Education Opinion

Summerhill & I

By Diane Ravitch — July 08, 2008 5 min read
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Dear Deborah,

You and I do travel in different circles! I have never been to a Summerhillian conference and don’t expect that I ever will be. Somewhere in the core of my being is a staunch resistance to A.S. Neill’s libertarianism as it relates to children. As a parent and as someone who cares deeply about elevating the state of our civilization, I rebel against the idea of letting children decide whether they feel like learning today or any day. I believe that adults must take responsibility for children’s well-being, for their physical and intellectual growth, and that involves setting goals as well as limits, in other words, acting as the grown-up.

It was both enjoyable and painful for me to read Neill’s Summerhill, especially when he described with pride the children who had not had a single lesson for years because they preferred to hammer or do something else of their own choosing that was more fun. I have trouble imagining that our civilization would progress—indeed, I expect it would regress—if no child were ever expected to meet expectations other than those that flow from his or her own wishes and desires.

I recall Neill’s discussion of democracy in his school, where his vote counted for no more than that of any student, regardless of the child’s age. Were we to take him seriously, then we would remove age limitations altogether from the franchise. I think that democracy is challenging enough without giving equal weight to the opinions of 7-year-olds and adults. One presumes, one expects, that there is a threshold of age (and presumed maturity) that everyone must meet before assuming a decision-making role in our society. Some people think that 7-year-olds might do a better job of running the nation than those currently of voting age, but I am not prepared to take that risk!

The discussion of Neill presents a microcosm of debates we have had over many years. I believe in the value of knowing things, and of identifying what those things are. Those “things” should not be the ideas and stuff that interest me as an individual, but the ideas and stuff that are important for all of us to know for our own survival, as individuals and as a society.

Let’s see: I believe in subject matter, because the subjects have evolved over many generations as a useful summary of different and important kinds of knowledge.

I believe that we all need a knowledge of science and mathematics, to allow us to participate in public discussions of public issues, and to enable at least some of us to work in fields in which such knowledge is a prerequisite. Those of us who are not going to become scientists and mathematicians need knowledge of these subjects so we are not excluded from important discussions of topics like climate change, evolution, war and peace, health issues, and so on. We also need to know enough so we are not bamboozled during political campaigns by slick commercials and propaganda.

I believe that we all need a knowledge of history and civics, geography and economics so that we are ready as citizens to understand the questions that regularly confront us as a society. I am particularly zealous about knowing history because it is the source of political intelligence. I feel strongly that we all need to know the meaning and context of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Civil War, the Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Brown decision, Pearl Harbor, the struggle for voting rights, McCarthyism, and so on. When any group of teachers sits down to figure out what is most important for their students to know, it turns out that the topics are not infinite, certainly not in American history.

I recall years ago being interviewed by a writer for Time magazine about the civil rights movement. I mentioned the Plessy decision, and she had never heard of it. I found that incredibly frustrating, because it limited our ability to have an intelligent discussion of the issues at hand.

I could go on with similar explanations of why I believe that the arts and literature should be part of everyone’s education. The arts, especially, demonstrate the need for practice, for self-discipline, and for study with those who are more knowledgeable than students. We do not expect children to teach themselves to play the piano or the saxophone. Perhaps a few have done so, but most need instruction by an experienced teacher.

Sure, there are trade-offs and dilemmas in identifying what we want all children to know. But those trade-offs and dilemmas are small as compared to a society in which there were no guidelines, no attempt to set content standards and goals, no recognition that adults are obliged to develop mutual goals for education.

This conversation, in which we are likely always to disagree, reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from John Dewey. And it gives me a chance to remind you that I do not consider Dewey to be my “nemesis,” as you expect, but that I find much to admire in Dewey. Dewey was no Summerhillian; indeed, the Dewey School in Chicago had a terrific and very specific curriculum.

Dewey wrote in 1926:

There is a present tendency in so-called advanced schools of thought…to say, in effect, let us surround pupils with certain materials, tools, appliances, etc., and then let pupils respond to these things according to their own desires. Above all, let us not suggest any end or plan to the students; let us not suggest to them what they shall do, for that is an unwarranted trespass upon their sacred intellectual individuality…Now such a method is really stupid. For it attempts the impossible, which is always stupid; and it misconceives the conditions of independent thinking. [Any reader of this blog can find the full bibliographic reference on p. 491 of my book Left Back. DR]

Thank you, John Dewey. I could not have said it better myself!


PS: Yes, let’s talk about the 1960s in a future blog. In 1967, when you first became seriously involved in the civil rights movement, I was mourning my son Steven, who died of leukemia at the age of 2 in 1966. I immediately became pregnant again and gave birth to a third child in 1967. Although I participated in the March on Washington in 1963 and was very peripherally involved in civil rights activities, I was a full-time mother then and a part-time writer, trying to figure out what to do with my life when the children were sleeping.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.