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IPFS News Link • Education: Private Secular Schools and Home School

The Summerhill School, the Radical Educational Experiment That Let Students Learn What, When,

• Open Culture

Among the political and social revolutions of the 1960s, the movement to democratize education is of central historical importance. Parents and politicians were entrenched in battles over integrating local schools years after 1954's Brown v. Board of Education. Sit-ins and protests on college campuses made similar student unrest today seem mild by comparison. Meanwhile, quieter, though no less radical, educational movements proliferated in communes, homeschools, and communities that could pay for private schools.

Most of these experimental methods drew from older sources, such as the theories of Rudolf Steiner and Maria Montessori, both of whom died before the Age of Aquarius. One movement that got its start decades earlier was popularized in the 60s when its founder A.S. Neill published the influential Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, a classic work of alternative pedagogy in which the Scottish writer and educator described the radical ideas developed in his Summerhill School in England, first founded in 1921.

Neill's school "helped to pioneer the 'free school' philosophy," writes Aeon, "in which lessons are never mandatory and nearly every aspect of student life can be put to a vote." His methods "and a rising countercultural movement inspired similar institutions to open around the world." When Neill first published his book, however, he was very much on the defensive, against "an increasing reaction against progressive education," psychologist Erich Fromm wrote in the book's foreword.

At the extreme end of this backlash Fromm situates "the remarkable success in teaching achieved in the Soviet Union," where "the old-fashioned methods of authoritarianism are applied in full strength." Fromm defended experiments like Neill's, despite their "often disappointing" results, as a natural outgrowth of the Enlightenment.

During the eighteenth century, the ideas of freedom, democracy, and self-determination were proclaimed by progressive thinkers; and by the first half of the 1900's these ideas came to fruition in the field of education. The basic principle of such self-determination was the replacement of authority by freedom, to teach the child without the use of force by appealing to his curiosity and spontaneous needs, and thus to get him interested in the world around him. This attitude marked the beginning of progressive education and was an important step in human development.