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].”

Friday, February 11, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter VI

Chapter VI (pages 136-146), “Constructiveness”

The natural instincts of children are rather formless, and can be channeled into either good or bad directions. The sculptor of virtuous character is skill of the appropriate type.

Everyone likes power, likes to have an impact – though we are less concerned with precisely what we impact. We enjoy more those accomplishments that involve a higher degree of difficulty. “What we can do easily no longer gives us a sense of power; it is the newly-acquired skill, or the skill about which we are doubtful, that gives us the thrill of success [p. 137].” As it is easier to destroy than to build, constructive action is more satisfying. But the ease of destruction makes it the first type of activity a child pursues. Eventually the child will want to have his own constructions preserved, lending the possibility of bringing home the point that he should respect the constructions of others. (Making a child the cultivator and steward of a corner of a garden similarly teaches respect for the flowers that bloom out of the diligence of other gardeners; a child with a pet develops reverence for animal life.) The incentive to build greater things inculcates patience and persistence.

Developing the interest in construction helps to overcome the initial instinct towards destruction. The English upper classes often receive education in continued destruction, such as in hunting. “They can make pheasants die and tenants suffer; when occasion arises, they can shoot a rhinoceros or a German [p. 140].” They aren’t naturally stupid – it is their education that makes them so. For adults, parenting often helps to instill the desire for construction, but as the upper classes outsource their parenting duties, they lose this opportunity to amend their own characters. People whose sense of constructive behavior has been nurtured through education are better at being affectionate parents, too.

Intellectual work comes in constructive and destructive varieties. Classical languages do not admit to change, so people learn only to criticize errors (while disliking people who make them). Science throws out old ideas and builds new ones. Education must aim at more than the avoidance of mistakes.

The education of older children should seek to imbue a sense of constructiveness for society, how to help the public move in a desirable direction. The reading of classics should be undertaken with a view of how the lessons can be applied today. The ability to be discerning in these matters depends upon one’s conception of the social system. There are three archetypes. Some people think of society as providing a static mold, into which human nature is poured. Others, more progressive, think of society as a machine, usually a machine whose goal is to maximize output. For these people, humans must be fitted to that end, but when messy human nature balks, the machinists revert to the mold approach, trying to force humanity into slots. Some people think of society as a tree, one whose health depends on nurturing and whose growth can occur in many different directions. Young people should be taught constructiveness with living matter – animals and plants – as well as with inert material. The respect that physics garnered tended to instill the machinist viewpoint; biology can provide the “tree” lens, except that the dominance of natural selection within biology is distracting. Russell wants to overcome natural selection for humans, “by eugenics, birth-control, and education [p. 146].” [Education and the Good Life, published in 1926, lies in the midst of Russell’s pro-eugenics phase; RBR ran across this before in Marriage and Morals, published in 1929.]

Despite its advantages, thinking of society as a tree has shortcomings, too: psychological constructiveness must be part of the conception. Education and the Good Life is aimed at showing how psychological constructiveness differs from machine-like constructiveness. A broader understanding of psychological constructiveness could help us develop outstanding individuals.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter V

Chapter V (pages 123-135), “Play and Fancy”

Young animals, including humans, love play; human children especially love play of the make-believe variety. Play is necessary for a happy childhood, even if amusement has no (other) instrumental value. But play seems to possess non-hedonic utility, too, by providing rehearsal for activities that later will have to be undertaken in actuality. Play is one means for children – who are weak relative to adults – to fantasize about having greater powers. Joy in play is like the joy that adults take from drama. Children don’t really believe that their fantasizing is real – nor should we be assiduous in pointing out the unreality. “I cannot sympathize with the ascetics of truth, any more than with ascetics of other kinds [pp. 127-128].”

Excessive daydreaming in adults is a fault if it serves as a substitute for taking actions that can fulfill dreams. But in children, this substitutability is not yet manifest, so fantasies co-exist with incentives to eventually realize them. “To kill fancy in childhood is to make a slave to what exists, a creature tethered to earth and therefore unable to create heaven [p. 129].”

Don’t despair if your child uses his fancy to create sadistic giants or revengeful pirates. The instinct for power that these fancies represent should be nurtured, not suppressed. The development of useful skills like scientific or artistic dexterity will be one way to pursue power, and will serve humankind. “Thus the secret of instruction, in so far as it bears upon character, is to give a man such kinds of skill as shall lead to his employing his instincts usefully [p. 130].”

Very young children engage in solitary play – they may be too undeveloped even to play with their older siblings. But as they age, competition becomes a predominant element in play. There is merit to the team sports that occupy such a large role in British upper-class education – though such merit typically is exaggerated. Games should neither be suppressed nor made a central component of the educational program.

Games in which the opponent is uncaring nature – as opposed to other humans – have much to recommend them. Sailing, driving, flying, experimenting – all of these are skills that usefully can be taught to children. They instill courage without encouraging brutality. The promotion of athletics, in contrast, seems to come at the cost of underemphasizing academics. “Great Britain is losing her industrial position, and will perhaps lose her empire, through stupidity, and through the fact that the authorities do not value or promote intelligence [p. 134].”

The esprit de corps built by games is considered a feature, not a bug, by those who want to employ such spirit to promote actions that they desire. It has the unfortunate property, however, of crowding out other motives for behavior, so that there is little encouragement for actions which are not competitive. “Nothing is done to promote constructiveness for its own sake, or to make people take an interest in doing their job efficiently even if no one is to be injured thereby [p. 135].”