Chapter 6: The Process Understanding of Education

An Introduction to the Process Understanding of Science, Society and the Self
by Leslie A. Muray

Chapter 6: The Process Understanding of Education


There has been much groaning and moaning, weeping and gnashing of teeth over the State of contemporary education in the United States. Much of this concern has been over the rise of functional illiteracy (and just plain illiteracy), and the need to go back to basics, ‘readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic.’

As one who has taught on the college/university level for eight years, to some degree I share this concern: I take delight in a student’s paper that is well written, with few grammatical and spelling errors. I have also learned not to take for granted students’ knowledge in some general academic areas that may have been expectations at the high school, or dare I say, even junior high level, in my generation.

However important and well intentioned the back to basics movement may be, there are some more fundamental educational issues that this movement fails to take into account, and, in fact, tends to obscure. In the Introduction, I used the sprawling campus and geographical layout of Michigan State University as symptomatic and symbolic of the fragmentary character of modern knowledge. To a large extent, this fragmentation is fundamentally related to the proliferating specialization in the various academic disciplines; a scholar specializing in biochemistry, for example, is not very likely to know a great deal about ancient history, let alone have a unified, holistic vision of human knowledge. The compartmentalization of modern knowledge is a magnified expression of the substantialist view that sees reality as composed of isolated, discrete substances.

A problem with the back to basics movement is its presupposition, showing the philosophical influence of John Locke, and shared by much of our educational practice, that the human mind is a "tabula rasa," a blank, empty receptacle waiting to be filled with information and knowledge. Another apt analogy is that of the human mind as an empty bucket about to be filled with the water of knowledge. This is a view with which process-relational thought thoroughly disagrees.

Numerous factors have complicated the workings of our educational system. The rapid changes in our society are reflected in education. One trend is the increasing number of students in institutions of higher learning who return to school or enroll for the first time later in life -- a far cry from the typical stereotype of undergraduates. Such students, who attend school part time while working full time or being a homemaker, certainly a full time occupation in itself, tend to be more serious and better motivated. Part of this trend is the increased realization and stress on education as a lifelong process and the enhancement of opportunities for continuing education, not just for the sake of greater proficiency in one’s skill or area of expertise, but as something intrinsically valuable.

Another trend, especially in the last ten years, has been the increased emphasis on vocational training. This is certainly in line with the main concern of college students in the 1970s and 1980s, the acquisition of skills that will enable them to earn a high level income. The increased focus on vocational education is in large measure a response to the recessions of the mid-1970s and early 1980s and anticipated, feared, increasingly frequent periods of high unemployment.

Part of this trend is the virtual explosion of skills training for high tech industries. Much of this development involves considerable irony: functionally illiterate but very proficient in high tech students are taught by very literate but mechanically inept and computer illiterate instructors. Obviously, I am exaggerating and caricaturing, but nevertheless I hope I am making a point. To put it differently, traditional styles of learning, including those of my generation, have been oriented toward the written word; increasingly, particularly with the impact of television, today’s generation is oriented to learning by images. Certainly, these orientations need not be separated. Nevertheless, with the rapid changes in our society, the perspectives, training, and life experiences of students and teachers, between whom there may not be a great age difference, is at many times so great that it is as though they lived in different worlds.

Yet another trend is the proliferation of community colleges, a movement that seeks to bring education to the people." While at times community colleges have been criticized for a lack of academic rigor, there can be little question that they have made formal education more readily accessible to larger segments of our population, and fostered a sense that education is an ongoing, lifelong process.

These are just some of the recent changes to which the process-relational vision can provide a sense of perspective.


The root of the words "educate" and "education" is a combination of two Latin words, the preposition "ex," meaning "out of" or "from," and the verb "ducere" meaning "to lead." Thus, to educate means literally to "lead out of," "to lead out."

In early April of this year, a group of students and others active in the Episcopal ministry at Michigan State University and I attended a Province V, essentially the mid-west region of the United States, conference for Episcopal college/university students and chaplains. Much of the conference was spent in small group discussion. The facilitator of the discussion group I was in was a young man two years out of college, now teaching in Cleveland, Ohio. With an obvious love for teaching and his students, he stated that he not only tried to teach his subject matter but life.

