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].”

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