People watching a concert

Social Science Quote: The conquest of leisure and health

Toda’s social science quote comes from Bertrand Russell, mathematician and philospher, from On Education, Especially In Early Childhood. Below is the quote in context of arguments for, and against, practical education.

A blue lake with trees in the background. Quote overlaid: What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them? - Bertrand Russell, philosopher
– Bertrand Russell, philosopher.

Excerpt from Rusell:

There appear to be three different substantial issues wrapped up in the debate between advocates of a utilitarian education and their opponents. There is first a form of the debate between aristocrats and Democrats, the former holding that the privilege class should be taught to employ its leisure in ways that are agreeable to itself, while the subordinate class should be taught to employ its labour in ways that are useful to others. The opposition of the Democrats to this view tends to be somewhat confused: they dislike the teaching of what is useless to the aristocrat, and at the same time argue that the wage earners’ education should not be confined to what is useful. Thus we find a democratic opposition to the old fashioned classical education in the public schools, combined with a democratic demand that the working men should have opportunities for learning Latin and Greek. This attitude, even though it may imply some lack of theoretical clarity, is on the whole right in practise. The Democrat does not wish to divide the community into two sections, one useful and one ornamental; he will therefore give more merely useful knowledge to the hitherto ornamental classes, and more merely delightful knowledge to the hitherto merely useful classes. But democracy per say does not decide the proportions in which these ingredients should be mixed.

The second issue is between men who aim only at material goods and men who care for mental delights. Most modern well to do Englishmen and Americans, if they were transported by magic into the age of Elizabeth, would wish themselves back in the modern world. The Society of Shakespeare and Raleigh and Sir Philip Sydney, the exquisite music, the beauty of architecture would not consult them for the absence of bathrooms, tea and coffee, motor cars, and other material comforts of which that age was ignorant. Such men, except insofar as they are influenced by conservative tradition, tend to think that the main purpose of education is to increase the number and variety of commodities produced. They may include medicine and hygiene, but they will not feel any enthusiasm for literature or art or philosophy. Undoubtedly such men have provided a great part of the driving force for the attack on the classical curriculum established at the Renaissance.

I do not think it would be fair to meet this attitude by the mere assertion that mental goods are of more value than such as the purely physical. I believe this assertion to be true but not the whole truth for, while physical goods have no high value, physical evils may be so bad as to outweigh a great deal of mental excellence. Starvation and disease, and the ever-present fear of them, have overshadowed their lives of the great majority of humankind since foresight first became possible. Most birds die of starvation, but they are happy when food is abundant, because they do not think about the future. Peasants who have survived a famine will be perpetually haunted by memory and apprehension. Men are willing to toil long hours for a pittance rather than die, while animals prefer to snatch pleasure when it is available, even if death is the penalty. It has thus become about that most men have put up with a life almost wholly devoid of pleasure, because on any other terms life would be brief. For the first time in history, it is now possible, owing to the industrial revolution and by its by-products, to create a world where everybody shall have a reasonable chance of happiness. Physical evil can, if we choose, be reduced to very small proportions. It would be possible, by organisation and science, to feed and house the whole population of the world, not luxuriously, to prevent great suffering. It would be possible to combat disease, and to make chronic ill health very rare. It would be possible to prevent the increase of population from out running improvements in the food supply. The great terrors which have darkened the subconscious mind of the race, bringing cruelty, oppression, and war in their train, could be so much diminished as to be no longer important. All this is of such in measurable value to human life that we dare not oppose the sort of education which will tend to bring it about. In such an education, applied science will now have to be the chief ingredient. Without physics and physiology and psychology, we cannot build the new world. We can build it without Latin and Greek, without Dante and Shakespeare, without Bach and Mozart. That is a great argument in favour of a utilitarian education. I have stated it strongly, because I feel it strongly. Nevertheless there is another side to the question. What will be the good of the conquest of leisure and health, if no one remembers how to use them? The war against physical evil, like every other war, must not be conducted with such fury as to render men incapable of the arts of peace. What the world possesses of ultimate good must not be allowed to perish in the struggle against evil.

This brings me to the third issue involved in our controversy. Is it true that only useless knowledge is intrinsically valuable? Is it true that any intrinsically valuable knowledge is useless? For my part, I spent in youth a considerable proportion of my time upon Latin and Greek, which I now considered to have been almost completely wasted. Classical knowledge afforded me no help whatever in any of the problems with which I was concerned in later life. Like ninety-nine percent of those who were taught the classics, I never acquired sufficient proficiency to read them for pleasure. I learned such things as the genitive of ‘supellex,’ which I have never been able to forget. This knowledge has no more intrinsic value than the knowledge that there are three feet to a yard, and this utility, to me, has been strictly confined to affording me the present illustration. On the other hand, what I learned of mathematics and science has been not only of immense utility, but also of great intrinsic value, as affording subjects of contemplation and reflection, and touchstones of truth in a deceitful world. This is, of course, in part a personal idiosyncrasy; but I am sure that a capacity to profit by the classics is still rarer idiosyncrasy among modern men. France and Germany also have valuable literatures; their languages are easily learned, and are useful in many practical ways. The case for French and German, as against Latin and Greek, is therefore overwhelming. Without belittling the importance of the sort of knowledge which has no immediate practical utility, I think we may fairly demand that, except in education of specialists, such knowledge shall be given in ways that do not demand any my immense expenditure of time and energy on technical apparatus such as grammar. The sum of human knowledge and the complexity of human problems are perpetually increasing; therefore every generation must overhaul its education methods if time is to be found for what is new. We must preserve the balance by means of compromises. The humanistic elements in education must remain, but they must be sufficiently simplified to leave room for the other elements without which the new world rendered possible by science can never be created.

I do not wish to suggest that humanistic elements in education are less important than the utilitarian elements. To know something of great literature, something of world history, something of music and painting and architecture, is essential if the life of imagination is to be fully developed. And it is only through imagination that men become aware of what the world might be; without it, ‘progress’ would become mechanical and trivial. But science, also, can stimulate the imagination.

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