The “Liberal Decalogue”: A Lesson in Teaching

The year before he died, acclaimed philosopher Bertrand Russell published the final volume in his series of autobiographies. Spanning twenty-five years of his life, from 1944 to 1969, this final chapter might be Lord Russell’s most intimate. Brutally honest, and often humorous, he writes about everything from his religious self-questioning to his second imprisonment for his pacifist beliefs (at the age of 88). But throughout, Russell’s passion to inspire the thirst for knowledge in others remains at the forefront. In the book he even credits his insatiable desire to learn with saving his life, admitting that he contemplated suicide, and would have followed through were it not for his wish “to know more of mathematics.”

Always one to relate his body of work to his autobiographical self-reflection, Russell incorporated his philosophies of education within these musings on the last years of his life. Among them was his very own ten commandments for teaching, titled “A Liberal Decalogue”:

Perhaps the essence of the Liberal outlook could be summed up in a new decalogue, not intended to replace the old one but only to supplement it. The Ten Commandments that, as a teacher, I should wish to promulgate, might be set forth as follows:

  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, endeavor 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 than 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.

Fifty-one years since their first appearance in a New York Times article, these ten commandments are still relevant in education today as important instructions on how to instruct. If not carved in tablets of stone, they should at least be taped to the wall of every classroom in the country.