About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

In Praise of Idleness-V

One more about Bertrand Russell's collection of essays. In a short chapter entitled "Education and Discipline," Bertrand asks what sort of educational theory one ought to consider. He replies by saying that it must consist of two parts: "A conception of the ends of life, and a science of psychological dynamics." In other words, when we think about education, we should first ask ourselves what its goals should be in terms of the life of the individuals we wish to educate, and then pose the question of what methods are most efficacious to achieve our educational goals.

What I'd like to focus on here is Russell's elaboration on the first part of the answer, regarding the best conception of the ends of life. The British philosopher goes on to suggest that there are three components to this answer:

1) We want to stimulate our students' intellectual qualities, including a certain amount of knowledge to understand the world, technical/practical skills, and (I would say especially) "a habit of forming opinions on evidence" (i.e., what today we call critical thinking).

2) Also, we need to improve students' morality, i.e. we want them to be kind, impartial, and capable of self-control.

3) Finally, says Russell, we somehow need to instill in our students a zest and joy of life (though try not to kill their natural one might do as well).

It seems to me that Russell covered pretty much all the bases, although he quickly admits that psychology (in the 1930s, but this is pretty much still true today) is far from telling us how to best achieve such goals. Moreover, parents often get inevitably in the way of good education of their children (controversies about the teaching of evolution, sexual education, etc. quickly come to mind). Nonetheless, it helps to have clear in mind what educators ought to strive for.

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