Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Full Time

Part One (“Education and the Good Life”) and Part Two (“Education of Character”) each received an end-of-period summentary. This one concentrates on Part Three (“Intellectual Education,”), but draws to some extent on the entire book.

The six chapters comprising “Intellectual Education” cover a lot of ground, at least as measured in years of schooling: from the age of seven or so through university. Russell’s contention is that the basis of character is formed in the first six years, and its refinement will take place automatically as intellectual learning proceeds. The intellectual virtues of “curiosity, open-mindedness, belief that knowledge is possible though difficult, patience, industry, concentration and exactness [p. 243]” themselves cannot be directly taught, though they can be nourished, in part through encouraging active engagement with interesting material and by keeping the practical use of knowledge in view, even if such use is well down the road. Students need to be challenged, but the challenges cannot be too difficult: as Russell’s godfather noted, “It is even more fatal to exertion to have no hope of succeeding by it, than to be assured of succeeding without it [at V.11.45].”

Russell isn’t an educational traditionalist; rather, he embraces recent innovations such as those of Madame Montessori, Margaret McMillan, and the Bedales School. He supports the use of new technologies, especially cinema, in teaching, and believes that dancing should be part of primary education. He doesn’t recommend the old practice of “drilling,” but he does recognize that it promoted application. Russell thinks that kids should spend a lot of time outdoors, and be taught about nature first hand. Curiosity in all directions must be rewarded. “Sex must be treated from the first as natural, delightful and decent [p. 215].” Russell (unsurprisingly) embraces enlightenment values: "Science wielded by love" is what is needed to improve education.

University is not for everyone; it should be restricted to those who can make use of it and who are making academic progress. No one should be barred from university by financial considerations, however. Tuition at university should be Oxbridge-style, with an emphasis not on lectures but on individualized learning. Teachers should be researchers, and these two activities would be natural complements if university education were not pushed in extraneous directions and involved “students” who will not make use of it.

The main oddity in Education and the Good Life, at least in terms of being unexpected (based on the title alone), is that it includes a recurrent anti-war theme. Intellect, according to Russell, is sacrificed to the goal of making good little government-supporting soldiers. War is not taught as it should be, as the terrible result of bad decisions by foolish men. The love that must wield science for a successful education is limited by the failure to resist the wars that will kill those youths who once were under the care of educators. War comes up (repeatedly) in chapter one, where it is suggested that people who claim there is no time to teach children to appreciate poetry nevertheless “are prepared to set aside a great deal of time in order to teach young men how to kill each other scientifically [p. 33].” And war winds it way through to the concluding chapter, too, where three sentences from the end we find: “Shall we let [our children] be twisted and stunted and terrified in youth, to be killed afterwards in futile wars which their intelligence was too cowed to prevent [pp. 318-319]?”

Russell’s educational ideas seem to have as much relevance today as they did in 1926. Russell’s emphasis on character and his intellectual virtues parallel what Angela Duckworth refers to as “grit”. Grit is a willingness and ability to concentrate and to persevere against obstacles; in Russell’s terms, it involves “control of attention by the will [p. 248].” In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Duckworth makes a Russellian observation: “True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying — but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. . . . To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.” Russellian principles, even today, would offer a large improvement over what I take to be the educational status quo; they would be better at instilling appropriate character, and at stimulating the development of grit, without sacrificing happiness.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XIX

Chapter XIX (pages 314-319), “Conclusion”

“Knowledge wielded by love is what the educator needs and what his pupils should acquire [p. 314].” For younger children, teachers should be familiar with some psychology as well as physiology and hygiene. Natural instincts, if guided at an early age, can be fashioned into harmonious character, though many people prefer to promote war. “If existing knowledge were used and tested methods applied, we could, in a generation, produce a population almost wholly free from disease, malevolence, and stupidity [p. 315].” For teachers of older children, love of the knowledge to be transmitted takes on a significant role in providing a good education.

Fear and punishment are the traditional methods used to inculcate virtue, but they don’t work well, and breed mental disease. Instilling good habits and skill can make virtuous behavior instinctual. Advances in psychology and learning from nursery school experiences render it easier to instill these good habits. We already have sufficient knowledge, but it is not now brought to bear with sufficient love. It is fear that leads to cruelty, and for this reason, among others, Russell has emphasized the importance of not implanting fear in children. The situation is improving: fewer Christians now hold that unbaptized babies are damned.

