To and Fro: Education for the Art of Life

by Kathleen Gershman

Kathleen Gershman is Associate Professor of Secondary Education at the University of on Dakota, University Station, Grand Forks, ND 58202. She has published articles on Whitehead an education in such journals as Educational, Theory and Process Studies, and she wrote her dissertation on the implications of Whitehead’s theories for educational theater.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 215-226, Vol. 17, Number 4, Winter, 1988. 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.


Whitehead’s life was steeped in mathematics and philosophy, but he has insights of importance in two other areas of thought: 1. The teaching/learning process is a rhythmic occasion, not a skill. 2. None of our educational goals can claim a position of ideal completeness.

"Education is the guidance of the individual towards a comprehension of the art of life and by the art of life I mean the most complete achievement of varied activity expressing the potentialities of that living creature in the face of its actual environment."

(A. N. Whitehead; AE 39)

Alfred North Whitehead enjoyed two major teaching careers. The first was in mathematics at Cambridge University and London University, from about 1886 to 1924. The second was in philosophy at Harvard University from 1925 to 1937. In between the construction, so to speak, of these two reputations, Whitehead published a small collection of essays (originally delivered in address form to educational and scientific societies) in which he advances some general ideas about teaching and curriculum design. Although his exhaustive Principia Mathematica (with Bertrand Russell, 1910-1913) and his revolutionary Process and Reality (1929) stand as twin monuments to his mind’s adventures, it is likely that the sensible Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929) can claim a wider readership over the past sixty years than the other two volumes combined.

Two of the major ideas in those essays are discussed here: the rhythms and the aims of education. We learn that in the teaching/learning process, thinking is a rhythmic occasion, not a skill; and that in a living world, none of our educational goals can claim any position of ideal completeness.

During these dreary days when suggestions for teaching and curriculum stem from the shallow roots of positivism, Whitehead’s writings are at once philosophically profound and pedagogically fresh. Just reading his educational theory, full of its process language (novelty, impulse, movement, action, relevance, application, immediacy, experience)would inspire creative change in any teacher’s practice.

The Rhythms of Education

". . . a common interest in rhythms is still the tie which holds science and art in kinship." (John Dewey; AAE 150)

A common interest in rhythms might have been one of the places where Dewey and Whitehead found some mutual understanding. (We recall Dewey’s dismayed appraisal of Process and Reality: "A tough nut to crack!" [AP 285]). Whitehead’s idea was that the student learns in a rhythm of three cycles. We begin to formally educate a child at the age of six, and twelve years later frequently find we have failed, not because school material is intrinsically difficult (the task of learning a new language is much more so, yet the child masters it in thee years); we find failure because we have ignored the fact that the developing personality has a natural sway, to and fro, which Whitehead says results in a "craving" to be continually refreshed by the experience of starting anew. When a student approaches a new subject he or she has, at first, a general apprehension of its vague possibilities. We recall Whitehead’s "mental furniture" which he says the student brings to the subject. Secondly the student proceeds to mastery of the relevant details; finally he or she puts together the whole subject in the light of relevant knowledge. The movement of the student’s developing mentality is but one example of the "way of rhythm that pervades all life" (FR 21):

Life is complex in its expression, involving more than one percipience, namely desire, emotion, will and feeling. It exhibits variations of grade, higher and lower, such that the higher grade pre-supposes the lower for its very existence. This suggests a closer identification of rhythm as the casual counterpart of life; namely, that wherever there is some rhythm there is some life, only perceptible to us when the analogies are sufficiently close. The rhythm is then the life and, in the sense in which it can be said to be, included within nature. (PNK 197)

Teaching which ignores the rhythm of life is relinquishing a pedagogical tool which can make the difference between the student’s suffering through an imposed routine and transfiguring that routine into an experience of fruition. A rhythm is a "conveyance of difference within a framework of repetition" (AE 17). It is for the teacher to convey the difference within the framework; he or she does this by making conscious allowances for the student to experience all three stages. The stages are interdependent, though their sequence is not interchangeable.

