Thursday, July 28, 2011

On the Side of the Child: Summerhill Revisited by William Ayers

I chose this book because I wanted a current viewpoint on the work of A.S. Neill, founder of Summerhill school in England. Ayers explains the title of this book in chapter one when he says, “What captured me then, and what has the power to move me now was Neill’s seemingly bottomless commitment to children, his steadfastness and emotional generosity, and his willingness to take the side of the child even, or especially, when doing so seemed more than a little loony.” (4) It is no shock that a character such as Neill would inspire Ayers. His involvement in the Weathermen Underground is testament to Ayer’s attitude that there are times when one must go to extreme measures to rectify the injustices in a society. While Ayers is not perfect, I think he is an outstanding citizen. His work at the University of Illinois Chicago has made up for any past mistakes in my eyes. To call someone who helped blow up government buildings an outstanding citizen may make me a bit “loony”. I feel that way because Ayers, Like A.S. Neill, has moved many teachers (myself included). His work as a teacher educator has inspired those of us “in the trenches” to think seriously about what and how we teach, and despite all odds to not give up.
Having said that, I’ll do my best to sum up what Summerhill school is all about. Neill’s school was a place of love and freedom. He made the school to fit the child. His primary objective was to ensure that the children were happy. Neill believed that discipline problems in a school were the result of unhappy students. He also thought schools should have no form of adult authority. Ayers explains this in saying, “By adult authority, I take him to mean arbitrary or formal authority; moral authority is another matter, and it doesn’t rely on structure for its power…Neill saw Summerhill as a resistance to the sit-down-and-learn crowd and an affirmation of the natural instinct and disposition to learn that is every person’s birthright.” (10, 18) Neill understood that a love of learning is ingrained in all of us. If we trust children to learn on their own they will! At Summerhill teachers are guides, mentors, coaches, and conductors. They take on the role of the student as they try to understand each individual. In contrast to the hierarchy of traditional schools, Summerhill does not follow a top down approach. It is democratically run, which means students preside over their own social lives. It should be noted that Neill wasn’t for spoiling children, but he did think they should be treated as equals to adults.
The last thing I’d like to mention about this book was I appreciated Ayer’s focus on the role of education in making the world a better place. He describes schools as mirrors and windows into society as a whole. If we live in a democracy, then our schools should be democratic. Ayers explained that the goal of schools is to guide children towards restoring a common world. I think I speak for most teachers when I say we are in it to create responsible and charitable citizens, not mindless drones. The time for schools that produce compliant unquestioning factory workers is over. American education needs a makeover, and I’ve got just the outfit: democratic schools.

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