As you probably already know — depending upon who you are and what you know — there are planeloads of problems with this thing called “the educational system.” Some of if I explore in a previous post.
A lot of it has to do with the technical aspects of how it’s carried out and a lot of it has to do with the philosophical aspects of why it’s undertaken.
These problems are not new. Over 30,000 days (and a similar amount of moons) ago, the polymath ahead-of-the-game thinker Alfred North Whitehead gave a bunch of lectures that were collected into a book named The Aims of Education.
In it he, as you might have guessed, works out the aims of education.
It was popular back in the day but then, like all those bygone moons, waned into a faint outline. A faint outline similar to the declining popularity of used bookstores, the place where I found a $3 USD copy of the aforementioned tome.
Although from a different era, it would be an error to assume it’s irrelevant.
What education has to impart is an intimate sense for the power of ideas, for the beauty of ideas, and for the structure of ideas, together with a particular body of knowledge which has peculiar reference to the life of the being possessing it.
Whitehead (who, based upon the photo above, did seem to have a white head) viewed the entire book as a “protest against dead knowledge.”
That statement sparks a question (unless you’re dead of course): how does knowledge die?
Knowledge dies when it becomes crystallized in a closed system that is both unrelated and useless to the present world. To counteract this we need living ideas. These ideas pulse through open systems that both relate to and become useful to the present historical moment.
This, however, does NOT mean that the “present historical moment” is the best or that it should be blindly followed, but it does assume that it is the most immediate environment and must be responded to.
“The Aliveness of Thinking! The Fertility of Ideas!” These are the rally cries for a rally that you don’t really need to cry about. Instead, focus on the organic nature of Ideas: understand how they are born, how they multiply, how they connect with other ideas, and the potential for “mental dryrot” when a pedantic mind takes over and they wither until dead.
This is a major reason why Neil Postman in his book The End of Education suggests that we should do away with textbooks — they give no sense of the human journey of knowledge, the life-cycle of ideas.
THE TWO PARTS
Education does not exist in a vacuum, so when vacuums try to exist in education it’s time to clean up.
So basically the idea is to relate, like a spider web (see what I did there? related the sentence to the picture above), the alive nature of thinking with the nature of being alive. Connect things. Make them relevant.
Whitehead emphasizes the importance of melding a technical education with its focus on the utilization of knowledge through a specific skill with the “habitual vision of greatness” provided by the classics and other “masterpieces of thought.”
The first provides something one can do well through a set of mastered techniques and the second provides an intellectual vision that guides what one does. Both of these move toward the one true subject of education: Life.
So after establishing that the mind is always active and that all knowledge should relate with the stream of life (and that all knowledge deeply held is wisdom), Whitehead outlines a potential curriculum.
It is rhythmic process that starts by exciting one’s curiosity through contact with novel things then moves toward precision and exactness before returning to the first stage with the advantage of keener perception and thinking.
Phase 1 is simply about overloading the imagination with newness. You stimulate the mind with potential concepts that can be explored further on in the next phase.
Phase 2 is a time for slowing down and becoming more precise. This is done through a study of “the quantitative aspects of the world” and the “qualitative aspects of the world”.
The first uses mathematics with deductive reasoning (what Whitehead calls “the logic of the discovered”) and science with inductive reasoning (what Whitehead calls “the logic of discovery”) for the purpose of gaining a deeper perception of quantity.
The second uses literature, art and religion for the purpose of gaining a deeper perception of quality. As an apropos aside, the scientist Murray Gell-Man decided to call his discovery Quarks in homage to the writer James Joyce’s line “Three quarks for Muster Mark!”
Phase 3 is when we return, to reference Joyce again “by a commodius vicus of recirculation” back to the aliveness of Phase 1 with a newly developed ability to go deeper.
The stream of life, which all of education must feed into, is much larger than any narrow field of study.