Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Eight

“How to Grow Old,” pages 50-53

Longevity depends on your genetic inheritance, so “choose your ancestors carefully [p. 50].” Russell’s ancestors in the previous few generations tended to be long-lived, though his parents were conspicuous exceptions to this rule. His maternal grandmother was too busy with promoting higher education for women and post-midnight reading of popular science to recognize that she was growing old. Hers is the proper attitude: Russell advocates, as always, broad interests as a antidote for brooding on aging.

Russell skirts the opportunity to endorse healthy living. “I never do anything on the ground that it is good for health, though in actual fact the things I like doing are mostly wholesome [p. 51].”

Two traps present themselves to the unwary elderly. One is the temptation to live in the past, and to think of one’s current mind and emotions as inferior to what once they were. A second temptation is to assume too large a role in the life of the young, to try to annex some of their vitality. Remember that animals lose interest in their offspring once the young ones become self-sufficient.

Those broad interests that help to ease old age should be impersonal, that is, not dependent on the enthusiastic participation of younger family members. You can aid, financially or materially, your children and grandkids, but “you must not expect that they will enjoy your company [p. 52].”

A bitterness in the face of death by the young, for whom an early demise robs them of an expected future, is not untoward. “But in an old man who has known human joys and sorrow, and has achieved whatever work it was in him to do, the fear of death is somewhat abject and ignoble [p. 52].” Russell recapitulates some of the ideas he expressed in The Conquest of Happiness, about how broad, impersonal interests connect a person with the stream of life, so that personal death becomes less consequential. “I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that the others will carry on what I can no longer do, and content in the thought that what was possible has been done [p. 53].”

A note at the conclusion of the chapter indicates that this “How to Grow Old” is reprinted from New Hopes for a Changing World, which, coincidentally, is next in line in the Reading Bertrand Russell plan.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Seven

“Hopes: Realized and Disappointed,” pages 44-49

Russell opens this chapter describing those contours of the global political situation that, in his youth, were expected to remain stable: the great powers were both European and monarchies, with the then-recent half-exception of France; England itself was class-ridden and imperialist. Not all of the queen’s subjects supported Britain’s expansionist tendencies, but even these dissenters nevertheless took pride in British might. “I both hoped and expected to see throughout the world a gradual spread of parliamentary democracy, personal liberty, and freedom for the countries that were at that time subject to European Powers, including Britain [p. 45].” The institution of free trade and the erosion of nationalism were expected to diffuse globally, and young Russell followed his parents and godfather in supporting the emancipation of women.

Russell indicates that his evaluation of political conditions has not changed since he was young. “The things which I thought good in those days, I still think good [p. 45].” Britain’s domestic situation has improved, with voting rights for women, moderate socialism that still respects liberty, and greater tolerance of moral differences. Life expectancy is higher, people are healthier, living standards are up; Russell believes, as a consequence, that people are happier in Britain than they were when he was young. (Russell is writing long after the publication of his own The Conquest of Happiness, but before the Easterlin paradox was conceived.)

The international scene has darkened, however. The old repressive regimes in Russia and central Europe have been succeeded by a worse tyranny out of Moscow. “China, after a long period of go-as-you-please anarchy, is being wielded in a great crucible of suffering into an infinitely formidable weapon of military power [p. 46].” The United States is backtracking on liberalism, and the specter of nuclear catastrophe hangs over everyone. “Perhaps a well-ordered prison is all that the human race deserves – so at least the Devil whispers in moments of discouragement [p. 46].” But Russell will hew to his youthful view of what constitutes the good life, and will not revise it to reflect momentary, pessimistic assessments of what can be hoped for. Failure to accept reality is undesirable, of course. “But it is also a bad thing to assume that whatever is in the ascendant must be right, that regard for fact demands subservience to evil [p. 47].” Regimentation might win some victories, but that does not make it admirable.

As the youthful Russell hoped and expected that good outcomes would emerge with time, so does the mature Russell. The threat of a war of annihilation can be eliminated, poverty can be overcome, tolerance can grow, and the scope for personal initiative can expand. Surely people will grow tired of living amidst “a welter of organized hatreds and threats of mutual extermination [p. 47].” People could not live that way with their close neighbors, and states should not arrange their affairs in such a manner, either.

Russell balances two voices in his head, that of the Devil’s Advocate and that of the Earnest Publicist (p. 48). The Devil’s Advocate chastises him for (earnestly) meddling in public affairs, which will prove impervious to his ramblings. But maybe the Devil’s Advocate is mistaken, maybe public opinion can sway dictators – and at any rate, political commentary at least offers a benign occupation for Russell’s time. “And so I go on writing books, though whether any good will come of doing so, I do not know [p. 49].”

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Six

“Beliefs: Discarded and Retained,” pages 38-43

With help from G. E. Moore, Russell discarded his early enchantment with Hegel, and Hegel’s “one”: “When I first threw over Hegel, I was delighted to be able to believe in the bizarre multiplicity of the world [p. 38].” Russell’s reaction to his dismissal of Hegel was, at first, to take as true all that Hegel disbelieved. So Russell accepted the multiplicity of truths, the atomistic nature of the world, and the reality of abstract mathematical concepts. “Pythagoras and Plato had let their views of the universe be shaped by mathematics, and I followed them gaily [p. 39].” Whitehead’s ability to adopt mathematical logic to make sense of, not a world of definite borders but a world of vague outlines, lent Russell a way out of conflating ideal forms with reality.

Over time, what first appears to be fundamental turns out to be mere superficial. Imagine existing on the surface of the sun, with its flux of swirling gasses. There would be no “things” to count, and hence you wouldn’t dream of counting. What we take as common sense on earth would be the most “fantastic metaphysical speculation [p. 40]” in such an environment.

Reality is imprecise, whereas mathematics is precise. There is no such thing as a rod that is exactly one yard long, and the notion of a yard is itself imprecise. Plato, at least, was correct in locating exactness outside of earth, as it has no reality here. Russell mourns the lack of precision, but takes solace in the fact that even in the real world (and hence outside of its domain of purity), mathematics is the useful, if blunt, tool for making progress.

In his reaction against Hegel, Russell’s atomistic view encompassed language: a word had to signify some thing. But logic’s interesting words, like “if” or “not,” do not readily admit to such an interpretation; Russell “came to think that many words and phrases have no significance in isolation, but only contribute to the significance of whole sentences [p. 42].”

“Nevertheless” – another problematic word! – Russell indicates that most of his beliefs about logic have survived for the fifty-five years since he jettisoned Hegel. The world is not limited to what is in our heads. “I still think that what we can know about the world outside the thoughts and feelings of living beings, we can know only through physical science [p. 42].” We must observe, and cannot just reason our way to truths. [In Unpopular Essays, Chapter 4, Russell chides philosophers like Descartes and Leibniz for believing that it is “possible to find out important things, such as the nature of God, by merely sitting still and thinking…”.]

Russell notes that his interest and activism in public issues, including the struggle for women’s suffrage, long pre-dated World War I. “But it was not until 1914 that social questions became my main preoccupation [p. 43].”

Monday, November 21, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Five

“From Logic to Politics,” pages 32-37

World War I marked the transition of Russell’s intellectual activities towards political issues, and away, though not completely, from mathematical logic. The causes and prevention of war became Russell’s primary concern, one in which he lacked expertise, particularly in mastering the persuasion that is requisite when hoping to influence social questions.

Russell engaged in a youthful flirtation with imperialist ideas, but a new appreciation for the ubiquity of loneliness led, in 1901, to a conversion experience. “In the course of a few minutes I changed my mind about the Boer War, about harshness in education and in the criminal law, and about combativeness in private relations [p. 33].” [Hmmm, when was the last time I reversed my opinion on an important issue?] The conversion and its consequences were published by Russell in A Free Man’s Worship, but for the next decade, he was chiefly involved in the “Herculean task” of writing, with Whitehead, Principia Mathematica.

Russell, unaware of psychoanalysis, nonetheless adopted a psychoanalytic view towards the mass passions that grip people in wartime. He thought that it would require changes in the feelings in individuals, away from cruelty, for violence-reducing reforms to be sustainable. Feelings are generated through many channels, of course. Nevertheless, people, in general, “will be kindly or hostile in their feelings toward each other in proportion as they feel their lives successful or unsuccessful [pages 33-34].”

The Russia that Russell visited in 1920 was governed by a philosophy of hate. Moscow’s version of Marxism involved an error of theory and an error of feeling. The error in theory was to limit the concern with power relations among humans to that of economic power, and further, to equate economic power with ownership. The abolition of private ownership of the means of production, however, simply left individuals at the mercy of the power of state officials – a power even greater than that enjoyed by the titans of capitalism. The error in feeling was the belief that hate could serve as force for bringing forth good. “Those who had been inspired mainly by hatred of capitalists and landowners had acquired the habit of hating, and after achieving victory were impelled to look for new objects of detestation [p. 35].” Lenin and the early Bolsheviks had good intentions, but with hate as their motive force and with their selective distaste for power, they brought about a hell on earth. Right thinking and right feeling are both necessary for improving the human condition.

