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].”

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