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].”

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