Alfred North Whitehead and Classical Education

Dear Reader,

In my quest for a reformed Christian philosophy of education, I have read a lot of books. One I had seen cited by others a number of times was Alfred North Whitehead’s Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, 1967; orig. pub. 1929). Since he seemed so influential, I figured I had to read his book eventually and the time finally came during this lovely quarantine.

As its name implies, Aims of Education is a compilation of essays, most but not all of which are on education (a few later in the book are on science which I suppose is not a wholly unrelated subject).  There are a number of stimulating ideas I got from this slim volume which we will get to in a follow-up post. Today I’d like to look at Whitehead’s take on classical education and his influence on later classical educators. Specifically, I would like to ask these later educators, particularly the Christian ones: Why on earth are you quoting this guy?!

It’s not that Whitehead doesn’t have some good ideas. And it’s not that his own philosophy does not appeal to classical education. But Whitehead himself is not Christian. He is in fact fairly anti-religious and is an adherent of process philosophy (we’ll get to what that is in a minute). His use of classical sources and methods is as part of a larger philosophy of education and my impression is that he uses them in a very utilitarian way (which will appeal to some modern classical people but not others). Finally, the one most famous line from Whitehead, which I have seen cited multiple times, is, I think, taken out of context and used to mean something very different from what he meant.

I’ve made a lot of accusations so let’s begin to unpack this a bit. With Whitehead’s work, more even than others we have looked at, the ideas behind the philosophy of education are pivotal. These ideas come from the mind of a man and so it is with the man that we will begin.

The Man and His Ideas

Alfred North Whitehead was first and foremost a mathematician. He was British but worked in the US for some time at Harvard University. He lived in the early 1900s and the volume I am reviewing seems to have been written during his time at Harvard after WWI. We have seen in the past that so many philosophies of education arose in the wake of the Great War. [1] It really affected people on a profound level and the answer for many was to say, “How can education help us ensure that this never happens again?” Whitehead’s father was an Anglican minister [2], and he seems to be knowledgeable about the Bible. He is, as Frank Gaebelein said in another book I read recently, immersed in the world of the Bible though he does not subscribe to it. [3]

In terms of his intellectual context, Whitehead was a follower of John Dewey and the teacher of Bertrand Russell, with whom he wrote his most famous work, Principia Mathematica. Russell is perhaps best-known for his 1957 volume Why I am Not a Christian. Dewey is known as the father of the modern American school system. I have reviewed his ideas previously in this post and this one. One of the things we noted when we looked at Dewey was that his ideas come very much from an evolutionary mindset. They are materialistic in that they consider the material world and discount a spiritual element, and they are evolution-based in that they see life and education as a process of adapting to one’s environment. Dewey himself was influenced by William James, a psychologist known for his radical empiricism which says that “the world and experience can never be halted for an entirely objective analysis; the mind of the observer and the act of observation affect any empirical approach to truth.” [4]

In the final chapters of Aims of Education, those which deal with science, we can see the influence of the materialism and evolutionary mindset of Dewey and the pragmatism of James most clearly. Here Whitehead lays out his views of what science does. I will admit upfront that a fair degree of this went over my head. My quick synopsis would be as follows: What we know we know through our senses. We perceive the world not in instants but in small chunks of time. The fodder of science, what it has to act upon, is these “sense-objects,” which is to say objects as we perceive them. Whitehead recognizes that mankind cannot agree about science if it does not agree about “what really is” (p. 122). He recognizes as well that science should be related to metaphysics or ontology. It is the “determination of the nature of what truly exists” (p. 121). In practice, however, he sees that there are many factors which affect our “sense-presentation.” Memory affects us. Our presuppositions affect us. The time and space in which we encounter a given object affect how we perceive it. [5] The miracle is actually that we have any common ground with one another. Thus while there may be a reality behind it all, we can know it only through our senses which are affected by many external and internal factors.

Whitehead gives many examples. My favorite is that of a cat (pp. 125-26). We say that we see a particular cat but in reality in a few years it may contain a completely new set of molecules. Yet we still somehow know that this is Fluffy and not Patches. We may determine that Fluffy is glad to see us, but all we can perceive is mewing and leg-rubbing. Our minds fill in and give meaning to these sensations. In the dark we may just hear the mewing but again we say that we perceive a cat.

When I say that I perceive something like a chair and speak of it, I assume that you have roughly the same experience of this “chair.” “[T] he vision of a chair” occurs “for some definite person at some definite time . . . It is his vision, though each of us guesses that it must be uncommonly like our vision under analogous circumstances” (p. 135). What we perceive are certain molecules and waves of light as they play upon our sense organs, but we say “chair” and we assume that the other person perceives things in roughly the same way.

