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North Whitehead, Alfred – The need for a radical new approach to education

Identifier

025758

Type of spiritual experience

Background

Wikipedia

Whitehead showed a deep concern for educational reform at all levels. In addition to his numerous individually written works on the subject, Whitehead was appointed by Britain's Prime Minister David Lloyd George as part of a 20-person committee to investigate the educational systems and practices of the UK in 1921 and recommend reform.

Whitehead's most complete work on education is the 1929 book The Aims of Education and Other Essays, which collected numerous essays and addresses by Whitehead on the subject published between 1912 and 1927. The essay from which Aims of Education derived its name was delivered as an address in 1916 when Whitehead was president of the London Branch of the Mathematical Association. In it, he cautioned against the teaching of what he called "inert ideas" – ideas that are disconnected scraps of information, with no application to real life or culture. He opined that "education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful."

Rather than teach small parts of a large number of subjects, Whitehead advocated teaching a relatively few important concepts that the student could organically link to many different areas of knowledge, discovering their application in actual life. For Whitehead, education should be the exact opposite of the multidisciplinary, value-free school model – it should be transdisciplinary, and laden with values and general principles that provide students with a bedrock of wisdom and help them to make connections between areas of knowledge that are usually regarded as separate.

In order to make this sort of teaching a reality, however, Whitehead pointed to the need to minimize the importance of (or radically alter) standard examinations for school entrance. … Above all else in his educational writings, Whitehead emphasized the importance of imagination and the free play of ideas.

Whitehead argued that curriculum should be developed specifically for its own students by its own staff, or else risk total stagnation, interrupted only by occasional movements from one group of inert ideas to another.

In other words, bits of disconnected knowledge are meaningless; all knowledge must find some imaginative application to the students' own lives, or else it becomes so much useless trivia, and the students themselves become good at parroting facts but not thinking for themselves.

A description of the experience

Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1967)

Every school is bound on pain of extinction to train its boys for a small set of definite examinations. No headmaster has a free hand to develop his general education or his specialist studies in accordance with the opportunities of his school, which are created by its staff, its environment, its class of boys, and its endowments. I suggest that no system of external tests which aims primarily at examining individual scholars can result in anything but educational waste.

Alfred North Whitehead  - Universities and Their Function

Imagination is not to be divorced from the facts: it is a way of illuminating the facts. It works by eliciting the general principles which apply to the facts, as they exist, and then by an intellectual survey of alternative possibilities which are consistent with those principles. It enables men to construct an intellectual vision of a new world.

Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1967)

knowledge does not keep any better than fish.

The source of the experience

North Whitehead, Alfred

Concepts and Symbols used in the text or image

Activities

Observation contributed by: Henry Ibberson