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 Education for a Difficult World  (1953)*

By Bertrand Russell

Young people who are not completely frivolous are apt to find in the world of the present day that their impulses of good will are baffled by failure to find any clear course of action which might diminish the perils of the time. I will not pretend that there is any easy or simple answer to their bewilderment, but I do think that a suitable education could make young people feel more capable of understanding the problems and of critically estimating this or that suggested solution.

There are several reasons which make our problems difficult to solve, if not to understand. The first of these is that modern society and modern politics are governed by difficult skills which very few people understand. The man of science is the modern medicine man. He can perform all kinds of magic. He can say, “Let there be light,” and there is light. He can keep you warm in winter, and keep your food cool in summer. He can transport you through the air as quickly as a magic carpet in the Arabian Nights. He promises to exterminate your enemies in a few seconds, and fails you only when you ask him to promise that your enemies will not exterminate you. All this he achieves by means which, if you are not one in a million, are completely mysterious to you. And when mystery-mongers tell you tall stories of future marvels you cannot tell whether to believe them or not.

Another thing that makes the modern world baffling is that technical developments have made a new social psychology necessary. From the dawn of history until the present century the road to success was victory in competition. We descend from many centuries of progenitors who exterminated their enemies, occupied their lands, and grew rich. In England this process took place in the time of Hengist and Horsa. In the United States it took place during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We therefore admire a certain sort of character, namely the sort of character that enables you to kill skillfully and without compunction. The milder believers in this creed content themselves with inflicting economic rather than physical death, but the psychology is much the same. In the modern world, owing to increase of skill, this process is no longer so satisfactory. In a modern war even the victors suffer more than if there had been no war. To the British, who are enduring the results of complete victory in two great wars, this is fairly obvious. What applies in war, applies also in the economic sphere. The victors in a competition do not grow so rich as both parties could by combination. The half-unconscious appreciation of these facts produces in intelligent young people an impulse towards general good will, but this impulse is baffled by the mutual hostility of powerful groups. Good will in general—yes; good will in particular—no. A Hindu may love mankind, but must not love a Pakistani; a Jew may believe that men are all one family, but dare not extend this feeling to the Arabs; a Christian may think it his duty to love his neighbour, but only if his neighbour is not a Communist. These conflicts between the general and the particular seem to make it impossible to have any one clear principle in action. This trouble is due to a very general failure to adapt human nature to technique. Our feelings are those appropriate to warlike nomads in rather empty regions, but our technique is such as must bring disaster unless our feelings can become more co-operative.

Education if it is to be adapted to our modern needs must fit young people to understand the problems raised by this situation. The imparting of knowledge in education has always had two objects: on the one hand, to give skill; and on the other, to give a vaguer thing which we may call wisdom. The part of skill has become very much larger than it used to be and is increasingly threatening to oust the part devoted to wisdom. At the same time it must be admitted that wisdom in our world is impossible except for those who realize the great part played by skill, for it is increase of skill that is the distinctive feature of our world. During the late war, when I dined among the Fellows of my College, I found that those who were scientific were usually absent, but on their rare appearances one got glimpses of mysterious work such as only very few living people could understand. It was the work of men of this sort that was the most decisive in the war. Such men inevitably form a kind of aristocracy, since their skill is rare and must remain rare until by some new method men’s congenital aptitudes have been increased. There is for example a great deal of important work which can only be done by those who are good at higher mathematics, and the immense majority of mankind would never become good at higher mathematics, even if all their education were directed to this end. Men are not all equal in congenital capacity, and any system of education which assumes that they are involves a possibly disastrous waste of good material.

