Quotes from Summerhill School, by A.S. Neill.

“An important aspect of the school is certainly the range of ages and interests represented in a community of under a hundred people, similar in size to a traditional extended family… The student population goes from seventeen right down to five years old. The structure provided by Summerhill includes both the democratic form of self-government and a hierarchical structure of social expectation by age. This pluralistic variety of age, sex and interests helps keep the school from being what Margaret Mead once asserted that it was, a ‘tyranny of the community’ over the individual.” (from the Editor’s Introduction)

“At Summerhill we have proved, I believe, that self-government works. In fact, the school that has no self-government should not be called a progressive school- it is a compromise school. You cannot have freedom unless children feel completely free to govern their own social life. When there is a boss, there is no real freedom. This applies even more to the benevolent boss than to the disciplinarian. The child of spirit can rebel against the hard boss, but the soft boss merely makes the child impotently soft and unsure of his real feelings.”

“There is a great amount of good fellowship and love in humanity, and it is my firm belief that new generations that have not been warped in babyhood will live at peace with each other- that is, if the haters of today do not destroy the world before these new generations have time to take control.

The fight is an unequal one, for the haters control education, religion, the law, the armies, and the vile prisons. Only a handful of educators strive to allow the good in all children to grow in freedom. The vast majority of children are being moulded by anti-life supporters with their hateful system of punishments.”

“Many psychologists believe that a child is born neither good nor bad, but with tendencies towards both beneficience and criminality. I believe there is no instinct of criminality nor any natural tendency towards evil in the child. Criminality appears in a child as a perverted form of love…

Crime is obviously an expression of hate. The study of criminality in children resolves itself into the study of why a child is led to hate. It is a question of injured ego.

We cannot get away from the fact that a child is primarily an egoist. No one else matters. When the ego is satisfied, we have what we call goodness; when the ego is starved, we have what we call criminality. The criminal revenges himself on society because society has failed to appreciate his ego by showing love for him…

It is only thwarted power that works for evil in a child. Human beings are good; they want to do good; they want to love and be loved. Hate and rebellion are only thwarted love and thwarted power.”

“Teachers from Israel have told me of the wonderful community centres there. The school, I’m told, is part of a community whose primary need is hard work. Children of ten, one teacher told me, weep if- as a punishment- they are not allowed to dig the garden. If I had a child of ten who wept because he was forbidden to dig potatoes, I should wonder if he were mentally defective. Childhood is playhood; and any community system that ignores that truth is educating in the wrong way…

We must allow the child to be selfish- ungiving- free to follow his own childish interests through his childhood. When the child’s individual interests and his social interests clash, the individual interests should be allowed precedence. The whole idea of Summerhill is release: allowing a child to live out his natural interests.”

“Possibly the greatest discovery we have made in Summerhill is that a child is born a sincere creature.”

“I might define myself as a true believer in humanity. My message has been this one; a child’s emotions are infinitely more important than his intellectual progress. I have tried, with I fear little success, to show that schools, by ignoring emotions, leave them to outside influences, the press, the kitsch of radio and TV, commercial TV ads, a plethora of magazines geared to a mentality of ten. Teachers cannot see the wood behind the trees, the wood that means life abundant, freedom from character moulding.”

“Many people believe deep down ‘If children have nothing to fear, how can they be good?’ Goodness that depends on fear of hell or fear of the policeman or fear of punishment is not goodness at all- it is simply cowardice. Goodness that depends on hope of reward or hope of praise or hope of heaven depends on bribery…

There is no case whatever for the moral instruction of children. It is psychologically wrong. To ask a little child to be unselfish is wrong. Every child is an egoist. The world belongs to him. His power of wishing is strong; he has only to wish and he is king of the earth. When he is given an apple his one wish is to eat that apple. And the chief result of mother’s encouraging him to share his very own apple with his little brother is to make him hate the little brother.

Altruism comes later, comes naturally if the child is not taught to be unselfish; probably never comes at all when the child is taught to be unselfish. The young altruist is merely the child who likes to please others while he is satisfying his own selfishness.

By suppressing the child’s selfishness the selfishness becomes fixed. An unfulfilled wish lives on in the unconscious. The child who is taught to be unselfish will remain stuck being selfish through life. Moral instruction thus defeats its own purpose.”

“We adults were corrupted in infancy; we can never be free about sex matters. Consciously, we may be free but I fear that unconsciously we remain to a large extent what conditioning in infancy made us.

The taboos and fears that fashioned sex behaviour are those same taboos and fears that produce the perverts who rape and strangle small girls in parks, the perverts who torture Jews and Negroes.

In Hitler’s Germany, the torture was inflicted by sexual perverts of the Julius Streicher type; his paper Der Sturmer was full of vile, perverted sex long before concentration camps were erected. Yet many fathers who berate the sexual perversity of the prison sadist do not apply the same reasoning to their own minor sadisms.”

