Portal Site for Russellian in Japan
Does education do harm?
[From: Mortals and Others, v.1, 1975.］
I happened to be reading lately biographies of a number of men who achieved great eminence during the nineteenth century. It is a remarkable fact that very few of them had much of what is conventionally called education. Jay Gould had only one year's schooling ; Commodore Vanderbilt apparently even less. It is said by those who know that 'he was totally without education, and could write hardly half a dozen lines without out-raging the spelling-book'. Carnegie never went to school after he was twelve ; the list could be lengthened indefinitely. I think it will be found on examination that almost all the men who made the age in which we live, so far as business organisation is concerned, were men unencumbered by the heritage of culture which it is supposed to be the business of the universities to transmit. Some of them are conscious of the benefits they have derived from struggle in youth. Mr John D. Rockefeller states in his reminiscences that he counts it among his blessings to have been brought up in a family of modest means. Nevertheless he has taken pains to prevent his own children from enjoying this blessing.
What applies to wealth applies also to education. Many men who have achieved eminence believe, probably rightly, that they have profited by the lack of formal education; yet not one of them would abstain from giving a first-class education to his son. Carnegie, for example, did his utmost to inflict this doubtful blessing upon vast numbers of poor young men in Scotland. It would seem, therefore, that whatever we may think about education in our speculative moments, we all of us, as practical men, regard its value as unquestionable.
I wonder whether we are right in this. I have no doubt that we should be right if education were what it ought to be, but only too often the educator kills initiative in his pupils by teaching them that it is more important to be right than to be of us have the courage in, original and that to be right is to agree with the teacher. Education, moreover, teaches people that the way to find out things is to look them up in books, not to observe them in the actual world. I can remember when I was a child being made to read an account of the squirrel by the famous naturalist Buffon in which he asserted that the squirrel hardly ever descends to the ground. I knew a great deal about squirrels through observation and was aware that on this point the great man was talking nonsense. My teacher, however, knew nothing about squirrels, and I therefore found it imprudent to pit my knowledge against Buffon's romance. The teacher almost invariably tends to believe what is in books because they are convenient and can be brought into the schoolroom. The habits of the hippopotamus, for example, cannot well be studied from the life by a class in school. Galileo used to drop weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa to see how they fell; this was considered by his colleagues to be a waste of his students' time since they ought to have been sitting at their desks finding out how bodies fall from the pages of Aristotle and not from observation.
University students are allowed nowadays to know how bodies fall, but they are not allowed to know how men rise. I have read publications by the university presses of famous American universities which turn American captains of industry into models of Sunday School propriety, apparently in order to instil into the youth of America the belief that if they do as they are told by their professors they may all become plutocrats. It is considered the business of education in all countries to substitute edification for the giving of knowledge and to instil false beliefs with the mistaken notion that only by lies can the young be led to become virtuous. All this springs, to my mind, from a false conception of virtue, the 'fugitive and cloistered virtue' which Milton denounced. Real virtue is robust and in contact with facts, not with pretty-pretty fancies. We have chosen to hedge round the profession of teaching with such restrictions that, in the main, those who choose this profession are men and women who are afraid of reality, and we have done this because, while many of us recognise that contact with reality has been good for us, few of us have the courage to believe that it is good for our children. This is the fundamental reason why education, as it exists, is so unsatisfactory.