‘Knowledge does not keep any better than fish’: A.N. Whitehead and the aims of education

Whitehead, A.N. 1929. The Aims of Education and other essays. The Free Press: New York.

Whitehead presents the aim of education as producing ‘[people] who possess both culture and expert knowledge… their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art’ (p1). He also says that ‘in training a child to activity of thought…we must beware of…ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.’ He argues that education with inert ideas is not only useless but harmful.

Whitehead’s views on education stem from his particular ontology, which is well-developed in his seminal book Process and Reality, but not so well-established in my own mind yet. The crucial aspect of his ontology as I see it is that mind and matter are one; things ‘in’ our minds exist on the same basis as things ‘outside’ our minds. So, when we observe the stars, the starlight exists in our minds. We’re not just made of stardust, we’re also made of starlight. It’s kind of beautiful; it means things exist by way of our perceiving them. As I listened to a talk on Whitehead’s ontology, I was looking out of my patio doors and regarding the wooden trellis separating my yard from the common beyond. The brown of the trellis exists in its perception. Brownness is an eternal object.

Considering this, I was reminded of the scene in Bruce Parry’s new documentary Tawai: Voice of the Forest, where Bruce is talking to the monks by the Ganges. One of the monks is describing conscious selves as like bowls of water. There are many different bowls, but the same sun is reflected in each of them. There might be a loose connection here with Whitehead’s ontology or it might be the essence of it. I guess I’m thinking that if the sun exists in the bowls like consciousness exists in our minds, i.e. with an external referent; a star 93 million miles away, or a collective consciousness, say, this is the same idea as brownness existing in our minds in reference to things that are brown. I’ll carry on thinking about that.

I think Whitehead’s observation that the mind is not an inert receptacle is crucial, and rarely foregrounded when claims are made about ‘what works’ in education. Students are not inert and neither are their teachers; they are living, breathing, complex organisms with histories and tendencies and interpretive capacities. Students react to our teaching in unpredictable ways. If we were to place an unknown metal into an unknown clear liquid, it might fizz, explode, turn green, or slowly rust. Our students’ reactions affect and change us too, and we should attend to this. If we see learners as black holes into which our teaching vanishes, we don’t recognise the part of them that becomes part of us.

Curricula and methods should therefore be adaptable by institutions, teachers and students according to their various needs and talents. This imperative is perhaps more relevant to compulsory schooling than to higher education, but Whitehead comes onto that later.

The second chapter of Whitehead’s Aims of Education presents a Rhythm of Education. I am skeptical of any model of learning that claims linearity. For example, the different ‘stages’ of grief are sometimes presented as reeling (e.g. denial), feeling (e.g. anger, guilt), dealing (seeking guidance) and healing (acceptance). In reality, especially when the grieving process is delayed (e.g. in the case of suppressed childhood trauma), one tends to oscillate between all the stages in a seemingly chaotic fashion. I believe one’s academic education proceeds likewise (Ray Land’s paper on the semiotics of learning attempts to chart the chaos). In practice, Whitehead’s proposed three stages of Romance, Precision and Generalisation are scrambled. The interconnected, interdisciplinary nature of knowledge means that we are encountering new romantic possibilities all the time (cf. the paper John White presented at PESGB on love in education, and the ensuing discussion I had with David about love triangles and ‘monogamous’ learning). There are always new insights to be gained that threaten to blow our generalisations out of the water. I think this is what Whitehead is acknowledging when he describes the rhythm as ‘an interweaving of cycles, the whole process being dominated by a greater cycle of the same general character as its minor eddies.’ (p27), and he does conclude the chapter with a recognition that the three stages are present throughout; it is their dominance that alternates.

I skipped to Chapter 7 to discover what Whitehead had to say on university education in particular. I felt skeptical towards his claim that the spirit or stage of generalisation is dominant here, but around 100 years ago when Whitehead was writing this, America was beginning to follow the German model of incorporating research into its activities. I believe it is this to which Whitehead is referring when he says that the US had taken a forward step which ‘may prove to be one of the most fortunate’ for civilisation. In praising university research per se, Whitehead may have been referring to the more benign technological developments and the likes of the Frankfurt School, rather than the intensive research and development of weaponry (at this point the nuclear bomb and the smartphone were mere twinkles of evil). It was shortly after this address (1930 to be precise) that Maynard Keynes predicted technology and automation would mean – within a couple of generations (he specified his own grandchildren) – we would be enjoying a 2 day working week and a five day weekend. We all know that this didn’t happen. Keynes was (ironically) working too hard to produce any offspring of his own, but two years ago David Kestenbaum interviewed his sister’s grandchildren, with darkly comic results.

Whitehead identifies the formation of business schools as a turning point in the purpose of a university education. I felt that I detected a subtext running under his arguments – particularly through pages 94-95 – that scholars of business are directing their considerable imagination and intellect towards the corruption and manufacture of desire, rather than the salvation of humanity. It is understandable that Whitehead would keep such a view veiled, as I believe this chapter was an address he made at the opening of the Harvard Business School in 1928. He compares the modern world with simpler times, when business transactions were ‘based on the immediate contact of man with man and on immediate confrontation with all relevant material circumstances.’ An example of this might be that you are hungry, you see a woman selling mangoes, and you buy a mango. In contrast, a multinational food corporation requires ‘an imaginative grasp of the psychologies of populations engaged in differing modes of occupation.’ (p94). Consumers become mere data points. The sustenance of the business is the end, reliable sales become the means, and the actual sustenance of the consumer is forgotten. It is possible that I am reading more into Whitehead’s words than he intended, but I don’t think I am; I think he was simply being very clever in the words he used at Harvard. In any case, a hundred years have passed, and they have gained in significance.

For Whitehead, ‘the justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest for life.’ (p93). I read this as a concise explanation of the value of humanity in a world of artificial intelligence. For a computer, a fact is a bare fact. Without imaginative consideration, a fact cannot be ‘invested with all its possibilities’. A computer cannot become excited. And, as Whitehead states in the first paragraph of the book: ‘A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God’s earth.’ (p1)

The one thing I would question about Whitehead’s view of universities is his use of the word discipline. He believes the task of a university is ‘to weld together imagination and experience’, and talks of the ‘discipline of imagination’. Discipline is a funny word in education. It has one meaning in the context of compulsory schooling and another beyond that, but both have the same root, which is one of constraint. Can we therefore speak of a ‘discipline of imagination’? To me, everything that Whitehead says on the matter of imagination and learning describes a state of playfulness rather than one of discipline; ‘some leisure, freedom from restraint, freedom from harassing worry, some variety of experiences, and the stimulation of other minds.’ (p97). Both philosophy and art (returning to the opening sentence of this post) are very obviously playful in nature, and it is easy to see how other ‘disciplines’ may also be framed as such. I believe this is actually what Whitehead is arguing for. If he does have Puritan sympathies (as alluded to at the close of Chapter 7), this might explain his reluctance to admit it.


N.B. The quote ‘knowledge does not keep any better than fish’ appears on p98.

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