The Compact Majority

The Establishment, the compact majority, believes in the system; the Establishment has the power to enforce it. The deadness and boredom of certain school subjects conveys itself to the teachers; and so, schools are filled with narrow, self-important men and women whose horizon is bound by the blackboard and the textbook.

A.S. Neill
  Cultural Change: Why You Just Can’t Go Back to the Basics.
I was reading Summerhill the other day and was struck by the rich culture that surrounded the early days of the school experiment. Neill talks about music and theatre as though it were an everyday thing to make a choice between Rachmaninov and Charlie Parker, or to have a theatre performance every weekend in the school.
Why do these things not happen today? What has changed?
When I read accounts of the school in Neill’s day I get a vivid sense of the times: the fifties when all cars were black and there was no such thing as home-entertainment systems, an age before rock and roll when, if you had a TV it would be a monstrous box with a tiny screen. I imagine people like John Mills walking around with clipped English accents talking about duty and honour.  
It’s easy to feel nostalgic for those times. How can you get a feel for poetry when your head is full of the latest sounds all the time? Who is going to stage a play when you have home cinema?
I read that an English private school headteacher is going to ban phones, ipods, ipads and other hand-held devices for certain periods of the day to get his kids away from the addiction of posting and reviewing continuously. The urge to impose a similar ban must have occurred to all of us, but isn’t it a kind of sanctimonious hypocrisy to impose the limit only on children?
In Spain, where I live, people go out for a walk and a drink in the evenings. The town squares are full of people strolling around, chatting, sitting in the plaza with a beer or a coffee whilst the children run around screaming. Yet something peculiar has happened recently. I look around me and notice a table of four, all with their mobile phones in their hands. The conversation dies back to a murmur. They are all somewhere else.
It is hypocritical to expect children to live in the fifties when you want the latest gadgets yourself. And we all know that it doesn’t work. Parents who don’t read don’t tend to have children who read, no matter the school they are sent to, or the rules it has about “quiet reading time”. Modelling by powerful role models easily outweighs theory.
So, when I read Neill and get visions of Enid Blyton kids having adventures in a poor school with a rich cultural environment, I push aside the sentimental reveries about home-made ginger ale and think instead, “What are children like today?” I don’t want to dress boys in shorts and tank-tops and send them off to climb trees shouting “Hurrah”. I don’t expect them to easily think that theatre is important, interesting or engaging.
Children today rapidly acquire a facility with computers, phones and games that makes even twenty-somethings look old and venerable. They have no problem with communicating across cultures, continents and time zones. They easily navigate through the creative potential of cameras for still and video. If there is a modern equivalent to the old-time theatre it would be short duration videos- funny, fast-paced and imaginative.
I like to get my hands in the dirt. Working in the garden, shovelling manure, makes me aware of the physicality of my existence. I like to get out and walk across the mountains. I like to feel that there is the option to walk to the nearest town at 17km distance instead of taking the car, and do that when I have the time.
These options go hand-in-hand with modernity. They do not defy it. I look for a recipe for cooking the leeks from the garden on the internet. I check the weather on the phone before heading off walking into town. And when I am there I check my email in the café that has wifi. This is part of a modern life.

The question for me is: how do you keep choices open? But I think there is no way back to past cultures.
What do you think?
http://www.summerhilldemocratics.net for more articles about democratic education.

Freedom Not Licence

His is an intellectual approach, while mine is an emotional one. Thus he cannot grasp the difference between freedom and licence, because he is presumably occupied with philosophical ideas of both. He thinks about children; I live with them.

imageNeill is talking about a critic of his school in one of his letters. He wants to get away from intellectual ideas about children. He wants to make it real.

The Summerhill system is based on equality and respect. The basic idea is that no one has the right to decide what someone else should do. Even teachers are not allowed this invasion of a child’s liberty at Summerhill. Everyone has the freedom to do what they like so long as what they do does not impinge on someone else’s freedoms.

For example, you can lie on the grass and stare at the clouds all day. You have the freedom to do this. You cannot, however, play your drumkit at midnight keeping everyone else awake. If you lived on your own desert island there would be no problem, but as soon as you live in community with others you have to start negotiating the boundaries between your freedoms and theirs.

The Meeting at Summerhill is the forum in which these boundary disputes are resolved. And this simple process of living together gives the experience of being at Summerhill its great depth and range. In some senses it is hardly even an education- it is simply living together.

http://www.summerhilldemocratics.net

Swearing: Fornication! Excrement! Micturation!

