Friday, August 26, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XVII

Chapter XVII (pages 292-300), “Day Schools and Boarding Schools”

Parents with sufficient means have to decide whether to send their children away to boarding school. Such schools can have trained medical professionals, and be located in the country or healthy neighborhoods, both of which are likely to conduce to the well-being of children. (Russell thinks the health situation in London “is steadily improving, and might be brought up to the standard of the country by the artificial use of ultra-violet light [p. 293].” He was writing before germicidal ultraviolet lamps were in use, as far as I can tell.) Boarding schools also greatly reduce the time involved in traveling to school every day – most people, especially country dwellers, do not live all that close to a good day school. (The low quality of near-at-hand day schools is one reason that boarding schools might be a better option for rural residents – p. 299.)

Experiments in education will only appeal to a small minority of parents. As a result, experiments cannot easily be undertaken by day schools that attract children exclusively from the neighborhood. But a boarding school can draw upon widely dispersed supporters, and so boarding schools are the locale where most innovations in teaching school-age children occur. (Educational innovation is less suppressed for very young children, and hence this is the group that Madame Montessori could service.)

Schools create an artificial environment, and one shortcoming of boarding schools is that children spend too much time in that unreal setting. Their short holidays at home do not do much to overcome the artificiality, as the scarcity of their domestic presence means that they are excessively fussed over. “Consequently they tend to become arrogant and hard, ignorant of the problems of adult life, and quite aloof from their parents [p. 295].” More time within the family teaches respect for the rights of others and generates compassion for the difficulties that others face. Of course, too much parental influence is as bad as too little. “Day school from an early age affords, to my mind, the right compromise between parental domination and parental insignificance [p. 296].”

Boys of twelve years old or so tend to be particularly barbarous, and sensitive types, non-conformists, and the academically serious can be bullied. There is thus something to be said for the French method of segregating the best students at schools of their own – a practice that also permits a faster pace of learning for these students. The intellectual children suffer from having reduced knowledge of average people, but this is better than the British method that results in good students who are not gifted in sports being tortured. Improved early training and co-education could reduce the cruelties of boarding-school boys. “At present, however, there are very few boarding schools to which I should venture to send a boy if he were above the average in intelligence, morals, or sensitiveness, or if he were not conservative in politics and orthodox in theology [p. 298].” Even day schools might be too brutal for children exceptional in intelligence and sensitivity.

There is no single best way in choosing between a day school and a boarding school: specific circumstances can tip the scales one way or the other. Most working-class families will have to choose day schools for economic reasons, and those choices cannot be said to be undesirable, as boarding schools are not a clearly better educational alternative. Just about everyone, however, should have a scholastic education up to the age of eighteen; at that point, but not before, full-time vocational training is an option for some students.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XVI

Chapter XVI (pages 278-291), “Last School Years”

For brighter students, some degree of specialization should take place at about age fourteen, while slower children should continue with general or vocational studies. (Russell explicitly renounces any further discussion of vocational education, though he notes that even for those older than 14, it should not form their exclusive study.) This guideline admits exceptions, however, and perhaps some students can specialize earlier.

Classics, science and math, and modern humanities (languages, history, literature) should constitute the three divisions within schools. Students in each of these divisions might want to specialize more narrowly, too. Information needful for successful day-to-day living, such as anatomy and hygiene, should be taught to all students. The basics of sex education should be provided before puberty, with more detail covered later in concert with health education. Some knowledge of political functioning must be communicated, with attention paid to avoiding propaganda.

Teaching methods should concentrate on exacting, detailed study, relieved and enlivened by more popular books or lectures. The less formal treatments are meant to stimulate and refresh, but certainly not to substitute for, the more concentrated work. Reaction against traditional drills has led to too much superficiality in education. “The mental work involved in the drill was good; what was bad was the killing of intellectual interests [p. 281].” America affords many examples of lazy undergraduates becoming committed law or medical students. The lesson is that if the school work is important to students, they will meet the challenge. Work that is too easy conveys the message that the material isn’t really worth anything. “With good teaching and the elimination of fear, very many boys and girls would be clever who now seem stupid and lethargic [p. 282].” Each student’s own initiative can direct much of his or her personal curriculum, with written accounts (sort of like this blog!) helping to cement what is learned, while allowing the teacher to supervise and intervene – with suggestions, not commands – where necessary.

Looking at all sides of current controversies, and conducting even-handed debates, are useful disciplines. “By such means, the pupils could learn discussion as a means of ascertaining truth, not as a contest for rhetorical victory [p. 283].” The purpose of discussing controversies and even deeply-held beliefs is to serve thought, not orthodoxy or non-conformity (p. 287). Students also can see that their schooling has some applicability to the common concerns of the day.

Political questions usually are not looked at objectively, as passions run high and distort the understanding. But objective, academic approaches can destroy the passion to solve political problems. We need both the passion, and the objectivity. Myths about nationalism or religion show how common it is that people believe what they want to believe, not what the facts demand. We are all like Don Quixote, constructing a mythological reality that we find congenial. This is fine for young children, who lack the power to shape the world, but as children near adulthood, they should recognize that dreams only have value if they can be achieved by action. Schools often promote myths, about the superiority of a country, social class, or even the school itself; the result is intellectual laziness.

Many myths are driven by fear, and they can paralyze us when danger strikes. Better that we face dangers head-on, reducing risks where we can and mitigating the damages associated with those risks that remain.

