Thursday, April 24, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 8

Chapter 8 (pages 124-136), “The Functions of a Teacher”

Russell starts with a capsule summary of teaching over the course of history, with the general trend being from independent intellectualism to propaganda spreading. “The teacher has thus become, in the vast majority of cases, a civil servant obliged to carry out the behests of men who have not his learning, who have no experience of dealing with the young, and whose only attitude towards education is that of the propagandist [p. 125].”

Government-provided education is both necessary and potentially dangerous – the chief danger (a’ la Nazi Germany and Russia) that only people who ostensibly accept the state’s dogmatism will be allowed to teach. Further, they will be obliged to teach obedience to authority. “The result is that the young in Nazi Germany became, and Russia became, fanatical bigots, ignorant of the world outside their own country, totally unaccustomed to free discussion, and not aware that their opinions can be questioned without wickedness [p. 126].” This state of affairs is worsened when the creed instilled is not an international one, but one of extreme nationalism.

Imparting information is the foundation of what a teacher does, upon which all else rests, but in itself it is not very important. In democracies, defending the state through teaching is desirable, as long as the methods used in such a defense are rational. Uniformity of opinion is not necessary for a strong state, despite frequent claims to the contrary: “…in every important war since 1700 the victory has gone to the more democratic side [p. 128].” Dogmatists like to believe that others will be misled into untruths if they are allowed to hear all sides of a question. If one dogma holds a monopoly, society becomes static; if multiple dogmas take hold in different areas, conflict threatens civilization. Teachers should be a bulwark against either of these outcomes, and attempt to instill the habit of impartial inquiry.

But teachers must do more, they must be “guardians of civilization [p. 129].” Civilization has both a knowledge dimension and an emotional dimension; both share an enlarged understanding of what lies beyond the personal. “The civilized man, where he cannot admire, will aim rather at understanding than at reprobating [p. 130].”

“No man can be a good teacher unless he has feelings of warm affection towards his pupils and a genuine desire to impart to them what he himself believes to be of value [p. 131].” This is not to endorse the behavior of a propagandist, who tries to push students into the molds he has created; rather, it is to give them the tools to “survey the world and freely choose a purpose which to them appears of value [p. 131].” Teachers should “open vistas…as delightful as they are useful…[p. 131].” Happiness is a worthy goal, and teachers should work against the psychological mishap where one seeks to keep others from being happy. Generally this type of cruelty grows from envy.

Teachers are overworked. Their job requires (Russell quotes Shakespeare without attribution) an “expense of spirit [p. 132].” Overworked teachers become “harassed and nervous, out of touch with recent work in the subjects that they teach, and unable to inspire their students with a sense of the intellectual delights to be obtained from new understanding and new knowledge [p. 132].”

But the more serious problem is that teachers who hold unapproved opinions are expected to be quiet about them, and even to teach approved untruths. (Russell mentions the expectation that teaching will be misleading in civics classes in the US.) When students are old enough to see the obvious falsehood, they tend towards cynicism instead of endeavoring to improve matters.

Falsehood is not edifying, though many proclaim otherwise. Any virtuous effect that falsehood brings about will prove unable to stand up to the first breath of reality. “In any case, to tell lies to the young, who have no means of checking what they are told, is morally indefensible [p. 133].”

Teachers need to instill the tolerance that comes from trying to understand those who are different. But rather than overcoming “ignorant intolerance [p. 134],” much nationalistic education perpetuates it. Teachers require more independence (like the independence of physicians towards patients) “from the interference of bureaucrats and bigots [p. 134].” Some great universities have managed to secure this independence, but most educational institutions have not so managed. Organisations can straitjacket thought, but they should allow some non-conformity – else the rigidity “will in the end crush all that is best in man [p. 136].”

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Halftime

The length of Chapter 7 has pushed this intermission well past the midpoint of Unpopular Essays. The first “half” of Unpopular Essays provides a few broad themes, as well as the occasional nugget of wisdom or pithy adage – it is Russellian, I suppose.

One of the themes that emerges in Chapter 1 is how trade and contact with foreigners helps to undermine dogmatism. (See also the final part of Chapter 7 on this score.) In Chapter 2, we learn that inculcating what might be called a foreign frame of mind improves our thinking, too, especially in matters political. This is important, because dogmatism is a source of human misery.

The alternative to dogmatism is liberalism, which concerns itself not with what opinions are held, but the manner in which they are held – a liberal recognizes that he or she might be wrong, and that new evidence might require an adjustment in one’s opinions. (Education of the probabilistic nature of the world would be helpful, too, in turning political debate away from absolutist statements.) Liberalism is policy-relevant, in that it suggests that one adopt policies that will not prove disastrous if indeed, your opinions do turn out to be wrong. Avoid committing present evils based on some (possibly wrong) theory of how those evils will be justified by putative long-term benefits. That is, Russell’s consistent political advice is that of insuring against our own mistakes, even as we work to minimize those mistakes. (This point is raised most thoroughly in Chapters 1 and 2.)

