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Brennan R. Hill Xavier University (Cincinnati) Alfred North Whitehead's Approach to Education: Implications for religious education Abstract This article examines Alfred North Whitehead's educational theories
Brennan R. Hill Xavier University (Cincinnati) Alfred North Whitehead's Approach to Education: Implications for religious education Abstract This article examines Alfred North Whitehead's educational theories with an eye on what implications these theories might have for contemporary religious education. Two central themes in Whitehead's theory of education will be explored: 1) education as self-creation. and 2) education as a holistic experience. Alfred North Whitehead once said that we cannot expect a scholar to be able to think about everything. This may be true, but as a matter of fact, Whitehead was able to think about quite a nomber of areas with amazing incisiveness. Whitehead was a distinguished mathematician at Cambridge University from 1885 to 1910, and at the University of London from 1911 to In 1924, while preparing to retire, he was rather surprised by an invitation to teach philosophy at Harvard University, and for the next decade developed his well-known organismic approach to philosophy, often described as a process philosophy. This was a unique approach 10 metaphysics which many have viewed as being in harmony with the contemporary evolutionary and scientific understanding of reality. Whitehead expounded a philosophical interpretation of the cosmic process that was characterized by change, dynamism, inter-relationships or organic interpenetration, the presence of heights and depths of importance, and the quality of tenderness and love (Pittenger, 1969). This unique approach to philosophy would have far-reaching effects, particularly in the area of theology, where it was most influential œ the work: of such scholars as Hartshorne, Ogden, Cobb, Williams, Meland, Pittenger, Wieman, and many others. Whitehead bas also made significant cœtributions to the field of education. Although he never composed a treatise on education or developed McGill Journal of Education, Vol. 23 No. 1 (Winter 1988) 59 60 Brennan R. Hill a systematic philosophy of education, bis addresses and essays in this area have been widely quoted, and have been the object of some significant studies on pedagogy (Brumbaugh, 1981; Dunkel, 1965; Meland, 1953). In the field of religious education Randolph Crump Miller, among others, bas effectively applied Whitehead's process philosophy to this discipline (Miller, 1973, 1975). My concem here is not primarily theological or philosophical; rather 1 have set out to examine Whitehead's educational theories, with an eye on what implications these theories might have for contemporary reugious education. In looldng al Whitehead's approach to education, 1 will be drawing mainly from bis educational writing, although 1 will also refer to some of his philosophical positions. While it is true that Whitehead largely developed his philosophy after he wrote on educational theory, the two areas are of a piece, the one illuminating the othee. The article willlimit itself to the discussion of two central themes in Whitehead's educational thinking: (1) education as self-creation and (2) education as a holistic experience. Education as Self-c:reation Whitehead viewed each individual person as a living Œganism that caities within the self the principle of creative change. Education, therefore, is a natural process of self-development, setting in motion what is already stirring in the mind (Whitehead, 1929, p. 24). For Whitehead, all things in nature, including learners, are not statie substances to be shaped and fonned, but living Œganisms in the process of becoming. He writes: Consider how nature generally sets to work to educate the living organisms which teem the earth. Vou cannot begin to understand nature's method unless you grasp the fact that the essential spring of ail growth is within you.. What is really essential in your development you must do for yourself (1968, p. 171). Whitehead conceived the whole of reality as being a process and that process is the becoming of actual entities (Whitehead, 1941, p. 33). This creative process is everywhere, in the inanimate as well as in the animate. AlI reality moves through transitions involving change and permanence, growth and perishing, as it moves through a process of selfformation (Price, 1954; Whitehead, 1938). The role of education, then, is to assist others in discovering the role they play in their own selfdevelopmenl Education follows the same pattern that we observe in the process of nature; the extemal nurturing of the potential growth that exists within. Alfred North Whitehead's Approach to Education 61 Self-d8velopment in stages Whitehead maintains that the on-going self creation of all organisms moves through various phases of change and permanence. The human organism enjoys the same process of growth, beginning with the dawn of the experience of self, and moving through the various stages of selfdevelopment. Human life, then, is essentially periodic and cyclic, with daily, yearly and seasonal periods of growth (Hartshorne & Peden, 1981; Whitehead, 1938). Education must be attentive to these stages of growth, and Whitehead (1929) points out with characteristic blunuless that Jack of attention to the rhythm and character of mental growth is a main source of wooden futility in education (p.21). Teachers must, therefore, be sensitive to the stage which each student is experiencing, as well as be attentive to the aptitudes which seem to appear at each given stage. Within this framework of awareness, different subjects and modes of study should be undertaken by pupils at fitting times when they have reached the proper stage of mental development (p. 21). The rhythmic stages ollearning One of Whitehead's most oft-quoted theories of education is that regarding the three-fold rhythm of education: romance, precision, and generalization. These stages occur throughout the chronology of one's life, as one moves through childhood and adolescence toward adulthood. Yet, there are also cycles within cycles in each period of life, and within each period of an educational experience. One cycle leads to another, as there is a craving for new adventures of thought Whitehead (1929) describes the process in education as follows: Education should consist in the continual repetition of such cycles. Each lesson in its minor way should form an eddy cycle issuing its own subordinate process. Longer periods should issue in definite attainments, which then form the starting grounds for fresh cycles. (p.30) The stage of romance. The stage of romance in education is described by Whitehead (1929) as the period of frrst apprehension, wherein the subject matter is perceived as having a vividness of novelty, as holding within itself unexplored connections and possibilities. Emotions are Integral to this stage of learning; there is an excitement gained from moving from bare facts to relationships among the facts. There is the feeling of encouragement as one encounters fresh content, new interests and challenges. This is the stage of learning which is characterized by discovery, curiosity, and wonder. 