousands of teachers. I was one.
This essay cannot begin to do justice to the man or his work. If you can find copies in second-hand book shops or Amazon Books, Neill’s own writing is still topical, his main work, A Dominie’s Log. This five-book series, which also included A Dominie Dismissed (1917), A Dominie in Doubt (1921), A Dominie Abroad (1923), and A Dominie’s Five (1924) represented Neill’s informal diary interspersed with stories and observations of people, places, and adventures. There are also works analysing his methods and achievements.
One of my school report cards said, “The boy is perceptive and intelligent, but suffers from flights of imagination, which must be curbed at all costs.”
My teaching days in Glasgow were an affirmative experience. I never owned a belt or used one. My lecturing days were very happy … until Westminster stepped in and instructed their lackeys in Scotland to follow new thinking, which was very old thinking.
Margaret Thatcher began the rot by elevating businessmen as the new barons of society, the captains of industry and all prosperity that flows from their genius. Education became slave to corporate need.
Respect for the teaching profession is at rock bottom, teaching no longer a prestigious occupation, successive assaults on teacher integrity generally a ploy to soften acceptance of more tests and control.
Today, in the case of bankster’s bonuses, we’re told to respect the sanctity of contracts, just not contracts for teachers or doctors. Collective bargaining is considered a social evil. Were he alive today Neill would rant against restraints on personal freedom, the loss of democratic rights, but he’d praise the relaxed atmosphere in contemporary schools, and a student’s right to express themselves more freely than in the past.
There is an ironic parallel in Neil’s doctrine of self-governance, and the way Scotland is treated by unionists. We are a ‘dreadful nation.’ The British press and their pundits invariably referred to Summerhill as that ‘dreadful school.’ The progress of human achievement is littered with reactionaries hell bent on controlling their fellow man.