Following shortly upon his brief Russia visit, Russell visited China for almost a year. “China at that time was in a condition of anarchy; and, while Russia had too much government, China had too little [p. 35].” [Recall that Russell expressed a fairly positive opinion of anarchic political systems in Proposed Roads to Freedom.] Russell foresaw then, what he thinks we are in the process of seeing realized now (1956), a world of three major powers, those of the United States, Russia, and China – and in the process, China, forced to match its rivals militarily, sacrificed its traditional virtues.

Russell offers no panacea, and believes that we should beware the “dogmatic and fanatical belief in some doctrine for which there is no adequate evidence [p. 35].” [Here we see again the anti-dogmatism also expressed by Russell in Unpopular Essays and elsewhere.] Those who hold to isms, like the Bolsheviks, tend to be motivated by hatred.

Russell would have liked to be part of a like-thinking crowd, such as Liberals or Pacifists, but finds he can accept only slices of their creeds. As a result, he has led a lonely existence; nonetheless, his situation has improved since 1939, as his opinions have more nearly coincided with those commonly held by the British.

World history since 1914 has not unfolded in the direction Russell favored. “Nationalism has increased, militarism has increased, liberty has diminished [p. 36].” Civilization has, in many parts of the globe, lost ground, and victory in world wars has compromised the values of the victors. A war of annihilation threatens humanity. But as always, Russell expresses optimism. War and poverty are both problems that admit of solutions, and the solutions would be found if people could look more to their own happiness than to ensuring the misery of their enemies. “Hatred, folly, and mistaken beliefs alone stand between us and the millennium [p. 37].” Perhaps the enormous costs involved in not solving our problems will frighten humanity into enlightenment.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Four

“Experiences of a Pacifist in the First World War,” pages 26-31

As early as 1902 Russell dissented from a policy proposal that allied England with Russia and ensured a rift with Germany. He saw the damage to civilization that a great war would bring, and supported English neutrality. “Subsequent history has confirmed me in this opinion [p. 26].” He drafted, circulated, and published a petition favoring neutrality, but once war broke out, most of the signatories changed their stance. Russell noticed, and was surprised by, the significant public support for the war.

Russell regretted German battlefield successes, but he never had any doubt that he had to dissent against what then passed for English patriotism, by protesting the war. “I hardly supposed that much good would come of opposing the war, but I felt that for the honor of human nature those who were not swept off their feet should show that they stood firm [p. 28].” So speeches were delivered, and one gathering of pacifists at a church was attacked by an alcohol-fueled mob, where the courage of the women pacifists helped to limit the violence that was inflicted on everyone. Later, at the same church, the pulpit was burned before Russell could give a scheduled speech. “These were the only occasions on which I came across personal violence; all my other meetings were undisturbed [p. 29].”

Russell spent four and a half months in prison in 1918, with liberty to read and write, as long as he steered clear of pacifist propaganda. So he wrote and read steadily. “I found prison in many ways quite agreeable [p. 30].” The privilege to read and write only was extended to prisoners in the so-called first-division; Russell recognizes that for lower-division inmates, prison is an awful place.

After his release from prison, the end of the war was clearly on its way; nevertheless, the precise end of the war came quickly. When the armistice was announced at 11AM on November 11, Russell -- who had a few hours advance knowledge -- was in Tottenham Court Road. The shops emptied for revelry, and a man and a woman, unacquainted up to that point, kissed in the street. “The crowd rejoiced and I also rejoiced. But I remained as solitary as before [p. 31].”

Friday, November 11, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Three

"Some Philosophical Contacts," pages 19-25

Russell admits to daydreaming as a child about receiving letters of praise from foreigners who had managed to read his work. Such letters eventually came his way, the first from the French philosopher Louis Couturat. They developed a friendship over a shared interest in Leibniz, but they moved apart as Couturat’s enthusiasm turned to the synthetic language of Ido.

Kant served as Russell’s welcome entrĂ©e into the German philosophers, but Hegel also came highly recommended. Russell was so put off by Hegel’s comments on the philosophy of mathematics, that he rejected Hegel wholesale, and (for other reasons) also stepped away from Kant. German mathematicians, however, began to assume a large role in Russell’s thought: Weierstrass, Dedekind, and, especially, Cantor, were important influences. To ensure that he understood Cantor, Russell re-wrote Cantor’s work nearly verbatim, as the requisite slow pace enhanced comprehension. Cantor was eccentric, and committed to the proposition that Bacon wrote Shakespeare. Russell and Cantor corresponded, but never met.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Russell’s mathematical motivator became Frege. A teacher gave Russell a copy of Frege’s 1879 book Begriffsschrift, which Russell belatedly read in 1901: “I rather suspect that I was its first reader [p. 22].” Frege was the first proponent of Russell’s view “that mathematics is a prolongation of logic… [p. 22].” Frege’s belief, early in the twentieth century, that he had managed to reduce all mathematics to logic came undone by Russell’s construction of a contradiction: Frege frankly acknowledged the problem. “To my lasting regret, I never met Frege, but I am glad to have done all that lay in my power to win him the recognition which he deserved [pp. 22-23].”

Russell then recounts his early acquaintance with Ludwig Wittgenstein, who sought out Bertrand at Cambridge. Bertie’s endorsement of Ludwig’s philosophical capabilities apparently put a stop to what might have been a career as an aeronaut. Wittgenstein was hard to get along with, and would visit Russell late at night and talk of committing suicide. Russell provides more details of Wittgenstein’s life, including his internment at the end of World War I, his release of his inherited fortune to avoid distraction from philosophy, and his unhappy existence as a village schoolmaster. Russell admits to being influenced by the early doctrines of Wittgenstein, though their views later diverged. Russell holds Wittgenstein in high regard: “…at the time when I knew him well he was immensely impressive as he had fire and penetration and intellectual purity to a quite extraordinary degree [p. 24].”

Russell ends this chapter with a description of the extreme commitment to philosophy of Branislav Petronievic, whom Russell met at the end of World War I, and “namechecks” two significant intellectual influences, “the Italian Peano, and my friend G. E. Moore [p. 25].”

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" Two

“Why I Took to Philosophy,” pages 13-18

Greek skepticism of religion and sense data led to two strands of philosophy. One strand questions the validity of our common sense, and the other strand suggests that there is a deeper philosophical knowledge that comes closer to truth, and even a comfortable truth. “In almost all philosophy doubt has been the goad and certainty has been the goal [pp. 13-14].”

Russell’s interest in philosophy grew from the usual motives, with emphases on finding ineluctable truths and “some satisfaction for religious impulses [p. 14].” He found mathematics to his liking, despite his reluctance to have to accept unproven postulates before headway could be made; he hoped that human society could be put on the same mathematical footing as physics.

His concerns about the foundations of mathematics were sustained when he suspected (correctly) that his Cambridge professors were hawking incorrect proofs. As a result, he welcomed Kantian philosophy, which later he discarded. “I was encouraged,” writes Russell, “in my transition to philosophy by a certain disgust with mathematics, resulting from too much concentration and too much absorption in the sort of skill that is needed in examinations [p. 16].” After finishing his math exams at Cambridge, he sold his math books and devoted himself to philosophy.

Russell’s hope of overcoming his growing religious skepticism was bolstered by his temporary embrace of Hegelian philosophy, which he learned from his friend McTaggart. (Apparently McTaggart later was to play a role in expelling Russell from Trinity College.) Closer examination of Hegel’s own work, full of confusions, led Russell to renounce this approach. Platonic ideal forms, with mathematics as their representation, offered an alternative refuge. “But in the end I found myself obliged to abandon this doctrine also, and I have never since found religious satisfaction in any philosophical doctrine that I could accept [p. 18].”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Portraits From Memory, "Chapter" One

“Adaptation: An Autobiographical Epitome,” pages 1-12

Portraits From Memory opens with a remarkable and lengthy paragraph, describing Russell’s background and the atmosphere in his home when he was a child. “My parents died before I can remember, and I was brought up by my grandparents [p. 1].” Granddad was the former British Prime Minister John Russell, the first in the line of Earls Russell (of which Bertie was the third), and himself the son of a major British political figure. (Later in Portraits From Memory, Russell will devote a chapter to his grandfather.) The political leanings in the Russell household promoted parliamentary supremacy with a grudging toleration for a benevolent monarch, while global progress towards democracy – a democracy tempered by the inclination of the masses to follow the lead of the aristocracy – was the assured future fate. British global supremacy also was part of the presumed path to come, though the supremacy would not involve the continuing domination of Asian and African subjects. “The atmosphere in the house was one of puritan piety and austerity [p. 3],” manifesting itself in the form of morning prayers, cold baths, plain food, and the acceptance of alcohol and tobacco only to the point that was requisite for sociability.

