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Bertrand Russell as Educator: The Freedom of Discipline or The Therapeutic Applications of Philosophy

A Paper Presented to the American Bertrand Russell Society at the Annual Meeting Held at McMaster University in May of 2018 by Dr. David B. Harley B.A.Hons.,M.A.,M.A.,Phd. (Toronto)

Preliminary Remarks

In 1980 I completed my Ph.D. Thesis at the University of Toronto entitled “Beacon Hill and the Constructive Uses of Freedom”.  Over the next three years it was expanded and modified and then laid to rest in a drawer as I gave up the theory of education to become immersed in its practical application within the private sector.  Recently, the manuscript has been unearthed and I have started a final revision with a view to publication that now benefits from three decades of practical experience.  Russell’s ideas have guided me throughout my career.  As the theory and practice of education have developed over the intervening years, I have become increasingly convinced that Russell’s core ideas about education have taken on increased relevance especially in and around what I have chosen to call The Freedom of Discipline.

Contrary to every rule of writing an essay, I have therefore decided at my own peril to not restrict my subject matter to a manageable selective presentation but have instead opted to try to cover too much in too little time.  My offered defense lies in the fact in as much as this represents a kind of précis of a much larger work, I hope that you will make allowances accordingly.   The arguments presented and the facts to justify them are not as lengthy or as detailed as the originals from which they have emerged.  There is therefore a certain impoverishment necessitated by imposing upon content the limitations of time. 

This presentation is focused on three central arguments.  First, that Russell’s interest in education, though commonly perceived as being aroused primarily only after the birth of his children, can in fact be traced well into his earliest years and extends through most of his writings and as such should not be viewed as being merely tangential to his primary interests.  Second, that Russell’s educational theories as put into practice at the experimental Beacon Hill School in 1927 bore only superficial similarities to A.S. Neill’s Summerhill and were indeed distinguished by very profound differences in approach arising from what were incompatible views on how individual freedom could best be promoted within an educational context.  Third, that many of the changes in modern educational theories and practice since the 1960’s have  been largely inspired by views arising from Neill’s influence and have suffered accordingly as a result of a flawed concept of how freedom should be applied and understood in the upbringing and education of children.

Anyone who has read Russell’s autobiography knows that his early life was unhappy and characterized by death, loneliness and fear of mental instability.  His sister died in 1874 followed quickly by the death of his mother in the same year.   Russell’s father Amberley died two years later upon whose death Russell and his brother Frank were removed to stay with their paternal grandparents despite the dying wishes of Amberley who had made other arrangements in order to spare them the evils of a religious upbringing.  In 1876 the two boys went to live at Pembroke Lodge and Frank was quickly sent away to a boarding school leaving the young Bertie alone.  In 1878, Lord John Russell, his grandfather, died followed in 1880 by the death of Russell’s aunt’s child and then Russell’s aunt in the same year.   After Lord Russell’s death it was necessary to undertake a considerable downsizing of staff and servants as well as the  the shutting down of portions of the house.   

The lack of other children and a stern religious upbringing gave rise to an introverted childhood filled with insecurities and finding solace in nature , books and increasingly in mathematics.    According to Russell, his upbringing was repressive to the extreme and characterized by religious orthodoxy.  He endured the onset of puberty with intense confusion, guilt and ignorance. 

In 1889 at the age of 17 he met and fell in love with Alys Pearsall Smith, an American Quaker who Lady Russell, his grandmother, made it clear she felt was not an appropriate match.  After his 21st birthday, Russell inherited funds sufficient to enable him to make an independent choice, and so a meeting was arranged with the family doctor during which time he was made aware that his Aunt Agatha had suffered from insane delusions, that his father had been subject to epilepsy and that he had an uncle whose existence had been kept a secret who was committed to an insane asylum.  The fact that there was some insanity in Alys’s family provided additional barriers to the marriage for fear that mental infirmness would be passed to children.  Russell then decided to have a childless marriage.   However at the time the use of contraceptives was believed to contribute to insanity and mental disabilities and so Russell was then confronted with the prospect of a marriage without children and without sex.  Fortunately, he was able to find another physician who advised him that there were no negative effects from the use of contraceptives and that he himself employed them with no injurious effects.  Russell decided to go forward with the marriage only to have another obstacle brought to bear by Lady Russell who had arranged for him to leave England to accept a position with the British Embassy in Paris.  This did nothing to diminish his resolve, and he was married In December of 1894.

