The paradox of school

There was a news report recently where 24 students at a Virginia high school were suspended for wearing clothing that had the confederate flag on them, violating school policy. This is just one of many, many incidents where school officials crack down on student speech that violate some school policy or norms or just good taste.

This illustrates a fundamental paradox of school. It is my firm belief that whatever we teachers may be teaching as content, we also should be teaching students how to function well in a democratic society. That has to be a permanent subtext to all our efforts at all levels of the educational system. But in reality, schools are one of the most authoritarian institutions we have, where teachers and administrators lay down rules and regulations and students are expected to unquestioningly follow them and are punished if they don’t.

I understand that many of these rules arise from a genuine desire to protect students from controversy, to maintain a calm environment, and avoid having students subjected to offensive speech. But how can we avoid the paradox of having students spend the formative years of their lives in a highly authoritarian system and then think that they can make a smooth transition to being engaged citizens of a democratic society? What schools currently do is reward conformity and blandness. Should we be surprised if as adults they continue that pattern, with most not challenging the status quo and shunning political engagement and activism?

In my ideal world students would be allowed to say anything, either verbally or in the form of clothing, that they are allowed to say in the outside world. When some use that freedom to make provocative or controversial or offensive messages, those occasions would be taken as teaching moments, to be used have discussions about the issues raised. For example, when students wear confederate flag clothing, that could be used to discuss the background to the flag and why some see it as symbol of pride and others as a symbol of hatred. That is the discussion that goes on in the world outside school and surely we should be enabling our students to knowledgeably participate in that broader discussion instead of trying to shield them from it.

There are some obvious problems with my idealized world. Students being adolescents may try to test the limits of the freedoms they are given by (say) saying or wearing statements that are crude or racist or sexist or otherwise extremely offensive. Would such actions completely derail the teaching of the more mundane curriculum? Maybe. But in the outside world things don’t come to a halt because people are exercising their freedom of speech in ways that are extreme. We have learned how to live with it, at least for the most part. It may be that after pushing their freedom to the extreme and getting no major reaction, students will get bored with the whole thing and it will drop to a low level of statement making.

It would be nice to test this theory out in an actual school where students are given such freedom just to see what happens, like what educator A. S. Neill did with his Summerhill School founded in 1921 that I was pleasantly surprised to see is still in existence. I read Neill’s book about the school many years ago and was impressed with what he achieved even though the original school had two distinct groups of students that made it challenging. On the one hand were children of parents who genuinely believed in Neill’s model of a school where students were given so much freedom. On the other were ‘difficult’ children who had been expelled from one school after another and their desperate parents saw Summerhill as their last resort and hoped that this school might succeed where all others had failed.

You can read the history of the school here. Its basic philosophy is to give students as much freedom as is consistent with safety.

The important freedom at Summerhill is the right to play. All lessons are optional. There is no pressure to conform to adult ideas of growing up, though the community itself has expectations of reasonable conduct from all individuals. Bullying, vandalism or other anti-social behaviour is dealt with on-the-spot by specially elected ombudsmen, or can be brought to the whole community in its regular meetings.

Summerhill is a happy and caring community that recognises the importance of expressing emotions and learning through feelings. There is a general openness and honesty among the community members. Staff do not use adult authority to impose values and solve problems; these are solved by the individual with the help of friends or ombudsmen or by the community in meetings.

The school’s website says that the number of similar experiments in democratic schooling are growing and exist in other countries as well. I suspect that such experimental schools exist in the US too though I am not aware of any.

I have been in the education world all my life. In my own courses I try to make them as egalitarian as is possible but I am limited by the institutional constrains under which I operate. Although my job has formally been in the tertiary (college) sector, for over a decade I worked closely with teachers in public schools in the secondary sector and saw first hand the kinds of issues they face. It is not easy for them because many of the students arrive at school from home and neighboring environments that are highly challenging, to put it mildly. Most of these students behave excellently but there are some who create problems and the temptation is to crack down on them, issuing harsh punishments such as detention, suspensions, and expulsions in the hope that they will learn to conform. It is a model taken from society where we use the police and the criminal justice system as deterrents to aberrant behavior.

But what if we tried something truly different, especially in some of the so-called difficult schools in the US, something along the lines of the Summerhill model? There were schools that started elsewhere based on that model but Neill himself was concerned that some of these schools got it wrong by confusing freedom with license. As Neill said, “A free school is not a place where you can run roughshod over other people. It’s a place that minimizes the authoritarian elements and maximizes the development of community and really caring about the other people. Doing this is a tricky business.”

It would be interesting to read what the subsequent lives of students who attended Summerhill were like and see how they turned out.


