Bertrand Russell at the age of nine
What the Educator Needs and What His Pupils Should Acquire
Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) has been acknowledged as one of the leading mathematicians of our times. His philosophical writings have made a great impact on contemporary philosophical thought. His writings on social reconstruction have stimulated radical thinking about some of society's important institutions. In the field of education, although his contributions were not as massive as in mathematics and philosophy, he was considered an ardent leader of those who held that education ought to emphasize scientific methods of enquiry rather than the transmission of a settled body of knowledge.
The importance of Russell's views on education owes a great deal to his personal experience with a variety of educational problems. From 1927 to 1932, he and his wife, Dora Winifred Black, directed the activities of an experimental school for young children. During the course of the experiments conducted at this school, he studied the entire gamut of problems encountered in the teaching-learning process. Commenting on the educational objects of his experimental school in a letter to H. G. Wells (24 May 1928), he wrote:
I believe profoundly in the importance of what we are doing here. If I were to put into one single phrase our educational objects, I should say that we aim at training initiative without diminishing its strength. I have long held that stupidity is very largely the result of fear leading to mental inhibitions, and the experience that we are having with our children confirms me in this view. Their interest in science is at once passionate and intelligent, and their desire to understand the world in which they live
exceeds enormously that of children brought up with the usual taboos upon curiosity. What we are doing is of course only an experiment on a small scale, but I confidently expect its results to be very important indeed. You will realise that hardly any other educational reformers lay much stress upon intelligence. A. S. Neill,1 for example, who is in many ways an admirable man, allows such complete liberty that his children fail to get the necessary training and are always going to the cinema, when they might otherwise be interested in things of more value. Absence of opportunity for exciting pleasures at this place is, I think, an important factor in the development of the children s intellectual interests. I note what you say in your book on the subject of amusements, and I agree with it very strongly. 2
In a self-critical evaluation of his experiments, Russell wrote in his Auto- biography:
In retrospect, I feel that several things were mistaken in the principles upon which the school was conducted. Young children in a group cannot be happy without a certain amount of order and routine. Left to amuse themselves, they are bored, and turn to bullying or destruction. In their free time, there should always be an adult to suggest some agreeable game or amusement, and to supply an initiative which is hardly to be expected of young children.
Another thing that was wrong was that there was a pretence of more freedom than in fact existed. There was very little freedom where health and cleanliness were concerned. The children had to wash, to clean their teeth, and to go to bed at the right time. True, we had never professed that there should be freedom in such matters, but foolish people, and especially journalists in search of a sensation, had said or believed that we advocated a complete absence of all restraints and compulsions. The older children, when told to brush their teeth, would sometimes say sarcastically: "Call this a free school!" Those who had heard their parents talking about the freedom to be expected in the school would test it by seeing how far they could go in naughtiness without being stopped. As we only forbade things that were obviously harmful, such experiments were apt to be very inconvenient.3
Even before he started on his career in experimental education, Russell had written a book entitled On Education — Especially in Early Childhood, first published in 1926. In it he examined the postulates of modern educational theory and stated what he thought should be the aims of education. He laid emphasis on the
1. Founder of the well-known experimental school named Summerhill.
2. Bertrand Russel, Autobiography (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1978), p. 418.
3. Ibid., p. 390.
development of an ideal character based on four characteristics: vitality, courage, sensitivity and intelligence. He also emphasized the importance of developing the wish to co-operate. He concluded that a community of men and women possessing the highest degree of vitality, courage, sensitivity and intelligence that education can produce would be very different from anything hitherto existing. "Education, " he said, "is the key to the new world. "
Russell wrote another extremely important book on education entitled Education and the Social Order, first published in 1932. It is a very readable book in which he presents a comprehensive philosophy of education covering a wide variety of subjects such as religion in education, patriotism in education, nationalism in education, competition in education, education under communism, educational economics, and propaganda in education. Even those who might disagree with the views expressed in that book will agree that some of its insights are of perennial value to teachers and pupils, as well as to educationists and parents.
