Education Letter to the Editor

Summerhill Redux

October 08, 2004 2 min read
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Summerhill Redux

As an ex-Summerhillian, I appreciate the opportunity to read a reasonably balanced article on the school [“Free for All,” May/June]. I am delighted that it continues to exert a powerful influence on at least a few worthy educators and am continually amazed at how far off the radar it has fallen for most people.

I spoke with Sam Swope at some length during his preparation. On publication, he told me that much of the “alumni section” had been cut. After reading the article, I congratulated him on a well-written piece but expressed disappointment that this section focused on the child who leaves Summerhill without being able to read or write. Certainly that did—and does—happen, but I would guess no more often than at any other school. Ex-Summerhillians are artists, Web designers, small-business entrepreneurs, arts managers, scientists, filmmakers, educators, computer experts, actors, and authors, and many of us have achieved socially recognized levels of success. It is tedious to continually defend the school for its occasional “failures.” I refer other readers to Dane Goodsman’s doctoral dissertation at the University of East Anglia (in the United Kingdom), which followed Summerhill alumni in depth, for a more detailed look at how we’re doing.

Even after 83 years, Summerhill has much to recommend it. I hope that Sam’s article will reignite interest in my wonderfully unique school.

Martha Neighbors
Summerhill Student, 1969-74
New York City

As a student of education theory and a researcher and participant of free schools, I was delighted to see the topic of Summerhill addressed in Sam Swope’s article. Sam did a nice job describing his relationship to the Summerhill School. He produced a story that made ideas about free schooling accessible to educators who may be unfamiliar and uncomfortable with them.

Two elements of the article that I feel need more clarification are the misleading statement that Summerhill is unread today and the implication that the Summerhill School is an isolated entity. The free school movement, often contemporarily called the democratic school movement, has a dynamic and varied past and present around the world. In North America, this movement reached an apex in the 1960s and ’70s out of a critique of a technocratic society, a critique that is once again finding momentum in the face of rapidly increasing school standardization. The forces of standardization are felt in all aspects of education, including but not limited to testing, larger classes, and greater centralized administration. More and more families and activists are seeking alternatives to these phenomena; as a result, free and democratic schools, and books about them, are on the rise.

Sarah Anne Mills
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada


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