Tag Archive: education

A state’s liberal responsibilities

I certainly believe that it is the responsibility of the state to see that its citizens are given an education enabling them to participate in the life of the community, and to make use of any opportunity to develop their special interests and gifts; and the state should certainly also see (as Grossman rightly stresses) that the lack of ‘the individual’s capacity to pay’ should not debar him from higher studies. This, I believe, belongs to the state’s protective functions. To say, however, that ‘the future of the state depends on the younger generation, and that it is therefore madness to allow the minds of children to be moulded by individual taste’, appears to me to open wide the door to totalitarianism. State interest must not be lightly invoked to defend measures which may endanger the most precious of all forms of freedom, namely, intellectual freedom. And although I do not advocate ‘laissez faire with regard to teachers and schoolmasters’, I believe that this policy is infinitely superior to an authoritative policy that gives officers of the state full powers to mould minds, and to control the teaching of science, thereby backing the dubious authority of the expert by that of the state, ruining science by the customary practice of teaching it as an authoritative doctrine, and destroying the scientific spirit of inquiry—the spirit of the search for truth, as opposed to the belief in its possession. [ch. 7, 143]

Waking people from their dogmatic slumber

But this moral intellectualism of Socrates is a two-edged sword. It has its equalitarian and democratic aspect, which was later developed by Antisthenes. But it has also an aspect which may give rise to strongly anti-democratic tendencies. Its stress upon the need for enlightenment, for education, might easily be misinterpreted as a demand for authoritarianism. This is connected with a question which seems to have puzzled Socrates a great deal: that those who are not sufficiently educated, and thus not wise enough to know their deficiencies, are just those who are in the greatest need of education. Readiness to learn in itself proves the possession of wisdom, in fact all the wisdom claimed by Socrates for himself; for he who is ready to learn knows how little he knows. The uneducated seems thus to be in need of an authority to wake him up, since he cannot be expected to be self-critical. But this one element of authoritarianism was wonderfully balanced in Socrates’ teaching by the emphasis that the authority must not claim more than that. The true teacher can prove himself only by exhibiting that self-criticism which the uneducated lacks. ‘Whatever authority I may have rests solely upon my knowing how little I know’: this is the way in which Socrates might have justified his mission to stir up the people from their dogmatic slumber. This educational mission he believed to be also a political mission. He felt that the way to improve the political life of the city was to educate the citizens to self-criticism. In this sense he claimed to be ‘the only politician of his day’, in opposition to those others who flatter the people instead of furthering their true interests. [ch. 7, 141-2]

The moral responsibilities of superiority

I wish to express my belief that personal superiority, whether racial or intellectual or moral or educational, can never establish a claim to political prerogatives, even if such superiority could be ascertained. Most people in civilized countries nowadays admit racial superiority to be a myth; but even if it were an established fact, it should not create special political rights, though it might create special moral responsibilities for the superior persons. Analogous demands should be made of those who are intellectually and morally and educationally superior; and I cannot help feeling that the opposite claims of certain intellectualists and moralists only show how little successful their education has been, since it failed to make them aware of their own limitations, and of their Pharisaism. [ch. 4, 54]

Understanding is reconstruction

What I suggest is that we can grasp a theory only by trying to reinvent it or to reconstruct it, and by trying out, with the help of our imagination, all the consequences of the theory which seem to us to be interesting and important.

Understanding is an active process, not just a process of merely staring at a thing and waiting for enlightenment. One could say that the process of understanding and the process of the actual production or discovery of World 3 objects are very much alike. [461]

Repetition is not learning

There are few human skills where constant ‘practising’—that is, not only repetition but also more or less ‘mechanical’ repetition—is as important as in learning to play the piano. Yet we do not find anything new, such as a new fingering, through practising. Only after having discovered the new fingering by trial and error, that is, after comparing it with alternative solutions to the problem and rejecting less suitable solutions, can we begin to ‘practise’ it. Thus the function of mechanical repetition—of ‘practising’, or ‘learning by rote’—is not to discover something new, but to establish familiarity with something previously discovered. Its function is not to make us conscious of a new problem (as is the function of testing repeatedly some tentative solutions) but to eliminate as far as possible the element of consciousness from our performance. [42-3]

Education for the closed society

But in a static society that beginning of infinity never happens. Despite the fact that I have assumed nothing other than that people try to improve their lives, and that they cannot transmit their ideas perfectly, and that information subject to variation and selection evolves, I have entirely failed to imagine a static society in this story.

