In his essay, “The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline,” Whitehead brings up solid points on the flaws in education. He highlights how British students are taught to memorize lists of facts without any sense of wonder, and how the result is a complete disinterest in academics. His vision for turning this problem around, however, is not quite grounded enough to work.
When addressing the cause to mindless rote education, Whitehead claims that the structure came from a different time when all of the students were already taken by a deep sense of wonder. The students were all well-off young boys who had already explored throughout Europe, and even their home gardens were rich with inspiring beauty (Whitehead 40). One of the reasons the education system no longer works, according to Whitehead, is middle class students are not exposed to this beauty, and are therefore not inspired to learn more about the world (40). From my perspective, this opinion originates from a point of ignorance which ignores the arts or folk culture, and the love of nature taught by farm life. If children are not inspired to learn about the world, their social class is not to blame.
Instead, I point my finger at the wants and expectations of the education system. Modern schools are hyperfocused on standardized tests to the point that test grades are emphasized above actual learning. According to Alfie Kohn’s “Poor Teaching For Poor Children,” American suburban and private schools host dynamic, thinking classrooms alive with questions, collaboration, and debate, while poor, urban public schools contain highly regimented drill learning and testing of memorized facts (Kohn). As these poor schools have significantly lower standardized test scores, these schools have redoubled their efforts to drill facts into their students’ brains, resulting in even less student interest and lower scores (Kohn). Both Kohn and Whitehead would agree that these school systems are broken, but Whitehead may place unjustifiable blame on the shoulders of the students.
While I agree that an escape from rote learning and fact memorization is crucial, I do not necessarily agree with Whitehead’s educational design. The system that he describes involves setting a certain number of years, such as until the student’s early teens, for immersing themself in the subject and enjoying it without the structure of the traditional classroom (Whitehead 38). While there would be some structure, the student would be encouraged to enjoy and wonder about the subject without being taught the desired answers. This is a spectacularly long time to simply ponder a subject, and I’m not sure how it’s beneficial. From my perspective, knowledge is needed in order to draw interest. When a scientist dawns on a new idea, it’s only after they notice something they can’t explain, and look into what is known about the issue. If a scientist notices something odd, but does not immediately latch onto the subject to determine the answer, they lose interest. Without the excitement from attaining the new knowledge, there is nothing to drive them except fleeting instances of questions. In this same way, students must be allowed to wonder, then presented information, then encouraged to postulate all in the same lesson. This structure is what allows the rich American schools to thrive, and is what is missing from struggling schools—not the entirety of elementary and junior high school without structured learning.
There is something to say for a more fluid education structure. Rene Diaz-Lefebvre in her essay, “Multiple Intelligences, Learning for Understanding, and Creative Assessment: Some Pieces to the Puzzle of Learning,” points out that many gifted students are unable to thrive in a modern classroom because of the focus on only writing and math (Díaz-Lefebvre). Alternative schools are offering a variety of learning and evaluation methods from mime to computer simulation (Díaz-Lefebvre). According to the article, instructors can still easily gauge whether students understood the material (Díaz-Lefebvre). On top of this, students were significantly more likely to become interested, engage in the subject, and go the extra mile (Díaz-Lefebvre). The education system from this article does everything that Whitehead desires in a program without giving years exclusively to fostering interest. Díaz-Lefebvre’s system can do what Whitehead’s cannot: building both knowledge and wisdom in considerable quantities.
Especially in the Information Age, I agree with Whitehead entirely that it’s not necessary for students to be walking encyclopedias. However, the low level of importance he attaches to knowledge taught in schools is startling. In the essay, Whitehead lists the example of memorizing only the most basic grammar in language classes, then using a reference for everything else (Whitehead). This system may make sense in geography when referring to maps or in baking when referring to recipes, but normally, a language has to be committed to memory for someone to speak it. Even considering these two examples, a geographer must be constantly absorbing knowledge in order to detect patterns, and a chef must eventually put the recipe book away in order to build on the original concept. In other words, expertise requires knowledge, it’s just a matter of enthralling students enough that they care to learn.
Whitehead accurately outlines the problem with schools drilling knowledge and tests, boring students and leaving them with a useless list of facts. However, his proposed solution falls short of what is already being accomplished to fix the problem. His three stages of education, despite having the goal of gaining interest in schooling first and foremost, would likely fail without a plethora of knowledge to ground that interest. Schools should nurture an active, analytical environment, but not at the cost of knowledge.
- Díaz-Lefebvre, René. “Multiple Intelligences, Learning For Understanding, And Creative Assessment: Some Pieces To The Puzzle Of Learning.” Teachers College Record 106.1 (2004): 49-57. Teachers College Record. Web. 13 Sept. 2013.
- Kohn, Alfie. “Poor Teaching For Poor Children…In The Name Of School Reform.” Education Week 30.29 (2011): 32-34.Academic Search Complete. Web. 13 Sept. 2013.
- Whitehead, Alfred N. “The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline.” The Aims of Education. New York: Free, 1929. 29-41. Print.