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.

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