Young Bertie’s interest in mathematics and philosophy was not championed by his grandparents, whose exclusive attention to virtue implied some hostility to such questionable pursuits. Matriculating at Cambridge was a liberating experience after the repression of home. “I had been compelled to live in a morbid atmosphere where an unwholesome kind of morality was encouraged to such an extent as to paralyze intelligence [p. 4].” [Russell indicated the importance of finding a congenial setting for one’s beliefs in The Conquest of Happiness.] Cambridge, where he studied first mathematics and then philosophy, brought an end to young Bertrand’s agonizing loneliness. Bertrand hoped to find some certainty in the truths of mathematics – though he was unimpressed with what passed for the proofs that were offered. Over the next two decades he learned that his hopes for certainty were less than fully realizable.

Bertie’s genealogy ensured that there was a ready-made political career in the offing. Against family objections, he chose to pursue philosophy instead. Following the career-choice tempest, he had a period of personal calm up until World War I. His opposition to that conflict and British participation in it isolated him from many friends and from British society more generally. (He notes that he is not against all war, and that he viewed the Second World War as necessary.) WWI and its aftermath – including the conditions that engendered WWII – have brought untold horrors. These horrors, including Nazism and Bolshevism in power, would have been avoided if Britain had remained neutral in the conflict.

Russell’s isolation deepened after WWI, especially following a visit to Russia in 1920, when he emerged (in part from a meeting with Lenin) as an opponent of the liberty-trampling Bolshevik regime. “I came to the conclusion that everything that was being done and everything that was being intended was totally contrary to what any person of a liberal outlook would desire [p. 8].” So by and large, the few people who could still stomach Russell following his World War I stance were put off by his anti-Bolshevik views.

Russell’s proclaims the Russian visit to be a turning point in his life. “The country seemed to me one vast prison in which the jailers were cruel bigots [p. 8].” Yet Bertrand’s friends supported this vile regime, and Russell had to decide whether he was mad, or they were. Fortunately, he was used to trusting his own judgment, thanks to the crucible of WWI.

Russell spent a happy year in China, returning in 1921 and turning his attention to education – as Reading Bertrand Russell has already noted (along with his views on the Bolsheviks). Russell started his own school to try to address what he saw as the shortcomings of the existing models. “But a school is an administrative enterprise and I found myself deficient in skill as an administrator [p. 9].” The school failed.

Freedom has its limitations, and in education, it must be limited to ensure sufficient discipline to acquire knowledge. Russell follows his godfather on the main principle of individual liberty: “The broad rule is a simple one: that men should be free in what only concerns themselves, but that they should not be free when they are tempted to aggression against others [p. 11].” The specific applications of this rule are complex, of course.

Russell views himself as an abstract philosopher much given to precision in thought – for which he often is mistakenly considered unfeeling. And although philosophy has not answered all of Russell’s needs, during his lifetime much that used to be vague and a matter of opinion has become precise and scientific; his own efforts to effect this progress are a source of self-satisfaction.

Optimism, easily imbued within his youthful milieu, is harder to support now. “But I remain convinced, whatever dark times may lie before us, that mankind will emerge, that the habit of mutual forbearance, which now seems lost, will be recovered, and that the reign of brutal violence will not last forever [p. 12].” Kindness and clear thinking will help us find the right path, and the future for humanity, Russell contends, will be brighter than its past.

[I haven’t yet read Russell’s three volume Autobiography, published well after Portraits From Memory, but this chapter has reminded me, rather profoundly, that I need to do that.]

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Next Up: Portraits From Memory

The Reading Bertrand Russell plan, which now appears to be a more-than-five-year plan, beckons forth Portraits From Memory and Other Essays, henceforth to be referred to as Portraits From Memory. The book was published by Simon and Schuster in 1956. My copy is a hardback, “FIRST PRINTING,” which appears to be identical to the copy at scribd. The book is 246 pages, with vi pages of preliminary material and a one page “About the Author” entry at the end. Russell’s Wikipedia entry and the Bertrand Russell Society both indicate that Portraits From Memory was published in London in 1956 by George Allen and Unwin, so perhaps there were separate British and American editions, as we have seen before with Russell. Parts of Portraits From Memory reproduce addresses broadcast by Russell over the BBC in the mid-1950s. The detailed copyright notice in my version suggests that some of the material dates from as early as 1951.

Portraits From Memory opens with something entitled “Adaptation: an Autobiographical Epitome.” I will call this Chapter One, and number the rest sequentially, but this is for my own purposes; these “chapter numbers” will be placed in parentheses after the name of each essay. Russell’s “Adaptation” is followed by a section entitled “Six Autobiographical Essays;” these essays are:

I. Why I Took to Philosophy (“Chapter” 2)
II. Some Philosophical Contacts (3)
III. Experiences of a Pacifist in the First World War (4)
IV. From Logic to Politics (5)
V. Beliefs: Discarded and Retained (6)
VI. Hopes: Realized and Disappointed (7)

The autobiographical essays are followed by two short pieces, “How to Grow Old” (8) and “Reflections on My Eightieth Birthday.” (9) Then come the nine chapters of the section titled, like the book itself, “Portraits From Memory”:

I. Some Cambridge Dons of the Nineties (10)
II. Some of My Contemporaries at Cambridge (11)
III. George Bernard Shaw (12)
IV. H. G. Wells (13)
V. Joseph Conrad (14)
VI. George Santayana (15)
VII. Alfred North Whitehead (16)
VIII. Sidney and Beatrice Webb (17)
IX. D.H. Lawrence (18)

So much for memory. After these nine chapters are placed 14 essays, most of them rather short, on assorted topics. They are:

Lord John Russell (19)
John Stuart Mill (20)
Mind and Matter (21)
The Cult of “Common Usage” (22)
Knowledge and Wisdom (23)
A Philosophy for Our Time (24)
A Plea for Clear Thinking (25)
History As an Art (26)
How I Write (27)
The Road to Happiness (28)
Symptoms of Orwell’s 1984 (29)
Why I Am Not a Communist (30)
Man’s Peril (31)
Steps toward Peace (32)

Looks like fun to me. If things go according to plan, the large number of chapters suggests that the summentary of Portraits From Memory will involve more posts than any of our previous Russell books. Onward, then.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Full Time

Part One (“Education and the Good Life”) and Part Two (“Education of Character”) each received an end-of-period summentary. This one concentrates on Part Three (“Intellectual Education,”), but draws to some extent on the entire book.

The six chapters comprising “Intellectual Education” cover a lot of ground, at least as measured in years of schooling: from the age of seven or so through university. Russell’s contention is that the basis of character is formed in the first six years, and its refinement will take place automatically as intellectual learning proceeds. The intellectual virtues of “curiosity, open-mindedness, belief that knowledge is possible though difficult, patience, industry, concentration and exactness [p. 243]” themselves cannot be directly taught, though they can be nourished, in part through encouraging active engagement with interesting material and by keeping the practical use of knowledge in view, even if such use is well down the road. Students need to be challenged, but the challenges cannot be too difficult: as Russell’s godfather noted, “It is even more fatal to exertion to have no hope of succeeding by it, than to be assured of succeeding without it [at V.11.45].”

Russell isn’t an educational traditionalist; rather, he embraces recent innovations such as those of Madame Montessori, Margaret McMillan, and the Bedales School. He supports the use of new technologies, especially cinema, in teaching, and believes that dancing should be part of primary education. He doesn’t recommend the old practice of “drilling,” but he does recognize that it promoted application. Russell thinks that kids should spend a lot of time outdoors, and be taught about nature first hand. Curiosity in all directions must be rewarded. “Sex must be treated from the first as natural, delightful and decent [p. 215].” Russell (unsurprisingly) embraces enlightenment values: "Science wielded by love" is what is needed to improve education.

University is not for everyone; it should be restricted to those who can make use of it and who are making academic progress. No one should be barred from university by financial considerations, however. Tuition at university should be Oxbridge-style, with an emphasis not on lectures but on individualized learning. Teachers should be researchers, and these two activities would be natural complements if university education were not pushed in extraneous directions and involved “students” who will not make use of it.

The main oddity in Education and the Good Life, at least in terms of being unexpected (based on the title alone), is that it includes a recurrent anti-war theme. Intellect, according to Russell, is sacrificed to the goal of making good little government-supporting soldiers. War is not taught as it should be, as the terrible result of bad decisions by foolish men. The love that must wield science for a successful education is limited by the failure to resist the wars that will kill those youths who once were under the care of educators. War comes up (repeatedly) in chapter one, where it is suggested that people who claim there is no time to teach children to appreciate poetry nevertheless “are prepared to set aside a great deal of time in order to teach young men how to kill each other scientifically [p. 33].” And war winds it way through to the concluding chapter, too, where three sentences from the end we find: “Shall we let [our children] be twisted and stunted and terrified in youth, to be killed afterwards in futile wars which their intelligence was too cowed to prevent [pp. 318-319]?”