But although scientific skill is necessary, it is by no means sufficient. A dictatorship of men of science would very soon become horrible. Skill without wisdom may be purely destructive, and would be very likely to prove so. For this reason, if for no other, it is of great importance that those who receive a scientific education should not be merely scientific, but should have some understanding of that kind of wisdom which, if it can be imparted at all, can only be imparted by the cultural side of education. Science enables us to know the means to any chosen end, but it does not help us to decide what ends we shall pursue. If you wish to exterminate the human race, it will show you how to do it. If you wish to make the human race so numerous that all are on the very verge of starvation, it will show you how to do that. If you wish to secure adequate prosperity for the whole human race, science will tell you what you must do. But it will not tell you whether one of these ends is more desirable than another. Nor will it give you that instinctive understanding of human beings that is necessary if your measures are not to arouse fierce opposition which only ferocious tyranny can quell. It cannot teach you patience, it cannot teach you sympathy, it cannot teach you a sense of human destiny. These things, in so far as they can be taught in formal education, are most likely to emerge from the learning of history and great literature.

Familiarity with great literature has been one of the nominal aims of education ever since the time of Peisistratus. The Athenians pursued this aim wisely: they learnt Homer by heart, and were therefore able to appreciate their great dramatists in spite of their being contemporary. But modern methods have improved on all this. I was given when I was very young a little book called A Child’s Guide to Literature. In this book the child, guided by some preternatural intelligence, asked about the great English writers in correct chronological sequence beginning, “Who was Chaucer?” I regret to say that I never got any farther in this little book. If I had, I should have been able to say just the sort of thing that Examiners wish you to say without having read a single word of any of the authors concerned. I am afraid that the needs of examinations and of an unduly extended syllabus have made this way of studying literature all too common. You may be the better for reading Chaucer, but if you do not read him, knowing his dates and what eminent critics have said about him does you no more good than knowing the dates of some obscure nobody. The good that is to be derived from great literature is not derived with any fullness except by those who become so familiar with it that it enters into the texture of their everyday thoughts. I think it is an admirable thing when children at school act a play of Shakespeare. There is then an obvious reason for getting to know it well, and the enterprise is cooperative rather than competitive. I am quite sure that to take part in acting one of Shakespeare’s good plays is a better way of acquiring what is valuable in a literary education than the hasty reading of the whole lot. In former generations English-speaking people acquired the same sort of training in prose through familiarity with the Authorized Version of the Bible, but since the Bible became unfamiliar nothing equally excellent has taken its place.

In the teaching of history as opposed to literature a smattering can be of great utility. For those who are not going to be professional historians the sort of thing that in America is called a survey course can, if it is rightly done, give a valuable sense of the larger process within which things which are near and familiar take place. Such a course should deal with the history of man, not with the history of this or that country, least of all one’s own. It should begin with the oldest facts known through anthropology and archaeology, and should give a sense of the gradual emergence of those things in human life which give man such a place in our respect as he may deserve. It should not present as the world’s heroes those who have slaughtered the greatest number of “enemies,” but rather those who have been most notable in adding to the world’s capital of knowledge and beauty and wisdom. It should show the strange resurgent power of what is valuable in human life, defeated time and again by savagery and hate and destruction, but nevertheless, at the very first possible opportunity, emerging again like grass in the desert after rain. It should, while youth leaves hopes and desires still plastic, fix those hopes and desires not upon victory over other human beings, but upon victory over those forces which have hitherto filled the life of man with suffering and sorrow—I mean, the forces of nature reluctant to yield her fruits, the forces of militant ignorance, the forces of hate, and the deep slavery to fear which is our heritage from the original helplessness of mankind. All this a survey of history should give and can give. All this, if it enters into the daily texture of men’s thoughts, will make them less harsh and less mad.

One of the great things that education can and should give is the power of seeing the general in the particular, the power of feeling that this, although it is happening to me, is very like what happens to others, what has happened through many ages, and may continue to happen. It is very difficult not to feel that there is something quite special and peculiar about one’s own misfortunes, about the injustices that one suffers, and the malevolence of which one is the object, and this applies not only to oneself as an individual but to one’s family, one’s class, one’s nation, and even one’s continent. To see such matters with impersonal justice is possible as the result of education, but is scarcely possible otherwise.

All this education can do, all this education should do, very little of it education does do.

*  Bertrand Russell, “Education for a Difficult World,” Fact and Fiction, 1961 First published as “Education’s Place in a New Age,” Saturday Night (Toronto), 68, no. 22 (Mar 7 1953), 1, 7-8