62 Brennan R. Hill Whitehead (1954) sees romance as essential to education, for without the adventure of romance, at best you get inert knowledge without initiative, and at the worst you get contempt of ideas without knowledge (p. 285). The precision stage. The stage of precision focuses on the exactness of formulation. Here the possibilities that were discovered in the romantic period are explored systematically and with exactitude. This is the time for leaming the subject clearly in all its salient features. At this stage, a careful selection of materials and good pacing are extremely important. If the facts are presented too broadly or quickly the initial interest on the part of the student can easily be killed. If the facts are presented too narrowly, the student can fail to grasp the meaning of the material. There are a number of other challenges connected with this stage. The fast is attempting to keep a balance between a sound discipline and the ease of pace needed to keep the student's romance with the material alive. Whitehead cautions here that students should not be forced to memorize irrelevant material, and yet they should be expected to know the central content in precise fashion. Another challenge is that of not giving the students more material than they can handle at their stage of interest and development. Whitehead's (1929) realization of the difficulties within this stage come through in the following: The responsibility of this period is immense. To speak the truth, except in the rare case of genius in the teacher, 1 do not think that it is possible to talce a whole class very far along the road of precision without sorne dulling of interest (p. 55). Of course the danger of such boredom is increased if the stage of romance is by-passed in favour of precision, or if there is no move on to the next stage. The stage of generalization. Whitehead often laments the fact that in so many schools and universities a paralysis of thought is brought on by aimlessly gathering inert knowledge that is never applied, or generalized. For Whitehead, this third stage is the time to move toward effectiveness and production. The student bas been attracted to knowledge, understands it, bas acquired certain aptitudes for its application, and can DOW move toward application and action. Whitehead (1958) compares this final stage to Hegel's fmal stage of synthesis. The student moves from one pole (romance) to another pole (precision), and then returns to a certain romance experienced in the application of the knowledge. Thus the students have achieved the very essence of scientific thought: they have seen the general in the particular, the permanent in the transitory, and they can now malce general connections and applications (p. 3-4). Just as ail nature gains a certain satisfaction through moving from wonder to dynamic activity, leamers experience the same excitement in moving from understanding the creative process to actually conlributing to il Alfred North Whitehead's Approach to Education 63 The social context One important aspect of self-creativity is that it does not occur in isolation, but in the context of connectedness. In his philosophy, Whitehead teaches a doctrine of internal relations, whereby all individual entities are related to the rest of the universe. Everything is actually a part of that 10 which it is related, and therefore, self-identity consists in a network of relations which stretch through the universe. The relations which make up ail entities, Whitehead names prehension, and these make up the most concrete elements of the nature of actual entities (1941, p. 28). Prehensions are what constitute the process of unification and expansion of entities. AlI nature, in fact, is a process of expansive development necessarily transitional from prehension to prehension (1954, p. 106). AlI reality, therefore, is connected, interdependenl Whitehead speaks of a togetherness of things, and points out that each happening is a factor in the nature of every other happening (1938, p. 225). Human development takes place, then, in social space, the setting wherein self-creation takes place through exchange with others (Miller, 1985). Whitehead (1929) maintains that education takes place through interaction with others. Teachers, of course, are of obvious importance, especiaily teachers who are able to guide and aid the natura! process of selfgrowth. It is the teacher's task to elicit enthusiasm by resonance with his own personality, and to create an atmosphere of a longer and fmner purpose (p.62). To fulfill this role weil, Whitehead maintains that teachers must have a unique genius of character, clear insight into the process of growth, and a sound intellectual grasp of the material at band. Interaction with other learners is aiso viewed by Whitehead (1933) as integral to effective education. He points out that the most effective education he gained at school came about in informai conversations and discussions with other students. He holds that there is a natura! bond between people, and that in an atmosphere of mutual respect the natural capacity 10 reach out for ideals cao be nurtured. Most certainly this was the kind of atmosphere which he himself attempted to create in his own lecture halls and tutorial sessions (p. 109). We have so far discussed Whitehead's theme of education as selfcreation, pointing out the following aspects of this thought: education is a process; the principle of growth is from within the person; there are stages and rhythms 10 such progress; and the process takes place through interaction with others. We will now consider some implications these insights might have on religious education, and then, we will consider Whitehead's views on holistic experience. 