One of the important issues in education is the problem of discipline, and Russell has dealt with this in several of his essays. He believes that the problem of combining the desirable forms of freedom with a necessary minimum of moral training has not been solved. He thinks that theorists attach too much importance to the negative virtue of not interfering with children, and too little to the positive merit of enjoying their company. Russell's own approach to the problem of freedom and discipline suggests that teachers who have genuine affection for children will seldom need to interfere with their freedom, but when necessary can do so without causing psychological damage. He thinks that when teachers are friends with children it will be unnecessary to have penalties. In a beautiful epigram, Russell says: "No rules, however wise, are substitutes for affection and tact. "
To summarize, we find in Russell s philosophy of education two underlying and logically connected ideas: the first is his basic aspiration for mankind: that in seeking the perfection of the human being, knowledge, emotion and power should be widened to the utmost. And the second is an extension of this concept to education. In Russell's words, "knowledge wielded by love is what the educator needs, and what his pupils should acquire. "
Knowledge wielded by love is what the educator needs, and what his pupils should acquire. In earlier years, love towards the pupils is the most important kind; in later years, love of the knowledge imparted becomes increasingly necessary. The important knowledge at first is knowledge of physiology, hygiene, and psychology, of which the last more especially concerns the teacher. The instincts and reflexes with which a child is born can be developed by the environment into the most diverse habits, and therefore into the most diverse characters. Most of this happens in very early childhood; consequently it is at this period that we can most hopefully attempt to form character. Those who like existing evils are fond of asserting that human nature cannot be changed. If they mean that it cannot be changed after six years old, there is a measure of truth in what they say. If they mean that nothing can be done to alter the instincts and reflexes with which an infant is born, they are again more or less in the right, though of course eugenics could, and perhaps will, produce remarkable results even here. But if they mean, as they usually do, that there is no way of producing an adult population whose behaviour will be radically different from that of existing populations, they are flying in the face of all modern psychology. Given two infants with the same character at birth, different early environments may turn them into adults with totally different dispositions. It is the business of early education to train the instincts so that they may produce a harmonious character, constructive rather than destructive, affectionate rather than sullen, courageous, frank and intelligent. All this can be done with a great majority of children; it is actually being done where children are rightly treated. 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. We do not do so, because we prefer oppression and war.
The crude material of instinct is, in most respects, equally capable of leading to desirable and to undesirable actions. In the past, men did not understand the training of instinct, and therefore were compelled to resort to repression. Punishment and fear were the great incentives to what was called virtue. We now know that repression is a bad method, both because it is never really successful and because it produces mental disorders. The training of instincts is a totally different method, involving a totally different technique. Habits and skill make, as it were, a channel for instinct, leading it to flow one way or another according to the direction of the channel. By creating the right habits and the right skill, we cause the child's instincts themselves to prompt desirable actions.
There is no sense of strain, because there is no need to resist temptation. There
is no thwarting, and the child has a sense of unfettered spontaneity. I do not mean these statements to be taken in an absolute sense; there will always be unforeseen contingencies in which older methods may become necessary. But the more the science of child psychology is perfected, and the more experience we acquire in nursery schools, the more perfectly the new methods can be applied.
I have tried to bring before the reader the wonderful possibilities which are now open to us. Think what it would mean: health, freedom, happiness, kindness, intelligence, all nearly universal. In one generation, if we chose, we could bring the millennium.
But none of this can come about without love. The knowledge exists; lack of love prevents it from being applied. We must let loose our natural kindliness; if a doctrine demands that we should inflict misery upon children, let us reject it, however dear it may be to us. In almost all cases, the psychological source of cruel doctrines is fear; that is one reason why I have laid so much stress upon the elimination of fear in childhood. Let us root out the fears that lurk in the dark places of our own minds. The possibilities of a happy world that are opened up by modem education make it well worth while to run some personal risk, even if the risk were more real than it is.
When we have created young people freed from fear and inhibitions and rebellious or thwarted instincts, we shall be able to open to them the world of knowledge, freely and completely, without dark hidden corners; and if instruction is wisely given, it will be a joy rather than a task to those who receive it. It is not important to increase the amount of what is learnt above that now usually taught to the children of the professional classes. What is important is the spirit of adventure and liberty, the sense of setting out upon a voyage of discovery. If formal education is given in this spirit, all the more intelligent pupils will supplement it by their own efforts, for which every opportunity should be provided. Knowledge is the liberator from the empire of natural forces and destructive passions; without knowledge, the world of our hopes cannot be built. A generation educated in fearless freedom will have wider and bolder hopes than are possible to us, who still have to struggle with the superstitious fears that lie in wait for us below the level of consciousness. Not we, but the free men and women whom we shall create, must see the new world, first in their hopes, and then at last in the full splendour of reality.
