From pedagogy to cosmology with A. N. Whitehead

A student in my course this semester asked a great question recently: “How is Whitehead’s cosmology related to his pedagogy?” Many commentators find it strange that Whitehead decided to include (and indeed to conclude) his book Aims of Education with a few chapters on relativistic space and time. What on earth does his alternative interpretation of Einstein’s relativity theory have to do with education?

Whitehead’s critique of modern education is that it tends to produce well-informed experts with atrophied feeling, deadened receptivity to beauty, and less capacity for animated and imaginative thought than was present when students first enter school as untutored children. In other words, our schools have been designed to fill the active minds of children with inert ideas, eventually leading to specialized knowledge in some narrow field in which they will eventually seek employment. Narrowness wins out over breadth and depth.

Of course, Whitehead does not argue that educational systems cease teaching important knowledge. He insists that these ideas, whether general or specialized, never be handed over to children in frozen, shrink-wrapped form, but rather in such a way that they can be immediately utilized, tested, and recombined in fresh ways. If the child does not, from the first, experience education as the joy of discovery, then mental dryrot sets in and the future vitality of human culture is endangered. Whitehead: “Education with inert ideas is not only useless: it is, above all things, harmful” (AoE, 1-2).

How is Whitehead’s rather common critique of modern industrial/factory-style education related to cosmology? Whitehead’s critique of Einstein has to do with the way an a priori geometrical scheme, entirely disconnected from experience, is made the foundation of the physical world. Whitehead says that “the most extraordinary fact of human life is that all beings seem to form their judgements of spatial quantity according to the same metrical system” (AoE, 160-161). But, he adds, this is “only true within the limits of accuracy obtained by human observation.” Einstein’s contribution was to make science inescapably aware of the fact that “diverse spatio-temporal systems of measurement are relevant to the behavior of things” (161). But how do these diverse metrical systems hang together as part of a common external world? Einstein approached this problem via a mathematical conception of space and time as a single continuous manifold. But again, how is his “space-time continuum” related to human experience? Nobody lives in such a continuum. Rather, we live “in a set of fragmentary experiences” (AoE, 162). Whitehead articulated what he called the “method of extensive abstraction” so as to reconnect the fragmentary worlds of our experience to a common world of mathematical conceptions.

One of the purposes of education is to allow human beings, from unique backgrounds and with fragmentary perspectives and special talents, to join in the common project of culture-formation. Whitehead’s critique of standard renderings of relativity theory is that these renderings take the unity of a mathematical abstraction as fundamental and given while reducing away as illusory the concrete experiences from which all mathematical abstraction derives. This is akin to treating the conveyance of information as of primary importance in education, rather than the growth of human beings. Whitehead protests against the idea of an objective, pre-given space-time continuum for the same reason he protests again the idea of an objective, pre-given encyclopedia of knowledge. “Students are alive, and the purpose of education is to stimulate and guide their self-development” (AoE, v).

The aim of education, like the aim of Whitehead’s critique of Einsteinian relativity, is to find a way to lift “the broken limited experiences” of our individual lives, to inspire us each from where we stand to contribute in our unique ways to the sustenance of “that connected infinite world in which in our thoughts we live” (AoE, 164). Whitehead concludes Aims of Education with the lines “Our problem is, in fact, to fit the world to our perceptions, and not our perceptions to the world” (165). In other words, whether in theories of space and time or in theories of education, we must guard against the deadly temptation to make idols out of our abstractions. The world is a community of experiences. It has, we hope, a uniform texture, a texture approached by the most advanced thinking activity a culture can produce. Abstractions are not the enemy, they are of vital importance to civilized life! But when we neglect the process by which we arrive at them by building up from concrete particular experiences, we make a terrible mess of the whole human endeavor, and indeed, of the world itself. We arrive at the abstract uniformity of the texture of experience not through violently explaining away the uniqueness of each of our points of view. Rather, we start where we are as living and aspiring organisms and, keeping our feet firmly placed on the ground, reach from there to the stars.