“Religion says, ‘Be good and you will be happy’, but the adage is truer the other way round: ‘Be happy and you will be good.’ Forty-five years of Summerhill has convinced me that the latter version is the true one. Happiness is the right of all children, and it is evil to give them a hard life in order to prepare them for a life that may not contain much to make them happy. For too many parents still believe that a child is born in sin and has no right to happiness, only to mercy- when it repents. One cannot be bound and happy at the same time. The necessity for a child’s happiness should be the first tenet of all educational systems. A school should be judged by the faces of its pupils, not by its academic successes.

A recent visitor said to me, ‘Why don’t you teach your pupils about the life of Jesus, so that they will be inspired to follow in his steps?’ I answered that one learns to live, not by hearing of other lives, but by living; for words are infinitely less important than acts.”

“An incident that occurred at Summerhill during a spontaneous acting class one night emphasizes a child’s natural sense of reality if his reactions have not been warped by fear.
One night, I sat down on a chair and said: ‘I am St. Peter at the Golden Gate. You are to be folks trying to get in. Carry on.”
They came up with all sorts of reasons for getting in. One girl even came from the opposite direction and pleaded to get out! But the star turned out to be a boy of fourteen who went by me whistling, hands in pockets.
‘Hi,’ I cried, ‘you can’t go in there.’
He turned and looked at me. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘you are a new man on the job, aren’t you?’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘You don’t know who I am, do you?’
‘Who are you?’ I asked.
‘God,’ he said, and went whistling into heaven.”

“I personally have nothing against the man who believes in god- no matter what god. What I object to is the man who claims that his god is the authority for his imposing restrictions on human growth and happiness. The battle is not between believers in theology and non-believers in theology; it is between believers in human freedom and believers in the suppression of human freedom.

The battle for our youth is one with the gloves off. None of us can be neutral. We must take one side or the other: authority or freedom; discipline or self-government. No half measures will do, the situation is too urgent.”

“Why have not more Christians followed the path of their master? Roman Catholic and Protestant schools have long been beating boys as if Jesus had said, ‘Suffer little children to come unto me and be beaten.’ Can anyone imagine Christ beating a child? Catholics and Protestants give tacit support to our inhuman prisons and our cruel laws. I often wonder how much juvenile crime stems from the disillusionment of children taught scripture at home and in schools…

I am not going to argue about religion. I could tolerate it if its adherents lived their religion and turned the other cheek and sold all they had and gave it to the poor. I could admire it if the Vatican and Canterbury symbolized the poverty of the life of Jesus instead of parading their golden images and their capital investments. And I just sit and wonder why Christ’s followers became so anti-life, for they are disciples of the man who asked if any man was pure enough to cast out the first stone at a woman of easy virtue. Jesus gave out much love and charity and understanding but among his followers were John Calvin, who had his rival Servetus roasted over a slow fire, and St Paul, who hated women. In fairness I must grant that many a Christian has given out of love and charity, however.

One questioner at a recent lecture said, ‘You are a Humanist. Why don’t you teach Humanism?’ I replied that it is as bad to teach Humanism as it is to teach Christianity. We do not mould children in any way; we do not try to convert them to anything. If there is such a thing as sin it is the propensity of adults to tell the young how to live, a preposterous propensity seeing as adults do not know themselves how to live.”

“Communism was to do away with the one-man show… and it gave us Lenin and then Stalin. It looks as if one-man-ness is a branch of religion. Most people want a god to lean on and follow; most Britishers want a monarch to bow before. The question arises: can humanity ever do without leaders?

I am not a leader. I am a member of a community government. All I can say here is that I dislike leaders of any kind. I should define a leader as a man who is primarily self-centered, seeking power for its own sake. My reward is not praise, not a title, not followers, it is the simple one- joy in having done a job with all my heart and energy.”

“When such a challenger comes along, society will destroy him, as it did Homer Lane or Wilhelm Reich. It did not destroy Freud primarily because it could not find a valid reason. Both Lane and Reich were accused of crimes and made to appear in court, and therefore to society they were wicked men. It is the mud that sticks. Even today Oscar Wilde is rarely the brilliant and kindly wit; too often he is the homosexual.”

“But how can anyone be free when we were all moulded in our cradles? Freedom is a relative term. The freedom we think about in Summerhill is individual freedom, inner freedom. Few of us can have that inner freedom. In our school freedom means doing what you like so long as you do not interfere with the freedom of others. That is the outer meaning, but deeper down we strive to see that children are free internally, free from fear, from hypocrisy, from hate, from intolerance.”

“In fifty years of free children I have detected not only an absence of the competitive spirit, but also a total indifference to leaders. One can reason with free children, but one cannot lead them. True, my pupils lived in their own herd, but not with leadership.

A headmaster can be, indeed is, a father-figure but no child can make its school self-government a father-figure. I say that the future success of the world will come from the rejection of the father, the crowd leader. Most people accept father and mother, meaning that the great majority joins the Establishment, the anti-progress and usually anti-life [anti-vitality] majority. Our school systems, whether capitalist or Communist, foster this early moulding of the masses because wolf leaders are tough and powerful and ruthless, and their main aim is to kill and eat. In the human herd we have it in replica. The wars for gold or whatnot, the takeover bids which often make thousands unemployed, the bludgeoning of the young by sadistic cops. If the people were free such barbarities could not live.”

“It is of more value to understand children than to love them.”

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