Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Education and the Good Life, Chapter III

Part II, “Education of Character”

Chapter III (pages 87-100), “The First Year”

The chapter title refers to the first year of life, not the first year of formal education. Formerly the standard was to believe that mothers and nurses possess instinctual knowledge of the best methods of bringing up infants – but they do not. Many children are harmed irremediably through the poor choices of well-intentioned caregivers. Science can provide the tools, for those parents who will take the instruction, to decrease infant mortality and to improve the prospects for enhanced physical and intellectual health as children grow.

Most of the life of a newborn “is passed in a vague bewilderment, from which relief is found by sleeping most of the twenty-four hours [pp. 88-89].” Within a few weeks, though, infants acquire habits, to which they are most passionately attached: infants are natural conservatives. So it is of primary importance that initial habits be good ones, not bad ones. Fortunately, the habits that will promote health also are those that will promote a desirable character. A regular schedule of feeding – not one that habitually responds to cries – is good for digestion and avoids reinforcing complaining by rewarding it. Those who develop the habit of getting what they want by fussing will later be disappointed in the world, at least to the extent that they are not sufficiently powerful to induce adults to continue to placate them. So for infants, caregivers must negotiate a tricky region “between neglect and indulgence [p. 91].” Real physical discomfort must be alleviated for health, but fussing for attention cannot be reinforced, lest the child “quickly develop into a tyrant [p. 91].” [Later (page 99), Russell notes that carers must mask their fears for a child’s health, to prevent the transmission of anxiety.] Infants should be viewed as serious humans, as adults in training. They should not therefore be given an exaggerated sense of their importance.

[Russell is advocating what now is known as controlled crying or controlled comforting ; this technique seems to be controversial, particularly when applied to very young infants. Russell indicates (a bit later, on page 94) that crying both is an indicator of pain in infants and (eventually) a strategy to pursue pleasure. The development of this strategy is sort of an initial birth of reason in the young. While I am interrupting, I can’t resist appending a little Adam Smith, on the anxiety of a mother fearing for her child’s health, from the opening pages of The Theory of Moral Sentiments: “What are the pangs of a mother, when she hears the moanings of her infant that during the agony of disease cannot express what it feels? In her idea of what it suffers, she joins, to its real helplessness, her own consciousness of that helplessness, and her own terrors for the unknown consequences of its disorder; and out of all these, forms, for her own sorrow, the most complete image of misery and distress. The infant, however, feels only the uneasiness of the present instant, which can never be great. With regard to the future, it is perfectly secure, and in its thoughtlessness and want of foresight, possesses an antidote against fear and anxiety, the great tormentors of the human breast, from which reason and philosophy will, in vain, attempt to defend it, when it grows up to a man.”]

Russell continues to pound this limited-coddling theme, which seems to accord with a British upper class and stiff-upper-lip mentality: “…parents should be breezy and cheerful and rather matter-of-fact where the child’s possible ailments are concerned [p. 92].” Babies should spend most of their non-feeding time asleep. Raise children to minimize their trouble for the grown-ups. “The right rule is: encourage spontaneous activities, but discourage demands upon others [p. 92].” Inculcating self-discipline, even in the first year, will allow future education to be conducted with minimal external discipline. Swaddling, however, prevents the spontaneous fun that babies can generate for themselves – even though bound babies are less trouble to manage. Rattles and wind-propelled toys, along with their own fingers and toes, can be an endless source of amusement and instruction for the very young. Nonetheless, the first few months of life are boring, but trying to overcome the boredom with external stimulation will interfere with an infant’s necessary sleep. The regular routine that is so important for very young children is complemented by familiar surroundings, which promote feelings of safety.

Within a few months, infants can develop social relationships with people, and a desire for approval manifests itself. Praise and blame then become tools that teachers can manipulate. Nonetheless, blame should be avoided in the first year, and used quite sparingly later. Praise, too, must be rationed, to maintain its value; it is always proper to praise, though, when a child succeeds through extensive effort. “The great incentive to effort, all through life, is experience of success after initial difficulties [p. 98].” We learn by doing ourselves, not by watching or listening to others. If the barriers to success are too great, however, they will lead to discouragement. Praise should not be used when a child does something regular and expected, such as eating or sleeping, as the child will now see its ability to displease you by not performing as expected to be a source of power. Children have some limitations, but a lack of either intelligence or the potential to behave strategically are not among them.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Education and the Good Life, End of the First Period

The organization of Education and the Good Life suggests a hockey-like two intervals, as opposed to Reading Bertrand Russell’s traditional halftime recess.

Russell believes that new knowledge is available, knowledge that can inform us of appropriate educational practices. That knowledge comes from psychology and from pedagogy, and the pedagogical advances have demonstrated their effectiveness through the Montessori method. Clear standards and a few simple rules will minimize the need for discipline. Children are eager to learn, and will apply themselves without the need for torture – indeed, terror is counterproductive, and will drive children away from their studies. Excellence in adulthood requires a happy childhood.

[Russell’s godfather has a slightly more approving view of terror in education: “And I do not believe that boys can be induced to apply themselves with vigour, and what is so much more difficult, perseverance, to dry and irksome studies, by the sole force of persuasion and soft words. Much must be done, and much must be learnt, by children, for which rigid discipline, and known liability to punishment, are indispensable as means. It is, no doubt, a very laudable effort, in modern teaching, to render as much as possible of what the young are required to learn, easy and interesting to them. But when this principle is pushed to the length of not requiring them to learn anything but what has been made easy and interesting, one of the chief objects of education is sacrificed. I rejoice in the decline of the old brutal and tyrannical system of teaching, which, however, did succeed in enforcing habits of application; but the new, as it seems to me, is training up a race of men who will be incapable of doing anything which is disagreeable to them. I do not, then, believe that fear, as an element in education, can be dispensed with; but I am sure that it ought not to be the main element; and when it predominates so much as to preclude love and confidence on the part of the child to those who should be the unreservedly trusted advisers of after years, and perhaps to seal up the fountains of frank and spontaneous communicativeness in the child's nature, it is an evil for which a large abatement must be made from the benefits, moral and intellectual, which may flow from any other part of the education.”

Perhaps we also can compare Adam Smith, in The Wealth of Nations: “No discipline is ever requisite to force attendance upon lectures which are really worth the attending, as is well known wherever any such lectures are given. Force and restraint may, no doubt, be in some degree requisite in order to oblige children, or very young boys, to attend to those parts of education which it is thought necessary for them to acquire during that early period of life; but after twelve or thirteen years of age, provided the master does his duty, force or restraint can scarce ever be necessary to carry on any part of education. Such is the generosity of the greater part of young men, that, so far from being disposed to neglect or despise the instructions of their master, provided he shows some serious intention of being of use to them, they are generally inclined to pardon a great deal of incorrectness in the performance of his duty, and sometimes even to conceal from the public a good deal of gross negligence.”]

OK, back to Russell. As for the content of a good education, applied science (including psychology) is necessary but not sufficient. The humanities might have to be more strictly rationed, though not abandoned, as scientific knowledge advances. When teaching material that demands close attention and sustained study, such as literature in a foreign tongue, the more practical approach – a modern language as opposed to a dead one – should, all else equal, be given preferment. For the most part, the later years of schooling should be devoted to science and math.

Today we need science and the skeptical scientific approach. Skepticism tout court is detrimental, however – progress is conceivable. Russell associates a scientific approach with a sort of insurance against error: be guided by your beliefs, but not to the point that if your beliefs turn out to be incorrect, untold damage will result. (Both the anti-dogmatism and the policy suggestion of pursuing harm reduction appear elsewhere in Russell’s writings. For instance (beyond the instance of the prior link), from his essay “Ideas That Have Harmed Mankind”: “Most of the greatest evils that man has inflicted upon man have come through people feeling quite certain about something which, in fact, was false.”)

The traits that education should help to nurture in virtually everyone are “vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence [p. 60].” Vitality promotes an even temperament and intellectual curiosity. Courageous people will think for themselves and not force others to proclaim fidelity to a favored opinion. Sensitiveness will grant standing to other humans, even distant and unknown others, in the cost-benefit analysis of our actions. Intelligence is almost a synonym for the scientific approach: a willingness to learn more – which children have by nature – and a rejection of dogmatism. Open-mindedness helps to extend intelligence into adulthood. The universal application of an education imbued with these precepts holds the potential to promote progress and human happiness almost beyond conceiving.

Now that I have summarized my earlier summentary, I see that there is little on which to pass judgment at this point – or at least that I share virtually all of Russell’s stated aims. The proof, it seems, will be in the pudding of the specific suggestions that follow from Russell’s general precepts. And it is the next section of the book, “Education of Character,” that promises to connect Russell’s more theoretical musings with practical applications.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Education and the Good Life, Chapter IIb

Chapter II, “The Aims of Education,” second half (pages 69-83)

An appropriate emotional response to stimuli, a proper sensitiveness, is the third in the list of universally desirable traits. (Recall that these traits are “vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence [p. 60].”) Some interest in being praiseworthy, and sympathy for the sufferings of even remote others, form part of the requisite sensitiveness. Much of the world’s suffering, including harsh child labor and tyrannical treatment of subject peoples, is permitted to continue because of the difficulty of feeling sympathy towards impersonal, abstract others.