The first stage is called "Romance." In this stage the student is allowed to enjoy a sense of adventure as he or she explores what a subject might have to offer. Here the student browses independently in the new material, finding for himself or herself where the points of relevance are. In a sense, the stage of Romance is the stage of research without strict criteria. The student researches the subject simply for the purpose of getting a general knowledge of the groundwork of fact and theory, keeping a sense of wonder and interest in the newness. The Romance stage really depends, as does its counterpart Generalization, on chance flashes of insight. The student makes contact with points of information if they arouse interest.

But this interest will not sustain him or her indefinitely in the "adventure." Before long the student’s natural craving for development will lead to the desire to know more about the subject. Romance recedes into the background and the student proceeds to the second stage called Precision. The stage is dominated by two considerations: the student needs to know what the relevant details of the subject are (what is the symbol for Radium, when did the Greeks win Battle of Marathon) and the teacher has a need to transfer to the student the cumulated (and relevant) knowledge of the subject. There is, wisdom tells us, no need to reinvent the wheel in every generation. So in the second stage of Whitehead’s rhythms, the "facts" are conveyed, with more or less inclination to dogmatism according to teacher style. Unfortunately this stage is the one which predominates in modern secondary education today. It is extremely difficult for a teacher to take the entire class down the path to Precision without dulling interest. Initiative and training are both essential, but too much of the latter kills the former quickly.

Yet, if done correctly, the freedom of the first stage and the discipline of the second stage should complement, not antagonize, each other. The teacher should, in the best possible pedagogical world, make the transition from Romance to Precision pass almost without notice. The challenge is to have the student commit to memory theorems or grammar rules or history facts or piano scales using his or her interest, not eradicating it. This formidable task is accomplished by the "resonance of the teacher’s personality" (AE 39). As the student’s interest begins to wane before the spectacle of so much new detail, the enthusiasm of the teacher for the subject should carry the stimulation along. The detailed knowledge of the Precision stage is kept from being "inert" because the student tests it against the knowledge learned in the Romance stage and against the background knowledge he or she brought to the subject originally. Perhaps the major failure in secondary school (where the Precision stage is most in evidence) is that of overlooking the fact that knowledge is being thrown into fresh combinations in the minds of students.

The last stage is a return, in a sense, to the adventurous cycle of Romance. Here the student allows the details to retreat from his or her total attention and emerges in the stage of Freedom or Generalization to apply the new knowledge actively. The student’s mind responds to the richness of illustration and general truth of the Precision stage and in response to a "natural" progression it seeks fruition of the effort in the Freedom stage. The teacher has begun by evoking initiative and ends by encouraging it. Always, as in all of Whitehead’s philosophy, there is a feeling of movement. No entity, student or item of fact, can claim completeness, it is always moving into a relationship which defines it somewhat differently. The teacher watches and guides the movement’s speed:

I am sure that one secret of a successful teacher is that he has formulated in his head what the student has got to know in precise fashion. He will then cease from half-hearted attempts to worry his pupils with memorizing a lot of irrelevant stuff of inferior importance. The secret of success is pace, pace, pace. Get your knowledge quickly and then use it. If you use it you will retain it. (AE 36)

The mention of "irrelevant stuff" brings us to another facet of a successful education, and that is scale. It serves little purpose to examine the Sistine Chapel ceiling with a microscope or to read a play of Shakespeare with minute analysis of phrases (which practice prompted Whitehead to call for teachers of English to be "prosecuted for soul murder"). We must keep in mind the scale of the subject. The teacher decides which picture the students need to understand, then they move together into action on it according the pace of the student’s individual and the class’s collective rhythm.

