Social Foundations of Education
John Rocco Roberto

Alfred North Whitehead
The Aims of Education

    In Alfred Whitehead’s The Aims of Education, Whitehead 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 life.
    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 individual communities?
    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 studies.
    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