Whitehead himself was strongly convinced that the purpose of education is to guide people in understanding the art of life. What he meant by this was as a whole an accomplishment of varied activity that expresses the potentialities of individuals interacting with their actual environments as much as possible, if, as Whitehead thought, each individual is the embodiment of the adventure of life, of existence itself, the art of life is the guiding of this advance. And that is the aim of education.

Paralleling the description of the becoming of a momentary experience, Whitehead described what he called the rhythm of education as consisting of three stages. The rhythm of education is quite simply the notion that certain subjects and the appropriate methods of study need to be correlated with the student’s stage of mental development. The three stages that comprise this rhythm are those of romance, precision, and generalization.

The stage of romance is characterized by what Whitehead calls fascination and romantic emotion in relation to the subject matter. In this stage, education consists of tapping the creativity of which any living organism, anything actual at all, is an instance; it is the stimulation of the restless, ceaseless striving that characterizes life itself.

Here we find a fundamental difference between the Lockean presuppositions of contemporary education and process thought. In the relational vision, the human mind is not merely the passive recipient of knowledge and information, as in our analogy of the empty bucket waiting to be filled with water. To be sure, for process thinkers, there is a receptive side to the human mind as there is to anything actual at all. However, as is the case with anything actual at all, there is an active, creative side to the human mind as well. To put it differently, this phase of education is the "drawing out’ of the drive of the human organism to fulfill itself. This has not been one of the strong points of traditional education.

Probably the most perennial problem for educators is that motivation. How do I motivate my students to learn? This is certainly the question the romantic stage tries to address. Ultimately, no teacher can coerce a student to learn anything; the motivation to learn needs to come from the student herself/himself. Nevertheless, the teacher can be a vital stimulus, a midwife, in tapping and "drawing out" the student’s desire to learn.

The second stage in the rhythm of education is precision. This stage is characterized by repetition, rote learning, and memorization. While it can all too easily suffocate the sense of romance, it is nevertheless equally indispensable to the educational process. Discipline, repetition, memorization, are vital to learning or the acquisition of any skill, whether it be in a specific academic discipline, operating a computer, typing or driving a car. The key is to achieve a balance between romance and precision or acquire the ability to be precise without suffocating creativity. Let me illustrate.

Learning to drive is accomplished by practice, repetition, by driving until it becomes a habit that is "second nature" to most of us. Driving requires skills that have become so much a part of us that we use them automatically, unconsciously, and unreflectively: turning the ignition on, stopping at a red light or stop sign, looking frequently through the rear view mirror, etc.

Nevertheless, no matter how skilled and experienced a driver may be, no text book, driver’s manual, or teacher can anticipate every conceivable situation. Each one of us has encountered situations while driving that required creativity and, especially, a quick, spontaneous response. Even though I have been driving for twenty-two years, mostly on California freeways and Arizona highways and back roads, during a period of three months I have witnessed two freeway crashes of a sort I have never seen before: two cars headed in the same direction in adjacent lanes collided, went out of control, with totally unpredictable results for all nearby motorists; it took a great deal of quick reacting and creative maneuvering to avert further accidents.

The final stage of the rhythm of education is generalization; it combines romanticism and precision, and yet is more than a synthesis of the two. It is the fruition of the education process, combining the zest and creativity of the romantic phase with precision, culminating in fulfillment.

The stages of the rhythm of education parallel the becoming of a momentary experience. The romantic stage is similar to the prehension of data from the past and the lure of the possibilities of the future; the stage of precision parallels the stage of the creative synthesis of these data and possibilities; the stage of generalization resembles the final stage of the becoming of a momentary experience, the culmination of an actuality’s drive toward fulfillment, or in Whitehead’s word, satisfaction. The three stages of the rhythm of education are then repeated.

Let me illustrate, once again, with an example from my own teaching experience. Still making extensive use of the traditional lecture method, I first of all try to keep the subject matter interesting, with frequent examples from lived experiences, much in the manner of this book. I not only present content but try to challenge students with new ideas and foster their ability to reflect critically. When I present a new idea, I want students to understand it, to think about it, to wrestle with what impact, if any, it has on their thinking, and to give cogent reasons, for or against, for their reactions. Needless to say, the question of motivation is involved here. If I take a certain position, I encourage students to find the loopholes in the arguments and to critique. As part of the attempt to encourage them to reflect critically, at times I model it for them by presenting my own position, refuting it, then providing counter-arguments to the refutation once they have been appropriately taken into account. I also try to embolden them to ask questions, to comment, affirming them in their personhood and the validity of their ideas, yet challenging them to go beyond where they have been.

