©2011 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of
Bertrand Arthur William Russell, 3rd Earl Russell

Erika Lunn


edited 8/18/11


Bertrand Russell was born in 1872 in Trelleck, Wales. Among many titles, he is known as a philosopher, logician, essayist, and mathematician (Bertrand Russell)(Sainsbury). Russell and his elder brother were raised by their grandmother after the death of both parents at the age of three (Holmberg). His education was the result of tutors, unlike his elder brother's, who was sent to Winchester school (Russell). Soon after his home schooling, Russell attended Trinity College, Cambridge, at which he received "first class degrees in mathematics and in the moral sciences" (Irvine).

During his life, Russell was better known for his work as a public figure and a "campaigner for peace" (Russell). His campaigning led to two convictions for anti-war activities as well as a jail sentence for the second one (Irvine). Because of the first conviction, Russell was not granted a passport when he was offered a position at Harvard (Holmberg). Bertrand Russell married four times. He and his second wife, Dora Black, opened an experimental school for children which remained open from 1927-1932 (Holmberg). After the death of his elder brother in 1931, Russell became the 3rd Earl Russell (Russell).

During the 1930's, Russell taught in the United States (Irvine). He taught at Chicago, the University of California at Los Angeles, and also the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia (Russell). City College, New York however, revoked his position because of his many anti-war activities in the 1940's (Irvine). In 1949, Russell received the Order of Merit and in 1950 he received the Nobel Prize for Literature (Bertrand Russell). Russell continued his many anti-war activities throughout his life and at the age of 89 was arrested a second time (Russell). Bertrand Russell died in Wales in 1970 (Irvine).

Russell is known for numerous influential contributions. One of his most significant written works, which was written with Alfred North Whitehead from 1910-1913, is Principia Mathematica (Sainsbury). He also released a Manifesto with Albert Einstein in 1955 (Irvine). Although Bertrand Russell's most influential work occurred in the areas of logic and mathematics, he wrote on several other subjects, one of which is education (Holmberg).

Theory of Value
What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

Bertrand Russell addresses the subject of education in regards to the subject of a human being as an individual versus a human being as a citizen. The education of human beings is almost directly linked to their use in society because human beings are society's tools. Russell emphasizes the point that "the education which results from regarding a child as an individual is very different from that which results from regarding him as a future citizen" (Social 7). Although this is true, society may benefit from its citizens first understanding their individual self before focusing on their citizenship (Social 9). It is stated within Russell's Education and the Social Order, that "the fundamental characteristic of the citizen is that he co-operates" (Social 9). Human beings function not only as citizens, but also as individuals. They use the education of their individual self to function and improve their role as a citizen.

               The problem that occurs however, and the problem which is associated with Russell's goals of education, is that a human being as an individual often conflicts with a human being as a citizen. Russell states that as an individual, human beings use knowledge for personal reasons to try to discover truth through investigation (Social 15). In other words, they think for themselves and are devoid of outside unscientific influences. However, human beings as citizens behave in all means for the good of society. "A well-educated citizen is likely to be incapable of discovery, since he will respect his elders and betters, reverence the great men of the past generation, and look with horror upon all subversive doctrines" (Social 14).

               The world is developing into a massive civilization that is dependent upon cooperation. Cooperation cannot exist if every individual is for himself. Russell enforces this development stating, "The amenities of civilized life depend upon co-operations, and every increase in industrialism demands and increase in co-operation" (Social 16). Russell believes that the human being's education as an individual, which will think and reason, is far more significant than the human being's education as a citizen. However because of the development of the world and its dependence upon cooperation, "considered politically, in relation to the needs of the time, the education of the citizen must, [Russell] fear[s], take the first place" (Social 17). After the education of the citizen is established, it may then be probable to focus more fully on individual education (Social 17)

Theory of Knowledge
What is knowledge? How is it different from belief? What is a mistake? What is a lie?

As Russell discusses education he breaks it into two specific sections, education of character and education of knowledge. Although the education of character is not significant to Russell's Theory of Knowledge, it is necessary to distinguish that even as he splits the two, he believes them to be connected. "The distinction is useful, though not ultimate: some virtues are required in a pupil who is to become instructed, and much knowledge is required for the successful practice of many important virtues" (Good 10).

