Russell on idleness

I’ve long been an admirer of Bertrand Russell – I find him one of the more lucid writers on philosophy. I even carted a battered paperback edition of his History of Western Philosophy around with me as reading matter on cycling holidays years ago – the interesting ideas:weight ratio was excellent.
So I was interested to see my colleague Martin pick up John Naughton’s take on Bertrand Russell’s essay In Praise of Idleness. Martin wonders he would have made of the modern world:

Russell would I think be shocked to see that when given leisure time a lot of us spend it slumped in front of the TV drinking Pinot Grigio and watching other people on reality shows. But, the whole 2.0, user generated content world would delight him I think. For his painter who wants to paint without starving read Photographer who shares with the world via Flickr. And then there are all the bloggers, wiki writers, YouTube creators, podcasters who create material of mind-bendingly variable quality, but they are engaged in being creative, and that is fulfilling.

I’m sure Russell would’ve been a huge enthusiast for things like web 2.0, gift economies and the rest of it. But I really don’t think he would have entirely despaired at the vision of millions of people slumped on sofas watching reality TV for hours on end – at least they are not busy with pointless make-work.

I think it’s important to think about Russell’s distinction in the types of work, quoted by John in his post:

Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid. The second kind is capable of indefinite extension: there are not only those who give orders, but those who give advice as to what orders should be given.

Since the 1930s, we have seen a huge reduction in the physical difficulty of work of the first kind, a huge increase in the intricacy of it, and a quite staggering extension of work of the second kind, in a way that changes the whole dichotomy. Low-paid service industries as mass employers didn’t really exist back then.

Anyway: I think Russell would probably rightly focus his wrath on the education system that still deprives people of an appreciation of highbrow tastes. I don’t entirely buy that highbrow equals better. But I do strongly believe that all people should be offered opportunities to learn about things that they want to. Our education system is a long, long way from that.

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Author: dougclow

Academic in the Institute of Educational Technology, the Open University, UK. Interested in technology-enhanced learning and learning analytics.