Monday, March 30, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Thirteen

“Stoicism and Mental Health,” pages 159-167

Despite new alternatives offered by modern psychology, self-command remains necessary. Consider how to manage the fear of death. Some people try to ignore it, and avoid the subject of death as much as possible. Other people choose to obsess about the brevity of life and the unavoidability of death, in the hope that death will lose its sting through familiarity. (This approach was taken to extremes by a Cambridge Fellow who kept his coffin in his rooms.) Another popular approach is to convince yourself that death is really new life.

These three alternatives all hold disadvantages. Ignoring the reality of death will only work so long, until the all too real death of loved ones ends the blissful ignorance – and ends it more painfully than for someone who is better prepared. A monomaniacal focus on death, as on any subject, is profitless, particularly as we cannot act to avoid death (though we can and do act to postpone it). We need varied interests to be mentally healthy. [Russell sounds this theme in The Conquest of Happiness.] Concentrating on death is a sort of slavery to force majeure. [Recall how Russell, in Chapter 10, differentiates US “industrial” agriculture with European traditional agriculture on the basis of control over nature.] Meditation on death cannot eliminate the fear of death: if it could, then one wouldn’t have to keep meditating on death. And belief in an afterlife doesn’t seem to make most such believers any less anxious to avoid sickness, or more likely to be bold in battle. Religious ideas can influence conscious thought, but have more difficulty altering behavior as a whole. The fact that religious people sometimes show anger with non-believers is one sign that their own faith is not bottomless.

Children should not get the impression that death is a taboo topic, because that will only make it more of a subject of concentration. [Russell makes the same point elsewhere about sex, and he mentions the connection between proper sex education and death education in this chapter of In Praise of Idleness.] Nonetheless, we should nudge children away from a concentration on death, as we should nudge them away from a pornography fixation: both obsessions come at a cost in terms of overall development. We should not delude ourselves into believing that intellectual appeals will suffice to inculcate beneficial attitudes towards death.

While we should not lie about the inevitability of death, we should make it clear to children that death in all likelihood lies far in the future for them, and that it is not mysterious. “It should be brought into the same category with the wearing out of toys [p. 162].”

If someone close to a child – a brother, say – passes away, then the situation is somewhat different. [Russell lost a sister when he was quite young, though after both of his parents perished – RBR.] Parents must not try to hide their sorrow from the child, though they should try to moderate it. The topic should neither be avoided nor highlighted, and new amusements and attachments should be introduced, but not in a heavy-handed fashion.

A strong attachment in a child to one and only one person bespeaks a problem, that the child feels safe only under that person’s protection. If this person were to die, the child will be scarred forever, afraid that any attachment will result in immense pain, and needing excessive attention and reassurance from partners. A child’s affections need to be diversified to provide insurance against such an outcome, to guarantee that any loss does not prove devastating.

As children move into adolescence, they require more than the sort of underplayed truth-telling that is appropriate for younger children. Older people need to take part in a wide variety of ideas and actions, and should not be diverted by thoughts of death, either of their own demise or the deaths of others. “When [an adult] does think of death, it is best to think with a certain stoicism, deliberately and calmly, not attempting to minimise its importance, but feeling a certain pride in rising above it [p. 164].” A similar mindset should be applied to any fear, where acknowledging the fear, and thinking through the actual consequences should the feared event arise, help to lessen the fear. Look at how common it is for people to overcome the fear of death in battle. This approach, recognizing that there are general interests that extend beyond your own life, and beyond the lives of your loved ones, is generally appropriate.

The broad and sincere interests of adults develop from the generous, zestful attitudes of youths, attitudes that become the foundations for life and work. Teachers and fathers can help nurture the requisite broad generosity in adolescents, who are primed for the message. Mothers (and female teachers), in the present environment, themselves lack the broad, impersonal interests that allow them to appropriately inspire the young in this direction.

Risky situations can be dealt with either by trying to avoid them, or by accepting them and acting appropriately when negative consequences ensue. Eventually, unless fear is to dominate your life, you must resort to the second approach, as not all risks are avoidable. The forthright handling of misfortune – which is what stoicism consists of – is currently undervalued. Those educators who attempt to instill it are at risk themselves of becoming sadistic: the taking of pleasure in thrashing young people is commonplace.

Stoicism is helpful in dealing with the fear of death, but also with the fear of impoverishment, the fear of pain, and so on. These fears really should be controlled, but we must not let ourselves succumb to the trap of ignoring opportunities to mitigate or eliminate negative consequences directly. The view, which still persists to a degree, that anesthesia should not be used to reduce the pain of childbirth, is unreasonable, and reflects an origin in “unconscious sadism [p. 165].” Nonetheless, the anesthetically reduced pain of childbirth has been accompanied by a decreased willingness in rich women to tolerate the the pain that does remain. We need to manage this potential tradeoff between protecting against dangers and meeting actual danger with fortitude, and to do so in a way that gives little scope for cruelty.

