Primary Source Analysis: AS Neill’s Letter to Dora Russell Laura McInerney – ELPA 9462 – Historical Study Project
Primary Source Analysis: AS Neill’s Letter to Dora RussellThe UK Progressive School movement began in the 1920s in reaction tosevere Victorian principles of schooling and to counteract themusing techniques based on Freud‟s writing. With the expressedpurpose of giving students a more relaxed developmental experiencemany news articles labelled them the “Do-As-You-Please” Schools1.The primary source included here is a letter from AS Neill - thefounder of Summerhill School - to Dora Russell, the co-founder ofBeacon Hill School. The letter was sent in the Spring of 1944shortly after the closure of Beacon Hill and it was retrieved fromDora Winifred Russell Archives(1906 – 1986) digitally held by theInternational Institute of Social History. Russell‟s letters arearchived in alphabetical order of correspondent; only 3 letters withAS Neill are in the archive. None of the letters in Russell‟sarchive are in AS Neill‟s published correspondence2.The 1944 letter highlights several themes common across the threeschools I am studying in my project3. These themes are: the role ofromantic relationships, financial problems, staffing problems,compromises of the progressive ethos and the role of journalism inspreading the progressive message. The relevant sections for eachtheme have been highlighted on the source.Interpretations & Themes in the Source1 Unknown author, “A Do-As-You-Please School” The Daily News [Colombo, Ceylon] 21 April 1931, in the Dora Winifred Russell paper 1906 – 1986, #13-9, Inventory 656, International Institute of Social History. Retrieved online 16 September 2012.2 Croall, J. (1983) All the best, Neill: Letters from Summerhill, London: The Trinity Press3 The three schools of the project are Beacon Hill (founded by Dora & Bertrand Russell), Summerhill (founded by AS Neill) and Malting House (founded byGeoffrey Pyke & Susan Isaacs)
1. The Importance of relationshipsNeill‟s wife was dying from a stroke when he wrote this letter. Themanner in which he describes her is somewhat shocking. Similarbluntness about her death is apparent in his autobiography. In fact,in all of Neill‟s writingthe school seems of far more importancethan his personal relationships. This contrasts with Beacon Hillwhere the co-founders‟ divorce causedmany problems4 and at MaltingHouse where an affair between the founder and headmistresspotentially causedthe headmistresses resignation5. On apsychoanalytic historical reading6 it appears that in all threecases the adults were using the schools to meet their desire fornurturing relationships they were unable to create within theiradult romantic lives. 2. Financial ProblemsThough relationships are important in the history of the schools,the eventual reason for Beacon Hill and Malting Hill closures werefinancial7. In the 1944 letter, Neill describes the financialproblems he is facing and notes that without capital he cannotexpand intake even though the school is popular. Neill continuouslywrote books about Summerhill to bring in extra capital for theschool, and he describes in another letter to Russell how hedownsized location when required to cushion financial losses8.Without a similar publishing revenue streamBeacon Hill was badly hitby WWII when the school premises were taken over as a military base4Russell, Dora, and Countess Russell. The tamarisk tree: my quest for liberty and love. Vol. 1. Putnam, 1975.5Graham, Philip. Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children. Karnac Books, 2008.6Cocks, Geoffrey Ed, and Travis L. Crosby. Psycho/history: Readings in the method of psychology, psychoanalysis, and history. Yale University Press,1987.7Russell, Dora, and Countess Russell. The tamarisk tree: my quest for liberty and love. Vol. 1. Putnam, 1975.8 Neill, AS. Letter to Dora Russell, 18 April 1932. Dora Winifred Russell Papers 1906 – 1986, #17-100, Inventory 71, International Institute of Social History.Retrieved online September 25 2012.
and Russell could not claim compensation as she was only renting –and did not own – the school property. Malting House closed when thefounder lost allhis money in the 1929 stock crash. 3. Staffing ProblemsAll three progressive schools struggled to find „good‟ staff, but asNeill‟s letter shows it is difficult to know to what extent thedemanding ideals of the founders were the problem. Neill‟s schooldemanded people with patience and an openness to non-traditionalatmospheres yet here he laments „hopeless idealists‟ and desiressomeone with pragmatism – a difficult blend to find. Neill‟ssuggestion that “Newman had to leave to have her brat” also suggestsshe was not able to stay at school while still teaching, howeverDora Russell was the mother of three children, and the third wasonly an infant when Russell‟s husband left her to run the schoolalone, suggesting that it was possible for women to teach whentending to children and perhaps suggesting that Summerhill was notamenable, rather than unable, to provide such an arrangement. 4. Journalism and PublicationsAll three sets of school leaders published extensively about theirexperiences, initially in magazines and later in books. AS Neill‟swork became most widely spread in the 1960s, but all three wrote for(and advertised) in The New Humanist, The New Statesman and Naturemagazine9. In doing so the schools became famous within left-wing„middle-to-upper‟ class circles which significantly affected intake.9Advertisements & articles from these magazines are in the ISSH archive for Dora Russell, are published in AS Neill’s correspondence (Croall, ibid) andare republished in Graham’s autobiography of Susan Isaacs (Ibid).