The extolling of virtue (in the form of abstinence from supposed sins) as opposed to intelligence undermines both knowledge and the willingness to acquire knowledge. Intelligence is more about susceptibility to a flow of new learning than it is about a stock of acquired knowledge, but the susceptibility to incremental knowledge only grows through practice. “The more a man has learnt, the easier it is for him to learn still more – always assuming that he has not been taught in a spirit of dogmatism [p. 73].” Nevertheless, it is a simple matter to educate someone in such a way that receptivity to further knowledge is undermined – and such modes of education are common. Attempts to impose preferred beliefs come at the expense of the building of intelligence.

Curiosity is at the root of intelligence, though it must be curiosity aimed at more than the vices of one’s neighbors. (We readily accept malicious gossip, however: “Our neighbors’ sins, like the consolations of religion, are so agreeable that we do not stop to scrutinize the evidence closely [p. 75].") The type of curiosity that builds intelligence is an interest in all types of knowledge, and is exhibited by children. As people age, the unknown loses its luster, and becomes a source of distaste. The final stage of this death of curiosity (and enervation of “active intelligence”) is marked by expressions of how modern society has deteriorated since the glory days of one’s youth.

Adult curiosity, not as potent as in the young, tends to be aimed at a higher level of generality, indicating more intelligence. Methods of acquiring knowledge allow curiosity to bear fruit. Inertia and catering to our own self-esteem threaten us with close-mindedness towards new truths. “Open-mindedness should therefore be one of the qualities that education aims at producing [p. 77].” Courage is needed for open-mindedness as well as for physical fortitude. Many isms are available to protect us against the unknown, but those who want to learn must eschew such security.

People like to get on well with their near connections; simultaneously, a rejection of popular untruths can lead to isolation. How much should we cooperate with our group? Should education aim to weaken our devotion to cooperation and to sharing the emotion running through a crowd? I [Russell] endorse a healthy commitment to cooperation, but one that can be sublimated to more important concerns when required. People who have made great advances often have had to withstand the enmity of others. Nevertheless, some respect for received opinion is helpful, and surely the ideas that average people hold concerning scientific matters are much improved by their willingness to accept the opinions of those who are more knowledgeable. Accepting the common wisdom generally is desirable in all matters except those in which you have particular expertise or a special interest. Don’t be an universal naysayer – society requires a sort of cooperative default – but do have the fortitude to express unpopular opinions when you think it is important to do so. If everyone possessed the desirable traits that this chapter examines, there would be no need to fear expressing an unpopular opinion, and organizations like the Ku Klux Klan that promote persecution would have no recruits. “The good world can only be created and sustained by fearless men, but the more they succeed in their task the fewer occasions there will be for the exercise of their courage [p. 82].”

The spread of vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence would usher in a brave new world, one that would be considerably happier than what exists at present. Destitution would be eliminated, poor health made rare, and sexual relations could become a source of pleasure. Women would be liberated from the fear that they now are taught in the name of inculcating virtue, and fearless women can liberate everyone. “Education is the key to the new world [p. 83].”

Friday, October 22, 2010

Education and the Good Life, Chapter IIa

Chapter II, “The Aims of Education,” first half (pages 47-69)

"The Aims of Education" is sufficiently long and involved that I have decided to allot two separate posts to its summentary.

Russell’s famous teacher and Principia Mathematica co-author, Alfred North Whitehead, presented a lecture in 1916 entitled “The Aims of Education;” Whitehead later (1929) published a book with the same title, featuring the 1916 address. [Whitehead’s argument, incidentally, is that teachers should avoid trying to transmit “inert ideas.” Rather, knowledge has to be mentally active, challenged and recombined and applied. Knowledge does not fit into our standard disciplinary boundaries: “There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations.”] The academic year at the University of Chicago is initiated annually by an “Aims of Education” address to the incoming undergraduate class. Chapter II of Education and the Good Life is Russell’s turn at The Aims of Education, which was not yet a Chicago tradition when Russell was in residence.

Education molds people, so we must know the types of people we want to have before we can rationally design education. Sometimes the designers prove to be not so rational, and produce people much different than what they are aiming for. But in general, education works, in the sense of achieving the outcome desired – though different educators hold markedly different views about what human traits are desirable.

The Chinese and the ancient Athenians had similar approaches to learning: an emphasis on rote memorization of the classics (Confucius, Homer) and a requirement for some formal shows of piety, while encouraging a skeptical approach to questions. “The Athenians and the Chinese alike wished to enjoy life, and had a conception of enjoyment which was refined by an exquisite sense of beauty [p. 49].” The Greeks were more active than the Chinese, making the Greeks vulnerable to dissension from within. The relative passivity of the Chinese does not seem to be a result of their education, however, because Japanese people trained in the Confucian style avoided “indolent cultured skepticism [p. 50].” Science and progress need energy and skepticism; modern countries and democracy need science.

Powerful countries tend to place national power at the center of education – Japan is the exemplar. Free thought in Japan has been sacrificed to national self-preservation, but the Japanese methods have met with amazing success. [Russell writes before the mindset he refers to contributed to untold horrors for the Japanese.] The constraints on thinking present the danger that progress can only take place via revolution. Education should not inculcate acquiescence, either to skepticism or dogma. Education should instill the notion that knowledge (or improvements in knowledge) can be achieved with effort (contra skepticism), but that currently much of what passes for knowledge is incorrect (contra dogmatism). We must be guided by our beliefs, but we should beware of taking steps that would prove disastrous should our beliefs be mistaken. This mindset is the scientific mindset.

Jesuit education sacrificed the good of the pupil to the goal of helping the Catholic Church. Generally, their methods worked, and helped to spur the counter-reformation. Thomas Arnold’s aristocratic educational system aimed “to train men for positions of authority and power, whether at home or in distant parts of the empire [p. 53].” The training necessarily sacrificed intellect (which is a dangerous source of doubt), sympathy, imagination, and kindliness – and it no longer serves the needs of the modern world, with free citizens, not subjects. In America, the public schools fulfill the melting-pot function, making one out of many. To some extent this is accomplished by disparaging the advantages of Old World countries. “The intellectual level in Western Europe and the artistic level in Eastern Europe are, on the whole, higher than in America [p. 56].”

Education is best when the pupils are treated as ends in themselves, not as means to some other end, whether nation-building or religion-upholding. Excellent humans will tend to produce outcomes that are good for humanity, too. But even in civilized countries, with the exception of Denmark and China, male children are educated, not to make them excellent, but to make them willing to engage in warfare over inconsequential matters.

What constitutes excellence in humans? Some traits are universally desirable, while other traits need only be held by a fraction of the population. “We cannot therefore frame our education with a view to giving every one the temperament of a poet [p. 60].” Four universally desirable traits are “vitality, courage, sensitiveness, and intelligence [p. 60].” These traits can be inculcated through proper education – though standard education seems to sap children of vitality.

Vitality is akin to the “zest” that Russell adumbrates in The Conquest of Happiness (published four years after Education and the Good Life). Vitality counters our tendency to excessive self-absorption, envy, and boredom, and “makes it easy to take an interest in whatever occurs, and thus promotes objectivity, which is an essential of sanity [p. 61].” Vitality is neither necessary nor sufficient for human excellence – Newton and Locke did not score highly on the vitality scale – but it neutralizes negative tendencies like envy, and promotes a healthy interest in the world.

Courage relates to avoiding and controlling fear, though sometimes fear is rational. Irrational fears play an enormous role in emotional life, even for sane people. Only a few fears seem to be instinctual for humans. Others, such as fear of the dark, are learned, and can be spread rapidly. Children acquire fears from adults even when adults don’t know they are transmitting fear. “Hitherto, men have thought it attractive in women to be full of irrational terrors, because it gave men a chance to seem protective without incurring any real danger [p. 63].” The young sons of these men and women pick up these fears, and the general level of courage declines – but one small element in the huge harm caused by the subjection of women.

Courage is signaled by being steadfast in trying circumstances, and by not showing physical signs (trembling, pallor) of fear. The usual method of instilling such outward courage, ironically, is by making the fear of shame greater than the fear of present danger. But this approach does not so much control fear as repress it, in an unhealthy manner. The sublimated fear is reflected in the cruelty shown by aristocratic overlords to their subjects. The cruelty that stems from fear should receive the same contempt as other forms of cowardice.

Inward courage requires “a combination of self-respect with an impersonal outlook on life [p. 66].” Self-respect means that you are not overly dependent on the opinion of your neighbors – but it does not imply a false humility that really is aimed at receiving approbation. Neither submission nor domination, neither obedience nor command, should be taught; leadership in cooperative enterprises should be like that granted the captain of a sports team, not an autocrat. “Our purposes should be our own, not the result of external authority; and our purposes should never be forcibly imposed upon others [p. 67].”

