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.

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