Telling stories through photographs: Herb Snitzer at TEDxTampaBay

November 9, 2019 0 By Peter Engel

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Hello everyone. (Audience responds) I’m sorry. (Audience) Hello. You know, I was going to start by saying that when I walk into a classroom
of kindergarten children, and I say, “Good morning, children,” they jump up and down, they say, “Good morning, Mr. Snitzer.” Oh, they’re all very excited. When I walk into a graduate program,
and I say, “Good morning, everybody,” they write it down. (Laughter) Now, they don’t even do that. Right? I’m glad that you’re here because I want to speak about a man who I knew for the last
12 years of his life. He was considered a radical educator. How many of you know the name A.S. Neill? My goodness. Neill was the founder and headmaster
of the Summerhill School. This is a school based in freedom. Classes were voluntary, and the social-political structure
of the place was participatory democracy. Neill was a Scottish educator. He was born in 1883, October 17th, and died September 26, 1973, a period of almost 90 years. He was a friend and eventually a mentor. He advocated freedom for children; he felt that children
who were in tight … classrooms – quiet, not talking – eventually hated learning. The school is now 90 years old. Its students are all over the world, all of them – well, I shouldn’t say all – but the vast majority
successful at what they do. But what was more important
was that they loved learning. How many of you loved learning
when you were in school? (Audience responds) Not even half. Not even half. So, you can appreciate
what it must have been like for a 10-year-old to just not go to class. So what did he or she do? My goodness, not in class? What will become of this child? It’s great parent-anxiety training here, you know. Parents will say, “My son has to go to class; he has to learn.” Learn what? How educated will we be? How educated are we? Or are we more trained than educated? I always like to talk to teachers and say, “Are you training students,
or are you educating students?” Well, what does it mean
to train a student, and what does it mean
to educate a student? We have – in this country and many other countries
throughout the world – have what I call
“the factory model of education.” It goes like this: You take raw material, a child, you put him through
a pressure cooker called school, out of which comes a young person – highly articulate, highly intelligent, empathetic, sympathetic. It just doesn’t work that way. We have too many kids
that drop out of school. We have too many counselors and faculty who are not interested
in the emotional side of the child, but that’s the side
that Neill was interested in; it’s the side that I am interested in. An emotionally free child, for the most part, will love learning. Personally, I loved learning; I hated school. It was a dilemma that’s not mine alone. It was a school in Philadelphia, an all-boys high school. You went into classrooms,
memorizing material. I was not geared, I should say, to that kind of learning. Neill and Summerhill offered children a different way to be educated, a more humane way. Why Neill is not known today,
I just don’t know. During the 60s, when there was the free-school movement, Neill was everybody’s guide. It was his writings; he wrote 21 books on education. The one that appeared
in the United States more than any other was called “Summerhill:
A Radical Approach to Child Rearing,” not a radical approach
to educating, but to child-rearing because it was his belief, it was the belief
of Dr. Erich Fromm and others, that in order for children, who are naturally curious, I mean, you don’t really have to do
very much to get children to learn, but what is it that they learn? They learn a subject and no more. It’s amazing to me that as you progress
through the factory system, and you get into the university system, that you can go through
a four-year college course, four years, and not once step foot in a history class, not once step foot
in a comparative religion class. So, who and what are we teaching that enables young adults not to participate in the life process or in the political process
of the United States? I have a clipping that I use
on the Constitution of the United States, and it is amazing how many young people, how many older people, how many people here in this room really have never read
the Constitution of the United States. Are you with me? (Audience) Yes. Alright, so when I read the book, when I read Neill’s book, it just, for some reason, made me want to go and meet him. Now here I was, a young photojournalist, I had already had a major exhibition
at the Museum of the City of New York. I was photographing for Life magazine, and I just felt something in those pages. Now, to give you a little background, I was – my life was informed
by three major issues. The Great Depression – not the one that just passed but the real one, the big one – I was five and six years old. I still remember people
coming into my father’s grocery store asking for food, which he gave them, not wanting any money in return. For a five-year-old boy
of refugee parents, it was a frightening time. The Second World War. Equally a frightening time. And anti-Semitism, which was rampant in the United States