Russell’s educational ideas seem to have as much relevance today as they did in 1926. Russell’s emphasis on character and his intellectual virtues parallel what Angela Duckworth refers to as “grit”. Grit is a willingness and ability to concentrate and to persevere against obstacles; in Russell’s terms, it involves “control of attention by the will [p. 248].” In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Duckworth makes a Russellian observation: “True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.” Russellian principles, even today, would offer a large improvement over what I take to be the educational status quo; they would be better at instilling appropriate character, and at stimulating the development of grit, without sacrificing happiness.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XIX

Chapter XIX (pages 314-319), “Conclusion”

“Knowledge wielded by love is what the educator needs and what his pupils should acquire [p. 314].” For younger children, teachers should be familiar with some psychology as well as physiology and hygiene. Natural instincts, if guided at an early age, can be fashioned into harmonious character, though many people prefer to promote war. “If existing knowledge were used and tested methods applied, we could, in a generation, produce a population almost wholly free from disease, malevolence, and stupidity [p. 315].” For teachers of older children, love of the knowledge to be transmitted takes on a significant role in providing a good education.

Fear and punishment are the traditional methods used to inculcate virtue, but they don’t work well, and breed mental disease. Instilling good habits and skill can make virtuous behavior instinctual. Advances in psychology and learning from nursery school experiences render it easier to instill these good habits. We already have sufficient knowledge, but it is not now brought to bear with sufficient love. It is fear that leads to cruelty, and for this reason, among others, Russell has emphasized the importance of not implanting fear in children. The situation is improving: fewer Christians now hold that unbaptized babies are damned.

Children of professional-class parents already acquire sufficient knowledge through schooling; what is “important is the spirit of adventure and liberty, the sense of setting out upon a voyage of discovery [p. 318].” When educators teach in this spirit, good students need no further motivation. Antiquated fears and superstitions can give way to freedom of thought and inquiry, and a splendid new world can be erected.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XVIII

Chapter XVIII (pages 301-313), “The University”

Everyone except the occasional Mozart-like genius should have the sort of education in character and knowledge outlined earlier, but not everyone can profit from a university education. “Certainly the idle rich who at present infest the older universities very often derive no benefit from them, but merely contract habits of dissipation [p. 301].” Students who can benefit from university should not be precluded from attending by economic considerations, however.

British universities thankfully are escaping their past of providing first a clerical, and later a gentlemanly, education, while becoming professional schools. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, high-ranking civil service workers: all of these professions now are dominated by university men. Russell is sorry to witness the demise of learning for its own sake, but the plutocrats who fund the schools do not tolerate an impractical approach. Disinterested education can be salvaged, however, if a democracy of educated people devotes public money to the cause. Learned educators who rely on state funding are more likely to be uncorrupted than those who depend on the benefactions of wealthy businessmen. At any rate, universities should both offer professional training, and pursue research that lacks immediate utility.

People should be allocated to professions and jobs by talent, but economic realities imply that the choices of young people are constrained by heredity, by their parents’ wherewithal. Many people who would make for the best doctors cannot afford the training, and many people who are well suited to farm effectively lack the capital to procure land: most farmers are sons of farmers. Efficient agriculture is so important that we could require anyone undertaking substantial farming to hold a degree in “scientific agriculture [p. 307].” The general notion for all significant professions is that only people with appropriate skills should be allowed to take part; further, any person of ability, irrespective of means, should have the opportunity to acquire the appropriate skills.

So universities should be open to all who are qualified, with public support for students without sufficient means, and continued enrollment should be contingent on academic progress. “The idea of the university as a place of leisure where rich young men loaf for three or four years is dying, but, like Charles II, it is an unconscionable time about it [p. 308].”

The evidence that students are applying themselves should not be their attendance at (often useless) lectures. The Montessori focus on individualized work is particularly appropriate for bright students of college age. But the business minds that fund university schooling need verifiable signs of progress, so too much attention is given to trivial matters such as lecture attendance. Teachers should start the term by assigning required and recommended texts, and setting paper topics. (Students could, with approval, set their own topics, provided they are equally challenging.) Individual meetings with students should take place after the papers are prepared, and their papers are the measure of their effective effort. Once a week or so, a teacher should be available for less formal discussions.

“Every university teacher should be himself engaged in research, and should have sufficient leisure and energy to know what is being done in his subject in all countries [p. 309].” Unlike teachers of younger children, college teachers don’t have to be skillful pedagogues; they do have to be knowledgeable in and committed to their discipline. Every seventh year should bring a sabbatical to study abroad or to otherwise acquire knowledge of global advances in the relevant field. Britain has been slow to adopt these measures. Russell notes that his own training in mathematics came from teachers who had fallen woefully behind the progress made in previous decades on the Continent. The tension that exists at universities between research and teaching largely is artificial, stoked by the presence of students who shouldn’t be in college and a mindset that college, like grade school, should provide a sort of moral education. “The only morality which can be profitably exacted is that of work; the rest belongs to earlier years [p. 311].”

In terms of the function of universities, research is central. Human progress, in the long-term, requires new knowledge, and this, in turn, requires a research investment independent of any tangible return. A creator needs to be motivated by something beyond immediate, practical rewards. “He should be occupied, rather, in the pursuit of a vision, in capturing and giving permanence to something which he has first seen dimly for a moment, which he has loved with such ardour that the joys of this world have grown pale by comparison [p. 312].” The greatness of humanity depends on nourishing such ardour.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XVII

Chapter XVII (pages 292-300), “Day Schools and Boarding Schools”

Parents with sufficient means have to decide whether to send their children away to boarding school. Such schools can have trained medical professionals, and be located in the country or healthy neighborhoods, both of which are likely to conduce to the well-being of children. (Russell thinks the health situation in London “is steadily improving, and might be brought up to the standard of the country by the artificial use of ultra-violet light [p. 293].” He was writing before germicidal ultraviolet lamps were in use, as far as I can tell.) Boarding schools also greatly reduce the time involved in traveling to school every day – most people, especially country dwellers, do not live all that close to a good day school. (The low quality of near-at-hand day schools is one reason that boarding schools might be a better option for rural residents – p. 299.)

Experiments in education will only appeal to a small minority of parents. As a result, experiments cannot easily be undertaken by day schools that attract children exclusively from the neighborhood. But a boarding school can draw upon widely dispersed supporters, and so boarding schools are the locale where most innovations in teaching school-age children occur. (Educational innovation is less suppressed for very young children, and hence this is the group that Madame Montessori could service.)

Schools create an artificial environment, and one shortcoming of boarding schools is that children spend too much time in that unreal setting. Their short holidays at home do not do much to overcome the artificiality, as the scarcity of their domestic presence means that they are excessively fussed over. “Consequently they tend to become arrogant and hard, ignorant of the problems of adult life, and quite aloof from their parents [p. 295].” More time within the family teaches respect for the rights of others and generates compassion for the difficulties that others face. Of course, too much parental influence is as bad as too little. “Day school from an early age affords, to my mind, the right compromise between parental domination and parental insignificance [p. 296].”

Boys of twelve years old or so tend to be particularly barbarous, and sensitive types, non-conformists, and the academically serious can be bullied. There is thus something to be said for the French method of segregating the best students at schools of their own – a practice that also permits a faster pace of learning for these students. The intellectual children suffer from having reduced knowledge of average people, but this is better than the British method that results in good students who are not gifted in sports being tortured. Improved early training and co-education could reduce the cruelties of boarding-school boys. “At present, however, there are very few boarding schools to which I should venture to send a boy if he were above the average in intelligence, morals, or sensitiveness, or if he were not conservative in politics and orthodox in theology [p. 298].” Even day schools might be too brutal for children exceptional in intelligence and sensitivity.

There is no single best way in choosing between a day school and a boarding school: specific circumstances can tip the scales one way or the other. Most working-class families will have to choose day schools for economic reasons, and those choices cannot be said to be undesirable, as boarding schools are not a clearly better educational alternative. Just about everyone, however, should have a scholastic education up to the age of eighteen; at that point, but not before, full-time vocational training is an option for some students.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XVI

Chapter XVI (pages 278-291), “Last School Years”

For brighter students, some degree of specialization should take place at about age fourteen, while slower children should continue with general or vocational studies. (Russell explicitly renounces any further discussion of vocational education, though he notes that even for those older than 14, it should not form their exclusive study.) This guideline admits exceptions, however, and perhaps some students can specialize earlier.

