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"Coherence lost": education, modernity, and fractured meaning.


The term modernity and the phrase fractured meaning have been perceptively and suggestively interrelated by Donald W. Oliver (with Kathleen Waldron Gershman) in his 1989 book Education, Modernity, and Fractured Meaning: Towards a Process Theory of Teaching and Learning. Oliver echoes the conclusions of many others: the modern age, for all its achievements, is fading; outworn values and assumptions and crumbling institutions testify to a world increasingly fragmented, inconclusive, and incoherent. A new start must be made, Oliver concludes - a new start that certainly includes education.

Oliver's diagnosis of the present impasse certainly cannot be said to lack either clarity or force. Modernity, he states, is based on both hierarchical and analytic assumptions (hence on reductionism and atomism) tied to a doctrine of "progressive evolution" (hence to a simplistic and mandatory concept of progress):

This crude assumption that specialization and hierarchy are indicators of a progressive culture and society has been transformed into conventional wisdom. We expect modern societies to be differentiated into economic, political, legal, cultural, and health care systems, each run by a pyramidal management structure. Modern schools and universities which prepare people for life and work are commonly organized around these categories.

The progressive atomizing of knowledge into technical specialties, subspecialties, and sub-subspecialties ad infinitum, organized top-down, becomes not only the operating principle of our civilization but the common coin of education, where the dogma of "progressive specialization" rules supreme. Education is reduced to researching, developing, understanding, with a view to practicing specific sets of technical skills. Alternatives are not respectable.

Yet there is, Oliver insists, an alternative way of approaching experience, another mode of knowing which the modernist paradigm ignores. This other sort of knowing - so much like Bergsonian intuition - attempts to probe the dynamics of our world and its interactions concretely, without being misled by "analysis." This intuitive approach, which Oliver terms grounded knowing, cannot take the place of analytical knowing and is not intended to cancel it out. Rather, he offers it as a way of "supplementing" - of completing and balancing - the common hierarchical and analytic approach.

The philosopher whom Oliver describes as most adequately pursuing grounded knowing is Alfred North Whitehead; the result of grounded knowing he (like Whitehead) characterizes as cosmology. Cosmology, whether broad-scale or limited, always deals with the whole; it can never be partial and always attempts to escape one-sidedness. It includes metaphysics (an attempt to frame a set of principles capable of representing the world as a whole) and ontology (which, rather than framing principles, pays more attention to the texture of experience, to what it is like to be "within" experience rather than "outside" it).

I find myself in essential agreement with Oliver's diagnosis of a significant part of our present malaise. In what follows, however, I would like to explore certain problems untouched by Oliver in his book, problems which Whitehead foresaw (at least in their major outlines) and which, if left unresolved, would certainly lead to fractured meaning.


As even a cursory reading of Whitehead's masterpiece, Process and Reality, makes clear, his cosmology is immeasurably complex. Oliver's description of it is significantly simplified, consisting of the analysis of some 15 different technical terms accompanied by various applications. For the purposes of this essay, I will reduce these terms to two: real creativity and internal relations.

For Whitehead, creativity is the most fundamental feature of the universe. It is thus, as he terms it, the "universal of universals." Its existence precludes simple mechanical explanations of the character of the world, including human beings. It also precludes the exhaustive prediction - even in principle - of the course of nature (the "creative advance of nature"), including human behavior.

That internal relations are fundamental to Whitehead's cosmology guarantees that no simple analytical approach can wholly succeed. Nothing in the world can be taken out of its context without being changed by being removed. All things, from the simplest to the most complex, are what they are significantly because they are affected by the other actual occasions within their experience. To treat organisms or their parts as identical digits is to misconstrue both what they are and how they function together.