The way is clear. Do we love our children enough to take it? Or shall we let them suffer as we have suffered? Shall we let them be twisted and stunted and terrified in youth, to be killed afterwards in futile wars which their intelligence was
too cowed to prevent? A thousand ancient fears obstruct the road to happiness and freedom. But love can conquer fear, and if we love our children nothing can make us withhold the great gift which it is in our power to bestow.
From Bertrand Russell, On Education (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1985), pp. 203-06.
Untruthfulness, as a practice, is almost always a product of fear. The child brought up without fear will be truthful, not in virtue of a moral effort, but because it will never occur to him to be otherwise. The child who has been treated wisely and kindly has a frank look in the eyes, and a fearless demeanour even with strangers; whereas the child that has been subject to nagging or severity is in perpetual terror of incurring reproof, and terrified of having transgressed some rule whenever he has behaved in a natural manner. It does not at first occur to a young child that it is possible to lie. The possibility of lying is a discovery, due to observation of grown- ups quickened by terror. The child discovers that grown-ups lie to him, and that it is dangerous to tell them the truth; under these circumstances he takes to lying. Avoid these incentives, and he will not think of lying.
But in judging whether children are truthful, a certain caution is necessary. Children's memories are very faulty, and they often do not know the answer to a question when grown-up people think they do. Their sense of time is very vague; a child under four will hardly distinguish between yesterday and a week ago, or between yesterday and six hours ago. When they do not know the answer to a question they tend to say yes or no according to the suggestion in your tone of voice. Again, they are often talking in the dramatic character of some make-believe. When they tell you solemnly that there is a lion in the back garden this is obvious; but in many cases it is quite easy to mistake play for earnest. For all these reasons a young child's statements are often objectively untrue, but without the slightest intention to deceive. Indeed, children tend, at first, to regard grown-ups as omniscient, and therefore incapable of being deceived. My boy (three and three-quarters years old) will ask me to tell him (for the pleasure of the story) what occurred to him on some interesting occasion when I was not present; I find it almost impossible to persuade him that I don't know what happened. Grown-up people get to know so many things in ways the child does not understand, that he cannot set limits to their powers. Last Easter my boy was given a number of chocolate Easter eggs. We told him that if he ate too much chocolate he would be sick, but, having told him, we left him alone.
He ate too much and was sick. He came to me as soon as the crisis was over, with a beaming face, saying, in a voice almost of triumph: "I was sick, Daddy — Daddy. told me I should be sick". His pleasure in the verification of a scientific law was astonishing. Since then it has been possible to trust him with chocolate, in spite of the fact that he seldom has it; moreover, he implicitly believes everything we tell him about what food is good for him. There has been no need of moral exhortation or punishment or fear in bringing about this result. There has been need, at earlier stages, of patience and firmness. He is nearing the age where it is usual for boys to steal sweet things and lie about it. I dare say he will steal sometimes, but I shall be surprised if he lies. When a child does lie, parents should take themselves to task rather than him; they should deal with it by removing its causes, and by explaining gently and reasonably why it is better not to lie. They should not deal with it by punishment, which only increases fear and therefore the motive for lying.
Rigid truthfulness in adults towards children is, of course, absolutely indispensable if children are not to learn lying. Parents who teach that lying is a sin, and who nevertheless are known to lie by their children, naturally lose all moral authority The idea of speaking the truth to children is entirely novel; hardly anybody did it before the present generation. I greatly doubt whether Eve told Cain and Abel the truth about apples; I am convinced that she told them she had never eaten anything that wasn't good for her. It used to be the thing for parents to represent themselves as Olympians, immune from human passions, and always actuated by pure reason. When , they reproached the children they did it more in sorrow than in anger; however they might scold, they were not "cross", but talking to the children for their good. Parents did not realise that children are astonishingly clear-sighted; they do not understand all the solemn political reasons for humbug, but despise it straightforwardly and simply Jealousies and envies, of which you are unconscious, will be evident to your child, who will discount all your fine moral talk about the wickedness of the objects of these passions. Never pretend to be faultless and inhuman; the child will not believe you, and would not like you any the better if he did. I remember vividly how, at a very early age, I saw through the Victorian humbug and hypocrisy with which I was surrounded, and vowed that, if I ever had children, I would not repeat the mistakes that were being made with me. To the best of my ability I am keeping this vow.
