Karl Popper on Politics and Education

In the previous article I merely transcribed, without any commentary, some passages of Karl Raymund Popper on Education and Schools. Here I will speak without quoting Popper. I will do what stayed in my system after 50 years of reading Popper.

I will begin by summarizing the four main theses presented in the previous article:

  • With the exception, perhaps, of the 3 R’s (Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic), and even so, not for everyone, schooling and teaching is totally unnecessary;
  • If a child (or even an adult) acquired the essentials of literacy and numeracy, he will be equipped for learning anything else he may wish to learn “through reading and thinking”;
  • If we are going to have schools, teachers and teaching to help people master these essentials (in those cases in which they seem to be unable to learn them by themselves), our most important principle, if are administrators or teachers, is “Do no harm: give the young what they most urgently need in order to become independent of us, and to be able to choose for themselves”);
  • The fact that most people are able to survive schooling unscathed and unharmed is the best evidence we could possibly wish to have of their basic “indestructible love for truth and decency, of their originality and stubbornness and health”, because the initial odds are against them.

Despite beginning his itinerary as a writer and an academic in the area of Philosophy of the Natural Sciences, with his book Logik der Forschung, of 1934 (translated into English only in 1959 as The Logic of Scientific Discovery), Karl Popper reached worldwide fame writing against Totalitarianism and in defense of what he called The Open Society. As a well known Jew in Vienna (his four grandparents were Jews), he had been constrained to leave the country after Austria was annexed by Hitler (through the Anschluss) in 1934. In the years 1935-1936 he and his wife moved to England on a study scholarship, which was basically a quick way of getting them out of annexed Austria. In 1937 he got a job in New Zealand, at the Canterbury University College of the University of New Zealand in Christchurch. He and his wife moved all the way to the other side of the world, both in West-East and North-South direction. It was there that he started writing The Open Society and its Enemies as soon as World War II got under way. It was published (first edition in English) in 1945, as soon as the war was over and the Nazist-Fascist Totalitarianism was done with. But the other Totalitarianism, the one he specifically wrote against in the second volume of The Open Society: Marxism (the second volume of his book had the subtitle The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath) came out of WW-II even stronger, since the Soviet Union was among the victors, and came to control all of Eastern Europe. In 1946 Popper and his wife moved back to England, where, with the help of Friedrich A. von Hayek, he became a professor at the London School of Economics (LSE).

Popper was a liberal in the classic sense — a liberal that defended a minimum state that defends liberty, individual (negative) rights, law and order, and does not favor what is commonly understood as democracy, much less what is called social democracy, with its interminable string of (positive) rights — the so-called social and economic rights.

Popper was a conservative laissez-faire liberal. He did not trust a political system that gave everyone over 18 or even 16 the right to vote directly for top officials of government — and that because he did not trust the political judgment of “the generality of mankind”. The British political system was as good as we can have it, he thought. In this case, people vote for the lower chamber of Parliament, and the party or parties victorious in the election for the lower chamber choose the Prime Minister — who needs to be approved by the Monarch (even if, on the face of it, only formally). But the Monarchy is, basically, the best part of the nobility, which controls the upper chamber, the House of the Lords, the propertied class. If the nobility do not really approve the person indicated as Prime Minister to the Monarch, he can intervene, although this does not normally happen. The reason why it does not happen is that there is an easier and painless to do it: let the person assume the government and, if he does not please the nation, there is a quick and painless way to replace him.

For Popper, the government should be conservative, slow to propose change. And it should never forget that it is main (perhaps only) function is to guarantee the freedom and individual rights of the citizens and maintain law and order against internal and external enemies. It should not try to do good, to bring welfare to the nation and the people. Given the preservation of freedom and individual rights, as well as maintenance of law and order, it is incumbent on each one to pursue his welfare and prosperity (his happiness) as he sees fit.

Popper’s view of education and schooling fits into this overall vision. He is certainly in favor of education — but not of schooling. And if he is against schooling as such, which includes private schooling, he is much more against public schooling, that is, schooling financed and run (managed) by the state.

Kids should learn to read and write in natural environments (home, community, church, etc.) and the rest is up to them, through reading and thinking. If a few schools are needed (private, of course), those who run them and teach in them should beware that their only task is to help children who are unable to learn to read and write on their own up to the point where they can proceed by themselves: “give the young [only] what they most urgently need in order to become independent of [the school, the teachers, the principal], and to be able to choose for themselves”.

I tend to endorse that.

In São Paulo, on the 25th of July of 2019

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Categories: Education, Freedom, Individual Rights, Karl Popper, Law and Order, Liberalism, Poltics, Schools

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