An impersonal outlook can be instilled in the cheap fashion of monk-like repression, but with undesirable consequences. Self-abnegation will lead to desire to repress the pleasures of others. [This is a recurrent theme for Russell.] Love, knowledge, art, and wide interests all provide routes out of ourselves. Broad cares indicate that we are not the be-and-end-all of creation, that there are many other valuable things outside ourselves, making us courageous in the face of death.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Education and the Good Life, Chapter I

Chapter I: “Postulates of Modern Educational Theory,” pages 15-46.

Part I shares the name of the entire book (at least in its American incarnation), “Education and the Good Life”. Two chapters form the whole of Part I. The first chapter is unpromisingly titled “Postulates of Modern Educational Theory.”

Early educational theorists such as Locke and Rousseau had in mind the education of an individual boy from an aristocratic family. Now we must think about educating every boy and girl. At the same time, we should not sacrifice excellence by insisting upon a rigid equality in education: “we must approach educational democracy carefully, so as to destroy in the process as little as possible of the valuable products that happen to have been associated with social injustice [p. 17].” Fortunately, some of the best recent advances in education, including those of Madame Montessori, can be made available on a broad scale.

The provision of a democratic education available to all becomes a forum in which a standard educational conflict plays out: the conflict between those who favor practical education and those who support “ornamental” learning. Gender equality adds another feature to the conflict, namely, to what extent the practical education of girls should include the domestic arts – so the discussion, for the nonce, continues by considering only the education of boys. The issue of useful versus ornamental learning crops up with respect to the teaching of trades, professions, classics, science, manners, and art appreciation. But the issue is largely illusory, as broadly speaking, an education that brings good results is useful. We care about ultimate outputs, and judge the inputs by the extent to which the outputs they contribute are desirable. Education should surely be useful from this perspective. Most people, though, discuss the usefulness of education by the degree to which it promotes the making of machines, which in turn promotes the satisfaction of physical needs – production that is not per se desirable, though surely an urgent issue for much of humanity.

Some aristocratic education really was ornamental in the strict sense; nevertheless, the issue today is to what extent we should try to inculcate patterns of thought that lack direct utility, but might be said to be good in themselves. An understanding of Hamlet, for instance, might make its possessor a better person, despite its lack of practical value. Some democratic partisans display a bit of inconsistency, railing against the useless education of gentlemen but wishing to bring the learning of Latin and Greek, and other “useless” learning, to the working classes. Presumably the motive is to extinguish boundaries between a working and an ornamental class, and the impulse largely is valid.

The question of a practical education takes two other forms as well. One is the interest in material well-being versus mental delights. The world, if well organized, is poised to be able to provide adequately for the physical needs of the whole population, and to reduce the burden of disease. Improvements in physical well-being should not be slighted, so applied science must be a significant part of education. “Without physics and physiology and psychology, we cannot build the new world. We can build it without Latin and Greek, without Dante and Shakespeare, without Bach and Mozart [p. 27].” But we can’t let the accomplishments of the humanities decay in our quest for extinguishing war and privation.

Must (humanistic) knowledge that is claimed to be intrinsically valuable be useless? My own [Russell’s] youthful exertions on Latin and Greek never did me any good, and such knowledge as the exertions produced surely had no intrinsic value, beyond providing an example for the current discussion! But my science and math training was both useful and possessed of the intrinsic value of “affording subjects of contemplation and reflection, and touchstones of truth in a deceitful world [p. 28].” One can profit from the literature of modern foreign languages as readily as from Latin and Greek classics – so with their greater utility, study of modern languages would seem to dominate the study of Latin and Greek. As science progresses, we must jettison some elements of traditional humanistic education to allow time for the absorption of new knowledge.

My proposal isn’t for a solely scientific or a solely humanistic education. “What I suggest is that, where a difficult technique is indispensable to the mastering of a subject, it is better, except in training specialists, that the subject should be useful [p. 30].” The strenuous part of education in later years should be devoted to science and math – but only in general, so that special tastes or talents can be accommodated.

We must avoid the sacrifice of aesthetics for efficiency. The appreciation of great literature needn’t be abandoned because it takes time away from more practical matters. Those who promote the utility of an education are willing to devote huge amounts of time to teaching humans how to kill each other.

Psychology is helping to improve how material is taught. The traditional approach to discipline was to chastise children who did not apply themselves earnestly enough to their studies – even solitary confinement on a diet of bread and water was employed. (The fading doctrine of original sin helped to perpetuate this approach.) “The old idea was that children could not possibly wish to learn, and could only be compelled to learn by terror [p. 36].” Ignorance of pedagogy allowed the terror system to continue, but now it is clear that children will be happy to learn age-appropriate materials. A few disciplinary rules such as not interfering with another child are easily comprehended and complied with. Children develop self-discipline, towards their studies and towards others. It isn’t easy to achieve, but with proper training for teachers (and the techniques of Madame Montessori), it can be done.

Thomas Arnold is justly remembered for being a liberal reformer of British public schools, but while he diminished flogging, he remained a proponent of it, and thought corporal punishment required as an appropriate Christian response to moral evil in the young. “I shudder when I think of the wars, the tortures, the oppressions, of which upright men have been guilty, under the impression that they were righteously castigating ‘moral evil [p. 40].’” Fortunately, the belief that children are inhabited by Satan has subsided.

The opposite belief, that kids are naturally virtuous until corrupted by adults, is equally wrong, though less costly. Kids are neither inherently good nor bad. Their limited instincts are shaped by their environment into habits that can be either positive or negative, with the direction chiefly determined by the wisdom of their mother or nurse. Healthy children generally can be made happy with little effort. “Happiness in childhood is absolutely necessary to the production of the best type of human being [pages 41-42].” Kids take well to learning material that they perceive as valuable. Children will shun learning if the material seems to be useless, or if the teachers are viewed as tyrannical.

It used to be believed that bad desires could only be overcome by the will – the desires themselves were permanent. But this meant that those desires could hold sway in areas where the will was lacking. “Theories which justify cruelty almost always have their source in some desire diverted by the will from its natural channel, driven underground, and at last emerging unrecognized as hatred of sin or something equally respectable [pages 43-44].”

Psychoanalysis, despite its unscientific, fantastic elements, nevertheless holds useful approaches for early moral education. In getting children to sleep, making a fuss over the child with rocking and lullabys is helpful in the short run but costly in the long run. It teaches that not sleeping results in attention. “The result is equally damaging to health and character [p. 45].” Better to instill the habit that going into the cot means going to sleep. At any rate, the attention of psychology to infancy has shown the importance of proper and early instruction in both morals and knowledge, and more scientific advances can be expected in the future.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Education and the Good Life, Introduction

Introduction (pages 7-11)

The book opens with a personal cri de couer: “There must be in the world many parents who, like the present author, have young children whom they are anxious to educate as well as possible, but reluctant to expose to the evils of most existing educational institutions [p. 7].” The alternative of home schooling deprives children of companionship, and makes them feel that they are odd. Rich parents need only to find one accessible, acceptable school, but working-class parents need general educational reforms to ensure that they can secure a good education for their children. Surely different parents will have strikingly different views about what reforms would be desirable. Nevertheless, advances in psychology and pedagogy offer advice that should receive broad assent – advice that is especially relevant for the education of very young children.

The book will proceed by looking at the goals of education, and makes a distinction between the education of character and the acquisition of knowledge, though these are not entirely independent elements. The early years will receive a good deal of attention; eventually, however, the discussion will comprise all of the years of formal education, through university. Learning beyond the years of schooling will not be addressed, though early education should be heavily concerned with making people capable of life-long learning through experience.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Next Up: Education and the Good Life

The Reading Bertrand Russell Plan calls now for a summentary on Education and the Good Life – and as I am not adept at quick plan alterations, I will stick with Plan A.

Education and the Good Life was published in 1926 in New York by Boni & Liveright; my copy is a hardback from the second printing, which was issued, like the first printing, in May, 1926. Apparently, Education and the Good Life is the US version of a book that was published in London by George Allen & Unwin earlier in 1926 under a different title, On Education, Especially in Early Childhood. (The Russell bibliography by Blackwell and Ruja indicates that the American printing, in addition to a new title, omitted an index that the British edition contained.) The book was offered in abridged form in 1961 as Education of Character. Russell and his wife Dora opened their Beacon Hill School in 1927; five years later, with this experience in hand, Russell published a second book on education, Education and the Social Order.

Education and the Good Life contains an Introduction followed by nineteen chapters – the chapters are distributed among three parts, the middle of which (“Education of Character” – the basis of the 1961 abridgment – ) is by far the longest. Here are the sections and chapters:


Part I: Education and the Good Life
Chapter I: Postulates of Modern Education Theory
Chapter II: The Aims of Education

Part II: Education of Character
Chapter III: The First Year
Chapter IV: Fear
Chapter V: Play and Fancy
Chapter VI: Constructiveness
Chapter VII: Selfishness and Property
Chapter VIII: Truthfulness
Chapter IX: Punishment
Chapter X: Importance of Other Children
Chapter XI: Affection and Sympathy
Chapter XII: Sex Education
Chapter XIII: The Nursery-School

Part III: Intellectual Education
Chapter XIV: General Principles
Chapter XV: The School Curriculum Before Fourteen
Chapter XVI: Last School Years
Chapter XVII: Day Schools and Boarding Schools
Chapter XVIII: The University
Chapter XIX: Conclusion

Onwards, then, to Education and the Good Life.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Full Time

The brevity of Bolshevism and the West led to a (revolutionary?) break with Reading Bertrand Russell tradition, in that there has been no halftime reflection. So this post will have to serve as both an interim and a final report.