Another form of lying, which is extremely bad for the young, is to threaten punishments you do not mean to inflict. Dr Ballard, in his most interesting book onThe Changing School1 has stated this principle rather emphatically: "Don't threaten. If you do, let nothing stop you from carrying out your threat. If you say to a boy, 'Do
that again and I'll murder you', and he does it again, then you must murder him. If you don't, he will lose all respect for you." The punishments threatened by nurses and ' ignorant parents in dealing with infants are somewhat less extreme, but the same rule applies. Do not insist, except for good reason; but when you have once begun insisting,— continue, however you may regret having embarked upon the battle. If you threaten a punishment, let it be one that you are prepared to inflict; never trust to luck that your bluff will not be called. It is odd how difficult it is to get this principle understood by uneducated people. It is particularly objectionable when they threaten something terrifying, such as being locked up by the policeman, or carried off by the bogey-man. This produces first a state of dangerous nervous terror and then a complete scepticism as to all statements and threats by grown-up people. If you never insist without carrying the matter through, the child soon learns that on such occasions resistance is useless, and he obeys a mere word without giving further trouble. i But it is essential to the success of this method that you should not insist unless there is some really strong reason for doing so.
Another undesirable form of humbug is to treat inanimate objects as if they were alive. Nurses sometimes teach children, when they have hurt themselves by bumping into a chair or table, to smack the offending object and say, "naughty chair", or "naughty table". This removes a most useful source of natural discipline. Left to himself, the child soon realises that inanimate objects can only be manipulated by skill, not by anger or cajolery. This is a stimulus to the acquisition of skill, and a help in realising the limits of personal power.
Lies about sex are sanctioned by time-honoured usage. I believe them to be wholly and utterly bad, but I shall say no more on this subject now, as I propose to devote a chapter to sex-education.
Children who are not suppressed ask innumerable questions, some intelligent, others quite the reverse. These questions are often wearisome, and sometimes inconvenient. But they must be answered truthfully, to the best of your ability. If the child asks you a question connected with religion, say exactly what you think, even if you contradict some other grown-up person who thinks differently. If he asks you about death, answer him. If he asks you questions designed to show that you are wicked or foolish, answer him. If he asks you about war, or capital punishment, answer him. Do not put him off with "you can't understand that yet", except in difficult scientific matters, such as how electric light is made. And even then make it clear that the answer is a pleasure in store for him, as soon as he has learnt rather more than he now knows. Tell him rather more than he can understand, not rather less; the
part he fails to understand will stimulate his curiosity and his intellectual ambition.
Invariable, truthfulness to a child reaps its reward in increased trust. The child has a natural tendency to believe what you say, except when it runs counter to a strong desire, as in the case of the Easter eggs which I mentioned just now. A little ; experience of the truth of your remarks even in these cases enables you to win belief easily and without emphasis. But if you have been in the habit of threatening consequences which did not happen, you will have to become more and more I insistent and terrifying, and in the end you will only produce a state of nervous uncertainty. One day my boy wanted to paddle in a stream, but I told him not to, ! because I thought there were bits of broken crockery which would cut his feet. His : desire was keen, so he was sceptical about the crockery; but after I had found a piece and shown him the sharp edge, he became entirely acquiescent. If I had invented the crockery for my own convenience I should have lost his confidence. If I had not , found any I should have let him paddle. In consequence of repeated experiences of this sort he has almost entirely ceased to be sceptical of my reasons.
We live in a world of humbug, and the child brought up without humbug is bound to despise much that is commonly thought to deserve respect. This is regrettable, because contempt is a bad emotion. I should not call his attention to such matters, though I should satisfy his curiosity whenever it turned towards them, Truthfulness is something of a handicap in a hypocritical society, but the handicap is more than out-weighed by the advantages of fearlessness, without which no one can be truthful. We wish our children to be upright, candid, frank, self-respecting; for my part, I would rather see them fail with these qualities than succeed by the arts of the slave. A certain native pride and integrity is essential to a splendid human being, and where it exists lying becomes impossible, except when it is prompted by some generous motive. I would have my children truthful in their thoughts and words, even if it should entail worldly misfortune, for something of more importance than riches and honours is at stake.
From Bertrand Russell, On Education (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1985), pp. 104-09.
In education, the ideal of competition has had two kinds of bad effects. On the one hand, it has led to the teaching of respect for competition as opposed to co-operation, especially in international affairs; and on the other hand, it has led to a vast system of competitiveness in the class-room, and in the endeavour to secure
scholarships, and subsequently in the search for jobs. This last stage has been somewhat softened, where wage-earners are concerned, by trade-unionism. But among professional men it has retained all its unmitigated severity.
