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Philosophy of Education

Searching for the Foundations of
Whitehead's Philosophy of Education

Robert B. Mellert
Brookdale Community College

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ABSTRACT: The inspiration for this paper comes from the Fiftieth Anniversary of the death of Alfred North Whitehead and the theme of this Congress. In Aims of Education, Whitehead describes the role of freedom and limitation in the educational process. The foundations of these concepts, and important clues to their application, can be found in his general metaphysical framework outlined in Process and Reality. Positive and negative prehensions seem to be the model for freedom and limitation; hence, the latter concept implies the discipline of subjective aim. This analysis supports an interpretation of the mutual complementarity of freedom and discipline, with obvious applications to the educational process.

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Published initially in 1929, Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education is certainly not a new book. However, since last year marked the 50th anniversary of Whitehead's death as well as my preparations for this World Congress, the general theme of which is "paidaia," it seemed the fitting moment to reread this classic and reflect once more upon its inspiring insights and timeless wisdom. The Aims of Education is really a set of essays first composed as lectures. Whitehead delivered these lectures at Cambridge, England, and at Harvard University between the years 1912 and 1928. His stated purpose was to "protest against dead knowledge." (AE, v) Perhaps these protests ought to continue into our own generation, but I hesitate. I am afraid that one of the casualties of any success in such protests might well be Whitehead himself, for the abstract, general nature of his thought has always been a challenge to professional philosophers and nearly incomprehensible to young philosophy students. Nevertheless, pondering Whitehead's thought has always been, in my opinion, well worth the effort for those who persevere.

The third chapter of The Aims of Education, entitled "The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline," is where I find the essence of Whitehead's educational philosophy. This philosophy, I shall argue, is simply a reiteration in educational language of the core principles of his general philosophy as stated in Process and Reality and in Science and the Modern World.

Let us begin with the term "value." Science and the Modern World provides us with an earlier interpretation of this notion. Here Whitehead explains that "'Value' is the word I use for the intrinsic reality of an event." (SMW, 93) Now an "event" for Whitehead constitutes a fundamental datum of reality. He calls these data "actual entities," or sometimes "actual occasions." They are the "final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real." (PR, 23)

Actual entities can best be understood as "drops of experience" (PR, 23) in space-time. They are both the subject that grasps other experiences and the new reality constituted by those experiences. Whitehead introduces the term "prehension" to illustrate this dual idea. The word "prehension" is related to the more traditional word "apprehension." Both are from the Latin "to take." But whereas the latter implies a subject taking hold of an object, Whitehead's term attempts to transcend this subject-object distinction. It implies a subject taking account of an object in a way that makes the latter a constitutive element of the subject as subject. It is a way of suggesting a real relatedness of subject to object, not just a relation of reason. To illustrate, consider the relation of parent to child. The child owes its existence and genetic inheritance to the parent; the parent does not owe its existence or genetic inheritance to the child. Hence, the child is related to the parent in a real or constitutive way, which is not the case considered the other way around.

Whitehead uses the term "concrescence" to define the process of prehending. "This concrescence is thus nothing else than the 'real internal constitution' of the actual occasion in question." (PR, 244) To continue the example, the process by which a unique person emerges from its inheritances and experiences is its concrescence.

An event cannot take into itself, or prehend, every experience in the same manner. Some selection is necessary among the available matters of fact. So the subject, even while it is being constituted by its prehensions, prehends past data either positively or negatively. It makes this selection on the basis of its own subjective aim. A positive prehension enters positively into the concrescence of the new occasion; a negative prehension holds the prehended datum as inoperative. It is put into brackets and kept as a reminder of what might have been; however, in this way it also influences the concrescence of the occasion.

The process by which new events emerge, through prehensions that can be either positive or negative, requires a selection. Selection means "de-cision," or a cutting off. The synthesis of the new event, and hence the creation of novelty, is the result of what prehensions are available and how they are prehended.

How a subject prehends a datum is determined by its subjective form. Subjective forms come in many species and a single act of prehension is not limited to a single subjective form. Whitehead speaks of subjective forms that involve emotions, valuations, purposes, consciousness, et cetera. (PR, 28) Once the appropriate decisions have been made, the new event achieves "satisfaction" (Whitehead's term for completion) and becomes a new datum for further prehensive activity. In this way, the process continues.