5. Oceans of CompromiseWhen AS Neill says that progressive schools have become a„compromise‟ it appears that he is talking about the fact that somany of the schools from the 1920s have either closed or had changedtheir philosophy to become more „mainstream‟. In order to keepfinancially stable and ensure adequate staffing most „gave up‟ onthe Freudian idea.Synthesis – What parallels can be drawn with US Education?Although these schools are from a different period than that coveredby the class so far, and from a different country, there is animportant synthesis.First: Finance is an important driver of change. Though“progressivism” is considered correct it is foregone when itsfounders could no longer fund it. In the US decisions regarding, forexample, gender integration often occur because the alternative wasunaffordable. Even if education leaders felt it more morallyappropriate to have separate sex schools, the lack of moneyavailable meant such segregation did not occur. When considering thehistory of schools it is therefore critical to carefully judgewhether money funds ideology, or if it works the other way around.Secondly: If relationships are so important in the creation ofprogressive schools, why are they missing from the histories ofeducation presented by Joel Spring, Tyack & Hansott, and JamesAnderson? In fact, a quick glance at the leading educationalists intheir stories would suggest relationships are vastly important: - Horace Mann’s second wife was Mary Taylor Peabody, a teacher who was greatly respected in Massachusetts, advised him on all
aspects of policy and was possibly more an inspiration for his working in education over law (as opposed to the riots!)10 - Thomas Jefferson had a long-term affair and children with Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves, as proven by DNA testing in 199811. Was this important in his views regarding equality? - Booker T. Washington’s wife, Olivia A. Davidson, was a co- founder of Tuskagee College. She trained at Hampton, then at a Normal School, was a teacher and an honors student12. - W.E.B. Du Bois had continual affairs throughout his life all with highly „academic‟ and celebrate women some of whom were white. He had very little to do with his wife and daughter.13ConclusionThe AS Neill letter is therefore a useful example of the problemsand strategies for success seen in the Progressive School movementas the schools ambled towards closure or compromise. But moreimportantly the letter shows us the importance of human interactionsand how the people in the history of educations had friendships,romantic relationships and opinions about the people they workedwith. Often in history these relationships are missed out – as isevidenced by the absence of the women discussed above in USeducation history – but these relationships are important and canhelp us understand people‟s motives in a new and illuminating way.The “wives‟ tale” may yet be a missing piece in the history puzzlethat will help us understand how we got from no schooling at all towhere we are right now.10Marshall,Megan. The Peabody Sisters: Three women who ignited American romanticism. Mariner Books, 2006.11Smith D. & Wade N. “DNA Test Finds Evidence of Jefferson Child By Slave” The New York Times November 01 1998. Retrieved 31 October 2012.http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/01/us/dna-test-finds-evidence-of-jefferson-child-by-slave.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm12Darlene Clark Hine Black Women in America an Historical Encyclopedia Volumes 1 and 2 (Brooklyn, NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993).13Lewis, David Levering. WEB Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race. Vol. 1. Holt Paperbacks, 1994.
BiblographyAnalysed primary source is:Neill, A.S, Letter to Dora Russell. April 27, 1944. Dora Winifred Russell Papers 1906-1986, #17-102, Inventory71, International Institute of Social History. Retrieved online September 25 2012.Additional materials:Cocks, Geoffrey Ed, and Travis L. Crosby. Psycho/history: Readings in the method of psychology,psychoanalysis, and history. Yale University Press, 1987.Croall, J. (1983) All the best, Neill: Letters from Summerhill, London: The Trinity PressGraham, Philip. Susan Isaacs: A Life Freeing the Minds of Children: A Life Freeing the Minds ofChildren. Karnac Books, 2008.Hine, Darlene Clark Black Women in America an Historical Encyclopedia Volumes 1 and 2 (Brooklyn,NY: Carlson Publishing, 1993).Lewis, David Levering. WEB Du Bois, 1868-1919: Biography of a Race. Vol. 1. Holt Paperbacks, 1994.Marshall, Megan. The Peabody Sisters: Three women who ignited American romanticism. MarinerBooks, 2006.Neill, AS. Letter to Dora Russell, 18 April 1932. Dora Winifred Russell Papers 1906 – 1986, #17-100,Inventory 71, International Institute of Social History. Retrieved online September 25 2012.Russell, Dora, and Countess Russell. The tamarisk tree: my quest for liberty and love. Vol. 1. Putnam,1975.Smith D. & Wade N. “DNA Test Finds Evidence of Jefferson Child By Slave” The New York TimesNovember 01 1998. Retrieved 31 October 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/1998/11/01/us/dna-test-finds-evidence-of-jefferson-child-by-slave.html?pagewanted=all&src=pmUnknown author, “A Do-As-You-Please School” The Daily News [Colombo, Ceylon] 21 April 1931, inthe Dora Winifred Russell paper 1906 – 1986, #13-9, Inventory 656, International Institute of SocialHistory. Retrieved online 16 September 2012.