Bertrand Russell vs. GK Chesterton

Bertrand Russell vs. G. K. Chesterton
A BBC Debate from 1935 on the bringing up of children

BERTRAND RUSSELL: In the first place I must clear away a possible misunderstanding. I am maintaining that parents are by nature unfitted to bring up their own children. I am not maintaining that somebody else is fitted by nature for that task. I think the bringing up of children is a very difficult matter indeed and is not one for which anybody is fitted by nature. I think there are certain special difficulties that parents have in bringing up their children which are greater than the difficulties that other people might have. That is partly because of the special interest that parents have in their children and partly for quite other and external reasons which I will go into in a minute. And so I want you, if you will, to dismiss from your minds any bias that you may have as parents and to put yourself back into those years in which you were under the authority of others.

Now, of course, when one speaks of parents as being fitted by nature for the education of their children it is generally mothers that are thought of. There is supposed to be some instinct that looks after mothers. Fathers have not had nearly such a good Press. But let us spend a minute or two on fathers. There are very few examples in history of children being educated by their fathers. I can at the moment only remember two – Hannibal and John Stuart Mill. Now, Hannibal, as we all remember, came to a bad end. As for John Stuart Mill, I think it must be admitted by everybody who has read his works that he was ruined as an intellect by fear of his father's ghost. Whenever he was on the point of coming to a sound conclusion he remembered that his father thought otherwise, and somehow or other managed to get at some quite unreal compromise between his father and the truth. He himself says in his autobiography, or at any rate hints, that the education of children by their fathers is undesirable, because it causes the children to be afraid of their fathers. So I think with that we may dismiss the poor father and concentrate, upon the mother.

The mother has generally been considered to have much more to be said in her favour than the father. But let us consider a few rather large facts as opposed to the particular facts of individual child psychology. I suggest to you that, after all, one of the objects of the care of children is to keep them alive, rather than dead. If you consider that purpose you will remember that throughout the world until the last one hundred years, and even now in the East, about three children out of four perish before they grow up. If you open any eighteenth-century biography it is pretty certain to begin with the remark: "So-and-so was the thirteenth child of his parents but only three reached maturity." Now, in the western world at the present day the majority of children reach maturity, and that change has not been effected by mothers, nor by fathers. It has been effected by medical men, by persons who went in for sanitary improvement, by philanthropic politicians, and by inventors. It is people of that sort who have caused the enormous fall in the infant death rate which has characterised the past hundred years. It has not been the mothers who have caused that increase in child life, it has not been the parents, it has been persons of a certain large scientific and more or less impersonal outlook. That, I think, is the first point that one must make, and one must admit, in view of that fact, that an understanding of such things as hygiene is more important for the welfare of the child than any degree of what is called instinctive mother love.

Then take the sort of matters upon which child welfare really mainly depends. It depends -- I am talking for the moment of physical welfare -- upon such things as food and clothes and care in illness or injury, and the provision of a fairly safe environment, and, in later years, instruction. Now, those are not things which most parents can nearly so well provide as they can be provided in, for example, a well-run nursery school; in the first place, they cannot well be provided because most parents do not have the necessary knowledge; they do not know what diet is good for children. You will find an immense number of uneducated parents at the present day providing tiny infants with meat and strong tea, and things of that sort, which are obviously bad for them and which they would never get in a well-run nursery school. You will find them heaping too many clothes upon them, not allowing them as much fresh air as is good for them -- in fact, unable to allow them as much fresh air as is good for them, because in general the home is a very small place. And you will find that in all sorts of ways the ordinary uneducated parent, both from lack of knowledge and from lack of opportunity, is quite incapable of providing the child with those things which can easily be provided in a nursery school -- with light, air, freedom of movement and noise, a proper diet and so forth -- all sorts of things which are almost impossible in the ordinary home but are quite easy in a place provided for children.

Now, when you come to psychological matters, when you come to the mental life of the child, you find the same sort of thing. And there you have to distinguish between two sorts of home. There is on the one hand the home where the mother has a large family and is extremely busy, constantly occupied with the care of the house and unable to pay proper attention to her children. In a household of that sort probably she gets irritated with the children because they interfere with her work. She gets bad-tempered with them and snappish and difficult and one thing and another, and in that sort of household you do not get a good relation between the mother and the children. On the other hand, take the well-to-do household, where there is a small family. There you find, perhaps, a very conscientious mother, anxious to do the very best possible for her children, having, we will say, two children, and having supplied to her by nature a degree of maternal solicitude which is just about adequate to a family of ten. Each of those two children gets five times as much solicitude as is good for it, and the poor rich child feels itself the whole time watched, every little thing it does psychologised and so forth and so on, and the poor child gets into such a nervous condition that it really does not know how to go on. I think you will find that too much attention is every bit as bad for children as too little, and too much attention is what is very often the case with the modern carefully brought up child.

