The idea of the “gangster age” is pure Neill. I haven’t come across the theory anywhere else, but it comes out of Neill’s overtly psychological reading of child development. Today I want to talk about the gangster age in Summerhill Basics because it is such a fundamental part of the school. It seems to me that, without coming to terms with the gangster age, you can’t come to terms with the school. People who follow Summerhill without understanding the idea tend to come up with “nicer” versions of more conventional schools: schools that promote creativity or the arts; schools that have values. Getting into the idea of the gangster phase means something different. It means letting go of the reins.
When I first read Neill and came across the idea of the gangster age it made intuitive sense. I could picture the gangs of young kids engaged in vigorous and combative play. They have emerged from their mothers’ skirts and apron strings. They are out investigating the world around them. They have yet to learn the rules of polite society and you could hardly see in their grubby faces the future professionals they might become. They are like William, the hero of Just William, but in their own minds they are more like Bulldog Drummond. One of the deeply attractive parts of Neill’s personality is the way that he looks at these children and sees that what they are doing is good: he does not want to take away from them this play and civilise them.
Indeed, he goes to the other extreme. He suggests that by making these children submit to the norms of society you are doing them damage. Children have to live out their complexes, they have to act out the accumulated aggression and tension not only of their families but of the wider world. If they don’t, they will grow up forever twisted. Neill emerges as a warrior on the side of life, against the hates and angers that corrupt people. He sees the conflicts and hatreds that turn people into life-denying crooks and criminals as avoidable, if children are given an appropriate environment in which to grow up. That environment must offer them the opportunity to “act out”.
The word gangster is, perhaps, a little unfortunate. Gangsters are a cultural product. They have arisen at the corrupt fringes of predominantly urban societies, thriving on a breakdown of law and order, using violence and intimidation to get what they want and instituting hierarchical loyalty codes with initiation rites and rituals. Most people would associate gangsters with Al Capone and Prohibition and the word comes along with a bunch of other macho and sexist stereotypes such as the contract killing, the gangster’s moll and the Padrone.
What part of this was Neill referring to when he talked about the gangster age?
Here is what he says in a letter to Curry at Dartington Hall (from Croall, All the Best, Neill):
You have few problems of discipline, but damn it all you ought to have fifty a day. The past three days a gang of twelve-year-olds has rebelled against the government. They put up a notice for volunteers to join the gang, and I at once put my name down. The result: I’ve got the cook and maids on my neck, and it ain’t pleasant. It is a life. The quiet lads of 17 and 18 here all went through this gangster stage, and I’ve had to live through a score of rebellions in my time.
By the way, I learned something important last weekend, that the fault of DH [Dartington Hall] doesn’t lie in its wealth, as supposed. The fault lies in its poverty of ways and means for living out primitive instincts. Your gangster age ought to be in dirty hovels, moving up gradually to the swagger rooms all pupils now have.
This passage gives me a look into the Summerhill of the thirties, as the letter is dated 18 February 1933. Neill’s vision does not change much over time. Here he is in 1958 writing to John Aitkenhead: “I am in a bad patch at the moment, many new boys from 14 to 17 living out complexes and doing no lessons all day, only destruction. I am so tired of watching the crooks and gangsters living out their hates, but to make it pay I have to take any damn kid offered me.” This means that over 25 years he has kept the same vision of what the gangster phase is, what “living out your hates” is, and the benefits of his kind of education as a remedy. He is tired but the basic perception is the same.
It is important to say this because Neill has been accused of being an inconsistent thinker. In this respect at least he is consistent throughout his life: he always says that the emotions are neglected in an education that focuses on academic learning; he always says that experience with children is much better for a teacher than learning psychology and pedagogy in books. His “theory” of the gangster phase is an observation based on his own practice: he sees that children want to challenge authority; he sees that they act out their aggressions; he suggests that they should be allowed to do this and not channelled into positive activity or restricted by moral guidance. He consistently calls moralists “anti-life”.
The image of Neill in the thirties is fascinating. That expression- “ways and means for living out primitive instincts”- is deeply appealing, especially when I think of today’s educational systems that seem to be heading ever more towards order, measurement, classification, predictability and definable outcomes. It doesn’t really matter whether they are “nice” or not. It doesn’t really matter if you re-define yourself as a creative teacher. It makes little difference to teach citizenship to children whose basic emotional drives are quashed by the necessity of being in a classroom and following a curriculum. And in the thirties there were further layers of patriotic and jingoistic nonsense on top of that as well, pressurising the youngster to conform in a messed up world. Neill happily chucks all that out the window and encourage his kids to act out.
In my previous post I spoke about what Leonard calls habitat. Here we can see that Neill does not give a fig for habitat and the reason is precisely that of the gangster age. Dartington Hall was a much bigger place than Summerhill with more funds, wealthier parents and better facilities yet it did not satisfy Neill. He wanted the kids to be getting into problems and to be living out their emotional lives. He did not want them to be in “swagger pads” from an early age. The whole point about this phase in the growth of a Summerhill child is that they will be able to act out, live out. They will bump up against each other in conflict as they do so, and this will enable them to grow emotionally. They will not be in secure, adult controlled environments where there is no real risk, everything is grey and anodyne and the most they can do to get in touch with something primitive is plug into the TV or a computer game.
Henry Readhead, Neill’s grandson, said in a chat he did in Madrid last year that the House kids were the “motor” of Summerhill. House kids are the archetypical gangster age. They sneak out, get into trouble, break the laws, get brought up and then do the whole thing all over again. They challenge all kinds of authority. They rub against each other and everyone else. The little kids don’t do this because they are just happy out playing. The older kids don’t do it because they have already been through that phase and are now the quiet ones that Neill mentions in that first extract above. Henry was trying to explain to the audience how children need time to struggle with each other, to have problems getting along and to break the rules. This is an important part of their emotional development. He was trying to tell everyone how important the emotions are in the growth and maturity of children.
It is hard to get this message across because people are trying so hard to do good things for children all the time. Perhaps if they just left them alone and stood back it would all be better. Sure some kids would get up to tricks, break things and be “naughty”, but perhaps we would all do better to be a little more absent from our children’s lives than we have grown accustomed to be. Perhaps they would benefit from being left alone to get through their own gangster phase.
What do you think? Does the gangster phase make sense to you? Do all children go through this stage? Would it be a problem if a child did not act out? At what point should adults step in to children’s affairs and try to sort things out? And how much can you stand back from your own children and still be happy?