For Whitehead the stages of rhythm can also be said to relate to the student’s chronological age. It is in this part of his educational theory that some theoretical anachronisms become apparent. He says the years 8 to 13 are usually the stage of Romance, "the years dominated by wonder" (AE 32). The years 14 to 18 are the years of Precision; and the university years are those of Satisfaction or Generalization. The assessment is informed less by theories of adolescent development, which Whitehead predates by 40 years, and more by influences from his personal life. First, Whitehead is himself the product of a nineteenth-century English social class which educated its younger members for intellectual satisfaction and leadership. Whitehead’s own creative urge, never completely satisfied as we know, was allowed virtual freedom in his mathematics studies at Cambridge University from 1886 to 1914, and as dean of the science faculty of the Imperial College of Science and Technology from 1914 to 1924. He sees the responsibility of the university as one of fostering "a zest for life" (AE 93) connecting to knowledge. From Whitehead’s personal and professional experience, the university was the logical place for the imagination of the student to engage the principles mastered in secondary school. Whitehead would later modify this position somewhat and would endorse what he calls "technical education" or vocational education, as well as compulsory general education at the secondary level.

Whitehead knew that within his large scheme of three cycles the individual student would be learning at a pace that would be influenced by the type of study required and the student’s interest in it. "[T]he development of mentality exhibits itself as a rhythm involving an interweaving of cycles, the whole process being dominated by a greater cycle of the same general character as its minor eddies" (AE 27). That is, even within the Precision stage of secondary school, the student may be at Romance in mathematics, Precision in French and Generalization in literature. Under ideal learning conditions we would predict that the student reaches a Generalization stage first, in the subject he or she enjoys most. The student will remain in the Precision stage of another subject if he or she cannot "experience" it enough to lift it beyond the rules it embodies.

"Concrescence" (or the becoming of an experience) through stages is a principle of life, according to process philosophy, but in the case of the student, the teacher’s function as guide has a moral importance. Brumbaugh elaborates:

For very small, particle-sized events, these phases of concrescence constitute the life of each event; and they must occur in fixed order. There is an initial encounter of some kind; a phase of readjustment which is unstable and a final stabilization that marks the end of that event. For more complex entities, including persons and civilizations, an analogous rule holds. If learning is to be an integral part of the student’s existence and growth it must follow a three stage pattern in which growth and concrescence take place. A student, however, unlike the minimal event, is a complex entity which will continue to exist -- though less authentically and effectively -- even if he or she does not encounter proper learning patterns. But a pattern that fails to match the natural learning -- it is disregarded, accommodated to as an external accident, passed by with no important or even unimportant gain in insight or depth. (WPP 4-5)

It would not be hyperbolic to say that most secondary school students today accommodate themselves to a compulsory education as though it were an external accident: they attend school but would prefer to spend their time doing something they can "relate to."

In the misguided notion that "important gains can be made in insight or depth" by rearranging the curriculum, a school might change to a curriculum which is all one stage. If that stage is Romance, then we would see classes of little or no structure. But since education is really a training in aesthetics (discussed below) then it depends on limitations at some point (Whitehead says stage two) for its natural evolution. So the student in the pure Romance curriculum becomes frustrated when he or she needs, and cannot find, direction. The breadth of the view in Romance may be exciting at first, but the view does not show the footpath of the mountains in the distance.

In recent years the "back to basics" movement has seen curricula which are in essence a one-stage example of Precision. Although the curriculum looks efficient compared to the all-Romance variety, the motivation to learn is entirely extrinsic, with all that that implies for the ethics of education and for the practical consideration of retaining knowledge.

Then there are arrangements of patterns which could include two of three stages, for example, a curriculum which is Precision and Generalization (high on structure but low on student interest throughout). We often see this type in language courses. Or we might see a curriculum which is just Romance and Generalization (high on interest at first, but no motivation to learn the necessary detail). This variety is seen in college survey courses. If it were successful, then a student could take a survey course in, say, American literature, and then attempt to write the Great American Novel. The sequence is not quite adequate to the task.

Rhythms are a concept which Whitehead does not confine to the field of education. In The Function of Reason (1929), thirteen years after he had first considered the theory in "The Aims of Education," the rhythm motif returns:

The Way of Rhythm pervades all life and indeed all physical existence. This common principle of rhythms is one of the reasons for believing that the root principles of life are, in some lowly form, exemplified in all types of physical existence. In the Way of Rhythm a round of experiences, forming a determinate sequence of contrasts attainable within a definite method, are codified so that the end of one such cycle is the proper antecedent stage for the beginning of another such cycle. The cycle is such that its own completion provides the conditions for its own mere repetition. (AE 21)

The "antecedent stages" of cycles are another concern of Whitehead’s when he speaks of the curriculum. He says that he has two objections to the way curriculum is ordinarily planned. First, he does not consider it necessary to teach the easier subject before the more difficult. We mentioned that the child learns a language, the most difficult learning, before any other "subject" learning. In his own field of mathematics, Whitehead points out that the elements of algebra, the most difficult branch of mathematics, usually come before the differential calculus, a much simpler topic.

