What should a good teacher actually do — according to Bertrand Russell

I can remember reading Bertrand Russell on the history of western civilisation, or something like that, when I was young. He wrote a great deal — 77 books alone, and a vast number of pamphlets and newspaper articles. He was a most distinguished philosopher, especially in the fields of logic and mathematics, and a quirky and unpredictable person; these days he is a little on the nose in polite circles. He lived to 97, married several times, seemed utterly uninterested in what people thought of him, and spent a few months in prison (where he wrote another book).

I came across a little piece of his that was published in 1951 in the New York Times, which made me think. Making people think was, as you will see, one of his goals. He set out what he saw as the Ten Commandments of Teaching, not to replace those which Moses brought down from the mountain, but simply to supplement them.

In his little introduction he implied that he was not thinking just of classroom teaching, but of teaching generally — which is what we do when we write an essay like this one, or engage in a serious conversation or discussion: ‘to show by way of information or instruction’, as my Shorter Oxford puts it.

Well, here is his decalogue:

 1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.

2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.

3. Never try to discourage thinking, for you are sure to succeed.

4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavour to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.

5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.

6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.

7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.

8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.

9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.

10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

I value them all, and I think I have tried to follow them even when I had no knowledge of his Ten Commandments. They seem to me to be the intellectually honest way to treat both knowledge and other people.

I do like #1. Russell said on one occasion that he would never die for his beliefs, for he might be wrong about them! And I like #8 because it is very like the remark of Karl Popper’s that is in the masthead of my website: we advance through disagreement, just as we learn best through failure.

What comes through the whole ten is the perspective of a sceptical rationalist. The world is a complex place, and while it is important to simplify the complexity for many purposes, we need to remember that our simplification may produce error as well as enlightenment.

On my daily pass through Facebook, and setting aside the contributions from friends and family members which represent the point of the exercise, I keep coming across hugely confident statements about the world, Mr Abbott, and issues of one kind and another that are most unlikely to be correct. The sheer level of vituperation in some of these, and in the letters I can read in my local paper, amaze and usually appal me. From the time I became a graduate student I began to see the importance of first being reasonably sure and then expressing myself cautiously. It is so easy to be wrong.

And the world of ‘climate change’, like the world of politics, is a depressing example. Yes, there are sceptics who are too confident, and denunciatory, and all too happy to go down the ad hominem path. But it is the world of the orthodox that presents the greatest remove from Russell’s Commandments. From the IPCC Reports to the latest Academy of Science booklet, what we encounter is the antithesis of good teaching: certainty of being right, the concealment of evidence that is counter to the case being presented, appeals to authority, the shutting down of criticism, and a pervasive intellectual dishonesty.

None of this is new. It occurs whenever people become convinced that they are right, and that they must prevail. Paradoxically, it is a failing that may be worse among the highly educated than among those who are not. In the late 1980s, when I was setting up the Australian Research Council, against the strong opposition of the established higher education order, I encountered exactly the kind of betrayal of intellect that we can see today in ‘climate change’. Not long after my experience, I wrote about it like this:

As time passed my disdain for the variable standards of some of the apostles of scholarly accuracy deepened. Letters from scientists and from the principals of scientific organisations flooded in to the office of the Minister and of the Prime Minister calling for my instant removal. One such to the Prime Minister, a classic of its kind, set out four ‘facts’ which would justify such an action; none was a fact. Academics greatly distinguished in their own fields for care and rigour seemed to see nothing wrong, for example, in taking a remark of mine made at a private dinner for two, blowing it up, placing it out of context and making the remark an issue in a public address; or releasing private correspondence with me to the press; or making impassioned speeches in which the most basic matters were factually wrong and, when this was pointed out, stating, as though this were sufficient justification, that one felt strongly about the issue. 

So, to those who feel that they must speak and act as they do because the stakes are so important, I would like to offer these ten simple propositions that seem to me to embody the best teaching  — and should lead to the best learning. Not one of them leads to the conclusion that the end justifies the means. On the contrary.

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  • John Morland says:

    Once again, Don, a well written essay and a pleasure to read. In conversations over weather change and variability I have sometimes felt a sort of converse of #10. I feel saddened, even pity, for those who have been led into a fool’s purgotory (and for some, hell) who now feel fear, guilt, even near panic and have difficulty how to deal with all this.

    I have occasionaly managed to appease their fears. On one occasion an airline hostess came back to me with some 1st class accessories as a thank you for putting her at ease, another person (whom I was a guest at his house) thanked me at the time of my departure for being so “uplifting”, another thanked me for inspiring her to think further and to question the CAGW view – she bought me a drink.

  • margaret says:

    A good read. Unfortunately the model for high schools is entrenched authority.

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