In short, the concrescence of a new actual entity can be described in terms of three stages, which Whitehead calls the responsive phase, the supplemental phase, and satisfaction. (PR, 245) The first stage is "the phase of pure reception of the actual world in its guise of objective datum." (PR, 245) The second involves the transformation into unity. Satisfaction is the entity's culmination in its own unique complexity. These stages constitute the genetic mode of analysis, by which the actual entity is seen as a process. However, Whitehead clearly states that

"This genetic passage from phase to phase is not in physical time . . . . Each phase in the genetic process presupposes the entire quantum." (PR, 333-4) Hence, we are dealing with a logical, not a temporal division of the actual event, or occasion. Let us now return to value. The attainment of value is the fundamental event of the educational process. It arises from the prehension of knowledge according to a particular mode, that of wisdom.

This mode involves the handling of knowledge in a way that increases value. In the selection process of prehending, the irrelevant is cut off from the relevant and the latter is positively incorporated into the event. Relevance is determined by what adds value to subsequent experience, and this is the function of wisdom. Wisdom, therefore, is how prehensive acts create—event by event—added value for subsequent acts of prehending.

In Whitehead's philosophy of education, wisdom seems to be an example of a subjective form. He says, "Wisdom is the way in which knowledge is held. It concerns the handling of knowledge, its selection for the determination of relevant issues, its employment to add value to our immediate experience." (AE, 30) Note that wisdom is not the end product of the educational experience nor an innate condition refined by learning. Nor is wisdom a value. It is the way in which value is added to the data of knowledge.

In the third chapter of Aims of Education, freedom and limitation refer to the process of selection in prehending. The former seems to be an application of Whitehead's doctrine of positive prehension; the latter refers to the process of prehending negatively.

Freedom is not merely the openness to possibilities and the capability of selecting among them. It is also the positive selection of data, which is the precondition of every creative event. The richness of an act of experience is related to the variety of data available to it for incorporation into its own reality. Hence, the creative side of education requires the maximum freedom possible. Novel syntheses and new ideas are realized only through assessing and incorporating the claims of diverse data and various points of view under the guise of wisdom.

But just as the painter who mixes all the colors on his palate ends up with black, a non-color, so too the admission on an equal basis of all past data into the new moment of experience destroys the creative possibilities of the experience. Instead of creating new value, one simply squanders old value. Some selection is necessary, and, as we have seen, this implies a decision, or cutting off.

Here is where limitation, or negative prehensive activity, enters the picture. Some focus is necessary for every new event, and that focus requires our putting aside some possibilities in order to realize others. Thus are created new events of value. As Whitehead writes, "There is no such thing as mere value. Value is the outcome of limitation. The definite finite entity is the selected mode which is the shaping of attainment; apart from such shaping into individual matter of fact there is no attainment." (SMW, 94) Freedom and limitation, therefore, are not antithetical concepts for Whitehead.

Applied to educational theory, limitation implies discipline. In his essay on "The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline," Whitehead insists that "the antithesis in education between freedom and discipline is not so sharp as a logical analysis of the meanings of the terms might lead us to imagine." (AE, 30)

I perceive freedom and discipline to be for Whitehead complementary concepts, yin-yang in nature, much as positive and negative prehensions. Each requires the other, each is incomplete without the other. Each represents a distinctive side of the process by which education takes place. What holds them together is the common subjective forms that define how they will be incorporated into the educational event. The most important form in the educational process, as we have seen, is wisdom. Under the guidance of wisdom, selection is made from among competing data in a way that allows for the maximization of freedom and the imposition of discipline in the act of creating each new event.

Perhaps a word about my use of "educational event" is in order here. An educational event is, in the spirit of Whitehead, simultaneously both microcosmic and macrocosmic. It refers to each individual moment of experience as well as to the larger events, or "epoches," that are the sum of given groups of subordinate events. It is both the momentary insight and the life of the scholar. Remember that Whitehead, although generally considered to be a process philosopher, defines his own thinking as "a philosophy of organism." Every actual entity is the product of other entities. It becomes part of a subsequent entity and part of the larger set of data that constitute the cosmic, or epochal entities. In Whitehead's most famous summary of his metaphysics, "The many become one and are increased by one." (PR, 26) Organisms are, therefore, both spatial and temporal coordinates. Whitehead's analysis of process is sufficiently general to account for the spacio-temporal relations of cosmic realities as well as to the most trivial puff of simple existence.