My first reaction is that this was some extraordinary gathering in Carnegie Hall in 1924! Nearing and Russell are superb, and their debate is polite but sufficiently combative to be interesting. With hindsight, of course, Russell wins. Nearing comes off as a rather doctrinaire Leninist-Marxist (which is not to say that he supports Bolshevik terror), and the doctrine (of the inevitability of a revolution in capitalist countries, for instance) leads him astray. Russell exudes more skepticism towards the proclaimed inevitability of future events, and shows little (or rather, no) interest in the political/economic novelties of the Soviet Union that impress Nearing.

The quality of the debate is partly revealed by the (seeming) extent to which it is unscripted. Nearing’s initial remarks no doubt are prepared in advance, but Russell’s first rejoinder directly engages many points from Nearing’s address, suggesting that Russell packaged his ideas (even if he didn’t manufacture them) on the fly – and a similar conclusion can be drawn from the later stages of the discussion.

The debate explicitly concerns whether the Bolshevik program is appropriate for the West – a question that is logically independent of whether that program is appropriate for Russia. (Russell makes this point on pages 40-41.) The debaters do not, therefore, examine the issue of whether Bolshevism is a desirable development for Russia. Nevertheless, it is hard to avoid the inference that Mr. Nearing is rather pro-Bolshevik (with respect to the Soviet Union), while Mr. Russell is rather anti-Bolshevik. Their positions concerning the applicability of the Russian model to the West seem to reflect their hopes (Nearing) and fears (Russell). Russell notes that the ideal of justice among men “is not one which was realized in the early days of the Soviet revolution or one which ever can be realized by methods of violence and by methods of force [p. 46].”

How does hindsight reveal that Russell was the more prescient (so far) of the two debaters? Nearing would be vindicated by a Bolshevik-style revolution in the West, and (to some extent) by a continued movement towards communism in Russia. These events did not come to pass. Russell’s case would be bolstered by: the rejection of Soviet-style governance in the West, even in the face of a crisis; a gradual adoption of socialism; and (again, to some extent) a repudiation of communism in Russia. These events did come to pass. The Soviet model was not implemented in the West in response to the Great Depression, post-Soviet Russia rejoined the capitalist world, and – well, did the West gradually adopt socialism? The answer depends on what is meant by socialism, of course, and what is meant by the West. Certainly Britain in the 1970s was more of a socialist country than was the Reagan-era US. A traditional definition of socialism as government ownership of the means of production largely precludes the use of “socialist” to describe the present-day US (despite what Obama detractors might have one believe). But compared with the standard aspirations of socialists of the 1920s, the US has gradually instituted a socialist economy. Milton and Rose Friedman in Free to Choose republish the economic program for the year 1928 of the Socialist Party of the US. The Friedmans’ point is to indicate how much of that platform (the vast majority) actually became implemented during the subsequent fifty years. By this standard, Russell is correct in his contention that evolutionary methods could install (at least a version of) economic socialism in the West.

As for the Soviet experiment, Russell sees that it will fail, and that communism will be rejected in Russia. Perhaps he doesn’t think that it will take seventy years for these events to play out. Russell senses correctly that the features of Russian socialism that Nearing trumpets – political representation by occupation, the scientific organization of the economy, and payment for productive labor only – are mere epiphenomena. What is real in the Soviet Union is the suffering of the revolution, and what is lasting is the opportunity for peasant proprietorship and the rejection of communism by the Russian people.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Russell's Rebuttal

Negative Refutation (pages 66-78), by Bertrand Russell

Mr. Nearing assumes that Western civilization will collapse, and then assumes away any objection to the notion that there might be barriers remaining to a Bolshevik-style transition to socialism. I (Russell) am unconvinced about the inevitability of Western collapse, though surely it is a contingency worth taking into account. I think it would only happen in the wake of military defeat, and I doubt all Western countries would simultaneously suffer a military defeat. The US is unlikely to be defeated in a war, and hence a change in US economic arrangements will have to occur outside of a crisis.

Gradual methods can institute socialism in the West. Revolutions are too destructive of complex, industrial societies. The cataclysm would be so painful that the survivors wouldn’t turn to any rational plan of orderly government. Fortunately, even in times of peace and prosperity, Western populations can be convinced of the need to adopt a socialist economy.

Again, the only route to a revolutionary crisis in the West is through an unsuccessful war. That outcome can be avoided by not going to war. “Of course, if you embark upon war, it may be successful war. That is perhaps just a little bit better than unsuccessful war [p. 71].” But better to avoid the risk altogether. You can’t get to the happy socialism that Mr. Nearing hopes for through the gate of war. “Human society moves towards good things slowly, towards bad things fast [p. 72].”

Peaceful propaganda appealing to human intelligence will have a long-term, salutary effect in convincing Western nations to adopt socialism. People do not have to be on the verge of starvation before accepting changes that will make them better off. Rich people take chances to make themselves still richer. The same energy and initiative can spread more widely and impel the poorer classes to improve their lot. Industrial society is young, and our thought patterns remain those appropriate for agricultural communities. But these thought patterns will adapt themselves to the circumstances of industrialization, and institute the changes that both Mr. Nearing and I (Russell) support. An attempt to force the matter by grabbing power during a crisis might be momentarily successful but will not be lasting: people have to want the change. [Here Russell echoes a point he made in Proposed Roads to Freedom.] The Bolsheviks will prove to be like Cromwell – people were forced to sample Puritan ideas, and decided they didn’t care for Puritanism. “It is no use to try things until people are more or less ready for them [pages 74-75].”

Mr. Nearing seems to adopt a Hegelian-Marxian perspective that indicates sharp, logical changes from one stage of development to another. The rise of Darwinism and evolutionary thought suggests that human societies have a more gradual flowering, one that does not proceed in any pre-ordained direction. Revolutions have a way of changing the names of things without changing the underlying reality. The ownership of land by peasants is likely to be the only element of the Bolshevik revolution that will survive – and this reform could have been accomplished with much less suffering. The West should realize that socialism, like all great changes, can only be introduced slowly, and without the drama of a revolution.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Nearing's Rebuttal

Affirmative Refutation (pages 57-65), by Scott Nearing

Mr. Russell labels my ideas Marxian [notes Mr. Nearing] – a term I didn’t use but will accept – and then pummels Karl Marx. I didn’t claim that my analysis was correct because Marx said so, but because there is evidence: history shows us that a society’s governmental form reflects its stage of development.

Mr. Russell examines the Communist party dictatorship in the Soviet Union, pointing out its similarities to other dictatorships. He does not cite the novel features of economic organization in the USSR, which do not have such parallels.

Russia is agricultural while Bolshevik ideas are drawn from thinking about industrial societies. These ideas were not a perfect fit for Russia – and hence we have the NEP. In the West, we will still need a NEP when we apply these ideas. [My rendering seems to catch the literal interpretation of the text, but the logic suggests that the text is mistaken: perhaps Nearing said that the original ideas, without the amendment of a NEP, would fit the West. -- RBR]

Mr. Russell's writings from 1920 indicate that he is opposed to Bolshevik methods. But when the Western crisis comes, what form of transitional arrangements will arise, if not Bolshevik ones? A committee on public safety will emerge once again, as it did in Russia in 1917 and as it did in Cromwell’s 17th century England. If Mr. Russell disagrees, he should indicate what alternative arrangement he imagines in the wake of a Western crisis. Russell assumes that barbarism is the only available path, but the infeasibility of a Bolshevik-style path to socialism cannot simply be assumed. “And if the Russians haven’t found the right way, it is up to Mr. Russell and me to help Americans find the right way [p. 63].”

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Russell's Address

Negative Presentation Address (pages 35-55), by Bertrand Russell

Mr. Nearing is right that we run the risk of destroying our civilization through wars. But whether or not we suffer a cataclysm, we will not adopt a Soviet form of government. We can reach this conclusion even if we accept Mr. Nearing’s premise, that a nation’s economic system determines its political system – certainly the economic system in Russia when the Bolsheviks took power bears little resemblance to the economic system in advanced capitalist countries. What the Russian economic system does resemble is the economic system in England in the seventeenth century – and the Soviet system of government resembles that established in seventeenth century England by Oliver Cromwell. Russian Bolshevism is akin to England’s Puritanism, and both movements grew out of somewhat similar economic conditions. In modern Britain and the US, an upheaval set off by losing a war would overthrow the current form of government, but it would not – again, employing Mr. Nearing’s own theory – lead to a government of the Soviet type.

Mr. Nearing exaggerates the extent to which peasant and worker interests are respected in the Soviet government. It is the Communist party that runs the show – that is, a set of people who hold certain opinions (like the Puritans in Cromwell’s England). The Soviet Union conducts elections in form but not in substance.

