Bertrand Russell: “Education and Discipline”

Is there any more famous English philosopher of the 20th century that Bertrand Russell?  Certainly, it is hard to think of a philosopher who occupied a larger space in our collective imaginations.  Probably, readers are most used to seeing Russell connected with the peace movement, logic, or perhaps his religious skepticism.  Russell’s writings on education and schooling, though slim, are worth reading. Partly because he is a joy to read; partly because they are not so far from accepted wisdom even today.  The selections below are from his 1935 essay, “Education and Discipline.”
On the debate between “natural” education or something formal and (perhaps) strict:

“The arguments in favour of a great degree of freedom in education are derived not from man’s natural goodness, but from the effects of authority, both on those who suffer it and on those who exercise it. Those who are subject to authority become either submissive or rebellious, and each attitude has its drawbacks.

“The submissive lose initiative, both in thought and action; moreover, the anger generated by the feeling of being thwarted tends to find an outlet in bullying those who are weaker. … The effect upon the educators is even worse: they tend to become sadistic disciplinarians, glad to inspire terror, and content to inspire nothing else. As these men represent knowledge, the pupils acquire a horror of knowledge, which, among the English upper-class, is supposed to be part of human nature, but is really part of the well- grounded hatred of the authoritarian pedagogue…

“Rebels, on the other hand, though they may be necessary, can hardly be just to what exists. Moreover, there are many ways of rebelling, and only a small minority of these are wise. Galileo was a rebel and was wise; believers in the flat-earth theory are equally rebels, but are foolish. There is a great danger in the tendency to suppose that opposition to authority is essentially meritorious and that unconventional opinions are bound to be correct: no useful purpose is served by smashing lamp-posts or maintaining Shakespeare to be no poet. Yet this excessive rebelliousness is often the effect that too much authority has on spirited pupils. And when rebels become educators, they sometimes encourage defiance in their pupils, for whom at the same time they are trying to produce a perfect environment, although these two aims are scarcely compatible.

Russell argues we should find some middle ground between free-range classrooms and overly regimented ones:

“What is wanted is neither submissiveness nor rebellion, but good nature, and general friendliness both to people and to new ideas. These qualities are due in part to physical causes, to which old-fashioned educators paid too little attention; but they are due still more to freedom from the feeling of baffled impotence which arises when vital impulses are thwarted. If the young are to grow into friendly adults, it is necessary, in most cases, that they should feel their environment friendly. This requires that there should be a certain sympathy with the child’s important desires, and not merely an attempt to use him for some abstract end such as the glory of God or the greatness of one’s country. And, in teaching, every attempt should be made to cause the pupil to feel that it is worth his while to know what is being taught-at least when this is true. When the pupil co-operates willingly, he learns twice as fast and with half the fatigue. All these are valid reasons for a very great degree of freedom.”

Yet, he says, we shouldn’t indulge the natural impulses of youth to excess:

“It is easy, however, to carry the argument too far. It is not desirable that children, in avoiding the vices of the slave, should acquire those of the aristocrat. Consideration for others, not only in great matters, but also in little everyday things, is an essential element in civilization, without which social life would be intolerable. I am not thinking of mere forms of politeness, such as saying “please” and “thank you”: formal manners are most fully developed among barbarians, and diminish with every advance in culture. I am thinking rather of willingness to take a fair share of necessary work, to be obliging in small ways that save trouble on the balance. Sanity itself is a form of politeness and it is not desirable to give a child a sense of omnipotence, or a belief that adults exist only to minister to the pleasures of the young. And those who disapprove of the existence of the idle rich are hardly consistent if they bring up their children without any sense that work is necessary, and without the habits that make continuous application possible.”

And he seems to be against (radically) democratic classrooms:

“There is another consideration to which some advocates of freedom attach too little importance. In a community of children which is left without adult interference there is a tyranny of the stronger, which is likely to be far more brutal than most adult tyranny…This is perhaps the most important argument against the abdication of the adults.”