From the Whitehead viewpoint, the destructiveness of modernist imperialism is not hard to understand. The forester who conceives trees as so many dots on a grid (computed as board feet), the educator who visualizes students as so many units needing to be "processed," the psychologist who conceives intelligence as a set of ideally isolated operations: all these employ modern presuppositions, now hardened into operative prejudices. Is it surprising that the results often consist as much of debris as of achievement? Armed with their analytical-hierarchical schemes, modernist technicians will slash their way through the world oblivious to subtle interrelatedness and convinced that their manipulative schemes can miss nothing that is important.

But the negative effects of modernist ideology are not limited to specific disciplines. Inevitably, society as a whole suffers, through both the disuse and the corrosion of basic institutions. Oliver states:

Within grounded or ontological knowing, we feel (usually unconsciously) the many aspects of an occasion evolve into the unity of an event, as if out of nowhere. Technical knowing, on the other hand, begins with sharply delineated events, sharply defined.

What our ideology lacks, above all, is a tendency toward, and a necessary reference to, wholeness. At the same time, it lacks insistent reference to overall significance. Given a disbalanced reliance on technique, it becomes more than likely that religious, aesthetic, and ethical values and institutions will suffer. Indeed, human sociability itself will be a victim. Beyond the esprit de corps of those who believe in and utilize "technique," what element of community will remain? Like meaning itself, community will tend to be fractured.

In exploring Whitehead's concept of education, I will deal with three sets of issues. First, the rise of specialization, with the concurrent eclipse of general knowledge, including the classical background. Second, what Whitehead called the "bifurcation of nature," with its corollary, the emergence of the "two cultures" - the sciences and the humanities. Third, the loss of coherence generally, in both theory and practice: the loss, I will argue, of the will to coherence. The first two sets of issues, arguably, sum up into the third.

When Whitehead was writing in the early decades of this century, two things were becoming clear. The time had passed when one mind could master all knowledge; and, inversely, the increasing specialization needed to deal with the bulk and diversity of new knowledge tended to fragment understanding into poorly related parts. Traditional approaches to education, he felt, could not deal with this fracturing of knowledge or with the problems it spawned.

These problems were by no means theoretical; they were practical as well. As Whitehead observed in Science in the Modern World:

The directive force of reason is weakened. The leading intellects lack balance. They see this set of circumstances, or that set: but not both sets together. The task of coordination is left to those who lack either the force or the character to succeed in some definite career. In short, the specialized functions of the community are performed better and more progressively, but the generalized direction lacks vision.

Enhanced ability to master isolated details, Whitehead warns, often goes along with increasing feebleness of coordination.

The situation has its dangers. It produces minds in a groove. Each profession makes progress, but it is progress in its own groove. Now to be mentally in a groove is to live contemplating a given set of abstractions. The groove prevents straying across country, and the abstraction abstracts from something to which no further attention is paid. But there is no groove of abstractions adequate for the comprehension of human life.

We need minds that can escape their grooves, stray across boundaries, understand globally.

One way of trying to deal with the sheer diversity of our knowledge is to teach a potpourri of disjunct courses. This is sometimes called the "cafeteria approach," and it usually results in the student's choosing many desserts, a few salads, and rarely a main course. Whitehead politely refuses this strategy, arguing instead that languages and mathematics should make up the backbone of the curriculum. Thus British students (to take the audience to which he is speaking) should have, as a minimum, a background in Latin and French. One result should be the mental discipline that comes from learning a language (amplified in this case by the dawning capacity to compare two related languages). Similarly with mathematics, which also instills a profound mental discipline. But here one must be careful. Whitehead is not advocating "dressage" - mere drill for the sake of drill. Teaching should be lively. Equally important, he insists that in mathematics we must avoid getting bogged down in immeasurable details. Mathematics should deal - certainly for the general student - with strong examples illustrating basic ideas. In its trajectory from arithmetic through geometry to algebra and calculus, there should be every attempt made to show important applications.

