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A. S. Neill (1883–1973)

Early Life and Career, Significance to Education

Alexander Sutherland Neill flouted educational convention with utopian faith in individuals' ability to direct their own learning. His romantic Progressive beliefs concerning students' rights and freedoms, his refusal to conform to popular moral and intellectual standards, and his emphasis on social and character development led him to found his own school, Summerhill, in 1921. Neill's radically humanistic, Freudian-based work later joined with Jean-Jacques Rousseau's natural philosophy to greatly influence the free/alternative schools movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Early Life and Career

A. S. Neill was born in Forfar, Scotland. Working as a pupil teacher in his father's school, Neill's experiences as a young educator were colored by traditional educational expectations: strict discipline, teacher-centered learning practices, and excessive control. At the age of twenty-five, Neill enrolled in Edinburgh University, where he studied English and later became a journalist. In 1915, while working as headmaster, or dominie, at a small school in Scotland he wrote the first book in his Dominie series, A Dominie's Log. This five-book series, which also included A Dominie Dismissed (1917), A Dominie in Doubt (1921), A Dominie Abroad (1923), and A Dominie's Five (1924) represented Neill's informal diary interspersed with stories and observations of people, places, and adventures. Most importantly, Neill used the series to explore his thoughts concerning freedom and children–chronicling dramatic transformation in his own ideology from his early teaching experiences.

Although Neill's vocabulary in A Dominie's Log connected to traditional psychoanalysis, it was not until he visited "Little Commonwealth," educator Homer Lane's community for delinquent adolescents, that he became familiar with the work of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. There, Lane introduced Neill to Freud's New Psychology, to the notion that children possessed innate goodness, and to the pedagogical practice of student self-government. Neill's emerging understanding of education seemed to be heavily influenced by other psychologists of his time as well, including Wilhem Stekel and Wilhem Reich.

Dissatisfied with traditional schooling–with its lack of freedom, democracy, and self-determination–Neill began searching for a place to establish his own school and to experiment with his developing ideas. In 1921 Neill became involved as co-director of the Dalcroze School in Hellerau, a suburb of Dresden, Germany. Part of an international school called Neue Schule, the Dalcroze supported the study of Eurythmics. Yet despite the school's bohemian atmosphere, Neill soon began to feel that the staff was more interested in education than children, and that the conflict between freedom and rigor was untenable. Additionally, the political climate after World War I caused financial difficulties for many of his students' families and contributed to feelings of anti-Semitism. When parents began removing their children from the school Neill decided it was time to leave Germany.

Once again, Neill was off in search of a site for his experimental educational venture. Neill, together with Lillian Neustatter (who later became Neill's first wife), opened a school in a scenic Austrian mountaintop town called Sonntagsberg. However, conflicts with townspeople over the teaching of religion combined with financial difficulties caused Neill to dismantle the school and renew his search for a suitable location.

Significance to Education

By 1923 Neill had returned to England, to the town of Lyme Regis in the south, to a house called Summerhill. There, he re-established his experimental school and enrolled a variety of so-called problem children in Summerhill. In 1926 Neill departed from his Dominie series and wrote The Problem Child. In this book, Neill clarified his ideology of freedom as a protest of his experiences both as a child and as a pupil teacher. As a result of this publication, Summerhill garnered greater attention and more students.

The school moved in 1927 to Leiston in the county of Suffolk, which would continue to be its location into the twenty-first century. Despite the move, Neill's ideals and aims remained firm: allowing children freedom to grow emotionally; offering children power over their own lives; giving children the time to develop naturally; and creating a happier childhood by removing fear of and coercion by adults. Summerhill offered numerous activities to help students work toward the above aims. In particular, students took part in private lessons or therapy sessions with Neill. Moreover, students participated in Schulgemeinde, or weekly community meetings designed to help them define limits and establish community rules. Following the lead of Homer Lane, Neill viewed these meetings as a way for children to transfer their emotions onto the community. Because freedom and self-determination were of utmost priority, the learning of lessons became a necessary concession at Summerhill. As such, Neill was less concerned with hiring teachers with strong pedagogical skills than he was with hiring teachers who cared about children and who followed the aims and vision of Summerhill.

Neill's first wife, Lillian, died in April 1944. Soon after her death, Neill married Ena Wood, and together they oversaw Summerhill until Neill's death in 1973. Upon his second wife's retirement in 1985, Zoe Readhead, the daughter of A. S. Neill and Ena Neill, took over as headmistress of Summerhill.

Critics argue that A. S. Neill interpreted education in an overly romantic and apolitical fashion, suggesting that offering a stimulating environment with minimum direction was not a proper way to run a school. Also under review are Neill's beliefs about his Freudian-based pedagogy as well as those concerning the innate goodness of children. Despite his critics, Neill's book Summerhill (1962) gained him a worldwide audience.


CROALL, JONATHAN. 1983. Neill of Summerhill. New York: Pantheon.

HEMMINGS, RAY 1972. Fifty Years of Freedom: A Study of the Development of the Ideas of Alexander Sutherland Neill. London: Allen and Unwin.

LAMB, ALBERT. 1992. Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood. New York: St Martins.

NEILL, ALEXANDER SUTHERLAND. 1928. The Problem Child (1926). London: McBride.

NEILL, ALEXANDER SUTHERLAND. 1937. That Dreadful School. Middlesex, Eng.: Jenkins.

NEILL, ALEXANDER SUTHERLAND. 1968. Summerhill (1962). Middlesex, Eng.: Penguin.

NEILL, ALEXANDER SUTHERLAND. 1972. Neill, Neill Orange Peel. New York: Hart.

NEILL, ALEXANDER SUTHERLAND. 1975. A Dominie's Log (1916). New York: Hart.



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