There are further reasons – besides the different economic conditions – to suggest that the Soviet form of government does not provide a useful model for the West. Surely the orthodox Marxist view that economics determines the form of the political system cannot be universally correct. (Though the Bolsheviks claim to take a scientific approach to the study of society they are quite dogmatic and unscientific.) Russia and China often have had quite similar economies, but vastly different political systems and cultures. Western traditions, at least for the past two hundred and fifty years, are so far removed from Russian ones (including along the dimensions of religion, centralization, and persecution) that there is little hope that a Russian form of government could suit the West. The Marxian view of the inevitable unfolding of history is much too simplistic for our varied world. We have run across millennial views before, so we should be wary of accepting any grand scheme that promises a revolution that will establish a golden age.

Recent Russian history shows us that human affairs are not predestined to move in one direction only. The Bolsheviks implemented their revolution and tried to install communism, but within four years backtracked considerably with the New Economic Policy (NEP). They backtracked despite ruling with czar-like despotism, utilizing all the usual excesses of an unaccountable secret police. But the NEP and the simultaneous softening of rule in Russia, while less communistic than what preceded them, may well be better steps along the road to communism.

Bolshevik revolutionary methods cannot achieve a just society. The revolution might have brought a modicum of economic justice, but there was no political justice. The politically powerful class was constrained only by their own consciences – a weak reed anywhere – in the extent to which they could make the economic order serve their interests.

The pre-revolutionary aristocracy in Russia, like its monarchy, was inefficient. But in the US, the aristocrats – the business elite – are quite efficient. They will be able to scuttle any revolution undertaken by a minority that tries to revoke their privileges. The Bolsheviks did not need majority support to overthrow the decrepit ruling class in czarist Russia.

The ideas of Western intellectuals (like Marx) are not applicable in Asian countries [and here Russell includes Russia as Asian]. Their illiterate, uneducated masses are in no sense ready to implement democracy. The Soviets discovered an alternative means for moving their society forward, that of rule by the party, a small group of intellectuals. “I do not believe that there is a better way of making the transition from the old autocracy to the new democracy [p. 49].” [This idea is reminiscent of Russell’s godfather John Stuart Mill, who in On Liberty spoke similarly of backward societies: “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate as to find one.”] In the West, Bolshevik methods (following a social breakdown) would lead to fascism (the business aristocracy in charge), not socialism, as the recent Italian example illustrates. Again, centralized power and despotism are Russian, but not Western, traditions, and the Soviet state is a sort of theocracy that is not possible where the state and religion have long been separate.

Marxian economic determinism is unscientific – too full of certainty and belied by historical evidence. Further, the Marxian dogma that their approach is scientific – and the science fully realized in the works of Marx – also is unscientific. It is a theological approach, and Russia is now in a theological stage of development.

Revolutionary tactics are not helpful in effecting meaningful change. “I think the real progress of the world is a more patient thing, a more gradual thing and a less spectacular thing [p. 53].” Much Western infatuation with Russia can be traced to enjoyment of the spectacle and the misperception that changes can be instituted quickly. But even in Russia, it is only now that the revolutionary moment has passed that the institutions necessary for socialism are being constructed.

Military cataclysms in the West won’t bring in socialism or anything else. They will succeed only in destroying industrial civilization and reviving barbarism. Russia has been fortunate in that the rest of the world survived her cataclysm, and is helping her recover. “But if the leading nations all at the same time are engaged in a cataclysm of that sort, there will be no one to help them out [pp. 54-55].” It is easier to destroy what we have than to ensure that any subsequent rebuilding will go in a direction we desire. So the approach ahead in the West is not that of Bolshevism, but of gradual improvements.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Nearing's Address

Affirmative Presentation Address (pages 17-31), by Scott Nearing

The biographical sketch that precedes this section notes that Nearing, an economist then teaching at the Rand School of Social Science, earned his undergraduate degree in oratory: careful, Bertie, he’s a ringer!

Recall that the debate centers on whether the Soviet form of government is applicable to Western countries like Britain and the US. Nearing will discuss what “applicability” means and what really constitutes a government of the Soviet-type, before indicating why he believes that Bolshevism is indeed applicable to the West.

Nearing offers an orthodox Marxian view of social evolution, where forms of government reflect economic conditions. The growth of industry led to the replacement of feudalism with the capitalist state. Russia was behind in this development, and before World War I (at the time of the debate, still the Great War) it remained a partly feudal society with a nascent capitalist class. The war destroyed Russian feudalism and Russian capitalism. The Soviets were on hand with a replacement for the old, destroyed social order. “If the old social order had broken down first in Germany, the new social order would have come first in Germany [p. 24].” (Nearing doesn’t mention that somehow the Bolsheviks were able to skip a Marxian near-requirement by moving to the next stage before full-blown capitalism had been achieved.)

The new, Soviet social order is not communism or socialism, but a transitional stage between capitalism and socialism. It centralizes power in a dictatorship of the Communist Party, representing industrial workers and peasants. The ultimate goal is communism, which involves economic emancipation and the end of exploitation. But the current Soviet system is not yet a communist one.

The Soviet system differs from Western governments in three ways. First, the system of representation is economic, not geographical: street car workers, and teachers, as opposed to precincts, are the fundamental election units. Nearing views this arrangement as desirable, in that it better reflects the reality that people are more closely affiliated via their employment than their neighborhood. Second, the Soviet economic system is organized scientifically, and is not just the chaotic hodgepodge that emerges under capitalism. (Though it is unfair to Nearing, hindsight makes it hard not to scoff at the proclaimed scientific basis of the Soviet economy.) Third, the Soviets have adopted the notion that those who don’t work don’t eat – again as opposed to capitalism, where many of those who make no contribution to society nevertheless are rewarded handsomely thanks to income from property ownership. These three principles of Soviet rule did not arrive randomly, but were hammered out through seven years of wartime suffering. We will be ready for a similar form of government when our social order breaks down, as the Russian one did.

And our social order is poised to break down, through another international war and domestic class wars. Our current disregard of the peril is the same disregard the confident Germans felt in 1913. Ten years from now we will feel differently. When the inevitable capitalist breakdown occurs, we will see in the West a dictatorship of the proletariat organized around a tightly disciplined party, and enter our own transition to socialism.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Bolshevism and the West, Introductory Matter

The introductory matter consists of a Foreword by Benjamin A. Javits and an Introduction by Samuel Untermyer.

Benjamin Javits was a successful lawyer and the older brother of Jacob Javits, a one-time United States Congressman and Senator. The main law school building at Fordham University is named after Benjamin Javits. His brief Foreword to Bolshevism and the West extols the debate gathering and the speakers, and introduces the presiding Chairman, Samuel Untermyer, a renowned lawyer.

Untermyer’s Introduction adds to the praise of Nearing and Russell, “two of the greatest intellectual gladiators that ever faced one another in the arena of public debate [p. 9],” and notes the sacrifices they have made for their beliefs. Lamentation is offered for the profound ignorance in America about the actual conditions prevailing in the Soviet Union. Untermyer takes advantage of his position as Chairman to proselytize for the US recognition of the Soviet government – after all, the US recognizes dictatorships and monarchies, and we have our own vassal states. (Later, on page 41, Russell endorses US recognition of the Soviet government.) Untermyer’s hope for normal diplomatic relations between the US and the USSR did not become reality until 1933.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Next Up: Bolshevism and the West

The Reading Bertrand Russell plan consists of ten books, and we have arrived at the mid-point. Next up is book six – or maybe “work” six, as Bolshevism and the West is, in length, more a pamphlet than a book. Further, it is a pamphlet that is only half-written by Russell.

My copy of Bolshevism and the West is a thin 78-page hardback book with a red cover. It was published in New York by Gordon Press in 1974. The title page further reveals that Bolshevism and the West presents “A Debate on the Resolution ‘That the Soviet Form of Government is Applicable to Western Civilization’”; Scott Nearing makes the affirmative case, Bertrand Russell argues against the resolution, and Samuel Untermyer provides an Introduction.

A quick search of Google Books allows more information to be gleaned from Kenneth Blackwell and Harry Ruja, A Bibliography of Bertrand Russell (London: Routledge, 1994). On May 25, 1924, Scott Nearing and Bertrand Russell engaged in their debate at Carnegie Hall in New York City, under the auspices of the League for Public Discussion. The debate proceedings were published in both Britain and the US in 1924; the initial US edition took the form of a (literal) pamphlet distributed by the League for Public Discussion under the title “Debate…The Soviet Form of Government,” while the British edition, published by George Allen and Unwin, employed the title Bolshevism and the West. My Gordon Press copy republishes (fifty years later) the British edition, the proofs of which were approved by Russell. The book indicates many instances when the audience laughed or applauded, which for me adds to the belief that it represents a faithful transcription of what took place at Carnegie Hall.

Both debaters were well-versed on the topic: Nearing published a book in 1924 entitled Soviet Form of Government: Its Application to Western Civilization, whereas Russell’s The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism was published following his return from the USSR (and a meeting with Lenin) in 1920. (A pdf version (59 pages) of The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism is available here.)

