Posts Tagged ‘Harvard’

Today’s book review is: “The Aims Of Education” (1929 ©), by Alfred North Whitehead.  The book is a collection of papers and presentations (speeches) given by the author on a number of topics: education, freedom and discipline, science, the function of universities and the nature of thought itself.  Although a relatively small work, it is quite deep and scholastic / academic in tone, which will not be to everyone’s taste.
Whitehead was a mathematician who emigrated to America and became a philosopher in his later years.  Apparently, Cambridge had a lecturer time limit of twenty-five years and he was forced into retirement.  He lectured in London for another dozen years before moving to Harvard where he also spent a little over a dozen years.
The book is really in two parts for me: the parts I understood and agreed with wholeheartedly (the first half of the book) and the later part (mainly dealing with the “organization of thought” and “the anatomy of some scientific ideas“) which I believe I understood, but which I disagreed with.  Metaphysically speaking, Whitehead poses that reality is what we (individually) perceive it to be and the normalization of perception is (what we agree on collectively) what we “scientifically” say is the “real” world.  In a strange way, the only things which can be real are those which we perceive to be real and on which we can agree with others in their perceptions.  This “relativism” of a perceived real world has consequences, but I’m not sure I have ever been able to get my head around them.  (I went through this in a political theory class back in my own university days.)
While I feel I understood what Whitehead was trying to express, I found it extremely dry reading and in the end (after several weeks of having the book on my bedside table), I had to force myself to read the last 30-40 odd pages.  My difficulty was less my “disagreement” with his proposition, as the general feeling of its irrelevance in “my” real world.  I don’t really care if all the universe is really changing and even mountains are eventually reduced to sand.  For my lifetime, they are mountains.  I recognize that in a billion or so years, the Earth will no longer be here (or the mountain), but for now, I still need to climb it, ski it, or build a train tunnel through it and I (we) can still ascertain (agree) on it’s location, height, circumference, etc.  It is as real as I need it to be.
If this review seems a bit negative, let me also high-light the books strengths (or at least the parts I agree with), too.  The book’s title refers to the first lecture in the book and describes what we as a society should hope to gain by educating our youth.  It describes the “rhythm” of education in a person’s life.  It also relates Whitehead’s views on subjects to be taught and their order of learning.  As mentioned above, he goes on to discuss the value of a liberal education, the use of classics in education, and the role of a university in developing the leaders society requires.  Whitehead does not neglect the necessity of practical and technical training in the spectrum of education .  He simply notes they will be sufficient for the masses and remain a minimum standard for the well developed (pre-) university graduate.  This seems an extremely elitist view until one recognizes that education is a lifetime endeavor and returning to school (university) is not (or it should not be) prohibited for those who start their working lives as tradesmen and technicians.
Final recommendation:  moderate to strong recommendation.  This book is a definite “classic” and I feel I am “better” for having experienced it.  But, and this is a rather large qualification for me, it isn’t a book I left feeling many others would be interested in.  Primarily because of the nature of the subject matter, but also because of the way it’s expressed (extremely erudite language), this is not a book (I believe) many will force themselves to wade through.  Very reminiscent of a description I once heard of the book “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking, this is a book you want people to see on your coffee table, but which nobody ever actually reads.  Stick to the first bits on education, liberal arts and the purpose of a university, and leave the rest for when you tire of insomnia.
On This Day In:
2014 Sums
2013 Memories & Binging
Admiration Due
2012 Choices Matter
2011 Acceptance Is The Key
2010 Just A Permanent Crease…
Bodily Functions

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