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Friday, December 04, 2009

Quoting Bertrand Russell

Jason Rosenhouse has posted a quotation from Bertrand Russell [Quote for the Day]. Like Jason, I am a fan of the great man. Here's my quotation—it's from an essay written in 1940, shortly after Russell was declared unfit to teach at City College in New York.
A man or woman who is to hold a teaching post under the state should not be required to express majority opinions, though naturally a majority of teachers will do so. Uniformity in the opinions expressed by teachers is not only not to be sought but is, if possible, to be avoided, since diversity of opinion among preceptors is essential to any sound education. No man can pass as educated who had heard only one side on questions as to which the public is divided. One of the most important things to teach in the educational establishments of a democracy is the power of weighing arguments, and the open mind which is prepared in advance to accept whichever side appears the most reasonable. As soon as a censorship is imposed upon the opinions which teachers may avow, education ceases to serve this purpose and tends to produce, instead of a nation of men, a herd of fanatical bigots.


  1. Socrates was also forced to drink himself to death because quote : "he worshipped newly created gods"

  2. But also, Mr Russell, found his match when teaching Wittgenstein. When Rusell start reading the final script, he ll just couldn't understand it thourougly enough.

  3. Like Biology teachers who are of the opinion that evolution is a fatally flawed theory and that intellegent design theory has merit? A favorable view of astrology? Crystal healing? Homeopathy? X is the one true religion? Abortion is OK? Abortion is murder?

    IMO, it's not a useful abstract goal because, alone, it is hard to put it in practice unless further qualified. In any situation it always comes down to exactly which opinion the teacher holds, relative to the views of the particular person who is deciding whether it falls within the bounds of reasonableness. The hard part is developing the further qualifications that would make it useful.

  4. Professor Moran,

    The quotation is very balanced and rational at its core.

    However, it is debatable since it does not imply a general variation of perspective world-/nation-wide, but it specifically refers to "diversity of opinion among preceptors". It is, of course, good and democratic to have students prepared to receive both sides of the argument and let them make up their own mind in the end.

    It is my feeling though that this situation might easily backfire as soon as the scope of "diversity of opinion" is extended beyond domestic debates such as adaptationism vs non-adaptationism, gradualism vs punctuationism etc. You can get science teachers that tell kids that the natural phenomena are god's creation.

    If you assume that students have critical thinking abilities or if you are determined to draw the line between non-diversity and diversity of opinion in teachers starting with, say, university teaching staff, then my latest paragraph might sound a bit extreme.

    What I am not happy about is the fact that, even if the above "restrictions" are formally met, aberrant realities in practice may still be observed.

    Allow me to give you just one example: the country I live in is a recent member of the EU. However, a lot of European values are non-existent. Actual separation of the church and state is an alien concept regarded with contempt by the 90% self-declared orthodox population. Nowhere in the Constitution is it written that the state supports the orthodox church, but 'secularism' is omitted as well. A few years ago, evolution was silently taken out of the high-school curriculum. And more soon followed: science textbooks that behind the "building critical thinking skills" and "diversity of opinion" umbrella present biblical creationism, old-earth creationism, evolution and some kind of panspermia theory - guess what? - as equally valid.

    So, where do we draw the line in regards to the diversity of opinion among preceptors?

  5. Alexandra,

    It saddens me, but unfortunately comes as no surprise, that your nation has embarked upon a mission of indoctrination, which ultimately is what teaching religion, other non-science, pseudoscience, and science as equally-valid ways of explaining natural phenomena. I think, however, that rather than a "diversity of opinions among preceptors" you have a state mandating the equality of opinions with regard to their validity and then choosing (certifying?) preceptors that happily follow that mandate. This is akin to elected school boards in the US preferentially hiring fundagelical "science" teachers with the difference that the government has the obligation to prohibit the miseducation that follows and any student (or his/her parents) are permitted to sue to force the change. Indeed, the separation of church and state in practice as well as in concept is one of the wonderful things about the US - when it works.

  6. If you like Bertrand Russell, you should take a look at this fascinating graphic novelisation of his life and work:

  7. A very poorly reasoned statement, and surprising that Russell should have framed it. Its axioms aka assumptions are shaky. Funny that the Dishonesty Institute is saying the same thing these days.

  8. Russell, as always, expressed his opinion with specific economy. This point does not address the specific desired standards by which the opinions of teachers should be judged. Of course, whatever those standards may be, they will inevitably be judged through the prism of the majority. His point is that, in a system where students are taught to consider and evaluate opinions by the strength of their arguments rather than adherence to the orthodoxy, a mechanism may be created that will move thought towards useful truth. This is highly unlikely to happen within a system that demands conformance over investigation. There is no guarantee that students will ever recognize the ridiculous, as in the opinions that prevented him from teaching at City College, but it sure helps.

  9. I had the privilege of meeting Lord Russell in New York in the early sixties.

    I extended my hand and said "good morning Professor Russell, how are you today?"

    He replied without pause: "In relation to what?"

    Classic Russell!

  10. my god.. these long comments i ve just read... it reminds me of this quote about that long sentences are only a way to disguise the hollowness of the thought ot its creator. a bit Like a vase that is painted imperssively but is made out of paper... can t do shit with it.. and don t remember who said it , sorry