Alfred North Whitehead Follow-Up

Dear Reader,

This is part of an ongoing series in search of a reformed philosophy theology of education. You can find all the posts here.

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.

As we saw last time, Whitehead, though often cited by classical educators, made classical education (or some derivative thereof) just a part of his approach to education. He added to this “literary education” both scientific and technical education (p. 48). It is the latter I particularly want to look at.

In the many books on education which I have read, there have been various ways of incorporating hands-on elements. Christian writers are quick to point out that man consists of both body and spirit and that our approach to education should somehow recognize and accommodate this fact. For my own part, I have tended to define education as the intellectual and to leave aside the physical, hands-on aspects. I am convicted by Whitehead that this is perhaps not quite the right tack.

Part of what had led me to this intellectually-based approach to education was a discomfort with the various ways in which the physical seemed to be artificially tacked on to education.  Whitehead also recognizes that a lot of what passes for the physical in education may be physical but is not really education:

” . . . in teaching you will come to grief as soon as you forget that your pupils have bodies. This is exactly the mistake of the post-renaissance Platonic curriculum. But nature can be kept at bay by no pitchfork . . . being expelled from the classroom, she returned with a cap and bellsin the form of all-conquering athleticism.” (p. 50)

In other words, medieval classical education did not include or acknowledge the physical side of man which nonetheless refused to be excluded. People need to be kept active and so sports — what we now call physical education — came to take the place of something equally physical but more educative.

What should real “physical education” look like? Whitehead calls it technical education which perhaps gets a little closer to the idea though it also conjures up some false ideas based on the modern use of the term. For Whitehead, technical education, while hands-on is by no means un-intellectual. Though the hands may be engaged, the mind is still very involved. A technical education such as Whitehead proposes is more akin to what we would call craftsmanship. It is the sort of education which can produce master carpenters and plumbers, those who not only know how to cut a board and fix a leak but who can trouble shoot, who understand, almost on an intuitive level, the materials of their trade and can use and apply them, who can plan and execute complex projects.

If this technical education is excluded, Whitehead tells us, the intellectual will suffer as well:

“The disuse of hand-craft is a contributory cause to the brain-lethargy of aristocracies . . .  Great readers, who exclude other activities, are not distinguished by subtlety of brain.”(p. 51)

Though the two are spoken of as separate categories, “[t]here can be no adequate technical education which is not liberal, and no liberal education which is not technical” (p. 48).

Whitehead has a high view of work which, though he abandoned his Christian upbringing, seems quite biblical. It is at least in part from this view that his advocacy of technical education arises. He also, again quite biblically, recognizes that since the Fall man’s work is not always as easy or delightful as it should be (p. 44). One of my big criticisms of Charlotte Mason’s educational philosophy which has led me to try to devise my own approach to education is her underestimating the effects of the Fall. Here in a non-Christian author, I find some hint of what needs to be added to our approach to account for those effects. It is simply this: Kids aren’t always going to enjoy learning and they aren’t always going to be good at it. By God’s grace, there will be times when their little eyes light up with joy and understanding, but we must not be surprised when they struggle and when they resist us.

This is one of the biggest questions I hear in my local Charlotte Mason discussion group when moms actually get together and talk about the nitty-gritty of how we do this: Why doesn’t my child love the good books I am putting before him? Why isn’t this all clicking like Miss Mason said it should? There is a reason we are not unschoolers. Unschooling says that children will gravitate towards that they need to know, that they by nature will recognize and acquire what is best for them. It assumes a very positive view of human nature. Charlotte Mason does not go quite so far but she also does not do enough to account for the fallenness of man. Education is a lot like sharing one’s faith. We do so in the hope that God will act but we must also not be surprised when what we offer is rejected. That rejection also does not mean that we don’t try again the next day with the same enthusiasm.

These are the two big ideas I got from Whitehead’s work. There are a number of smaller ideas to be gleaned as well. In the interest of time, I will present them as bullet points:

  • “The curves of history are more vivid and more informing than the dry catalogues of names and dates . . .  ” (p. 8)
  • “But mankind is naturally specialist . . . I am certain that in education whenever you exclude specialism you destroy life” (p. 10).  Whitehead, like Mason, argues for a fairly broad education and for not allowing children to specialize (i.e. to concentrate almost exclusively on one subject area) until a fairly late age, and yet he makes this statement. We have all known those kids who are obsessed with one area or idea. It may end up being a life long obsession or they may move in and out of various obsessions. This quote makes me think that we may need to do more to accommodate these passions which still requiring that broad education.
  • We must not postpone harder subjects. The hardest things kids have to learn they learn first in life — understanding language and talking (p. 16).
  • Like Charlotte Mason, Whitehead argues that the thing most analogous to education is eating. To educate is nto to shove things in like packing a suitcase.  Education is like food which must be assimilated by the organism. “When you put your boots in a trunk, they will stay there until you take them out again; but this is not at all the case if you feed a child with the wrong food” (p. 33).
  • “The great English Universities, under whose direct authority school-children are examined in plays of Shakespeare, to the destruction of their enjoyment, should be prosecuted for soul murder.” (p. 57)

And finally this: “education is a difficult problem, to be solved by no one simple formula” (p. 36).

Nebby

 

2 responses to this post.

  1. […] Because man is both spirit and body, education should also involve the physical. This “hands-on” side of education should not involve merely physical action but should seek to employ the body in ways which also engage the mind. The ideal is not what we today call “physical education” but a kind of hands-on, technical, educated craftsmanship.   (Whitehead Follow-Up) […]

    Reply

  2. […] that she does not take fully into account. Oddly enough, I have found this idea most clearly in a non-Christian writer I encountered recently, Alfred North Whitehead. The Fall, he says, makes education not as easy as it should be because we do not have the joy in […]

    Reply

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