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Neill on his birthday

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In the book,  ‘A Dominie in Doubt” Mr A S Neill has more to say about those novel educationalist theories which he has expounded in several irritating and suggestive books”. Thus began a critique publisjed by the Sydney Morning Herald  on 25 December 1920. Neill’s ideas appeared to be ‘outrageous’, the journalist continued.

“His idea is, briefly, fo let a child’ learn what it likes and do what it likes. He believes that in this way better results will be obtained in the long, run than by coercion, for the child will be able to develop individuality. Punishment is tabu; discipline, self imposed. Mr Neill favours the introduction of a sort of Soviet system; let the classes govern themselves’.

Very soon, he says,

a community spirit and  sense of  responsibility will grow; these youthful protagonists will maintain order themselves and will have no mercy on the offender. The boycott, It appears, is the usual penalty for misbehaviour. But if the plan is to succeed the autonomy must be real and not nominal. If the schoolmaster stands as the power in the background, reserving to himself the ultimate right to intervene, the experiment will be disastrous’

A S Neill may not have been an Australian – although that hardly mattered to Herald readers. Happenings in England were often reported in the Australian press as if it was local news. A S Neill’s view, drawn from the work of Freud and August Aichhorn, founder of the first child guidance clinic in Vienna during the 1920s, was that children should be free to develop according to their own inner compulsions. In 1920 Neill was in the process of founding a progressive school, ‘Summerhill‘, in Hellerau, a suburb of Dresden. Its principles were ‘democratic’. Children had the right to decide whether to attend lessons, whether to play and what to learn. Very soon after its opening, Neill became disillusioned, forming the view that the school was being  run by idealists.  They ‘disapproved of tobacco, foxtrots and cinemas’, he said. He wanted the children to live their own lives:

Summerhill School I am only just realising the absolute freedom of my scheme of Education. I see that all outside compulsion is wrong, that inner compulsion is the only value. And if Mary or David wants to laze about, lazing about is the one thing necessary for their personalities at the moment. Every moment of a healthy child’s life is a working moment. A child has no time to sit down and laze. Lazing is abnormal, it is a recovery, and therefore it is necessary when it exists. Summerhill School

In 1923 Neill moved the school to England; first to a house called ‘Summerhill’ in Lyme Regis and from there to Leiston in the County of Suffolk where it has just celebrated the 90th anniversary of its founding. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/aug/19/summerhill-school-at-90?INTCMP=SRCH

Why put this all on a page about psychoanalysis in an Australian context? Well first, Freud’s ideas were becoming more widely known – at least amongst middle class educated people; readers or regular attenders at meetings of the Australasian Association of Philosophy and Psychology. Neill’s ideas were drawn from Freud’s  and Reich’s notions of the developing ego within the child as he or she mastered their more primitive impulses as they grew and developed. His belief was that given a secure and respectful setting, the child would find their own pathway to development in a positive way, rather than repressing the true self as an adaptation to the demands and constraints of the adult world.

Freud’s ideas were moving beyond his small circle of followers, were being taken up by people who found in his work an echo of their own thinking. Neill’s was an exciting experiment and, if the students who passed through his school are to be believed ( and why not?) a successul one.