Secondly, Whitehead thinks that the principle of "necessary precedence" which means that the student must study one subject before another, is too strictly observed. For example, the study of Homer is postponed until secondary school, after the student has learned to read competently, when in fact it was intended for illiterate audiences and shared with them orally for centuries. For Whitehead:

The problem of a curriculum is not so much the succession of subjects, for all subjects should be in essence be begun with the dawn of mentality. The true important order is the order of quality which the educational process should assume. (AE 27)

The phenomenon of growth is directly related to action. "The stimulation of creative impulse requires, especially in the case of the child, the quick transition to practice" (AE, p. 48). We recall that Whitehead was educated at home; the teachers who guided him were a vicar "with more personality than intellect" and two household servants. In form if not content, Whitehead was the product of the type of education he advocates. He experienced an extended period of Romance, in which he read and learned at his own pace and without fear of violating a schoolmaster’s agenda. Then he moved to the Sherborne School where, as though he had trained for it, he became a prototype of an all-around public school student: dormitory master, cricket captain, mathematics whiz, editor of the school newspaper. When he claims that the secondary school is the place for the stage of Precision and that the university is where the student can break new scholastic ground, his own education could be the model for the plan.

Finally we must recognize that the function of rhythm in education has the same function as it does in music and that is its contribution, overall, to a creation of harmony.

At the level of human experience we do find fatigue from the mere repetition of cycles. The device from which this fatigue is obviated takes the form of the preservation of the fundamental abstract structure of the cycle, combined with the variation of the concrete details of succeeding cycles. The device is particularly illustrated in music and in vision. (FR 22)

What is wanted is a "harmony of patterns" achieved by the teacher’s guiding of the various elements of cycles within cycles. The harmony is the fundamental abstract structure, which, although below the consciousness of the student, has an irresistible appeal:

The entrance of form into space and time is always transitory. Therefore its emergence and disappearance always complement each other . . . there is a natural human appetite for form, for its recognition and creation and contemplation. We take special pleasure in the vision of the strictly formal order behind or beneath the surface of the everyday and familiar, or the aesthetic or disorderly. "The hidden harmony is best," wrote Heraclitus. But even he values harmony. (WPP 88-89)

The student will experience knowledge when he or she can perceive the harmony that is hidden there beneath the surface. If the material taught is unfamiliar, then the contact with harmony is difficult. Think of the feeling of dissonance we get when we look for the first time at an abstract painting: we don’t know what it is we are supposed to be seeing. The harmony escapes us. The artist responds patiently, "It is not supposed to represent anything; you should try to experience it." A formidable assignment!

In education the assignment is, of course, more formidable still. The teacher takes new material and allows the student the freedom to pass through the stages of rhythm. But unlike the artist, the teacher’s responsibility does not end with providing the means for the participation of another person in the abstract structure which is harmony. The teacher must also be concerned with the end of the passage. These aims are the subject of the following section.

The Aims of Education

"The aim of education is the marriage of thought and action . . . ." (ESP 172)

Whitehead suggests that teachers should facilitate what he calls the student’s "concrete vision" by allowing the student to utilize knowledge: "By utilizing an idea I mean relating it to that stream compounded of sense perceptions, feelings, hopes, desires and of mental activities adjusting thought to thought, which forms our life" (AE 3). The concrete vision is perhaps most important in the stage of Romance when the teacher needs to secure the student’s attention. We have seen that the stage of Romance is the sine qua non of learning. If we start with Precision, we lose interest; if we start with Generalization, we provide no incentive for further pursuit. Finally, we have seen that we cannot omit a stage without serious impediment to the learning process.