Swear words are vulgar words because they belong to the language of the common people. A professor says anus, but a navvy says arse. Maybe we should teach our kids to swear politely and shout out Fornication! Excrement! Micturation!

Inside Summerhill there is a relaxed view of swearing. I was talking to a teacher at another democratic school and asked what they would do if a child sweared. He said he would get down to the child’s level and say, “The way you have chosen to express yourself is hurtful to me.”

This not only seems phoney to me, but moralistic. It misses the basic point about Summerhill, which is the equality of adults and children. Adults do not have to pretend in a hypocritical way to be “better” than they actually are in order to instil some false idea of culture, behaviour or social decorum in the children. They can blow away the hypocrisy.

It is perhaps the most challenging part of Summerhill for many adults that the school must make you drop your assumption of superiority as an adult. No, it says, we are all living together. What you want is no more valid than what I want. We are equal.

You can see from the example that Neill gives that vulgar words are vulgar precisely because they belong to the common people. He says the role of school is not to create a superior class.

What do you think the aim of a school should be?

http://www.summerhilldemocratics.net

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Humor denotes equality

Humor denotes equality. Humor is purposely kept out of the classroom because humor is a leveler. Humor would kill the respect the teacher demands because his laughter, mingling with that of his pupils, would make him too human.

Equality is the basis of a democratic school. Neill’s idea of humour (the American spelliimageng above is because the quotation comes from a US edition of Freedom Not Licence) may not be the same as yours, however. In the same book he says you can waste your best jokes on children and they won’t laugh, but they do have a sense of fun: if you slip and fall or do something stupid they will laugh like drains.

A lot of teachers I know mistake their own smart Alec jokes for a sense of humour. The objective here is nicely put: laugh at yourself and let others laugh at you; get down off your high horse; allow yourself to be equal. No one loves a Smart Alec. And if you want to be roundly despised then make sarcastic jokes that belittle the people around you.

http://www.summerhilldemocratics.net

Top Ten for Summerhill Parents

This is my personal top ten for parents. I think giving advice to parents is generally a bad idea (see my previous post) so this is an awareness exercise rather than advice. You could call it Top Ten Warning Signs!

