Bertrand Russell’s 10 Commandments for Teachers

by on May 6, 2012 at 7:03 am in Education, History, Philosophy | Permalink

  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 that 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 it is happiness.

Hat tip: Brainpickings.

dearieme May 6, 2012 at 8:38 am

11. Pay no heed to commandments.

dearieme May 6, 2012 at 8:42 am

Actually, I’m wrong. That shouldn’t be the eleventh commandment: on the analogy of thermodynamics, it should be the zeroth commandment.

scigoblin May 6, 2012 at 12:15 pm

Try looking past the literal wording of the title and enjoy it as a criticism, as it is meant to be.

j dog May 6, 2012 at 8:18 pm

i shall not>command /men/ ttttts .is the 13th comand
i think

woberz May 6, 2012 at 8:40 am

Not only is this great advice for teachers, it’s great advice for life in general.

pmp May 6, 2012 at 4:17 pm

Isn’t it just a prescription to be excessively contentious?

Guido May 7, 2012 at 12:19 am

I see no mandate for a prickly, humorless demeanor listed. Excessive contention is the Way of the Kook; a path to ostracism and cultivator of disregard. Enthusiasm, wit, and charm need not supplant teaching. They serve to make the draught of knowledge tall and cool.

Non Papa May 7, 2012 at 1:39 am

Great comment.

NAME REDACTED May 6, 2012 at 9:30 am

“for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.”

I’m not sure thats true. It seems that victory dependent on authority is much less transient except in the most obvious cases, at least politically.

Daniel Klein May 6, 2012 at 9:50 am

Doesn’t #5 — “Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.” — subvert the whole lesson?

Michael May 6, 2012 at 10:19 am

Only if you are only accepting these commandments on the basis of Russell’s authority rather than on the strength of his arguments. Ignore authority != ignore everyone else.

mb May 6, 2012 at 10:22 am

The point is that you should neither argue your own points from authority, nor have too much respect for authority of others.

Seth May 6, 2012 at 10:31 am

That seems a bit like criticizing libertarians for wanting to coerce freedom.

josh May 7, 2012 at 9:58 pm

which would be a reasonable criticism.

Becky Hargrove May 6, 2012 at 10:02 am

I loved these. As to number nine, I learned years ago that it doesn’t really pay to refuse to talk about one’s own ideas just to fit in with the crowd, even if it means being alone.

As to victory and authority, one can see where ideas and power take turns on the stage all the time. Ideas keep building up until they can be resisted no longer, even if power finds it easy (for a while) to take the already existing ideas and make them ‘permanent’. Perhaps #5 could have been worded a bit better!

Willitts May 6, 2012 at 1:23 pm

In my experience, servility is greatly rewarded and independence greatly punished no matter how much the latter is encouraged.

Neil May 6, 2012 at 10:32 am

I never got stuff like number ten. No ones ever been able to explain to me why, exactly, a fools paradise isn’t paradise, why Socrates dissatisfied is better than a pig satisfied. The unexamined life is only not worth living to people who live that examined life, people like me who spend their Saturday nights reading, and can’t escape it any more than a fool can make himself care about Bertrand Russell. Id prefer care about Jersey Shore, myself, if I could muster it up.

Rahul May 6, 2012 at 11:00 am

The unexamined life is often the happier one. Seems to me that fools generally lead happier lives.

Martin Cohen May 6, 2012 at 11:13 pm

I wrote this about a year ago:

Benefits of the unexamined life

You don’t have to waste time and energy listening to those others you know are wrong.

You can make use of the dynamic duo of “It’s not my fault” and “It’s not my problem”.

You can get from here to there much faster if you ignore the “Warning – thin ice!” signs.

You will be supported in so many ways by the others living in the fact-free zone.

It’s much easier if you think of those things you are climbing over as minor obstacles rather than people.

It’s so much fun to creatively decorate those walls that surround you.

Focusing on your own well-being takes all your energy, anyway.

Finally, if you’re screaming inside, you don’t have to listen.