Both the chair and the cat, for Whitehead, are intellectual constructions (p. 136), “hypothetical thought-objects of perception” (p. 133). That is, we have certain perceptions and we make conclusions about cats and chairs. “The material universe,” says Whitehead, “is largely a concept of the imagination which rests on a slender basis of direct sense-presentation. But none the less it is a fact; for it is a fact that actually we imagine it. Thus it is actual in our consciousness just as sense-presentation is actual there” (p. 133).

And what of human beings? For Whitehead, what we are is a product of our self-determination. We cannot control our circumstances but we can control how we take them. Though sensation and perception are important, we are not entirely controlled by them. We can determine how we feel. [6]

Whitehead does not deny that there is something absolute out there, but in practice, we cannot know anything absolute. What exists exists in our minds because that is all we can know. Everything, for us, is ultimately experiential. [7] He acknowledges that there is an “infinitude” we are trying to grasp but at the same time says that “All truths are half-truths.” [8] Elsewhere he does speak of God. Whitehead’s God is the source of novelty and change and gives value and beauty to the world [9], but He is not a personal God — either in the sense of having a relationship with man or of being Himself a Person.

Speaking of religion, Whitehead says that it is “‘the vision of something which stands beyond, behind, and within'” yet he seems to believe that though men strive they are never able to know this thing that gives it all meaning. [10] Religion may be used for good or evil or be morally neutral. It has been “‘the main instrument for progress'” but also has done quite a lot of ill. [11]

This is my very primitive understanding of Whitehead’s personal philosophy. The question before us next is what his philosophy of education is and how it reflects his views.

Whitehead on Education

Education for Whitehead is the acquiring of ideas which are then to be utilized. He warns against “‘inert ideas'” which “are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations” (p. 1). This need to apply ideas is not entirely utilitarian. Whitehead does value understanding for its own sake (p. 2). “By utilising an idea,” he says, “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” (p. 3).

Because he seeks to imbue children with active and not inert ideas, Whitehead eschews those methods which tend to make education more of a dead thing. He is against standardizing the curriculum or standardized examinations (pp. 5, 9, 13). His ideal is a small class whose curriculum is determined by the teacher as being best able to tailor it to his particular students (p. 9). It is always possible to “pump into the minds of a class a certain quantity of inert knowledge” (p. 5), but this is not the goal. His goal for education is not facts but an understanding of broad trends such as “the curves of history” (p. 8).

We have seen in many (if not all) the approaches to education that we have looked at, certain underlying assumptions about the nature of children. Though Whitehead sees ages 16 through 30 as the major time of self-development and speaks of birth through age 12 as a time of training (p. 1), yet he also seems to see children as having minds as capable as those of adults. The mind, he says, is always active. It does not need to be honed before it is used, though there does seem to be honing which goes on (p. 6).

Whitehead also stresses the interconnectedness of all subjects. “There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations” (pp. 6-7). Though man naturally tends to specialize, this should be discouraged until later years (pp. 10-11).

Getting more to specifics, Whitehead says that “Life is essentially periodic” (p. 17). His approach to education is also periodic on a few different levels. Each subject has a trajectory from romance to precision to generalisation (p. 17). Not all subjects will be in these stages at the same time, however. One begins with subjects like history and science comes later so that one may be in the precision stage in one subject and the romance stage in another. There is a rhythm as well of freedom and discipline that the student again moves in and out of in the various subjects (pp. 29-31). Education, for Whitehead, is very cyclical, with these patterns repeating themselves (p. 19).

What we often think of as education — the learning of facts, the grammar stage of classical education — is the second stage, that of precision (p. 18). But it must always be preceded by the romance stage, that which captures the imagination (this is akin to the poetic knowledge of which James K. Taylor speaks). The final stage, generalisation, is that of fruition or synthesis (p. 19). In the end one aims not to know facts but to grasp principles so that the facts may even be forgotten when the whole is grasped (pp. 26, 37). As the student moves through the various stages and phases of education, there is a strong emphasis on imagination. The initial romance stage of any subject is to capture the imagination and in the final generalisation stage one returns to it. [Whitehead spends a chapter discussing the importance of imagination at the university level (pp. 91ff).]