The character of a student is significant, however, according to Russell moral beliefs and instruction should not coincide. "The knowledge which is imparted should be imparted for an intellectual purpose, not to prove some moral or political conclusion" (Good 240). The introduction of morals and politics into instruction influences facts and creates biases. Russell also discusses open-mindedness. Knowledge is not possible without the possession of an unprejudiced opinion. "Open-mindedness is a quality which will always exist where desire for knowledge is genuine. It only fails where other desires have become entangle with the belief that we already know the truth" (Good 246).

Knowledge should be about appeasing curiosity. A student is curious about a subject, so they want to know more; they want to find the answer. Russell stated that, "the purpose of the teaching should be, from the pupil's point of view, partly to satisfy his curiosity, partly to give him the skill required in order that he may be able to satisfy his curiosity for himself" (Good 240). As this occurs, it is the teacher's duty to provide the curiosity (Good 240). Knowledge, according to Russell, "should [provide] a sense of intellectual adventure" (Good 259). The student should be constantly engaged and wanting to learn. The intellectual curiosity that knowledge stimulates causes students to want to learn. "Initiative and individual work give the pupil the opportunity of discovery, and thus afford the sense of mental adventure far more often and more keenly than is possible where everything is taught in class" (Good 259-260). The curiosity that students experience cannot be experienced with the prejudices of beliefs and politics clouding the way.

Theory of Human Nature
What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

Bertrand Russell addresses the subject of human nature in regards to the development of a human being based on environment and genetics. A human is influenced by both the genetics he/she inherits and the environment which surrounds him/her. The amount of influence both possess fluctuates based on opinion. "The proportion of heredity and environment in forming an adult human character is very differently estimated by different authorities" (Social 27). Although these two influences exist, Russell states that the intelligence of human beings is due more to genetics than environment. Therefore, a person is more likely to be intelligent because they were born that way, instead of just because they attended a boarding school since a young age which has a number of immensely intelligent people. "It is admittedly difficult, if not impossible, to determine what is due to heredity and what to environment; but that some part of the difference of intelligence between one adult and another is congenital is, in [Russell's] opinion, nearly certain" (Social 30).

               The fact that heredity has more to do with the difference of intelligence than environment should not influence people's views of others. A white person should not be believed to possess a higher intelligence just because genetically he/she is white. Likewise, the assumption that "the persons born in Asia are inferior to those born in Europe or America" has no basis of fact just because the two are genetically different (Social 31). Even though heredity is more influential to intelligence than environment, one should not be judged for their outward appearance or where one is from. "But although the importance of congenital difference among human beings cannot be denied, the practical inferences drawn by eugenists are for the most part quite unscientific" (Social 30).

               Generally, most children live with their parents. It is therefore difficult to separate which characteristics a child possess from genetics or from the environment. Children may have a characteristic from their parent that they have genetically inherited, or that they have picked up just from being around them (Social 31). Naturally the level of student's abilities will differ and most likely, this is not because of environment. Though this is true, "nothing whatever should be presumed either for or against the intelligence of a pupil or group of pupils on account of the race or social status or personal achievements of their parents" (Social 32). A student should not be looked down upon because they are genetically a different race, he/she should be treated the same and have the same educational opportunities.

Theory of Learning
What is learning? How are skills/knowledge acquired?

According to Russell, skills and knowledge should be acquired in schools designed for the purpose of training children (Good 224). These schools should begin at the age of two because of the significance of a human being's early childhood. "Parents cannot be expected to possess the skill or the leisure required for the new and difficult art of dealing with young children" (Good 225). The schools will provide what the parent cannot, an environment in which all of the children are treated equally and are able to be around other children. Schooling for everyone from such a young age would increase the "mental and physical development" of society (Good 230). According to Russell it would also, "remove the terrible dead-weight of disease and stupidity and malevolence which now makes progress so difficult" (Good 230).