One of the worst defects of the belief in competition in education is that it has led, especially with the best pupils, to a great deal of over-education. At the present day there is a dangerous tendency, in every country of Western Europe, though not n North or South America, to inflict upon young people so much education as to be imaging to imagination and intellect, and even to physical health. Unfortunately, it is the cleverest of the young who suffer most from this tendency; in each generation :.e best brains and the best imaginations are immolated upon the altar of the Great God Competition. To one who has, as I have had, experience at the university of
some of the best minds of a generation, the damage done by overstrain in youth is heart-rending. The educational machine in the United States is in many ways inferior to those of Western Europe, but in this respect it is better than they are. Able young post-graduates in America seldom have the breadth of culture or the sheer extent of erudition that is to be found in the same class in Europe, but they have a love of knowledge, an enthusiasm for research, and a freshness of intellectual initiative which in Europe have usually given place to a bored and cynical correctness. To learn without ceasing to love learning is difficult, and of this difficulty European educators have not found the solution.
The first thing the average educator sets to work to kill in the young is imagination. Imagination is lawless, undisciplined, individual, and neither correct nor incorrect; in all these respects it is inconvenient to the teacher, especially when competition requires a rigid order of merit. The problem of the right treatment of imagination is rendered more difficult by the fact that, in most children, it decays spontaneously as interest in the real world increases. Adults in whom imagination remains strong are those who have retained from childhood something of its emancipation from fact; but if adult imagination is to be valuable, its emancipation from fact must not spring from ignorance, but from a certain lack of slavishness. Farinata degli Uberti held Hell in great contempt, in spite of having to live there for ever. It is this attitude towards fact that is most likely to promote fruitful imagination in the adult.
To pass to more concrete considerations, take such a matter as children's drawing and painting. Most children, from about five years old to about eight, show considerable imagination of a pictorial kind if they are encouraged but otherwise left free. Some, though only a small minority, are capable of retaining the impulse to paint after they have become self-critical. But if they have been taught to copy carefully and to aim at accurate representation, they become increasingly scientific rather than artistic, and their painting ceases to show any imagination. If this is to be avoided, they must not be shown how to draw correctly except when they themselves ask for instruction, and they must not be allowed to think that correctness constitutes merit. This is difficult for the teacher, since artistic excellence is a matter of opinion and individual taste, whereas accuracy is capable of objective tests. The social element in school education, the fact of being one of a class, tends, unless the teacher is very exceptional, to lead to emphasis upon socially verifiable excellences rather than upon such as depend upon personal quality. If personal quality is to be preserved, definite teaching must be reduced to a minimum, and criticism must
never be carried to such lengths as to produce timidity in self-expression. But these maxims are not likely to lead to work that will be pleasing to an inspector.
The same thing, at a slightly later age, applies to the teaching of literature. Teachers tend to teach too much, and to make up silly rules of style, such as that no sentence should begin with "and" or "but". Definite rules of grammar must of course be observed, though even grammar is more elastic than most teachers suppose. Any child who wrote:
And damned be him that first cries hold, enough
would be reproached not only for profanity but also for bad grammar. In regard to literature, as in regard to painting, the danger is lest correctness should be substituted for artistic excellence. The teaching of literature should be confined to reading, and the reading should be intensive rather than extensive. It is good to know by heart things from which one derives spontaneous pleasure, and it is totally useless, from the standpoint of education in literature, to read anything, however classical, which does not give actual delight to the reader. The literature that is read with avidity and known intimately moulds diction and style, whereas the literature that is read once coldly merely promotes pseudo-intelligent conversation. Pupils should, of course, write as well as read, but what they write should not be criticised, nor should they be shown how, in the teacher's opinion, they might have written it better. So far as writing is concerned, there should be no teaching.
