“tout comprendre c’est tout pardoner” – French Proverb
In the early twentieth century, the British philosopher-mathematician Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947 CE) developed a metaphysical system known as “process-relational philosophy” in which the fundamental nature of all of reality is one of process, dynamism, becoming, and perpetual change. The intrinsic nature of reality is not static, but “processive”. Whitehead sought to address the weaknesses of an emerging naturalism that favored being over “becoming”. This post initiates a series related to Whitehead’s life, work, and philosophy.
In 1929, Whitehead published The Aims of Education, wherein he proposed an approach to learning that was rhythmic rather than linear. Education, according to Whitehead, is not a matter of acquiring “half-digested” theoretical or knowledge; rather, it is the “acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge” (Aims 4-5). Such knowledge is not, as Dewey contended, for economic gain or social utility – it is knowledge that permits us to live life and live it well. Unfortunately, although Christians regularly speak about “life”, rarely do we make the connection between life and learning.
While “pedants sneer at education which is useful”, Whitehead argued that knowledge and understanding must be intrinsically useful for human existence. He notes, “it was useful to Saint Augustine, it was useful to Napoleon” (Aims 2). Knowledge and understanding “equip us for the present” and the present is “holy ground”. Understanding of the knowledge of the past equips us for the present (Aims 3). Such acquisition and utilization of knowledge is an active, but patient process that is lived in perspective.
Knowledge must be exercised and evoked in the “here and now” because that is precisely where life is lived. The essence of education is that it is religious and the essence of religion is life. Religious education “inculcates duty and reverence”, duty to change the present with knowledge and reverence as a “perception that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, the whole amplitude of time, which is eternity” (Aims 14). Thus, to Whitehead, religious education has nothing to do with dogma. On the contrary, it is full of becoming, dynamism, and life.
To attain understanding is to apply knowledge to life. To live life well is to live with understanding. To live with understanding is to see the present in perspective of the whole story. The utilization of knowledge is when “general ideas give an understanding of that stream of events which pours through the life” of each human being (Aims 2). Thus, Whitehead concurred with the French proverb: to understand all is to forgive all. To learn is to live life in perspective.
In future posts we will explore the stages of Whitehead’s “rhythm” of education: romance, precision, and generalization.
Whitehead, Alfred North. The Aims of Education. New York, NY: The Free Press, 1957.