Summerhill

1 08 2010

I’m living at Camphill! I’ve been here for eight hours, and so far: people are super nice and exciting, food is incredible, and laughter is abundant. I’m listening to Van Morrison, Gov’t Mule, etc. To consider what exactly I’m listening to, my house leader put it this way: music out of a box, music that is not live, we’re not actually listening to music, we’re listening to electrical waves, sound converted into electric signals. The difference between live music and pre-recorded music is the difference between your body and the reflection of your body in a mirror—you don’t look at a mirror and say “that’s me”. Doesn’t mean a radio is BAD, no no no, it’s just to be aware of what we’re playing with here.

Before we get more into Camphill…

I’ve been reading the book Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood, by A.S. Neill, describing the school he founded in 1921, still running today. The book has greatly affected my thoughts on treating people, especially children.

The school is FREE (not in cost, in action). Students (age six to eighteen) choose for their selves if they want to go to class, or play. If they want to build a bike shed, they organize themselves and build it. If they want to break windows, they break windows. This school functions with happy happy people, based on the idea that if children are allowed to play as children, or rebel as children, they will be able to work, SINCERELY, when they are older. A healthy childhood, being allowed to  live as one chooses, with or without table manners, being accepted and appreciated UNCONDITIONALLY, fosters genuine lives.
Neil frequently discriminates between freedom and license. Children have the freedom to make a ruckus at midnight, and the adults sleeping downstairs have the freedom to walk upstairs, explain how disruptive and inconsiderate the kids are being, and request the kids be quiet. When adults do not play the “authoritarian”, they become equals, and children grow up without fear, without low self-esteem, and with an undeniable confidence in their self and their peers, regardless of their age.

This is a brief summary. I HIGHLY encourage you to read this book, or any of Neill’s work, especially if you have, or are considering / planning on having, children. (His writing is very fluent and in-joy-able.)

Main points: the happiest people will have a community that

  • acknowledges them as equals, not as inferiors or subjects to be controlled, or to follow orders
  • accepts and appreciates them
  • does not force ways of action, but explains why some actions are encouraged and others aren’t
  • allows them to act as they want to act, and feel and think as they feel and think, never making the person “in the wrong” for how they are, at any given time
  • very importantly: be aware of every individual situation INDIVIDUALLY, and be prepared to break your own rules when you feel it may help

I believe if we each work to incorporate those points into our every day interactions with every person we encounter, we’ll engender more love, less coercion, more self-willed creativity, and less fear.

It is Neill’s belief that unhappiness is a dis-ease, the primal dis-ease, and it can be cured.

The solution is more love, not less.

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7 responses

3 08 2010
Joey

This feels a bit nit-picky, but w/e:
I think sometimes some people do look in the mirror and say “that’s me.” Just like sometimes people associate their self with their physical substance, sometimes they associate it with their physical appearance (although both would be mistaken to the Buddha), even if that physical appearance is just a reflection on a two-dimensional surface. Whether or not someone would say “that’s me” depends on the person and the context. So for me (and most importantly my Wittgenstein influence), I don’t buy the proposition that “music out of a box, music that is not live, we’re not actually listening to music.” I would say that it is still music, but perhaps with less utility/value (in some ways, and likely more utility/value in other ways). I would disagree that the live nature is an essential quality of music; instead, I would emphasize the rhythm, melody, expression of self, and the ability for others to groove along and enjoy. Where would we be without the beautiful sounds of those who played in times/spaces that I couldn’t enjoy live? I think your house leader is simply expressing his/her value in live music, pointing out the negative characteristics of “artificial” music, and emphasizing these two points of view. Phrased like that, it is easy to compare our own values, rather than feeling oppressed by the idea that what we call music isn’t “real music” in some way.

4 08 2010
Daniel

Stephen (my current house leader) was not making a value judgment on pre-recorded music vs. music echoing out of a guitar; he was simply describing, rather accurately, the difference between what enters our ears.

From a guitar, there are echoes and reverberations and waves DIRECT from the instrument. From a stereo, there are sound waves from instruments TRANSLATED into electrical signals. We receive the electrical signals, and call it music. And well we should! The biggest difference, I reckon, is from a stereo, the music cannot change. Live, the way we move our bodies and glance and speak and think, those waves DIRECTLY affect the music.

I said “we’re not actually listening to music”, but that is nit-picky. We can call it music, and we can call our neighbor whistling music; Stephen was just making me aware of the difference, electrical waves from a box, and perhaps etheric? spiritual? life-purpose-willing? from the whistling. call them whatever you want; still, there IS a difference. They’re both “real” (shit, what isn’t?), they’re just different.

Stephen did make a value judgment when he said “I don’t like when people listen to headphones”, because he has seen people walk by some one in pain because they had headphones on, and weren’t aware of their surroundings, weren’t aware of their neighbor in trouble because they were shutting out their sounds.

We can groove to a stereo, and we can groove to the crickets. They’re both real, they’re both great! Being aware of their differences can help us make informed decisions of what we’d prefer listening to, at any given time, fully appreciating that different things are good for different times. And with that, I’m going listen to the “music” of my dreams. Goodnight.

