A sense of Summerhill

Pradita Nambiar

“The future of Summerhill itself may be of little import. But the future of the Summerhill idea is of the greatest importance to humanity. New generations must be given the chance to grow in freedom. The bestowal of freedom is the bestowal of love. And only love can save the world.”A S Neill, Summerhill

It was more than 20 years ago, when at a dinner at my friend’s place I was whining about the kind of education that my children were getting. All the competitiveness and the constant necessity to meet the standards of excellence was robbing my children of their childhood. My friend pulled out a book from her shelf and placed Summerhill by A S Neill in my hand. She said reading it would give me some hope in education. The book catapulted me into another realm where there was abundant respect and limitless love for the lives of children.

Summerhill, a school in England that has inspired many similar schools in the world, celebrates its centenary this year (2021). The Summerhill method of education as described in the book remained etched in my imagination since then, hoping that someday I would be able to give my children the opportunity for this kind of education.

Years later when I joined Vidyaranya High School, Hyderabad as a teacher, I realized that my dream of being in a Summerhill environment was being concretized. Summerhill had been one of the books recommended for the teachers in this school to read, including works by J Krishnamurti, John Holt and Sybil Marshall. This article is an attempt to look at spaces that are like Summerhill – islands of happiness and joy for the children, teachers and the adult community that interacts with them. Both Summerhill and Vidyaranya believe that education is not just an intellectual endeavour, on the contrary, regard the dichotomy of the emotional and intellectual as fallacious and problematic.

Naina, the high school English teacher of more than 20 years, recounts one of her initial interactions with (late) Shanta Rameshwar Rao, the founder and former principal of Vidyaranya. Shantamma was no authority to be feared and she shocked parents and teachers by breaking the stereotypes that most people held of a principal, as someone who is stern and a moral disciplinarian.

Naina was then a new teacher and she was unclear by what name she should address the principal. Shantamma replied, “I have a beautiful name Shanta and you could call me by that name or you could call me as Shantamma like many others in school call or even Shantattamma to people who feel close to me. By the way what did you call the principal of the school that you worked before in?” Naina replied that she used to call her as Madam. Shantamma’s immediate response was that she definitely did not want to be called Madam as it reminded her too much of a madam in a brothel.

A S Neill wrote about bundles of insincerity and the unreal politeness and phony manners in people who called him ‘Sir’. He was of the opinion that most of the deference is actually fear masquerading as respect and when children experience fearlessness of authority, then they are able to think without fluster or hate. It is then that sincerity comes shining through.

At an interview with a prospective parent, Shantamma asked what books they read. The young parents in their attempt to impress the 70 year old principal said that the father reads ‘Self-help’ books and the mother ‘the religious’ ones. Shantamma looked at them and asked with a serious face, “Have you seen Munnabhai?” It was a Bollywood film that was making waves for its Gandhigiri during those days. The parents were shocked. She said with a smile that even at the age of 70 she neither reads religious books nor the self-help ones.

Naina shared another episode where a decision had to be made to take in a child or not in the high school. Naina after reading a sample of the child’s writing said we could teach the child to write better. Pat came Shantamma’s reply “Or the child could teach you!” There clearly was friendliness and laughter in her jokes with no sarcasm or derision.

The concept of a democratic school is as much a necessity for the educators as much as it is for the children for how can a school be democratic for the children if the adults in it do not have professional autonomy?

The practice of prescribed textbooks has had an impact on the rights of teachers to create a curriculum that suits the needs of young learners that they specifically work with. In most schools curriculum decisions and even specific plans are handed down to the teachers thereby stripping the teachers of their autonomy even in their instructional practices.

I would like to share a couple of stories from the teachers of this school, who exercise meaningful control over their own work and thereby extends to the democratic learning of the children. Aparna, a science teacher at the school, shares that she often tells children to do some self study. It was one such instance, when she had shown the model of a skeleton in the biology laboratory to the children, they had many questions on what they saw. She then told them that they could do the reading from the book and come to their own understanding. Subsequently, the parents of that specific cohort approached the office to inform that the teacher had asked the children to learn on their own and had not read the text and explained it in class. She later addressed the practice of self-study to the parents at the parent-teacher meeting. She drove home the point that children’s interest in the skeletal system was aroused when they saw the model in the laboratory and they had learnt what they wanted to learn. A S Neill writes in his book, “Only pedants claim that learning from books is education.” Aparna laughs and tells me, “Aren’t children learning independently today? The COVID situation has given a chance at independent learning for all children, which shows they are capable of being responsible for their own learning.”

The staff room in schools is a very important space for teachers to share their exasperations, reflections, moments of truth and thereby feel a sense of connectedness. The non-hierarchical structure in Vidyaranya with no heads-of-departments and the principal and headmistress sitting amongst the teachers reveals a lot about how autonomy is valued and decisions are made in this community. A S Neill describes the importance of an atmosphere of love and friendliness in the staff room.

“In most schools where I have taught, the staff room was a little hell of intrigue, hate and jealousy. Our staff room is a happy place. The spites so often seen elsewhere are absent. Under freedom, adults acquire the same happiness and goodwill that the pupils acquire. Sometimes, a new member of our staff will react to freedom very much as children react.”

In these and in many other ways the convergence of the idea of Summerhill and Vidyaranya is real and striking. This recounting is an attempt to build a collective memory of the many more democratic schools where teachers are working to enable the children to grow up with love, compassion and a sense of responsibility.

With inputs from Aparna Mishra and Naina Joseph, teachers at Vidyaranya High School.

The author is a teacher at Vidyaranya High School, Hyderabad. She is a volunteer for the Summerhill Festival of Childhood which is scheduled to be held in Suffolk in August 2022. She can be reached at pradita_n@yahoo.com.

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