1 Your life revolves around your child? Get a life! It will only do little Johnny good for him to find that you have adult interests (and I don’t mean your work). Here is a healthy picture: Lucy comes in from school and finds her mother busy reading/painting/welding. “Hello dear,” she says. “Do you need anything? I’ll be done in half an hour or so.” Here is an unhealthy picture: Lucy comes in from school and finds her mother sitting in the kitchen waiting for her. “Hello dear,” she says. “How was your day at school? How did the test go? What shall we do together? Would you like to come out to the shops with me? Or I could go to the park with you? I’ve been waiting all afternoon for our special time together.”
2 You don’t expect your child to obey the same rules as everyone else. Give us a break! By rules, I don’t mean etiquette or politeness, I mean reining in downright, aggressive bolshiness. Having a free child does not mean letting that child run havoc, so if you find yourself looking on as he goes around breaking things, invading other people’s space and shouting at strangers, get a grip, remind yourself that he would not get away with any of these things at Summerhill and rein the little fella in. You are not an authoritarian parent because you have reasonable limits. Everyone has different ideas about where those limits are, but if you have arbitrarily decided you are going to have none you are harming yourself, your child and causing the rest of us a great inconvenience.
3 You find yourself trying to “treat” your child. Advanced degrees in parenting simply do not exist, thank god. Some of the most effective parents are those with the least formal education. Some of the worst are the most educated. So, if you find yourself thinking that you could use some subtle reframing to refocus your child’s attention and head off down to the library to read up on hypnotherapy, you are almost certainly barking up the wrong tree. Sometimes it is a tough call being a parent because you do not know what to do. It is much better to be honest about this with your child and yourself than to hide behind psycho-babble.
4 You get involved with her homework. Hey, parent, leave those kids alone! You wouldn’t be reading this list if you were one of those dragon mums who believe that torturing their children into academic success is a good idea. Even without being a dragon mum, however, it is easy to let school anxieties filter into your home life, partly because there is a nasty idea around out there that it is responsible for parents to gang up with their teachers against their own children. I’m going to be quite frank with you here: school sucks. All that measuring and testing is no good for anyone and the LAST thing you want to do is get involved with the whole sick business by helping out with the homework. It is much saner, healthier and, ultimately, productive for home to be a place of refuge from the nonsensical world of school, a place where you offer unconditional love and support, not where you get emotionally invested in the results of every paper, project and test.
5 You have different rules for boys and girls. Tum-ti-tum. It seems a bit late in the day after the sexual revolution to be saying this, and I am not even talking about feminism, but natural fairness. Even Enid Blyton wanted her girls to get their knees dirty and have adventures just like the boys; and her boys were not incompetent little princelings used to being waited on hand and foot. Give yourself a break: your boy’s not going to thank you for turning him into a brat and your girl can go out and do all the things that boys can these days. This includes having a vibrant, varied sex life when she is old enough. This means that fathers should let their little darlings grow up into adults and not hold on to some unrealistic idea of a virginal princess.
6 You are worried what granny or the neighbours might think. What… me? If you protest you don’t care, you may well be protesting too much. It is good and natural to have a reasonable awareness of the opinions and attitudes of others: it helps us to read social cues and behave appropriately in different situations. However, choosing a free path for your children is going to rub a whole bunch of people up the wrong way: authoritarians, moralists, disciplinarians, amateur psychologists, friends and relatives. They don’t always come out and say what they think either, but roll their eyes or give kindly advice. This kind of thing is profoundly annoying. It is probably even more offensive to interfere with someone’s parenting than it is to interfere with their cooking. If you can manage it , the best reaction to both types of interference is sublime indifference. You will have to develop a thick skin.
7 You have an obsession with food and nutrition. There is a shady area between wanting to give your kids good healthy food and controlling everything that goes into their mouths. From a pragmatic point of view, you might want to save yourself some heartache and your child a lot of stress by not making a big deal out of mealtimes. Neill himself had a special recipe for brown bread. I guess most of the kids avoided eating it. You can’t have free kids if you turn yourself into a food fascist; you can’t be free yourself if you are making individual meals for your kid, because he refuses to eat what everyone else is eating. The sensible choice is to put out good food that he can choose to eat or not, but not pander to his whims. He won’t starve and if he wants to live on bread and water for a while, it is not going to kill him. Turning food into a battleground is a disaster: you will end up with deeply entrenched positions.
8 You are campaigning for your child’s disorder. I do not want to deny a child treatment if he has a medical condition. My gut feeling, however, is that quiet parenting is more effective than loud parenting pretty much always. This goes for shouting for kids in public as much as shouting at them. Aside from that, making the whole world look at your kid because he has a condition is a basic failure in good taste that runs the risk of turning him into a primadonna. If you find yourself on a street corner with a megaphone and an embarrassed kid at your elbow, you have let your indignation overcome your common sense.
9 You have to know what she is feeling all the time. No, you don’t. It is an unhealthy, if understandable, illusion that many parents have- feeling that they know what is in their children’s minds. It goes along with a load of other mucky, yucky sentimental nonsense of the Listen-to-Mumsy, Momma-Knows-Best variety. Teachers are susceptible to the same mindreading fantasy. I reckon if I knew that someone could really read my mind I would broadcast hate messages fairly quickly, and, funnily enough….
10 You go around telling people what your child is going to be when they grow up. Neill is my guide on this one. He’d rather have a happy taxi driver than a monstrous tycoon, a happy street sweeper than a neurotic prime minister. This does not mean that encouraging children’s freedom means you are denying them the possibility of successful professional lives. It does mean that you are not emotionally invested in that outcome yourself. When you first hold your baby in your arms do you say to yourself, “And one day this child of mine will be a lawyer”? It sounds lame because it is a pathetic abbreviation of the potential of a child’s life.

This is my own list based on my reading of Neill. I think he felt leaving kids alone was generally a much better option than people credit. I look at kids’ lives today and wonder how they can breathe in the suffocating embrace of school that has spread its tentacles even further into everyday life and new media that squeeze all the imaginative life out of simple play. Yup, I’m a hoary old Romantic who likes the idea of kids playing amongst the trees and getting their hands and faces dirty.

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No Offence Intended….

Earlier today I put up a quotation from Neill that said, if you have a loving home, no four year old is going to be damaged by being told to shut up. Letting your kids run all over you is not freedom, but licence. I talked this over with Carmen, as I usually do, and she ended up saying, “I feel like I have done everything wrong.”

