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].”

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