Blog Post: Bertrand Russell on the Functions of a Teacher

Linda Elder
Apr 04, 2021 • 11d ago
Bertrand Russell on the Functions of a Teacher

{"ops":[{"insert":"In his book "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Unpopular Essays"},{"insert":", Bertrand Russell has a paper entitled "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"The Functions of a Teacher"},{"insert":". This essay should be essential reading for all teachers, administrators and students of education. The essay, originally published in 1950, among other things, illuminates the importance of teachers expanding the mind of the student, and developing the emotional and ethical dimension of their lives. As you see from this passage, Russell sees teachers as caretakers of civilization, which is at the highest level of responsibility in a society:\n \nTeachers are more than any other class the guardians of civilisation. They should be intimately aware of what civilisation is, and desirous of imparting a civilised attitude to their pupils. We are thus brought to this question: what constitutes a civilized community?..."},{"attributes":{"indent":2},"insert":"\n"},{"insert":" "},{"attributes":{"indent":2},"insert":"\n"},{"insert":"A country is civilized if it has much machinery, many motorcars, many bathrooms and a great deal of rapid locomotion. To these things, in my opinion most modern men attach much too much importance. Civilization, in the more important sense, is a thing of the mind… it is a matter partly of knowledge, partly of emotion. So far as knowledge is concerned, a man should be aware of the minuteness of himself and his immediate environment in relation to the world in time and space. He should see his own country not "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"only"},{"insert":" at home, but as one among the countries of the world, all with an equal right to live and think and feel. He should see his own age in relation to the past and the future, and be aware that its own controversies will seem as strange to future ages as those of the past seem to us now… on the side of the emotions, a very similar enlargement from the purely personal is needed if a man is to be truly civilized. Men passed from birth to death, sometimes happy, sometimes unhappy; sometimes generous, sometimes grasping and petty; sometimes heroic, sometimes cowardly and servile. To the man who views the procession as a whole, certain things stand out as worthy of admiration. Some men have been inspired by love of mankind; some by supreme intellect have helped us to understand the world in which we live; and some by exceptional sensitiveness have created beauty. These men have produced something of positive good to outweigh the long record of cruelty, oppression and superstition. These men have done what lay in their power to make human life a better thing than the brief turbulence of savages. The civilised man, where he cannot admire, will aim rather at understanding then at reprobating. He will seek rather to discover and remove the impersonal causes of evil than to hate the men who are in his grip. All this should be in the mind and heart of the teacher, and if it is in his mind and heart he will convey it in his teaching to the young who are in his care (pp.129-130)."},{"attributes":{"indent":2},"insert":"\n"},{"insert":" \nNote the powerful, but basic, critical thinking moves Bertrand Russell makes in this passage. First, he asserts that teachers are guardians of civilization, which places responsibility on teachers to think deeply about the "},{"attributes":{"bold":true},"insert":"concept"},{"insert":" of civilization and to do their own conceptual analysis of "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"civilization"},{"insert":" (How many teachers do this type of conceptual work now?).\n \nRussell then details his own concept, which calls upon teachers to cultivate intellectual virtues such as openmindedness and intellectual empathy, and to foster in students the desire to make the world a better place. These goals can be achieved "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"only"},{"insert":" when supported by the public. These ends can be realized "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"only"},{"insert":" when teachers are themselves taught critical thinking skills and virtues, and then are allowed"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":" "},{"insert":"to teach these skills and virtues. Cultivating student thinking must be encouraged and supported. Russell’s vision is noble, but we are still a great distance from achieving it. As long as bureaucracies and politicians control what happens in schools, as long as critical thinking is passed over, belittled, or presupposed, there is little to no hope of their realization on any broad scale.\n \nBut you can continue to expand your circle of influence in advancing critical thinking. You can bring critical thinking to the students you teach, the people you manage, the family and intimidate friends you value. You can bring it more concretely into your own thinking and in the way you live your life.\n \nThere are several videos of Bertrand Russell on YouTube, all of which I recommend that you take the time to view. You might start with this brief video clip titled "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Message to Future Generations"},{"insert":". "},{"attributes":{"color":"#0563c1","link":""},"insert":""},{"insert":"\n\nAlso read "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Unpopular Essays – "},{"insert":"see below for reference"},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"."},{"insert":"\n\n\n\nQuote taken from "},{"attributes":{"italic":true},"insert":"Unpopular Essays"},{"insert":" by Bertrand Russell (1950;1996). NY: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group\n"}]}

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