By stressing languages and mathematics, Whitehead may not seem to be addressing the problem of the fragmentation of knowledge. I believe that in fact he is, however. Whitehead holds that an education should, as far as possible, provide the basic skills and discipline without which the mind cannot explore broadly and effectively. There is yet another goal behind Whitehead's proposal. Latin is easily joined to the study of classical literature, and, in any case, the study of a language inevitably brings with it some awareness of culture and history. We thus respond to contemporary incoherence by using the study of language to instill a sense of origins.

Again, it must be stressed that in all of this - including what is to come - Whitehead is developing a broad curriculum intended for the majority, not a program for an elite. One way to overcome the fragmentation of knowledge is not to water down the curriculum but to ensure, as far as possible, that all students have a basic linguistic and mathematical background. It is then more likely that many will have the possibility of understanding in breadth.

Though languages and mathematics may be said to form the "backbone" of Whitehead's curriculum, they cannot be said for him to constitute the entire body of education. Alone, they would be bare bones indeed. History, literature, the natural sciences, art, and social thought must be included. Before discussing this inclusion, however, I would like to turn to another issue, one which Oliver does not discuss in his book and which, paradoxically, Whitehead did not explicitly link with his concept of education. I refer to the disastrous bifurcation of nature.


Six of the 10 essays collected in Whitehead's The Aims of Education were written before The Concept of Nature (1919). Perhaps that is why none of them mentions the bifurcation of nature; for this phrase is not introduced by him until the second chapter of The Concept of Nature. What Whitehead objects to in his critique of the bifurcation of nature is the blanket assumption that all qualities in nature (colors, smells, odors, felt experience) are subjective, while only quantitative, geometrical, presumably mechanical characteristics are objective and thus real. The problems connected with this distinction - which is at least as old as Rene Descartes and John Locke, to say nothing of Democritus - are legion. There is, for example, the question of how we can adequately infer that other, unperceived world (colorless, odorless, soundless) from the colored, smelling, sounding world that we do perceive:

One reality would be the entities such as electrons which are the study of speculative physics. This would be the reality which is there for knowledge; although on this theory it is never known. For what is known is the other sort of reality, which is the byplay of the mind. Thus there would be two natures, one is the conjecture and the other is the dream.

Henceforth philosophers would exercise themselves trying to prove that the world exists, while scientists would wonder if they should exercise themselves at all over the puzzles of philosophy.

For Whitehead, the epistemic problem created by the bifurcation of nature is no less real than the value problem it also creates. Speaking in Science in the Modern World of Descartes' version of this bifurcation, Whitehead points out:

. . . the independence ascribed by Descartes to bodily substances carried them away from the realm of values altogether. They degenerated into a mechanism entirely valueless, except as suggestive of an external ingenuity. The heavens had lost the Glory of God. This state of mind is illustrated in the recoil of Protestantism from aesthetic effects dependent on a material medium. It was taken to lead to an ascription of value to what is in itself valueless.

According to Whitehead, this schism was to have immensely destructive effects when the industrial revolution emerged in Western Europe. These effects were twofold: first, the limitations of ethics to the sphere of personal subjectivity; and second, a lack of appreciation and respect for natural and artistic beauty. The first cramped the moral sense:

Accordingly, self-respect, and the making the most of your own opportunities, together constituted the efficient morality of the leaders among the industrialists of the world.

The second cramped - if it didn't obliterate - the aesthetic sense:

Just when the urbanization of the western world was entering upon its state of rapid development, and when the most delicate, anxious consideration of the aesthetic qualities of the new material environment was requisite, the doctrine of the irrelevance of those ideas was at its height. In the most advanced industrial countries, art was treated as a frivolity.

We thus have the worst of both worlds: the habit of ignoring the real relations between the organism and its environment; and the habit of ignoring the intrinsic worth of the environment.

The example Whitehead gives - the "wanton" defacing of the Thames River by the Charing Cross railroad bridge - seems almost puerile when one considers the previous destruction of the Scottish forests to secure fuel for steam engines and the defacing of whole districts of Wales with coal-mine refuse at virtually the same time. Whitehead here misses a chance to deal with environmental issues decades before environmental concerns were to emerge full blown.