In Chapter 3, Russell appears to ignore his own general political advice, when he argues that it may prove necessary to establish world government by force. Russell seems pretty convinced of the desirability of (the right form of) world government. (Even false dogmas would not be so bad if all nations taught the same ones – Chapter 7, part 2; Russell displays the same preference for global political monopoly in Marriage and Morals.) Russell’s prediction (Chapter 3) about the possible future courses for the world through the end of the 20th century proved to be false (or at least unfulfilled in a timely manner). His more general notion, that international law could be developed into something that would bring on a relative golden age, remains a common hope.

The human propensity to embrace nonsense avidly also is a theme of the first half of Unpopular Essays, though it is most prominent in Chapter 7. Russell’s writings on this score resonate, alas, given our current war on terror: fear breeds cruelty, along with the supposed justifications for the cruelty.

I won’t recount my favorites among the pearls of wisdom in the first half, with one exception (from Chapter 7, part 3): the idea that, when you find yourself getting angry with your interlocutor during a discussion, your anger should serve as a signal that your own opinion goes beyond what the evidence allows.


Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Unpopular Essays, Chapter 7, part 3

This, the third and final part of a summentary of "An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish," covers pages 109-123.

Abnormal human behavior – say, repeated bedwetting or exhibitionism – is typically met with punishment, even when punishment is clearly inefficacious: “most people enjoy punishing anyone who irritates them [p. 109]…” Punishment is misapplied at the national level, too. Rank and file Nazis should be considered to be something like lunatics, not criminals. Lunatics are restrained, but not punished, “and so far as prudence permits we try to make them happy [p. 110].” Punishing everyday Germans in the wake of WWII will make them hate the victors, and render peace precarious.

Lots of current superstitions derive from the nonsense of ancient philosophers. Plato and Aristotle are steeped in absurd claims. “Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones [p. 111].” Many behaviors we now take for granted, including activities important for health, such as cleaning and washing, were once considered unnatural. “Every advance in civilization has been denounced as unnatural while it was recent [p. 112].” Birth control is often considered unnatural, though celibacy (perhaps due to its antiquity) is not so attacked. [Hmmm -- see "All's Well That Ends Well."]

Ideas about women are frequently fallacious – including the notion of their superior virtue, which was used as both a reason to keep women out of politics and a reason to admit them into it. Russell doubts all generalisations about women, which arise “from paucity of experience [p. 114].” Generalisations about national characteristics also are fallacious, and often have been revised over time, as in the case of Germans, the French, and Russians. “The truth is that what appears to one nation as the national character of another depends upon a few prominent individuals, or upon the class that happens to have power [p. 115].”

One can avoid silly errors by following some precepts. First, make personal observations if possible – this would have saved Aristotle from promulgating some whoppers. “Thinking that you know when in fact you don’t is a fatal mistake…[p. 115].”

“If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do [p. 116].” We feel pity for (not anger towards) people who sincerely spout obvious untruths. If you find yourself getting angry during a discussion, this is a signal that “your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants [p. 116].” You can guard against dogmatism by living abroad, or by exposing yourself to contrary opinions. If a live opponent is not at hand, you should invent an imaginary opponent, and put up the best argument for an opposing viewpoint. [Here, Russell is echoing a point made by his godfather in Chapter 2 of On Liberty: "...if opponents of all important truths do not exist, it is indispensable to imagine them, and supply them with the strongest arguments which the most skilful devil's advocate can conjure up."] Be wary of any opinion that happens to conduce to your own self esteem. We might also keep in mind that in other parts of the universe there might be beings vastly superior to humans.

Fear undermines rationality and promotes superstition. “To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom, in the pursuit of truth as in the endeavour after a worthy manner of life [p. 118].” But one way of dealing with fear – persuading yourself that you are immune from danger – is itself a spur to superstition. Plato laid down, for his Republic, that a belief in the happiness of the next world would be inculcated, to diminish the fear of death among soldiers. Other religions and philosophies also have tried to provide talismans against fear. Stoicism preaches that virtue is the only thing that matters; so as long as you are virtuous, the fact that your enemies might harm you is of no concern – they cannot deprive you of your virtue. “The difficulty was that no one could really believe virtue to be the only good…[p. 120].” Teaching indifference to your own suffering, were it to succeed, would lead to indifference towards the suffering of others.

“Collective fear stimulates herd instinct, and tends to produce ferocity towards those who are not regarded as members of the herd [p. 121].” Fear promotes cruelty, which in turn engenders those beliefs that “seem to justify cruelty. Neither a man nor a crowd nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of a great fear [pp. 121-122].”

“Many a man will have the courage to die gallantly, but will not have the courage to say, or even to think, that the cause for which he is asked to die is an unworthy one [p. 122].” [In a column dated today (April 2, 2008), Garrison Keillor provides a slightly different take: "Many men have been carried to the cemetery with honor guards and rifle salutes who, if the truth be known, knew their missions were not worth the price but went anyway. Many, many of our honored dead were dissenters." Keillor is praising (in the military, though not among civilians) this willingness to risk everything without sufficient cause.]

But superstitions can be fun. “A wise man will enjoy the goods of which there is a plentiful supply, and of intellectual rubbish he will find an abundant diet, in our own age as in every other [p. 123].”