In effect, I attempt to model the relational vision. Modeling receptivity, responsiveness, sensitivity, which I described earlier as virtues in a process perspective, I also serve as a proposition, combining actuality with possibility, and hopefully luring students, not to an uncritical abandonment of previous ideas and habits of thought, but to creative transformation. In my mind, an effective teacher is a midwife in the process of creative transformation.

In terms of our previous discussion of the rhythm of education, the subject matter and an interesting manner of presenting it, the challenge of new ideas hopefully touches the recesses of creativity within each student, and stimulates their interest, prompting interest in further inquiry. This is the stage of romance. The expectation that students know the content of the subject matter is analogous to the stage of precision. The assimilation of content and the ability to interact with it critically parallels the stage of generalization.

My method of testing also is an attempt to model the relational vision. My preference, depending on the size, level, and subject matter of the class, is to give "take home" exams. In the "Contemporary Religious Thought" class I taught at Arizona State University, the final exam was a take home that asked students to delineate their own philosophies of life in critical interaction with three thinkers of schools we studied. I found that while most students had not given this question much thought, they found it very helpful in articulating their life orientation and providing an opportunity to learn about themselves. And by making the subject matter so existential, they certainly knew and remembered their material.

This time I beg my reader’s indulgence for personalizing this section to such an extent. I do not know if Whitehead would see my modeling of the relational vision as consonant with his views. Nevertheless, it is an exposition of this process thinker’s appropriation of the process-relational vision in the field of education.


I have mentioned that for Whitehead the purpose of education was for individuals to discover the art of life. Of course, from a process perspective, this involves the enhancement of relatedness and creativity, which is what the previous discussion sought to illustrate. It also involves the mutual transformation brought about by a community of common inquiry. Moreover, if the characteristics of life involve the drive for the experience of beauty, harmony, intensity, contrast, and richness of experience, the educational process needs to embody and facilitate the unfolding of this fundamental drive.

In his book Higher Education and the Human Spirit, process theologian Bernard E. Meland delineates his concept of the appreciative consciousness, which he elsewhere describes as appreciative awareness. What Meland means by appreciative awareness is synonymous with my previous description, with great reliance on the work of Bernard Loomer, of the momentary self’s increasing ability to take into itself more and more of its environment in all its diversity, thus becoming a larger, richer self. Appreciative awareness is not strictly analytical or technical, but takes into account seriously the deeper sensibilities of the human spirit and life itself.

Meland illustrates what this involves in terms of higher education with several classes he taught early in his career at Pomona College. One of these classes was on "The Philosophy of Religion." His basic concern was to gain an understanding of the disillusionment of the modern temper and explorations of the possibilities of the reconstruction of faith. One method used that he considered very effective was the study of the religious response to a good not our own in previous ages, not only through the study of philosophy and theology, but art, literature, hymnody. The study of the existential issues that aroused individuals and peoples to particular responses and solutions stimulated students and enhanced their own understanding of the experience of disillusionment in comparison with the sensibilities of the past. For Meland, this was an example of the appreciative consciousness at work in critical inquiry.

Meland’s notion of the appreciative consciousness is illustrative of a fundamental tenet of process thought highly relevant to the field of education. In the common use of our language, reason and critical inquiry are seen as cold, calculating, detached, unemotional. All too often this has been the goal of dispassionate scholarship, all too often stunting the richness of the emotional life.

In the process-relational vision, reason and emotion cannot be detached from each other nor from their "physical" base. Whitehead described the prehension of the past on the part of a momentary experience as the "feeling of feeling," which contrary to the typical, common usage of language also involves "intellectual feelings"; the greater the presence of intellectual feelings the greater the capacity for novelty. A quick and somewhat obvious example of the fundamental interrelatedness of reason and emotion is the excitement a student may feel about a particular subject matter that impels her/him to learn more.

This aspect of process thought has led some of its leading exponents, including Whitehead, Meland, Cobb, to contend for increased attention to concrete, lived experience in the education process. Process thinkers such as those just mentioned are critical of the rather one-sided emphasis on analytical thought, all too often at the expense of concrete experience. They have also stressed the much neglected role of the imagination.

