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].”

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