Classics, science and math, and modern humanities (languages, history, literature) should constitute the three divisions within schools. Students in each of these divisions might want to specialize more narrowly, too. Information needful for successful day-to-day living, such as anatomy and hygiene, should be taught to all students. The basics of sex education should be provided before puberty, with more detail covered later in concert with health education. Some knowledge of political functioning must be communicated, with attention paid to avoiding propaganda.

Teaching methods should concentrate on exacting, detailed study, relieved and enlivened by more popular books or lectures. The less formal treatments are meant to stimulate and refresh, but certainly not to substitute for, the more concentrated work. Reaction against traditional drills has led to too much superficiality in education. “The mental work involved in the drill was good; what was bad was the killing of intellectual interests [p. 281].” America affords many examples of lazy undergraduates becoming committed law or medical students. The lesson is that if the school work is important to students, they will meet the challenge. Work that is too easy conveys the message that the material isn’t really worth anything. “With good teaching and the elimination of fear, very many boys and girls would be clever who now seem stupid and lethargic [p. 282].” Each student’s own initiative can direct much of his or her personal curriculum, with written accounts (sort of like this blog!) helping to cement what is learned, while allowing the teacher to supervise and intervene – with suggestions, not commands – where necessary.

Looking at all sides of current controversies, and conducting even-handed debates, are useful disciplines. “By such means, the pupils could learn discussion as a means of ascertaining truth, not as a contest for rhetorical victory [p. 283].” The purpose of discussing controversies and even deeply-held beliefs is to serve thought, not orthodoxy or non-conformity (p. 287). Students also can see that their schooling has some applicability to the common concerns of the day.

Political questions usually are not looked at objectively, as passions run high and distort the understanding. But objective, academic approaches can destroy the passion to solve political problems. We need both the passion, and the objectivity. Myths about nationalism or religion show how common it is that people believe what they want to believe, not what the facts demand. We are all like Don Quixote, constructing a mythological reality that we find congenial. This is fine for young children, who lack the power to shape the world, but as children near adulthood, they should recognize that dreams only have value if they can be achieved by action. Schools often promote myths, about the superiority of a country, social class, or even the school itself; the result is intellectual laziness.

Many myths are driven by fear, and they can paralyze us when danger strikes. Better that we face dangers head-on, reducing risks where we can and mitigating the damages associated with those risks that remain.

It is a commonplace that promoting morality or our political or religious views necessitates teaching falsehoods or refusing to look at issues objectively. We even try to ensure adults are ignorant, and in England, plays cannot be true to life, as the censor “holds that the public can only be cajoled into virtue by deceit [p. 288].” “In the virtue that I desire, the pursuit of knowledge, without fear and without limitation, is an essential element, in the absence of which the rest has little value [pp. 288-9].” We need to make the scientific spirit apply to all matters. We must want to know the truth and seek means of finding it out, while questioning our preconceptions and recognizing that our conclusions are tentative. Improvements in knowledge of physics and child psychology over time both have come from “substituting observation for preconceptions and passions [p. 289].” Hucksters, political as well as commercial, are always trying to sell us something, and we must inure ourselves against the temptation to believe whatever assertions are sufficiently repeated.

Again, we must instill curiosity, and make sure that academic requirements are not so encompassing that they do not leave time for the pursuit of understanding desired by the student. “Knowledge which is felt to be boring is of little use, but knowledge which is assimilated eagerly becomes a permanent possession [p. 290].” With the utility of knowledge in helping to change the world made palpable, and with teachers serving as allies, most students will take great delight in learning.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XV

Chapter XV (pages 261-277), “The School Curriculum Before Fourteen”

Some elements of knowledge should be familiar to every person, whereas much specialized knowledge needs to be understood – but not by everyone. “Some should know how to play the trombone, but mercifully it is not necessary that every school-child should practise this instrument [pp. 262-2].” For the most part, what is taught up to age fourteen should be that knowledge which everyone should possess. Early ages can be used to identify individual talents, however, to guide later specialization. For this reason, an introduction to a broad range of studies is important for everyone. Easier material generally should precede difficult material, too, and nothing “involving severe mental effort should be undertaken before the age of seven…[p. 263].” Arithmetic is tricky, as it requires precise skills and memorization that cannot be mastered solely through engaging with interesting material. The fact that arithmetic entails objectively right and wrong answers is a disciplining device that has value more generally.

Geography and history were taught in a deplorable manner to Russell in his youth, but proper teaching – including use of the cinema – can animate children’s natural curiosity about these subjects. Learning about other people and places makes it easier to fully absorb the notion that different people and places really exist, countering our tendency to be parochial. An overview of world history, something akin to that provided by H.G. Wells, is appropriate for children as young as six. [I read Wells’s The Outline of History with great relish when I was in junior high school, and Russell’s approval of the two volumes revives some of that pleasure. – RBR] Russell provides rather precise guidelines on London museums: a six-year old will profit from the creatures in the Natural History Museum, but the British Museum should wait until children are ten. Younger children will find the British Museum to be boring, and a visit might put them off the study of history. The arc of human history that children should be taught is how, with many setbacks, humans have managed to use reason to progress out of ignorance. “The conception is that of the human race as a whole, fighting against chaos without and darkness within, the little tiny lamp of reason growing gradually into a great light by which the night is dispelled [p. 267].” The differences of race, creed, and nationality are foolish distractions from our shared climb. But for teaching, historical examples must come before presenting the general features of the human journey. The real champions of history are not the military conquerors, but the philosophers and scientists “who have helped to give us mastery over ourselves or over nature [p. 268].”

Dancing should be part of early education. It is beneficial for physical health and fun, while group dances reward cooperation. Singing should come later, and for older children, should be voluntary, not a requirement.

The facts of literature, such as names and dates, are useless. “What is valuable is great familiarity with certain examples of good literature – such familiarity as will influence the style, not only of writing, but of thought [p. 269].” Memorization of great literature is valuable not for building up memory more generally, but for improving grace in speaking and writing. Simply requiring memorization will not engage children, however – better that it be part of dramatic performances, as children love to act. The best literature for the purpose is not literature written for children – much of which is foolishly sentimental – but (for the most part) literature written for adults that happens to be suitable for children, too.

As it is easy to acquire languages when young, and multiple languages can be learned without confusion (providing different languages are spoken to appropriate people, like foreign governesses), schools should have a French (and if possible, a German) mistress on staff. She would converse and play games with the children in her native language, and they would pick it up in a fun way, and for the most part without express lessons.

Formal mathematics (beyond arithmetic) and science can only be taught profitably to children of about twelve or older, though earlier ages will have lots of exposure to interesting parts of sciences, such as astronomy and dinosaurs. Most boys and girls do not care for formal mathematics, and this lack of interest cannot be laid at the feet of poor teachers. “A sense for mathematics, like musical capacity, is mainly a gift of the gods, and I believe it to be quite rare, even in a moderate degree [p. 274].” But all should be exposed to math and science, to identify those possessing the gift, and for a sort of general understanding among everyone that such fields exist. By the age of fourteen, those with aptitude typically have identified themselves, and after that point, the others needn’t engage themselves further in math or science studies. A similar process, and timeline, applies to the study of Latin. At the age of fourteen, more specialized studies should commence, based on revealed talents and interests – so it is important that training in the years just before fourteen encourage this revelation of information to take place.

Throughout childhood, outdoor topics such as gardening and knowledge of plants and animals should feature in schooling. Townspeople understand less about nature than do livestock. (Russell speculates that perhaps this ignorance contributes to the unpopularity of the Labour Party in rural areas.) Children need to be outdoors for health, and in the process, can learn about these fundamental matters. “The seasons and the weather, sowing and harvest, crops and flocks and herds, have a certain human importance, and ought to be intimate and familiar to everybody if the divorce from mother earth is not to be too complete [p. 276].”

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XIV

Part III, Intellectual Education

Chapter XIV (pages 239-260), “General Principles”

Providing the basis for a good character should be the work of the first six years of a child’s life. After that point, a well-positioned child will develop the rest of his or her character as a side effect of intellectual learning. School administrators, therefore, should focus on intellectual development. Indeed, they should not try to imbue their teaching with moral precepts, or suggest that some forms of curiosity or knowledge are incompatible with good morals. Any censorship along these lines likely will spur more curiosity. Even an interest in obscenity would fade if information about sex were treated like any other sort of information.

Russell recommends medical therapy for a boy who shows an (over-?)interest in pornography. (Could the NHS handle this flood of new patients?) The idea is basically to make sex so boring that the boy loses interest in pornography. “When he felt that there was nothing more to know, and that what he did know was uninteresting, he would be cured [p. 242].” Knowledge is better than censorship and moral outrage.

