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].”