Knowledge, like other good things is difficult, but not impossible; the dogmatist forgets the difficulty, the sceptic denies the possibility. (52)
– Bertrand Russell, Education and the Good Life
Seen in the light of 1926, when first published, Education and the Good Life, is an interesting, forward book with an excellent title. Read in 2013, it is an interesting, outdated book with an excellent title.
What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health if no one remembers how to use them? (27)
An excellent question which is still worth asking. Russell argues for good and healthy childhoods and educations for all. He goes into near excruciating detail regarding the best methods of raising infants to babies- perhaps that is simply my own exhaustion of the subject, the chapters may very well keep the newly parented person in rapt attention. Most of what he says was new at the time, and has borne the test of time. I do have to disagree with his dismissal of swaddling. I was late to come to the ancient art, but found it not only helpful but logical. After all, an infant having so recently been held in the intense confinement of the womb does find a familiar comfort in a tight swaddle- and it is strangely satisfying to make a pretty folded package of a little baby (most people sadly never learn how to do it properly). It is also a comfort for a mother’s immediate nostalgia for the time when the life she carried was safely contained. But this is a small matter and I digress.
It is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; with it, “progress” would become mechanical and trivial. (30)
Bertrand Russell’s ideas are large and small flowing at a terrific rate, but he is at his best when he is in large philosopher mode. What he really wanted to emphasize in this book is the sense and beauty found in a balance between education as a form of utility and education as an aristocratic “ornament.” His ideas regarding that balance are true and beautifully stated. His Dr. Spock-ish manual of child rearing- a little less so. Once he gets off the formative early years where vitality, courage, sensitiveness and intelligence are practically applied to the average 3 or 4 year old, he gets into early education and cites Maria Montessori and her methodology at length.There is some, but little, to argue with his ideas, the problem is largely one of the information being fairly well accepted these days, so no longer particularly compelling reading.
I regard the cultivation of intelligence, therefore, as one of the major purposes of education. This might seem a commonplace, but in fact it is not. (74)
The sustaining interest of this book is the underlying philosophy. Particularly as we find ourselves in an age of “results” oriented and “skilled work force” propelled educations. More and more an argument has to be waged in defense of the classic liberal arts education; as if all subjects and thinking deemed superfluous should be eliminated. In many people’s minds a high score on a bubble test out-weighs anything that is not easily measured in a standardized exam. I would agree with Russell that mastery of precision matters but without art, imagination and critical thinking, it is to empty purpose. Not just for the individual but for humanity.
Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I must confess that I view with alarm the theory that language is merely a means of communication, and not also a vehicle of beauty. (31)