Given the importance of feeling, intuition, concrete, lived experienced, and the role of the imagination, the process-relational vision has some common elements with the contemporary discussion of the need to be more attuned to "right" brain orientation. Much of our orientation is "left" brain, analytical, active, neglecting the intuitive, receptive "right" brain. Without denigrating the importance of the "left" brain, process thought would concur with the attempt to achieve a greater sense of wholeness between the two sides of mental activity. While I am not aware of significant discussions of this issue among process thinkers, Matthew Fox and Brian Swimme, who though not directly influenced by process thought nonetheless share the relational vision, have incorporated elements of this, particularly through the use of art, in their own education process in order to stimulate the "right" brain, the intuitive and imaginative capacities of the human mind.

True to the holistic, ecological character of the process-relational vision, its adherents have advocated equally holistic practices in education. While that sounds nebulous, it involves integration through exposure to disciplines other than one’s own and interdisciplinary, team teaching. It involves looking at the world holistically rather than as comprised of isolated, discrete substance, viewing reality in terms of wholes rather than constituent parts. It allows for the opportunity to integrate and unify the diverse elements of one’s educational experience.

In many ways, our education has at least begun to do some of this. Some medical schools are requiring courses on biomedical ethics, some business schools are requiring courses in business ethics, etc. Although a good beginning, it barely touches the tip of the iceberg.

Whitehead himself thought there needed to be a greater integration and coordination between what today is called liberal arts, and scientific and technical education. Although one of these areas may be one’s specialization, one’s education is truncated without some sort of coordinated exposure to the other areas. Whitehead thought that the lack of technical manual activity on the part of educated people caused a deprivation of stimuli, vital to creative thought, to the brain. While appreciating the importance of professionals, he contended that the fragmentation seen in specialization, certainly a product and reflection of the substantialist view of reality, is an impediment to progress.

In the best sense of the meaning of the word "university," unifying the diverse areas of knowledge, Whitehead maintained that the most vital function of the university is in preserving the relationship between knowledge and the zest for life and adventure. It does this by uniting young and old alike in an imaginative quest for learning. The university imparts information and knowledge, hopefully, in an imaginative way.

In their stimulating, original, and creative work entitled Christian Identity and Theological Education John Cobb and Joseph C. Hough, Jr. (the latter is not a process thinker) advocate some thoroughgoing reforms of theological education. Much in the manner of my previous discussion of tradition, they advocate the formation of a dynamic Christian identity through an active appropriation and reappropriation (prehension) of the tradition as it wrestles with important problems from a global perspective and the context of world history. Theologians need to be reflective practitioners or practical theologians as they deal with problems of importance: hunger, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, poverty, sexism, racism, anti-Judaism, the despoliation of the environment, the quest for liberation in all its forms, self-consciously as Christians. The curriculum they suggest, along with participation in the community of faith, is designed to shape Christian identity by an intense study of how groups and individuals created themselves as Christians as they responded to felt needs and wrestled with issues of ultimate significance in their age just as we do in ours.

Without any necessary connotation of Christianity or theological education, the proposals of Cobb and Hough are highly suggestive for other fields. In the training of professional ministers, they advocate training for thinking while practicing. That is, in fact, what most professionals do. Physicians when making diagnoses or performing surgery, as Cobb and Hough point Out, are reflecting while practicing.

In terms of the relevance of proposals advocated by Cobb and Hough for other disciplines, it might entail, let us say, a regular, ongoing exploration on the part of scientists on the effect of their research on society. It may involve consideration of the ethical dimension of certain kinds of research. Or it may involve business schools inquiring into the role and ethics of business management in an interdependent world. Or the role of schools and departments of agriculture in relation to the problems of poverty and hunger. The possibilities are tantalizing and nearly endless.

The process-relational vision also illuminates other dimensions of the problems we face in education. As we have seen, process thought not only affirms pluralism, which is reflected in our schools, universities, and colleges no less than in our society, but advocates such an attitude of openness towards individuals, groups, cultures, and ideas different from ourselves and our own groups, cultures, ideas that the possibility of increased contrast, richness of experience, of mutual transformation, without loss of integrity, is enhanced. This is particularly evident in process thinkers’ advocacy of the appropriation of the histories and experiences of groups and peoples whose histories, life experiences, and subjective agency has been denied: women, blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, Third World peoples, etc. Moreover, it is vital for teachers to model this appropriation in the classroom.