Equally, it is unfortunate that he - like Oliver - makes no specific connection between the bifurcation of nature and what might be termed the bifurcation of education: the splitting of education into the arts and humanities (sometimes including the social sciences) versus the sciences (usually including technology). Whitehead has diagnosed, prior to its condemnation by C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures: unconcerned with each other, if not antithetical. He didn't, however, fully develop his insight.

How, then, does Whitehead hope to overcome the bifurcation of education? The answer is - no pun intended - twofold. On one side, he confronts the challenges posed by specialization. Education, he insists in Science in the Modern World, cannot become a mere collage:

There is no single solution to the practical difficulties of education. We can, however, guide ourselves by a certain simplicity in its general theory. The student should concentrate within a limited field. Such concentration should include all practical and intellectual acquirements requisite for that concentration. This is the ordinary procedure; and, in respect to it, I should be inclined even to increase the facilities for concentration rather than to diminish them.

In insisting on the linguistic-mathematical backbone of the curriculum, Whitehead has already protested against the temptation toward the mere multiplication of courses; here, in insisting on a rigorous career specialization, he reinforces his original protest.

There are problems with this proposal. I am in entire agreement that students should be required to master a field, and it is all to the good if this mastery has a practical side. But Whitehead was thinking of typical British curricula with traditional concentrations: classics, political science, history, law, medicine, and the like. The recent proliferation of university curricula produces "majors" in hotel management, marketing, dance, drama, social work, kinesiology, and, for all I know, health-foods retailing. The "mastery" of these fields would probably not involve either the degree of disciplined reflection or the breadth of insight Whitehead is thinking of as typical of a "limited field."

What follows for the rest of education - the nonspecialized part? It should be, Whitehead emphasizes, as nonbookish as possible:

The center of gravity of the other side of training should lie in intuition without an analytical divorce from the total environment. Its object is immediate apprehension with the minimum of eviscerating analysis. The type of generality, which above all is wanted, is the appreciation of variety of value. I mean an aesthetic growth.

This side of education should produce appreciation of the "infinite variety of vivid values" achieved by an organism in its environment.

It would have been helpful if Whitehead had given concrete examples of such hands-on, immediate, aesthetic education. In fact, he tells us nothing specific and we are left with a virtually blank canvas, broad suggestions, and our imaginations. I am led, in this context, to recall a remark of Mortimer Adler: the best way to get a good general education is to read, to travel, and to discuss what one reads. One might cite here, as a kind of prolegomenon, Whitehead's most fundamental dictum: "Beware of dead ideas."

In Education, Modernity, and Fractured Meaning, Donald Oliver, too, produces few concrete examples. Those that he does give, however, are suggestive. The particular kind of consciousness science encourages is, he states, explicit, clear, but superficial:

It also lends itself smoothly into division into curriculum units. The frog we cut apart in the school biology laboratory is not introduced as a significant and intimate neighbor in our neighborhood or on our planet. It is not even "alive." It merely provides useful data to illustrate such technical concepts as "circulatory system" or "the anatomy of amphibians."

What is lacking here, Oliver suggests, is any concrete familiarity with living organisms - this, and an unwillingness to speculate. Concerning frogs or pumpkins or any other living organism, there are a host of both scientific and metaphysical questions that could and should be asked in discussion - questions beyond the technical details of their physiology, their genetics, and their ecology. We might also ask how other cultures view animals and what relations they have with them.


I would like to conclude with some brief remarks on four topics related to process pedagogy: the difficulty of thinking in holistic terms, given not only the general tendency of modernism but a century of emphasis on piecemeal analysis in philosophy; the problem of overcoming the bifurcation of education, even in Whitehead's philosophy of education; the need to add flesh and blood - detailed proposals - to the generalities of process pedagogy; and the problem at the door of any reform in education - that of educating the educators.

