It is a privilege to go to Summerhill, an immense piece of good luck for a child. It also carries a price tag: parents have to pay. Unless the world turns inside out it is always going to be this way. The state would have to decide to promote democratic education and make it available to everyone or give parents free choice about how their tax money is spent on education. Until that day, Summerhillians have to live with their privilege and good luck. This is what I want to talk about today.
I have an ex-student staying with me this week. Chae eun has been travelling around Europe on a shoestring after graduating from university. She offered herself as a volunteer in Romania to help with the refugee camps dealing with the current crisis and ended up in Greece working on a small island. She was giving out blankets and biscuits to the new arrivals at the transit camp, which acted as a kind of border control before the refugees continued into Europe.
Privilege came into our conversation as she talked about the refugees.
“They all had money,” she said. “Some of them were quite wealthy, although they didn’t have possessions with them and some had lost everything when their dinghies capsized. My job was to welcome them into the camp. They spent some time on a military island before being transferred to our camp where they had to be processed and given papers.”
“You don’t usually think of refugees as having money,” I said.
“No. But they needed at least €2000 to get as far as they did. Some of them were angry just because they weren’t used to the hardship. One guy said that his father took a plane to Italy and paid the money to bypass the system before going to Germany. They all wanted to go to Germany or Scandinavia. No one was heading for Spain or Britain.”
“Where were they from?”
“Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Algeria and Morocco.”
“Morocco? They went a long way around.”
“Yes. And all for nothing. It was sad. They were stuck in the camp for more than a month. They had destroyed their papers because they wanted to pass themselves off as Syrians but the UN uses Arabic speakers who detect regional accents so they didn’t get away with it. They had to watch as wave after wave of other people moved on. Eventually they were sent back to Morocco. In Morocco they faced jail sentences of five years for destroying their passports.”
I settled back in my seat and tried to take this in. Reading the news I had grown used to thinking of the Syrian refugees as the victims and now I had to recognise that there were layers beyond that story. There were people who would never have the privilege of escaping, because they did not have enough money. There were people from Morocco and Algeria who were not granted the privilege of entering the European Union. And there were people in those two countries who had no chance of migrating either.
I have been reading about good luck recently in a book by James B. Miles called The Free Will Delusion. His thesis is that, in a deterministic universe, there is nothing outside environment and biology to explain our actions: the idea that we have free will, that we could actually choose to be different, is logically absurd. He thinks that the notion that we do have free will- that we could actually do something to change the effects of environment and biology- is a tool wielded by those who have privilege to justify retaining it: as though the Syrian refugees were to chide the ones who could not leave for not making the effort.
Privilege and luck circled back into the discussion as the conversation wandered on to education. Chae eun was able to tell me what many of my ex-students I had lost touch with were up to. Some had settled down, some had gone into business or got jobs and some were finding their way, doing drugs or getting married. They were all privileged in their way. And Chae eun herself recognises that she is privileged.
“When I go back to Korea I am treated differently,” she said. “I have spent 14 years in Europe and speak fluent English. It sets me apart. Here not so much, but there I am like a princess.”
It is ironic that this “princess” has chosen to live out of backpack, couch-surfing around East Europe and offering herself up as a volunteer. She joked about “first world problems” as we talked about the issue of privilege in democratic education.
“In Korea there are a lot of democratic schools,” she said. “They attract wealthy parents who work in IT and creative industries and have enough money to spend on their children’s education. They are OK, but they seem a bit exclusive. Well, I have to admit that my education was exclusive because I went to Summerhill, didn’t I?”
“Yes, and it was great for you. But not everyone leaves Summerhill thinking it was great.” We talked about one person in particular left the school thinking that it had been a mistake to go there.
“She would have been unhappy anywhere, I think” Chae eun says. “She had that in her. It comes from her family and her home life. I spoke to her recently and she had changed her mind about it a little. Now she thinks that she got a lot out of the experience that she did not realise at the time.”
Good luck puts you into a privileged education. Bad luck puts you on a dinghy crossing from Turkey to Greece. Good luck gives you the strength to put up with these hardships. Bad luck means you were born in Morocco. Privilege means you can escape Syria. Privilege means your parents can afford your education. Good luck, bad luck, privilege, hardship.
I like to think that democratic education is a good option regardless of the child. I like to think that this privileged education would be good for all children who wanted it and that it would be an achievement to be able to redirect tax money towards democratic education. It would be an achievement to have donors who set up scholarships for children from less wealthy families. It would be an achievement to have democratic projects in schools where there is genuine hardship, like the school that Leonard worked in in Canada.
This would take us away from that niggling doubt that the good luck of finding yourself at Summerhill is not at all impartial, that it would be impossible to work out the effect of going to Summerhill on children because they were privileged even before they arrived.