But having considered these suggestions we come to a question: why do we consider at such length the issue of the efficacy of teaching and learning? Why is it important that it be done well? What are, in fact, the aims of education? Whitehead’s "aims" are as multitudinous as the relative clauses in one of his sentences. It remains to be seen if they form a unified whole.

One of Whitehead’s aims is to produce a person of culture, i.e., one who has "receptiveness to beauty and humane thought." Throughout his writings we see these two themes emerge repeatedly: feeling (appreciating, being receptive or sensitive to beauty) and expression (activity, movement, utilizing, relating, marrying thought to action). On the face of it, it would seem as though Whitehead is simply endorsing an expanded place for the visual arts in the curriculum. And in fact, he does, saying that art is to the curriculum as sunshine is to the physical world. But when Whitehead speaks of art he refers less to the domain as we usually consider it and more to the general sense of which art is just a subcategory. Art is for him an aesthetic appreciation of value beyond the merely artistic. And contemplation of works of art which have endured is just the beginning of appreciation:

Then there are grades of aesthetic beauty which constitute the ideals of different schools and different periods of art. Thus the variations in the grades of ideas is endless and it is not to be understood as a single line of increasing generality. This variation may be conceived as a spread involving an infinitude of dimensions. We can only conceive a finite fragment of this spread of grades. But as we choose a single line of advance in such generality, we seem to meet a higher type of value. For example, we enjoy color but the enjoyment of the picture -- if it is a good picture -- involves a higher grade of value. (ESP 87-88)

Whitehead sees an aim of education as aiding the student in developing the habit of appreciating not just one value but an interplay of emergent values. Enjoyment of the color of a painting is only one of the values emerging; the composition of the colors is of a higher grade of appreciation.

After the concept of "process," beauty is the single most important aspect of reality for Whitehead. Together the notions of process and aesthetics are two major pillars of his cosmology. In the final chapter of Science and the Modern World, one of the last times Whitehead would address in print the issue of education, he weaves them into an effective passage, notable for its passionate treatment of an ethereal subject:

The fertilization of the soul is the reason for the necessity of art. A static value, however serious and important, becomes unendurable by its appalling monotony of endurance. The soul cries aloud for release into change. The transitions of humor, wit, irreverence, play, and -- above all -- of art are necessary for it. Great art is the arrangement of the environment so as to provide for the soul vivid, but transient, values. Human beings require something which absorbs them for a time, something out of the routine which they can stare at. But you cannot subdivide life, except in abstract analysis of thought. Accordingly, great art is more than transient refreshment. It is something which adds to the permanent richness of the soul’s self-attainment. It justifies itself both by its immediate enjoyment and also by its discipline of the inmost being. Its discipline is not distinct from enjoyment, but by reason of it. It transforms the soul into the permanent realization of values extending beyond its former self. This element of transition in art is shown by the restlessness exhibited in its history. An epoch gets saturated by the masterpieces of any one style. Something new must be discovered. The human being wanders on. Yet there is a balance in things. Mere change before the adequacy of achievement, either in quality or output, is destructive of greatness. But the importance of a living art which moves on and yet leaves its permanent mark, can hardly be exaggerated. (SMW 202; emphasis added)

Yet the fact that art has the function of liberating our souls is not the total justification of its presence in our lives. Its larger justification is its relation to the formative element, i.e., the non temporal factor, which is the "actual entity" Whitehead calls God. All creativity for Whitehead (and in fact the teleology of the universe itself) is directed to the production of beauty. And beauty gets its definition, its limits, by its relation to God; creative action is conditioned by God’s immanence (RM 100).

Creative action, we reiterate, is not limited to works of art in the usual sense Any subject or endeavor may be regarded as beautiful if its definition is broad enough. "Wide purpose is in its own nature beautiful by reason of its contribution to the massiveness of experience" (AI 266). Even one’s personal life and communal life have an aesthetic value for Whitehead. "Habits of thought and sociological habits survive because in some broad sense they promote aesthetic enjoyment" (ESP 129). Evil does not survive, because it is inherently unstable and inconsistent. Beauty survives precisely because it is ordered, consistent and harmonious.

