Russell (2009). The Functions Of A Teacher. (Unpopular Essays.)

Russell, B. (2009). The Functions Of A Teacher. In Unpopular Essays (pp. 109–120). London and New York: Routledge.

“The profession has a great and honourable tradition, extending from the dawn of history until recent times, but any teacher in the modern world who allows himself to be inspired by the ideals of his predecessors is likely to be made sharply aware that it is not his function to teach what he thinks, but to instil such beliefs and prejudices as are thought useful by his employers.” (p 109)

“In the Middle Ages teaching became the exclusive prerogative of the Church, with the result that there was little progress either intellectual or social. … It is true that the Inquisition compelled Galileo to recant, and burnt Giordano Bruno at the stake, but each of these men had done his work before being punished.” (p 110)

“In our more highly organised world we face a new problem. Something called education is given to everybody, usually by the State, but sometimes by the Churches. The teacher has thus become, in the vast majority of cases, a civil servant obliged to carry out the behests of men who have not his learning, who have no experience of dealing with the young, and whose only attitude towards education is that of the propagandist.” (p 110)

“Except in totalitarian countries, the defence of the state is desirable, and the mere fact that education is used for this purpose is not in itself a ground of criticism. Criticism will only arise if the state is defended by obscurantism and appeals to irrational passion. Such methods are quite unnecessary in the case of any state worth defending. … Dogmatists the world over believe that although the truth is known to them, others will be led into false beliefs provided they are allowed to hear the arguments on both sides. This is a view which leads to one or another of two misfortunes: either one set of dogmatists conquers the world and prohibits all new ideas, or, what is worse, rival dogmatists conquer different regions and preach the gospel of hate against each other, the former of these evils existing in the Middle Ages, the latter during the wars of religion, and again in the present day.” (p 113)

“The teacher should not be expected to flatter the prejudices either of the mob or of officials. His professional virtue should consist in a readiness to do justice to all sides, and in an endeavour to rise above controversy into a region of dispassionate scientific investigation. If there are people to whom the results of his investigation are inconvenient, he should be protected against their resentment, unless it can be shown that he has lent himself to dishonest propaganda by the dissemination of demonstrable untruths.” (p 114)

“Teachers 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.” (p 114)

“Civilisation, in the more important sense, is a thing of the mind, not of material adjuncts to the physical side of living. 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 only 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. Taking an even wider view, he should be [page break] conscious of the vastness of geological epochs and astronomical abysses; but he should be aware of all this, not as a weight to crush the individual human spirit, but as a vast panorama which enlarges the mind that contemplates it.” (p 114-115)

“It should be one of the functions of the teacher to open vistas before his pupils showing them the possibility of activities that will be as delightful as they are useful thereby letting loose their kind impulses and preventing the growth of a desire to rob others of joys that they will have missed.” (p 116)

“… most teachers are over-worked and are compelled to prepare their pupils for examinations rather than to give them a liberalising mental training. … [page break] … The result is that many of them become harassed and nervous, out of touch with recent work in the subjects that they teach, and unable to inspire their students with a sense of the intellectual delights to be obtained from new understanding and new knowledge.” (p 117-118)

“In any case, to tell lies to the young, who have no means of checking what they are told, is morally indefensible.” (p 118)

“The thing, above all, that a teacher should endeavour to produce in his pupils if democracy is to survive, is the kind of tolerance that springs from an endeavour to understand those who are different from ourselves.” (p 118)

See this page at