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.