The rich exchange of letters between Russell and Alys during this period reveals a great deal of self-examination of his own upbringing,  how he would avoid these shortcomings if he had children and the growing belief that the mental infirmness in his own family was the direct result of upbringing and mis-education.

In one such letter he states: “…I remember saying to myself:  When I have to do with children I will remember my present feelings and avoid those mistakes that are being made with me.”

and again:

“I wish we were going to have children, if only to give them a sensible education in matters of sex---I should almost like to start a co-educational school for the purpose of applying my theories…”

The shortcomings in Russell’s early education are presented by him as being directly attributable to his grandmother’s inflexible, puritanical and moralistic attitudes towards all matters but especially sex as well as the inappropriate circumstances of solitude imposed upon him.  His grandmother, as he states, was interested in piety and nothing else.  The only highlights of his upbringing are attributed to being introduced to the joys of science by his uncle Rollo and to Euclid and mathematics by his brother Frank.

Despite the fact that the early part of the 1900’s is associated with Russell’ work in theoretical mathematics and logic, between 1901 and 1903 he wrote pieces that include “The Study of Mathematics”, ”A Free Man’s Worship”, “On History” and in addition began a book on education of which the manuscript's first chapter has survived entitled “The Education of the Emotions”.  The importance of this manuscript cannot be overestimated for it proves that Russell had thought enough about the topic of education to feel compelled to write a book about it.  Moreover, the ideas presented in “The Education of the Emotions” demonstrates a remarkable continuity with those that he later developed and published.

Russell begins by stating that the division of the mind between intellect and emotions is largely fictitious and based upon convention.   Given that people understand best what interests them and since interests are derived from emotions, it follows that intellect and emotions are inextricably woven together.  The education of the emotions must take place during the first seven years of life and should foster the development of good emotions and remove evil ones where ‘good’ emotions come from a love of what is good as opposed to a renunciation of what is bad.  Good emotions are those that expand the boundaries of self to include others and eventually all of mankind.  Early education should aim to instill a “love of great ends” the pursuit of which he believes constitutes the good life.  Discipline, he maintains, is only second in importance to magnanimity and is of such importance that its cultivation must be started from the earliest of years.

Russell goes on to consider an opposing philosophy of education which espouses the natural goodness of man, a belief that the need for discipline is exaggerated, and that the child’s impulses are only good as long as they are left unthwarted, so that the goal of education is merely to allow free play.  Although Russell agrees that it is important to train good impulses, Russell argues that good impulses are rarely sufficient because the means to realize the end cannot immediately follow the urge and may require many intermediary steps.  Hence “Whoever has not learnt to endure tedium and pain is incapable of persistence, or of difficulties which resist prolonged and repeated assaults.”  He goes on to argue that it is sometimes as important to restrain good emotions as bad ones since exclusive concern with the welfare of those close to us may counter the dictates of just action.  Therefore, even someone with no bad impulses would still need discipline:

“It becomes, consequently, an unavoidable element in education to teach the habit of judging all desires, even the best, in the court of reason, and of allowing scope only to such as are acquitted in that tribunal.” 

As such, objectivity and reason as manifestations of mental discipline combined with knowledge to afford the basis of action such that concrete ways to secure good ends can be realized and in so doing bring happiness and fulfillment. 

This view of what is to be ideally achieved through education is what I shall refer to as the Freedom of Discipline which finds itself ideally expressed many years later in his autobiography when discussing the views that he shared with Joseph Conrad.

“His point of view, one might perhaps say, was the antithesis of Rousseau’s…. (man) becomes free, so I believe Conrad would have said, not by letting loose his impulse, not by being casual and uncontrolled, but by subduing wayward impulse to dominant purpose.”