Now, of course, I have said nothing about bad parents. There are more than people think -- a great many bad parents, the sort that is dealt with by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. I have said nothing about them, because they are, after all, not the main problem. The main problem is that even the good parent, while he undertakes the education of his own children, cannot have with them that relation of free, spontaneous affection -- free on both sides -- which is the really good relation between parents and children. I do not want to abolish that relation. I want to free it from the trammels from which it is not easily freed so long as the actual care of the children is in the hands of the parents. I think that affection, and affection alone, is what parents can best give to their children. And therefore I say that the important thing is that children, in their instruction, in their physical care, and in such matters as that, should be in the hands of people who have the special knowledge which is wanted in order to do that thing well, that their daytime activities, the need of good food, light, air, liberty and so on, should be provided elsewhere, but that the parents should have that free affection which alone is the one in which the best human relations can exist.

G. K. CHESTERTON: From the mass of extremely interesting remarks which my distinguished opponent has delivered I select one statement which is commonsense -- so far as I have respectfully listened to him, the only one -- and that is the statement that we want to bring up our children alive and not dead. Therefore, I take it, children must be brought up; they cannot fall up, they only fall down, and I acquit a logician like my opponent from the absurd nonsense of supposing, as Herbert Spencer and other pioneers like himself propounded, that children should learn by experience that falling over a precipice is falling into a slight mistake. Somebody must bring them up. Well, you would have thought that anybody who came forward to abolish the universal, fundamental institution of all mankind might tell you a little bit about what is to happen to the children; but my opponent began by saying that parents were unfitted by nature to take care of their children, and then he immediately added that he was not going to tell us who was fitted by nature to do the same thing. This seems to me to leave the children very near the edge of the precipice. I know that he suggested various things, which I shall criticise in a moment, but that is very important -- that he begins by cutting himself off from all responsibility for suggesting any alternative whatever. He has nothing to say about people who are fitted by nature to look after children.

Now, I will confess, being of an old, hard, rationalist school of thought myself, that the mysticism of this phrase in any case puzzles me a little. What is meant by "fitted by nature?" Who is Nature? Many people, nasty spiteful people, have accused my opponent of a tendency to scepticism. How obvious it is that his real temptation is to mythology. This goddess Nature, the only deity whom he worships, has apparently decided that parents, of all people, are the worst to bring up children. Well, all I can say is that Nature has been very slow in making up her mind; because it appears, merely looking at it superficially on the face, that cats look after kittens, dogs look after puppies, sows look after little pigs, and so on, and that even in the human race that curious obscure instinct of which he speaks exists, by which mothers have a certain tendency to look after children. It is for him to show that there is something so enormously subversive, so gigantically paradoxical that the whole pyramid and system of nature can be upset for the sake of his chance, flashy, bright paradox. Now, I also submit that I do not think he has made out a case in any sort of respect for that view. There are a great many things he has said about our experience as children. Well, I suppose we are not all called upon to get up and tell stories of our infancy, but my story of my infancy would be that I was extremely happy as a child and that my parents were the only people I could possibly imagine as making me so happy; and there is a long testimony in all human literature to the idea that child-hood is the happiest period of mankind. I will not occupy your time in quoting it, but I am sure my opponent knows the innumerable cases in which people have testified to the happiness of childhood.

But still I ask, who are the other people who are to look after children? And after listening very carefully to my opponent's remarks I gather that they are to be transferred for the greater part of their time to a thing called a nursery school. Now, anybody of common sense knows, of course, that there are people who have a real talent for looking after children, a special talent like any other. Some people fascinate animals, some people can even write verse -- there are such people and they are always very attractive to children, but how many people of that sort do you imagine there are! Are you going to shove off all the children on to that type of child-lover? That type is already besieged by about fifty children, and my opponent proposes to bury him under about five hundred children. And that is taking the case at its best. That is talking about realities. If you will forgive me, talking about doctors and science and medicine and sociology and nursery schools and so on is not talking about realities. There are people who have a great talent for looking after children. God help them if all the children are going to be loosed on them. But as for nursery schools and all that kind of thing, what is there in it? It simply means that you are going to pay a number of officials to pre- tend to have the interest in children which, as a matter of fact, by some mysterious mercy of God cum Nature you and I have experienced from our own parents by a natural law. You are going to payout money to a lot of ordinary common officials.
I hope we all know what officials are like. They are ordinary human beings, but they are rather more bored than most human beings. You are going to payout money to a lot of officials in order that they may do I something which nature will make a few people, parents, do already. ! You are exactly like a lunatic who should walk in the garden in the pouring rain" and hold up an umbrella while he watered a plant. You, are cutting off a natural force that exists and deliberately paying out money -- a most uneconomic method -- in order to supply it by an artificial machinery. And what is that machinery? A nursery school. Is anybody to be told at this time of day -- least of all so distinguished an educationist as my opponent -- that the chief problem of modern education is the vast, tumultuous, large classes controlled by few teachers? Does not everybody know that there are too many children for one teacher, and must it not be infinitely more so if you transfer the child from the family where there are normally two human beings to look after one child, to a school or hostel or anything else you choose to call it, in which there are two hundred children to be looked after by one official? You have got into your head that curious old Fabian fallacy that there is an absolutely unlimited number of inspired officials and an absolutely unlimited, amount of money to pay them, and that they are to be made the substitutes for a thing which is performed--imperfectly, of course, because it is human -- by the ordinary human agents of it. Parents are imperfect: fathers are imperfect; mothers are imperfect. Are we asked to believe that doctors are perfect, schoolmasters are perfect, inspectors of nursery schools are perfect?

