London Metropolitan University Research Institutes

The subversion of citizenship and education in Bertrand Russell’s Alphabet

Author(s) Leleń, H.  
Publisher London: CiCe  
Year 2014  
Editor P. Cunningham & N. Fretwell (eds.) Innovative Practice and Research Trends in Identity, Citizenship and Education  
Age group -  
Bertrand Russell, the British analytical philosopher and logician, honoured with the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950, stands out as one of the most influential figures in the area of humanities of the twenty-first century. The paper is devoted to the close reading of his half-forgotten trifle The Good Citizen’s Alphabet. The tiny book was first published in 1953 by Gaberbochhus Press, a publishing house established by his friends, the Polish avant-garde artists Franciszka and Stefan Themersons. Russell’s exploration of the idea of citizenship apparently emerged from his correspondence with the couple. I want to demonstrate the multi-layered dialogic, double edged principle behind this work. On one hand, it can be treated as an expression of Russell’s philosophy as well half-serious exploration of language that could serve to describe it, to playfully illustrate it. On the other hand, it works on the level of indirect diagnosis and expression of the twenty-first-century crisis of values, which emerged directly from the experience of the Second World War as well as indirectly from the turn-of-the-century general mood of nihilism. This dialogic quality is enhanced by the fact that the book is illustrated with Franciszka’s thrifty line art created in the convention of children’s drawings. The presentation will thus also examine the inter-media correspondences between the impact of the text and the implications of the drawings. Russell himself observed that the illustrations perfectly express what he wanted to say. It is also interesting to explore how the genre of quasi-educational alphabet is conducive to create in child and adult readers a distanced, topsy-turvy view of modern society and the idea of citizenship portrayed through grotesque distortion. The stance of questioning the values is displayed in the non-standard choice of entries and the thought-provoking descriptive predicates used to illustrate the subsequent letters of alphabet. This subversion is done with the use of strategies that are still to be observed in contemporary social discourse to be found in the media, politics and education. It is therefore particularly useful to examine one of the early examples of such modern scepticism about the notions of citizenship and education.

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