In a paragraph of about 100 words, sum up Neill's views on education.
Summerhill education and standard education
I hold that the aim of life is to find happiness, which means to find
interest. Education should be a preparation for life. Our culture has not been
very successful. Our education, politics, and economics lead to war. Our
medicines have not done away with disease. Our religion has not abolished usury
and robbery. Our boasted humanitarianism still allows public opinion to approve
of the barbaric sport of hunting. The advances of the age are advances in
mechanism - in radio and television, in electronics, in jet planes. New world
wars threaten, for the worlds social conscience is still primitive.
If we feel like questioning today, we can pose a few awkward questions. Why does man seem to have many more diseases than animals have? Why does man hate and kill in war when animals do not? Why does cancer increase? Why are there so many suicides? So many insane sex crimes? Why the hate that is anti-Semitism? Why Negro hating and lynching? Why back-biting and spite? Why is sex obscene and a leering joke? Why is being a bastard a social disgrace? Why the continuance of religions that have long ago lost their love and hope and charity? Why, a thousand whys about our vaunted state of civilized eminence!
I ask these questions because I am by profession a teacher, one who deals with the young. I ask these questions because those so often asked by teachers are the unimportant ones, the ones about school subjects. I ask what earthly good can come out of discussions about French or ancient history or what not when these subjects dont matter a jot compared to the larger question of lifes natural fulfilment - of mans inner happiness.
How much of our education is real doing, real self-expression? Handwork is too often the making of a pin tray under the eye of an expert. Even the Montessori system, well-known as a system of directed play, is an artificial way of making the child learn by doing. It has nothing creative about it.
In the home, the child is always being taught. In almost every home, there is always at least one ungrown-up grownup who rushes to show Tommy how his new engine works. There is always someone to lift the baby up on a chair when baby wants to examine something on the wall. Every time we show Tommy how his engine works we are stealing from that child the joy of life - the joy of discovery - the joy of overcoming an obstacle. Worse! We make that child come to believe that he is inferior, and must depend on help.
Parents are slow in realizing how unimportant the learning side of school is. Children, like adults, learn what they want to learn. All prize-giving and marks and exams sidetrack proper personality development. Only pedants claim that learning from books is education.
Books are the least important apparatus in a school. All that any child needs is the three Rs; the rest should be tools and clay and sports and theatre and paint and freedom.
Most of the school work that adolescents do is simply a waste of time, of energy, of patience. It robs youth of its right to play and play and play; it puts old heads on young shoulders.
When I lecture to students at teacher training colleges and universities, I am often shocked at the ungrownupness of these lads and lasses stuffed with useless knowledge. They know a lot; they shine in dialectics; they can quote the classics - but in their outlook on life many of them are infants. For they have been taught to know, but have not been allowed to feel. These students are friendly, pleasant, eager, but something is lacking - the emotional factor, the power to subordinate thinking to feeling. I talk to these of a world they have missed and go on missing. Their textbooks do not deal with human character, or with love, or with freedom, or with self-determination. And so the system goes on, aiming only at standards of book learning - goes on separating the head from the heart.
It is time that we were challenging the school's notion of work. It is taken for granted that every child should learn mathematics, history, geography, some science, a little art, and certainly literature. It is time we realized that the average young child is not much interested in any of these subjects.
I prove this with every new pupil. When told that the school is free, every new pupil cries, Hurrah! You won't catch me doing dull arithmetic and things!
I am not decrying learning. But learning should come after play. And learning should not be deliberately seasoned with play to make it palatable.
Learning is important - but not to everyone. Nijinsky could not pass his school exams in St Petersburg, and he could not enter the State Ballet without passing those exams. He simply could not learn school subjects - his mind was elsewhere. They faked an exam for him, giving him the answers with the papers - so a biography says. What a loss to the world if Nijinsky had had really to pass those exams!
Creators learn what they want to learn in order to have the tools that their originality and genius demand. We do not know how much creation is killed in the classroom with its emphasis on learning.
I have seen a girl weep nightly over her geometry. Her mother wanted her to go to the university, but the girls whole soul was artistic. I was delighted when I heard that she had failed her college entrance exams for the seventh time. Possibly, the mother would now allow her to go on the stage as she longed to do.
Some time ago, I met a girl of fourteen in Copenhagen who had spent three years in Summerhill and had spoken perfect English here. I suppose you are at the top of your class in English, I said.
She grimaced ruefully. No, I'm at the bottom of my class, because I don't know English grammar, she said. I think that disclosure is about the best commentary on what adults consider education.
Indifferent scholars who, under discipline, scrape through college or university and become unimaginative teachers, mediocre doctors, and incompetent lawyers would possibly be good mechanics or excellent bricklayers or first-rate policemen.
We have found that the boy who cannot or will not learn to read until he is, say, fifteen is always a boy with a mechanical bent who later on becomes a good engineer or electrician. I should not dare dogmatise about girls who never go to lessons, especially to mathematics and physics. Often such girls spend much time with needlework, and some, later on in life, take up dressmaking and designing. It is an absurd curriculum that makes a prospective dressmaker study quadratic equations or Boyles Law.
Caldwell Cook wrote a book called The Play Way, in which he told how he taught English by means of play. It was a fascinating book, full of good things, yet I think it was only a new way of bolstering the theory that learning is of the utmost importance. Cook held that learning was so important that the pill should be sugared with play. This notion that unless a child is learning something the child is wasting his time is nothing less than a curse - a curse that blinds thousands of teachers and most school inspectors. Fifty years ago the watchword was Learn through doing. Today the watchword is Learn through playing. Play is thus used only as a means to an end, but to what good end I do not really know.
(From Summerhill by A. S. Neill)
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