Saturday, February 7, 2009

An Interesting Balance: Bertrand Russell's View of Authority v. Freedom in the Education of Children

Over the past week, I have had occasion to read and re-read Bertrand Russell's brief essay, "Education and Discipline". While I often regard Bertrand Russell's social essays (as seen in such books as In Praise of Idleness) as flighty and ill-thought-out, this essay highlights an interesting dichotomy that has been present in the philosophy of education for the last many hundreds of years: the tension between liberty v. authority in education.

In fact, I think that Russell rightly recognizes this issue as the key issue in the philosophy of how to educate children. Do we follow Rousseau and Montessori in the belief that education of children sh old involve a minimum of (or any) coercion - education as spontaneous discovery by the child - or the more "classical" idea that education should involve an instructor coercing the child to submit to their authority.

Russell, quite rightly, sees the danger in both. About the former idea of non-coercive education, he writes:

The belief that liberty will ensure moral perfection is a relic of Rousseauism, and would not survive a study of animals and babies. Those who hold this belief think that education should have no positive purpose, but should merely offer an environment suitable for spontaneous development. I cannot agree with this school, which seems to me too individualistic, and unduly indifferent to the importance of knowledge.

About the idea that education is about molding the child to submit to the authority of educators, Russell writes that:

Thus an unduly authoritative education turns the pupils into timid tyrants, incapable of either claiming or tolerating originality in word or deed

Too much authoritarianism in education, Russell notes, leads either to over-submissive and timid children or to rebels who become so disillusioned with authority that they "suppose that opposition to authority is essentially meritorious and that unconventional opinions are bound to be correct." Being a rebel for the sake of rebellion is equally as unwise as being too timid to challenge authority.

Thus, there is danger in both extremes. Leave children too free and children will never learn how to live in a world with others (peers and authority figures). Be too authoritarian towards children and one is bound to create children who do not know how to deal with freedom (who will either be afraid of it or rebel against it out of spite). In Russell's words,

What is wanted is neither submissiveness nor rebellion, but good nature, and general friendliness both to people and to new ideas.

By developing children with "good nature," Russell means that we are trying to raise students who can be well-adjusted and content in later life, which requires a balance between cultivating the child's individuality and preparing her to be a social being.

Of course, these two ends of education - individuality and socialization - are necessarily in conflict, and it is rare to hear philosophers of education recognize this conflict. Dewey overemphasized socialization as much as Montessori overemphasized individualization. To be sure, though, while these two ideas are diametrically opposed - the more individualized you are, the less socialized, and vice versa - they are not mutually exclusive; it is quite easy to recognize that both elements - individuality and sociality - can peacefully coexist in the same individual.

So the struggle of educational theorists, philosophers, and policy-makers is to juggle these two ideals - figure out how to teach children to be independent but also carry the wisdom to know how to do this as a social creature. If the job of education is to sew in each child the ability to become a well-functioning adult, we must recognize that being a well-functioning adult entails both individual authenticity and an ability to function in society.

Russell's appraisal? "I do not think that educators have yet solved the problem of combining the desirable forms of freedom with the necessary minimum of moral training." For me, the problem is that Russell writes as if this is a "solvable" problem - that the question of how much individuality and how much sociability to instill in students is a problem with a definite, universal, and identifiable solution.

Contra this, I believe that individuality and sociability, as terms necessarily in tension, will never yield to a once-and-for-all resolution. I believe that educators and theorists will always have to re-examine and re-answer the question of how to "healthily" (a subjective term) balance the one with the other. As long as we live in"communities of individuals" we will have to struggle with how to teach just enough respect for community with just enough individuality, but I simply can't see how this will not always bee a most delicate balancing act.

I do admire Russell's essay, though, for highlighting this duality, as very few in the philosophy of education seem to. If there is any wisdom to be spoken of on this topic, I think Russell had it right: any education that unqualifiedly sees coercion and authority as absolute goods or evils can absolutely be called unwise.


  1. Of course the conclusion is a paradox that most philosophers nowadays would look to avoid (absolute declarations of any kind, even against absolutes), but I think you may have meant it in jest.

    My one problem with this is that I don't see Dewey as stressing authority & coercion to any extreme. Despite the fact that there are things that every child should learn in common (e.g. language) he doesn't insist that every child learns english, or that every child learn english and french.

  2. Of course the conclusion is a paradox that most philosophers nowadays would look to avoid (absolute declarations of any kind, even against absolutes), but I think you may have meant it in jest.


    No, I did not mean it in jest. One problem with philosophy, I think, is that it is extremely uncomfortable with the idea that some ideas simply must be in tension because they are opposites, yet, not mutually exclusive (liberty and the necessity of coercion to protect it are like this; they can and must coexist, but will always be unresolvable). Thus, I think that Russell did the right thing in seeing that the quesiton is not "coercion v. liberty,' but "how much coercion is necessary?"

    As for Dewey, I think you are right. He did not advocate coercion as such, but I do think he put an over-emphasis on socialization of the child and not enough on individualization of the child. In his political writings, Dewey was always quite against individualism and it showed in his writings.

    Where Russell would have disagreed with Dewey (and probably did, as the two were frequent correspondants) was in Dewey's refusal to see "socializaiton" as only part, rather than the whole, "goal" of education.

  3. I've gotta take your word on it. I've only just started reading "Democracy and Education."

    What you've elaborated on as regards the paradox is not a paradox at all. That there is a balance to be found between socialization and individualization is not paradoxical or absolutist.

    You claim that they must remain in absolute tension and struggle with eachother, but it's problably true that a balance can be found between them (which avoids absolute tension). It may be that there is a balance that works for elementry school in Alaska in 2009, and another balance in a small liberal arts college just outside NYC in 2010.

    The subject matter of education is not any course material, but students. More coercion might work with some, but not with others. The individual educator might have to be entrusted with striking a proper balance as they see fit for their class.

    I think this avoids both a paradoxical and absolutist claim.

  4. Canadian pragmatist,

    I don't think I ever said that there is a paradox. (I did a keyword search to make sure, and the only use of 'paradox' was in your comment, and my quoting of your comment).

    I would not say that there is a paradox between teaching to foster individuality and sociability because it would be too strong a word. A paradox is a riddle of sorts, and while I do think that there is a tension between these two ideas, it is by no means paradoxical tension.

    To say that there is tension in simulteneiously teaching for individuality and sociability is not to say that they cannot coexist peacefully, but rather to suggest that teaching the one will negate the other (to a degree). In other words, teaching individuality is, on some level, to teach against sociability and teaching sociability is, to teach the child to sacrifice some individuality.

    I again think of the analogy of the tension between figuring out what level of social coercion is necessary to achieve a society where individual liberty can reach a maximum import. The two ideas - coercion and liberty - are opposites and will always, therefore, struggle against eachother, but there is also no reason why the two can't live together. (The only trick if figuring out how much of the one is appropriate and how much of the other.)

    I like how you put it:

    >>>It may be that there is a balance that works for elementry school in Alaska in 2009, and another balance in a small liberal arts college just outside NYC in 2010.

    That is what I'm trying to say. Well said.