Hasan Özdemir May 6, 2012 at 10:33 am

Hello, 7th commandment is related a statement freedom also.Best wishes,

Edward Burke May 6, 2012 at 10:35 am

I’m sure that the majority of teachers in America’s public primary and secondary schools embody both the levels of literacy and intelligence to aptly apply these sage advisements on a daily basis. In fact, my gast would be utterly flabbered to learn that these very notions do not decorate the walls of most public school classrooms across our enormously well-educated land. Why, I’d even be surprised to learn that they had not all been memorized, and in numeric order, by all the keen students who will be leading US commerce and politics, scholarship and research, in just a few scant years!
My query: did Paul Feyerabend help Lord Russell draft this list by any chance?

dead serious May 7, 2012 at 8:16 am

I’d be happy if institutions of higher learning were able to adopt even half of these tenets – at a time in a student’s life when this sort of thing matters a lot more.

Ed May 6, 2012 at 10:53 am

I will defend using authority to win arguments.

Imposing authority to get your views accepted may be illusionary, but it is also quick. In an emergency situation, where you need the group, say your family, to go and do something (or not do something) RIGHT NOW, using authority is the best option.

However, I agree that a tool that really should be used just in emergency situations is overused. Also, the only possible time where I would see this as appropriate in a classroom would be maybe the class right before the class, if the teacher has to dump alot of facts and equations onto his class because they will be on the test but there is no time to actually explain them (and for some reason he/ she can’t just change the test).

Rahul May 6, 2012 at 11:03 am

Oftentimes, decisions need to be made when one lacks the time, talent or information to make a merits-only analysis. That’s where the utility of authority kicks in.

Scott May 6, 2012 at 11:01 am

Bertrand Russel is my favorite Socialist.

Nick May 6, 2012 at 5:28 pm

He wasn’t just a socialist but a bad one- considering his connection with logical positivism, a revolting and dangerous philosophy of science prospective that animated a whole generation of social engineers.

Benji May 6, 2012 at 11:28 am

This is the one and only commandment I will follow: “The Lord our God is one Lord; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.”

Joseph Ward May 6, 2012 at 11:49 am

I’m no theologian, but I thought Christians had more than one commandment; but perhaps I’m reading this incorrectly.

Stephen Bradley May 6, 2012 at 12:09 pm

I think that Benji is quoting from Deuteronomy, which uses the word “might” in this verse. The use in Matthew 22:34ff is:

But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of
them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the
law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these
two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

It seems to me that the addition of the second commandment – and especially given the exchange that these verses follow – is the key to a Christian understanding of this exchange. The operational definition of loving God is loving one’s neighbor.

TallDave May 6, 2012 at 8:48 pm

Deuteronomy is itself rather fascinating, apparently the result of 700 B.C. reforms.

gab May 7, 2012 at 1:05 pm

So you go ahead and break all those other ones?

Bill Nichols May 6, 2012 at 12:03 pm

#1 are you sure?

Willitts May 6, 2012 at 1:24 pm

Most certainly not.

freethinker May 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm

I live in India and the one principle that can really get you in trouble with teachers is to question authority. This is so in most cases even at the university level. According to an ancient sanskrit maxim teachers are supposed to be worshiped as gods and how can anyone question gods?
And if you want proof that ignorance is bliss you should visit some colleges in India. I know teachers of economics who have not touched a single journal or a good textbook since they were hired and they are totally ignorant of developments in the subject after 1950. There are even teachers who spend all their time in trying to please the important officials for favours or managing their grocery store or bakery. They are far, far more happy than those who are academically inclined.

Conrad May 6, 2012 at 1:53 pm

Hope this isn’t too off-topic, but Bertrand Russell’s prologue “What I Have Lived For”, is one of my favorite pieces of writing. This article reminded me of it. I have copied it below if any of you would like to read it – it is short.



What I Have Lived For

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a great ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy – ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relieves loneliness–that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what–at last–I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they were possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate this evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Eric Rasmusen May 6, 2012 at 11:14 pm

Don’t take what Russell says about himself too seriously— from what I’ve heard he was seriously self-deceived. On love: he was well-known as a seducer, even of girls in families where he was a guest, I think. On “unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind”, it’s a pity he didn’t match that with knowledge of what would actually reduce suffering instead of increase it, and I’d want to see some evidence that he really cared a jot for people as individuals as opposed to as an abstraction. He probably did like knowledge— tho remember, he was a logician, philosopher and mathematician, not a scientist. Maybe it was thinking he liked, not knowledge.