Passing from imagination to intellect, we find somewhat similar considerations relevant, together with certain others connected with fatigue. Fatigue may be general or special; the former is to be considered in connection with health, but the latter should be borne in mind by all who are engaged in intellectual training. Readers may remember Pavlov's dog who learnt to distinguish ellipses from circles. But as Pavlov gradually made the ellipses more nearly circular, there came at last a point — where the ratio of major and minor axes was 9:8 — at which the dog's powers of discrimination gave way, and after this he forgot all that he had previously learnt on the subject of circles and ellipses. The same sort of thing happens to many boys and girls in school. If they are compelled to tackle problems that are definitely beyond their powers, a kind of bewildered terror seizes hold of them, not only in relation to the particular problem in question, but also as regards all intellectually neighbouring territory. Many people are bad at mathematical subjects all their lives because they started them too young. Of the capacities tested in school, the power of abstract
reasoning is the latest to develop, as may be seen from the data collected in Piaget's valuable book on Judgement and Reasoning in the Child. A pedagogue, unless he is very psychological and very experienced, cannot believe that children are as muddle-headed as they are: so long as the right verbal responses are obtained, it is supposed that the subject is understood. Arithmetic and mathematics generally are learnt at too early an age, with the result that, in regard to them, many pupils acquire the artificial stupidity of Pavlov's canine student of geometry. To prevent this kind of misfortune, it is necessary that teachers should have some knowledge of psychology, considerable training in the art of teaching, and a certain freedom to relax the curriculum where necessary. To know how to teach is at present thought desirable in those who teach the poor, but the sons of "gentlemen" are still taught by wholly untrained teachers. This is one of the unpredictable results of snobbery.
Fatigue damages the actual quality of the intellect, and is therefore very grave. Less disastrous, though still seriously harmful, is the discouragement of interest in intellectual things which results from the fact that much of what is taught is (or at least seems) wholly useless. Take any average class of a hundred boys: I should guess that ninety of them learn only from fear of punishment, nine from a competitive desire for success, and one from love of knowledge. This lamentable state of affairs is not inevitable. By means of short hours, voluntary lessons, and good teaching, it is possible to cause about 70 per cent to learn from love of knowledge. When this motive can be invoked, attention becomes willing and unstrained, with the result that fatigue is greatly diminished and memory greatly improved. Moreover, the acquisition of knowledge comes to be felt as a pleasure, with the consequence that it is likely to be continued after the period of formal education is ended. It will be found that more is learnt in the shorter hours of voluntary lessons than in the longer times of enforced and inattentive boredom. But the teacher must adapt the instruction to the pupils' sense of what is worth knowing, and not attempt to bully them into an insincere pretence that ancient rubbish has some occult and mysterious value.
Another intellectual defect of almost all teaching, except the highest grade of university tuition, is that it encourages docility and the belief that definite answers are known on questions which are legitimate matters of debate. I remember an occasion when a number of us were discussing which was the best of Shakespeare's plays. Most of us were concerned in advancing arguments for unconventional opinions, but a clever young man, who, from the elementary schools, had lately risen to the university, informed us, as a fact of which we were unaccountably ignorant,
that Hamlet is the best of Shakespeare's plays. After this the subject was closed. Every clergyman in America knows why Rome fell: it was owing to the corruption of morals depicted by Juvenal and Petronius. The fact that morals became exemplary about two centuries before the fall of the Western Empire is unknown or ignored. English children are taught one view of the French Revolution, French children are taught another; neither is true, but in each case it would be highly imprudent to disagree with the teacher, and few feel any inclination to do so. Teachers ought to encourage intelligent disagreement on the part of their pupils, even urging them to read books having opinions opposed to those of the instructor. But this is seldom done, with the result that much education consists in the instilling of unfounded dogmas in the place of a spirit of inquiry. This results, not necessarily from any fault in the teacher, but from a curriculum which demands too much apparent knowledge, with a consequent need of haste and undue definiteness.
The most serious aspect of over-education is its effect on health, especially mental health. This evil, as it exists in England, is a result of the hasty application of a Liberal watchword, "equality of opportunity". Until fairly recent times, education was a prerogative of the sons of the well-to-do, but under the influence of democracy it was felt, quite rightly, that higher education ought to be open to all who could profit by it, and that ability to profit by it depended in the main upon intellect. The solution was found in a vast system of scholarships depending upon scholastic proficiency at an early age, and to a very large extent upon competitive examinations. Belief in the sovereign virtues of competition prevented anyone from reflecting that boys and girls and adolescents ought not to be subjected to the very severe strain involved. If the strain were only intellectual it would be bad enough, but it is also emotional: the whole future of a boy or girl, not only economically, but socially, turns upon success in a brief test after long preparation. Consider the situation of an intelligent boy from a poor home, whose interests are almost wholly intellectual, but whose companions care nothing for books. If he succeeds in reaching the university, he may hope to make congenial friends and spend his life in congenial work; if not, he is doomed not only to poverty but to mental solitude. With this alternative before him, he is almost certain to work anxiously but not wisely, and to destroy his mental resiliency before his education is finished.
