FOR the past two weeks I have been writing about Summerhill School, the Free School/Democratic School movement, and I still find there is more to write and think about.
The schools systems of today focus too much on skills and knowledge. Yes, there is the customary, perfunctory mention of emphasizing values and attitudes, but let’s face it, it’s really just all about grades -- even if the teachers, the principal or the school owner says otherwise, the system itself speaks louder than all of them. Get good grades and you’re ok. Get bad grades and you’re out. Get very high grades and you’re a superstar.
I also do not understand this idea of teaching values as a subject and giving grades based on it. For example, a school might have an item on the report card that says “Honesty.” How in the world can a teacher grade that unless they follow each child every minute of their lives?
Children easily see through falseness and hypocrisy. One day, my elementary kid came to me and asked, “Why is it that during school accreditation, the restrooms are extra clean and suddenly have soap and toilet paper? And why is everyone cautioned to not be loud and boisterous, and to smile and greet the visitors?”
And it doesn’t only happen in my child’s school but in a lot of major private and public schools. In fact, fictionist Gilda Cordero-Fernando wrote a short story about this phenomenon decades ago entitled “Visitation of the Gods” and captures to perfection the tragically comic way school personnel and officials pander to the “gods” of accreditation.
How can a school talk about honesty when it does things like this? Children get the message loud and clear and it doesn’t matter how many lectures the teachers give on honesty.
Or how about “reverence to God?” How do you measure that? How do you know if that merits an A or a B or a C or even a D? And what if the child believes in another god, or a goddess, or gods, or doesn’t believe in any god at all?
Words are cheap, and words in a lecture are even cheaper. The best way to teach is by example and experience.
This is why the self-government structure of Summerhill intrigues me. Everyone, even 5-year olds, get a vote -- and teachers don’t get more votes than students. At a very young age, children learn that their voice matters. They learn to express their thoughts and ideas. They learn the value of cooperation, agreement, and keeping their word. They design their own laws, their own system of rewards and punishment, and even their own system of enforcement. By experience, not just by textbook, they learn how democracy works.
That is the central system and structure of a free school -- not the subjects -- those are left for the students to explore by themselves according to their interest. I think it is a far better teaching method than any bunch of lectures can provide.
I read about a teacher’s account of a student who came from a traditional school (I’m not sure whether this was Summerhill or some other democratic school -- I cannot find the source anymore). When that boy found out that he could do anything he wanted in this school, he promptly went to the couch and slept.
That’s all that he did for the entire year. Every day, he would come to school, go to the couch, and sleep -- and no one bothered him about it, not the teachers or other students. He was exercising his freedom to do it, and he wasn’t bothering anyone or impinging on someone else’s freedom. So he was left alone.
The following year, he proceeded to do that again. Until at around the middle of the year, he approached a teacher and asked how one becomes president of the self-government system. The teacher tells him that he has to get others to vote for him.
“Well, I want to be president,” this boy says.
“And how do you expect people to vote for you if all you do is sleep all day? People have to hear you. They have to know what you can do for them. They have to see that voting for you will be in their best interests,” replied the teacher.
So from that day forward, the boy stopped sleeping on the couch and began doing other things and interacting with the other student. He became active and popular and yes, he indeed became president shortly after.
Sometimes, like plants, all children need is space and time to grow and mature. All the nudging and shaping that we do often doesn’t really help and might even cause resentment and fixation on that which was denied them.
Let me leave you with this little food for though from A.S. Neill himself, “There is no case whatever for the moral instruction of children. It is psychologically wrong. To ask a little child to be unselfish is wrong. Every child is an egoist. The world belongs to him. His power of wishing is strong; he has only to wish and he is king of the earth. When he is given an apple his one wish is to eat that apple. And the chief result of mother’s encouraging him to share his very own apple with his little brother is to make him hate the little brother.
Altruism comes later, comes naturally if the child is not taught to be unselfish; probably never comes at all when the child is taught to be unselfish. The young altruist is merely the child who likes to please others while he is satisfying his own selfishness.”
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. View previous articles at www.freethinking.me.