Radical Then, Radical Now
This article first appeared in the Summerhill News
… And before A.S. Neill there was Homer Lane.
On 9th November 2013, about forty people from a variety of backgrounds in radical education, therapeutic communities, research and social work met at the Hilfield Friary in Dorset, the home of the Little Commonwealth, to celebrate its centenary and the life. work and continuing influence of its founder, Homer Lane. The event was jointly organised by the Child Care History Network (CCHN) and the Planned Environment Therapy Trust (PETT).
For those not familiar with Homer Lane or the Little Commonwealth (see recommended reading below) and their connection with Summerhill, the bare facts are these: Homer Lane, an American who had achieved success in running a number of enlightened communities for delinquent kids in the US, was invited to Britain in 1913 by a group of philanthropists, including George Montagu, who owned a suitable property, to found a co-educational, therapeutic community for children. Those over 13 were categorised as delinquent and were usually referred by enlightened magistrates when they were convicted for petty crimes, as an alternative to much harsher sentences. The Little Commonwealth was closed in 1918, as a consequence of a sex scandal which was almost certainly based on unfounded allegations. Nothing ever came to court.
The Little Commonwealth could have continued without Lane, but the Management Committee was not prepared to carry on without him. This was just after Neill had been accepted as a member of staff. Had the Little Commonwealth continued, would Neill have gone on to start his own 'therapeutic community for normal kids', as Summerhill has been called, or would he have stayed on and perhaps succeeded Lane? If Neill had not met Lane and seen the Little Commonwealth in action, and particularly the self-government of the Little Court, as their meetings were called, would he have had the determination and confidence to found his own school and organise it on the lines he did? I think it is clear from his earliest writings that the Little Commonwealth model accelerated the process and helped to strengthen his resolve. Neill has been quoted as saying that Lane was 'the most influential factor' in his life and 'It was a new world that he opened up to me.'
The celebratory day at the Priory included a guided tour of the premises, remarkably unchanged, discussion groups and guest speakers including David Gribble, one of the founders of Sands School, John Diamond from the Cotswold Community and Summerhill's Albert Lamb. Among those present were Summerhill teacher Michael Newman, Lynette Gribble, the founder of Park School, Dartington, and Professor Hori and teachers from the Kinokuni Children's Village, a Japanese free school 'inspired by A.S. Neill and other pioneers.'
The eight speakers explored various aspects of Homer Lane's influence on a number of important institutions (most of which, tragically, no longer exist) and his enduring influence on the humanising of society's attitude towards kids.
It became abundantly clear as each speaker focused on a different aspect of education based on the real needs of kids, how pervasive and influential Homer Lane's model of the Little Commonwealth has been.
Albert Lamb spoke of Lane as a 20th Century archetype who had inspired many pioneers in the related fields of radical education and therapeutic communities, not only here in the UK but also in his home country of America and throughout the world.
It appalled me to hear how many of the life-affirming schools, therapeutic communities and social work initiatives referred to in the course of the day have been crushed by the steamrollers of state legislation. We all know how close Summerhill came to suffering the same fate.
Government regulation is smothering kids with rigidly applied requirements and binding those who care for them in red tape. This has led to a tick-box culture which stifles kids' natural ability both to develop their individual needs and to organise themselves within a community with its own practical 'laws' - laws which are necessarily fluid and flexible and continually evolving.
Fear of freedom, adherence to conformity and the insatiable need to control others are the characteristics of all petty Napoleons, whether in blatantly unfree societies such as North Korea or in ones like ours which wear a benign mask of democracy, preaching tolerance and freedom on the one hand but acting, particularly towards children, in ways which deny the expression of those qualities. We have freedom of speech but seldom of action.
It is vital to celebrate and broadcast the achievements of the many pioneers who have practised 'love in action,' to keep their spirit alive, to be eternally vigilant and to alert people to the fact that there are more important things than conforming to the prevailing social order and that it is possible to educate without crushing the human spirit that every child is born with.
It is with this in mind that the CCHN was founded a few years ago to keep alive the philosophy and spirit of great individuals such as Homer Lane, his predecessors, contemporaries and successors.
Homer Lane, as Albert said, remains an archetype for a childhood well-spent, a giant upon whose shoulders many have stood, including one who became a giant himself - A.S. Neill.
Talks to Parents and Teachers, Homer Lane
A Dorset Utopia, Judith Stinton
Homer Lane, David Wills
Homer Lane and the Little Commonwealth, E.T. Bazeley