Raising the free human

I wrote my second-year thesis in the history of ideas about education and child-rearing – specifically, the pedagogic ideas about freedom represented by the Scottish educator A.S. Neill. He started publishing books in the 1920s and took a radical approach to child-rearing. Children should be treated with the same respect as adults and raised free from punishment. According to Neill, the joy of learning new things didn’t come when children were forced to learn, but when they decided to do so out of their own free will. 

He started a school, Summerhill, which ran as a true democracy where the children and teachers decided the rules together. The children who came to his school were thrilled when they discovered that the classroom was voluntary, and they didn’t have to study subjects that didn’t interest them. Neill described Winnipeg who detested going to school but after a few months at Summerhill was highly motivated to complete her A-levels. Eight-year-old Tom drew maps all day and surprised a visiting university professor when he knew of places that the professor had never heard of.

Neill’s ideas about free children that would grow up to build a better world were shared by thinkers such as Bertrand Russell and created intense debate. At the time, corporal punishment was still in use in schools and homes, and children were not supposed to be seen or heard much. In the wake of the two world wars, a new modernistic view of man appeared. There was a utopic vision of the good society constructed by free humans who wouldn’t bend to authority. Russell claimed that the new methods of child-rearing would create happier people and that we within a generation could see a population free from stupidity and evil. The reason we wouldn’t was that we preferred suppression and war. 

Neill was like Russell a huge social critic. In his opus magnum¬†Summerhill – A radical approach to child-rearing¬†(1960) he mocked how we educate people with the words: “We train people like dogs – I saw a hundred thousand obedient dogs wag their tails in Berlin when the great trainer Hitler issued commands.” He stated that while the future of Summerhill may have been of little importance, the future of Summerhill ideas was of the greatest importance to humanity. Neill’s school is still in operation today in Suffolk, England, and his ideas raised debate again in the 1960s when many schools opened in America following his educational philosophy of freedom.

When asked about how his free children would adapt to the drudgery of life, Neill answered that he hoped they would pioneer abolishing it. Maybe we all need a little bit more of Neill in our thinking.

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