In the educational process, therefore, each moment deals with freedom and discipline, as does each epochal event. Freedom and discipline are implied in the creation of new value. To illustrate, the pianist who is practicing a Beethovan sonata has cut himself off, at least for the moment, from playing Bach or Bartok. This is the first aspect of his discipline. Furthermore, his disciplined attention to the sonata allows him the freedom to understand and interpret the work. Finally, the satisfaction that results is the consequence of his freedom to accept a particular level of performance as mastery, and his discipline is performing at that level.

Whitehead speaks of freedom and discipline as elements in a rhythm containing three stages. In the "stage of Romance" the emphasis is on freedom. Interest is developed as one is excited by the possibility of pleasurable activity. It is essential that every educational event begins with romance. Even here, however, discipline is present in the cutting off of other possible romances.

As the freshness of romance wears away, a new craving grows. It is the desire for more precise knowledge, and it leads to the "stage of Precision." The emphasis now shifts to discipline, as one learns the right ways and the wrong ways to proceed and discovers the truths to be learned. Freedom here is the positive acceptance of the newly discovered truths. Whitehead notes that the best discipline is self-discipline, and that this can only be acquired by a wide use of freedom. (AE, 35)

The final stage is the "stage of Generalization." This stage again places emphasis on freedom, as one looks for ways to use one's knowledge. But there is also discipline. The focus shifts to the future, as the educational event contributes its datum to subsequent events. "After all," Whitehead writes, "the whole affair is merely a preparation for battling with the immediate experiences of life, a preparation by which to qualify each immediate moment with relevant ideas and appropriate actions. An education which does not begin by evoking initiative and end by encouraging it must be wrong." (AE, 37)

Clearly, these stages in Aims of Education have a definite similarity to the three phases in the concrescence of an actual occasion, as explained in the above references from Process And Reality, even though the former (AE) are temporal stages and the latter (PR) are described as non-temporal, logical stages. I am suggesting, however, that the stages in Aims of Education are, from a macrocosmic perspective, themselves logical, non-temporal phases of the actual occasions I have been calling the educational event. Each presupposes the entire event. In this way, each educational stage can have its own emphasis, but freedom and discipline are the positive and negative prehensions that apply to all. In this larger view of the educational event one attempts to find "the exact balance between freedom and discipline which will give the greatest rate of progress over things to be known." (AE, 35)

What conclusions can be drawn from a study of Whitehead's philosophy of education? First, his philosophy of education seems very consistent with his overall philosophy: it is a specification of his most generalized ideas. This suggests that for Whitehead, educational philosophy is not something distinct and separate from general philosophy, but an integral application of it.

Likewise, Whitehead's writings on education are also general in nature, meant to analyze life-long, self-generated learning that extends to every event of life, and to the overall outcome of life itself. Every moment of life, and every locus of reality, offers us an educational opportunity. ("Don't let school interfere with your education," a wise professor once told me.) Educational philosophy, therefore, applies universally: to all ages, all situations, and all institutional settings.

Secondly, and more specifically, Whitehead suggests a way of integrating the polarities of freedom and discipline. So frequently, these two concepts serve as rallying points for opposing philosophies. But, as Whitehead demonstrates, freedom without discipline is neither liberating nor creative. The undifferentiated admission of every possibility in the formation of a new event of learning is ultimately destructive of value, not creative of it. The stage of Romance is important in suggesting what might be chosen as the aim, but it does not constitute a policy of following whim. Discipline also must play a role.

Likewise, discipline without freedom is ultimately futile. "There is no comprehension apart from romance," writes Whitehead. (AE, 33) So freedom is essential. But freedom does not imply an ignorance over what to select or a relativism with respect to value. It arises from a unique selection of the available possibilities that can occur only when there is a subjective aim. Whiteheadian freedom is not arbitrary. One finds here an important role for guidance throughout one's educational life.

Thirdly, the criteria by which the entire educational process is evaluated ought to be the same as those used to evaluate individual educational events, or "drops of educational experience." This idea is derived from the organic nature of Whiteheadian thought, i.e., that every event is the composite of other events, and that every event is a datum for other, higher order events.

Whitehead's own term "satisfaction" might play a role in the development of those criteria. Satisfaction, you will remember, is the outcome of each actual event insofar as it contributes something of value to subsequent acts of prehension. Perhaps satisfaction under the guidance of wisdom is a good way of expressing the value that education is supposed to attain.

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Alfred North Whitehead, The Aims of Education (New York: Macmillan Co., Free Press edition, 1967).

________, Science and the Modern World (New York: Macmillan Co. Free Press edition, 1967).

________, Process and Reality (New York: Macmillan Co., Free Press edition, 1969).

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