Alfred North Whitehead on “inert ideas”

One of the most remarkable essays I have read on education is “The Aims of Education” by Alfred North Whitehead. First published in 1917, it calls some of our current “wars” into question, particularly the apparent battles between progressives and traditionalists. When Whitehead argues against the danger of “inert ideas,” he seems both progressive and traditional at once.

Whitehead (1861-1947) was a mathematician and philosopher. He co-authored the Principia Mathematica with Bertrand Russell. He is the founder (to some degree) of “process philosophy,” which he explains in Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology.

Already, I am bristling, because the very idea of “process philosophy” sounds like so much nonsense. But when Whitehead says something, he makes you think–in a way that differs from what you might expect. His points don’t fall in the usual classifications.

The second paragraph of “The Aims of Education” reads:

In training a child to activity of thought, above all things we must beware of what I will call “inert ideas”–that is to say, ideas that are merely received into the mind without being utilised, or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations.

Now, this is interesting, because such “inert ideas” could consist of disjointed facts and big, vague concepts. In other words, schools that emphasize isolated bits of information and schools that emphasize ungrounded “critical thinking and problem-solving” are committing a similar error. They are giving students material out of context. As commenters on Michael’s most recent post have suggested, it is the motion of a topic that makes it interesting and memorable. Daniel T. Willingham has made similar points in his book, Why Don’t Students Like School?

But am I reading things into Whitehead? Not at all; here’s more:

Furthermore, we should not endeavour to use propositions in isolation. Emphatically I do not mean, a neat little set of experiments to illustrate Proposition I and then the proof of Proposition I, a neat little set of experiments to illustrate Proposition II and then the proof of Proposition II, and so on to the end of the book. Nothing could be more boring. Interrelated truths are utilised en bloc, and the various propositions are employed in any order, and with any reiteration. Choose some important applications of your theoretical subject; and study them concurrently with the systematic theoretical exposition. … Also the theory should not be muddled up with the practice. The child should have no doubt when it is proving and when it is utilising. My point is that what is proved should be utilised, and that what is utilised should–so far, as is practicable–be proved. I am far from asserting that proof and utilisation are the same thing.

Very interesting. So there should be “theoretical exposition,” short and thorough, alongside (and clearly distinct from) practical application. The theory should be presented in a systematic manner, but “interrelated truths” should be utilized “en bloc.”

In none of this can the details of the subject or the hard work of practice be avoided:

All practical teachers know that education is a patient process of the mastery of details, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. There is no royal road to learning through an airy path of brilliant generalisations. There is a proverb about the difficulty of seeing the wood because of the trees. That difficulty is exactly the point which I am enforcing. The problem of education is to make the pupil see the wood by means of the trees.

But what of the aims of education? What are they? Whitehead writes:

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.

Here’s where things get a little shaky for me. What does he mean by “peculiar reference”? Does he mean that studies should be of personal relevance to each student? Or does he mean that a subject taught in motion is a subject made relevant–that the very motion, the procession from one idea to another, consitutes the relevance, as it helps us see where a particular idea comes from and where it is going? I believe he means the latter. He continues:

The appreciation of the structure of ideas is that side of a cultured mind which can only grow under the influence of a special study. I mean that eye for the whole chess-board, for the bearing of one set of ideas on another. Nothing but a special study can give any appreciation for the exact formulation of general ideas, for their relations when formulated, for their service in the comprehension of life. A mind so disciplined should be
both more abstract and more concrete. It has been trained in the comprehension of abstract thought and in the analysis of facts.

There is much more to the essay than I am conveying here. What’s tantalizing is that some of his ideas are so good and can be misunderstood so easily. They resemble, at first glance, some of the education jargon out there (regarding the “joy of discovery,” for instance) but mean something quite different. One need not agree with all of his points, but they raise the possibility that there is something beyond the oppositions familiar to us today.

I bring up Whitehead in my forthcoming book, Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture. I am grateful to the mathematician who brought Whitehead’s essay to my attention.