If, as we have seen, the emergency of richer, larger selves capable of taking into account larger and more diverse dimensions of their environments is enhanced by environments which are conducive to such emergence, educational environments make a profound difference in learning. Moreover, there is the significance of the home environment in which students live. It is almost a truism today that pupils who come from homes where learning and education are valued do better in school than those that do not. Finally, there is the impact of the larger societies of which we are a part. For example, in dealing with our educational problems, we might very well ask about the effect of the rampant anti-intellectualism of our society on the education process and institutions of learning. The process-relational vision has no ready-made solutions for these problems. But it does set forth a vision and a context within which the problems and the possible solutions can be creatively explored.

There are also the perennial issues involved in the various dimensions of education in a democracy. One aspect of the problem is administration; particularly in institutions of higher learning, treatment of various departments and their faculties is as discrete, isolated substances, seeking their own competing self interests, that need to be balanced, instead of a community of common inquiry embarked on the quest for a common vision. Throughout this book, I have emphasized the notion of reality as participatory. Consonant with this view is an understanding of education that is participatory, involving scholars, teachers, students, parents and the community at large in a common journey.

Much of today’s emphasis is on the instrumental value of education, a means to a better job and higher standard of living. In accord with Whitehead’s stress on civilization and the civilized human being, process thought, to be sure, sees education as certainly of instrumental value but also of intrinsic value.

There is a marvelous story in Hasidic Judaism about a man lost in the forest. The more he tried to find his way, the more he got lost: the foliage got thicker, the trees taller until he could barely see the sky. Finally, he stumbled onto a clearing where he found an old man. He asked the old man if he would show him the way out of the forest. After a long pensive pause that seemed like an eternity, the old man replied, "No, I won’t show you the way out; but together we’ll find the way." With the caveat that teachers do have something to impart and do serve as midwives in the learning process, the story captures the vision of a community of co-learners embarked on the common journey of learning the art of life.


For Further Reading

Whitehead’s ideas about education are contained in Whitehead, Alfred North, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: A Mentor Book, The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1963), and in the final chapter of his Science and the Modern World (New York: A Mentor Book, The New American Library of World Literature, Inc., 1956), Chapter XIII, "Requisites for Social Progress," pp. 192-208.

For a different view within the process perspective, the empirical side, see Wieman, Henry Nelson, Man’s Ultimate Commitment (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967), Chapter 9, "Education under Commitment," pp. 186-204.

For other works on education from a process perspective, see Brumbaugh, Robert S., and Lawrence, Nathaniel M., eds., Philosophers on Education: Six Essays on the Foundations of Western Thought (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1963), pp. 154-184); Brumbaugh, Robert S., Whitehead, Process Philosophy, and Education, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982); Ferre, Frederick, Shaping the Future: Resources for the Post-Modern World (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1976), especially Chapter 8, "Hope in Educational Institutions," pp. 144-163; Johnson, Allison H., "Whitehead’s Discussion of Education," Education, 66, 1946, pp. 653-671; by the same author, Whitehead’s Philosophy of Civilization (New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1962); Meland, Bernard E., Higher Education and the Human Spirit (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1965).

The proposals of John B. Cobb, Jr., and Joseph C. Hough, Jr., for the reform of theological education may be found in Christian Identity and Theological Education (Chico, California: The Scholars Press, 1985). See also Cobb’s "Theology as Thoughtful Response to the Divine Call," in Jennings, Theodore W., Jr., ed., The Vocation of the Theologian (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985, pp. 104-119).

For a suggestive work on religious education from a process perspective, see Moore, Mary Elizabeth, Education for Continuity and Change: A New Model for Christian Religious Education (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983).

For the ideas of Matthew Fox and Brian Swimme, see their previously mentioned works at the end of the last chapter. I saw their use of art in the educational process at the annual meeting of Educators and Trainers for Ministry, where they held a symposium on "Space and the Spirit," held in April, 1987, at Los Altos, California.

There have been several conferences held between process thinkers and educational theorists. A new, ongoing group has been established under the leadership of the previously mentioned Robert S. Brumbaugh. A forthcoming issue of the journal Process Studies will be devoted to process thought and education. For further information, contact the Center for Process Studies, School of Theology at Claremont, 1325 N. College, Claremont, California 91711.