There are intellectual virtues, but they must not be pursued directly. Rather, they develop as tools for learning. These virtues include: “curiosity, open-mindedness, belief that knowledge is possible though difficult, patience, industry, concentration and exactness [p. 243].” Curiosity should (for the most part) have some larger goal in mind, or at least lurking in the background; knowledge itself is a means, not an end, even if the acquisition of knowledge must, during schooling, be to some extent divorced from the larger goal. Nonetheless, the mathematician in Russell recognizes the value of pure knowledge, apart from any immediate practical utility. As a result, he pushes back against so-called dynamic education (especially when imposed at higher levels), which insists on mixing learning with doing. In passing, Russell suggests that the possession of culture necessitates “a certain freedom from parochialism, both in space and time, and that this involves a respect for excellence even if it is found in another country or another age [p. 245].”

Open-mindedness comes naturally to the young, because they are not invested in prior beliefs. Russell, like his contemporary Upton Sinclair, notes how the occupational or financial situation of adults makes them resistant to ideas that challenge their situation. The natural open-mindedness of youth should be nurtured, even if it cannot be matched by an endorsement of open actions: it is OK to think that a pirate’s life is best, especially after serious consideration of all the alternatives, but not to run off to be a pirate.

As children age, they can concentrate for longer periods, but the ability to focus attention over an extended duration must be developed. Perfect concentration must be “intense, prolonged, and voluntary [p. 248].” Some tasks that require such attention are enjoyable, but many are not – it is the job of education to make students willing to concentrate on boring matters, when there is adequate future compensation. “I think it is above all the control of attention by the will that is conferred by higher education [p. 248].”

Patience, industry, and the belief that knowledge is possible though difficult to acquire are next in Russell’s list of intellectual virtues. These can be inculcated through exercises that start off relatively easy – thereby giving an early taste of success – but become progressively harder. Exactness is not so well taught as it was in the past, but it is an admirable academic discipline. Exactness often involves boredom, but voluntarily submitted to for the purpose of achieving a significant goal, it is valuable and requisite for excellence. Many dimensions of exactness exist; aesthetic precision can be taught with lessons in acting, singing, and dance. Geography and history are perhaps best taught, at first, with films; the litany of facts (often unimportant ones) is too boring to tackle directly. Mathematics can help to teach logical accuracy, but only if the rationale for mathematical rules is explained.

Montessori-style approaches that make learning uniformly interesting cannot be maintained for older children, but the underlying principle that “the impulse to education should come from the pupil can be continued up to any age [p. 256].” Children who are well-taught in their early years later will prosper under the tutelage of any able teacher, and with a minimum of compulsion. Indeed, Russell suggests that students who cannot be self-motivated, nor understand the necessity to grapple with dull material, might “have to be classified as stupid, and taught separately from children of normal intelligence, though care must be taken not to let this appear as a punishment [p. 258].”

After the age of four or so, parents should not be the primary teachers. They lack the specialized skills needed for successful teaching, and their family connection hinders the development of an appropriate student-teacher relationship. Doctors don’t treat family members because of similar conflicts-of-interest.

The wonderful adventure of learning should be recognized and celebrated throughout education. Much joy comes from developing a fresh understanding, one achieved through personal initiative and discovery. Active engagement dominates passive reception of knowledge. “This is one of the secrets of making education a happiness rather than a torment [p. 260].”

Friday, July 15, 2011

Education and the Good Life, End of the Second Period

We have completed two of the three periods in Education and the Good Life, so it is time to smooth the ice. The middle section that we have just put to rest, “The Education of Character” (Chapters III through XIII), is sufficiently coherent (and long) to have appeared in standalone format. As the section title suggests, the chapters are not so much concerned with the transmission of knowledge to the young as they are with raising happy, kind, and psychologically sound children. To my eye, untutored through first-hand experience with parenting, the guidance provided in “The Education of Character” is likely to succeed.

What are the chief elements of that guidance? Do not lie to children, they will (eventually) see through lies and distrust you. The admonition to avoid lying applies to the most sensitive subjects, too, including religion, death, and sex. (A respect for truth will lead to psychological soundness, but will not necessarily make children [or the adults they become] more popular.) Overcome irrational fears by promoting understanding of how strange processes work; treat real dangers matter-of-factly, as difficulties to be managed but not obsessed over. Do not try to instill virtue through ignorance. Carefully ration praise and, especially, blame. Praise should be offered for any accomplishment that requires extraordinary effort. Do not praise children simply for doing their duty – they are expert strategists, and will realize that they can wield power over you by failing to do their duty. Limit threats, and make sure they are credible but not severe; they must be followed through on when the undesired behavior arises – as it will. Physical punishment must be eschewed, as it sends improper messages and poisons adult-child relationships. Protect children, but don’t coddle them. Don’t demand reciprocal love from children: the parent-child relationship is naturally one-sided. Make sure children frequently are among their peers, as it is only in this setting that a sense of justice can be instilled. Play and fantasy are welcome and important, but organized, competitive games should only be a small part of a child’s life. Emphasize the acquisition of skills, particularly those that allow mastery over nature, as opposed to dominance over other people. Foster a constructive attitude by allowing risks to be taken, and mistakes made.

How does Russell’s advice compare with what might be written today? Here, my ignorance of modern parenting norms betrays me, but for what it is worth, Russell’s views, progressive, no doubt, for their time, seem to have aged well. He recognizes successful pedagogical models like that of Madame Montessori, he sees the value and the shortcomings of Freud, and he understands the fundamental importance of very early education. Russell thinks that misbehaving children should be viewed almost as ill (as opposed to bad) – a position he elsewhere adopts for adult criminals. In his own parenting, he employs the “time out” strategy, which seems to have caught on a lot, and his prohibition on physical punishment likewise has spread.

Russell sees how challenges that stretch but do not break are the key to human development; here, as in his book on happiness, he endorses what in the happiness literature is known as flow. And what is human development, for Russell? He does not want to straitjacket it; rather, society is like a tree, one that can grow in many different, and unplanned, directions. Once again, I am reminded of Russell’s godfather, John Stuart Mill, whose embrace of individual liberty is not based on any intrinsic value to freedom, but rather, derives from the notion that liberty is the best means to promote “the permanent interests of man as a progressive being.”

One, perhaps surprising, sub-text in "The Education of Character" is the stupidity of war. The destruction of resources and lives that war represents is noted (often, as it were, in passing), in many different chapters, and Russell believes that children should be taught to understand how wasteful war is. The allusion that comes to mind here is Shakespearean, from Hamlet:


Goes it against the main of Poland, sir,
Or for some frontier?


Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee.


Why, then the Polack never will defend it.


Yes, it is already garrison'd.


Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw:
This is the imposthume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies. I humbly thank you, sir.

Russell’s own summary of "The Education of Character," perhaps, comes at the end of Chapter XIII: “There is only one road to progress, in education as in other human affairs, and that is: Science wielded by love [p. 234].”

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XIII

Chapter XIII (pages 224-236), “The Nursery-School”

The training identified as desirable in the earlier parts of the book: should it come from parents, or within schools? Nursery-schools are clearly preferred for both the rich and poor, at least among non-rural families; Russell has kind words (on page 224, and with more detail on pages 228 and 229) for the nursery school operated by Margaret McMillan – which still exists . Nursery schools provide peer companionship and space in ways that families cannot; Russell recommends (page 227) that parents send children to nursery schools at least part-time from the age of two.

Russell believes that medical and psychological issues interact for very young children: fear leads to bad breathing leads to illness, for example. “Such interrelations are so numerous that no one can hope to succeed with a child’s character without some medical knowledge, or with its health without some psychology [p. 225].” Kids thrive in more or less constant exposure to fresh air, without the need for heavy clothes; nevertheless, judiciousness is required to recognize exceptional circumstances and to avoid sudden chills. Parents do not come by this knowledge naturally, and Russell accuses his neighbors (in West Sussex, I presume) of harming their children by poor choices with respect to food, outdoor play, and bedtimes. Parents, he thinks, will not be convinced when informed of better methods.

Ms. McMillan’s school for poor children runs from eight in the morning until six at night, with the ideal being that the students should attend school from the ages of one through seven. They eat all of their meals at school, and get lots of outdoor exercise and fresh air when indoors. Russell endorses Ms. McMillan’s claim about the impressive intellectual and social achievements of her students. Universal access to nursery schools would greatly reduce intellectual and physical inequality. It could be achieved, except the government has indefensible spending priorities.

Progress in the education of young children has been achieved chiefly through studying older people who are mentally deficient. “I believe the reason for the necessity of this detour was that the stupidities of mental patients were not regarded as blameworthy, or as curable by chastisement; no one thought that Dr. Arnold’s recipe of flogging would cure their “laziness [p. 233].” Had a scientific approach, and not a moralistic one, been taken towards educating children, progress could have been made earlier. The whole concept of “moral responsibility” is misguided. The stupidities of both the rich and poor are products of their circumstances and their inappropriate educations.

