Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Bertrand Russell on reverence in education

My son Ben pointed me to an essay by Bertrand Russell, “Education as a Political Institution” (The Atlantic Monthly , June 1916). An excerpt:

In education, with its codes of rules emanating from a government office, with its large classes and fixed curriculum and overworked teachers, with its determination to produce a dead level of glib mediocrity, the lack of reverence for the child is all but universal. Reverence requires imagination and vital warmth; it requires most imagination in respect of those who have least actual achievement or power. The child is weak and superficially foolish; the teacher is strong, and in an everyday sense wiser than the child. The teacher without reverence, or the bureaucrat without reverence, easily despises the child for these outward inferiorities. He thinks it his duty to “mould” the child; in imagination he is the potter with the clay. And so he gives to the child some unnatural shape which hardens with age, producing strains and spiritual dissatisfactions, out of which grow cruelty and envy and the belief that others must be compelled to undergo the same distortions.

The man who has reverence will not think it his duty to “mould” the young. He feels in all that lives, but especially in human beings, and most of all in children, something sacred, indefinable, unlimited, something individual and strangely precious, the growing principle of life, an embodied fragment of the dumb striving of the world. He feels an unaccountable humility in the presence of a child — a humility not easily defensible on any rational ground, and yet somehow nearer to wisdom than the easy self-confidence of many parents and teachers. He feels the outward helplessness of the child, the appeal of dependence, the responsibility of a trust. His imagination shows him what the child may become, for good or evil; how its impulses may be developed or thwarted, how its hopes must be dimmed and the life in it grow less living, how its trust will be bruised and its quick desires replaced by brooding will. All this gives him a longing to help the child in its own battle, to strengthen it and equip it, not for some outside end proposed by the state or by any other impersonal authority, but for the ends which the child’s own spirit is obscurely seeking.
“[N]ot for some outside end proposed by the state or by any other impersonal authority, but for the ends which the child’s own spirit is obscurely seeking”: a strong rejoinder to the utilitarian mantra of college-ready and workplace-ready .

Thanks, Ben.

Related posts
Diana Senechal on literature and reverence
Michael Oakeshott on education

comments: 4

stefan said...

Thanks, Ben and Michael. I recently reread Emerson's "The American Scholar" and have been sitting on the following passage for a few weeks, waiting for a good reason to share it. I hope Ben's Bertrand Russell excerpt has provided a good reason:

"[Colleges] can only highly serve us when they aim not to drill, but to create; when they gather from far every ray of various genius to their hospitable halls, and by the concentrated fires, set the hearts of their youth on flame. Thought and knowledge are natures in which apparatus and pretensions avail nothing. Gowns and pecuniary foundations, though of towns of gold, can never countervail the least sentence or syllable of wit. Forget this, and our American colleges will recede in their public importance, whilst they grow richer every year."

The final sentence is, to me, uncanny in its prescience.

Michael Leddy said...

And how.

I just borrowed Bill Readings’s book The University in Ruins from the library yesterday.

The Arthurian said...

"WHO do you think received more cash from Yale’s endowment last year: Yale students, or the private equity fund managers hired to invest the university’s money?
It’s not even close

Michael, you probably saw Victor Fleischer's article already in the NY Times Opinion Pages. I thought of you when I read it, and Stefan's remarks were a reminder.

In case you missed it:

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks, Arthurian. I did see that piece, and I thought right away of what Stefan posted from Emerson, and it all got away from me. Better late than never. Thanks.