Showing too little sympathy for the troubles of small children is a severe error, but excessive sympathy also is to be avoided. “A child that invariably receives sympathy will continue to cry over every tiny mishap; the ordinary self-control of the average adult is only achieved through knowledge that no sympathy will be won by making a fuss [p. 166].” Children can handle and even appreciate a demanding adult caregiver if they understand that the adult loves them.

In theory, then, an enlightened love is what is needed for teachers. [This point echoes Russell’s contention in his 1926 book, Education and the Good Life.] But we must guard against allowing the inevitable visceral factors of fatigue and impatience among teachers to become an excuse for cruelty, doled out under the guise of serving the long-term interests of children.

Russell closes this chapter by reiterating its main points. Tell children the truth, even painful truths, in an unemotional manner (except when a tragedy requires some acknowledgement of sorrow), though there is no need to obtrude painful truths before the knowledge is needed. Adults should model a cheerful fortitude. Children should be made aware of the broad interests that exist in this world, and see that there is much to be said for embracing larger purposes than one’s own direct well-being. Misfortunes should be met with the knowledge that there still are reasons to continue on, and potential misfortunes should not be objects of intense concentration, even in the name of protecting against them. Guardians of the young must be continually wary to ensure that their necessary application of discipline is not about their own sadistic pleasures, but rather, aimed at developing the capacities of the young. The best discipline for the young is that which is self-imposed, and derives from the hope of achieving some valuable but difficult goal. “Such ambition is usually suggested by some person in the environment; thus even self-discipline depends, in the end, upon an educational stimulus [p. 167].”

Sunday, March 29, 2015

In Priase of Idleness, Chapter Twelve

“Education and Discipline,” pages 152-158

A thorough approach to education requires knowledge of the goal to be achieved, along with an understanding of the psychology of learning, to indicate the means through which the desired goal can be achieved. In the West, Christianity and nationalism are the usual sources of goals, though in the limit, as Germany is now demonstrating, they are incompatible. When they coincide, they both are wrong; when they differ, Christianity provides the better guide.

The goal of education should be civilisation, which is composed of both individual and social dimensions. A civilised individual needs to possess a solid foundation of knowledge, skill in an occupation, and respect for evidence. Necessary moral qualities for a civilised being include a kind heart, a degree of willpower, evenhandedness, and zest. [Russell advises zest in both The Conquest of Happiness and Education and the Good Life – RBR.] “In communities, civilisation demands respect for law, justice as between man and man, purposes not involving permanent injury to any section of the human race, and intelligent adaptation of means to ends [p. 152].”

Given these goals, it is up to psychological science to provide the proper path. The major dimension that distinguishes alternatives concerns the degree of control exerted over students by educators. Full freedom does not ensure good behavior for children any more than it does for adults, whatever rump Rousseauvians might claim. The cooperation that society requires will not spontaneously arise in a population of unconstrained children. Further, life in modern society is dependent on science and technology, so education must provide some grounding in these areas. More generally, education requires some provision of “mental and moral equipment [p. 153]”; it cannot simply prepare fertile fields for the free development of children.

Still, significant freedom is desirable in education, because the extensive exercise of authority is bad both for the governed and the governors. Those whose inclinations are consistently thwarted by authority become either timid or rebellious. Timidity undermines mental and physical boldness, while the anger that submitting to authority generates results in the bullying of weaker individuals; hence, suffering is passed along from generation to generation. The authoritarian educators are poorly served by the lack of freedom that they impose, turning into sadistic inspirers of terror, not of learning. Knowledge becomes tainted through its connections to the horrific teachers.

The relative few of the thwarted individuals who turn to rebellion are mainly on the wrong road, too – most rebellion is foolish, not wise. A commitment to oppose authority and received opinion is not praiseworthy; rather, it involves accepting many mistaken ideas. A rebel who moves into the ranks of educator sometimes will try to sow rebellion among his charges, which harms the learning environment.

“What is wanted is neither submissiveness nor rebellion, but good nature, and general friendliness both to people and to new ideas [p. 155].” [This comports well, unsurprisingly, with Russell’s views in Education and the Good Life.] The friendliness can be inculcated by sympathy towards a child’s natural impulses and desires, as opposed to treating children as material to be shaped into drones supporting God and/or country. Children should also understand that what they are being taught has actual value to them (if indeed it does) – learning takes place with much less labor when the value of learning is clear. A significant dose of freedom tends to serve all of these ends.