8 08 2010
Bonnie Baseman

Hi Dan! What a great job for you! It sounds like an excellent place to explore and grow. I read Summerhill in 1968 when I was in college. Consider this: giving children the freedom you describe is a wonderful concept but I think that you must also give them a base of experience and knowledge to help them make their decisions. It is a matter of disclosure. I know religious Jews who teach their children only the Jewish life, nothing secular. They have a warm and loving family and community. But they have no exposure to anything else… How did their parents choose this for them? Their parents grew up in the US and went through public school and higher education; they choose for themselves based on their wide experiences. I worry about their children and now grandchildren. I don’t think it is a matter of right and wrong but a matter of filling ones self with the possibilities and drawing your own conclusions as best you can. More later…

8 08 2010
Daniel

Thanks Bonnie! I agree with you very much, encouraging children to become aware of multiple possibilities is much healthier than forcing ONE WAY and only ONE WAY. Exposure is a fantastic thing. What Neill repeats throughout the book is that OVERexposure is not fantastic; overexposure, without letting the child say “no thanks” after a fair try, is forceful and fascist. (at one point, he remarks: if any government treated its people the way most educational institutions treat our children, they’d be tried by the UN for huwan rights violations.) Forcing a child to learn math will teach the child they are subservient; and after math class is over, how many of us know how to solve a quadratic equation? If a student WANTS to learn math, they will. A base of introduction is important, but anything more, when the child does not want it, I do not believe will help nurture a child’s soul. If a student is introduced to math, and decides they don’t want to learn any more, that’s fine! Maybe twenty years later, they’ll decide they want to learn math, or maybe they won’t, and maybe they won’t ever need it. If they do need it, a childhood of acceptance, encouragement and love will help foster self-motivation in the person throughout life, so they’ll go and learn math when they need it. At Summerhill, students who want to take the college exams generally pass them after studying for only two years, while public school students are forced to study for seven or eight years before they’re ready. Forcing math on a child who CONTINUALLY fails only that class is not a fault of the child, it is a failure of the teacher / educational system to recognize “this child has more important things they ought to devote their energy to (at this current stage in their life) than this subject”. Stress and strain is never healthy. ‘Working hard’ is admired in our culture, but I far more value ‘working easy’. To me, and Summerhill, success is not judged by good grades, but by joy.

From Neill:
“You cannot teach anything of importance. Maths, English, French, yes, but not charity, love, sincerity, balance, or tolerance.”
The most novel, and in my opinion, beautiful, aspect of Summerhill is its purpose: “living first, learning second”.

Teaching children is definitely not a matter of right or wrong, as you say, because right and wrong depend on our temporary culture’s accepted norms and customs. In addition, everything we believe to be “good” or “bad” is a subjective judgment, dependent on ONLY what we’ve experienced through life (and there is always MUCH more to experience that we do not even know about).

Perhaps the greatest gift freedom brings is subjective sincerity. If a parent forces their child to have manners, that child may grow up with manners, but without ever living without manners, their manners will be insincere, for they have not made up their own mind. I believe they will be walking on the dotted line, but always (at least subconsciously) desiring to step off the line, just to know what it’s like. After a child is allowed, even encouraged! to walk both on AND off the line, they can make a sincere choice, an honest decision, and all their actions following (regarding manners, and probably many other choices) will be confidant, certain, and genuine, as opposed to a robotic obedience.
Freedom teaches responsibility.

8 08 2010
Daniel

I just read, “It is the idea of non-interference with the growth of the child and non-pressure on the child that has made the school what it is.”

I believe Summerhill is the opposite pole of our culture, if our culture is taken to it’s fullest extent. Our culture is generally “do as you are told, do what every one else does, fall in line, good, good, say yes, good”. Summerhill is (essentially) total freedom. Maybe there is a healthier medium, a more balanced center, a model school that is somewhere closer to Summerhill, but with other flavors and notions…

fortunately, there are a LOT of alternative schools, and we need NEVER settle for the status quo, especially when / because our status quo is dis-ease-d.

peace be the journey. keep eyes and mind open, and remember, while we look around, we do not need to search on the other side of the fence, for it all happens here now. easy flowing.

15 08 2010
Al Mollitor

Well, if I had just invested a day of hard labor, blood, sweat and tears installing a beautiful window and some kid decided to express his personhood by throwing a rock through it I would certainly feel my earthly ‘attachment’ to that window had been violated. But then, I don’t yet know much about the Camphill way.

15 08 2010
Daniel

Neill (the author) absolutely describes his personal difficulties in not yelling at children. Still, he believes reprimands during childhood lead to an unhealthy adulthood.

Summerhill School is a school in England, and a book I read as I entered Camphill. In Camphill, dealing with adults with mental disabilities, I think breaking a window would result in punishment, perhaps loss of privileges, etc. Two different organizations, both with the name Hill. Sorry for the confusion.

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