Children of professional-class parents already acquire sufficient knowledge through schooling; what is “important is the spirit of adventure and liberty, the sense of setting out upon a voyage of discovery [p. 318].” When educators teach in this spirit, good students need no further motivation. Antiquated fears and superstitions can give way to freedom of thought and inquiry, and a splendid new world can be erected.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Education and the Good Life, Chapter XVIII

Chapter XVIII (pages 301-313), “The University”

Everyone except the occasional Mozart-like genius should have the sort of education in character and knowledge outlined earlier, but not everyone can profit from a university education. “Certainly the idle rich who at present infest the older universities very often derive no benefit from them, but merely contract habits of dissipation [p. 301].” Students who can benefit from university should not be precluded from attending by economic considerations, however.

British universities thankfully are escaping their past of providing first a clerical, and later a gentlemanly, education, while becoming professional schools. Lawyers, doctors, engineers, high-ranking civil service workers: all of these professions now are dominated by university men. Russell is sorry to witness the demise of learning for its own sake, but the plutocrats who fund the schools do not tolerate an impractical approach. Disinterested education can be salvaged, however, if a democracy of educated people devotes public money to the cause. Learned educators who rely on state funding are more likely to be uncorrupted than those who depend on the benefactions of wealthy businessmen. At any rate, universities should both offer professional training, and pursue research that lacks immediate utility.

People should be allocated to professions and jobs by talent, but economic realities imply that the choices of young people are constrained by heredity, by their parents’ wherewithal. Many people who would make for the best doctors cannot afford the training, and many people who are well suited to farm effectively lack the capital to procure land: most farmers are sons of farmers. Efficient agriculture is so important that we could require anyone undertaking substantial farming to hold a degree in “scientific agriculture [p. 307].” The general notion for all significant professions is that only people with appropriate skills should be allowed to take part; further, any person of ability, irrespective of means, should have the opportunity to acquire the appropriate skills.

So universities should be open to all who are qualified, with public support for students without sufficient means, and continued enrollment should be contingent on academic progress. “The idea of the university as a place of leisure where rich young men loaf for three or four years is dying, but, like Charles II, it is an unconscionable time about it [p. 308].”

The evidence that students are applying themselves should not be their attendance at (often useless) lectures. The Montessori focus on individualized work is particularly appropriate for bright students of college age. But the business minds that fund university schooling need verifiable signs of progress, so too much attention is given to trivial matters such as lecture attendance. Teachers should start the term by assigning required and recommended texts, and setting paper topics. (Students could, with approval, set their own topics, provided they are equally challenging.) Individual meetings with students should take place after the papers are prepared, and their papers are the measure of their effective effort. Once a week or so, a teacher should be available for less formal discussions.

“Every university teacher should be himself engaged in research, and should have sufficient leisure and energy to know what is being done in his subject in all countries [p. 309].” Unlike teachers of younger children, college teachers don’t have to be skillful pedagogues; they do have to be knowledgeable in and committed to their discipline. Every seventh year should bring a sabbatical to study abroad or to otherwise acquire knowledge of global advances in the relevant field. Britain has been slow to adopt these measures. Russell notes that his own training in mathematics came from teachers who had fallen woefully behind the progress made in previous decades on the Continent. The tension that exists at universities between research and teaching largely is artificial, stoked by the presence of students who shouldn’t be in college and a mindset that college, like grade school, should provide a sort of moral education. “The only morality which can be profitably exacted is that of work; the rest belongs to earlier years [p. 311].”

In terms of the function of universities, research is central. Human progress, in the long-term, requires new knowledge, and this, in turn, requires a research investment independent of any tangible return. A creator needs to be motivated by something beyond immediate, practical rewards. “He should be occupied, rather, in the pursuit of a vision, in capturing and giving permanence to something which he has first seen dimly for a moment, which he has loved with such ardour that the joys of this world have grown pale by comparison [p. 312].” The greatness of humanity depends on nourishing such ardour.