Now how do these metaphysical concepts translate into educational theory? If one of the aims of education is to produce a person of culture who is receptive to beauty and humane thought, do we draw up lists of great books, require study of paintings of the masters, impose a selection of music for students to listen to? If it were that easy, we would have far more success in this enterprise than we do. The fact is that, like so much other important knowledge, e.g., the grab-bag of virtues, aesthetic appreciation can be learned but not taught. Aesthetic appreciation necessitates the involvement of the student. "No one, no genius other than our own, can make our own life live" (AE 57). The most teachers can do is make aesthetic value present; whether or not it is apparent to the study relies on other factors.

How do we recognize the value of a specific study? Whitehead tells us that the goodness is revealed in a subject’s patterns. "Thus the infusion of pattern into natural occurrences, and the stability of such patterns is the necessary condition for the realization of the Good" (ESP 109). Stability is the operative word here, keeping in mind that evil, though it will also have a pattern, is inherently unstable and eventually is overcome with the pattern of the good.

The study of patterning is as problematical for a thoughtful critic of education as it is in art. In modern art the criteria of beauty in nonrepresentational pieces are still open to question. In a different field, Dunkel tells us, questions will always be open:

Similarly, in personality theory, the search for ideographic standards by which to judge particular life styles or the mode of an individual life is fundamentally the search for criteria of patterning. Compensation, displacement, deprivation, sublimation and a host of other familiar phenomena make it evident that general nomothetic standards offer little useful basis for judging the adequate or integrated personality. There can be no prescription either of the elements to be integrated or the precise mode of integration. The totality must be judged as a unique configuration and the problem of judging the adequacy of the integration of a personality is essentially the same as that of judging the concrescence of an actual entity. (WOE 64-65)

The problem of judging the adequacy of patterning in a highly complex endeavor such as education is obviously even more difficult. The totality of the teaching of, and learning by, an individual is a "unique configuration" in the case of every single student. We comfort ourselves with the knowledge that judging the adequacy of a pattern will be an elusive goal always, and that pursuit of the definition of the criteria of good education is itself worthwhile.

We are not surprised to see that for Whitehead the major instance of a pattern of true beauty is the study of mathematics. To a lesser extent (only because their criteria are more obscure) he also endorses art, music and literature. But as a lifelong student of mathematicism he reserves for it the highest praise:

All value is the gift of infinitude which is the necessary condition for activity. Also activity means the origination of patterns of assemblage and mathematics is the study of pattern. Here we find the essential clue which relates mathematics to the study of the good, and the study of the bad. (PANW 674)

Mathematics is the most powerful technique for the understanding of pattern and for the analysis of the interrelationship of patterns . . . In the next 2,000 years the overwhelming novelty in human thought will be the dominance of mathematical understanding . . . Applied mathematics is the transference of this study to other examples of the realization of these patterns. (PANW 678)

The presence of these statements (twenty-five years before computer science appeared in high school curricula) aside, we must note that we cannot restrict our education to mathematics. Whitehead himself studied nothing but mathematics at Cambridge for four years, but it is not a career he recommends. What he recommends is keeping open the possibility of novel patterns at all times; Whitehead elsewhere calls these "ideas thrown into fresh combination" (AE 1). The caution is against replacing the old set of abstractions, brought to the learning situation by the student, with a new set of abstractions chosen on the basis of a pattern apparent only to the person in charge, i.e., the teacher. We must provide for the activity of the student’s mind such that he or she freely perceives a new abstract pattern, in art or literature or mathematics. We must provide the opportunity for the student to relate it to that stream of consciousness that is life.

In more specific terms, Whitehead saw the dilemma facing the schools in the early twentieth century as a choice between producing amateurs or experts, generalists or specialists. Each student brings knowledge to the classroom, knowledge based on a unique totality of experiences, interests and training. Consequently, "One train of thought will not suit all children" (AE 9). The individual is naturally a specialist: "One man sees a whole subject where another can only see detached examples . . . wherever you exclude specialism, you destroy life" (AE 10).