               From a very early age, students are to receive an education of character and an education of intelligence. Schools are to provide this education. "The nursery-school occupies an intermediate position between early training of character and subsequent giving of instruction" (Good 232). These forms of knowledge are intertwined and taught together. However, throughout the schooling one significant factor which Russell emphasizes is the presence of love (Good 234). Love is the influence which schools can provide cautiously and caringly that parents sometimes do not. When it is incorporated into instruction it gives students a reason to learn and creates in them a passion for learning. The schools which Russell emphasizes are the means in which this learning with love takes place. "The teaching must be inspired by love, and must aim at creating love in the children" (Good 235).

Theory of Transmission
Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

Bertrand Russell advocates for learning in schools, even at young ages. He believes that if nursery schools were available for everyone they would "in one generation, remove the profound differences in education which at present divide the classes" (Good 230). Russell's beliefs are significant and continue into the school age years. In doing so he brings up two significant questions: the question of what and how. "The questions: what should be taught? and how should it be taught? are intimately connected, because, if better methods of teaching are devised, it is possible to learn more" (Good 261). Overall, he states that an education should be provided in a manner of which the student learns the most amount of knowledge he can. This can only occur however if students want to learn (Good 261). The idea of students wanting to learn begins with the nursery school. Students will be more involved in learning if the notion of it is introduced to them at a young age and continues to be implemented throughout their youth.

               "When we consider what an adult ought to know, we soon realize that there are things which everybody ought to know" (Good 261). Russell takes this statement into account as he discusses several subjects of which a student should learn before the age of 14. After the age of 14, however, a child should pursue the subjects that he/she excels in (262). The order in which these subjects are taught is significant.

               Mathematics, geography, history, literature, and languages are the main subjects that should be addressed. Each of these subjects should be addressed gradually and in a way which encourages the child to learn more. Math requires rules to be mastered and geography should be taught in a means which fascinates the child (Good 263,264). "The knowledge of geographical facts is useful, but without intrinsic intellectual value; when, however, geography is made vivid by pictures, it has the merit of giving food for imagination" (Good 265). This idea should be sustained with the education of history; however the subject should not be introduced to a child until they are mature enough to understand it (Good 266). Literature should be taught carefully, for according to Russell, there is little meaning in the knowledge of authors and poets and who wrote what (Good 269). What matters however is the "familiarity with certain examples of good literature" for one cannot take the knowledge about an author and write well (Good 269). One needs examples to follow to influence thinking and writing (Good 269). Lastly, the introduction of languages should be included in a child's education. Languages should be taught at a young age, because then and only then can a child learn a language as a native speaker would (Good 272). Russell however advocates that a child should learn a language only from a native speaker. "it should be taught by a person whose native language it is, not only because it will be better taught, but because children feel less artificiality in talking a foreign language to a foreigner than in talking it to a person whose natural language is the same as their own" (Good 273).

               Overall, the years before the age of fourteen should be used to learn the basics, everything that a person would need to function well in society. After the basic education, students should be directed toward the subjects that they excel at the most. "The last years before this moment arrives should be spent in finding out what it will be best to teach in subsequent years" (Good 275). During the later years, student should focus on one of three main content areas: "classics, mathematics and science, or modern humanities" (Good 279). However, throughout the course of one's education a student should always be familiarized with outdoor knowledge, specifically agriculture, birds, and animals (Good 276).

Theory of Society
What is Society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

  In society, the state is the most influential aspect. This influence however is both internal and external (Social 78). Russell concludes that the internal workings of the state are mainly for the ultimate good of all people in society. These include "such matters as roads, lighting, education, the police, the law, the post-office, and so on" (Social 78). The internal state is designed in part for the smooth proceedings of everyday life of which the people should be grateful (Social 78). Accordingly, the external state has two purposes: "defense against aggression, and the support of its citizens in foreign exploitation" (Social 78). Unfortunately those two purposes often coincide to the point that the state will use the one for the other, particularly defending against an attack by exploiting the attackers (Social 78). Out of all of the factors that are integrated into society, religion, propaganda, and economics are the three that most influence education.

