Clare Carlisle: Bertrand Russell – part 6: The philosopher’s anti-authoritarianism was seen in the ethos of the school he established, at which lessons were optional
Ever since Plato set out a school curriculum in The Republic, philosophers have come up with more or less idiosyncratic plans for educational reform. Bertrand Russell continued this tradition – not only in his writings, but in sending his own children to a school he founded with his wife. Like much of his popular philosophy, Russell’s reflections on education are flawed but interesting, and often remain pertinent in our own time.
Last week, we considered Russell’s commitment to individual freedom and his critique of oppressive social structures – views which led him to argue that “the cramping of love by institutions is one of the major evils of the world”. This idealistic position meets with practical challenges in the case of education, for this is a collective enterprise that requires organisation and administrative order – and yet its aims, Russell always insisted, should focus on the individuality of children.
One of Russell’s earliest essays on education is in his 1916 book, Principles of Social Reconstruction. Here, the philosopher argues that teachers should have an attitude of “reverence” for something deep within each child: “something sacred, indefinable, unlimited, something individual and strangely precious, the growing principle of life, an embodied fragment of the dumb striving of the world”. Teachers who possess this attitude do not try to mould their pupils in a particular way, but rather have “a longing to help the child in its own battle”. Of course, neither “reverence” nor its accompanying “longing” can be easily quantified and standardised in the institutional contexts that large-scale education requires. Russell saw clearly how classroom conditions prevented the kind of pedagogical culture he envisaged: “In education, with its codes of rules emanating from a government office, its large classes and fixed curriculum and overworked teachers, its determination to produce a dead level of glib mediocrity, the lack of reverence for the child is all but universal.”
At the heart of Russell’s more positive theory of education – set out in On Education (1926) – are four virtues which, he believed, teachers should foster in their students. These are vitality, courage, sensitivity (which in this context means appropriate emotional responsiveness) and intelligence. For Russell, successful education develops the whole character of a child in its physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspects.
When he wrote On Education, Russell was planning to put these ideals into practice. By this time, he had two children with his second wife, Dora, who was a young feminist intellectual. Interest in alternatives to mainstream education flourished in Britain during these years between the wars, and in 1927 the Russells set up the small, progressive Beacon Hill school in Sussex. Lessons were optional, and children were encouraged to choose their own activities.
The experimental ethos of Beacon Hill was controversial in its day. But many of Russell’s recommendations in his essays on education seem sensible enough. He writes of the energy needed to teach, pointing out that clergymen are not expected to preach for several hours each day and wondering why this is demanded of schoolteachers.
“Those who have no experience of teaching are incapable of imagining the expense of spirit entailed by any really living instruction,” he writes, adding that “intense fatigue and irritable nerves” are the inevitable result of long days in the classroom. Russell argues that large class sizes and overworked teachers are a “false economy”, and that “a teacher ought to have only as much teaching as can be done, on most days, with actual pleasure in the work, and with an awareness of the pupil’s mental needs.”
The outcome of the mainstream education system, suggests Russell, stifles the “something sacred” within every human being. When teachers are overworked, they have to save energy by performing their daily tasks “mechanically”, and in order to do this they impose a strict order and demand pupils’ obedience to it. For Russell, “obedience is the counterpart of authority” – and as we have seen in recent weeks, he opposed authoritarianism in all contexts since this undermines the individual’s freedom. In a 1940 essay on teaching he writes that “the teacher, like the artist, the philosopher, and the man of letters, can only perform his work adequately if he feels himself to be an individual directed by an inner creative impulse, not dominated and fettered by an outside authority.”
Of course, education requires organisation, but Russell is suggesting that policymakers should focus on creating conditions that can support the flourishing individuality of both teachers and pupils. “If the world is not to lose the benefit to be derived from its best minds,” he writes, “it will have to find some method of allowing them scope and liberty in spite of organisation.”
Ironically – but perhaps not surprisingly – Russell’s commitment to the flourishing of his own individuality did not help the fortunes of Beacon Hill school. His marriage to Dora was an open relationship, and the ideal of free love eventually led the couple to an acrimonious divorce. When their marriage disintegrated in the early 1930s, Russell withdrew as headmaster and sent his children to a more financially stable progressive school, while Dora continued to run Beacon Hill until its closure in 1943.
Looking back on their educational experiment in his autobiography, Russell reflects that their approach was somewhat misguided and concludes that “children cannot be happy without a certain amount of order and routine”.
Link to article: feeds.theguardian.com/c/34708/f/663879/s/352057f6/sc/38/l/0L0Stheguardian0N0Ccommentisfree0C20A130Cdec0C230Cbertrand0Erussell0Emainstream0Eeducation0Ephilopshoper/story01.htm