My opponent has said that mothers are sometimes irritated with their children. Heaven knows they are! When I remember what I was like to my mother I am amazed that she was not much more irritated than she was. But do you mean to tell me that mothers are irritated sooner than poor, tired, jaded, jagged-nerved schoolmistresses and officials managing other people's children? You cannot get round the original natural fact, and it is pure sophistry to attempt to get round it. For some reason or other, whoever put it there – whether the goddess in whom Mr. Russell believes, or the God in whom I believe -- there is undoubtedly a force, an energy by which a certain function is performed with enthusiasm, with affection and, because the people are human, with endurance and patience and even martyrdom to the end by mothers and by fathers. I am not talking, of course, as the other side will instantly tell you, sentimentalism about mothers. On the contrary, it is my opponent who is talking sentimentalism about children. Here is little Tommy -- not, in many ways, a pleasing sight, but who affects at any rate those who are impatient and who say they are impartial as being something that the cat has brought in or something to be dropped out of the window or into the bucket. Here he is anyhow. You can, no doubt, with good salaries, elaborate social organisation, pay a number of people to put up with little Tommy for many hours of the day in nursery schools or elsewhere, but you cannot expect little Tommy to have any glamour for them. They are much more likely to be tired of him in a few hours than the mother. We know as a fact -- it is not sentimentalism, it is a simple fact -- that she is not tired of him, that he may be irritated with her but she is not irritated with him; that is to say, she is irritated all right, but she is not permanently irritated; that she does as an actual fact continue to love little Tommy -- that is to say, to discharge a social function of somebody to take some interest in him right up to the time when he is hanged.

RUSSELL: I should like to say that I am very much interested to observe that, according to Mr. Chesterton himself, the form of education which he advocates is going to end in the poor child being hanged.

CHESTERTON: On the contrary, I know the State in which Mr. Russell believes will hang him, but then the State -- that grand, scientific, modern State -- always hangs the wrong man.

RUSSELL: I was going to say: One thing struck me all through Mr. Chesterton's remarks, that he evidently does not understand the purpose of a well-run nursery school. The purpose of a well-run nursery school is to provide artificially an environment in which the I child will need hardly any looking after at all, much less than he needs in the home. The home contains fireplaces that he may not fall into, things that he must not smash, and all kinds of danger. The well-run nursery school contains nothing of that sort and the child can be allowed to do pretty well what he likes; he is very little looked after, and it is the fact that he does not have to be interfered with, which is one of the main advantages of the nursery school over the ordinary home.
One other point I should like to make. In Mr. Chesterton's remarks he made a point of the very large classes in schools which have to be controlled by inadequate teachers. Now, what is that due to? We have had to economise in education. Why? Because every civilised nation considers it more important to prepare to kill the children of foreigners than to keep its own children alive.

CHESTERTON: Might I ask, in reply to that last point -- while being too old and wily a debater to be led away down the avenue of war and armaments -- whether Mr. Russell or anybody else expects that there would ever be classes in which there were, let us say, one, or two, or three, or four, or five children to two teachers? Because that is the condition of the home. The condition of the home is that, children are immediately under the responsible care of two people, according to the quaint old ideas, in combination and having some agreement with each other, and they at any rate have at the very least a very small class. I do not think the wildest idealist on education, even one who would spend all the money upon education and leave none for giving human beings any food, would maintain that he wanted classes so small as that.

RUSSELL: I think that is one of the greatest objections to the home -- that the class is very much too small. Like all these things, it is a purely quantitative matter. You can have your class too large or you can have it too small. In the elementary school it is too large and in the home it is too small. In the home you get too much attention, in the school you get too little. You want an intermediate situation; you want to get the right balance.

CHESTERTON: But you do not know who is to bring it about. You have abdicated your claim to appoint any other set of people to decide how large or how small the class shall be. Unless you mean to provide despotic powers under Act of Parliament to the nursery schools to take as many or as few as they like, to kidnap children.

