Getting older is not the same as gaining maturity: we have all known teachers who are less mature than their students, for example. Age divisions in schools are an attempt to impose a system on a natural process. In schools with year groups this system is a mechanical one, as though the children were machine parts on a production line. In democratic schools it tends to be more flexible, but it is a system nonetheless.
The system at Summerhill arises from a theory about growing up. The theory has a whiff of millenarianism: a new method of child-rearing will give rise to a generation of adults who are healthy, balanced and without hate and this will inaugurate an age of peace and harmony. It is a sustained way of thinking how we could grow up without the moralistic claptrap and authoritarian regimentation of an heirarchical society. That society handed power over to tyrants and led the world to war on two occasions in the twentieth-century.
The keystone of Neill’s ideas about maturation is self-regulation. The idea is that a child growing up in freedom will not only be happier, but will have more supple limbs, no knots in her stomach, a more adaptive mind and a generous, peaceful outlook on life. He was heavily influenced by Reich’s theory about body armour- the micro-tensions that are left in the musculature as the traces of neurosis- and proposed that a child growing up in freedom would be more psychologically and physically healthy than other children.
If you read The Handbook of Self-Regulation, a whopping tome edited by Vohs and Baumeister in 2011 representing the best of modern scholarship on this subject, you will not even find Neill in the footnotes. The lack of any scientific or research support for Neill’s ideas makes it seem like a real leap of faith to accept what he says. “All the universities and research in the world won’t give you a happy child,” he seems to say as he invites you to wave goodbye to science. Let’s have a look at this idea of growing up.
In my last post I explained the age divisions at the school. We can forget the academic divisions for the moment and focus on the divisions in the boarding school: San, Cottage, House, Shack and Carriages. Let’s focus first on that middle term, House, because it is a key and controversial stage in Neill’s ideas about maturation. He says that you can leave kids on their own and they will grow up by themselves, that this is better for them in the long run because they will not be weighed down by all kinds of moralistic clap-trap or parental guilt trips. They can go to classes or not- that is entirely indifferent- but they have to grow up in freedom to appreciate the difference between freedom and licence. This is where the House comes in. Children in the House are aged10-13.
The House is the area of the school where children experience the boundaries between freedom and licence most vividly. It is what Neill calls the “gangster age”. At Summerhill there are many cases involving House kids in the Meeting. Some of the cases are petty. Others are more serious. A good example would be “sneaking out” where kids, either alone or in groups, leave their bedrooms at night when they are supposed to be asleep. When a house kid “sneaks out”, she experiences a vivid and powerful thrill at breaking the law; she comes alive and her complexion, composure and character change. She is flooded with a new vitality. Furthermore she knows that the consequences of breaking the law at Summerhill are not the same as in a normal family or an authoritarian school: no guilt. There is a discussion and a fine voted on by the whole community. The process of breaking the law and being fined does her no damage. It is such a benign process that children in the House can repeatedly experience the thrill of breaking the law as they negotiate the boundary to their freedoms.
At Summerhill the ability to understand when your free actions are affecting the freedom of another (licence) is the very definition of maturity. Carriage kids acting as ombudsmen demonstrate a level of mature wisdom in dealing with problems between people that would be beyond many of my teaching colleagues in the mainstream. The Meeting, at which everyone has the right to speak and vote, gives a direct reflection of the impact of an action on the community. Although it may seem like a game to a House kid to sneak out, when they realise that they woke someone up and are fined for that, they will begin the process of maturation that will lead them to be good Carriage kids in the future.
The “gangster age” is Neill’s idea. I have not seen it reproduced in any other psychological or educational literature. Leonard, for example, working from his Clubhouse Democracy model, talks of the same age group as “veteran kids”. He says that children at that age have not yet entered the messy meltdown of adolescence and are not yet thinking about the complicated business of becoming an adult. They are still kids and they are very good at it: competent at organising spaces, doing and making, playing games and even studying.
Leonard was able to work successfully at Summerhill for twelve years. There was no contradiction between an orderly Class 2 and sneaking out of the House because Summerhill is a boarding school with lots of space for the kids to grow up in. The “gangsters” came into his Class 2 and became respectable citizens or were turfed out by their friends. “Well, that’s better, isn’t it?” you might say. “Why would you choose to keep a system that puts a premium on being an arsehole when you could have a system where the arsehole is a responsible citizen?”
If you are setting up your own democratic day school you might be even more tempted to demand responsibility from the kids because it seems like the better option. You can do so much more when everyone is obeying the rules, after all. You can have more creative activities. You can put out a wider variety of materials. There will be less damage and no theft. People will do what they are supposed to do at the time they are supposed to do it and will not interfere with others. There are schools that work this way. The adults take a lot more responsibility for directing what goes on than they do at Summerhill, but the kids are more or less happy.
You would only go for the Summerhill option if you believe that the rush of energy children get in the gangster age is valuable in their maturation; that, if they do not learn for themselves the boundaries between freedom and licence, they will not grow up. They might take their inner gangster into adulthood and be an eternal arsehole. They might never experience the rush of life that comes from breaking the law and be an eternal mouse. Only in a system where you are free and equal can you achieve Summerhill-style maturity.
But you have to be a believer because there is not much science behind this theory!