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.