Prologue: Summerhill


"Summerhill began as an experimental school.
It is no longer such; it is now a demonstration school, for it demonstrates that freedom works."

A. S. Neill


Summerhill is a small private school in Great Britain.  It was founded by A. S. Neill in 1921 and since that time has served as a clear and compelling demonstration of the full range of choices that could and should be offered within our system of public education.  At Summerhill there are no required classes, no tests, no grades or grade cards.  Students are given complete freedom to decide what they want to learn and when they want to learn.  Some students have gone months or even years without taking any classes at all, yet numerous studies and reports indicate that the graduates of Summerhill have led happy and productive lives.  Even allowing for a good measure of skepticism, it must be admitted that Summerhill’s students have suffered no apparent harm or been handicapped in any way by the freedom they were given and may very well have benefitted from the self-directed nature of their educational experience. 

Within our public school system the option of an education based on the Summerhill philosophy could be made available by offering students and parents a full range of meaningful choices.  Students should be able to attend any public school within their home state.  A variety of programs should be offered within each school.  We should award different types of diplomas or certification (college prep, a standard diploma, a certificate of completion, etc.), with at least one form of certification that involves fewer required classes and fewer requirements within classes, thereby allowing students more time for self-directed learning.  Students should also be allowed to take classes without seeking a diploma.  They should have the option of taking classes without being graded, or to be graded on the basis of exhibitions of mastery.  Students should be allowed to choose their teachers.  The option of attending regular classes at different times of the day, as well as attending part time should be offered, especially to older students who are working during the school year.  We should repeal compulsory attendance laws and remove the age limits on attending public schools without charge. 

While some parents and educators might react with horror to the idea of students being given this much freedom to determine the nature of their educational experiences, Summerhill offers compelling evidence that allowing students to direct their own course of study is not as crazy as it might seem to some people.  It is highly unlikely that many parents would be willing to grant their children the amount of freedom given to students at Summerhill.  Many parents might be interested in having their children educated in an environment that is less restrictive than the one that is presently in place, while stopping short of the Summerhill approach.  Other options, including the status quo, should continue to be available for those parents who want a more structured educational experience for their children. 

We must accept the fact that students differ greatly with regard to their needs and interests, their academic abilities, the degree to which they are motivated to pursue a formal education, their learning styles, and their goals.  Rather than waste time and energy trying to agree on a single system or approach, we should simply agree to disagree.  Within and beyond a course of study designed to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to be an effective citizen within a democracy, we should allow students to select the educational experiences that most effectively address their individual needs and interests.  We should allow students choices that are right for them from a range of options representing the full spectrum of educational philosophies and practices (and their parents) to make the choices that are right for them from a range of options representing the full spectrum of educational philosophies and practices.