While the evil is obvious to everyone who has experience of teaching in a university, the remedy is not easy to devise. It is probably undesirable, and certainly financially impossible, to give a university education to everybody; consequently some method of selection is necessary, and the method must depend chiefly upon
Photo Nathalie Nuber, Auroville
intellectual proficiency. It would be better if the strain were not so concentrated as it is when it depends upon an examination, and if teachers could select a certain proportion of their pupils on the basis of their general impression. No doubt this would lead to a certain amount of toadying and favouritism, but probably these evils would be less grave than those of the present system. It would be well to select those who were to have a university education at the age of twelve, after which they should not be subjected to competition, but only to reasonable conditions of industry. And at the age of twelve they should be selected rather for intelligence than for actual proficiency.
This is a merit in the intelligence tests, which are too little used in England, though in America they are relied upon to an extent for which there is, to my mind;
no scientific justification. Their merit is not that they are infallible — no test can be that — but that they bring out more or less correct results on the whole, and that they do not demand the exhausting and nerve-racking preparation which is required for the usual type of examination.
In urban areas, and wherever there is a sufficient density of population, there ought to be special schools for very clever boys and girls, as there already are for the mentally deficient. A beginning has been made in this direction in America,2 but as yet only on a small scale.
Some of the results are interesting. For example: a boy whose intelligence quotient was 190 (100 being the average) was found in an ordinary school, where he had no friends and was regarded as a fool. He was transferred to a special class for boys with median intelligence quotient 164, where he was quickly recognised as a leader and "was elected to many posts of trust and honour". A great deal of needless pain and friction would be saved to clever children if they were not compelled to associate intimately with stupid contemporaries. There is an idea that rubbing up against all and sundry in youth is a good preparation for life. This appears to me to be rubbish. No one, in later life, associates with all and sundry. Bookmakers are not obliged to live among clergymen, nor clergymen among bookmakers. In later life a man's occupation and status give an indication of his interests and capacities. I have, in my day, lived in various different social strata — diplomatists, dons, pacifists, gaol-birds, and politicians — but nowhere have I found the higgledy-piggledy ruthlessness of a set of boys. Intellectual boys, for the most part, have not yet learnt to conceal their intellectuality, and are therefore exposed to constant persecution on account of their oddity. The more adaptable among them learn, in time, to seem ordinary and to put on a smooth and vacuous exterior, but I cannot see that this is a lesson worth learning. If you walk through a farmyard, you may observe cows and sheep and pigs and goats and geese and ducks and hens and pigeons, all behaving in their several ways: no one thinks that a duck should acquire social adaptability by learning to behave like a pig. Yet this is exactly what is thought so valuable for boys at school, where the pigs tend to be the aristocracy.
The advantages of special schools for the cleverer children are very great. Not only will they avoid social persecution, thereby escaping much pain and emotional fatigue and all the lessons in cowardice which cause clever adults often to prostitute their brains in the service of powerful fools. From a purely intellectual point of view
they can be taught much faster, and not have to endure the boredom of hearing things that they already understand being explained to the other members of the class; moreover, their conversation with each other is likely to be of a sort to fix knowledge in their memory, and their spare-time occupations can be intelligent without fear of ridicule. Nothing can be urged against such schools except administrative difficulties and that form of democratic sentiment which has its source in envy. At present, every clever boy or girl feels odd; in such an environment this feeling would disappear.
One of the difficulties of every large educational machine is that the administrators are, as a rule, not teachers, and have not the required experience for knowing what is possible and what is impossible. When a man begins to teach, unless he teaches selected groups of specially intelligent pupils, he finds with surprise that young people learn much less and much more slowly than he had supposed. A subject may be well worth knowing, but nevertheless, not worth teaching, because in the time available most pupils will learn nothing of it. The tendency of those who construct a curriculum without having experience of teaching is to put too much into it, with the result that nothing is learnt thoroughly. On the other hand, the experienced teacher is apt to have a different bias, which is just as undesirable: he tends, largely because he must place pupils in order of merit, to prefer those subjects in which there can be no doubt whether the pupil has given the right answer. The long vogue of Latin grammar has been partly attributable to this source. Arithmetic, for the same reason, is overvalued; in British elementary schools it takes up far more of the time than it should. The average man should be able to do accounts, but beyond that he will seldom have occasion for sums. What he may have learnt of complicated arithmetic will be of no more practical use to him in later life than would the amount of Latin he could have learnt in the same time, and of far less use than what he could have learnt of anatomy and physiology and elementary hygiene.
