Alfred North Whitehead
The Aims of Education
In Alfred Whitehead’s The Aims of Education
examined the current system of education (current for 1929 England), finding
it full of ridged curriculum, inert ideas and definite examinations which
were failing the student. It “is not only useless, it is, above all
things harmful,” Whitehead said. Whitehead believed that all subjects
should “keep knowledge alive, of preventing it from becoming inert.”
That by teaching fewer subjects more thoroughly, students will develop a respect
and understanding for education which will enrich and carry them through
Whitehead’s view of the educational system, are as pertinent
for today’s American students as they were 60 years ago for English
students. The current American school system is in danger of becoming
useless, and failing to keep knowledge alive. Unfortunately many communities
and school boards find that the answer to the problem are ridged curriculums,
with higher requirements for passing, with emphasis on math and science.
President Clinton (as well as president Bush before him), spoke of “national
standards” for education, preparing Americans for the 21st century.
But how will this inspire American children to do better, and how will these
“standards” keep knowledge alive? Not all students preform well in math
and science. I didn’t.
An educational system should inspire a student to understand,
explore and think about the world around him. Most of all it should
allow the student to experience the joy one can get from discovering knowledge
at ones own pace. Whitehead suggest that the school and the teacher
be given the power to approve and evolve its own curriculum based on its own
needs, for the personal at the school itself know the needs of the community
better than some central school board. But Americans, always quick to
place the problem in someone else’s hands, favor a national solution, handing
over their responsibilities as parents to government because of a lack of
time, due in large part to the need of both parents to work. Yet as
Whitehead observed, how can a central school board know the needs of the
The best argument I can make in support of Whitehead’s
point is from my own personal experience. As a student, both in high
school and college, I was a straight “C” student. Most of my time was
spent sitting in boring classes, watching the clock, and taking subjects that
either held little interest, or were extremely difercult for me. When
I left college to begin working in my “un-chosen” career, (for at that time
making money became the central idea), my experience from learning by doing
inspired me to excel in the field; inquire into other areas of education and
culture; finally returning to college, where I have maintained a straight
“A” average. It was this act of actively learning, being free of the
“inert ideas,” which allowed me to gain a respect for learning and appreciation
for some of those inert ideas which we all need to get ahead in life.
An educational system is useless if it continues to fill
the heads of students with information that is either forgotten, or never
acted upon in later life. Schools must also change to reflect the need
to teach students to think, and fill them with a joy and thirst for knowledge.
All students need the basics, but by the High School age students should be
ready to specialize, and a curriculum of fewer subjects tough in more detail
can accomplish to “keep knowledge alive, [and] preventing it from becoming
inert.” Unfortunately, at the height of this debate, the National
Commission On Excellence On Education
released its report, and recommended
the reverse direction from which Whitehead was suggesting.
National Commission On Excellence On Education
A Nation At Risk (1983)
The report, published by the National Commission On
Excellence On Education
in 1983, has had a major impact on educational
policy within the United States till the present day. The report focused
on the risk the American educational system was facing by falling behind other
nations of the world and suggested the policies which should be implemented
to correct these deficiencies. Issued before the full impact of “Reaganomics”
effected the nation, the findings of the commission seem far off base when
considering the report and world situation 14 years later.
The commission found many areas of problems within the
current school systems, including lack of enforcing a serious school curriculum,
lowering of expected levels of achievements, the small amount of time students
spend on study, and the under pay and low quality of teachers. For example,
on curriculum the commission addressed the issue of school content, finding
the curriculum a “cafeteria-style curriculum...[where] students have migrated
from vocational and college programs to ‘general track’ courses in
large numbers.” The commission emphasized the percent drop from 1964
to 1979 in the number of students switching to “appetizers and desserts” courses
from “main courses.” In examining this change the commission failed
to take into account several factors. First, American reaction to the
“Sputnik scare” mellowed after the initial shock wore off, and reaction to
the entire Cold War faded. Second, the 1960's counter culture changed
the attitudes and outlook of American youth, as the stranded American educational
system was seen as part of the “establishment” problem. With the outlook
for most students graduating High School being sent off to fight in Vietnam,
the “serious” curriculum fell by the wayside if favor of more “life” orientated
In expressing the solutions to problems such as these,
the commission recommended the re-enforcement of teaching English, mathematics
and science, as well as social studies, computer science and foreign language.
In addition the commission recommended fundamental changes in the way schools
were run, including the extension of the school day to 7-hours and the expansion
of the school year to 220 days.
But what the commission again failed to note was that
the so called decline of American competitiveness was not brought about by
a decline in the educational system, but by the short sightlessness and greed
of the American corporation. American companies continually used the
1970's to expand their profits by moving production overseas, or by selling
off their product line because they didn’t turn a profit fast enough.
One example of this policy is RCA, who, when it could not sell its $2000.00,
1 hour compatible video cassette recorders, assumed their was no market for
such products, and sold the patent to Sony. Sony, in turn, re-designed
the unit, lowered the price, expanded the recording time and created the video
market that exist today. Another example is the Philips Electronics
Company, which invented compact disc technology. But instead of marketing
this technology for consumer products, (like the Japanese did), Philips’ developed
the system as part of our over budgeted weapons systems of the 1980's.
The focus of any school system should be to open a students
mind and teach the student to think. Again I draw from my own experiences.
The core curriculum of the 1970's, teachers who believed that a student learned
by being embarrassed in front of a class, turned me off of the educational
system. In 1983, the year the report was issued, I was dropping out
of college, leaving behind a 2.5 average, and a list of C’s, F’s and WU’s,
only holding A’s in my chosen field of cinema studies. I survived, excelling
in one trade and doing quite well in another. The point that I must
bring out is that with the exception of the courses I truly held interest
in, it took time for my interest and abilities to mature enough to appreciate
a “well rounded education.”
This is the point that the school systems, and commission
fail to realize. Not all students can become rocket scientist, nor should
they be. Nor should students be penalized for problems which have not
yet arisen. The expansion of the school day and year; the extended
hours of homework, will not necessary benefit the student, and may contribute
further to the drop out and delinquency rate. Japan was a favorite
example for comparison between the achievements of American and Japanese
students in the 1980's. Little was ever mentioned that Japan had the
highest suicide rate for high school students, or that the student who could
not achieve was abandoned by their system and shipped off to a trade school.
When you consider the current position of the nation
in the economic world of today, considering the current positions of the
Japanese and German economies, then the commissions finding seem far off.
Education must serve society, but it must also serve the individual.
When a society dictates what a student should learn and be, then the society
is guilty of betraying the trust it has of preserving that society.
The educational system needs changing, but it must reflect the needs of the
students and not the worries of economics. Let the problems of the
21st century be solved in the 21st century. A well trained mind will
be able to handle any problem, no matter how and when it comes along, but
a mind trained to cope with one problem is not flexible, and doom to failure.
Aticle © 1997 John Rocco Roberto