  1. says

    I taught Maths for a year or so at the School Without Walls in Rochester, NY. That was one that was very much influenced by Neill. I think it’s still going and has expanded and moved since my day.
    I think that sort of schooling only (or at least best) works with small classes with parents and staff more committed than they could be with a general adoption.
    By a strange co-incidence I went to ‘high-school’ near Leiston (where Sumerhill is), had a girl friend in Westlton and vaguely knew as couple of kids from the school.
    btw have you read Neill’s The Last Man Alive it’s a sort of science fiction story he wrote with input from the kids. You might enjoy it, it has an amusing and quite logical ending (IIRR I read it 40 years ago!!!)

  2. lanir says

    Schools exist to teach young people how to function in society. For far too many adults it’s apparently a very small jump to go from deciding what would be useful for the young people themselves to what sort of education would best serve the interests of their elders.

    One of the most toxic examples of this is nationalism and hyper-patriotism movements but modern corporate equivalents like Microsoft buying their way into the classroom aren’t much better.

    I think until we’re willing to collectively condemn this approach where adults tell themselves it’s okay to treat young people like Pavlov’s dogs rather than human beings with their own thoughts, needs, and desires we’ll continue to see authoritarianism popping up in schooling. Until these things are widely recognized as the despicable sort of manipulation they are, it’s profitable for people to engage students in this way and that mindset promotes treating them in authoritarian ways.

  3. Kilian Hekhuis says

    “In my ideal world students would be allowed to say anything, either verbally or in the form of clothing, that they are allowed to say in the outside world.” -- the biggest problem being that the outside world is much larger, and non-compulsory. In the outside world, you can try to avoid people that try to be provocative. In school, no such luck.

  4. atheistblog says

    I disagree. Comparing schools as 1984 story is just too much exaggeration. First of all, schools are schools, not colleges or universities. If you think schools are authoritarians, then what would you call military life ? Military schools, maritime schools ? Civilians can study in maritime schools, if they don’t serve they have to pay back the tuition fee. Schools need to have discipline, how much discipline is needed, how much is good, how much is bad, must be discussed in civil societies. But call schools as authoritarian is abusing and diluting the word authoritarian.
    Authoritarian words can be used for Religious schools, but we don’t and as a society we are ok with it, because they are private schools. Why public schools are exempt from discipline ? Bullies is the words exclusively belongs to public schools.
    Give uniform to public school children, that’s the best way to maintain uniformity in school. Children should have absolute freedom like adults is ridiculous, as a parent we don’t treat children as adult, why should schools treat them as adult. How much control is too much is up for discussion and must be discussed, but children should be treated as adult is stupid.
    In west children as treated as adult, bullies are never disciplined, in the east children are abused in the name of discipline, why can’t there be a middle ground ?
    First of all these anti-bully campaign never gonna give any better result, children are children, they are growing up learning, it will work after they grow up learning.
    Schools children should be treated as adult is just nonsense. What are the rules and regulations of the schools ought to be must be discussed by the adults, not children. Bringing guns, bringing hatred dress are just appalling. This is the problem with US schools, they don’t teach anything about world, world religion, world culture, they are just ignorant idiots, why because schools are not treated as learning center, but looked up on as somehow modified madrassa. Just non-sense.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I strongly disagree with @5 about anti-bullying campaigns. I think that they can be and have been extremely effective. In the west it used to be thought that bullying was “just what kids do” and that they would eventually grow out of it. Now it is being seen as completely unacceptable — but rather than just handing out discipline, the best programs try to look for the root of the problems, as well as trying to give students who might before have been disapproving bystanders the tools to show their disapproval.

    The current students I’m seeing now are more tolerant, more empathetic, and kinder than any I’ve seen earlier, and I give these campaigns a lot of the credit.

  6. lanir says

    @5 atheistblog: “Bullies is the words exclusively belongs to public schools.” This is a false statement.
    The word “authoritarian” and related words are used to describe schools because they accurately describe the way authority is used in those settings: arbitrarily, with little or no oversight or recourse for appeal, often accompanied by punishments that exist for their own sake using methods to modify human behavior that are simply known not to work. Even your own attitude of not caring what the kids think, let the adults decide everything on their own is authoritarian. Certainly living under military discipline or under a fascist regime are more extreme examples of authoritarianism but they are not the only varieties of it. Acting as though only the worst examples of a thing are truly that thing is not a coherent argument and it’s often made in bad faith.

  7. Nick Gotts says

    I don’t have immediate references, but I’ve seen interviews with alumni of Summerhill; all those interviewed (and of course these may not be a representative sample) seemed to be living reasonably happy and productive lives, in a range of occupations; and spoke positively of their time there. But almost all of them would have come from quite affluent backgrounds (Summerhill being a fee-paying school), although in some cases with family problems andor a record of behavioural problems pre-Summerhill.

