Collected Essays of Walter Murdoch – “On Dull People”

I recently used this text in a class on creative and critical thinking, and found that I rather liked what Sir Murdoch had to say, and how he went about saying it, so thought I’d share…

Published by Angus & Robertson Limited, Sydney and London, 1938

Often, in the course of my regrettably miscellaneous reading, I become conscious of a mysterious force, a sinister influence, a hidden and hostile something, for which writers are always trying to find a name and never quite succeeding, and with which, whether they can name it or not, they are always in conflict. It is the enemy, not only of literature, but of all the other arts as well; it is, in fact, the enemy of civilisation. According to my reading of history, this something has worked so consistently against the healthy development of the race, has been so consistently a clog on all progress towards the bettering of the world, that I feel perfectly justified in calling it a disease. If the doctors fail to agree upon its name, its causes, its symptoms, and its treatment – well, it is not the only ailment of which that can be said. Let us, provisionally, call it respectability…

Respectability has many virtues, but they are the meaner virtues, the timid virtues, caution, prudence, docility, tameness, discretion. All the brave, adventurous virtues are regarded by this dingy goddess as silly or dangerous, or both. Proposals for reform are not blocked by the bad people, but by the dull. Those who think our present economic conditions unsatisfactory sometimes think they are opposed by a gang of scoundrels so depraved that they really wish to keep us all poor. There is no such gang. There are not enough scoundrels to go round; the vast majority of mankind are kindly and well meaning. The persons we have to face are the dull, the stodgy, the unimaginative, the ancestor-worshippers, too timid to think for themselves, the persons who look at any suggestion of change with the expression of cows looking at a passing train. My own hope is still in education, in spite of many disillusionments. My hope is that some day teachers will impress upon their pupils the solemn duty of not accepting ready-made the beliefs of others, of not swallowing them unquestioningly as a child might swallow a pill given it by its mother. One had to put one’s beliefs on a foundation of sincerity before they are worthy to be called beliefs at all; and my hope is that some day education will train children for the real duty of life, which is to think for oneself and to act for oneself, and not to be one of the lifeless automata which make up the serried ranks of respectability.

Well put, no? After reading this, the students were asked to put forward arguments either for or against the following statement:

Education helps individuals grow and has a civilising and humanising influence on society as a whole.

So, what do you think?

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