The problem of over-education is both important and difficult. It is important because a clever person who has been over-educated loses spontaneity, self- confidence, and health, and thereby becomes a far less useful member of the community than he might have been. It is difficult because, as the existing mass of knowledge grows greater, it becomes increasingly laborious to know all that is relevant, both in the more complicated practical questions and in scientific discovery. We cannot therefore avoid the evils of over-education by merely saying: "Let boys and girls run wild and not be bothered with too much learning." Our social
Photo Nathalie Nuber, Auroville
structure increasingly depends upon trained and well-informed intelligence. The present world-wide depression is largely due to lack of education on the part of practical men: if bankers and politicians understood currency and credit, we should all, from the highest to the lowest, be much richer than we are. The advancement of science — to take another illustration — cannot continue at anything like its present rate unless a man can reach the frontiers of existing knowledge by the time he is twenty-five, since few men are capable of profound originality after the age of thirty. And the average citizen cannot play his part in a complicated world unless he is more accustomed than at present to view practical issues as matters to be decided by the application of trained intelligence to masses of fact, rather than by prejudice, emotion and clap-trap. For all these reasons, intellectual education is a vital necessity in the modern social order.
There must be sufficient instruction, and there must not be the evils of over- education. This demands three things. First and foremost, there must be as little emotional strain as possible in connection with the acquisition of knowledge; this requires great changes in the system of examinations and scholarships, and the segregation, wherever possible, of the cleverer pupils. Emotional strain is the chief cause of harmful fatigue, purely intellectual fatigue, like muscular fatigue, is
repaired each night during sleep, but emotional fatigue prevents sufficient sleep or makes it unrestful through bad dreams. During education, therefore, young people should, as far as is at all possible, have a care-free existence.
The second thing required is a drastic elimination of instruction that serves no useful purpose. I do not mean that children and young people should only acquire what is termed "useful" knowledge, but that they should not learn things merely because they always have been learnt. I have frequently questioned young people lately finished with school as to what they had learnt of history. I have generally found that they had done English history from Hengest and Horsa to the Norman Conquest, over and over again, in each new class, and that beyond that they knew nothing. I may be exceptional, but I have never yet found myself in a situation where it was really profitable to know about (say) the relations of the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex in the eighth century. There is much in history that is abundantly worth knowing, but this is hardly ever taught in schools.
The third thing required is that all higher instruction should be given with a view to teaching the spirit and technique of inquiry rather than from the standpoint of imparting the right answers to questions. Here, again, examinations are to blame. The young person who has to pass (say) an elementary examination in English literature will probably be well advised to read no single word of any of the great writers, but to learn by heart some manual giving all the information except what is worth having. For the sake of examinations, young people have to learn by heart all kinds of things, such as dates, which it is far more sensible to look up in books of reference. The proper sort of instruction teaches the use of books, not useless feats of memory designed to make books unnecessary. This is already recognised as regards post-graduate work, but it ought to be recognised at a much earlier stage of education. And the pupil's research should not be judged by the orthodoxy or otherwise of the conclusion arrived at, but by the extent of knowledge and the reasonableness of the argument. This method will not only teach the power of forming sound judgements and keep alive the learner's initiative, but will make the acquisition of knowledge interesting, thereby diminishing very greatly the amount of fatigue involved in the process. The fatigue of intellectual work is largely due to the effort of forcing oneself to give attention to what is boring, and therefore any method that removes the boredom also removes most of the fatigue.
By these methods it is possible to become highly educated without endangering health and spontaneity. But this is not possible while the tyranny of examinations and competition persists. Competition is not only bad as an educational fact, but also
as an ideal to be held before the young. What the world now needs is not competition but organisation and co-operation; all belief in the utility of competition has become. an anachronism. And even if competition were useful, it is not in itself admirable, since the emotions with which it is connected are the emotions of hostility and ruthlessness. The conception of society as an organic whole is very difficult for those whose minds have been steeped in competitive ideas. Ethically, therefore, no less than economically, it is undesirable to teach the young to be competitive.
From Bertrand Russell, Education and the Social Order
(London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1984), pp. 102-11.
Photo Nathalie Nuber, Auroville
1.HodderandStoughton, 1925, p. 112.
2. See Gifted Children, by Hollingworth, Chapters IX and X.