For a society to be static, something else must be happening as well. One thing my story did not take into account is that static societies have customs and laws – taboos – that prevent their memes from changing. They enforce the enactment of the existing memes, forbid the enactment of variants, and suppress criticism of the status quo. However, that alone could not suppress change. First, no enactment of a meme is completely identical to that of the previous generation. It is infeasible to specify every aspect of acceptable behaviour with perfect precision. Second, it is impossible to tell in ad­vance which small deviations from traditional behaviour would initiate further changes. Third, once a variant idea has begun to spread to even one more person – which means that people are preferring it – preventing it from being trans­mitted further is extremely difficult. Therefore no society could remain static solely by suppressing new ideas once they have been created.

That is why the enforcement of the status quo is only ever a secondary method of preventing change – a mopping-up operation. The primary method is always – and can only be – to disable the source of new ideas, namely human crea­tivity. So static societies always have traditions of bringing up children in ways that disable their creativity and critical faculties. That ensures that most of the new ideas that would have been capable of changing the society are never thought of in the first place.

How is this done? The details are variable and not relevant here, but the sort of thing that happens is that people growing up in such a society acquire a set of values for judging themselves and everyone else which amounts to ridding themselves of distinctive attributes and seeking only conformity with the society’s constitutive memes. They not only enact those memes: they see themselves as existing only in order to enact them. So, not only do such societies enforce qualities such as obedience, piety and devotion to duty, their members’ sense of their own selves is invested in the same standards. People know no others. So they feel pride and shame, and form all their aspirations and opinions, by the criterion of how thoroughly they subordinate themselves to the society’s memes. [381−2]

A static society involves – in a sense consists of – a relentless struggle to prevent knowledge from growing. [385]

Educated far beyond their capacity for analytical thought

Just as compulsory primary education created a market catered for by cheap dailies and weeklies, so the spread of secondary and latterly tertiary education has created a large population of people, often with well-developed literary and scholarly tastes, who have been educated far beyond their capacity to undertake analytical thought. [105]

The humanistic approach to science

I admit that the natural sciences are in danger of stifling mental growth, instead of furthering it, if they are taught as tech­nologies (the same is probably true of painting and of poetry); and that they should be treated (like painting and poetry) as human achievements, as great adventures of the human mind, as chapters in the history of human ideas, of the making of myths (as I have explained elsewhere), and of their criticism. [509]

Capable of being improved

It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury. For the same reason, we may leave out of consideration those backward states of society in which the race itself may be considered as in its nonage. The early difficulties in the way of spon­taneous progress are so great, that there is seldom any choice of means for overcoming them; and a ruler full of the spirit of improvement is warranted in the use of any expedients that will attain an end, perhaps otherwise unattainable. Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. [ch. I, 14-5]

Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke

In our times, from the highest class of society down to the lowest, every one lives as under the eye of a hostile and dreaded censorship. Not only in what concerns others, but in what concerns only themselves, the individual, or the fam­ily, do not ask themselves—what do I prefer? or, what would suit my character and disposition? or, what would allow the best and highest in me to have fair-play, and enable it to grow and thrive? They ask themselves, what is suitable to my position? what is usually done by persons of my station and pecuniary circumstances? or (worse still) what is usu­ally done by persons of a station and circumstances superior to mine? I do not mean that they choose what is customary, in preference to what suits their own inclination. It does not occur to them to have any inclination, except for what is cus­tomary. Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they like in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature, they have no nature to fol­low: their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own. Now is this, or is it not, the desirable condition of human nature?[ch. III, 78-9]

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