“There is only one road to progress, in education as in other human affairs, and that is: Science wielded by love [p. 234].” Advances stem from those who love children and know the requisite science – and much better circumstances to achieve those advances have emerged with improved access for women to higher education. The application of science to education, without love for the children and the wish to make them loving, could produce monsters – and produce them efficiently. Alas, the love that generally is bestowed upon children does not extend to resistance to insane wars that will see many of them killed off in later years. Love must be prolonged from the child to the adult he will become, though hate will be marketed with the trappings of honor.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XII

Chapter XII (pages 209-223), “Sex Education”

Readers, sympathetic so far to the message of instilling a sense of freedom and courageousness in children, might be tempted to revert to “slavery and terror [p. 209]” in the sex realm. Russell says he will stay true to his principles, and treat the sex instinct like any other – though in its mature form, the sex drive is later developing than most other desires. Discussions with children still at the prepubescent stage will be the primary focus of this chapter. The Freudians are right in that bad handling of sexual issues at early ages can lead to harms later in life. Obscenity laws have contributed to poor sex education, as valuable ideas have to be couched in euphemism to escape the censors.

Apparently masturbation by two and three year old children is common – and it is commonly met with horror from adults. The threats of caregivers do not stop the practice, but they do instill apprehension which, though eventually repressed, expresses itself in nightmares or other psychic disorders. The practice of masturbation by young children in itself typically involves no physical or moral harm; it is the anti-masturbation policy that produces trouble. Subtle nudges away from masturbation, such as ensuring that children are quite tired when they go to bed, are unobjectionable, but any direct attention to the practice will likely prove counterproductive.

Children are curious, and that natural curiosity extends to gender differences. Their curiosity can be intensified, however, by the adult practice of shrouding sexual matters in mystery. Kids can see their family naked when such nakedness is, as it were, naturally occurring. The approach towards sex education should be the same as with other types of education: questions must be answered truthfully, and with the same fullness, interest, and matter-of-factness that questions about steam engines would be met with. Children will pick up on any subtle messages that sex is somehow dirty, to the detriment of their future happiness.

Learning about sex from the gossip of school children is likely to instill unhealthy attitudes. Most boys of Russell’s years who were exposed to sex education in that fashion “continued through life to think sex comic and nasty, with the result that they could not respect a woman with whom they had intercourse, even though she were the mother of their children [p. 215].” Nevertheless, many parents seek the cowardly approach of silence on sexual matters – which among other effects, ensures that children will think badly of their parents when the kids realize that their parents had sex. It is cruel to let a child reach puberty without preparation for what lies ahead. Girls and boys both need truthful information. “Sex must be treated from the first as natural, delightful and decent [p. 215].” (Much in this chapter, incidentally, is echoed by Russell later in Marriage and Morals and in The Conquest of Happiness.)

Parents of different religious or ethical persuasions will wish to give their children different guidance on sexual morality. All children, though, should be told about sexually-transmitted diseases, without exaggeration, and about prevention as well as treatment or cure. “It is a mistake to give only such instruction as is needed by the perfectly virtuous, and to regard the misfortunes which happen to others as a just punishment of sin [p. 218].” People should be warned about the seriousness of the decision to have children, and the necessity that babies only be conceived if they are likely to be sufficiently provided for. [Russell's godfather might even have been willing to forbid marriages if the couple could not demonstrate sufficient means to raise a child; see paragraph 15 of Chapter V of On Liberty.] The old, cruel notion that children within marriage are always a blessing is a view that “is now only maintained by heartless dogmatists, who think that everything disgraceful to humanity redounds to the glory of God [p. 219].”

Children must be instructed that they are likely to be future parents, and that they cannot remain ignorant about how to be good parents: their untutored instincts will not be enough to serve well the interests of their children. The idea that motherhood is fully instinctual is wrong and damaging, turning intelligent women away from having children.

“Jealousy must not be regarded as a justifiable insistence upon rights, but as a misfortune to the one who feels it and a wrong towards its object [p. 220].” (Again, Russell echoes (or rather, presages) Marriage and Morals.) Love without possessiveness is uplifting, fulfilling; love with possessiveness is diminishing, enervating. “Love cannot be a duty, because it is not subject to the will [p. 220].” Russell anticipates (or mimics?) that old “If you love something set it free…” line: “Those who shut [love] up in a cage destroy the beauty and joy which it can only display while it is free and spontaneous [p. 220].” The fear of loss creates the loss; be courageous.

Some open-minded adults nevertheless teach their children the traditional morality, with the belief that later, when the children are mature, they can shrug it off. Russell believes this is an error, because our inherited traditions involve directly harmful elements – including the notion that jealousy is justifiable, or that lifelong sexual fidelity to a spouse is the sine qua non of marital bliss. The teaching of sex should be undertaken with a scientific, not a dogmatic, approach, and without any special reverence.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XI

Chapter XI (pages 187-208), “Affection and Sympathy”

Affection is central to good character, but the development of proper affection arises naturally from appropriate training. “Throughout youth, there is less occasion for sympathy than in adult life, both because there is less power of giving effective expression to it, and because a young person has to think of his or her own training for life, largely to the exclusion of other people’s interests [pp. 187-8].” Love of family cannot be imposed as a duty – it must be inculcated through loving behavior. Parental love should not seek reciprocation.

Parents and teachers have to guard against being too intellectually or emotionally influential. Significant influence is unavoidable – look at how religious beliefs are transmitted from generation to generation. There is a danger that the dependence of a child is a source of pleasure, so that parental self-interest could lead to a prolongation of dependence. (For girls, this was often seen as a benefit, as the goal was to keep them dependent, transferring that dependence from their parents to their husbands at marriage.) Emotionally starved parents (like many women in monogamous relationships) might seek unfitting emotional satisfaction from their children. The children have a right to warm affection, but it should not be contingent upon reciprocation. “Psychologically, parents should be a background, and the child should not be made to act with a view to giving his parents pleasure [p. 195].” It is the child’s flourishing that should provide the parental satisfaction.

Women who are not sexually satisfied are not the best teachers, as they will have a tendency to seek emotional connections with their students. (These include the “unhappy spinsters” that Russell warned us about in Marriage and Morals.) Sexually starved men have the same problem, except that there are fewer of them, and their parental inclinations are more muted. Children will respond to the right kind of parental love optimally, with an implicit confidence that they are protected, with a willingness to turn to their parents for guidance, and with affection – but not the same type of affection that children have for their friends. “The parent must act with reference to the child, but the child must act with reference to himself and the outer world [p. 197].” Different relationships imply that appropriate types of affection differ, too, though the Freudian reading wrongly implies that any affection between a child and a parent is suspect. [Russell tells (pages 198-199) a heartwarming tale of some of his then-recent affectionate relations with his own son when the child was less than four years old. He follows up (pages 199-200) with more affecting stories of the instinctual sympathy of children when their relations are in distress; I am reminded of the opening to Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments. But children, Russell notes, can learn to mimic the cruelty of adults.]

“It is a difficult question how and when to make a child aware of the evil in the world [p. 200].” Nevertheless, the temptation to keep them pure by keeping them ignorant – a variant on an outdated approach to promoting female chastity – must be resisted. “A truly robust morality can only be strengthened by the fullest knowledge of what really happens in the world [p. 201].” The facts of cruelty must be made known, lest there be no inoculation for its allure. But the defenselessness of children makes them psychologically vulnerable to too earlier exposure to brutality. The dreadful activity in some fairy tales is not risky, however, as it is so assuredly part of a fantasy world. When children are first exposed to the actual existence of cruelty, it should be so in a way that directs their sympathies towards the victims, not the perpetrators. The usual gloss on the Abraham/Isaac story, that Abraham somehow was a holy and honorable man, is horrifying to children, as a child is the victim and his own father is the evildoer; this story should be told as a fictionalized example of man’s barbaric past. Wars should be presented as what they are, the harmful progeny of quarrels among silly men. Cruel people should be viewed as suffering from ignorance and a lack of self-control. A full accounting of the facts of war and cruelty should point a child in the proper moral direction without any explicit moralizing.

Affection between children cannot be produced by fiat, but it can be nurtured through providing a safe, kind, and happy setting. Children will then be spontaneously friendly, and they will draw friendly feeling from others. “A trustful affectionate disposition justifies itself, because it gives irresistible charm, and creates the response which it expects [pages 207-208].”

