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Alfred North Whitehead (1861–1947) - The Nature of Education, Educational Development and the Rhythm of Growth, Universities and Professional Training

university philosophy process precision

One of the twentieth century's most original metaphysicians and a major figure in mathematical logic, Alfred North Whitehead was also an important social and educational philosopher. Born in England, he was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he also taught mathematics from 1884 until 1910. He then moved to London, where he was professor of applied mathematics at the University of London until 1924. Receiving an invitation to join the philosophy department at Harvard University, Whitehead came to the United States and taught at Harvard until 1937. He remained in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the rest of his life.

While Whitehead's metaphysical and logical writings merit his inclusion in any pantheon of twentieth-century philosophers, his work in social and educational philosophy is marked by singular qualities of imagination, profound analysis, and personal commitment. His thought resembles much in the philosophy of John Dewey (1859–1952). In the philosophy of higher education, where Dewey wrote very little, Whitehead is probably the most important figure since John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801–1890).

The Nature of Education

"Education is the acquisition of the art of the utilisation of knowledge." This simple sentence from Whitehead's introductory essay in his Aims of Education (1929, p. 4), epitomizes one of his central themes: Education cannot be dissected from practice. Whitehead's synthesis of knowledge and application contrasts sharply with educational theories that recommend mental training exclusively. His general philosophical position, which he called "the philosophy of organism," insists upon the ultimate reality of things in relation, changing in time, and arranged in terms of systems of varying complexity, especially living things, including living minds. Whitehead rejected the theory of mind that maintains it is a kind of tool, or dead instrument, needing honing and sharpening. Nor is it a kind of repository for "inert" ideas, stored up in neatly categorized bundles. It is an organic element of an indissoluble mind/body unit, in continuous relationship with the living environment, both social and natural. White-head's philosophy of organism, sometimes called "process philosophy," stands in continuity with his educational thought, both as a general theoretical backdrop for this educational position and as the primary application of his fundamental educational themes.

Educational Development and the Rhythm of Growth

Whitehead's general concept of the nature and aims of education has as its psychological corollary a conception of the rhythm of education that connects him with developmental educators such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). For Whitehead, education is a temporal, growth-oriented process, in which both student and subject matter move progressively. The concept of rhythm suggests an aesthetic dimension to the process, one analogous to music. Growth then is a part of physical and mental development, with a strong element of style understood as a central driving motif. There are three fundamental stages in this process, which Whitehead called the stage of romance, the stage of precision, and the stage of generalization.

Romance is the first moment in the educational experience. All rich educational experiences begin with an immediate emotional involvement on the part of the learner. The primary acquisition of knowledge involves freshness, enthusiasm, and enjoyment of learning. The natural ferment of the living mind leads it to fix on those objects that strike it pre-reflectively as important for the fulfilling of some felt need on the part of the learner. All early learning experiences are of this kind and a curriculum ought to include appeals to the spirit of inquiry with which all children are natively endowed. The stage of precision concerns "exactness of formulation" (Whitehead 1929, p. 18), rather than the immediacy and breadth of relations involved in the romantic phase. Precision is discipline in the various languages and grammars of discrete subject matters, particularly science and technical subjects, including logic and spoken languages. It is the scholastic phase with which most students and teachers are familiar in organized schools and curricula. In isolation from the romantic impetus of education, precision can be barren, cold, and unfulfilling, and useless in the personal development of children. An educational system excessively dominated by the ideal of precision reverses the myth of Genesis: "In the Garden of Eden Adam saw the animals before he named them: in the traditional system, children named the animals before they saw them" (Whitehead 1925, p. 285). But precision is nevertheless a necessary element in a rich learning experience, and can neither substitute for romance, nor yield its place to romance. Generalization, the last rhythmic element of the learning process, is the incorporation of romance and precision into some general context of serviceable ideas and classifications. It is the moment of educational completeness and fruition, in which general ideas or, one may say, a philosophical outlook, both integrate the feelings and thoughts of the earlier moments of growth, and prepare the way for fresh experiences of excitement and romance, signaling a new beginning to the educational process.

