Why a democratic meeting? It seemed fairly obvious when I started working at Summerhill that the school meeting was doing impressive things. There were some older kids in the school- the Carriage kids- who were looked on with a kind of awed respect by the younger children. They were confident, resolute and respectful in the discussions in the Meeting. This would be reason enough for a democratic meeting, wouldn’t it? But I felt there was an underlying question I couldn’t find an answer to.
What kind of democracy is this?
Democratic schools are not democratic in the sense that the outside world is democratic. In the broader politics of the country democratic elections lead to the choice of politicians who represent their constituents in parliament. This is representative democracy and has nothing to do with the way a democratic school works. At Summerhill there are no political parties. There is no president or prime minister. There is no cabinet. Every vote is a free vote.
My friend Ted’s school staged campaigns in the run-up to elections so that its students could debate the issues they were hearing about on the news, at home and on the doorstep. There were vocal campaigns for Socialism, Green issues or even Conservatism. Meanwhile, in the oldest democratic school in the world, the Meeting dealt with someone who sneaked out at night and who would do the fund-raising for the party. Behind the wall and the trees the loud voices of the outside world softened to a distant hum.
I wondered about this. In spite of the marvelous opportunity Summerhill gave children to exercise their voice and grow in the strength of their opinions, there was not much political maturity. You would have needed a few classes that went out into the world and looked at real hardship, real industry and real money-making to give young people an inkling of political conscience. You would have to want to stir them up a bit. Summerhill reverently left the child to her own world and refused to preach to her.
“Pah!” scoffed Ted, a lifelong Labourite, “that’s no kind of political education. It’s just a bunch of rich kids raising their hands to decide what flavour biscuits they are going to have with their tea. I’d never send my kid to a school like that, not because it’s democratic but because it is so hopelessly out-of-touch.”
“But what does all that pantomime of a mock election at your school really mean?” I said, feeling an urgent need to come back at him. “The kids only borrow their opinions from their parents.”
“You may be right, but at least we teach them how representative government works and they have a go at it. It’s play really. I thought you liked play.”
“I do like play. But what kid plays at politics? Kids play at being spies and superheroes and warriors. They have their own legitimate concerns and they are not the same as the concerns their parents have. At Summerhill they can discuss those concerns. They bring them to the Meeting.”
“Like what flavour biscuits to have with their tea!”
I could not dismiss Ted because I respected his opinion. And, up to a point, it was true. There was no real effort at Summerhill to prepare children for life in the “outside” world. They knew about the outside world. They knew they were not going to have this opportunity to really decide what was important to them forever. Indeed, Summerhillians might even refer to the school as The Island, isolated on the far side of the tracks on the outskirts of a small town about as far east as you can go in England without falling into the North Sea. The isolation gave it a magical aura of self-sufficiency.
So I returned to my question: what kind of democracy is this?
“Perhaps,” I thought to myself, “it has another purpose altogether? Perhaps the point of the democratic meeting has nothing to do with making Summerhillians better citizens of democracies. Perhaps it would be better thought of as a psychological democracy.”
I played around with this idea for a long time because Neill took on a lot of difficult children at the school. There were other teachers who tried out similar methods, like George Lyward, for example. The idea was not really to do with democracy and more to do with a psychological “feeling” in the thirties and forties that it was good for one to learn what one wanted and, particulary, not to hang onto one’s mother’s apron strings. Triumphing over the ghastly influence of your parents seems to be a common theme all the way up to the hippies and beyond. It seemed to offer a powerful way to get through to troubled youngsters who might otherwise end up falling into a crippling criminal justice system.
Was Summerhill a school for problem children?
It was certainly the case that many parents came to the school as a last resort after having tried all kinds of other options that were cheaper and more local than a boarding school in this isolated location. These children came with a variety of symptoms ranging from severe shyness to boisterous aggression. It is a remarkable testament to the Meeting that the school was normally such a harmonious and happy place to live. Not everyone overcame their problems, but Summerhill took many children traumatised by experience in the mainstream and gave them precious respite.
The Meeting works because it values every child’s voice. The community consistently and repeatedly says that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, how many titles you have, how many grey hairs you have, even how much Summerhill experience you have, when it comes to the Meeting you have an equal right to speak and be heard, an equal right to vote. This has a powerful effect on children. It can take them a long time to take it in.
“So it’s all right to be like I am, then?” they might say. “I can do what I choose to?”
When I left Summerhill I wrote a short piece for myself that I called Summerhill Takeaway. “What could you take away from Summerhill?” I asked myself. And most of the answers were psychological bonuses: learning to know what you want to do; that it should be you that wants it not some displaced voice of an authority figure telling you what is good for you; to actually do it, not waste your time dreaming about it. Do what you want. It is like a motto for permissive education whilst at the same time being a neat recipe for psychological good health, something that might have come from the mouth of Fritz Perls, for example.
Knowing what you want to do and doing it is…. Political!
This is not the full story, however. If we look at the complex world we are living in there are some scary situations on the horizon. The rise of far right demagogues who are willing to steer nationalist populism towards intolerance and hatred is shocking. The way that people are being steered away from freedom of expression by briskly executed laws, such as the ley mordaza in Spain, leads down a lightless path that goes nowhere good.
Across Europe it seems that people have lost faith in the political parties that have always been there. The debates between left and right, from a voter’s perspective, seem like a terrible choice between corrupt, big-spending bureaucrats and corrupt, asset-stripping fatcats. The planet sizzles through its hottest year ever and looking to a politician for a solution seems like criminal insouciance.
In this context, there is something rather more potent behind democratic education than rich kids choosing the flavour of their tea biscuits. If it were possible to extend the model of democratic education outside the island so that more children could grow up learning to know what they want and listen to what others want, instead of the low grade tired curriculum they are force-fed at the moment, there might be some hope.
And if they could grow up using democratic meetings to negotiate the boundaries where wants and needs conflict, perhaps there would be a real chance that some of the maturity you hear at Summerhill might be heard in our politics.