But humans are naturally social beings as well. We need to communicate with others. This communication relies on a body of language and custom that allows mutual intelligibility with other members of the group. This body, called culture, necessarily enters into the habitual life of the student, in part via the general curriculum of language, literature, history, natural science and mathematics. Only after learning these cultural tools should the student proceed to a specialty dominated by finer theory and more subtle ideas. Whitehead recognized that for many students formal education concludes with secondary school. For that reason the justification for any subject’s inclusion in the curriculum must be its relation to the student’s life at the time, not that it is a preparation for later study. If a generalized curriculum and specialized curriculum cannot both be included because of time constraints, then at all times the specialized study must be sacrificed to the general study.

The strong recommendation for general education is not so antithetical to Whitehead’s insistence that the individual be allowed to diversify from conformity as it may first appear. It is impossible to construct the public school curriculum in such a way that every person can pursue his or her specialty. Nor would it be in society’s best interest to do so. But when we separate out the subjects into compartmentalized areas so that they are manageable from an administrative point of view, the result is an "unrhythmic collection of scraps" (AE 21). The vitality of the curriculum is killed by this disconnection of subjects. "The least that can be said (of most curricula) is that it is a rapid table of contents which a deity might run over in his mind while he was thinking of creating a world and had not yet determined how to put it together" (AE 7). If we integrate the studies so that their relations to each other are presented as true as in fact they are, then the student is more likely to be able individually to diversify from the stream of conformity, as he or she makes the connection between the integrated curriculum and life.

Another aim of education is to impart a sense of the power of ideas and a sense of the beauty of their structure. The "amateur" student can get a sense of the beauty of ideas in the Romance stage. However, a sense of their power only comes with the remaining two stages, Precision and Generalization. The current notion that if we restrict teaching to the Precision mode we can impart even a sense of beauty is most dubitable. And the mistaken belief that a transfer of information from teacher to student will in itself convey a sense of the power of ideas recalls Whitehead’s widely quoted indictment of education:

In the history of education the most striking phenomenon is that schools of learning, which at one epoch are alive with a ferment of genius in a succeeding generation exhibit merely pedantry and routine. The reason is that they are over-laden with inert ideas. Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful -- corruption optimi, pessima. Except at rare intervals of intellectual ferment, education in the past has been radically infected with inert ideas. (AE 1-2)

Employing an unusual choice of word, Whitehead says that another aim of education is the acquisition of "style" which he classified as the most austere of all mental qualities. By style, he means the aesthetic sense, ". . . based on direct attainment of a foreseen end, simply and without waste" (AE 12). He says that style, in any subject, has fundamentally the same quality, i.e., attainment and restraint. "The love of a subject in itself and for itself where it is not the sleepy pleasure of pacing a mental quarterdeck, is the love of style as manifested in that study" (AE 12). The choice of attaining style as one aim of education is entirely consistent with Whitehead’s notion that inert ideas are the most corrupt part of a curriculum: style embraces a morality intolerant of superfluous knowledge. In fact, we could say that an inert idea is the aesthetic opposite of style. With style we see an economy of material such that what is available is used as experience.

The final aim of education is from the last statement in Whitehead’s essay by the same name. There he says that the essence of an education is that it be religious. By this be means that education should inculcate two factors which are generic to religion: duty and reverence.

The dutiful aspect of education is related to the individual, to specialized study and to style itself. Duty is something the individual is expected to do out of legal or moral obligation. Clearly, for Whitehead one does have a moral obligation to develop the individual potential one possesses. "Where attainable knowledge could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice" (AE 14). Duty is almost solely the product of a specialized education because only the expert is aware of the power of an idea, its worthiness and the responsibility to apply it. Insofar as Whitehead defines religion as what one person does with individual solitariness, and insofar as specialized study is a solitary pursuit for the most part, we can say that the aspect of education that is dutiful refers to the education of the expert. It is an education that inculcates a dutiful regard for his or her potential and a social obligation to change "the issue."