It is important to realize that these three rhythmic moments of the educational process characterize all stages of development, although each is typically associated with one period of growth. So, romance, precision, and generalization characterize the rich educational experience of a young child, the adolescent, and the adult, although the romantic period is more closely associated with infancy and young childhood, the stage of precision with adolescence, and generalization with young and mature adulthood. Education is not uniquely oriented to some future moment, but holds the present in an attitude of almost religious awe. It is "holy ground" (Whitehead 1929, p. 3), and each moment in a person's education ought to include all three rhythmical elements. Similarly, the subjects contained in a comprehensive curriculum need to comprise all three stages, at whatever point they are introduced to the student. Thus the young child can be introduced to language acquisition by a deft combination of appeal to the child's emotional involvement, its need for exactitude in detail, and the philosophical consideration of broad generalizations.

Universities and Professional Training

The pragmatic and progressive aims of education, accompanied by Whitehead's rhythmic developmentalism, have ramifying effects throughout the lifelong educational process, but nowhere more tellingly than in their application to university teaching and research. Whitehead was a university professor throughout his life, and for a time, dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of London. Personal experience makes his analysis of higher studies pointed and relevant. Strikingly, Whitehead chose the modern business school as representative of modern directions in university theory and practice. As a Harvard philosopher, he was in an excellent position to comment on this particular innovation in higher education, since Harvard University was the first school in the United States to have a graduate program in business administration. The novelty of the business school should not be overestimated, since the wedding of theory and practice has been an unspoken motif of higher education since the foundation of the university in the Middle Ages. What has happened is that business has joined the ranks of the learned professions, no longer exclusively comprising theology, law, and medicine. The business school shows that universities are not merely devoted to postsecondary instruction, nor are they merely research institutions. They are both, and the active presence of young learners and mature scholars is necessary to their organic health. "The justification for a university is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and the zest of life, by uniting the young and the old in the imaginative consideration of learning" (Whitehead 1929, p. 93). This community of young and old is a further extension of the organic nature of learning. It makes the university analogous to other living associations, such as the family. The place of imagination in university life illustrates Whitehead's insistence on the aesthetic element in education. Universities are not merely institutions of analytic and intellectual skills, but of their imaginative integration into life. There is a creative element to all university activity (and not merely to the fine arts), a creativity necessary to the survival of life in a world of adventurous change. "Knowledge does not keep any better than fish" (Whitehead 1929, p. 98) and, while universities have a calling to preserve the great cultural achievements of the past, this conservatism must not be allowed to degenerate into a passive and unreflective commitment to inert ideas. "The task of a University is the creation of the future" (Whitehead 1938, p. 233). Ironically perhaps, the modern university, even one containing a business school, should not be managed like a business organization. The necessary freedom and risk, so important to the inventive scholar, requires a polity "beyond all regulation" (Whitehead 1929, p. 99).

Civilization, as Whitehead expresses it in his 1933 book, Adventures of Ideas (pp. 309–381), is constituted by five fundamental ideals, namely, beauty, truth, art, adventure, and peace. These five capture the aims, the rhythm, and the living, zestful and ordered progress of education and its institutional forms. They constitute a rich meaning of the term creativity, the ultimate driving source and goal of Whitehead's educational theory and program.


BRUMBAUGH, ROBERT S. 1982. Whitehead, Process Philosophy, and Education. Albany: State University of New York Press.

DUNKEL, HAROLD B. 1965. Whitehead on Education. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.

JOHNSON, ALLISON H. 1958. Whitehead's Philosophy of Civilization. Boston: Beacon.

LEVI, ALBERT W. 1937. "The Problem of Higher Education: Whitehead and Hutchins." Harvard Educational Review 7:451–465.

WHITEHEAD, ALFRED NORTH. 1925. Science and the Modern World. New York: Macmillan.

WHITEHEAD, ALFRED NORTH. 1929. The Aims of Education and Other Essays. New York: Macmillan.

WHITEHEAD, ALFRED NORTH. 1933. Adventures of Ideas. New York: Macmillan.

WHITEHEAD, ALFRED NORTH. 1938. Modes of Thought. New York: Macmillan.


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