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.

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