In pointing out the modern drift toward increasing incoherence and narrowed vision, Whitehead clearly presupposed that the opposite is possible - that a will to wholeness is possible that can counter our all-too-eager will to fragmentation. All of his writings - most clearly from Science and the Modern World on, and monumentally in Process and Reality - attest to this will. It is one thing to chant "wholeness"; it is another to demonstrate how to think holistically in an effective and believable way.

Rejoining Whitehead will not be easy. In the twentieth century, the overweeningly analytic and hierarchical thrust of modernism has overtaken philosophy. There can be no question here of tracing the history of twentieth-century thought; a few main outlines can be touched on. These show, I would argue, a paradoxical dualism, paralleling that of the "two cultures" cited previously. Increasingly driven from the broad field of speculation, philosophy since World War I and especially after World War II has tended to isolate itself into two camps: positivism and its derivatives on the one side; phenomenology and its congeners on the other. These two have had little to say to each other and seem to have regarded each other as sworn enemies. But, in fact, they appear in retrospect as two versions of analysis - one introverted, the other extroverted.

It will be said that this once-deep division no longer exists. In English-speaking countries, I would argue, it has eroded but still exists, though with muddled outlines. In French-speaking countries, there has been - or so it appears from abroad - a more thorough changing of perspectives. The important point, however, is that, throughout, by far the greater emphasis has been and remains on analysis, on piecemeal philosophy. Various postmodernisms condemn the notion of wholeness out of hand. It appears that deconstructionism, in attacking the will to power, has replaced it with a will to confetti.

It will therefore be no easy task to bring philosophy once again to speculate, to synthesize, to attempt to see things whole. But it is a task that should be attempted. Along these lines, the philosophies of Henri Bergson and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, of Samuel Alexander and Charles Hartshorne, as Well as that of Whitehead, are a very real help. What Whitehead and others like him do is provide models of coherent, broad-gauge thinking about the entire range of human experience and of natural existence. Without a philosophy that teaches us how to think - and feel - coherently, what hope is there of regaining "coherence lost"?

One of the obstacles to the will toward coherence is the bifurcation of education referred to above. It is not clear that Whitehead, with his duality of technical and aesthetic educations, quite overcomes this. I find this puzzling, given his stated goal of overcoming dualities and dualisms of all kinds. An education which balanced and interrelated both "technical" and aesthetic would be an advance over the education we in fact have. Perhaps, however, we need to go further. The scientific side of education - broadly, the technical side - could be taught imaginatively with attention to the history and psychology of science and technology, to their applications to practical human affairs, to the ethics of science, to possible theories of the limitations of science. In other words, one might insist that technical subjects be taught philosophically.

The need to give flesh to the bones of process-relational theories of education is evident. Whitehead often failed to do so. Oliver does not often go into detail, though he does make some interesting suggestions as he critiques the misleading metaphors of educational process. His critique of the architecture of contemporary education, which isolates teacher from students, students from each other and from natural light, and schools from the diversity of life, are potentially useful. So are his suggestions concerning the need for flexibility in the use of time in education. Beyond this, however, almost everything remains to be done.

Finally, I would end with a caveat. Often in discussions of educational reform - or revolution - we focus on the difficulties of reaching students or formulating curricula or convincing the public or understanding learning. If I am right, however, in attempting to transform education toward a holistic, process-oriented viewpoint and practice, the toughest obstacle we will face is that of educating the educators. They - we - are the problem. For, after all, they - we - are suckled on the modernist standpoint and on hierarchical-analytic educational practice. Overcoming our specializations, in both thought and experience, and moving toward broad overviews and an awareness of grounded knowing, will not be easy. But it is essential.

Pete A. Y. Gunter is a professor of philosophy and religion studies at the University of North Texas at Denton.
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Author:Gunter, Peter A.Y.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:May 1, 1995
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