A good enough reason?

If Summerhill matters, it is not because of what happens in one school in one hidden corner of England.  If it matters it is because it responds to our feeling that there is something wrong with the world.  It seems to offer a way out.

Your definition of what is wrong depends where you are standing.

The Summerhill of the Mind has a much broader application than just the workings of a private boarding school in the East of England.  Let’s head to Spain and consider a Canadian accountant’s worldview.

In the depths of the recent crisis in Spain, I was sitting in a restaurant in Santiago de Compostela with a group of tourists who had just finished the Camino de Santiago.  It was just as well we had reserved our table well in advance because the place was buzzing.  There were people standing at the bar waiting for tables to become available.  Both dining rooms were full.

I had been walking and talking with Harry, a government economics advisor in Canada.  He was an optimist.  He said, “It seems to me that the world is getting better and better.  Look around you.  Do you call this a crisis?”

“There is a crisis,” I protested.  “It’s been appalling.”

“The restaurant is full.  The people are on the streets are mostly wearing new clothes.  Almost everyone has a cell phone.  Listen to all the people in here.  This doesn’t sound like an economic crisis to me.”

How could he say this?

We had walked into town earlier in the day along a street where a good fifty percent of the shops were closed.  There were people begging in the doorways all the way.  When we arrived at the historic centre a vast chasm opened up between the tourists with money in their pockets and the indigent with none.  “Don’t you think that the number of beggars in the street has something to say to us?” I asked.

“No.  There are always winners and losers but we live in a world that is constantly improving.  Things are just getting better all around.  This is only a relative crisis.”

“That is news to me,” I quibbled.

“Think of the Depression.  You must have seen the photographs or films.  People had nothing at all.  Nobody starves now, nobody is denied essential health treatment.  Our governments might be filled with corrupt politicians but we are building a better world in spite of them.  Everyone is getting richer and better-off.”

“So, you don’t think that there is something askew?” I asked.

“Not at all,” he said.  “I read it in the statistics all the time: things are better than ever in the past.  You shouldn’t get distracted by a few people begging on the streets.”

For an economist like Harry, the fact that more people have internet and a cell phone is indisputable evidence of improvement.  Since they have disposable income for these inessentials they should stop complaining and give thanks to the smart technicians and wise leaders who have managed things so wonderfully.  I didn’t even want to mention Summerhill because I was sure he would think it was craziness.

The Experts Have it Right

“So, you think the experts have it right?” I asked.


“And people who protest are just misguided?”


“So, if the number of people who protest is enough to swing an election and bring about a radical change in social policy, what would you do?”

“Well,” Frank replied, “that is not really likely to happen because politicians need experts and, when the experts are agreed, politicians usually just change their tune.  Once they get into power it is usually easy enough to guide them onto the right path.  But you’re right: there is always a danger that people will vote in a government that is no good.”

“But, Frank,” I stuttered.  “What you are telling me is completely anti-democratic.”

Frank’s idea that the world is getting better and that the people who are responsible for this improvement are the experts is familiar from the world of education.   Once you know what to measure, the argument goes, the business of education is just like any other.  You can start focusing your attention on improving the statistics.  Things will get better: more people will get better results; there will be more social inclusion and less inequality; learners themselves will be more motivated because they will see that their learning leads somewhere.

You could not get more distant from Summerhill, with its focus on the individual child and its respect for the interest that comes from somewhere far different than the curriculum plans of an education authority or the lesson plans of a teacher.

Summerhill and Progressive Education

Here is a panel discussing whether Dewey-style progressive education has any relevance today.

Watch it: four teachers and their chairman set up Dewey as a punchbag; they all agree there is nothing worth saving in progressive education.  I found the video by accident.  The first time I tried to watch it I had to turn it off because it irritated me so much.  “What do these people have to say to me?” I asked myself.  I returned because I was fascinated by my own reaction: a visceral, personal rejection.

It was hard for me to separate my thoughts and opinions from petty observations about the clothes the speakers were wearing and their mannerisms.   It reminded me of a professional training day I went to with an examination board when I was teaching at Summerhill.  The teachers were professional enough, but their comments and observations didn’t make any sense to me.  When I returned to school I was in doubt about whether I should even be a teacher.  You see, I really didn’t care about grading, the be-all and end-all of official education systems.

That experience was strangely similar to talking to Frank about poverty.  Frank thought that things were getting better and better, in spite of the evidence of hardship right in front of his eyes.  For him the figures said everything there was to say.  Once the beggars were out of sight it was easy to look at the packed restaurant and say, “There is no depression!”

Getting Better and Better

The teachers thought that education was getting better and better.  They looked at the figures for the children they were teaching and could measure the number of children who had improved from a grade D to a grade C over the last ten years.  They could look at their refined techniques for measuring added value and conclude they were doing a much better job than any progressive school ever had.  Progressive education was a waste of time and money; smart kids might get on in progressive schools, but they had nothing to offer the disadvantaged.

“That is not what it is all about!” I muttered ineffectually.

What was it all about?  I think I need another post to talk this question through.  And I am not even decided about my conclusions.  If you have something to add, leave a comment, or start a thread in our forum.

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