Review: Russell’s Education and the Social order, Aiyar’s Smoke and Mirrors

The problem with long breaks in between writing blog posts is that too many things happen and recounting everything is usually tedious.

Finished Russel’s interesting views on education, which is put forth in his inimitable style. His main purpose in

Brick in the wall!
Brick in the wall!

the book is to analyse the function that education plays in the modern nation-state. He also analyses its aims and what it actually ends up achieving. The range of topics covered is large, ranging from the effects of education on individualism, on how topics like religion, nationalism, sex, class feeling, competition are put forth in an educational institution to the big debate on home vs. school and how education is handled in Communist Russia.

For a logician, he is surprisingly forgiving about facets of our personality which are not governed by reason, like emotions and the subconscious. I have not read Russell in such a forgiving, pragmatic mood!! He seems to accept the tradeoff between individualism and stability, and between control and freedom of children. He is also quite happy and expectant of the results of the ‘Communist experiment’ going on in Russia, which was common to all the left-leaning intellectuals of that time.

The book tears apart the rigid, dogmatic system of education which he himself was probably subjected to, pointing out that it expects children to accept things that are patently incorrect (like the fact that his/her own country is the best in the world, and glorifying wars) and false on the pretext that they are ‘too young’ or their ‘minds must not be sullied’. He correctly understands that the education is built to consolidate the system which it represents.

To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, there are always two kinds of people: the ones who believe that people need to be saved from themselves and others that believe that people can be at their best if encouraged. The educational system is built by the former and Russell is obviously from the latter category, which leads to quite a clash. (Jefferson used this quote in the context of American political parties. No prizes for guessing which is which!) Russell supports an education system which is quite opposite to the one which is followed even to this day: one that encourages independent thinking and asking difficult questions. He understands the needs of social stability which is fostered by the experiences that a child has in school (i.e, socialization) but discourages moral codes being propagated by falsehoods, knowing that one, it does not really work, and two, finding out that something he/she believes in is false is not really good for morality.

Overall, excellent read. This is obviously not the place to discuss the book out, but I do recommend it!

The other book that I’m almost done with is Smoke and Mirrors by journalist Pallavi Aiyar.

The whys and hows of China
The whys and hows of China

One thing good about books written by journalists is that they are heavy on data and reflections and light on philosophy. Thomas Friedman is an unfortunate exception to this category. Like the title of the book says, this is about the author’s experiences in a new, foreign world and how many of the things that she believed in like democracy and freedom of expresssion were put to the test in this paradox of a nation-state. I fortunately got the last copy from Sapna in Mysore, and it is turning out to be a very interesting and highly readable buy.

Some of the major themes that the book deals with are paradox of free market liberalism in the economy and communist repression in the political arena, the pervasiveness of the State in all facets of the country, from the psychology of the individual to the running of the Shaolin temple. The success of the Communist Party in entering the minds and imaginations of the common people is quite amazingly put out in this book. She also writes with amusement about the assumptions made by the Indians and Chinese about each other and the cultural faux pas which happen when one visits a banquet hosted by the other.

Grudingly, she also acknowledges the amazing efficiency of the State in building infrastructure (one hospital in seven days, yes SEVEN days), and although economic disparities are large, the abject poverty that one finds in India is not present. The excellent social infrastructure that China possesses has even been appreciated by Amartya Sen. But she notes the underlying tensions that an oppressive regime is bound to generate which is kept in check by the Party by stupendous economic growth and new found love for religious tolerance and Confucianism (which promotes social harmony, they say! Mostly lip service, but anything to keep the people from, ironically, revolting).

She stays in a part of Beijing that has not yet been bulldozed to make way for skyscrapers and notes the huge difference in the perceptions, lifestyles of the people here.

All in all, two good additions :)


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