RUSSELL: It is very necessary. Certainly in the working-class homes the great majority of the mothers would be very glad if there were a good nursery school to which they could send their children.

CHESTERTON: Yes, and even more glad if they were able to turn them out into a field and let them play in that. One cannot mention everything in the course of a very short speech, but might I suggest to Mr. Russell that all his argument appeared to be based on the fact that poor homes are very poor and that they are very limited, that people have not much liberty -- which Heaven knows is true! But I should imagine that it had occurred to him that some of us, including himself, had been worrying for a good many years over various problems with the idea that perhaps the best solution is that. people should have houses large enough.

RUSSELL: If you will pardon my saying so, one was the case of the poor home and the other was the case of the well-to-do home. I consider that the children in the well-to-do home suffer from excess of parental attention; as I think I said, they get too much parental attention. I should like to add a further important point -- that the mother who has made great sacrifices for her child does expect a return, and that return is generally of a very undesirable kind, which interferes with the child's development, especially if it is a boy.

CHESTERTON: You mean in the well-to-do home?


CHESTERTON: Well, of course, I think that sin afflicts all mankind: it is snobbishness in the wealthy classes, and other things -- though much more creditable things as a rule -- in the poorer classes. But I should still like to know this. Here are two things. An absolutely fundamental thing to all appearance in all nature, in the nature of men and women, the idea of looking after their children. Here is another thing -- the very disgusting injustice and inequality of foul squalor, and much fouler snobbishness, of the modern or existing relations between rich and poor. Which of those things are we to set out to cure?

RUSSELL: They are not alternatives. I think you have put it , quite wrongly. They are in no way alternatives, those two.

CHESTERTON: I think they obviously are, because if a father and mother want to look after their children -- and I claim that they do normally -- then all your argument that the smaller room prevents them, and that the bad distraction of poverty prevents them and so on, would be satisfied if they were in a better economic condition.

RUSSELL: Yes, but you have not faced the other horn of the dilemma. It is not snobbery only that makes the well-to-do parent bad for the children; it is also the intense emotional concentration upon a very small number of objects and that concentration inevitably wants some kind of return, and the kind of return which it is not natural for the young of any species to give. Mr. Chesterton has talked a great deal about animals. Well, animal parents cease to be interested in their young as soon as they grow up. Human parents, unfortunately, do not, and that is because they have made such enormous sacrifices in bringing them up, and the more sacrifices a parent makes in bringing up a child the more undesirable the sacrifices they will expect in return, whereas the person who is merely paid to look after the child does not have that feeling.

CHESTERTON: Precisely! The person who is paid to look after the child does not have any feeling. That is a good point; and, there- fore, in any kind of quarrel or trouble or danger he will betray. "The hireling fleeth because he is an hireling."

RUSSELL: That is not my phrase -- the hireling. CHESTERTON: I think it is mine.

RUSSELL: It is much less likely that a hospital nurse will flee from a patient than that anybody else would.

CHESTERTON: Than the mother? RUSSELL: Yes, much less likely.

CHESTERTON: The idea is quaint and fantastic. I would be prepared to take a tour round the whole of England verifying that principle. You would find a certain number of mothers, drunken, criminal and so on, and in the upper classes, unfortunately, a certain number of mothers cynical. Skeptical -- in fact having absorbed all the principles of Mr. Russell: that very small minority might perhaps be indifferent to what happened to their children. But I will undertake to say that the vast overwhelming majority of mothers would show the ordinary instincts. At least all the mothers I know are perpetually pursuing the children with an intense loyalty. Now, what would happen to the nurses is another matter. The reason that nurses all would stand to their guns is exactly because they are their guns. In other words, nurses are trained under that admirable military system which Mr. Russell so much admires. Nurses may or may not provide liberty, but nurses have no liberty; they are absolutely subordinated to a military system like a regiment. Any nurse will tell you, or any doctor either, that they obey the captain, the colonel, the sergeant exactly as in a military system. That is why they would stand to their guns. Heaven forbid that I should despise the loyalty of nurses, those magnificent militarists. Heaven forbid that I should have any doubt about Mr. Russell's admiration for such a splendid system of military loyalty. But that is what it is. In so far as there is a certain vigilance and order and fixity about those systems it is because they inherit the old military system. That is all.

RUSSELL: I think Mr. Chesterton has given his case away. It is such an immense praise of the professional that it is hardly necessary for me to say anything more.

CHESTERTON: As long as Mr. Russell will include in it an enthusiastic praise for the military profession and an agreement that the military profession alone can reorganise our affairs, I will accept his conclusion.i

G. K. Chesterton and Bertrand Russell. “Who Should Bring up Our Children? A Chesterton-Russell Debate.” The Chesterton Review XV 4 (Nov 1989): 441-451. Used in thesis by permission. This is a transcription of a radio debate first published in November 27, 1935, by the B. B. C. magazine, The Listener.

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