  8. mnb0 says

    “students are expected to unquestioningly follow them”
    Maybe that’s the problem? When a student on my school repeatedly breaks rules we take him/her apart and explain extensively why we have that rule and why breaking it is a problem. He/she gets the opportunity to question the rule too, to criticize the teacher and to defend him/herself. It doesn’t always work, but surprisingly often.
    And yes, it has happened that I have adapted my attitude due to remarks of students more than once.

    “issuing harsh punishments such as detention, suspensions, and expulsions in the hope that they will learn to conform”
    I always begin with soft punishments. In 9 out of 10 cases that is enough, because the student understands that he/she has crossed a line and will face harsher punishments if he/she continues. I am willing to hand out harsh punishments, but only if other actions don’t work. As a result I only have to do it two, three times a year (though in my first two years, when I had not earned respect yet, I had to do it far more often).

  9. doublereed says

    There’s definitely issues with school authoritarianism. Some have tried to do odd tracking systems to determine truancy, or using biometric scanners to try to improve some efficiency or something. This could make kids and people more willing to give up their privacy and biometric information in real life.

    I’ve come to believe that one of the primary reasons for adolescent rebellion is ephebephobia. The fact is that society treats teenagers as untrustworthy, stupid, and naive. They might be to a certain extent, but society frankly takes it too far. This is during a period of development where people have a much better bullshit detector than ever before. They might not be able to tell what you’re lying about, but they’re not bad at figuring out when they’re being lied to. Of course they’re going to rebel. Society treats them like children and they’ve finally realized just how much Society is full of shit.

  10. says

    What schools currently do is reward conformity and blandness. Should we be surprised if as adults they continue that pattern, with most not challenging the status quo and shunning political engagement and activism?

    The problem I always have with statements like this is that allowing children to dress however they want does little toward challenging the status quo. The children in your example are likely an example of this. You don’t honestly think they’re wearing clothing depicting the Confederate battle flag out of “challenging the status quo”? No, I suspect it is much more the opposite that they are conforming to their environment (the one outside of school).

    I will admit that this may be a bit of a straw man. I do suspect that you are not limiting your objections to just a dress code, but, even so, I don’t think the loosening of rules in general accomplishes your goal. I think students need to be directed into challenging the status quo by teachers.

    For example, when students wear confederate flag clothing, that could be used to discuss the background to the flag and why some see it as symbol of pride and others as a symbol of hatred.

    OK, so it was a straw man…if only I had read on, instead of pausing to object. But that does go to my point — someone needs to drive such a discussion; it doesn’t necessarily happen “organically.” Too often I have heard people suggest that looser rules will just lead to such discussions. I don’t buy it, and I’m now glad to see that may not be what you were saying.

    Would such actions completely derail the teaching of the more mundane curriculum?

    Well…we could start having school year-round. Maybe the curriculum could be spread out a little more to allow for this.

  11. says

    My son is currently attending Summerhill and I work at a small non-profit aiming to promote freedom in education. To my best knowledge we have about 300 open schools in the world influenced by A.S. Neill and Summerhill experience or in a broader sense by humanistic philosophy, child rights movement, child psychology research.

    Most prominent school built on a very similar philosophy in the US is very likely to be Sudbury Valley School:

    I do not agree we observe a paradox here though.

    US Department of Education mission statement says “ED’s mission is to promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness […]”. That’s just one example, but it is also a very influential one. The ultimate top-down mission here is to create highly competitive (in the economic, business sense) units that would outperform anyone in the world.

    It says nothing about happiness, self-actualisation, about being physically or mentally healthy, living longer, having healthy families, fair or transparent democratic society -- because all of that is secondary.

    You don’t aim at it -- you don’t have it, there is no paradox.

    Schools are factories aimed to produce effective business units (workers, managers, scientists etc.) -- and schools are not supposed to care if later in life people have mental health problems, substance abuse, social anxiety and low creativity or self-esteem, emotional intelligence and empathy issues, are easily manipulated and blindly submit to authority as they were used to for a long time at the start of their lives. That all is considered to mostly be out of scope for schools and human life in his 50-60s is considered to be fully disconnected from those ~ten years he has spent at school (and it’s absurd).

    I do hope this will change in the upcoming years and industrial age values system will finally retire from education -- and the goal of education will be to help the person become fulfilled and happy member of the humanity sharing one world, one planet.

    I think the most promising program in the U.S. is Zoe Weil’s Institute for Humane Education that aims to develop a new curriculum that answers 21st century issues. It has a strong environmental focus and attempts to integrate systems thinking, ethical approach everywhere -- but lacks student autonomy.

    Another useful resource is AERO

    The hotspot of developed democratic education is in Israel and it is driven by work of Iaakov Hecht

    You could also be interested in “After Summerhill” book that shares stories of ex-students (available on amazon).

  12. Mano Singham says


    Thanks so much for this great information. I will look up the book After Summerhill too.

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