Monday, November 16, 2015

What the mainstream is just not understanding about democracy in education


A typical problem has also been that Neill has often been seen as an educator of 'problem children' and his methods only deemed appropriate for them. Some children have always refused to accept the lives forced upon them in schools in which they have no say and where they have to attend lessons that are compulsory. Only when violence or truancy is the result have governments and educational 'experts' been quick to support alternative and free methods such as those advocated by Neill. But this is seen as a temporary measure with the ultimate goal being a return of the individual child to the orthodox system. Neill has shown that most of what children do in schools is in fact a complete waste of time and that there are much better things that they could be engaged in: exploring their own interests, acquiring new skills, making friends, chatting, playing, thinking or daydreaming. This is all dangerous stuff and cannot be taken seriously by the majority of people as it doesn't sound like anything they've heard of before which might be called education.
While Hemmings was writing his book back in the early 1970s, Neill's philosophy as embodied in his work at Summerhill, had already come under attack from the British government as a series of inspections found things not to their liking. This was an uncanny forerunner of the later troubles to befall the school after Neill's death when in the 1990s it suffered what amounted to harrassment from a series of unsympathetic and completely inappropriate inspections from Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education), only managing to free itself after an expensive court case which effectively found in favour of the school.
The later inspections and subsequent court case in 2000 were not least remarkable for the government's stubborn refusal to try and understand anything at all about Neill's real philosophy. This attitude seems to have contributed largely to their defeat in the appeal made by the school and heard at the Independent Schools Tribunal. Despite this the HMI Report claimed that it did not pass judgment on Summerhill's philosophy. Clearly, though, its own rigid view of what constitutes education was greatly at odds with the reality of Summerhill. The expert witness statement by Professor Ian Stronach on behalf of the school which was heard at the Tribunal catalogues an incredible ignorance on the part of the HMl inspection which failed completely to address Summerhill's unusual aims and methods. Stronach takes apart the Ofsted argument piece by piece to devastating effect and shows that the inspectors were in effect trying to judge 'tennis by the rules of basketball' or 'entering a racoon at a dog show'. Not surprisingly, the question most frequently asked of the Summerhill children was "How often do you go to lessons?".
This association of education with the academic side only, to the detriment of everything else, goes hand in hand with the idea that education is a preparation for some undetermined future. Therefore the present must always be sacrificed to the contingent future. This is found almost as much with those who purport to have some understanding of Neill's ideas or who imagine that they are sympathetic to Summerhill. Therefore, even parents of students at Summerhill are doubtless weary of being asked questions concerning their children's 'learning' progress.
Parents of Summerhillians who understand and support the school must also be very strong and clear in expressing their opinions to others. Misunderstandings though seem almost inevitable given that the true nature of Neill's ideas put into practice is still shocking in a world where it is assumed that adults know best what is good for children.
Educationalists and university professors, who on the surface may be sympathetic or reasonable in their discussions of Neill, are by no means immune to this problem either. A stumbling block here is that Neill is not quite like other educational philosophers. He was comparatively little read in educational theory and even less impressed by the ideas of other educationalists, and claimed his initial inspiration to come from psychology rather than education. Although often described as a progressive educator he held no 'progressive' theories about learning or the classroom and is completely different from those such as Rudolf Steiner or Maria Montessorl with whom his writings are frequently (and wrongly) grouped. For Neill, Steiner's spirituality, his attempts to mould and guide children, and his disapproval of self-government were enough to put him beyond the pale.
Similarly, he saw Montessori as a religious woman who placed too little importance on the child's fantasy life and too much on learning and intellectual development. Neill felt that Homer Lane's one book, Talks to Parents and Teachers, was of greater value than all the work of Pestalozzi, Rousseau, Froebel and Montessori put together, because Lane touched on deeper things to do with child nature rather than learning and the classroom. Moreover, Neill's own books do not read the way that many people think a book on educational philosophy should read. For one thing the books, although often repeating the same ideas in different ways, are immensely readable, enjoyable and entertaining. They are heavily biased towards Neill's own experiences and full of anecdotal material to support his theory and practice at Summerhill. And of course he is irreverent and, needless to say, always on the side of the child. (Hence titles such as That Dreadful School and The Problem Teacher). This is a tough one for teachers and educationalists to come to terms with as opinions like these question the whole validity of their existence and so Neill's ideas have a tendency, if not to be dismissed, then to be written about with many reservations. He is often damned with faint praise.

Would we expect a zookeeper to be able to hold forth on the natural behavior of animals in the wild without studying it first? The conclusion we might reach in the case of a tiger, for example, is that in its natural state it spends its day pacing listlessly up and down and is unable to fend for itself. Expertise in one field does not justify judgment in another. We must first gain experience of and familiarity with the new field before we can comment with authority on its content. As such, the world of the "free range" or selfregulated child lies outside of the auspices of any academic institution or tradition, be it psychological, sociological, or educational. Until such time as these disciplines embrace this world seriously and practically it remains the province of those who have; namely the handful of parents, educators, physicians, and others who have had hands-on experience, and the children themselves.

-- Matthew Appleton, A Free Range Childhood, p.2.
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