Discussion Upon Fundamental Principles of Education (1919)

by Alfred North Whitehead

Alfred North Whitehead was one of the towering figures in philosophy and theology in the nineteenth century. He is known particularly for his contribution to process theology.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 41-43, Vol. 14, Number 1, Spring, 1984. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


This brief statement by Whitehead is introduced and edited by Robert S. Brumbaugh. It introduces the reader to some correspondence on Whitehead’s educational theory: 1. The development of genius; 2. The failure of classical education; 3. Some aspects of Whitehead’s interest in education.

[Several years ago, in the course of a three-way correspondence on Whitehead’s educational theory, Victor Lowe directed Brian Hendley’s and my attention to a one-page summary of a 1919 lecture on education by Whitehead. It was a discussion of fundamental principles of education: "2. Discussion Upon Fundamental Principles in Education, opened by Professor A. N. Whitehead, F.R.S." Report of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Bournemouth, 1919. London, John Murray, 1920, p. 361.

We agreed that this should be made more visible and readily available by publication in Process Studies, and with the permission of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, it is reprinted here.1

Three things are particularly interesting about this summary. The first is its initial epigram, "All education is the development of genius." (This is often quoted, but its exact source seldom cited.) The present context is very helpful in understanding what Whitehead meant by the ambiguous term "genius" here.

The second thing that strikes one is the very sharp criticism of "dead languages" and "classical education." "Classical learning has had its chance . . . and has failed." Professor Lowe suggested, quite reasonably, that these comments may have been responsible, in part, for Whitehead’s inclusion in the Commission on the Place of Classics in Education, in 1921. (We have Whitehead’s own later remarks in his 1921 article, "The Classics in Education.")2

The third point of interest is the date. The Principles of Natural Knowledge was published in 1919, The Concept of Nature in 1920, The Principle of Relativity in 1922. The present lecture helps to show that there was no discontinuity in Whitehead’s interest in education during this period of intensive technical writing in the philosophy of science. On the contrary, from 1912 to 1933, Whitehead persistently lectured to learned societies, calling their attention to the importance of the teaching of the relevant subject-matter. He thought the best talent of these learned societies should be applied to the relatively unstylish tasks of conceptual analysis, course design, and texts for secondary school and college undergraduate courses.3

At the same time, there was another theme that he advanced in his educational addresses. This was the need to include aesthetic appreciation as an educational aim, a counterweight to words and numbers in the form of attention to the concrete. This theme reaches its final statement in 1925, in the final chapter of Science and the Modern World, "Requisites for Social Progress." There had been anticipations of it much earlier, however, particularly in Chapter III of The Organization of Thought, "A Polytechnic in Wartime," dated 1917.4 And we see the theme anticipated, or at least hinted at, in the discussion of "relevancy" and "genius" in the present remarks. "Relevancy," in particular, already looks like a counterweight to the precision of high-order abstraction.5]


Discussion Upon Fundamental Principles of Education, opened by Professor A. N. Whitehead, F.R.S.

All education is the development of genius. Genius is the divine instinct for creation, incident throughout life, a certain quality of first-handedness accompanying and directing activity. An education mainly devoted to the development of genius is the best education for eliciting common sense. The three factors of genius are the habit of action, the vivid imagination, and the discipline of judgment. Criticism is the antagonist of genius, though it is essential for the discipline of judgment. The function of criticism is the education of genius by the aid of knowledge.

The acquisition of knowledge is the ultimate substratum of education. Knowledge and genius are the twin factors of effective personality, and the true ultimate problem before the educator is how to impart knowledge so as to stimulate genius.

A curriculum should start with obvious relevancy, and should progressively widen as the field of relevancy expands -- the subject-matter of early education should issue quickly in securing some definite acquirement. The stimulus of success is essential for any broad effectiveness of culture.

Literary education is of overwhelming importance. Language is essential. The study of language has importance, relevancy, and the certainty of a large measure of success. You can only spoil its effect by one procedure -- namely, by teaching a language which the pupils can never acquire, will never want to use, and which is the vehicle of a literature whose relevancy is only immediately obvious to a mature mind. You must not go on to a dead language until a modern language has gripped the imagination. Classical learning is the superstructure of a literary education, not the foundation. Classical learning has had its chance with the well-to-do-class, and has failed -- failed to impress on them that learning should mould life, a failure which originates in a lack of relevancy in the subject-matter of education. The technical triumphs of science in war and in industry have startled English thought back into sanity, for it is sanity to believe in the importance of knowledge. Learning is not advocated for the sake of mere utility, but utility for the sake of learning. Knowledge should proceed from the concrete to the abstract. General education, the basis of culture, should be compact of material which will enter into the habitual lives of its recipients, a doctrine which applies alike to language, literature, history, natural science, and to mathematics. Beyond this general education every educated person should push on to a specialism dominated by finer theory and subtler ideas -- for one it may be Greek, another scientific theory, for another mathematics. There can be no complete education without specialism, but classical specialism is not general culture.

It is the demand of genius that it lives its own life in its own way. It is the function of education to supply criticism and knowledge.

The one fundamental principle of education -- that the pupils are alive, and not mere portmanteaus to be neatly packed.



1I want to thank the British Association for the Advancement of Science for its permission (letter from Dr. David Morley, March 15, 1984).

2 For a comparison of Whitehead’s conclusions and the recommendations in the Committee Report, see R. S. Brumbaugh, "Whitehead’s Educational Theory: Two Supplementary Notes to The Aims of Education," Educational Theory (1966), pp. 210-15.

3 For an indication of the frequency and austere occasions of these lectures, see the contents table of The Organization of Thought, and the Acknowledgements section of Essay in Science and Philosophy. For changes in references to textbooks between the OT chapters and their versions in The Aims of Education," see my notes, cited above, p. 214f., note 2.

4 Some particularly important statements are quoted in my notes, supra n. 2, p. 213.

5 Note the "three factors of genius," "the habit of action, the vivid imagination, and the discipline of judgment" in Whitehead’s present Remarks.