We talk about community, but what do we mean? 

In this post- an extract from a longer piece about Summerhill as an idea- I consider what happens when we lose sight of what a community is.

Tea in the Kitchen

When Tisha introduced me to Neill I was sharing a flat with teachers at Moray House College of Education. They were from Senegal, Somalia, Namibia, and Congo: over the two years I was in the flat my education about the world blossomed.  We would sit in the kitchen with the long light coming in through the high windows batting around ideas.

“Who lives next door?” asked Abdou.

“I don’t know,” I replied.  “I think I’ve seen them on the stairs.  An old couple.”

“But what are their names?”

“I don’t know.”

“What would happen if they had a problem in the night?”

“I don’t know.  They would call relatives or friends, I suppose.”

“Do you know their relatives?”

“Of course, I don’t, Abdou,” I said.  “It’s just not like that here.  They have their world and I have mine.”

“I think we live in the same world,” he said and I felt like I had said something childish.

Unofficial Guide

There were many conversations like this.  My flatmates came in at the end of another confusing day and asked me questions.  It was my unofficial job to explain British culture to them, but I think I learnt more from them than they did from me.

They talked about the schools they worked in back home.  The role of teachers was noble: they felt respected and honoured; the future of their countries was in their hands.  One important part of what they were doing in Scotland was finding the best ways to take their countries’ education forward into the future.

They were all being paid by their governments or by the British Council.  The underlying vision was of never-ending improvement: a machine for learning.  Improvements in techniques and resources would result in improved output in the form of better grades, better rankings in international comparisons.

You might have thought that these teachers would scoff at Neill.  “All right for someone living in the heart of the Empire,” I expected them to say, “but we are working in a place where people have real problems if they don’t get schooled and real opportunities if they do.”

That was not their response.

Community, contradictions and crocodiles

They were aware of the contradictions in this strange country they had come to for professional development.  Education in Scotland seemed to them to miss out on something essential.  Despite all the money spent and the long years at school, people here knew nothing about the world.  Dieza was able to convince one girl in a pub that everyone in the Congo lived in trees because the crocodiles came out of the river at night to eat their children.  The Scottish denied being racist but could not explain why the police did nothing when thugs knifed to death two Somalis on Lothian Road.

My friends also knew that their own motives were far from simple.  They looked forward to seeing another country, learning about another culture and taking some time out from their lives back home.  The open eyes of foreigners in a strange land gave them a different view on things.  They were not so foolish as to think that meeting attainment targets was the same as being educated and they valued education more.  The international education industry prejudiced their countries, but they acted with confident dignity in the face of British culture.

Summerhill- the Way I Grew Up

“What do you think of Summerhill?” I asked one evening as we were sipping unbearably strong Senegalese tea.

“I don’t find all those ideas as difficult as you do,” said Abbes.

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“Well, that is exactly the way I grew up!” he exclaimed.  “There wasn’t much school.  There was plenty of time to play.  Everyone went into everyone else’s house and all adults looked out for kids.  They didn’t get down in the mud and play with them, but they made sure they weren’t run over by a truck when they were playing in the road.”

“So, do you think you could have a Summerhill in Senegal?”

“Let me turn that around,” he said, blinking his eyes and stroking his elegant beard.  “Can you have a Summerhill here?”

“You have a point,” I confessed.  “It was an educational experiment and I guess Neill was a bit of an amateur, wasn’t he?  I don’t think a school like that would survive today.”

Summerhill is an African Idea

“Summerhill is an African idea,” said Dieza provocatively.  “You can’t have Summerhill here because there is no community.  You all talk about community, but there is nothing like the community I know.  No one gives a shit about anyone else.”

“That is a bit strong,” I replied.

“No, it isn’t,” Abdou said.  “Tell me the names of your neighbours and I will say you know about community.”

Neill was born in the nineteenth-century.  There was a strange parallel between his experience of being a dominie in a small community and the experiences of my African friends.  Few parallels remained after a century of progress: bigger, more efficient schools; teachers with cars driving in to work in communities they did not belong to.  I could not help but wonder whether my friends’ sense of community would survive the encounter with modern education.

It seemed to me that there was a set of assumptions at the heart of modern education that directly challenged Abdou’s worldview.  Development itself seemed to be problematic.  Would it lead to increasing atomization and alienation?  Would the towns and villages he described splinter into fractured communities in the same way that they had in the UK?  It seemed quite possible.

I was not prepared to consider these questions.

I think we all live in the same world

When I talked to Abdou I did not feel that my many years in formal education equipped me better to approach the world.  Quite the contrary.  It seemed to me that his experience of growing up in a community had given him a moral dignity that I might have had once, but that was stripped away at school.

The feeling I often had when talking to Abdou and Abbes of having said something childish was at the heart of it.  All the grades and results and tests would not give me that sense of maturity.  Maturity came from somewhere else.  Abdou’s decent simplicity appealed to me: “I think we all live in the same world.”

Children can grow into decent adults in many ways.  I thought, however, that there was something about the sense of community Abdou described that gave them a better chance.

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