On student discipline:

“If you have the sort of liking for children that many people have for horses or dogs, they will be apt to respond to your suggestions, and to accept prohibitions, perhaps with some good- humoured grumbling, but without resentment. It is no use to have the sort of liking that consists in regarding them as a field for valuable social endeavour, or – what amounts to the same thing – as an outlet for power-impulses. No child will be grateful for an interest in him that springs from the thought that he will have a vote to be secured for your party or a body to be sacrificed to king and country. The desirable sort of interest is that which consists in spontaneous pleasure in the presence of children, without any ulterior purpose. Teachers who have this quality will seldom need to interfere with children’s freedom, but will be able to do so, when necessary, without causing psychological damage.”

And some sympathy for teachers. While few would agree with his stronger claim here, I’m sure that teachers reading this would find a smile creep across their faces:

“Unfortunately, it is utterly impossible for over-worked teachers to preserve an instinctive liking for children; they are bound to come to feel towards them as the proverbial confectioner’s apprentice does towards macaroons. I do not think that education ought to be anyone’s whole profession: it should be undertaken for at most two hours a day by people whose remaining hours are spent away from children. The society of the young is fatiguing, especially when strict discipline is avoided. Fatigue, in the end, produces irritation, which is likely to express itself somehow, whatever theories the harassed teacher may have taught himself or herself to believe. The necessary friendliness cannot be preserved by self-control alone. But where it exists, it should be unnecessary to have rules in advance as to how “naughty” children are to be treated, since impulse is likely to lead to the right decision, and almost any decision will be right if the child feels that you like him. No rules, however wise, are a substitute for affection and tact.”

Is This Working?

(Now that I’ve finished my thesis and defended, I’m ready to return to the interwebs.  I begin again by revisiting a few ideas that first got me interested in the artful science of education.)

A recent installment of This American Life has a topic near and dear to all teachers: student discipline.

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On the surface, this is a delightful radio hour dedicated to the question of student discipline.  Par for the course, the good folks at This American Life have produced a compelling narrative.  But the anecdotes of discipline recalls so many important debates in education (and mimics many in social sciences, generally) that further unpacking is merited.

Some obvious truths: This American Life is a truly superb production that generates excellent reporting (and Ira Glass has a soft spot for schools); student discipline is a key concern for all teachers; discipline is a difficult task that defines the range of academic possibilities (if the kids are poorly behaved, nothing much is possible).

More important than any particular response to discipline challenges, however, is the set of profound questions this podcast asks outright – and hints at, too.  Namely: what should be the goal(s) of education? How would we know if something is working?  What evidence matters?  Should we scale up good ideas, or treat each school as a unique setting?

The first question is key, but laughably too broad for this space.  But the second, third, and fourth questions are important, answerable, and sadly asked very infrequently.  If we’re going to continue the remarkable improvements in schooling, we need to approach these questions – and others – with the kind of systematic rigor of those like Michael Thompson.  Profiled in the podcast, Thompson is the director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, and uses data sets millions large to shed light on, in this case, the “school to prison pipeline,” linking discipline practices of schools to higher incarceration rates.  He brings a scientist’s mind to the question, insisting on high-quality evidence to address complex questions about schooling effectiveness.

We might quibble with a few aspects of this – is Texas representative, for starters – but in general terms this is exactly the kind of inquiry that will lead to better schooling outcomes – and a more just schooling system, too.  We need to stop treating schooling like medicine in the 19th century.  We need to insist on evidence.  (Indeed if our goal is social equity, no greater ally could be found.)

The point is this: the question – how would we know – needs to be asked.  About all educational practices.  Not to be churlish and quarrelsome, but to remind ourselves that, like all ongoing human inquiries, schooling provides provisional truths, subject to verification and falsification.  If not, if we just go with our gut, if we fumble like the well-meaning folks in this radio hour with no systematic methods of inquiry, we have little hope of improving an institution that can lay claim, at least fractionally, to nearly all human success.