Though the role of the teacher is at times important, especially in the stages of precision and discipline (p. 35), the goal is for the student to be self-disciplined and to develop as an individual (p. 39). The role of the teacher is to “elicit enthusiasm by resonance” and to create an environment which makes knowledge and purpose desirable (pp. 39-40).

The curriculum itself has three sides: literary, scientific, and technical (p. 48). Whitehead spends some time arguing for the necessity of the technical which tends to be either neglected or misunderstood. He is thinking here os something hands-on but not intellectual. Technical education produces workmen who know and love their field. The image is of the expert woodworker or plumber who is able not just to build according to specifications but to innovate and to troubleshoot. Literary education has to do with all those subjects which involve language and is most akin to classical education. Thus we see that classical (which we will return to below) is one part of education for Whitehead, but not the whole. Scientific education has to do with natural phenomena. It should largely involve first-hand knowledge. No education could possibly hope to be complete and a given individual will tend to emphasize one of these three over the others, but all should have some of each in their education.

For a Charlotte Mason homeschooler, many of the words Whitehead uses sound good — imagination and ideas particularly. Yet we need to be careful to understand these words in the way Whitehead himself does and to view them in the light of his broader philosophy (while at the same time acknowledging that his philosophy of education may not always match his overall philosophy — we humans can be inconsistent). When Whitehead talks of ideas and imagination, it is because these for him are reality. At least, they are all of reality we can know. What we know is not what is but our perception of what is. We have some control over this perception and so our reaction to our environment is very important as well. Facts are less important and can even be forgotten at higher levels because they are not ultimately what is true for us. Thus the goal of education is to develop the individual’s imagination because it is in his imagination that his reality exists.

Whitehead and Classical Education

Whitehead is often cited by later proponents of the neo-classical movement and he does indeed spend some time discussing classical education, but I think it is a bit of a jump to say that he himself is classical. As we have seen, what might be thought of as traditional classical education forms one part of education for Whitehead. It roughly corresponds to his literary curriculum.

Because classical is a very broad term, I recently did a post on the characteristics of classical education. I think it would be helpful to look at Whitehead’s approach in terms of this list to see where he does and does not line up with classical. Note that one does not need to meet each of these criteria to be considered classical. There is no solid line between classical and not-classical but having all or most of these characteristics certainly makes one classical and having a few  only probably means one is not classical.

The characteristics are:

  1. Reference to classical, mostly ancient Greek, authors as authorities in determining one’s philosophy. (eg. quoting Aristotle a lot)
  2. Use of materials from classical (Greek and Roman) authors. Here I am talking not about how one develops one’s philosophy (as in #1 above) but about what books and resources are actually used by the student.
  3. Frequent use of the word “virtue” and reference to virtue as a (or the) goal of education.
  4. A belief that virtue can be taught and/or learned. This may be phrased in various ways, but on some level virtue comes through education.
  5. Education as discipleship. A prominent role given to the teacher as a role-model.
  6. Related to #5, imitation as a primary means of education.
  7. A disciplinary approach to education. I use the word disciplinary here not in the sense of correcting one’s wrongs but in the sense Jaarsma uses it in his list of four approaches to education (see this post). A disciplinary approach seeks to shape the student.
  8. The idea that there is a body of knowledge outside of man which needs to be learned.
  9. Related to #8, the belief that there is a list of books or resources which all students should learn, a common body of knowledge.
  10. An emphasis on Western civilization and culture.
  11. The idea that there are absolutes of truth, beauty, and goodness which are transcendental and exist outside of man.
  12. A belief that truth can be known.
  13. A high view of man as one who is more than just physicality and who is able to know truth.
  14. Questioning as a means of education. The word dialectic may be used to describe this process and one may say phrases like “the most important thing is to learn to ask the right questions.”
  15. An emphasis on rhetoric and learning to speak well.
  16. Learning of dead languages, especially Greek and Latin.
  17. The learning of logical argumentation.
  18. A rejection of a purely scientific view of knowledge.
  19. The use of terms like “poetic knowledge” or “musical knowledge” to refer to a kind of understanding which is intuitive and/or non-scientific.
  20. A staged approach to education in which children at progress through different kinds of learning at different ages.
  21. A hierarchical view of the fields of knowledge with philosophy and/or theology at the top.

