A Reply to Professor Whitehead


PROFESSOR WHITEHEAD’S article in the September Atlantic on the future of Harvard deserves the study of everybody concerned with higher education. It presents a vision of intellectual leadership. It does not deal with athletics, social life, building programmes, or ‘public relations.’ It does not discuss the size of classes, entrance examinations, or the grading system. It takes for granted that the task of the universities is intellectual leadership. It points out that this responsibility is especially heavy in this country and at this time; for we are entering a new cultural epoch, and one which will be dominated by the American universities. Mr. Whitehead begins and ends by asking whether Harvard will fashion the intellect of the modern world as the University of Paris fashioned that of the Middle Ages.

The question, then, is how Harvard and her sister universities can give intellectual leadership to the modern world. Mr. Whitehead finds the answer principally in suggestiveness. The tradition of learning is the solid ground upon which the university must be founded. But the real problem is to suffuse the activities of the learned with suggestiveness. A first-rate faculty is, of course, indispensable, but it is hard to get; and it is not enough. A faculty does well because of the stimulus of the atmosphere, and the atmosphere results from suggestiveness.

From what does suggestiveness result? It comes, even in mathematics, from action. Celibacy is not for a university; it must mate itself with action. This marriage is consummated chiefly by the absorption into the university of those schools of vocational training for which systematized understanding has importance. Mr. Whitehead reminds us that the mediæval universities were intimately in touch with the life around them. ‘It is midsummer madness on the part of universities to withdraw themselves from the closest contact with vocational practices.’ The end that Mr. Whitehead proposes is intellectual leadership; the means he emphasizes are vocational schools and association with practical affairs.

We may first ask whether this emphasis is a timely one. It is something of a shock to hear that the American universities should try to be practical. The words of de Tocqueville are in point: ‘In the present age the human mind must be coerced into theoretical studies; it runs of its own accord to practical applications.’ Under the pressure of the professions, of occupations wanting to be professions, of parents, donors, students, legislatures, and the public, our institutions of higher learning have absorbed schools of vocational training of incredible diversity and insignificance. For some of them systematized understanding has importance. For others such understanding, if not impossible, is at least improbable. Their subject matter is too frivolous to encourage it.

In those vocational schools for which systematized understanding clearly has importance, such as those preparing for the learned professions, the communication of such understanding is now a negligible part of the course of study. Theology plays no great rôle in the education of a theological student; and the faculty of a well-known law school recently voted down the suggestion that a course in jurisprudence be introduced into the curriculum. The reason for this is that the demand for instruction in vocational practices is so urgent as to reduce instruction of any other kind to a peripheral status.

The pressure of the practical appears everywhere in our educational system. The result has been trivialization. Courses in how to drive an automobile have lately appeared in an excellent Middle-Western university. The newspapers report an effort to institute courses in bicycle riding in the public schools of South Bend, Indiana. These are simply two of the most recent instances of the general trend of American education. It is so full of action that thought seems fated to disappear from it. The danger of the American universities is not celibacy, but polygamy. They are mated to so many different kinds of action that nothing but a few divorces can save them from the consequences of their ardor.


Mr. Whitehead imposes no particular limitations upon the range of a university’s interest. In ancient Greece, he says, whatever occupied a free citizen was worth study. In modern America, free citizens are occupied in killing one another with automobiles and in getting killed on bicycles. They are raising chickens and selling insurance and running typewriters. Are all these activities worth the study of a university? Apparently they are, for Mr. Whitehead reminds us that the divine Plato was interested in drinking parties, and in the dances suitable for old men.

On the other hand, it may be said that Plato was interested in love and used a drinking party as the dramatic background for a discussion of it, and that he was trying to construct a good state and came upon the subject of the dances suitable to old men in the consideration of the activities of various groups in it. So the most light-hearted of the Socratic dialogues, the Ion, deals with the question whether the interpreter needs knowledge of the subject of his art. At any rate, we are concerned here with the curriculum; and I doubt if Plato would have made drinking parties or old men’s dances a required course for the Athenian youth. The educational programme elaborated in the Republic, at least, contains no mention of either.

If Socrates, Plato, or, in modern times, Mr. Whitehead is the teacher, then truly bicycle riding and drinking parties may suffuse suggestiveness. In the hands of such masters as these no aspect of human activity is trivial, for it is never more than a few dialectical steps from any action to the discussion of the ideas in the light of which that action is intelligible; or, to express it in terms of Whitehead’s doctrine of prehensions, no subject can be intrinsically trivial, because each actual occasion reflects all events in the universe, and may, properly treated, contribute to the knowledge of anything in the universe. But even on the supposition that no subject is intrinsically trivial, it would require a dialectician of the skill of Socrates to discover the significance of some of the themes now popular in the American classroom.

Teachers of such skill are so rare that a course of study cannot be constructed on the assumption that they will be in charge of it. With the majority of the teachers who are in charge of the curriculum the irrelevant detail must remain irrelevant. The philosophy of education that regards all things as potentially of equal significance thus results in the presentation of miscellaneous dead facts. In vocational schools it leads the teacher to emphasize technical routines at the expense of systematized understanding. In the traditional realm of scholarship it supports the practice of accumulating items about the lives of authors, the influences to which they were exposed, and the dates of their labors, without regard to the contribution which such studies may make to the understanding of their works.

