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].”

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