[18 May, 1932]
Of Co-operation In these days, under the influence of democracy, the
virtue of co-operation has taken the place formerly held by obedience.
The old-fashioned schoolmaster would say of a boy that he was
disobedient; the modern schoolmistress says of an infant that he is
non-co-operative. It means the same thing: the child, in either case,
fails to do what the teacher wishes, but in the first case the teacher
acts as the government and in the second as the representative of the
People, i.e. of the other children. The result of the new language, as
of the old, is to encourage docility, suggestibility, herd-instinct
and conventionality, thereby necessarily discouraging originality,
initiative and unusual intelligence. Adults who achieve anything of
value have seldom been "co-operative'' children. As a rule, they
have liked solitude: they have tried to slink into a corner with a
book and been happiest when they could escape the notice of their
barbarian contemporaries. Almost all men who have been distinguished
as artists, writers or men of science have in boyhood been objects of
derision and contempt to their schoolfellows; and only too often the
teachers have sided with the herd, because it annoyed them that a boy
should be odd.
It ought to be part of the training of all teachers to be taught to
recognize the marks of unusual intelligence in children and to
restrain the irritation caused in themselves by anything so unusual.
Until this is done, a large proportion of the best talent in America
will be persecuted out of existence before the age of fifteen.
Co-operativeness, as an ideal, is defective: it is right to live with
reference to the community and not for oneself alone, but living for
the community does not mean doing what it does. Suppose you are in a
theatre which catches fire, and there is a stampede: the person who
has learnt no higher morality than what is called ``co-operation''
will join in the stampede since he will possess no inner force that
would enable him to stand up against the herd. The psychology of a
nation embarking on a war is at all points identical.
I do not wish, however, to push the doctrine of individual initiative
too far. Godwin, who became Shelley's father-in-law because Shelley so
much admired him, asserted that "everything that is usually
understood by the term co-operation' is in some degree an
evil.'' He admits that, at present, "to pull down a tree, to cut
a canal, to navigate a vessel requires the labour of many"', but
he looks forward to the time when machinery is so perfected that one
man unaided will be able to do any of these things. He thinks also
that hereafter there will be no orchestra. "`Shall we have
concerts of music?" he says. "The miserable state of
mechanism of the majority of the performers is so conspicuous as to be
even at this day a topic of mortification and ridicule. Will it not be
practicable hereafter for one man to perform the whole?"' He goes
on to suggest that the solitary performer will insist on playing his
own productions and refuse to be the slave of composers dead and gone.
All this is, of course, ridiculous, and for my part I find it
salutary to see my own opinions thus caricatured. I remain none the
less convinced that our age, partly as a result of democratic
sentiment, and partly because of the complexity of machine production,
is in danger of carrying the doctrine of co-operativeness to lengths
which will be fatal to individual excellence, not only in its more
anarchic forms, but also in forms which are essential to social
progress. Perhaps, therefore, even a man like Godwin may have
something to teach those who believe that social conformity is the
beginning and end of virtue.
It may be noted that Russell himself was
educated by tutors at home until he went to Cambridge, and so is
unlikely to be expressing personal animus against his own teachers and
school-fellows, of which he had none.