Don’t Blame Ringo
Neill Was Not A Hippy Part 1
One of the unfortunate moments in democratic education was the sudden success of Summerhill, the book of edited Neill, in America in the early seventies. Neill ended up on the Johnny Carson Show (That’s Jimmy Fallon Jonathan Ross x1000) and the school itself became a media-distorted counter culture celebrity. Joan Baez on her Bob Dylan rebound bought the school a swimming pool, Leonard Cohen was rumoured to be wandering about writing lyrics on the back of an application form for a close relative. Manfred Mann lived down the road.
Scores of kids were jetted in from North America by parents swept away by the media tsunami. It was like SEND YOUR KID TO RINGO’S HOUSE. Too many had little real understanding of Neill’s time tested, carefully honed Freedom Not Licence philosophy.
The book, I think, because I’ve actually no specific recollection of reading it, found its way to me in a student basement flat in Vancouver British Columbia where I was writing fiction and theatre scripts through the night, going out for bacon and eggs at a diner run by a former Yugoslavian freedom fighter at 7 am each morning, and then sleeping all day.
Several years before the Vancouver basement flat Walter Bonchar, a doctor’s son who lived in a house next to a corner store on the way home from our high school, said to Jim and I, “I have this record. You have to listen to it.” He had never said such a thing to us before and so we were very curious.We followed him downstairs into his recreation room and in a secretive manner he took out the first Beatles LP saying, “I can’t play this too loud you understand.” We nodded.
His mother was upstairs making meatloaf.
He put the disc onto a small record player and gently lowered the arm of the machine ( A long lost teenage mystery ritual equal to the most profound of Aztec ceremonies.) The Beatles played She Loves You and that true cliche hit me … music from another dimension exploded in my head like a religious conversion.
BOOM! St. Paul blown off his Harley on Highway 61.
Reading Summerhill was the same kind of experience for thousands of people in the early seventies. Neill, the crafty bugger, writes in a parable style, a pronouncement style, a holy text style such is his honest conviction. And what he says comes across like the E = mc2 of freedom. Mix this with his canny Scot humour and his irresistible sense of mischief and …
If Summerhill does speak to you it is like you are whispering something you already know to a hiding friend … and this friend wakes up suddenly and shouts back YES !
An uncomplicated, universe affirming YES !
However, beware … because when this happens you will have no clear idea of the realities involved. You will have no idea what Summerhill, the school, really IS. What freedom and licence really ARE. What actually makes the place work. These essential mini systems and concepts are not magic, not utopian. They are ordinary and practical. Like, say, what might create the very coolest of motorbikes. But you wouldn’t read one book about motorbikes and then run outside to make it out of scraps from your back yard shed.
In the seventies people read Summerhill and DID just run out and make one from a few phrases and the scraps they found thrown thoughtlessly about the backyards of their minds.
And dangerously, all too often, what the well meaning and the arrogant found in their minds was John Lennon Primal Scream therapists the Vietnam War the Rolling Stones the Kent State Massacre Led Zeppelin Martin Luther King Malcolm X the Hippies Haight Asbury the Jefferson Airplane Cream LSD Mort Saul Patty Hearst Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters The Black Panthers the Watts Riots Neil Cassady Gary Snyder the Grateful Dead Tom Wolfe the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test Civil Rights marches The White Album Timmy Leary Assassinations Bob Dylan Be Ins Love Ins the Beats William Burroughs who wasn’t one R.D Laing Jack Kerouac On the Road Communes the Diggers Frederick S. Perls the Esalen Institute Big Sur Country Joe and the Fish D.T. Suzuki John Cage Ravi Shankar Woodstock The Whole Earth Catalogue The Ant Farm that horrid except for Jack Nicholson Easy Rider film Alice’s Restaurant which I also hated by the way 2001 A Space Odyssey Zen Buddhism Alan Watts Colin Wilson basically a
COMPLETE CULTURAL AND MEDIA HEAD CONFUSION.
None of which had anything to do with A.S. Neill or his decades old, proven successful school.
And … of course … back then was the very short and very grand age age when Young ruled Young was right Young was arrogant the media flocked to Young The Young could do any new or old or daft thing and it didn’t need to know anything much at all in order to think that it did.
Like, what the hell, MAN.
So bunches of us clutching Summerhill the book and knowing less than nothing much at all started schools and felt like heroes.
It was crazy and …
The democratic school movement still suffers greatly as a result.
Part 2: Obsession Shift