Tag Archive: education

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]

No Christian morality

What little recognition the idea of obligation to the public obtains in modern morality, is derived from Greek and Roman sources, not from Christian; as, even in the morality of private life, whatever exists of magnanimity, high-mindedness, personal dignity, even the sense of honour, is derived from the purely human, not the religious part of our education, and never could have grown out of a standard of ethics in which the only worth, professedly recognised, is that of obedience. [ch. II, 64]

The necessity of explaining a truth

As mankind improve, the number of doctrines which are no longer disputed or doubted will be constantly on the in­crease: and the well-being of mankind may almost be measured by the number and gravity of the truths which have reached the point of being uncontested. The cessation, on one question after another, of serious controversy, is one of the necessary incidents of the consolidation of opinion; a consolidation as salutary in the case of true opinions, as it is dangerous and noxious when the opinions are erroneous. But though this gradual narrowing of the bounds of diversity of opinion is necessary in both senses of the term, being at once inevitable and indispensable, we are not therefore obliged to conclude that all its consequences must be beneficial. The loss of so important an aid to the intelligent and living apprehension of a truth, as is afforded by the necessity of explaining it to, or defending it against, opponents, though not sufficient to outweigh, is no trifling drawback from, the benefit of its universal recognition. Where this advan­tage can no longer be had, I confess I should like to see the teachers of mankind endeavouring to provide a substitute for it; some contrivance for making the difficulties of the question as present to the learner’s consciousness, as if they were pressed upon him by a dissentient champion, eager for his conversion. [ch. II, 56]

The end of education: to not stop thinking

We often hear the teachers of all creeds lamenting the difficulty of keeping up in the minds of believers a lively appre­hension of the truth which they nominally recognise, so that it may penetrate the feelings, and acquire a real mastery over the conduct. No such difficulty is complained of while the creed is still fighting for its existence: even the weaker combatants then know and feel what they are fighting for, and the difference between it and other doctrines; and in that period of every creed’s existence, not a few persons may be found, who have realised its fundamental principles in all the forms of thought, have weighed and considered them in all their important bearings, and have experienced the full effect on the character, which belief in that creed ought to produce in a mind thoroughly imbued with it. But when it has come to be a hereditary creed, and to be received passively, not actively—when the mind is no longer compelled, in the same degree as at first, to exercise its vital powers on the questions which its belief presents to it, there is a progressive tendency to forget all of the belief except the formularies, or to give it a dull and torpid assent, as if accepting it on trust dispensed with the necessity of realising it in consciousness, or testing it by personal experience; until it almost ceases to connect itself at all with the inner life of the human being. Then are seen the cases, so frequent in this age of the world as almost to form the majority, in which the creed remains as it were outside the mind, encrusting and petrifying it against all other influences addressed to the higher parts of our nature; manifesting its power by not suffering any fresh and living conviction to get in, but itself doing nothing for the mind or heart, except standing sentinel over them to keep them vacant. [ch. II, 51-2]

Manning the fortress

Plato’s principle of leadership is far removed from a pure personalism since it involves the working of institutions; and indeed it may be said that a pure personalism is impossible. But it must be said that a pure institutionalism is impossible also. Not only does the construction of institutions involve important personal decisions, but the functioning of even the best institutions (such as democratic checks and balances) will always depend, to a considerable degree, on the persons involved. Institutions are like fortresses. They must be well designed and manned.

This distinction between the personal and the institutional element in a social situation is a point which is often missed by the critics of democracy. Most of them are dissatisfied with democratic institutions because they find that these do not necessarily prevent a state or a policy from falling short of some moral standards or of some political demands which may be urgent as well as admirable. But these critics misdirect their attacks; they do not understand what democratic institutions may be expected to do, and what the alternative to democratic institutions would be. Democracy (using this label in the sense suggested above) provides the institutional framework for the reform of political institutions. It makes possible the reform of institutions without using violence, and thereby the use of reason in the designing of new insti­tutions and the adjusting of old ones. It cannot provide reason. The question of the intellectual and moral standard of its citizens is to a large degree a personal problem. [ch. 7, 138]

The greatest obstacle to education

But I think that the greatest obstacles to education for an open society are our own ignorance of how little we know, and our own unwillingness to acknowledge it even to ourselves.

So, instilling scepticism and the critical attitude in ourselves and in our students will not be enough. We will also need to instill the self-critical attitude in ourselves and in our students. And we will need to reverse the contemporary wisdom that says that ignorance is bad, but admitting it is stupid. This is perhaps the greatest obstacle to education that I know. It infects all levels of society, and especially the professorial ranks of academia. [64]

Our devastating system of education

Institutions for the selection of the outstanding can hardly be devised. Institutional selection may work quite well for such purposes as Plato had in mind, namely for arresting change. But it will never work well if we demand more than that, for it will always tend to eliminate initiative and originality, and, more generally, qualities which are unusual and unexpected. This is not a criticism of political institutionalism. It only re-affirms what has been said before, that we should always prepare for the worst leaders, although we should try, of course, to get the best. But it is a criticism of the tendency to burden institutions, especially educational institutions, with the impossible task of selecting the best. This should never be made their task. This tendency transforms our educational system into a race-course, and turns a course of studies into a hurdle-race. Instead of encouraging the student to devote himself to his studies for the sake of studying, instead of encouraging in him a real love for his subject and for inquiry, he is encouraged to study for the sake of his personal career; he is led to acquire only such knowledge as is serviceable in getting him over the hurdles which he must clear for the sake of his advancement. In other words, even in the field of science, our methods of selection are based upon an appeal to personal ambition of a somewhat crude form. (It is a natural reaction to this appeal if the eager student is looked upon with suspicion by his colleagues.) The impossible demand for an institutional selection of intellectual leaders endangers the very life not only of science, but of intelligence.

It has been said, only too truly, that Plato was the inventor of both our secondary schools and our universities. I do not know a better argument for an optimistic view of mankind, no better proof of their indestructible love for truth and decency, of their originality and stubbornness and health, than the fact that this devastating system of education has not utterly ruined them. [ch. 7, 147-8]

Teaching how, not what, to think

Dawkins: I think indoctrination means teaching in a way that is not critical. You’re not teaching children ‘this is the way to think, this is the way to evaluate evidence, be critical, look for what’s plausible, look for the evidence’. That’s the right way to teach. The wrong way to teach is indoctrination, which is ‘you should believe X, you must believe X, X is what our people have always believed, X is what’s written down in our holy book, therefore you must believe it’. That’s indoctrination.

Al-Khalili: Of course, you’re teaching people how to think, how to be critical about their world-view. Presumably, a lot of people can think about it and say, Yes, and I’ve come to the conclusion there is a god.

Dawkins: Yes, a lot do that, and good luck to them, that’s fine. At least they’ve thought about it. [23:55]

Education is about responsibility

Repudiate bullshit wherever you find it. Reason is worth standing up for.

But be smart about it. Instead of telling people they’re espousing nonsense, ask why they believe what they believe. Then really listen. Be genuinely open to changing your mind. Ask thoughtful questions. Examine the reasoning process that led to their conclusions. Keep your cool. Probe. Then hone in and expose instances of unreason.

What we want to do is create a culture where we take responsibility for what we say, what we think, and what we do. Education isn’t just about you, it’s about the environment around you.

The belief in the ignorance of experts

As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts. …

I am trying to inspire the teacher at the bottom to have some hope and some self-confidence in common sense and natural intelligence. The experts who are leading you may be wrong. …

I think we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television — words, books, and so on — are unscientific. As a result, there is a considerable amount of intellectual tyranny in the name of science. …

Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation. [187-8]

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