One of the chief benefits (for me) of reading this short volume is that it prompted a visit to the Wikipedia entry on Scott Nearing. What a life he led, a sort of 20th century Thoreau! The parallels between Nearing’s life and Russell’s are quite strong: both, for instance, had trouble keeping academic jobs because of their political beliefs, and faced court actions related to their politics, too. Both taught at one time at the Rand School of Social Science. Both visited the Soviet Union in the early years, composing books about what they saw. At the time of the debate, Russell had already written his book on the Soviet system; Nearing travelled to Russia in 1925 and published his book (on Soviet education) in 1926. Nearing and Russell also both visited China in the 1920s. Both were intellectually active and writing for publication for more than 70 years, and were embraced by activists against the Vietnam War. There’s a master’s thesis waiting to be written on these parallel lives (if it hasn’t already been written). One side note on Scott Nearing is that his son, John Scott, wrote a famous and informative book, Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia's City of Steel, about Soviet industrialization from a first-hand (and sympathetic) perspective.

Bolshevism and the West contains 6 sections, one for each element of the debate. They are:

Foreword (2 pages) by Benjamin A. Javits, “Temporary Chairman”
Introduction (5 pages) by Samuel Untermyer, “The Chairman”
Affirmative Presentation Address (15 pages) by Scott Nearing
Negative Presentation Address (21 pages) by Bertrand Russell
Affirmative Refutation (9 pages) by Nearing
Negative Refutation (13 pages) by Russell.

The final three sections each are prefaced with brief remarks by the Chairman of the debate, and the last section concludes with one sentence from the Chairman as well. The Affirmative and Negative Presentation Addresses are prefaced by short biographies of the speakers.

Onwards, then, to Bolshevism and the West.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Full Time

This running summentary of Human Society in Ethics and Politics has been more of a walking summentary, a journey of nearly a year’s duration. The measured pace is not evidenced by any deep insights – except for those borrowed directly from BR.

Part One (“Ethics”) established that for Russell, a guide for right action could be found in terms of maximizing overall satisfaction – where the interests of all humans, and perhaps all sentient beings, have to be included in the benefit calculus. But Russell understands that it is not enough to preach about socially desirable behavior; rather, people must have incentives to actually take those beneficial actions. Part Two (“The Conflict of Passions”) looks at the passions that make it hard to induce people to make choices that maximize social welfare. Part of the problem arises because some things that people enjoy – power, for instance, or respect – almost of necessity come at the expense of others’ enjoyment (of relative power or respect). Further, darker emotions such as fear or hate tend to make us exclude others from the group with whom we are willing to cooperate, and spur the reciprocation of fear and hate directed towards us from the excluded folks, too. So human history is marked by significant cooperation within a group – extending as far as a nation-state in modern times – with rivalry and conflict dominating relations between groups. The within-group cooperation has achieved amazing things. The inter-group conflict, alas, has led to war after war, though with the side benefit of extending the size of successful groups (as bigger groups are more militarily successful). [Are chimpanzees caught up in the same blood sport?]

This might be a glass mostly full story, where living standards and population have increased and civilization has been extended – despite the wars, despite the rivalry and conquest. But Russell notes a new ingredient: thanks to technological advance, wars among the great powers will destroy civilization, not just for the losers and for a short time, but for everyone and potentially forever. Continuation on our historical and current path is not sustainable. We must cooperate with virtually everyone – and it is in the self-interest of both superpowers that we do so.

Unfortunately, the foresight that recognizes that we are all in this together, and incentives to act in ways that recognize this foreknowledge, are not widespread. So Russell wants to help us to understand that our future survival depends on superpower cooperation, and he suggests methods by which cooperative behavior can be induced. Of course, a sound understanding of one’s own long-term interest can go a long way to providing appropriate incentives. Education, then, is part of the mix. A greater awareness of foreigners and foreign cultures can reduce fear and increase the probability of cooperation; such awareness can be fostered by free information flows and by foreign travel. Business connections also tend to be supportive of cooperation and the spread of civilization. The establishment of a world government, one that would limit national sovereignty just as a national government limits individual sovereignty, will be necessary to ensure that our destructive potential is not unleashed. Two steps that Russell explicitly cites as necessary for a stable peace have subsequently taken place: recognition of the Communist government of China and the re-unification of Germany.

Human Society in Ethics and Politics follows in the tradition of Adam Smith (and others, including Machiavelli and Spinoza), of taking human beings not as we might wish them to be, but as they are: possessed of both benevolent and selfish sentiments, motivated by vanity and love of power, and also by fellow-feeling. Preaching to such crooked timber will not be enough to improve (at least sufficiently) their (our) behavior. The answer lies not in telling people to ignore their passions, but rather, in creating social institutions that will channel those passions into socially desirable ends.

For Russell, those institutions include a democratic government (of worldwide scope) with significant protections for self-regarding individual behavior and human rights. Equality of opportunity, and enough equality of distribution to eliminate poverty, also are ingredients in the recipe. Education, science, the overcoming of superstition, exposure to other cultures, criminal and civil law – all can be enlisted to help make individual choices compatible with social welfare. Rivalry can take on benevolent forms, such as sporting events or competition over quality of life. Love of power can be combatted by controls that ensure that there are limits to the power that can be exercised, and by a relatively equal wealth distribution. Adults teach children foresight and delayed gratification; a similar foresight and forbearance (to avoid global annihilation) must be demanded of the electorate and their representatives. We must require of our leaders a quality that they currently do not display, an understanding that humanity forms “…a single species with possibilities that may be realized or thwarted [p. 239].” The glass may be mostly full, but there is much work to be done, much consciousness to be raised, to ensure that Russell’s optimistic outlook is itself warranted by the evidence, and not just another superstition.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter X

Part Two, Chapter X (pages 235-239), “Prologue or Epilogue?”

Man’s earthly existence is quite recent from a geological perspective, and the birth of civilization is even more recent. Progress over the last few thousand years has not been uniform, but sporadic, with little gain between the Ancient Greeks and about five hundred years ago. Change since then has been so rapid as to leave observers with vertigo. But perhaps man’s time on earth is just beginning, perhaps there will be many millions of years in the human future. Presumably our future lies in our own making.

Our intelligence can be put to bad ends. “To describe man as a mixture of god and beast is hardly fair to the beasts [p. 236].” Beasts could not produce a Hitler or Stalin, could not first imagine hell and then create one on earth. Why should we care about the perpetuation of this diabolical species?

But we shouldn’t ignore the other side of humanity, its ability to increase knowledge and create beauty, to generate love and sympathy. Perhaps the possession of these virtues, exceptional in the past, will become the standard for the future, and outstanding people in times to come will be as far above Shakespeare as he is above today’s average person. We have that within us to make life pleasant for virtually everyone, though we must choose wise leaders, not “cruel mountebanks [p. 238].” Human happiness resides in giving scope to our highest potentialities. (Shades here of John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, as he relates in On Liberty, where he endorses “utility in the largest sense, grounded on the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”) Full happiness is not now available, because there is so much suffering that sympathetic feelings necessarily undermine contentment – but a future without that suffering, and hence with access to profound satisfaction, is feasible. Do those tiny people in power today, surely in Russia but also elsewhere, sense these possibilities? “I suppose that never for a moment have they thought of man as a single species with possibilities that may be realized or thwarted [p. 239].” But we can hope, perhaps against reason, that leaders of a better ilk will emerge and prevail.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter IX

Part Two, Chapter IX (pages 228-234), “Steps Towards a Stable Peace”

Russell quotes from the final chapter of his 1953 book, The Impact of Science on Society, on what it would take for a scientific society – a society where politics and the economy are based on science – to remain stable for long periods. (Human Society in Ethics and Politics first was published in 1954, one year after The Impact of Science on Society.) Russell believes that stability would require that the society be global, feature high living standards without poverty, and keep population growth in check – while individual liberty and political decentralization would be given the widest possible scope. Alternative future paths seem to lead to chaos and destruction, so people should want to move towards a stable, scientific society.

Soviet ideology is based on the conflict between capitalism and communism, and part of the Marxist myth is the inevitable triumph of communism. But Soviet fanaticism should not be met with the Western fanaticism of preaching the evils of communism and the need to fear them, while censoring information about what communism actually means. Instead of the East-West cooperation that we need, mutual suspicion fuels an arms race. Russell thinks that the allaying of this suspicion can begin through the good offices of a neutral power like India. Indians could prepare a forecast of what would be likely to happen should the cold war heat up. The great powers would be invited to comment and to disagree – but at the end of the day, it should be obvious that aggression by either side would not be in anyone’s interest. Once everyone understands, and knows their rival to understand, that war is not a feasible option, negotiations can begin. The negotiations would have their eye towards creating a stable peace. For instance, surely stability requires that Germany not remain divided, and that the ruling power in China be acknowledged. With current tensions eased, the long-term problem of establishing international control over atomic energy can be addressed.

Russell hopes for an East-West détente that will allow the realization to grow that in a crowded world, like in a crowded city, some liberties that are reasonable in isolated areas must be sacrificed for stability. “The anarchic liberty enjoyed hitherto by nations is just as impossible in the modern world as would be anarchic liberty for either pedestrians or motorists in the streets of London or New York [p. 233].” Establishing an international government will require an embrace of science and a rejection of fanaticism. “One of the first things that would have to be done during a period of détente would be a cessation everywhere of governmental encouragement to fanatical blindness and the hatred which it generates [p. 233].”

