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.

No comments: