The New Generation

Bertrand Russell, 1930

This is the introduction to The New Generation, published by George Allen and Unwin Ltd, being a collection of essays by psychologists and social scientists about the upbringing of children.

IN THE FOLLOWING PAGES, various branches of knowledge as affecting the welfare of children and the relations of children to parents are dealt with by contributors who have specialized in the several fields concerned. As an introduction to these studies I propose to consider the kind of way in which new knowledge has transformed, and still more is likely to transform, the traditional biological relations. I am thinking not only nor even chiefly of the deliberate and intended effects of knowledge, but also and more particularly of knowledge as a natural force producing unintended results of the most curious and unexpected kinds. I am sure that James Watt had no desire to establish a matriarchal family; yet by making it possible for men to sleep in places distant from those in which they work he has had this effect upon a great part of our urban populations. The place of the father in the modern suburban family is a very small one - particularly if he plays golf, which he usually does. It is a little difficult to see what he is purchasing when he pays for his children, and but for tradition it may be doubted whether he would consider children a good bargain. The patriarchal family in its heyday gave a man immense advantages: it gave him sons who would support him in his old age and defend him against his numerous enemies. Now, in all those classes in which men live on investments or save out of their earnings, the son never becomes financially advantageous to the father however long they both may live.

New knowledge is the cause of the economic and psychological changes which make our age at once difficult and interesting. In the old days man was subject to nature: to inanimate nature as regards climate and the fertility of crops, to human nature as regards the blind urges which led him to beget and to fight. The resulting sense of impotence was utilized by religion in transforming fear into a duty and resignation into a virtue. The modem man, who as yet exists in only a few samples, has a different outlook. The material world is not to him a datum to be accepted with thankfulness or with prayerful supplication; it is raw material for his scientific manipulation. A desert is a place to which water must be brought, a malarial swamp is a place from which water must be taken away. Neither is allowed to maintain its natural hostility to man, so that in our struggles with physical nature we no longer have need of God to help us against Satan. What is perhaps as yet less appreciated is that an essentially similar change has begun to take place in regard to human nature. It has become clear that, while the individual may have difficulty in deliberately altering his character, the scientific psychologist, if allowed a free run with children, can manipulate human nature as freely as Californians manipulate the desert. It is no longer Satan who makes sin, but bad glands and unwise conditioning.

Perhaps at this point the reader will expect a definition of sin. This, however, offers no difficulty: sin is what is disliked by those who control education.

It must be confessed that this situation puts upon the holders of scientific power a new and grave responsibility. Hitherto mankind have survived because however foolish their purposes might be they had not the knowledge required to achieve them. Now that this knowledge is being acquired, a greater degree of wisdom than heretofore as regards the ends of life is becoming imperative. But where is such wisdom to be found in our distracted age?

The above general reflections are merely intended to suggest that all our institutions, even those most intimately connected with what used to be called instinct, are bound in the near future to become far more deliberate and conscious than they have been or are now, and that this must apply in particular to the getting and rearing of children. The new way may be better than the old; it also may easily be worse. But the new knowledge of our times has been thrust so rudely into the mechanism of traditional behaviour that the old patterns cannot survive, and new ones for good or evil have become imperative.

The family survives from the unspecialized past when a man made his own boots and baked his own bread. Male activities have passed beyond this stage, but it is held by the virtuous that there should be no corresponding change in the activities of females. Dealing with children is a specialized activity requiring specialized knowledge and a suitable environment. The rearing of children in the home is of a piece with the spinning wheel, and is equally uneconomic. With the growth of knowledge more and more departments of child-nurture have to be taken away from the home. It is no longer customary for the child to be born in the home. When he is ill he is not treated by the simple traditional lore which killed most of the children of his ancestors. Prayers are no longer taught at his mother's knee but in the Sunday School. Teeth are not extracted, as they still were when I was young, by tying a string to them and the door handle and then shutting the door. Medical knowledge possesses itself of one part of the child's life, knowledge of hygiene seizes another, child-psychology demands a third. In the end the distracted mother gives it up as a bad job, and under threat of the Oedipus complex begins to feel that all her natural affection smacks of sin.

One of the main causes of change is the diminution of births and deaths. Fortunately both have diminished together; for if either diminution had occurred without the other the result would have been disaster. The governments of the world, in combination with the churches, whose influence depends upon human misery and impotence, have done all that lay in their power to produce this disaster, since they have attempted to prevent any diminution in this birth rate correlative to the diminution in the death rate. In this respect, however, fortunately for mankind, individual selfishness has proved stronger than collective folly.

The smallness of the modern family has given parents a new sense of the value of the child. Parents who have only two children do not wish either to die, whereas out of the old-fashioned family of ten or fifteen, half could be sacrificed to carelessness with no great qualms. Modern scientific care of children is intimately bound up with the smallness of the modern family.

At the same time this change has made the family a less suitable psychological environment for the children and a less absorbing occupation for women. Having fifteen children most of whom died was no doubt an unpleasant life work, but at any rate it left little leisure for self-realization. Having two or three children, on the other hand, is not felt to be an adequate life work, and yet so long as the old-fashioned home is preserved it interferes gravely with any other career. Thus the fewer children people have the more of a burden the children are felt to be.

In these days, when most people live in cities in cramped surroundings because of high rents, the home is as a rule physically the wrong environment for the child. The man who rears young trees in a nursery garden provides them with the right soil, the right light and air, the right space, and the right neighbours. He does not attempt to rear the trees one by one in separate cellars. Yet that is what has to be done with children so long as they remain in the modern urban home. Children, like young trees, require soil and light and air and neighbours of their own kind. Children ought to be in the country, where they can have freedom without excitement. The psychological atmosphere of a small urban apartment is as bad as the physical. Consider the one matter of noise. Busy grown-up people cannot be expected to endure a continual racket all round them, but to tell a child not to make a noise is a form of cruelty producing in him exasperation leading to grave moral faults. Much the same thing applies to the necessity for not breaking things. When a boy climbs on the kitchen shelves and breaks all the china, his parents are seldom quite pleased. Yet his activity is of a kind that is essential to his physical development. In an environment made for children such natural and healthy impulses need not be checked.

Psychological changes in the outlook of parents are inevitably produced by the scientific and economic changes affecting the family. With the growth of a sense of security there has gone inevitably an increase of individualism. What limited individualism in the past was fear and the need of mutual co-operation. A colony of settlers surrounded by Indians had of necessity a strong communal sense, for if not they would be wiped out. At present safety is provided by the State, not by voluntary co-operation, so that a man can afford to be individualistic in that part of his life which he individually controls. This applies in particular to the family relations. A man's part in the care of children is little more than financial, and his financial obligations will be enforced by the law if necessary, so that they make little demand upon his personal sense of duty. A woman, if she is vigorous and intelligent, is likely to feel that the truncated maternal duties remaining to her are inadequate as a career, the more so as most of them can be performed more scientifically by experts. This feeling would operate much more widely but for the lingering feeling on the part of men that they like their wives to be financially dependent upon them. This is, however, a kind of feeling surviving from an earlier age; it is already much weakened and likely to disappear before very long.

All these developments have diminished the reasons which led people to avoid divorce. As divorce becomes more frequent and more easy the family is still further weakened, since in effect it usually results in a child having only one parent.

For all these and other reasons set forth in Dr. Watson's contribution, it seems inevitable, for good or evil, that the family as a unit should more and more fade away, leaving no group to interpose its authority between the individual and the State. This does not apply so much to the well-to-do, who may continue to employ special nurseries, special schools, special doctors, and all the expensive mechanisms of private enterprise; but for wage earners the cost of such individualism is prohibitive. Where their children are concerned it is inevitable that any functions no longer performed by parents must come to be undertaken by the State. As regards the immense majority, therefore, the choice lies, not between parental care and the care of experts selected by parents, but between parents and the State.

This prospect entails upon all who understand the modern scientific attitude toward children a grave responsibility of propaganda. At present the State, except in Russia, is in the grip of moral and religious prejudices which make it totally incapable of dealing with children in a scientific manner. I would recommend readers to consider, for example, the contributions of Havelock Ellis and Phyllis Blanchard to the following pages. Every candid reader must realize that, so long as traditional ethics and theology cannot be flouted by politicians, the methods advocated in these contributions will not be employed in any institution over which the State has control. The State of New York, for example, still officially holds that masturbation causes insanity, and it is clear that no politician could controvert this opinion without bringing his career to an abrupt close. It cannot therefore be hoped that masturbation will be scientifically treated in any State institution other than a lunatic asylum or home for the feeble-minded. These institutions alone are allowed to adopt proper methods, because lunatics and idiots are not considered morally responsible. This state of affairs is absurd. One might as well have a law that only cheap cars could be repaired, while expensive cars were to be whipped or treated by sermons from ministers of religion. Those who visualize a great extension of State institutions for children in the future generally imagine themselves or their friends at the head of such institutions. This, of course, is a fond delusion. Since a considerable salary would be attached to the control of any important institution of this kind, it is clear that the superintendent would usually be the maiden aunt of some prominent politician. Under her noble inspiration, the children would be taught to say their prayers, to revere the cross and the flag, to feel agonies of remorse when they masturbated and deep horror when they heard other children mentioning how babies are made. With institutions economically adapted to the machine age such mental slavery might be prolonged for countless ages, the more so as there would be plenty of renegade scientists willing to help in closing young people's minds against all the approaches of reason. It might even prove possible to eradicate the practice of birth control, in which case, in view of the efficiency of modern medicine, it would be necessary greatly to increase the frequency and ferocity of war in order to deal with the surplus population.