All humans have the capacity to suffer. We can operate below capacity if we end the mutual, irrational enmity between East and West. Humane and wise statesmanship should aim to relieve suffering.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter VIII

Part Two, Chapter VIII (pages 222-227), “Conquest?”

Insecurity might cause either the West or the communist bloc to launch a war. If the conflict didn’t end in a draw, the remaining power could institute a world government. (Here Russell is going over some ground that he covered a few years earlier in Unpopular Essays, Chapter 3.) What if the Soviets won, and they established military control of the US and Western Europe? Russell does not think that they would be able to maintain quiet client states like those (at the time) in Eastern Europe. “The problem of holding down by force a very large and bitterly hostile population, such as that of the United States would be, is one which the resources of terrorism and secret police would soon find beyond their powers [p. 223].” So a global Soviet empire would collapse, but the thirst for revenge in the West would lead to a long period of turmoil. If, instead, the West were to win the initial encounter, nationalist passions would re-emerge in Russia and China, and the current tension would be back. There is not much hope that a great power war will bring a better world, even discounting the destruction and anarchy that it would involve. (Later, on page 226, Russell details the sort of anarchy and starvation that would develop after cities and industry are destroyed in the war – if mankind survives at all.) The hope for the future lies in cooperation between East and West, not in military conquest. An alliance between these great powers could establish a world government, though to make the institution fully global might require some use of force against smaller, recalcitrant states.

As a great power war would now be devastating, both East and West must be brought to believe that the other side, while fully capable of defensive action, has no interest in initiating an attack. “If both sides were convinced of this, genuine negotiations and a real diminution of tension would become possible [p. 225].” A toning down of hostile propaganda on both sides would be helpful in bringing about the conditions for cooperation. The removal of barriers to the flow of truthful information about the other side also would be a step in the right direction – blatant censorship in the Soviet Union does not imply that people in the West do not face some barriers to acquiring truthful information, too.

If a World War is inevitable, then every delay will render it more destructive, as the means for warfare advance. But rather than hope for a quick conflagration, Russell chooses to hope that statesmanship can develop sufficiently to prevent a major military conflict. “The measures required will be drastic, and will run counter to powerful prejudices, but perhaps the danger will nevertheless force their adoption [p. 227].”

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter VII

Part Two, Chapter VII (pages 213-221), “Will Religious Faith Cure Our Troubles?”

Some people believe that the erosion of religious faith is responsible for our current troubles. But our beliefs tend to be the result of our circumstances, not the other way around. [Existence (or being) determines consciousness, as Marx says? -- RBR] The deterioration of those circumstances has followed a sort of tragic inevitability that has sprung from the characters of the leaders involved. Russell provides (pages 213-214) a capsule summary of European relations (including the US and Russia) from 1914 through to the Cold War. The political forces were what they always have been among great powers, even as the destructive forces accelerated; the same evolution would have occurred whether Russia “believed” in Orthodox Christianity or in Marxism. Indeed, the First World War was fought by leaders who by and large were devout Christians. (Atheist politicos tended to be against the war.) Russell doesn’t use the term, but he indicates that he adheres to a “realist” conception of great power politics.

Russell rejects the view that some faiths (such as Christianity) are forces for good while others (such as Communism) are forces for harm. “What I wish to maintain is that all faiths do harm [p. 215].” Faith exists when someone believes something, profoundly, despite a lack of evidence to support that belief: it involves substituting emotion for evidence. (If there is evidence, faith is superfluous.) As different groups will have different emotions, faith tends to lead to conflict. If holders of faith also have political power, they will use the state to promote their faith and suppress others. History indicates that people of faith, even the Christian faith, do not avoid war. “Indeed, some of the most ferocious wars have been due to disputes between different kinds of Christianity [p. 216].”

Russell does not accept the view that some religious skeptics might endorse, that Christianity can be socially helpful, despite being false – though he holds a very low opinion of one alternative to Christianity, Marxism. [Russell’s godfather, John Stuart Mill, argued against suppressing minority views in the belief that the prevailing views, though possibly wrong, were nonetheless socially useful; further, “The usefulness of an opinion is itself matter of opinion: as disputable, as open to discussion, and requiring discussion as much, as the opinion itself.”] Russell recognizes that belief in the useful lie has a long provenance, and enlisted the support of Plato. The contribution of faiths to war is the hatred that they engender against non-believers; war brings out the worst in faiths. History gives the lie to the notion that fanaticism is beneficial to military enterprise. Science, useful to winning wars, is compromised by fanaticisms: Nazi hatred of Jews and Soviet embrace of Lysenkoism did not add to the power of their states: “without intellectual freedom, scientific warfare is not likely to remain long successful [p. 218].” More generally, the idea that national success depends on everyone adhering to some irrational belief is both ahistorical and wrong. It is hard to compartmentalize rationality, so those who accept fantastic beliefs in one realm tend to ignore evidence in other realms. At one time belief in a flat earth was reasonable. But now, people who believe in a flat earth must “close their minds against reason and to open them to every kind of absurdity in addition to the one from which they start [p. 220].”

“There is something feeble, and a little contemptible, about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths [p. 219].” Further, he sort of knows, but is unwilling to openly recognize, that they are myths; this knowledge makes him react harshly to any criticism of his creed. He wants to constrain education so that such criticism is suppressed. Authoritarian rulers can successfully limit education and instill timidity in the populace, but at the cost of achieving progress. Beliefs based on reason can be altered by discussion; beliefs based on faith are beyond reason, so they are supported by repression and mis-education. A decline in the hold of dogma, whether of the traditional kind, or Nazi and Communist variants, is an unalloyed blessing. Science and a recognition of the horror of mass torture are what the world needs.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter VI

Part Two, Chapter VI (pages 208-212), “Scientific Technique and the Future”

The peaceful uses of atomic power hold great potential – but its military uses threaten the continued existence of life on earth. The old military logic, that of arming yourself beyond the capabilities of your likely rivals, implied that wars were as bloody as the prevailing technology permitted. In the nuclear age, this logic will bring doom, and not just for the warring parties. Nor are the existential threats only nuclear – biological weapons might have similar destructive potential. “It is impossible to foresee any limits to the harm which scientific ingenuity can enable men to inflict upon each other [p. 210].” Ingrained ways of thought are leading us to catastrophe, but these patterns of thought are proving hard to change. The idea that a war can be won is obsolete. Our salvation requires that our wisdom grow to match our skill. “It is the imperative duty of us all in the perilous years that lie ahead to struggle to replace the old crude passions of hate and greed and envy by a new wisdom based upon the realization of our common danger, a danger created by our own folly, and curable only by a diminution of that folly [p. 212].” Hatred is reciprocated, so people’s hearts must soften. And our well-being depends upon the well-being of others. This truth has long been known to sages, but the need to implement it in practice now is vital.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter V

Part Two, Chapter V (pp. 199-207), “Cohesion and Rivalry”

Cohesive and combative impulses shape the relationships among different human groups, like dominant and submissive impulses shape within-group hierarchies. The continuation of the species requires some family cohesiveness, which extends outwards to tribes. Tribes are rivals, however, except when they can maintain a precarious alliance to combat a common enemy. More populous groups have a military advantage: “…self-interest tends to enlarge the size of the social group [p. 200].” Common beliefs, common fears, and other sources of solidarity will develop, unifying large groups to the same extent as small tribes.

Conquest is the source of most states, with necessity, not shared beliefs or genealogy, securing the loyalty of the ruled. Extensive empire-building through military conquest characterized the approximately 1000 years between Cyrus and the end of Rome. “Throughout this time, it might have seemed that conquering armies were irresistible and that there was no limit to the extent of territory that a great military leader could bring under his sway [p. 201].” Rome provides a good example of how social cohesion can evolve from origins in military might. After the fall of Rome European history is dominated by highly decentralized rivalry among countless small powers, until authority was established in modern nation states. The Muslim world also has moved from unity to rivalry and back. “It is difficult in the history of the world hitherto to discern any long-term movement either towards more cohesion or towards more rivalry [p. 202].” But that is with respect to political cohesion – in terms of economic relations (and in culture), there has been a marked movement towards globalization. Commerce promotes civilization.

Western culture blossomed with the Renaissance and then spread widely. “There was every reason to expect that this process would continue until all the world was culturally unified, and the ideas of Jefferson and Macaulay could be preached without contradiction not only in India but in the plateaus of Tibet and the darkest recesses of African forests [pp. 204-205].” The First World War, an intra-west civil war, undermined the force of the western example. Now there is upheaval, with Russian Communism joining Islam as a militant faith, and China, Africa, and India all culturally unsettled. The centrifugal forces moving cultures apart also are spurring a dedication to economic autarchy and industrialization for the sake of military might; the long-term consequences include famine and war. “These evil consequences can only be avoided if mankind decide to conduct their affairs in a manner less insane than that now prevalent [p. 205].” Science, however, remains as a globally unifying force – bomb-making scientists can operate without missing a step when they move from the Soviet Union to the West, or in the opposite direction.

