'Rules' for teaching and learning; Bertrand Russell

November 30, 2017

I have always found Bertrand Russell to be an object of fascination.  He brought a mathematician's dispassion and clarity of thinking into the world of philosophy. He was unswervingly dedicated to using logic to uncover "the truth", regardless of whatever that turned out to be.

 

I read his biography about twenty-five years ago, and I'll admit that his own story was eclipsed by even the most cursory details about his mother, Louisa Katharine Russell; the Viscountess Amberley. 'Kate's' support of the suffragette movement was such that Queen Victoria herself said she "ought to get a good whipping". 

 

Her children's tutor suffered from tuberculosis, a serious enough condition at the time to make him unfit for marriage. The Amberley's concern for his celibacy was such that he was allowed to sleep in the Viscountess' bed. The English establishment of the 1870's was clearly not as 'Victorian' as I had thought.

 

(Incidentally, that tutor was the biologist Douglas Spalding. His ground-breaking research on animal behaviour and 'imprinting' may link in with future blogs).

 

Perhaps this disregard for convention was a formative influence on Bertrand Russell and consequently on for his advocacy of both atheism and 'teapotism'.

 

Russell held that the burden of proof lay with whoever made an assertion and not with whoever was trying to disprove it. He posited that he might claim there was a china teapot, too small to be seen with current telescopes, making a particular orbit around the sun. The inability of anyone to disprove this did not make the claim in any way likely. He felt that the Christian God was as likely as that teapot and that He was only accepted as a result of millennia of affirmation.

 

Equally, his approach to teaching and learning was entirely based on fact and disregarded any form of authority, power or conventionality. Seventy years later, it is still not for the faint-hearted.

 

 

 

A Liberal 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 is happiness.

 

Bertrand Russell

The New York Times Magazine

16 December 1951

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