Small wonder therefore that Russell named his first son John Conrad and his other son Conrad Russell.

Beacon Hill School was established in 1927 and could be seen as the fulfillment of his intention expressed in 1894 to Alys.  He maintained  that having looked at available alternatives, he could find no school that was fully satisfactory despite the fact that he was able to find school placements for his children both before and after Beacon Hill. But then indeed, starting up new experimental schools and advocating innovations in education seemed to be the thing to do as a wave of new private schools made their appearance such as Bembridge School (1919), Rendcomb School (1919), The Malting House School in Cambridge (1924),  A.S. Neill’s Summerhill (1924, Dartington Hall 1926) and the Bryanston School in 1928 among others.  H.G. Wells, though not starting up a new school, still took it upon himself to provide the new textbooks for the wave of educational reform and produced The Outline of History, The Work Wealth and Happiness of Mankind and the Biology of Life  thereby covering the fields of History, Economics and Science.

The Beacon Hill prospectus that was mailed to interested parents described the proposed program and its objectives.  These included:

  • combining physical and psychological care as suggested by modern knowledge of the growth of personality
  • dispelling or avoiding anxieties and nervousness to which developing children are liable
  • open air activities to give children every opportunity for “running wild” as in the old-fashion large family
  • aesthetic development through sense training
  • active as opposed to passive learning
  • great emphasis to be placed upon intellectual development
  • free speech and open discussion on any topic
  • teaching of the classics to be held to a minimum
  • main emphasis to be placed upon science and modern humanities
  • individual initiative and curiosity to provide the main thrust for learning as opposed to authority, external disciple and drill
  • knowledge to be presented not as mere knowledge but as an instrument of progress
  • not to produce listless intellectuals but young men and women filled with constructive hopefulness

The setting for this experiment was no less impressive than its aspirations. Telegraph House in Sussex was large and spacious with the then modern conveniences of electric light and central heating situated among 230 acres of forest and 600 feet above sea level.  It belonged to Russell’s brother Frank and was rented from him for this purpose.

The staff included a cook, a housekeeper, three maids, two chauffeurs and a gardener, a matron, an assistant matron, science, art and language instructors, a part-time music teacher, a visiting doctor and Russell’s own private secretary.  Both Russell and his second wife Dora also acted as teachers.  With a student population that varied between about 15 and 25, it was small wonder that the school consistently lost money.    The days were marked by a rigid schedule.  Each morning would begin with a lineup of naked children who one by one received a cold shower.  Students were expected to make their own beds before breakfast and after breakfast everyone would proceed upstairs to brush their teeth.  After that, each student would take out their pot and sit on it in a line.  The importance of regular bowel movements was considered important and as his daughter Katharine Tait recounted years later, it was a little shameful to have not produced something in one’s pot.  At 11:00 there was a break from classes at which time orange juice was served.  This was considered a radical departure at the time as considered opinion dictated that it was too acidic for children’s digestive systems.  At 1:00 there was lunch and there was full tea served at 4:30. His daughter recalled:

“We had no choice in food, which was dreary and institutional English, though eminently nourishing….Cookies were rare, cake unknown, sugar frowned upon unless it was deep dark brown.  There were no snacks between meals, and everything was plain and nutritious.”

“For some obscure reason, drinking with meals was supposed to be bad for us.  We had to wait until after the meal, when tin mugs of tepid water would appear on large tin trays….After a particularly dry meal, we would all sit in a row on the bottom of the stairs, as close as possible to the kitchen door, waiting for the water tray to come in.”

And again:

“Though we were not free to ruin our health with late hours and bad food, we were never required to “behave ourselves” at meals, which were often quite wild occasions.  A favorite amusement was putting a dab of butter on the end of a knife and flicking it at the ceiling, where it stuck and gradually melted away into a grease spot.”

