Summerhill Shocker: Svaneti

Now that the water situation seems to have stabilized (and here I don’t mean frozen; it’s running inside the house, even ran all last night!), I’ll move on to other subjects for now...

My wife and I recently watched a four-part British TV miniseries from 2008 which was of particular interest to us as teachers, and it’s become a hot topic for discussion between us, slowly spreading to the schools where we work as well.

It was called “Summerhill”, and was about Summerhill School in the UK, which dates its founding to nearly a century ago, in 1921. Wikipedia describes it here: The school is made to fit the child, not vice versa, and is run democratically—every child has a voice, equal to that of everyone else, adults included. They make their own rules. Crazy thing is, it seems to work: how else could such a place have existed at all for nearly a century?

The show detailed the arrival of an inspection team from OFSTED, the UK’s Office for Standards in Education, in 1999. Their secret purpose was to have it shut down as soon as possible, due to official dislike of the immense amount of freedom accorded the pupils and a strong doubt over the possibility of Summerhill’s producing properly educated young adults as its norm. The school challenged the intended move in court, won, and continues to function today.

Internet and marketing guru Seth Godin has written a book, available for free download, called “Stop Stealing Dreams”. In it he also espouses the educational philosophy of schools like Summerhill, and claims that the Western world’s educational system, made to deal best with the needs of the Industrial Revolution, has run its course and badly needs to be superseded by a more modern model. After all, why bother to learn anything by heart nowadays when you can just Google it? If that sounds superficial, there’s much to it than that. Basically: Help a child find its passion, then get out of the way when you realize that a juggernaut has been released!

I write now (soon to have completed five unbroken years of weekly GT articles) because I have read from the time that I first could, my early school years in Rhodesia, fanatically, and started writing soon after that as well. So in this way I can really relate to this educational idea. I was blessed not to have TV in the house in those years, so blessed; by the time we got it, in Canada when I was 10, it was “too late”. The damage was done: I would be a reader and a writer for life.

Part of me, though, also clings to the opposing idea that children don’t know everything that’s best for them, though they might know more than we give them credit for. That they really do need our guidance, and sometimes our discipline, or to be “forced” into good patterns, morally and otherwise, which at the time seem repugnant, unnecessary or otherwise wholly negative. These patterns then become part of the maturing process, the growth into adulthood. This isn’t just from the Christian upbringing which was my childhood—”Train up a child in the way he/she should go, and when older he/she will not depart from it”. Which may sound like an awfully brainwashing thing to do, in today’s world.

So in me, too, the debate rages on. I realize that Georgia isn’t ready for a wholesale switch to the Summerhill way of educating its children; nor am I even convinced that Summerhill, as it exists, is the only or the best way to go. But I suppose that as a westerner I’m possibly much more open to aspects of this model than Georgians might be; a large minority of them still think that in Stalin they got what they deserved, for example, and still think that a strongly authoritative leader is needed here, now.

I’ll let you know how this wraps up; speaking of which, Merry Christmas, western dates!

Tony Hanmer runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1250 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

Tony Hanmer

24 December 2015 19:31