It is a commonplace that promoting morality or our political or religious views necessitates teaching falsehoods or refusing to look at issues objectively. We even try to ensure adults are ignorant, and in England, plays cannot be true to life, as the censor “holds that the public can only be cajoled into virtue by deceit [p. 288].” “In the virtue that I desire, the pursuit of knowledge, without fear and without limitation, is an essential element, in the absence of which the rest has little value [pp. 288-9].” We need to make the scientific spirit apply to all matters. We must want to know the truth and seek means of finding it out, while questioning our preconceptions and recognizing that our conclusions are tentative. Improvements in knowledge of physics and child psychology over time both have come from “substituting observation for preconceptions and passions [p. 289].” Hucksters, political as well as commercial, are always trying to sell us something, and we must inure ourselves against the temptation to believe whatever assertions are sufficiently repeated.

Again, we must instill curiosity, and make sure that academic requirements are not so encompassing that they do not leave time for the pursuit of understanding desired by the student. “Knowledge which is felt to be boring is of little use, but knowledge which is assimilated eagerly becomes a permanent possession [p. 290].” With the utility of knowledge in helping to change the world made palpable, and with teachers serving as allies, most students will take great delight in learning.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XV

Chapter XV (pages 261-277), “The School Curriculum Before Fourteen”

Some elements of knowledge should be familiar to every person, whereas much specialized knowledge needs to be understood – but not by everyone. “Some should know how to play the trombone, but mercifully it is not necessary that every school-child should practise this instrument [pp. 262-2].” For the most part, what is taught up to age fourteen should be that knowledge which everyone should possess. Early ages can be used to identify individual talents, however, to guide later specialization. For this reason, an introduction to a broad range of studies is important for everyone. Easier material generally should precede difficult material, too, and nothing “involving severe mental effort should be undertaken before the age of seven…[p. 263].” Arithmetic is tricky, as it requires precise skills and memorization that cannot be mastered solely through engaging with interesting material. The fact that arithmetic entails objectively right and wrong answers is a disciplining device that has value more generally.

Geography and history were taught in a deplorable manner to Russell in his youth, but proper teaching – including use of the cinema – can animate children’s natural curiosity about these subjects. Learning about other people and places makes it easier to fully absorb the notion that different people and places really exist, countering our tendency to be parochial. An overview of world history, something akin to that provided by H.G. Wells, is appropriate for children as young as six. [I read Wells’s The Outline of History with great relish when I was in junior high school, and Russell’s approval of the two volumes revives some of that pleasure. – RBR] Russell provides rather precise guidelines on London museums: a six-year old will profit from the creatures in the Natural History Museum, but the British Museum should wait until children are ten. Younger children will find the British Museum to be boring, and a visit might put them off the study of history. The arc of human history that children should be taught is how, with many setbacks, humans have managed to use reason to progress out of ignorance. “The conception is that of the human race as a whole, fighting against chaos without and darkness within, the little tiny lamp of reason growing gradually into a great light by which the night is dispelled [p. 267].” The differences of race, creed, and nationality are foolish distractions from our shared climb. But for teaching, historical examples must come before presenting the general features of the human journey. The real champions of history are not the military conquerors, but the philosophers and scientists “who have helped to give us mastery over ourselves or over nature [p. 268].”

Dancing should be part of early education. It is beneficial for physical health and fun, while group dances reward cooperation. Singing should come later, and for older children, should be voluntary, not a requirement.

The facts of literature, such as names and dates, are useless. “What is valuable is great familiarity with certain examples of good literature – such familiarity as will influence the style, not only of writing, but of thought [p. 269].” Memorization of great literature is valuable not for building up memory more generally, but for improving grace in speaking and writing. Simply requiring memorization will not engage children, however – better that it be part of dramatic performances, as children love to act. The best literature for the purpose is not literature written for children – much of which is foolishly sentimental – but (for the most part) literature written for adults that happens to be suitable for children, too.

As it is easy to acquire languages when young, and multiple languages can be learned without confusion (providing different languages are spoken to appropriate people, like foreign governesses), schools should have a French (and if possible, a German) mistress on staff. She would converse and play games with the children in her native language, and they would pick it up in a fun way, and for the most part without express lessons.

Formal mathematics (beyond arithmetic) and science can only be taught profitably to children of about twelve or older, though earlier ages will have lots of exposure to interesting parts of sciences, such as astronomy and dinosaurs. Most boys and girls do not care for formal mathematics, and this lack of interest cannot be laid at the feet of poor teachers. “A sense for mathematics, like musical capacity, is mainly a gift of the gods, and I believe it to be quite rare, even in a moderate degree [p. 274].” But all should be exposed to math and science, to identify those possessing the gift, and for a sort of general understanding among everyone that such fields exist. By the age of fourteen, those with aptitude typically have identified themselves, and after that point, the others needn’t engage themselves further in math or science studies. A similar process, and timeline, applies to the study of Latin. At the age of fourteen, more specialized studies should commence, based on revealed talents and interests – so it is important that training in the years just before fourteen encourage this revelation of information to take place.

Throughout childhood, outdoor topics such as gardening and knowledge of plants and animals should feature in schooling. Townspeople understand less about nature than do livestock. (Russell speculates that perhaps this ignorance contributes to the unpopularity of the Labour Party in rural areas.) Children need to be outdoors for health, and in the process, can learn about these fundamental matters. “The seasons and the weather, sowing and harvest, crops and flocks and herds, have a certain human importance, and ought to be intimate and familiar to everybody if the divorce from mother earth is not to be too complete [p. 276].”