Starting at the top, we find that while Whitehead discusses some of the ancients (#s 1 & 2 above), he does not trace his overall philosophy of education to them.  He uses some ancient sources but also advocates the use of more modern sources for certain subjects. He does not, as many more modern writers do, place Greek and Roman authors on a pedestal, saying instead that “the ancients can boast over us no superiority” (p. 29). He finds the traditional western, classical cannon too narrow and recommends more modern authors as well, naming Shakespeare, Newton, and Darwin. Looking beyond western civilization, he also says, “I have my doubts of a selection which includes Xenophon and omits Confucius” (p. 47). Though he advocates the learning of Latin and the reading of Roman authors for their disciplinary and historical value, he is quite critical of them: “One of the merits of Roman literature is its comparative lack of outstanding genius . . . Very little Roman literature will find its way into the kingdom of heaven . . .” (pp. 67-68).

Whitehead is critical of classical methods as well:

” . . . [the ancients] erred sadly. To put the matter simply, their popular practice assumed that wisdom could be imparted to the young by procuring philosophers to spout at them.” (p. 30)

Yet Whitehead is not entirely negative on classical education. He says that the “Platonic Ideal has rendered imperishable services to European civilisation” (p. 46). Yet it is not the be-all and end-all of education for him. A classic liberal arts education, he says, is a very good education for certain people (p. 46).

Regarding virtue (#3&4), Whitehead again has some reference to virtue and his philosophy allows for the idea of a higher ideal out there somewhere but I would not say that he makes virtue the main goal in the way classical educators do. The development of the imagination, more than virtue, is the goal for Whitehead and, as we have seen, imagination has more to do with one’s concept of reality than with virtue. (This is a topic we will return to below as well when we discuss Whitehead’s most oft-quoted sentence.) To the extent that he has higher values, it is not virtues like godliness or honesty of patience or bravery that Whitehead extols. His highest good seems to be the aesthetic sense, the appreciation of beauty (pp. 12, 40).

Whitehead does have a fairly prominent role for the teacher (#5&6), especially at certain stages, though this role is meant to diminish over time (an idea not unfamiliar to other adherents of classical). His approach is at times disciplinary (#7) in that certain subjects are learned for their shaping or molding value. This is especially true of those elements of classical which he includes. That is to say, he incorporates classical bits like the learning of Greek and Latin for their disciplinary value. They are not valued so much for their own sake, as pure knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but as “subsidiary means for the furtherance of this ulterior object” (p. 63). Thus Latin stimulates mental expansion (p. 65) but it does not even matter in the long run if one forgets one’s Latin so long as one retains the skills learned.

Numbers 8 through 12 all have to do with what stands outside of man, with absolutes. Again, Whitehead has some belief in absolutes, especially with regard to beauty, but he also does not believe that man can ultimately know these truths (#12). This is a significant departure from classical thought. To some extent the truths which may be out there are irrelevant to Whitehead’s philosophy because we cannot truly know them.

The end of the list, numbers 14 through 21, have to do mostly with more practical specifics. We will run through these fairly quickly — Whitehead makes no reference to dialectic (#14) or to a hierarchy of knowledge (#21). Nor can I find that he particularly uses or addresses rhetoric (#15) and argumentation (#17). He does include the learning of classical languages (#16), albeit for purposes of training the mind more than for their own sake. While I would not say that Whitehead rejects purely scientific knowledge (#18), his approach to education and philosophy is quite modern and scientific in that he begins with man’s senses and what he can know and works from there. Modern science is a part and not the whole of his education, but scientific presuppositions underlie it all. Yet there is some understanding of what might be called poetic or non-scientific knowledge (#19) that shows up particularly in the first and third stages of his educational cycle, romance and generalisation. In each of these it is the love of knowledge which is the focus. There is, as we have seen, a kind of staging of education here (#20) but it is not at all like Sayers’ three-stage view of education. For one thing, it is cyclical so that one may be in all three stages at once, albeit in different subjects.

In discussing the place of classical education in the modern world (which for him was the early 1900s), Whitehead extols the past virtues of the approach but at the same time says that “Humpty Dumpty was a good egg so long as he was on top of the wall, but you can never set him up again” (p. 61). Thus, to sum up Whitehead’s take on classical and his use of it we must say that while he acknowledges its benefits, especially its past benefits to society, and takes from it some elements, he does not identify himself as classical and does not see a classical education as a complete education or one appropriate to the modern world.