Information, previously held only locally and perhaps only by literate elites, now is available on a much wider scale. Unfortunately, the information about rival countries that is made available generally is filtered to stoke fear and hatred.

Recently, nations have begun to cohere within two large and opposed military blocs. “Cohesion and rivalry working together from the first clash of savage tribes to the present day, have gradually, by a process which has a terrible inevitability, come to the point where each reaches the greatest development that is compatible with the existence of the other [p. 207].” As technology advances, this process threatens human annihilation. Our only hope is that people can learn to be content with rivalry in milder forms, in sports, art, science, and quality of life.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter IV

Part Two, Chapter IV (pp. 188-198), “Myth and Magic”

Humans seem to have considerably more imagination than other animals. They believe some things because of evidence, but they believe many other things because they feel these things to be right, despite the absence of (any further) evidence. “On the whole, as men become more civilized, the sphere of evidence in the formation of beliefs becomes larger, and the sphere of imagination smaller [pp. 188-189].” Imaginative beliefs still form a significant part of our belief systems. Even though any connection between truth and imaginative beliefs is coincidental, they allow us to make our way through the world and suggest ideas that sometimes lead to improvements in art and science. An intense imagination, as Shakespeare knew, can lead to belief in the reality of what is imagined.

The intensity and drama of dreams might be the source of the power we allow our imaginations. From dreams and daydreams, which often derive from imagined fears, “men have fashioned the vast systems of magic and ritual and myth and religion which have influenced human life at least as profoundly as the skills and observations out of which scientific knowledge has grown [p. 190].” Other beliefs held without evidence, such as the effect of the phase of the moon on weather, are not based on deep emotions, and so do not present serious social concerns.

Hopes and fears lead to imaginary beliefs because of inflated senses of self-importance, ideas that the universe itself must care about what we care about. We even believe that natural processes have causes that mimic the causes of human action. “Eruptions and earthquakes seem like manifestations of anger, and so we imagine an angry spirit which is causing them [p. 191].”

Beliefs held without evidence speak to the passions of the people who hold them. The cruelty with which these beliefs have been operationalized suggests that the underlying passions are dark. All sorts of terrors are inflicted through imaginary beliefs, yet few charitable acts possess similar sources. Fear of death led to the invention of afterlives that often were themselves full of torment. Irrational fears of happiness have led to self-inflicted torments though asceticism and self-abasement. “The things that men have thought pleasing to the gods throw a strange light upon their own emotions [p. 193].” Self-hatred frequently finds its expression in cruelty towards others, including in the form of human sacrifices to placate or honor an angry god. (Here we have an echo of a passage from Chapter Ten of Unpopular Essays: “…when a man tortures himself he feels that it gives him a right to torture others, and inclines him to accept any system of dogma by which this right is fortified.”)

Desires for dominance and for submission are strong human passions. The mutual existence of these passions – even within a single individual, both passions can abide – has helped to stabilize unequal societies, where the leaders get satisfaction from dominating and others obtain satisfaction from being dominated. The leaders can satisfy their desire to be dominated by inventing a god who rules over them. This can allow them to enjoy a type of submission that does not hinder their accumulation of earthly power. Their attempts to force others into virtue are justified by their own abstemious behavior. Their asceticism with respect to sensuality does not extend to the enjoyment of power. “It is the prevalence of this type of psychology in forceful men which has made the notion of sin so popular, since it combines so perfectly humility towards heaven with self-assertion here on earth [p. 195].” And this self-assertion can take the form of inflicting pain on the less virtuous, without remorse.

We imbue the cosmos with human emotions. Good outcomes are caused by love, bad outcomes by hate or anger. We try to influence the extent to which the cosmos loves and hates us, through piety and faith. The scientific approach is much different – causality does not reflect our hopes and fears, but is determined (imperfectly and probabilistically) through the accumulation of evidence. Scientific knowledge has liberated us from much cruelty inflicted by mythical beliefs.

Science now provides us with the possibility of self-extermination as well as the liberation from myths. To prevent the self-extermination, we should not retreat into myths. “If salvation is to be found, it must be by the help of more science, not less…[pp. 197-198].”

Friday, April 16, 2010

Human Society in Ethics and Politics, Part Two, Chapter III

Part Two, Chapter III (pages 175-187), “Forethought and Skill”

Human infants are pretty similar to the newborns of other mammalian species, especially with regard to instincts and passions. Human intelligence and imagination offer broader vistas for the passions, however, than those available to other species. Despite more opportunities for satisfaction, humans seem to be less happy than they were when in a more primitive state, and less happy than apes. Russell compares the carefree life of a monkey in the jungle to the stress and monotony of the suburban-dwelling, commuting office drone; the monkey is in the more enviable position, though the human specimen is among the happiest of his tribe. Nevertheless, Russell maintains that there is a variety of happiness available to humans that goes beyond what other mammals are capable of. This happiness could be nearly universal among men and women, but currently is achieved by very few. Unhappiness is preventable by known methods, but those methods are not employed.

Passions can be separated into the automatic (or nearly automatic) impulses, and demands induced by deliberative thought about the best means to secure a desired end. The implementation of the actions recommended by deliberation might require that impulsive acts be successfully restrained. Impulses for indulging resentment, for overcoming obstacles, or for consuming alcohol and drugs, might be hard to suppress, though, despite rationality demanding such suppression. Further, excessive control of impulse saps life of joy. “Impulse must be allowed a large place in human life, but ought not to lead, as in fact it does, to vast systems of individual and collective self-deception [p. 177].” Humans are better positioned to have desire control impulse than are other animals.

Human intelligence manifests itself in forethought and in skill. Forethought, a derivative of memory, induces people to take actions that bring no immediate pleasure or reward but make future pleasures more likely. (Russell suspects that apparent forethought in other animals, such as the storing of nuts by squirrels, actually provides immediate pleasure to the squirrels, in the same way that sex does.) The adoption of agriculture reflected forethought, and the whole notion of “capital” (goods not intended for consumption but used to produce other goods) indicates the sacrifice of current for future satisfaction. Russell suspects that people with infinite forethought would invest rather than consume any resources, if those savings earned any positive amount of interest. [Presumably a small probability that one will not survive to consume later would be enough to prevent full disdain for instantaneous gratification, even with positive interest rates – RBR.] Adults impose their forethought on children (who have less forethought) by insisting upon education, even though it goes against the impulses of many children.

The child grows up, and engages in work that he would never take on for the immediate reward alone. If he has children, again he sacrifices current pleasures for the sake of their futures. He seeks to be uncontroversial and successful at work, and his prudence eventually becomes an impulse. This depiction is an accurate rendering of the majority of people in advanced countries.

Policy and the public sphere likewise are dominated by forethought, including the work of those important folks who contemplate how best to kill foreigners. But one needn’t only think of forethought as being a barrier to happiness: sometimes it is a lack of forethought that threatens happiness. For instance, too little attention is paid to how to prevent war and overpopulation.

Humans display skill, as do animals, but skill plays a much larger role among humanity. Skill, for Russell, means engaging in activities that are inputs to desired ends – activities that would be eschewed if they did not promote the ends. Complex skills require language, to allow knowledge to be accumulated and transmitted through the generations. Agriculture, animal husbandry, and tool making are all skills that humans acquired long ago. The making of tools, weapons, for military purposes, continues to spur most scientific thinking. Skills did not grow much for thousands of years, but the previous two centuries have seen an explosion in skills.

The accumulation of skill and its embodiment in technology allows for a long time to elapse between the recognition of a want and its satisfaction. Even with agriculture, the planting occurs only a few months before the reaping. But with modern machinery, the process of supplying today’s food began long ago, when the machines to help grow and transport the food were manufactured (out of raw materials that themselves had to be gathered). “In this long intricate combination of forethought and skill, there is, throughout, a dependence upon an elaborate social and economic organization, which may break down, with disastrous consequences, in time of war [p. 184].”

Skill makes it easier to satisfy our wants; so, has the improvement in skill led to more happiness? Advances in skill tend to be, at first, monopolized by a few people, who can use that skill to subjugate others. Agriculture ties people to land; lacking exit options, cultivators of land becomes slaves or serfs to landowners. Industrialization (outside of the United States) had a similar tendency, with capitalists gaining but the well-being of workers often compromised. Spreading the benefits from skill improvements requires a more equal distribution of power.

Successful species establish an equilibrium between their impulses and the opportunities for satisfying those impulses. When opportunities to satisfy impulses are no longer scarce, overconsumption can be devastating – the introduction and easy availability of distilled alcohol provides numerous examples. A desire for power is one impulse that can be more readily gratified as societies expand and their capabilities develop; an addiction to power can more socially destructive than an addiction to alcohol. “That is why elaborate safeguards in the form of Rights of Man and democratic government become important in highly organized communities [p. 186].” With advances in military skill, uncontrolled rivalry now threatens not only the combatants, but the survival of the human species.

Increased skill and intelligence allow us to support a larger human population. This would be good if people were happy. It is possible, however, that population will outstrip the food supply (in part because of longer lifespans), and then more misery will result.

It is too soon to know if increased human intelligence will be a blessing or a curse. If it is a curse, however, it will be because of too little intelligence, not too much.