64 Brennan R. Hill Implications for reugious education The process view is compatible with contemporary life. Too often religion is seen as a separate cornpartment of life, set off from everyday secular life. Dichotomies are set between the secular and sacred, material and spiritual, natural and supernatural. Religion is often traditionally viewed as static, world-denying, and cut off from the world that is evolutionary and progressive. Religion cao easily be presented as having little to do with real life as experienced, and as portrayed by the sciences. Whitehead's perspective views all of reality as a unified process of becorning. Education is, therefore, a process which prepares individuals to experience and contribute to the creative process. Religion, in this context, takes on a new relevancy as the depth dimension of reality, and religious questions cao be seen as relevant to everyday living. Religion becomes a reverence for the process of life, as weil as a source of motivation for participating in all of life. Perhaps this is what Whitehead meant when he wrote that the very essence of education is to be religious (1929, p. 23). The root of the word religion means tied into. Religious education, like all education, helps students to be tied into reality in all its dimensions. Obviously, religions and churches will go beyond Wbitehead's broad observations on reality, and will teach more specific beliefs regarding the ultimate questions. Yet, each tradition can benefit from bis long-view on the creative process, bis unified perspective on reality, and bis challenge to education to inculcate reverence for the creative process. The self-creative approach provides a basis for recognizing personal religious experience. Whitehead's educational perspective reminds religious educators that they are indeed drawing out the religious insights and experiences of the learners. As Groome (1980) bas reminded us, religious education is not a matter of banking religious content, but of fostering a process of reflection and sharing (p. 77). Learners have within them the capacity to grow in faith, to experience the mystery of God in their lives. Learners, as Rahner (cited in Hill, 1971) points out, are questioners that are open to the movements of God in their lives. They have their own valuable religious experiences to reflect upon and to share with others. Their insights are important to instructional content Religious educators, then, are not properly indoctrinators, who impose beliefs and manipulate religious commitment. Rather, they are facilitators of a religious process that cornes from within each person. Recognizing the religious freedom which learners have as a human right, religious educators provide clarification and invitation. Intimidation or coercion of any kind would neither be compatible with Whitehead's views of education, or with any approach to religious education influenced by his perspective. Alfred North Whitehead's Approach to Education 65 Stages and rhythms complement contemporary studies on human growth and faith development. In many ways the developmental work of Piaget in education, Erikson and others in psycho10gy, Fow1er in faith, and Kohlberg in moral values have gone heyond the views of Whitehead. Experimentalists have been able to give us a great deal of data and insights on human development, and have approached the subject from a much more personcentred point of view than Whitehead. Still, Whitehead's metaphysical and education al views on human development offer a broader context in which to understand the stages of personal deve10pment of participants in religious education. Where many contemporary deve10pmental studies are limited to a Western, middle-class, and male point of view, Whitehead's analysis seems to he much more universal in its approach (Dykstra & Parles, 1986; Stokes, 1982). Perhaps his broader process views can serve as a corrective to narrowness in developmental studies. Used in conjunction with contemporary studies, Whitehead can assist religious educators in becoming more aware of the comp1exity of personal faith needs on all1evels, whether it he children, young adu1ts, adu1ts, or the elderly. His observations about the rhythm of romance, precision, and generalization most certainly have to he studied more carefully in terms ofleamers' needs and capacities at various stages of development His organismic approach to self -development and his descriptions of the periods and cycles of human development, might weil he integrated into the more contemporary studies on faith development Value of social connectedness: useful frameworkfor approaches to religious education. Whitehead reminds educators that persons, and therefore leamers, are DOt passive heings sitting next to each other waiting to receive knowledge. Human development, and indeed education, takes place through interdependence, interaction, and exchange. In religious education the task is not to indoctrinate passive students, but to create leaming communities where there is a dynamic sharing of experiences and views. Both Westerhoff (1976) and Nelson (1971) have reminded us of the power of the community in passing on tradition. Marthaler (1978) bas described religious education as the process of socialization. Whitehead offers us an educational and philosophical framework for such a process of sharing faith in religious communities, both formally and informally. Education as a HoIistic Experience Whitehead insists that authentic education is ultimately a discipline for living. Knowledge must he connected with life, just as actual entities are connected with the universe. AlI life is a unity, a totality, and thus all human reflection should hegin and end in the experience of this totality. AlI individual things are constituted by the interplay of the objective and the subjective, and are made up of individual occasions of experience. For Whitehead, all knowledge is conscious discrimination of objects 66 Brennan R. Hill experienced (1933, p. 228). Humans are pact of a universe in which a11 actual entities are in the process of becoming through experience. All growth, including human growth, demands an experiential participation in this universal process of becoming. Whitehead writes: 1 have termed each individual act of immediate selfenjoyment an occasion of experience. 1 hold that these unities of experience, these occasions of experience, are the really real thing which in their collective unit y compose the evolving uni verse, ever plunging into the creative advance. (1961, p. 12) In a very real sense, we are our experiences, and our experiences are one of the components of the world itself. There is an organic unit y in Whitehead's universe, a kind of organic life and experience in all of reality. Humans best link themselves to reality by participating as fully as possible in reality. Educational institutions, then, are homes where young and old cao participate in the adventure of reflecting on and experiencing life in all its manifest
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