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.

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