[A board should be set up] to enquire into the upbringing of children. We might call it the Board of Parental Control. It would bring parents before it and examine them. Parents convicted of stupidity would be ordered to hand over their children to a Play-Yard School.
A. S. Neill, A Dominie Dismissed, 1917
Of course, I use this quote as a deliberate provocation. I find it amusing, though there is a hint of seriousness within the tongue-in-cheek writing of the author. I’m gradually working my way through a biography of the pioneering educationalist A. S. Neill and I find myself amazed by what I’m discovering. Neill’s thinking, writing and practice when working with children (going back to the very start of the 20th century) is shot through with respect for the child. I write it this way because I’m aware of the context of the times in which he first practised.
Now, I am not a teacher of children or a parent. That’s my first disclaimer. My next is that I know some excellent parents who truly respect and recognise the freedom taken and needed by their children. My playwork experience in my current thinking is linked with my family experience, and my early years and youth work experience, amongst other things I’ve done and learned. It’s taken a good few years to get to here. I still have things to learn. I also still have some personal concerns about ideas on ‘children’s ways of being’: that is, my ideas on children, their freedom to play, their play, and adults who I might see as trying to control those children, versus the thought that is ‘who am I to tell someone else how to lead a life?’
In juggling these thoughts, I can only bring it back to this: these are my ideas, which I keep testing and refining; who else is coming along with that flow? A. S. Neill’s ideas and experiences are starting to reinforce, and maybe justify, some of my own; or rather, the ideas I have learned, tested, accepted and taken on as a way to be believed in. By extension, some of Neill’s own influences are being thrown into the mix.
In 1917, Neill met an American likemind by the name of Homer Lane. Lane is described (by Jonathan Croall, in Neill of Summerhill: the Permanent Rebel) as a former teacher and Superintendent of Playgrounds in Detroit. Lane came to England and set up what he called ‘the Little Commonwealth’: a self-governed community for so-called delinquent boys and girls, based on a farm in Dorset. Neill, apparently, was greatly impressed by what he saw there.
He later wrote that Lane was ‘the first man who simply said, we don’t know a damn thing about children, let’s observe them, and not force our personalities on them.’
In the hundred years or so since then, there’s still the dominant adult desire to force our personalities, morality, ideas and ways of being onto the children around us. In adults’ care for children, in their love and upholding of children’s ‘best interests’, those adults seem to want to develop those children in their own image. Or, at least, they seem to want to develop them in the image of ‘society’s view of ‘the child’. We are all a part of society. Why are children so often not given the opportunity to be themselves?
I’ve had conversations like these many times before. I was teaching adults once and was shocked to be confronted by a learner whose views took on increasingly agitated and spiteful tones. He accused me of trying to preach ‘liberal, hippy 1970s views’ which were out of tune with how society was or should be. I tried to protest. I said that I didn’t make this stuff up myself, that I was teaching here from the playwork literature. He wouldn’t have it. It knocked me sideways somewhat. I still think about that a few years on. Are some individuals just so ingrained in ‘the way things ought to be’ that children become secondary to it all?
In 1916, Neill wrote (whilst still in a more traditional teaching position): ‘I feel that I am merely pouring water into a sieve. I almost feel that to meddle with education is to begin at the wrong end. I may have an ideal, but I cannot carry it out because I am up against all the forces of society.’ I sometimes feel the same way with regards to playwork practice.
His biographer, Croall, goes on to write: ‘In particular, he found that he was having to come into conflict with parents who still believed in the traditional way of training and punishing a child.’ Neill is quoted as reporting: ‘Many a night I feel disheartened. I feel that I am on the side of the bairns.’
This reminds me of a job I once had in which I was required to undergo a yearly review with the manager of the setting. I worked with children there and I think I was regarded as a bit of an oddity, but tolerated. The manager (who I had a lot of time for, and who is now sadly not with us), would always conclude the meeting with the idea that I was more comfortable in the presence and in the service of the children. It was a backhanded compliment and a way of suggesting I ought to try harder with my colleagues. Her heart was in the right place though! I was, and always have been and always will be, like Neill, on the side of the bairns (that is, the children).
I’m not a teacher of children, and I don’t know if I ever could be (I sometimes imagine what that classroom might look and feel like!), but I have my reservations about some teachers I’ve seen at work: are they truly on the side of the bairns? Like my earlier disclaimer about not being a parent and knowing some good parents, I have also (truly) met some excellent teachers in my time. However, I wonder what teaching might look like if thinking such as Homer Lane’s were to be the norm. Croall writes:
Lane argued forcibly that the traditional form of education based on fear should be abolished. Teachers must stand down from their position of authority, and let children resolve their own difficulties in an atmosphere of encouragement and freedom. ‘Freedom cannot be given,’ he stated. ‘It is taken by the children . . .’
Of course, the fear that was evident in early twentieth century UK classrooms (physical punishment and all) is not seen today. However, I would argue (from my own observation and discussions with some children) that the fear-factor of authority does sometimes play a part. What does this do, potentially, to the children? Authority, taught Homer Lane, is the fundamental problem of society. Liberal, hippy 1970s views? Liberal, hippy pre-1920s views?
When all is said and done, we adults should be taking a good long hard look at ourselves. In balancing up ‘these are my ideas and understanding from experience and reading’ versus ‘who am I to tell others how to be?’, I err on the side of the former here. We adults (whether we’re parents, non-parents, teachers, any of us who know or could have influence over children), are part of our society — as indeed are those children, let’s not forget. If we cannot, or will not, respect the child and the children around us for who they are, then we are the ones who ought really to undergo some education, not the children.
‘Adults’, writes Croall of Homer Lane, ‘should both trust and revere the nature of children.’