TITLE: The Aims of Education AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: September 24, 2006 11:36 AM DESC: ----- BODY: I was cleaning out my briefcase and found a paper I read last summer, Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education. It's not about computing, of course, but it does argue quite nicely that we should set higher goals for our institutions of education than just knowledge, or just training for a trade. In particular, we should aim to produce people "who possess both culture and expert knowledge in some special direction. Their expert knowledge will give them the ground to start from, and their culture will lead them as deep as philosophy and as high as art." I think that we can aim this high in computer science, and even in our introductory courses. For Whitehead, to become educated is to learn the art of using of knowledge. The using of knowledge is essential; by themselves, facts and rules are mere trivia to clutter the mind. We should always give students the chance to do something meaningful while they learn -- say, manipulate media files -- as they learn. Some believe that teaching students abstract knowledge is valuable as a means of "sharpening" their minds, to ready them for real thought later. But pumping inert knowledge into the minds of students is a waste of time at best and hurtful to them at worst:
The mind is never passive; it is a perpetual activity, delicate, receptive, responsive to stimulus. You cannot postpone its life until you have sharpened it.
The mind is already alive, eager to do something worthwhile. If our topic elicits their interest, then our instruction must let them run with it now. Only then will they learn anything useful. Whitehead argues strongly that students must learn both broadly, to become a cultured citizen, and deeply in some area, in order to fully appreciate the power and beauty of ideas.
What education has to impart is an intimate sense for the power of ideas, for the beauty of ideas, and for the structure of ideas, together with a particular body of knowledge which has peculiar reference to the life of the being possessing it.
I love that phrase: an intimate sense for the power of ideas, for the beauty of ideas, and for the structure of ideas. But this sense of intimacy can come only when the student studies some area of knowledge deeply:
The appreciation of the structure of ideas is that side of a cultured mind which can only grow under the influence of a special study. ... Nothing but a special study can give any appreciation for the exact formulation of general ideas, for their relations when formulated, for their service in the comprehension of life. A mind so disciplined should be both more abstract and more concrete. It has been trained in the comprehension of abstract thought and in the analysis of facts.
Whitehead felt that English education at the time he wrote this essay (1929) suffered from a lack of this deep focus, from a need for the sort of special study that develops foresight:
The profound change in the world which the nineteenth century has produced is that the growth of knowledge has given foresight. The amateur is essentially a man with appreciation and with immense versatility in mastering a given routine. But he lacks the foresight which comes from special knowledge.
In short, expertise matters! But does it matter what sort of expertise the student develops, in the arts or the sciences, in literature or technology? Not really, because the ultimate destination is the same in all these areas: style.
Finally, there should grow the most austere of all mental qualities; I mean the sense for style. It is an aesthetic sense, based on admiration for the direct attainment of a foreseen end, simply and without waste. Style in art, style in literature, style in science, style in logic, style in practical execution have fundamentally the same aesthetic qualities, namely, attainment and restraint. The love of a subject in itself and for itself, where it is not the sleepy pleasure of pacing a mental quarter-deck, is the love of style as manifested in that study. Here we are brought back to the position from which we started, the utility of education. Style, in its finest sense, is the last acquirement of the educated mind; it is also the most useful. It pervades the whole being. The administrator with a sense for style hates waste; the engineer with a sense for style economises his material; the artisan with a sense for style prefers good work. Style is the ultimate morality of mind.
He closes his essay with a claim that education is essentially a religious exercise, though not religious in the sense the word is typically used.
A religious education is an education which inculcates duty and reverence. Duty arises from our potential control over the course of events. Where attainable knowledge could have changed the issue, ignorance has the guilt of vice. And the foundation of reverence is this perception, that the present holds within itself the complete sum of existence, backwards and forwards, that whole amplitude of time, which is eternity.
One of the beautiful things about computer science is that we can learn powerful ideas, useful ideas, meaningful ideas -- and we learn how to make them come alive in programs. We can create and control systems using these ideas. We can watch their effects on the world, both at the level of technology and at the level of the people who use the technology, or whose lives are otherwise made better by the technology's presence. Not a bad little find, this essay. ---- Postscript: When Whitehead discusses education as "the acquisition of the art of the utilisation of knowledge", he writes a paragraph reminiscent of thoughts I had when thinking about textbooks a few months ago:
This is an art very difficult to impart. Whenever a textbook is written of real educational worth, you may be quite certain that some reviewer will say that it will be difficult to teach from it. Of course it will be difficult to teach from it. If it were easy, the book ought to be burned; for it cannot be educational. In education, as elsewhere, the broad primrose path leads to a nasty place. This evil path is represented by a book or a set of lectures which will practically enable the student to learn by heart all the questions likely to be asked at the next external examination.
Introduction to Computing ... A Multimedia Approach I am certain that many of my colleagues would find the textbook I'm using in CS1 this fall, Guzdial and Ericson's Introduction to Computing and Programming with Java: A Multimedia Approach, difficult to use. The topics are in a different order from other CS1 books. The ends of the chapters don't provide lots of handy little exercise on if statements and for loops that many professors like to assign in homework and offer on exams. It doesn't even have the sort of programming assignments one might expect. Instead, it asks interesting questions about media, and computing with media. It asks students to extend what they've learned to some new facet of the current topic. But there is no right answer to most of these questions, which leaves students and instructor to exercise judgment in selecting tasks and evaluating work. Shocking! Maybe some real education will take place. -----