The freedom should not extend into promoting an aristocratic disregard of the interests and feelings of others. Formal manners are not what is necessary – indeed, these seem to be most prominent in the most barbarous societies – but rather, doing one’s share for the common good and taking on small but, in the aggregate, socially valuable obligations. [Russell often offers only lukewarm support for manners.] Children should understand that they are not the center of the universe, and that good work habits are important.

Adult authority must be exercised to protect the smaller and weaker children from their stronger peers. Having a high regard for the interests of others is not a feeling that is naturally imbued in every young breast. Adult abdication of supervision in this realm is apt to lead to a tyranny beyond what is commonly seen in adult hierarchies.

Some children are almost lost to the effective blend of freedom and discipline by the time they enter school, due to poor (perhaps overly solicitous) parenting. But children with a more sensible upbringing can flourish and remain friendly with authority figures in an environment featuring a considerable degree of control.

“I think modern educational theorists are inclined to attach too much importance to the negative virtue of not interfering with children, and too little to the positive merit of enjoying their company [p. 157].” A sort of high regard for children, of the type that people frequently display for dogs and horses, goes a long way into making reasonable discipline acceptable to the young – and to reducing the times when such discipline is necessary. A regard for children that is based on seeing them as potential allies for your political party or soldiers for your future wars will not win their affection.

Teachers are so overtaxed, however, that they cannot maintain spontaneous pleasure in the company of children. [Russell remarks further on the excessive workload of teachers in Unpopular Essays.] Teachers should spend just two hours a day in the company of children: more time than this results in fatigue, and then irritation will show itself in interactions with the children, no matter what high ideals the teacher holds. The friendliness that should exist between rested teachers and their charges allows for an ad hoc approach to discipline: the decisions made in the moment will be fine, and the friendliness will ensure that the children perceive the decisions as fair. “No rules, however wise, are a substitute for affection and tact [p. 158].”

Saturday, March 28, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Eleven

“Men versus Insects,” pages 149-151

The current talk (and action) of letting slip the dogs of war among men overshadows the important, ongoing conflict between humans and insects. Humans were once the prey of large animals, but now, it is only ourselves and the very small animals that put us at risk. Recall that the huge and seemingly dominant dinosaurs on our earth were eclipsed by much smaller mammals. It may be that the combination of small brains and massive offensive weapons – horns – doomed the dinosaurs.

After supplanting the dinosaurs, mammals grew in size, though the largest mammal, the mammoth, has disappeared, and other large mammals are threatened. Man’s survivability is not at risk, except at the hands of insects and microbes. [Russell altered this view after the invention of nuclear weapons – RBR.] Insects such as ants exist in unfathomable numbers that dwarf those of humans. Germs are spreading as people migrate; yellow fever used to exist only in West Africa, but it has moved beyond those borders, and is likely to threaten massive human fatalities in China and India.

Scientists can devise ways to keep problem insects under control, often by relying on other organisms that are parasites of the targeted insect species. But scientific knowledge can be used for good or evil. The German professor who developed a method for fixing nitrogen was aiming to make a potent fertilizer, while his political masters wanted bombs, and they exiled the professor for insufficient interest in explosives. “In the next great war, the scientists on either side will let loose pests on the crops of the other side, and it may prove scarcely possible to destroy the pests when peace comes [pp. 150-151].” The only lasting winners in the next, biological war, might be the insect combatants. The universe might view this result with apathy, but I [Russell] would be saddened for my species. [Elsewhere Russell expressed greater ambivalence about the continuation of homo sapiens – RBR.]

Sunday, March 15, 2015

In Praise of Idleness, Chapter Ten

“Modern Homogeneity,” pages 141-148

Europeans in the States notice how the people in every region (excepting the one-time rebel states) hold similar viewpoints, even as each region strives to assert its individuality. The fact of uniformity only enhances the desire to trumpet minor points of distinctiveness. But the old South is almost a different country: “It is agricultural, aristocratic, and retrospective, whereas the rest of America is industrial, democratic and prospective [p. 141].” Even the non-southern rural parts of the US take an industrial approach to agriculture [a point Russell made in Chapter 8, too]; captains of agriculture could just as well be captains of other industries.

Peasantry of the European or Asian style is nearly non-existent in the US. As peasantry fosters some harmful anti-social attitudes, its absence in the US is a benefit. The systematization and industrialization in the orange groves of California are thousands of years ahead of what is found in the orange groves of Sicily. [Russell has some unduly sharp words for the qualities of the Sicilian workers, claiming (among other insults) that “what they lack in intelligence towards trees they make up for by cruelty to animals [p. 142].” He grants them “an instinctive sense of beauty,” however.] California grove workers can see themselves, like industrialists, as controllers of nature, not passive recipients of what the earth doles out.