The reverence that qualified a true education is not for established knowledge. Whitehead reminded us that knowledge keeps about as long as fish. The reverence he anticipates is for the present because it "holds within itself the complete sum of existence backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time which is eternity" (AE 14). This is entirely consistent with his recommendation that the subject of education should be life in all its manifestations. The sum of existence is the education at the moment the student perceives it. It is all that has come before (in learner and in subject content) and it holds within it all of which it is capable in the future. The present, for Whitehead, is "holy ground" (AE 3) and since general education involves an intimate appreciation of the present, we can say that if "duty" is the purview of the specialized student, then "reverence" is the purview of the student of a general education.

But just as we strive to produce amateurs who are experts and experts who are still amateurs, we also strive to produce this combination of reverence and duty for education in every student. To the extent that these two goals are mutually inclusive, we see a unified theory of education in Whitehead.

Whitehead’s own education was a classical one, with an emphasis on Latin and Greek authors that was typical for his era and social class. He would write an essay in defense of the classics that was so persuasive it was used successfully by the Harvard faculty working to keep Latin as an undergraduate requirement. But many years later Whitehead would say that the study of Latin and Greek should have no important place in a modem curriculum. His evaluation of its benefits was not appropriate any longer.

Are there any Whiteheadian aims of education (that it produce a person of culture, "many" thought to action, and teach a sense of style, a sense of duty and a sense of reverence) that seem predicated by his own schooling?

When he was younger, Whitehead’ s early education was in the hands of his father and, informally, in the hands of a few trusted household employees. For several years he was allowed to wander among English ruins, gardens and beaches and form his own questions. Later, perhaps speaking autobiographically, he would say that the years 8 to 13 are filled with wonder. For him these years were surely rich with opportunity for concrete apprehension. His Romance stage had a quality and duration which can be called enviable for its time and place. Later he went to the Sherborne School (his Precision stage) and learned mathematics assiduously but with a joy of discovery that transfigured routine.

We can assume that at Sherborne he experienced firsthand the aspects of education he advocates. When the boys thought about the Greeks and Romans in terms of politics, they compared them to the system they knew. When they learned "foreign" languages they acted on the knowledge by reading the Scriptures. They connected to the study of political history by walking through an historic countryside. And when they learned new mathematical theorems they applied them. The teachers at Sherborne apparently had a gift for encouraging potential. This was where Whitehead saw style at work: he economized on Latin and got satisfaction in mathematics as far as was possible in that environment. If style is economy of effort with constant attention to the end you want to attain, we can see that the early education of this mathematician had great style indeed. He intended to go to Cambridge, renowned for its mathematics department, and did not waver from his goal. "With style the effect of your activity is calculable and foresight is the last gift of gods to men" (AE 13).

Finally we consider Whitehead’s suggestion that an education’s essence is that it be religious. The influence of the Church over Whitehead’s early life was pervasive. Being the son of the popular vicar in a small country parish could not have been easy for a frail boy who left any friends he might have had to spend the winters in London. But in an interesting example of the philosophy he advocates -- that the process is more real than the material fact -- Whitehead himself remained more affected by the process, not the content of his early life and education. As an adult he was no longer a member of the Church, yet duty and reverence were transferred, so to speak, to a theory of education. The student has an obligation to learn; not to do so is equated with vice. The student has a reverence for the present, for life in all its manifestations; not to have it is actually corrupt.

Whitehead’ s religiously-guided education might have been unsuited for modern times, yet it is fair to say that his profound philosophical development had its beginning in some very early insights, for example, the concept of the consequent nature of God and the evidence of God’s presence in the pattern of beauty in mathematics. Implicitly, Whitehead compares the potential of education for every individual with the important aspects of his own early life: an exquisite feeling for beauty and a dutiful sense to act on knowledge.



AAE -- John Dewey. Art As Experience. New York: Minton, Batch, 1934.

AP -- John Dewey. "The Adventures of Persuasion." The New Republic 74(1933).

PANW -- The Philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. Ed. Paul Arthur Schilpp. Library of Living Philosophers. Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1941.

WOE -- Harold B. Dunkel. Whitehead on Education. Ohio State University Press, 1965.

WPP -- Robert S. Brumbaugh. Whitehead, Process Philosophy, and Education. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1982.