               Religion is immensely significant as an influence on society because, "[it] is the source of the sense of social obligation" (Social 60). There is a sense of social obligation to have children be morally apt and this can be obtained through educating them. Institutional religion is the main influence of education because it dominates several states (Social 62). However, out of all people the influence of religion is directed more towards the rich, than the poor, because the rich have the means to pay for what they believe their children should be learning (Social 62). "Where no one religion is strong enough to impose itself on the State, State schools cannot teach the doctrines of a particular sect, but schools supported by the fees of the pupils can teach whatever parents think worth paying for" (Social 62). Therefore, when institutional religion dominates the state, the educational system mirrors those beliefs; however, when several institutions of religion are present the rich are the ones who are influenced by it the most.

               The influence of propaganda upon the educational system occurs because so many people are now capable of obtaining it. According to Russell, the more people can read the more they are influenced by what is placed in front of them. "The power of reading makes the whole population susceptible to the influence of the Press" (Social 127). Now there are three forms of propaganda, the second and third of which are the most concerned with education. These forms are "for political parties, for creeds, and for nations" (Social 127). Those for creeds and nations often display information which regards what is appropriate in schools (Social 128). All of which however, are in some way "concerned with values, or with general propositions, or with matters of fact" (Social 128).

               Bertrand Russell also discusses the significance of economics in relation to education. The first aspect of importance is the amount of money each state has to spend on education (Social 118). Each state will have a different amount depending upon its economic standing, which means a different amount to spend on its people. Another aspect is the efficiency of a state's people. "A population who can read and write is more efficient than one that cannot" (Social 118). This concludes that the production level of a state which is educated will be higher than a state whose people are not. The system of distribution and the means in which wealth is dispersed to the people will have an immense impact upon the education of a state (Social 119). "The system of distribution determines the division of the community into classes, and wherever there are classes, different classes will receive different kinds of education" (Social 119). Those who have a higher education will often place their children in higher education, while those who do not cannot afford to place their children in higher education. Thus, the division in the community is continuous.

Theory of Opportunity
Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

Russell concludes that everyone should have an equal opportunity at an education. "What I do mean is that the educational system we must aim at producing in the future is one which gives to every boy and girl an opportunity for the best that exists" (Good 16). Education should be available for everyone beginning with nursery schools (Good 18). The system, however, should be democratic but not uniform (Good 16-17). Russell states, "It would be disastrous to insist upon a dead level of uniformity. Some boys and girls are cleverer than others, and can derive more benefit from higher education" (Good 17). Those who have more of a chance of going farther in life should be given that opportunity. The uniformity also should not be demanded because the level of teachers varies. "It is impossible that everybody should be taught by the few best teachers" (Good 17). Therefore, according to Russell, education should be available for everyone; however opportunities should not be limited because it would be undemocratic to exclude someone.

               Although Russell clearly states that an equal opportunity for education should be available for both males and females, he proceeds to state that the educational theories he will introduce are in regards to males only. Accordingly he states, "the whole educational problem, where women are concerned, has been distorted by the desire for sex equality; there has been an attempt to acquire the same education as that given to boys, even where it was by no means good" (Good 19). The ideal of educating a female to be a "fine lady" disrupts the more modern view of education and the conflicts of which are something that Bertrand Russell avoids addressing.

Theory of Consensus
Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinion takes precedence?

Russell speaks about the state and society as a whole, through which education is delivered. Within the state, there is often uniformity where people concur about the necessities of human kind. This, however, does not always occur and when it does not, it hinders the educational system. As "the interests of some partial group are placed before the interests of mankind," people disagree about what the necessities for all happen to be (Social 137). Therefore, as people place their own interests above the interests of the whole, society becomes weak and loses its uniformity.

But, total uniformity is improbable because people are different. Likewise in places where uniformity does not occur, schools do not favor any particular views or beliefs (Social 137). This does however lead to the formation of schools for those beliefs (Social 137). For example, "in countries where various religions exist side by side, the State is not able to favour any one of them in its schools, but this has led to the creation of schools belonging to various sects" (Social 137). Although the people disagree about what is to occur, the state remedies this by creating schools which do not support either as well as private schools which support their own beliefs. Consensus is therefore achieved by catering to everyone's views and beliefs.


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