Control over nature is what renders Minnesotans and Californians nearly indistinguishable, while Norwegians and Sicilians are poles apart. The ancient European religions concerned human interactions with the climate, and Christianity picked up some of the threads. The fact that Hell is described as very hot indicates its southern origins, because the Norwegians would have feared extreme cold instead. But Hell is not about climate in either (industrialized, so to speak) California or North Dakota: “in both it is a stringency on the money market [p. 143].”

Both the environment and the thoughts in America are mechanized. Radio transmits the same news everywhere, even to the remotest areas, so the whole country holds similar household conversations. I [Russell] was subject to broadcast ads while trying to read Virginia Woolf in a train traveling through the country’s midsection.

The same economies of scale that lead to efficiency in the production of pins lead (of necessity) to uniformity in the production of opinions. The role of the radio and of cinema in school education will continue to grow; lessons will be produced in one location and sent everywhere, so that every student will receive the same lessons. [Russell occasionally extolls the virtues of film for educational purposes.] Churches already (it is reported) produce centrally a weekly sermon, and send it out to be delivered by clergy who thereby are freed of the necessity of generating their own material. Syndicated news services ensure that local newspapers, nationwide, print nearly identical stories. “Reviews of my books, I find, are, except in the best newspapers, verbally the same from New York to San Francisco, and from Maine to Texas, except that they become shorter as one travels from the north-east to the south-west [p. 144].” Even the books that people read are the same across America: unlike in Europe, book purchases in the States are dominated by a handful of blockbusters.

Hollywood’s market preeminence ensures that cinemas worldwide – except in the Soviet Union – disseminate midwestern American views on family life and much else. (The Soviets impose their own, separate, uniformity.) The introduction of sound to film makes it likely that Hollywood will soon be the source of a global language.

There are advantages and disadvantages to such uniformity. The similarity of ideas and culture probably adds to peaceful co-existence – but at the price of intolerance of minorities. (Perhaps the dominant culture’s strength will mean that soon there will be no minorities to suppress.) The ways in which uniformity is established influence the mix of costs and benefits. [Warning: More Russellian Invective Follows!] “Southern Italians have been distinguished throughout history for murder, graft, and aesthetic sensibility [pages 145-146].” American public schools squelch the sensibility, but seem to be less adept at bringing the other features into closer compatibility with US norms. This point is more general: it is easier to assimilate desirable traits than undesirable ones, so that any general push for uniformity is likely to produce a levelling down.

A nation of immigrants such as America must needs engage in a project to assimilate the children of immigrants. The path chosen, which involves over-the-top nationalism, is unfortunate. This nationalism, emanating from the most powerful country, inspires fear in European nations.

Americans seem to equate a refusal to follow the herd with elitism, and hence as an undemocratic impulse. French democracy has avoided this interpretation. Occupations differ in France, they each have their own standards, without institutionalizing a stuffy hierarchy. All professional occupations in the US resemble business, somewhat akin to an orchestra consisting only of violin players. Americans are envious of any superiority that cannot be made general – except for superiority in athletic pursuits. “It seems that the average American is more capable of humility in regard to his muscles than in regard to his brains; perhaps this is because his admiration for muscle is more profound and genuine than his admiration of brains [p. 147].” Americans distrust the notion of intellectual expertise; popular science books abound because they appeal to the belief that special training is not necessary to understand science, even if it is necessary for athletic prowess.

Americans appreciate excellent achievements, but they place barriers in the way of such achievements through intolerance of eccentricity. Young artists face particularly steep obstacles, as the requisite “business”-style template is particularly unsuitable for artists. So America imports from Europe many of its most-admired achievers.

The imposed uniformity harms the exceptional individual, but smooths life for average people. A speaker can be well assured that his listeners will agree with him. Political differences are narrowed, so politics is a less contentious field. American-style uniformity is likely to spread to Europe as industrialization progresses: Europeans cannot glibly attack the homogeneity in the US and think themselves immune. [Somehow this reminds me of Karl Marx’s quotation from Horace in the preface to Das Kapital: “If, however, the German reader shrugs his shoulders at the condition of the English industrial and agricultural labourers, or in optimist fashion comforts himself with the thought that in Germany things are not nearly so bad; I must plainly tell him, “De te fabula narratur!”]

As uniformity spreads, international cooperation should become easier, just as political cohesion within the US is eased by homogeneity. The uniformity need not mean stasis, thanks to the changes wrought by ongoing scientific and technical progress. “I see therefore no reason for undue pessimism, however standardisation may offend the tastes of those who are unaccustomed to it [p. 148].”