Neill, A. S. (1883–1973)

Alexander Sutherland Neill was born in Scotland on October 17, 1883, the son of a village schoolteacher. He spent his childhood in a modest home with a stern father and many sisters and brothers in an atmosphere of modified but ever-present Calvinism. In his youth he worked as a student-teacher, went to the university and to England where he joined the Progressives in their critique of schooling and education. He published his first books, A Dominie's Log (1915), A Dominie Dismissed (1917), A Dominie in Doubt (1920), and A Dominie Abroad (1923), about the everyday experiences of a Scottish teacher who was permissive and loving and therefore constantly got into trouble. For some years he ran the journal of PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION, the New Era, together with the theosophist Beatrice Ensor. He stayed for some years in Austria and Germany working with followers of Progressive education and Freudianism.

Upon his return to England in 1924 Neill founded Summerhill, a so-called free boarding school that housed sixty children between the ages of five and sixteen. Free referred to the children's freedom to do what they pleased as long as they did not interfere with the freedom of others. Lessons were optional and the everyday life of the school was run according to a long list of rules set by the school assembly, where adults' and children's votes were weighed equally. Neill was the headmaster of the school until his death in 1973. He wrote several books on his experience, including The Problem Child (1926), The Problem Parent (1932), The Problem Teacher (1939), The Free Child (1953), Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Education (1960), and Freedom, not License (1966).

Neill believed that schooling dominated children and caused repression and trauma. He shared the Progressive view regarding the importance of respecting and following the interests of the individual child. Later in his life this understanding was merged with a simplified version of the early Freudian concept of libido: the child was by nature good, had infinite life energy, and should have the opportunity for self-government. The teacher's work was to find out where children's interests lay and help them to live them out. Children would then, because of their nature, move toward good, and a new civilization would be born. The free child was a self-regulating individual–a Reichian term–and not an uncontrolled one. The first priority at Summerhill was to allow emotional release, and the second was the organization of the teaching and learning process and the acquisition of knowledge.

Neill was mainly inspired by Homer Lane, Wilhelm Reich, SIGMUND FREUD, and Jesus Christ, whom he saw as an example of perfect humanity, giving love and not expecting anything in return. Neill's message was more simple, more substantial, and more radical than the majority of Progressive educators. He emphasized his message repeatedly in a number of books written in a conversational style combined with examples from the everyday life of the school, although they lacked any systematic analyses of the ongoing educational processes. His books and the school became very popular after 1960, a success probably as much due to Neill's warmth, enthusiasm, and humor as to the antiauthoritarian ideology of the 1960s that was reflected in the principles of the school. His books have been, in times and places of authoritarian discipline, a constant inspiration for more permissive schooling.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology; Education, Europe.


Hemmings, Ray. 1972. Fifty Years of Freedom: A Study of the Development of the Ideas of A. S. Neill. London: Allen and Unwin.

Neill, Alexander Sutherland. 1968 [1960]. Summerhill. Middlesex, UK: Penguin.

Neill, Alexander Sutherland. 1975 [1915]. A Dominie's Log. New York: Hart.

Placzek, Beverly R., ed. 1981. Record of a Friendship: The Correspondence between Wilhelm Reich and A. S. Neill, 1937–1957. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Popenoe, Joshua. 1970. Inside Summerhill. New York: Hart Publishing.

Selleck, R. J. W. 1972. English Primary Education and the Progressives, 1914–1939. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul.