A. S. Neill was a Scottish educator and founder of the progressive, democratic, “free” school Summerhill. I had read the book he wrote about Summerhill, but I did not know he had written earlier books until I came across The Dominie Books of A. S. Neill in the library. Dominie is the Scottish word for teacher, and this collection contains three books Neill wrote when he was a schoolteacher between 1915 and 1920, before founding Summerhill: A Dominie’s Log, A Dominie in Doubt, and A Dominie Dismissed.
Essentially, the three books are edited diaries. Neill records his thoughts and musings not only on education but on a variety of topics such as socialism, psychology, politics, and the life of the villagers. I enjoyed reading them very much; Neill is quite insightful and I wrote down many quotes. I found A Dominie’s Log the most interesting of the three, perhaps because it was the only one written while he was actively teaching. However, in the other two books it was interesting to see how his perspective and opinion had changed. He was not afraid to revise his thoughts on a topic once presented with additional information, which I admire.
I found two things odd about the collection. The first things is that A Dominie in Doubt is the second book in it, but in fact it was written after A Dominie Dismissed. Not realizing this, I naturally read them in the order they were presented, when in fact it would have made more sense to read A Dominie Dismissed first. The other thing I found odd is that in A Dominie Dismissed Neill gets married, but in A Dominie in Doubt there is no mention of a wife, and all the biographies of him that I could find online mention only two marriages, with the first being a German woman, not a Scottish woman. Perhaps it was a short-lived marriage, but it did make me wonder how much of these books was fictionalized. In any case, I suppose it does not matter too much, as they still were clearly Neill’s thoughts on education and other matters.
One of the things I enjoyed about the books, in addition to Neill’s insights, was the way in which they so naturally conveyed what it was like to live at that time without any knowledge of what came after. It was, not surprisingly, more evocative of the era than a historical fiction book could possibly be. Some aspects of his everyday life were very different from my life, but Neill of course wrote about these things without a second thought or a need to over-explain, because they were simply the way of life when he was writing. He also wrote in the Scottish vernacular when reporting conversations, which was difficult but fun to read.
It was slightly depressing to read Neill’s thoughts on education (and on socialism as well) because so much of what he says is still applicable today. His ideas were revolutionary in 1915, and they are still revolutionary almost 100 years later. Here is a taste of those ideas:
The nation suffers from lack of imagination; few of us can imagine a better state of society, a fuller life.
I find it the most difficult thing in the world to be a theorist….and an honest man at the same time.
I want to ask every dominie who believes in coercion what he things of the results of many years’ coercion. Obviously present-day civilisation with its criminal division of humanity into parasites and slaves is all wrong.
Education should lead a boy to think for himself, but if teachers refuse to think for themselves in case they disagree with the wisdom of the ages I don’t see that they are the men to lead children to think for themselves.
I insist that the teacher will impose nothing; that his task is to watch the children find their own solution.
Attention means the applying of the conscious mind to a thing; interest means the application of both the conscious and the unconscious mind. When you force a child to attend to a lesson for fear of the tawse, you mearly engage the least important part of his mind – the conscious. While he stares at the blackboard his unconscious is concerned with other things.
If you are at all interested in education, I highly recommend reading Neill’s work, although you may want to start with Summerhill for something a bit more directed and organized.