We talked some more and she said, “Really what happens to me is not that I feel that I have done everything wrong. What happens is that I switch between saying to myself, ‘Neill doesn’t know what he’s talking about…’ or ‘That’s because he was a Brit and everyone knows that Brits treat their kids badly’ on the one side, and feeling like I’ve done it all wrong on the other.”

Carmen is unusually intelligent and able to reflect on her emotional states. This means that she can articulate this response to a challenging message clearly and concisely. I wanted to write it down here because it seems to me that Neill is, at times, an offensive humorist. He wants to nettle people, goad them, get them down off their high horses and start thinking about what they are really doing with children. He can be downright outrageous.

The question I have is: how do you change? I don’t think it is a trivial question. I know that my gut reactions usually precede my conscious thought processes and, if I meditate on this a little bit, the consequences are a little appalling. It means that my most brilliant ideas could be after-the-event rationalisations of my feelings about what is right. It also means that I have a built-in mechanism that is highly resistant to change: it tells me that I am right all the time just because I feel it and then provides me with lots of reasons to back me up.

I also have a feeling that saying to someone it is perfectly OK to tell their four year old to shut up is, in one sense, a wasted message. I can’t imagine the mother who allows her child to run around and interrupt her quiet time will change her behaviour and the disciplinarian will just nod his head and send the kid to his room. The person who reads self-help parenting books to find the “right” way to do it, is as likely to be influenced as to go off and find another guru with a different message. The trouble with gurus is they are a dime a dozen.

Who gets the balance right between sloppy stern and over-strict? Who gets the balance right all the time through childhood and into adulthood? Where is that tricky line between letting it all hang out and beating it all back in? It’s a tough job advising parents. You’ve gotta have a hide like an elephant to even try. Then you have to turn a blind eye to your own failings as you open your mouth…

… which is precisely what I plan to do in my upcoming list of Ten!

No Offence Intended….

Earlier today I put up a quotation from Neill that said, if you have a loving home, no four year old is going to be damaged by being told to shut up. Letting your kids run all over you is not freedom, but licence. I talked this over with Carmen, as I usually do, and she ended up saying, “I feel like I have done everything wrong.”

We talked some more and she said, “Really what happens to me is not that I feel that I have done everything wrong. What happens is that I switch between saying to myself, ‘Neill doesn’t know what he’s talking about…’ or ‘That’s because he was a Brit and everyone knows that Brits treat their kids badly’ on the one side, and feeling like I’ve done it all wrong on the other.”

Carmen is unusually intelligent and able to reflect on her emotional states. This means that she can articulate this response to a challenging message clearly and concisely. I wanted to write it down here because it seems to me that Neill is, at times, an offensive humorist. He wants to nettle people, goad them, get them down off their high horses and start thinking about what they are really doing with children. He can be downright outrageous.

The question I have is: how do you change? I don’t think it is a trivial question. I know that my gut reactions usually precede my conscious thought processes and, if I meditate on this a little bit, the consequences are a little appalling. It means that my most brilliant ideas could be after-the-event rationalisations of my feelings about what is right. It also means that I have a built-in mechanism that is highly resistant to change: it tells me that I am right all the time just because I feel it and then provides me with lots of reasons to back me up.

I also have a feeling that saying to someone it is perfectly OK to tell their four year old to shut up is, in one sense, a wasted message. I can’t imagine the mother who allows her child to run around and interrupt her quiet time will change her behaviour and the disciplinarian will just nod his head and send the kid to his room. The person who reads self-help parenting books to find the “right” way to do it, is as likely to be influenced as to go off and find another guru with a different message. The trouble with gurus is they are a dime a dozen.

Who gets the balance right between sloppy stern and over-strict? Who gets the balance right all the time through childhood and into adulthood? Where is that tricky line between letting it all hang out and beating it all back in? It’s a tough job advising parents. You’ve gotta have a hide like an elephant to even try. Then you have to turn a blind eye to your own failings as you open your mouth…

… which is precisely what I plan to do in my upcoming list of Ten!

Oh, shut up!

In a good home- one in which there is no fear- a child of four will not be harmed by being asked to keep quiet.

Freedom, Not Licence

I am working on a list of Ten Misconceptions about Freedom for Children.  I think top of my list is that freedom means a child can do whatever the hell it likes.  Neill never stood for that kind of nonsense.  Parents and teachers can step back and let children grow up by themselves, but there is nothing wrong with telling them to buzz off, shut up or leave you alone… so long as it isn’t mixed up with some moralistic nonsense about Good Behaviour.