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].”

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