“The Habitual Vision of Greatness”

There remains one topic for us to delve into and that is to parse out that most-oft quoted line of Whitehead’s:

“Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness.” (p. 69)

This quote is taken to mean that we must give students an ideal — a vision of greatness– which is placed before them regularly (habitually) in order for them to develop virtue (moral education). Thus the classics are used as these “visions of greatness.” The present an ideal. Some Christian authors will note that this is an ideal we can never reach on this life and even perhaps that there are models beyond the classical to which we should look, but the idea is the same: that we use classical sources with their emphasis on virtue in order to present an inspiring ideal. [12]

In this understanding the greatness spoken of is something external to the individual which inspires him to do and be more. But this does not seem to be quite what Whitehead is saying. First of all, we must notice that he looks primarily to Roman and not Greek sources, though he sees the former as the arbiter of the latter. Secondly, he is honest about the failings of these sources. We have seen that he does not view them as great literature. Though not himself a Christian, he notes that it is Rome which is condemned by the Book of Revelation as the harlot and the Great Babylon (p. 68). Her vices, he says, are as great as her virtues (p. 69). It is in this context that Whitehead then makes his famous statement. Here is the full context:

“Moral education is impossible apart from the habitual vision of greatness. If we are not great, it does not matter what we do or what is the issue. Now the sense of greatness is an immediate intuition and not the conclusion of an argument. It is permissible for youth in the agonies of religious conversion to entertain the feeling of being a worm and no man, so long as there remains the conviction of greatness sufficient to justify the eternal wrath of God. The sense of greatness is the groundwork of morals.” (p. 69)

Greatness here is not a goal to which one aspires. It is the foundation. It must come first. The Christian conviction of sin and of humility before God is at best a brief stage and even in the midst of it one must feel some sense of self-importance, enough at least to merit the wrath of God. Whitehead says here, as I understand him, not that we should be good because we look to an Ideal but that we should be good because we are great. Now it is possible that this is how some secular or non-Christian proponents of classical would understand the thing, but this is a distinctly un-Christian idea and it is usually taken, as often as I have seen it quoted, out of context.

Wrapping Up

Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of education has its feet in two worlds. He stands at the end of a tradition of classical education which to some extent he still acknowledges and incorporates to a degree that more modern educators do not. Yet in his personal philosophy is so very, very modern in the sense of being scientific and relying on the presuppositions of modern science and not on faith, religion, or even morality. There are some good ideas in his book (which again I will return to in another post) and there is certainly a lot to make one think. But in the end, everything he says must be taken with quite a large grain of salt recognizing that his beliefs and presuppositions are very different from our own. At times the words he uses may sound familiar and right but we must be careful to read them in light of the ideas behind them. Though he is often referred to and quoted by advocates of modern classical education, he is not a classical educator and does not identify himself as one but distinctly rejects classical education.

Nebby

Notes:

[1] Other educational thinkers from this period include Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner (founder of the Waldorf Method). Charlotte Mason worked in this period as well though her work began in the late 1800s.

[2] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[3] Frank Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth (Portland, OR: Multnomal Press 1985) p. 190.

[4] “William James,” Wikipedia (accessed 5/7/2020).

[5] Whitehead also met Abert Einstein and was very much interested in his theory of relativity (“Alfred . . . ” in Stanford). We can perhaps see traces of this idea here — our perception, and therefore our reality, is affected by the time and space in which we perceive it.

[6] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Smitha, p. 2.

[9] “Alfred . . . ” in Stanford.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Frank Gaelebein, one of my favorite writers, is among those who quote this line. He is also one who looks not primarily to classical but to biblical ideals:

“Unfortunately, Whitehead lets us down as he points to the history and culture of ancient Greece and Rome as ‘the habitual vision of greatness.’ Certainly for the Christian writer, ‘the habitual vision of greatness’  is not classical history and literature but the Bible, the Word of the living God.” (Gaebelein, The Christian, The Arts, and Truth ,p. 189)

I had it in my head that Clark and Jain in The Liberal Arts Tradition also quote this particulat line though I cannot find the passage now. For more on the classical ideal see this post on David Hicks’ Norms and Nobility

Bibliography

Alfred North Whitehead,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (revised 9/4/2018).

“Alfred North Whitehead,” Wikipedia (accessed 5/7/2020).

Smitha, Frank E. “Dewey, Russell, and Whitehead,” Macrohistory: World History (accessed 5/7/2020).

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] I recently gave my take on Alfred North Whitehead’s philosophy of education as presented in his Aims of Education and Other Essays (New York: The Free Press, 1967; orig. pub. 1929). Though Whitehead is not Christian and has as his basis a rather modern and godless philosophy, along the way he manages to say some insightful things and so I wanted to take some time to talk about some of the ideas I gleaned from his book. […]

    Reply

  2. […] so often (it is just one line that they particularly like). Read all my thoughts on Whitehead here. An interesting read but not […]

    Reply

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