Review of Chris Shute, Bertrand Russell: Education as the Power of Independent Thought. Chris Shute. Nottingham: Educational Heretics Press 2002. Pp. viii, 71
Schools have not necessarily much to do with education….[T]hey are mainly institutions of control where certain basic habits must be inculcated in the young. Education is quite different and has little place in school.
The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.
Bertrand Russell had not attended school until he was a student at Cambridge. But he, along with his wife Dora, ran a school for young children and he authored two books on the subject of education. Chris Shute, self-described “cog in the machine of state education” for twenty-five years in Britain, explains that, some time after leaving his career, he attained a sufficiently detached perspective to appreciate the accuracy of Russell’s insight that “children need teaching far less than they need exposure to interesting new knowledge, and the opportunity to interact with it freely.”
A professional schoolteacher taking the trouble to study Russell’s philosophy of education is remarkable enough. But the marvel is compounded by the fact that Shute is “a Christian of the evangelical variety” who is not afraid to concede his sympathy with Russell’s approach to religion and who sides with Russell against the strict application of religion’s “‘old-fashioned’, harsh attitudes.”
Shute’s mission in Bertrand Russell: Education as the Power of Independent Thought is not so much to provide an exposition of Russell’s philosophy of education. Rather, it is to show that Russell, notwithstanding the standard image of him as a “utopian leftie”, was a penetrating and lucid analyst of the human race’s true needs as well as a master at presenting such analyses in an accessible and enduring way. Shute defends Russell’s analysis of the defects in the education system with many examples of its inadequacies. As such, the book is a lamentation of formal education peppered with anecdotes and examples substantiating Russell’s insights. It makes a compelling case that significant improvements of schools are in order. The biggest disappointment with the book, though, is its lack of advice on how to go about instituting such enhancements. The present writer was himself a victim of compulsory schooling who has yet to outgrow his pre-pubescent convictions that it is possible to learn things informally and in a fashion much more nearly resembling recreation than regimen. Consequently, Shute’s disparagement of compulsory schooling resounded for me and was of special interest.
While Shute exhibits a competent grasp of Russell’s philosophy of education, he is not one to subscribe to it uncritically. Toward the beginning of Roads to Freedom’s final chapter, Russell comes out in favor of compulsory schooling to, at least, age 16. And Russell deems the argument for compulsory education “irresistible” toward the close of Principles of Social Reconstruction’s second chapter. For Shute, by contrast, compulsory education is to be opposed categorically. He is willing to take libertarianism to extremes not dreamt of by Russell.
Russell had certainly been interested in children’s freedom and having their well being as the primary focus of education, but he disapproved of the lengths to which the likes of A.S. Neill went to grant children autonomy. Russell believed, instead, that children should be compelled to learn the fundamentals in subjects like mathematics and English, geography and history. As Shute sees the matter, though, there is plainly and simply no traditional school subject that is to be considered “essential”: “[W]e British have still a long way to go before we feel really safe with a curriculum which is a catalogue and not a prescription.”
Shute and Russell are at one, however, in the conviction that “the grim-faced, repetitive, lackluster rote-learning so common in the early days of state schooling, and the heavy-handed, competitive driving of knowledge into young minds which is still promoted by the government through its League Table and ceaseless testing was an offence against the very soul of our youth, and should be eliminated at all costs.” Shute speaks of how “the State system … limits its vision to the nineteenth century idea that all children need to be dragged into classrooms and stuffed with undigested and disjointed knowledge. It cannot allow teachers and pupils to pursue learning in their own chosen rhythm, because to do so would interrupt the ‘delivery’ of the curriculum, the whole curriculum and nothing but the curriculum which has become the sole purpose of schooling, as much now as it was in the late 1800s.”
While Shute decries “repetitive, lackluster rote-learning”, he is not one to lose sight of memorization’s genuine value in authentic education. In an era when computer literacy is celebrated more than traditional literacy, Shute makes an observation that cannot be overemphasized in our so-called Information Age:
We have, perhaps, lost our taste for knowing things well enough to be able to recite them from memory. We can easily recall information from databases, without even the inconvenience of looking it up in books. We tend to see memorization as ‘rote-learning’, and less valuable to youngsters than being able to find information from established sources when and where it is needed. There is a lot to be said for our adaptation to an information-rich environment, but to lose entirely the mechanisms by which we furnish our minds with permanent resources in the form of memorable ideas and beautiful words would be a sad loss of intellectual independence.
Shute speaks of how Russell “would not have had much time for our present school system in which the only imperatives are smooth organization, efficient control and the certainty that if anything goes wrong no adult in the school can be blamed for it”. Such a defective culture can hardly be expected to foster progressive thought, let alone progressive action.
For Shute, education, as currently practiced, amounts to no more than the oppression of children by coercing them to conform uncritically to “our tribal mores”, and he cites as ample evidence the philistines that are the products of the last century’s educational practices. “Critical thought in children is not valued, despite the fact that the aim of all education is to produce adults who, supposedly, can ‘think for themselves’.” Rather, for all too many “educators”, “if school pupils decide for themselves to take an independent line of some question of school policy they become on the instant bad, rebellious, dangerous and subject to severe punishment.”
Shute explains that “Since most people, even in 21st century Britain, think that the main purpose of ‘good’ teachers is to show children that life is often unpleasant, and that they must not expect everything to happen as they wish it to, the education system which adults will vote for is unlikely to correspond very closely to that which reason suggests is best.”
In a day and age when parents say with straight faces that they are happy with their children’s education because their children are on the honor roll, are excelling on standardized multiple-choice tests, and/or being accepted to “gifted and talented programs”, Shute, like Russell, is bound to sound utopian. Both men are to be respected for believing that accreditation is worth much less than actual education and that education is to be valued primarily as leisure rather than as regimen. But their writings here tend to assume these tenets rather than provide reasoned defenses of them.
As critical as Shute is about British schooling, the mind reels at what Shute would have to say of the American system. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the United Kingdom has 100% literacy while only 25% of the population has more than secondary schooling. What does it say about the United States when it boasts a full 50% having at least some post-secondary schooling but a literacy rate of 85%?
Shute, like Russell, does not address the substantial problems posed for youngsters who might very well be in wholehearted agreement with their philosophies of education but find themselves trapped in the one-size-fits-all Simon-says approach of mass-produced compulsory “education”. These youths live in an establishment that is all too eager to punish those who have exhibited the effrontery to simply not play the game. Such budding contrarians regularly have their prospects of attaining a self-supporting livelihood threatened because of their “audacious” irreverence toward the system.
Shute’s book is at its best when it comes to criticizing current practices. It is short, however, on concrete suggestions for reform, unlike his earlier book Compulsory Schooling Disease which devotes its eighth chapter to such improvements. The present reviewer is in full agreement with Shute’s criticisms of formal education but is not optimistic that Shute can sell them to the establishment. Overall, though, Shute’s book, while not quite the roadmap to improvement for which one may have been hoped, is exquisite in its expressions of indignation and criticism.Phoenixville, Pennsylvania