until it got guilty over the Holocaust. Those three areas informed my young life; they all occurred
before I was 14 years old. So, something in Neill’s book pulled me, pulled me to the point
where I got on a plane, I flew to England, I went to Leiston, Suffolk, which was where Summerhill
is located still, and I waited in his office
for him to finish a math class, and he would come,
and we would meet each other. I was sitting on a beat-up sofa, a cracked window was present, and I thought to myself,
“What am I getting myself into? Who is this man? Is he real? Or is it just words on a paper?” You know, a lot of people
write a lot of things, but who are they as a person? That’s Neill and his dog Biscuit. In walked this six-foot-two, slightly bowed, white-haired gentleman thrust his hand out to me and said, “Hello, I’m Neill. What can I do for you?” I grasped his hand, and at that moment,
something took place in me. It wasn’t that I could
define it at the time, it wasn’t that I knew that something
transformative had taken place, just that I felt his realness. It’s what I look for in people today – their realness. I continue to work on my own realness as to what is important in life. We chatted; he and I chatted
for a few moments – he had to get back to his class, and I wanted to walk around
because somewhere in the back of my mind I thought I could do a book,
a visual book. After all, I was a photojournalist. After all, there was a whole bunch
of kids running around, and so I asked Neill if it was possible for me to come back and live at the school and do this book. And they put it to the community. I mean, it was like they
were a living testimonial to everything he had written in his book. I had to come before the entire community, and I had to get a majority vote
that it was okay for me to return, to live with them for four months. I must tell you, nobody said, “No.” So, in September of 1962, I returned to England for four months, and many of the photographs
that you are looking at here were those that I made, and a book was published
by the MacMillan Company – they did give me enough money
to go over and live for four months – a book was published called
“Summerhill: A Loving World.” I saw children who were
kind to each other; I saw children who were
not kind to each other but were not loaded up
with guilt by telling them “No, you can’t do this;
you can’t do that.” Social issues were brought
before the community, out of which came resolutions which were accepted
by the entire community. It was really collegial –
we’ll use the word – but it was something more than that; it was children understanding
on an unconscious level that they could control their own lives, that they don’t have to be told
what to do all the time. I remember when I was at the school
that I helped co-found, a young boy came with his mother
for possibly coming into the school, and she was loaded down with questions. One question after another. And I looked at this kid, and I excused myself to the mother, and I turned to the boy and I said, “How about you? What would you
like to do when you’re here?” And he looked at me and he said,
“Do you have any rest periods?” (Laughter) My heart went out to this kid. Rest periods?! I told him “You could rest all day long,” and needless to say, it wasn’t the best thing
I should have said because she immediately
picked him up and off they went, and I never saw them again. So, I kind of have remembered this all these years. These photographs – This photograph was made at Summerhill. The affection between – now it’s happening too fast here;
I can’t talk about them this quickly – but anyway, you can see the joy
that exists in their faces, how open they are. And it wasn’t just momentary; this is what happened all the time. And here I was already an adult functioning in the New York
hot-house scene of photojournalism, and I go to this school
in Suffolk, England, and I’m blown away. Blown away by 50 children, because that’s how many
there were at the time, a staff, I think, of 15, living together, supporting each other. It was very powerful how education can be taught without the student feeling that he or she is on the brink of disaster if he or she doesn’t pass the test. You know, in England, which is where Neill
was conditioned by the English system, it was called the 11 pluses: At 11 years old,
you took a series of exams. If you passed the exams,
you were on the road to the university. If you flunked the exams – 11, 11 years old, 12 years old – if you flunked the exams, you were on your way
to becoming a tradesperson: a candlestick maker, a baker, a plumber. That’s how rigid a system
he was experiencing and experienced and rebelled against, and it was an exciting time
for us here in the United States when his book was published here because there was a great number of us willing to take the chance to bring a bit of humanity
into the lives of children. Obviously, it was a projection on my part, and I’m far enough away from it that I can say that
without feeling threatened. So, that’s my story. It’s one that I would hope
can be seen many times. A.S. Neill was a brilliant,
brave and wonderful man, someone that I, like I say,
I knew and I will never forget because at this point, I’m older
than he was when I first met him, and that is a bit unnerving
but nevertheless joyful. Thank you very much. (Applause)