The Scottish psychologist Alexander Sutherland Neill (1883-1973) is most famous as the founder of Summerhill School and as the developer of its radical child-centered theory of education.
A Failure at School
Born in Forfar, Scotland, on Oct. 18, 1883, Alexander S. Neill received his early education in his father's one-room, five-class village school. Because of his inability to progress very far in education, he was the only child in the family who was not sent on to Forfar Academy.
At the age of 14, Neill went to work as an office boy in an Edinburgh factory, but he became so lonely and homesick that his parents allowed him to return home. He then worked as an assistant in a dry-goods shop. Shortly thereafter, he became a pupil-teacher in his father's school, where he remained for four years. He then spent what he described as three wretched years as a teacher in a school in Fife, received his teaching certification, and moved on to a school where discipline was easier and his life was somewhat happier for two years.
At the age of 25 Neill enrolled as a student of agriculture at Edinburgh University. Although he passed his first year's program, he said he understood little of the lectures. Changing his major to English, he came under the influence of the scholar and prose stylist George Saintsbury and received his master's degree in 1912. He then worked briefly in journalism and did editorial work for an encyclopedia.
At the beginning of World War I, Neill became headmaster of a coeducational school in Scotland which prepared its students for work on farms and in domestic service. It was at this time that he first became convinced that conventional education was oppressive and futile.
Neill voluntarily left the school for a brief sojourn as an artillery cadet. There he met Homer Lane, one of the early advocates of "progressive education," who introduced him to Freudian psychology and convinced him that the best way to deal with a recalcitrant or delinquent child is to allow the child to govern himself. Following the war Neill had a brief appointment at the King Alfred School in Hamp-stead, where he tried to implement his theory of self-government for children. He was forced to resign in 1920.
Creating Child-Centered Education
After a short stint as coeditor of the New Era (the organ of the New Education Fellowship), Neill and several others founded Summerhill, an international school near Dresden, Germany, in 1921. Political turmoil in Dresden caused him to move the school to the Austrian Tirol. However, the peasants in that area and the Austrian government became upset with his unorthodox curriculum and methods, and after seven months of harassment, he removed the school to England in 1924, establishing it in the town of Leiston in Suffix.
In his influential 1960 book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, one of 21 books he wrote, Neill recalled that he and his first wife, Ada, wanted "to make the school fit the child instead of making the child fit the school." To do so, he wrote, the founders renounced "all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious training." Ada died in 1944, and Neill remarried the next year, to Edna May Wood. They had one daughter.
Neill founded Summerhill as a small, coeducational, self-governing boarding school. Class attendance and extracurricular activities were optional. There was no teaching method, leaving children free to learn by their own impulse. Rules were decided in a weekly general assembly, at which each student and teacher had one vote. The children were segregated in housing by age groups, with a house mother for each age.
Neill believed many of children's problems resulted from poor sex education. He tried to demonstrated how the family created hates and jealousies. Neill denied that the atmosphere at Summerhill was "permissive." He did not believe in giving children everything they wanted nor in allowing them to violate another's rights, but he cautioned against moral judgments. He argued that other systems of education did nothing more than coerce children into the neurotic image of their elders.
The Summerhill Legacy
In the 1960s and 1970s, Summerhill became a model for child-centered schools in the United States and elsewhere. Neill became the center of controversy over traditional versus alternative education. Unwavering, Neill noted: "People so often fail to understand that freedom for children does not mean being a fool about children." He titled his 1972 autobiography Neill! Neill! Orange Peel! after a child's taunt that he turned into a comic tradition at Summerhill. Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, reviewing the book in the New York Times, noted Neill's "practical good sense about the worthlessness of most education, and his passionate desire to connect life with learning, thinking with feeling" as well as "his patiently reasonable, flawlessly logical, but always witty arguments against repression and punishment" and "his careful distinction between freedom and license." Neill once said that "the absence of fear is the finest thing that can happen to a child" and said his role at Summerhill was to "sit still and approve of all the things that a child disapproves of in himself."
Further Reading on Alexander Sutherland Neill
Works by Neill include, A Domine's Log (1916); A Domine Dismissed (1917); Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing (1960); The Booming of a Bunkie: A History (1919); A Domine in Doubt (1922); A Domine Abroad (1923); The Problem Child (1927); The Problem Parent (1932); That Dreadful School (1937); The Free Child (1953); and Neill! Neill! Orange Peel!" (1972). Studies of Neill and his career include Leslie R. Perry, ed., Bertrand Russell, A. S. Neill, Homer Lane, W. H. Kilpatrick: Four Progressive Educators (1967) and Summerhill: For and Against (1970).