I had a bit of an emotional roller coaster reading this book, largely because it very clearly articulates a great many things I was unable to give voice to during the my brief, disastrous attempt to train as a teacher. For me, A.S. Neill’s uncompromising emphasis on freedom in childhood ties together much of my thinking on political, economic, personal psychological, creative and spiritual liberation, in a way which is unpretentious, down to earth, and shot through with a profound, instinctive compassion. It’s quite amazing to contemplate how a man from a conventional, lower middle-class, Calvinist background in late nineteenth century Scotland could end up espousing, and practising, such radically progressive values. I suppose it is a little depressing that those values still look so progressive, or even borderline nutty, nearly forty years after Neill’s death at 90.
As a child I didn’t see what moral right any adult had to order me around: I had, and have never had, any respect whatsoever for authority figures. This book is really the first time I have read an adult articulating a view that is supportive of such a position, although I’ve heard a few do so in conversation. This book, if you don’t know who A.S. Neill is, gives a very informal and engaging account of Summerhill School, the original ‘free’ or ‘progressive’ school, which has inspired many other (though not enough) similar schools worldwide. When the first edition of the book was published in the USA it was an overnight sensation, making Neill’s virtually unknown school globally famous, and his approach to education hugely influential (in theory, but sadly not in practice).
The ideas in the book ring very true for me, in terms of my thinking about teaching music in particular. For Neill, learning is always voluntary: coercion will get a kid into a classroom, it will get them following instructions, it will get them learning facts by rote, but it will never get them engaged with a topic or activity. Obviously, in the context he was working in, kids could be left to find their way to a classroom in their own good time, but there are still lessons to be learned for mainstream education. He had very little time for the idea of learning through play: for him, play was an end in itself, and his goal was never anything to do with exam results or educational standards. His sole interest was in enabling children to grow into happy adults, doing jobs that they find rewarding, and he understood the crucial truth, that children are not being prepared for life: they are leading their lives right now, and have every bit as much right as adults to do so in a way that is fulfilling and pleasing to them.
There’s far more to this book than I can possibly relate here. Neill is, for me, the model of the practical philosopher, with virtually no interest in theory, but a thoroughly thought out, robust and flexible worldview, informing his every action. The book explains his views, tells the history of the school, and relates Neill’s own biography, all in a relatively modest volume, and in very clear, plain language. I’ve rarely read a book which constructed its author so immanently, and Neill seems to live on every page: I felt a great sense of regret that I would never have the chance to meet someone whose views had reached such a similar position to my own, through a completely different route, and who was so obviously motivated by love, above all else.