For such reasons, if the State is to acquire such immense powers it is imperative that the State should become enlightened. It will not do this of itself; it will do it only when the majority of the population has ceased to insist upon the preservation of ancient superstitions. Most enlightened people live in an unreal world, associating with their friends and imagining that only a few freaks are unenlightened nowadays. A little experience of practical politics, and still more of the administration of the law wherever so-called moral issues are involved, would be highly beneficial to all who have rational opinions whether on child-nurture or on any other topic. I am convinced that a widespread popular propaganda of rationalism is far more important than it is thought to be by most rationalists outside Russia.

Assuming the break-up of the family and the establishment of rationally conducted State institutions for children, it will probably be found necessary to go a step further in the substitution of regulation for instinct. Women accustomed to birth control and not allowed to keep their own children would have little motive for enduring the discomfort of gestation and the pain of child-birth. Consequently in order to keep up the population it would probably be necessary to make child-bearing a well-paid profession, not of course to be undertaken by all women or even by a majority, but only by a certain percentage who would have to pass tests as to their fitness from a stockbreeding point of view. What tests should be imposed upon sires and what proportion they should form of the male population are questions which we are not yet called upon to decide. But the question of securing an adequate number of births is likely to become acute very soon, since the diminution of the birth rate continues and must soon entail a diminution of the population, or at any rate of the able-bodied population - for if medicine were to succeed in keeping most people alive up to the age of a hundred the gain to the community would be problematical.

The gain to the human race to be expected from a rational psychology in the handling of children is almost unlimited. The most important sphere is of course that of sex. Children are taught a superstitious attitude about certain parts of the body, about certain words and thoughts, and about certain kinds of play to which nature prompts them. The result is that when they become adult they are stiff and awkward in all matters of love. Throughout the English-speaking world most people while still in the nursery are rendered incapable of satisfactory marriage. There is no other adult activity for which children are forbidden to prepare themselves by play, or in regard to which there is expected to be a sudden transition from absolute taboo to perfect competence.

The sense of sin which dominates many children and young people and often lasts on into later life is a misery and a source of distortion that serves no useful purpose of any sort or kind. It is produced almost entirely by conventional moral teaching in the sphere of sex. The feeling that sex is wicked makes happy love impossible, causing men to despise the women with whom they have relations and often to have impulses of cruelty towards them. Moreover, the indirection which is forced upon the sexual impulse when it is inhibited, leading it to take the form of sentimental friendship or religious ardour or whatnot, causes a lack of intellectual sincerity which is very inimical to intelligence and to the sense of reality. Cruelty, stupidity, incapacity for harmonious personal relations, and many other defects, have their source in most cases in the moral teaching endured during childhood. Let it be said with the utmost simplicity and directness: there is nothing bad in sex, and the conventional attitude in this matter is morbid. I believe that no other one evil in our society is so potent a source of human misery, since not only does it directly cause a long train of evils, but it inhibits that kindliness and human affection that might lead men to remedy the other remediable evils, economical, political, and racial, by which humanity is tortured.

For these reasons books which spread knowledge and a rational attitude on the subject of child psychology are much needed. There is in our day a kind of race between the increasing power of the State and the diminishing power of superstition. That the powers of the State should increase seems inevitable, as we have seen in relation to children. But if these powers increase beyond a point while superstitions still control the majority, the unsuperstitious minority will be squeezed out by State propaganda and further protest will become impossible in every democratic country. Our society is becoming so closely knit that reform in any one direction is bound up with reform in every other and no question can be adequately treated in isolation. But I think our age is more kindly disposed towards children than any earlier age has been, and if it comes to be understood that conventional moral teaching is a cause of suffering to the young we may hope for a demand that it shall be replaced by something at once more kindly and more scientific.