Thursday Thoughts: Why a Summerhill Meeting?
On Sunday I described a Summerhill Meeting. It is a business-like affair. The community uses the Meeting to make laws and to regulate disputes. These disputes are inevitable in a society where everyone is encouraged to use their freedom to do what they want to do. The Meeting fines those who break the laws and arbitrates between people when they cannot agree. Everyone has an equal vote in the Meeting and issues are resolved by simple majority.
There are other democratic schools with different systems. I frequently hear about schools that have more meetings than Summerhill and use the meetings for a wider range of purposes. For example, some people think that in a democratic school there should be meetings every day in the morning so that children can gather to vote on what they will do with the day. Some schools even involve children in the hiring and firing of teachers. This does not happen at Summerhill.
At Summerhill what happens in the classroom is the business of the teacher. Children have the right to go or not go to classes but they do not have a democratic right to decide on the content of the classes. Of course, there are some teachers with open styles who encourage more participation, but there is nothing incongruous at Summerhill in having a rigid and formal style in the classroom and still being a full member of the community. Many children prefer their teachers to offer the course material in highly-structured, conventional packets.
Schools where children have a direct input in the employment of teachers see this as an essential part of democratic education. This is not the case at Summerhill either. Summerhill has a firm management structure that makes decisions about the subject specialisms it wants from its teachers. I will talk about this in another post, when I come to talk about the curriculum, but the essential point is that there are lessons that the children can choose to go to; they are not expected to invent the curriculum themselves.
I don’t think I have “the right answer”. I think everyone has the right to find their own path. However, I want to offer a justification of Summerhill practice and contrast it to those two other examples I have given: meetings every day to decide what to do; and direct student input in the hiring and firing of teachers. I have a gut level understanding of the difference that I shall try to put into words: the gut level tells me that I am happy living in one of those environments and not happy living in the other.
Summerhill protects your right to be how you want to be. You choose; the Meeting does not. The purpose of the Meeting is to sort out the inevitable boundary disputes in a community of nearly one hundred people who are all trying to live vibrantly individual lives. The fact that it does no more than that is its great strength.
Meetings that talk about what we are going to do are OK, I guess, but they do not interest me as an adult and would have been boring to me as a child. I like to do my own thing. When I was at school there were meetings every morning with an agenda and wise words to start us off on the right foot- they were called assemblies; they were dull. They were even worse when an improving adult tried to be involving.
The essential problem with meetings that decide what you are going to do is that they only work for some of the students in the school. I know that I want to do my maths lesson and spend the rest of the day reading and painting: why do I have to share that in a meeting? For whose benefit? Are the adults equal to the children in this meeting as they are in the Summerhill Meeting? I strongly suspect that they will have a few improving words to say here and there and will have nothing genuine to say about their own choices. Can I stay away from the meeting because it does not interest me?
As for having meetings that help to select teachers, I am even less convinced. I remember being asked to watch an emotional video of a crowded room where students and teachers were talking about the contracts of the staff in a democratic school. It was intended to be a demonstration of democracy in action; I could not help but find it appalling. If you encourage children from a young age to gather together in groups and give heed to demagogues and charismatics, you have a different view of a bright future to mine.
Summerhill sometimes uses a committee of children to advise on the hiring of teachers and a teacher who manifestly cannot make it in the community will have a short professional life there, but there is no direct community involvement in employment decisions. The philosophy of the school is simple on this: it does not enhance the freedom of the children to be involved. Staff members who engage in popularity contests to gain the approval of children are noxious and contrary to the basic idea of the school. The school management also wants to offer a coherent timetable of lessons that will enable children to make a transition into the wider world when they are ready to do so. The decision on the range of the curriculum cannot be made by children who have yet to discover an interest in academics.
If you have a democratic school or are thinking of setting up a democratic school, it is essential to think clearly about these issues. You can make your own decisions about the way that you want to go. There is no one right answer. But Summerhill has survived for nearly one hundred years protecting the freedoms of its children to be themselves; by respecting their individuality; by using a Meeting with a precise range of powers and functions.