Pshrnk May 7, 2012 at 1:07 pm

Caring for people and actually helping them are of course different things. Many political liberals want the betterment of mankind but fail in the follow through to help their lot. Sometimes caring for people in the abstract can lead to better outcomes as it leads to making the hard choices now that may cause less pleasure now but much more int the long run.

Swedo May 6, 2012 at 1:57 pm

It is a good thing this guy went into academia, and not say marketing.

thehova83 May 6, 2012 at 3:20 pm

I got a good laugh out of #10.

The entire list is ridiculous. You can’t get more shallow than Bertrand Russell.

AaronM May 6, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Dude, have you SEEN “The Bachelorette?”

thehova83 May 6, 2012 at 5:17 pm

Ha! But I’d bet that most of the participants on the Bachelorette have a more nuanced and balanced understanding of human nature, religion, science, etc. than Russell. He’s simply a bad philosopher.

So Much For Subtlety May 6, 2012 at 7:50 pm

I wonder how many of these would apply to the modern Western academic world.

I would say roughly none. Well maybe Number Ten.

As we seem to always have Steve Sailor with us. Consider someone in academia making any one of his arguments. That is not to say I think he is right, but there is no denying the response. I would think it would be for everyone else to be certain he was wrong. To deny the evidence. To insist the opinion is shameful to even raise. To immediately appeal to authority. To insist that the great and good’s opinions cannot be questioned. To suppress the opinion by whatever means necessary – tenured academics have been fired for suggesting racial differences in intelligence for instance. To deride the opinion as eccentric. To insist that agreement – not passive either – is the only viable position to take. And to bend the rules when it comes to truth.

And in fact I would think Stephen Jay Gould’s response to much less was precisely this. A shame as I admire the man.

Doc Merlin May 7, 2012 at 2:27 pm

“And in fact I would think Stephen Jay Gould’s response to much less was precisely this.”

Of course it was. The purpose of academia in the social sciences and humanities is to limit discourse, and weed out “mainstream” opinions from “wacky” ones. The method used doesn’t really matter, its just a sorting/political tool.

Doc Merlin May 7, 2012 at 2:28 pm

This is why the same bad ideas get tried over and over and over again in sociology, education, and economics, and the response is always “we just didn’t try hard enough.”

Matt May 6, 2012 at 10:13 pm

“Commandments” (if that is quite the word for them) 5 and 8 are the kind only an intellectual could espouse. Have no respect for authority? Intelligent dissent is superior to passive agreement? Bertrand Russell is truly an intellectual’s intellectual.

I wonder what would be the actual consequences of such a hostility for authority if this gimcrack notion was accepted by teachers? I think there was a song that captured this attitude: We don’t want no education, we don’t need no thought control.

Did it occur to the great thinker that intelligent dissent being superior to passive agreement may depend upon the matters being discussed?

Edward Burke May 7, 2012 at 9:13 pm

On another hand: did irony creep into Lord Russell’s brain from the outset of composing this list, or did he actually stumble upon something, viz., that certainty is “felt”? Yes, he shifts to “thought” instantly with Prescription #2, but he repairs to emotive “thought” again with #10. “Find pleasure”, “do not fear” . . . . hunh? Is this the voice of Logical Probabilism? I never knew Lord Russell to be a closet Bayesian, but I seem to recall that he kept his nose close to Wittgenstein’s backside.

athEIst May 7, 2012 at 11:40 am

11. Do Not Give Bad Example(smoking).
Betrand might have made 100 if not for that pipe.

Ben May 7, 2012 at 11:08 pm
Prashant Shah May 12, 2012 at 8:07 am

This is the the junk the rationalist produce. It has no profound value. If it helps in getting you confused, their purpose is served! Some people have had more regard than their due. Mr. Russell is one of them.

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