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter X

Chapter X (pages 178-186), “Importance of Other Children”

Peer groups and slightly older children do much to build character in the young. Contemporaries are better analogues for children than are adults, so they can more easily be emulated. Younger children like to play with older children, but this is true throughout the age spectrum. As a result, where there is free choice, the social groups become segregated by age. Age mixing occurs primarily within families, where only the eldest child lacks the advantage of having slightly older examples at hand. “Small families are in some ways a disadvantage to children, unless supplemented by nursery schools [p. 179].” Slightly older children naturally assume an authority when they play with younger kids, an authority to which the younger kids readily submit. Older children provide the templates and the prods for the reasonable ambitions of younger kids. Dealings with younger kids also provide opportunities for the moral education of the older children, who must learn to share and to accept the depredations that the clumsiness of the tots will generate.

Despite the utility of keeping company with children of different ages, it is contemporaries who are most important, at least for kids of age four or older. “Behaviour to equals is what most needs to be learnt [p. 183]” – because people of all situations are indeed your equals as adults. For this reason, schools, at least if they are good, provide a better environment for training children than within the family. Further, kids need a lot of play, and to meet this need, the company of their schoolfellows is desirable.

[Russell then notes that his godfather, John Stuart Mill, had little play in his childhood, though he did have an amazingly rigorous education starting at a very young age. (Mill detailed his unusual upbringing in his Autobiography.) “From the mere standpoint of acquiring knowledge, the results may be good, but taken all round I cannot admire them [p. 184].” Mill’s difficulty in accepting reasoning that led away from his father’s views constrained his creativity (Russell returns to this theme in Chapter XI, on page 191), and he had a hard time enjoying life. Russell then reveals that he himself had a sort of Mill-lite education, with the same result of adolescent thoughts of suicide. “When I began to associate with contemporaries, I found myself an angular prig. How far I have remained so, it is not for me to say [p. 185].”]

Not all children should be subjected to education with schoolfellows. People with exceptional capabilities but incurable social awkwardness can be bullied mercilessly, so they can be homeschooled – though proper upbringing during infancy would go a long way towards limiting excessive nervousness or social awkwardness.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter IX

Chapter IX (pages 166-177), “Punishment”

Tradition calls for chastisement of children, but the extremes of yesteryear have fallen out of favor, “even in Tennessee [p. 167].” Sharp reproof has a role to play in education, but severe punishment does not; severity should peak at the “natural spontaneous expression of indignation [p. 167].”

After the blandishments of reason have failed, Russell and his wife employ a sort of time out system; their son can rejoin them when he is good, and he understands that to return is to commit to proper behavior. “I believe that reasonable parents create reasonable children [168].” Let the small risks go, though the result will be occasional bruises and cuts – these harms will convince children of the necessity underlying parental prohibition of extremely risky behavior.

Children who persistently ruin the play of other children must be banished; do not try to induce guilt, but focus on missed pleasures. Russell quotes at length Madame Montessori, who relies on the behavior of the other children to provide a model for naughty children. The miscreants themselves, isolated but comfortable and able to see all the proceedings, are addressed almost as if they are ill, while the others are treated as quasi-adults. Peer opinion is against the badly behaving student. Don’t punish a child with schoolwork which is meant to be something he enjoys and profits from, for he will cease to see its value.

Praise and blame are part of the requisite incentive structure, but they have to be used sparingly – especially blame. Don’t compare one child with another in distributing praise and blame, and don’t offer praise for what should be quotidian accomplishments. “All through education, any unusually good piece of work should be praised [p. 173].”

Boys have a seemingly natural tendency towards treating animals with cruelty, but don’t wait until it happens, and then treat the boy with cruelty. Rather, promote a respect for life, and don’t even let a child see you kill a dangerous pest. Mild unkindness of an older towards a younger child should be met with an equivalent unkindness from the adult towards the older child – with an explanation that he should recognize that his hurt feelings are paralleled by those in the younger, mistreated child. General maxims have little impact on the young: “All moral instruction must be immediate and concrete… [p. 174].”

Serious cruelty by older children must be met with isolation, for the safety of others. The miscreant should be viewed Montessori-like, almost as if he were unwell – not as if he were evil. “He should be made to feel that a great misfortune had befallen him in the shape of an impulse to cruelty, and that his elders were endeavouring to shield him from a similar misfortune in the future [p. 175].”

Physical punishment can play no positive role, and inculcates the belief that authority is rightly maintained by force. It undermines open, pleasant relations between children and adults. “To win the genuine affection of children is a joy as great as any that life has to offer [p. 176].” Commands to love your parents as a duty, in an environment of physical punishment, are self-defeating. Fortunately, more enlightened views towards the relationships between parents and adults are taking hold, and it would be well if they could spread to other arenas of human interaction.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter VIII

Chapter VIII (pages 157-165), “Truthfulness”

Truthfulness, both inward and outward, is of prime importance, with the inward variety, an aversion to self-deceit, paramount. Appropriate behavior sometimes (though rarely) requires an outward lie, and trying to disguise that fact itself leads to self-deceit. Harmful uses of power are the occasions most likely to merit untruthful responses.

Children typically lie out of fear, so a fearless child will not develop a habit of lying. They can learn to lie through adult example, or by seeing that truths told to adults can be dangerous. Small children can tell unintentional untruths through their faulty memory and misunderstanding of time, and their confusion of fantasy and reality. “When a child does lie [intentionally], parents should take themselves to task rather than him; they should deal with it by removing its causes, and by explaining gently and reasonably why it is better not to lie [p. 160].” If your child sees that you lie, your moral authority is instantly undermined. It is desirable not to assume an air of infallibility with children, who will see through it.

One way parents lie to children – to the detriment of the children – is to threaten punishments without intending to follow through on them. Don’t be insistent except when necessary, but when necessary, insist, knowing that it is likely you will have to follow through with the threatened punishment. Children quickly learn that your threats are credible, and then you won’t be called upon to follow through.

“Lies about sex are sanctioned by time-honoured usage [p. 163].” Russell is opposed to such lies, but will deal with them in a later chapter.

Answer truthfully the innumerable questions children ask, even about sensitive topics like religion and death. Err on the side of telling them more than they can understand rather than less – in this manner, their curiosity will be aroused, they will seek to learn more. Your unswerving devotion to truthful answers will be rewarded with the child’s trust.

Since the world is addicted to humbug, an insistence upon truth will lead a child to hold in contempt what generally are considered to be respectable things. Truth does not smooth one’s progress through a fallen world; rather, it can be personally and financially costly. But better to live (and even fail) with self-respect and candor than to “succeed by the arts of the slave [p. 165].”

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter VII

Chapter VII (pages 147-156), “Selfishness and Property”

It is natural for humans to be selfish, and we can’t just wish that it were otherwise. “A human ego, like a gas, will always expand unless restrained by external pressure [p. 147].” But the external pressure can be internalized, by instilling the idea of justice within a child’s mind. Justice, and not self-sacrifice, should be the ruling principle, as self-sacrifice can lead to unjustified feelings of sin and be taken to excessive extremes. Not everyone simultaneously can engage in self-sacrifice, so it cannot be a proper code of conduct. When people see that the principle of self-sacrifice is flawed, they can lose the virtue that it was meant to instill. Justice does not suffer from a similar defect.

An only child among adults can be taught manners and good behavior, but not justice, as his desires are so different from those of the grown-ups, and the tribunal so obviously biased, that justice does not seem to be part of the equation: “the real education in justice can only come where there are other children [p. 149].” Parents of only children, therefore, must endeavor to put their offspring in the company of other children, even at considerable sacrifice. Nursery schools are a boon to this process.

Russell continues under the assumption that there are at least two children about – and they are children of similar ages. They quickly see the justice in taking turns, when they all desire the same thing but only one at a time can be accommodated. Be quite impartial, parents, even if you have a favorite child!

Property is a tricky area of education. It is best if people tie their happiness to creativity, and not to defending possessions. But belief in property rights runs strong, and ownership helps to spur respect for the property of others. “Especially useful is property in anything that the child has made himself; if this is not permitted, his constructive impulses are checked [p. 153].” Some toys should be private property, and others, such as a rocking horse, communal property – though sharing of personal toys should be encouraged and in some cases required. A toy broken out of negligence should not immediately be replaced, at least if the child is older than two: “it is just as well that the loss is felt for a while [p. 154].” Non-interference with the constructive play of other children should be inculcated, so that a sort of temporary property right, one that revolves through all the children, is enjoyed for toys that cannot be used by multiple kids simultaneously. Unkindness of an older child towards a younger one can be met with similar (though not severe) unkindness from a parent to the older child – along with an explanation for the unpleasantness.

To encourage reading, ownership of books – good literature, not pulp – should be permitted at an early age; the pulp that children desire can be common property. [Russell (p. 156) cites Lewis Carroll and Tanglewood Tales as examples of worthy children’s literature.]

Personal property should be deeded to children if that ownership leads to constructive behavior and attentive care. Children who are not starved of pleasures will be generous with their property; children with few pleasures will hoard the pleasurable objects they possess. “It is not through suffering that children learn virtue, but through happiness and health [p. 156].”