From “inert ideas” to inquiry and argument

This post is a reflection on and response two this week’s readings for my Program Leadership.  The readings outline the history of attempting to develop a general curriculum as well as some views on what a good education should be.


  • “The Aims of Education”   from The Aims of Education and Other Essays by Alfred North Whitehead, 1929
  • Selected chapters from Education for Thinking by Deanna Kuhn, 2008
  • Chapter 3 of Curriculum and Aims by D.F. Walker and J.F. Soltis, 2004

From the Walker and Soltis selection, it is clear that our current disagreement about what constitutes a good education is not a new state of affairs but a longstanding one.  The history of curriculum development also shows a progression away from an idea education is solely about subject-area knowledge, but instead is about the more complex development of intellectual skills.  Also from Walker and Soltis, “Curriculum decisions can be viewed as a continuing dialogue uniting us with our ancestors and posterity.”   We constantly consider what we was important as education in the past and what we think that we can do to best prepare our children for an uncertain future.

All three works, but especially Whitehead and Kuhn, seem to agree that a school focusing on general subject knowledge is the antithesis of one that creates students who are poised to appreciate education, make use of their education, and to continue to learn.   Whitehead states that “Education is the acquisition of the art of utilization of knowledge” and Kuhn indicates that the primary outcome of education should be the skills of inquiry and argument.   Both Whitehead and Kuhn advocate that learning activities must combine skill and knowledge in contexts that ensure students see the usefulness and merit of the activity, feeling neither that it is a pointless intellectual exercise or an introduction of useless facts to be memorized for an exam and then forgotten.

I agree with Kuhn’s statement that “our modern society is changing so fast that we cannot envision how our children will live in the future.  We thus do not know how to prepare them for their adult lives and are able to identify education objectives in only the broadest, most abstract of terms.”   For all the talk of 21st century skills, we are still debating what is really in the best interest of our students and how to accomplish it in our general educational system.  What most fascinates me here is that Whitehead’s essay was published in 1929 and Kuhn’s book in 2008; writing nearly 80 years apart and in different countries, they are espousing the same general view.   Inert facts lead us away from a good education by turning students away from buying in to the benefits of education.   The truly important thing is that they gain skills and qualities that will enable them to learn any subject needed later in life.

I agree whole-heartedly.  What have I used from my education?    Not calculus, though I loved it.  Not American history, though I didn’t love it.  Not physics, though I’m not sure I understood it.  I have forgotten the content of most of these classes, but I have used the ability to learn every day.  I have used the ability to find knowledge and to evaluate its content and validity.  I have used the ability to communicate my ideas to others and to hear and evaluate their ideas against my own.  The career that I had prior to graduate school was one that I had never heard of when I was in high school.  How could my school have prepared me for it?

When I taught AP Computer Science, I was not driven by the idea that my students would learned to write programs in Java or that they would make 5’s on their AP exams.   While Whitehead’s idea of “style” is one I appreciate, and I appreciated a stylish program, I wasn’t teaching them long enough for them to develop it.  I hoped that writing programs in my class taught my students how to learn on their own through trial and error.  I hoped that it taught them patience and persistence.  I hoped that it taught them a type of systematical planning and thinking that is applicable to many areas of life.  I hoped it taught them to solve problems and to take intellectual risks.

What can we do?  Is it time for a new Committee of Ten?  Can we legislate our way out of it?  Is the problem as suggested by Bantock in Walker and Soltis that school stands  “for a abstraction and a purely mental life” and not one that was authentic and participatory?   Is it that pop culture and mass media don’t celebrate the intellectual life?   I don’t have answers and may never have them, but for now, I’m extraordinarily thankful to be thinking about it.


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