Civics and Illiteracy

The following link is to Gary Palmer’s published essay and below is my response. Mr. Palmer is president of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-profit research and education organization.

June 15, 2007

Re: Civic illiteracy

Mr. Palmer,

I found it quite ironic that your latest op-ed appearing in the Sunday edition of the [ Mobile , AL ] Press-Register was on the subject of civics and illiteracy. Last week, I was inspired to write an essay or at least to jot down some thoughts on this same topic. Where the premise of your piece is placed on the need to teach more American history and civics lessons to our young still in school for the sake of this country’s future, after re-reading the revised edition of A.S. Neill’s classic Summerhill (School), I have concluded otherwise.

In the case of civics, democracy and freedom, it is not enough for one to have knowledge of these basic subjects. That’s the same line of faulty thinking occurring within Christianity and amongst the other world religions over the past few centuries. Everyone attends the Sunday service, Mass, temple or the mosque and the preacher, priest, rabbi or cleric delivers their sermon, their homily to their ‘body of students.’ Is it enough to simply hear their words or is something else required, such as, putting these ideas into daily practice?

Think back to when you first learned to ride a bicycle. Did you get a class lecture from your dad on its history and the name of its inventor, its evolution, the components that make-up a bicycle? Did knowing any of that information make you expert rider? While it all has some value, it’s no substitute for the experience of getting on your first bike with your hands gripping down on the handle bars, your feet on the peddles, your butt on the seat, getting a running start and a shove from behind by dad down the driveway or in the street. On my first try at the age of seven, I peddled, like a magnet, straight into a dogwood tree in our front yard cracking my front reflector on impact before falling over. Now, that’s an experience to learn from and one that I have never forgotten.

After recovering my composure, I made a less memorable second attempt. Within hours of that first failed effort, I am sure that I became successful enough to start and to stop, under my own power, without any assistance or parental supervision. With each passing day and ride, my skills were sharpened and my confidence grew from one of a novice to a proficient rider. In time, I though nothing of riding throughout my neighborhood into strange ones, riding with friends down to a nearby strip mall and regularly crossed a major thoroughfare on my way across town to my elementary school and back, in my later years. As the cliché goes, “You never forget how to ride a bike.”

This leads me back to Summerhill and Alexander S. Neill, its founder and headmaster for over fifty years, beginning in 1921. Summerhill is a renowned boarding school for some thirty children ranging in age – five up to sixteen years old – located in Suffolk County, UK . A son of an Scottish educator and himself – a teacher and principal – in the state-run schools, Neill came to realize that even children deserved rights to self-govern, to determine whether to attend school each and every day, what subjects to study, if any, and the right to live in a community free of fear from their teachers and of life thus allowing for emotional and spiritual development leading to self-confidence.

Neill was less concerned with a child’s education and more about their psychology. He believed that children were “innately wise and realistic.” Summerhill was less about molding character than it was cultivating individuality, community members and self-government. (That’s something our public education system and this society knows nothing about.) While each Summerhill student has rights, they end where another student’s begin. Every Saturday night a general meeting is held where grievances are addressed between students or with the staff and community business is conducted.

The chairman, is elected at the previous week’s meeting, runs the meeting. All students and staff including the headmaster have the same one vote for resolving each matter presented for a vote. At Summerhill, nobody is anymore important than any other member. How democratic is that? Summerhill does daily what the United States can only boast of, can only dream of. The U.S. neither knows freedom nor happiness, two essential attributes that run deep within Summerhill’s community.

What you’re preaching and what most American adults’ only know is quickly forgotten information including every one of our Washington politicians while Neill, later his wife, Ena, and now his daughter, Zoe, pass on their rich experience and set of universal principles to the next generation of British and international students. Guess, who also preached living by this way of life – Jesus Christ. Screw knowledge, it alone doesn’t make you a democrat, a Christian, free or able to recognize the truth when your rights have always been trampled on since birth by your family, church, school and our fearful society. It’s not from knowledge instead its experience that produces strength and gives one hope during life’s trials.

Our version of democracy, civics, freedom and truth is so superficial, so shallow and therefore easy to corrupt. Our political leaders and most every adult are simply talking out of the sides of their mouths while living a paradoxical life. Our kids hear and see these everyday actions and soon follow suit. We don’t believe in equal rights for children and thus nobody has ever ridden this damn bike. Summerhill offers a safe environment to practice these tools not found in any American institution that I am familiar with.

Is it enough for Alabama’s Head Coach Nick Saban to host X’s and O’s meetings all week with his players and coaches, but to never suit up and practice the playbook, run the drills in order be thoroughly prepared for Saturday’s big game? What would one expect the Crimson Tide’s odds of winning to be against its rivals – LSU, Tennessee or Auburn ? Which team would you put your money on – the team with experience or the one with mere knowledge? Doesn’t the experience on the practice field lead to strength for the game and hopes of victory? Doesn’t the schedule of games offer the best experience with each game serving as a building block verses heads full of unchecked beliefs and theories?

As long as our society views children as undeserving of any rights then basic knowledge of democracy, self-government and American history will be subjects to pass and to forget about, both, in school and in life. Is that not our fundamental problem? Our society thinks democracy is an every four-year exercise, while there’s no democracy in daily life or in any of our major institutions including Christianity. Look at the mess it’s created. What export democracy, freedom to the Persian Gulf – please? One cannot give away, what he doesn’t have.

In the case of, both, democracy or in riding a bike, “You never forget how to ride.”

So I must ask, did you give your own children a longwinded lecture or a shove?

To freedom, to happiness, to democracy, to experience, to wisdom


I am available for speaking, consulting and political advising. My other essays can be viewed at my blog @ All essays are available in a MS Word format upon request. I can be contacted by email:

Copyright © 2008. All Rights Reserved. “Civics and Illiteracy” by Ted Burnett.


Neill, A. S., Summerhill School – A New View of Childhood, Copyright Ó 1960, 1992. A brilliant read for every democrat and young parent who knows all to well the failing education system in America.

I'm an American thought leader and pioneer on the subjects of human, organizational and societal development and health. I write about the role that integrity, dignity, sanity play, as well as, on the topics of spirituality, faith, freedom, happiness, problem solving and risk taking. I produce and deliver original, world-class commentaries on business, political, social and spiritual matters to a global audience of world leaders, chief executives and key decision makers, top faculty and notables in the fields of academia, banking, business, foundations, government (including heads of state, lawmakers and governors), healthcare, media, non-profits and policy institutes. Website: