©2001 NewFoundations

The Educational Theory of Alfred North Whitehead

Analyst: Mike Profico

edited 8/18/11

1. Theory of Value:

What knowledge and skills are worthwhile learning? What are the goals of education?

Whitehead was interested in actively 'utilizing the knowledge and skills that were taught to students to a particular end. He believed we should aim at "producing men who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. "(Aims-page 1) He thought, "education has to impart an intimate sense for the power and beauty of ideas coupled with structure for ideas together with a particular body of knowledge, which has peculiar reference to the life of being possessing it." (Aims-page 10)

2. Theory of Knowledge:

What is knowledge? How is it different form a belief. What is a mistake? What is a lie?

Knowledge for Whitehead is a social construct to the extent it "stimulates activity of thought and not what he calls inert ideas, that is to say ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilized, or tested, or thrown into fresh combination"(Aims page I ).

Although he does not speak of beliefs, mistakes or lies, in regard to the educational process I believe he would argue that we internalize our beliefs about education through the knowledge we acquire. He felt education had too much of these inert ideas which rendered the process useless. He wanted us to guard against teaching "too many subjects and not teaching thoroughly enough" (Aims-page 1). He wanted us to utilize knowledge for it was useless if we didn't. He writes, "utilizing knowledge and ideas is relating it to the stream~ compounded of sense, perceptions, feelings, hopes, desires and of mental activities adjusting thought to thought which forms our life" (Aims-page 1)

3. Theory of Human Nature:

What is a human being? How does it differ from other species? What are the limits of human potential?

As an enduring entity, Whitehead called the human being a "living person." In a man, " the living body is permeated by living societies of low-grade occasions so far as mentality is concerned" (Organism-page 3). He believed valuable intellectual development is self-development.

To the contrary, "animals are organisms in which some of the groupings of actual occasions are in the form of "entirely living nexus" (Organism-page 3). Whitehead denied that "entirely living nexus could be social in nature and that social relationships only occur in temporal strings; contemporaries are jointly indicated via their several derivations from a common past" (Organism-page 3)

4. Theory of Learning:

What is learning? How are skills and knowledge acquired?

Whitehead talks about how different subjects and study should be undertaken at fitting times when we have reached the proper stage of mental development. He states, "the concept of education is based upon a false psychology of the process of mental development which has gravely hindered the effectiveness of our efforts (Rhythm-page 17).

The object of learning is "to produce experts without the loss of the essential virtues of the amateur (Aims-page 11). Learning is internalizing knowledge that is then utilized to some end. Skills are taught via the genius of the teacher, mentor, and headmaster to the student. He believed the mind "should be more abstract and concrete and be trained in the comprehension of abstract thought and the analysis of facts." (Aims page 9)

5. Theory of Transmission:

Who is to teach? By what methods? What will the curriculum be?

Whitehead certainly believed the teacher was the expert and the pupil the subordinate. He seemed to not have a particular method favored for example textbook and/or lecture. He said, "no educational system is possible unless every question directly asked of a pupil at any examination is either framed or modified by the actual teacher of that pupil In that subject" (Aims page 4). The external assessor "should never be allowed to ask the pupil a question which has not been strictly supervised by the actual teacher or at least inspired by a long conference with him" (Aims-page 4).

In terms of curriculum he urged to -eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects." He believed there was only one subject matter for education and that was life in all its manifestations. He did not believe in offering algebra, science, etc. If this was done he said "it is a rapid table of contents which a deity might run over in his mind while he was thinking of creating a world and has not yet determined how to put it together" (Aims page 4).

He did believe one train of thought would not suit all children. For example, he suspected "that artisan children will want something more concrete" (Aims-page 4). He believed in specialism in the curriculum. He thought if you exclude specialism you destroy life"(Aims-page 4)

6. Theory of Society:

What is society? What institutions are involved in the educational process?

Whitehead talked about society in terms of a "nexus with a social order where common elements of form are passed on by each member" (Organism- page 2). lie talked about "living societies-, entirely living societies" and "9ving persons." The entirely living societies included the animal kingdom. For example, "a tree is a living society which is called a democracy; an animal is a composition of democracies of entirely living nexus which is called an entirely living or personal society; a human being is a composition of personal societies within a wider social environment who is called a living person"(Organism-page 3).

Regarding institutions involved, I believe Whitehead envisioned traditional school in part with family as key ingredients to education. Whitehead talks about one of the most important parts is given by "mothers before the age of twelve" (Aims-page 8). He talks about the scientific and logical side of education and how each can be fostered at various levels. He speaks of study on a continuum from technical through university.

7. Theory of Opportunity

Who is to be educated? Who is to be schooled?

Even though Whitehead emphasizes education and utilizing knowledge, he seems to favor the inclusion of men and not women. Throughout his writings he emphasizes 'Producing men with both culture and expert knowledge" (Aims-page 1) He says "their cult tire will give them the ground to start from and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art"(Aims-page 1) He writings are filled with exclusive mentions of men and he presents women in a supportive, secondary role.

8. Theory of Consensus

Why do people disagree? How is consensus achieved? Whose opinions take precedence?

While I could not find Whitehead talking specifically about consensus, he writes, "duty arises from our potential control over the course of events and where attainable knowledge could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice" (Aims-page 12) 1 believe he would argue out of duty to God and the search for truth people should agree on the principle of education and how best to achieve the same outcomes.


Alfred N. Whitehead, The Aims of Education and Other Essays (Macmillan, 1929). www.plato.stanford.edu

Alfted N. Whitehead: "Summary", Chapter 8-The Concept of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (1920): 164-184. www.paradigm.soci.brocku.ca

Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism-Personal Selfhood and Human Experience, 2nd Edition, London, Macmillan (1932): 1 -10 www.bu.edu/wcp/papers/pper/pperyong.htm

Alfred N. Whitehead - Biography- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Alfred N. Whitehead-Chapter 11 - The Rhythm of Education. Amazon.com.