Perhaps it was from witnessing such things that some visitors came away believing that Beacon Hill was the “do as you please school”.  Sir A.J. Ayer who visited it in 1931 described it as “anarchic” and one supposes that he was one of many who shared that view.  However, Russell’s apparently strange juxtapositions of freedom and order had the effect of disguising just how much structure there was at Beacon Hill School if only one looked past first impressions.  Responding to such an attack in 1930,

Russell wrote: (the critic) “appears to think that the principles upon which we run our school can be described as ‘Back to Nature Don’t Discipline the Child theories’.  It may possibly interest you to know that self-discipline, and more particularly intellectual discipline, is one of the main things taught in our school.”

In a letter to H.G. Wells dated May 24th, 1928 Russell wrote: “You will realize that hardly any educational reformers lay much stress upon intelligence.  A.S. Neill, for example, who is in many ways an admirable man, allows such complete liberty that his children fail to get the necessary training and are always going to the cinema, when they might otherwise be interested in things of more value.”

And then many years later in Portraits from Memory: "It seemed to me, and still seems, that in a technically complex civilization such as ours a man cannot play an important part unless in youth he has had a very considerable dose of sheer instruction.”

Whereas Neill and many others to the present time believe that children are like turnips that should be left in the soil and watered but otherwise left to grow naturally and that any outside interference with that will inevitably lead to malformation,  Russell’s views are seen to be very different.   His promotion of individual growth involves a freedom of emotions such as to produce a foundation for intellectual growth that will fuse with emotions in such a manner as to promote the self-discipline required for rational self-regulation and moral purpose.

It is clear that Russell’s views on education can be distinguished by several main themes:

  • That in childhood emotional health should be viewed as a priority for providing a platform for intellectual growth which in turn feeds from and directs emotional growth
  • Education should direct its energies towards cultivating a certain mental framework through which the individual can best realize their potential through the assimilation of knowledge.
  • The end result of realizing individual freedom through discipline is an ongoing dynamic process at an intellectual/emotional level enabling the individual to acquire, process and act upon knowledge while being orchestrated by self-control imposed through the strength of the will.

It is clear that within the restrictions of current educational possibilities much of Russell’s educational proposals could not pass present day standards of political correctness or religious or nationalistic orthodoxy.  It is interesting to note however that his concerns with  emotional/intellectual growth are now increasingly reflected in therapeutic movements such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness all of which attempt to stress-self-examination of actions relative to consequences as well as attempts to focus emotions outside of the self in order to gain some level of objectivity and to combat the growing trends towards narcissism.

Impulsivity among the young is certainly on the rise and now has an official diagnosis in the form of Executive Functioning Disorder (DSM 5).  But so is a rising tendency towards intolerance towards the views of others and a growing tendency to attack offending points of view either personally or through intimidation.  Dogmatism is certainly on the rise and the slumber of decided opinion has certainly taken on a new force.  Increasingly, people seem to argue from a position that they feel that they are right and the intensity of that feeling is an indicator of the truth of their position.  These tendencies are dangerous and do not certainly encourage optimism for the future.

The development of Russell’s mind throughout his life and his struggle with powerful emotions demonstrated a disciplined approach to knowledge as reflected in both his analytical philosophy as well as his promotion of a scientific outlook.  There is little doubt in my mind that for Russell a certain lurking fear of insanity remained throughout his life giving rise to a distrust of strong passions and actions not sanctioned or directed by reason and evidence.  In the present day strong emotions or passions towards fixed beliefs and positions seem increasingly embraced.  At no time has it been more important, one could argue, than in the present to refocus education towards the goal of teaching students how to think rather than what to think.   Recent movements in pre-university education have focused exclusively on Learning Outcomes rather than on the development of cognitive skill sets that given the facts would suggest outcomes rather than demand them.  Computers and the internet have provided limitless information accessed by those increasingly incapable of intellectually processing that information.  Just as the ownership of a book does not by itself suggest that a person has either read it or understood it, the immediate access to information in no way implies that it has been understood or can be rationally processed in a meaningful manner.  

In conclusion, I think that Russell’s focus on what education should attempt to achieve is of great importance today.  Indeed the very future of liberal democracies may well depend upon the promotion of the Freedom of Discipline at the individual level that is required to halt the drift towards the polarization, intolerance and growing self-absorption evident in modern society.