This philosophy, which, when it is held by the inspired few, suffuses suggestiveness and illumination, is, when it is the doctrine of the rest of us, dangerous, uncontrollable, and easily perverted. Far from summoning us to the task of intellectual leadership, it may serve to justify quite another view of a university: it may be used to uphold the position that the university, instead of being ‘an agent of unification,’ should mirror the chaos of the world. I fear that this is exactly the situation of the American universities to-day. It is for that reason that I doubt the timeliness of Mr. Whitehead’s emphasis.


The goal which Mr. Whitehead sets before the universities is the one they should strive to reach. The road he has pointed out seems unlikely to take them there. What is the path by which they may hope to come at last to the kind of leadership exerted by their predecessors in the Middle Ages? Mr. Whitehead invokes the example of the mediæval universities, calling particular attention to some aspects of these institutions which, it seems to me, American universities do not need to be told about at present. It is true, for example, that the mediæval universities were in intimate touch with the life around them. So are ours. But, as we have seen, contact with daily life in itself is not a guarantee of intellectual leadership, or even of intellectual activity. Mr. Whitehead’s historical model is striking; his analysis is suggestive. A consideration of either, however, makes it apparent that the solution he offers would be ineffective. It would be ideal in an ideal state in which not only the rulers but the professors were philosophers, and in which the citizens had been educated to a point at which making dialecticians drink hemlock would not seem the best solution of their moral problems.

In looking for a path to Mr. Whitehead’s goal we notice, in the first place, that he mentions two aspects of the contribution which a university can make: it can perpetuate and advance knowledge, and it can stimulate, through the suggestiveness of its manner of treating knowledge, the use of knowledge in action, whether practical or speculative. ‘Fundamental progress,’ Mr. Whitehead says, ‘has to do with the reinterpretation of basic ideas.’ For long ages, during the Greek and Hellenistic periods, during the Roman republic and empire, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, indeed until only a generation or two ago, men studied the masterpieces of human thought as examples of excellence and to familiarize themselves with the leading ideas that have animated mankind. To be sure, in different periods there have been important changes in the list of works that were called classics, but if one compares the classics esteemed by various ages, with due consideration of the works made available by the state of learning in each age, one is struck more by the constancy displayed in the judgments of men of learning than by the changes.

If the tradition of learning is the solid ground upon which the universities must be founded, then the American universities have a difficult task ahead. The tradition of learning is now fighting an uneven battle for continuation in the American educational system, and the time seems to be approaching when only the last remnants of that tradition will survive, and only in the remoter corners of the graduate school.

Simply to advise the reinterpretation of basic ideas is not enough. Such reinterpretation requires a technique and a method. The Middle Ages and the Renaissance inherited such methods from antiquity and developed them further: the learned techniques of grammar, rhetoric, and logic for the interpretation of the writings of men, and the techniques of mathematics and the various branches of logic for the study of nature.

If the difference between certain and probable knowledge is as important as Mr. Whitehead says it is, and it seems to me difficult to overemphasize it, then it is important that men have the training to discover and assess that difference in the various subjects they study. If it is important to reinterpret basic ideas, it is important to have the training by which to understand the ideas expressed by other men and to express one’s own version of those ideas or of the ideas alternative to them as clearly as they permit. What is important in any age, in fourth-century Athens, thirteenth-century Paris, or twentieth-century Cambridge, is not necessarily a common agreement on what ideas are basic, but a common acquaintance with the ideas which can seriously pretend to be basic, and a commensurate ability, derived from a common training, to appraise and understand those ideas.

A glance at the subject matter of the American course of study will show that the classics and the liberal arts have almost disappeared from it. A few students may still make the acquaintance of their fragmentary and isolated remains. The community produced by common training has vanished. The basic ideas that might have been recovered from the classics are unknown. Instead we are greeted daily with sensational discoveries which were old in the time of Erasmus and Leibniz and which are hailed as new to-day only because those who announce them and those to whom they are announced have forgotten the tradition of learning.

Mathematics has survived, because its practical applications in the sciences are so apparent that it is permitted the idiosyncrasy of a difficult symbolic apparatus and an elaborate theoretical organization. But it has survived at the expense of becoming an item of technical or advanced study, suited only in its more elementary or popular forms to general education; hence the student of the arts is usually allowed to glory in the possession of an ‘unmathematical ’ mind.

I do not insist on the classics, and still less on grammar, rhetoric, logic, or mathematics. It may be that we can find some better way of transmitting the accumulated wisdom of the race than having young people study what wise men have written. It may be that mathematics is too difficult for the bulk of our students, and that grammar, rhetoric, and logic are so dead that they cannot be resuscitated. I do insist that the ideal pursued in ancient Greece and mediæval Paris is unattainable without a contemporary substitute for these disciplines and for the classics.

In the second place, Mr. Whitehead emphasizes the relationship of knowledge and action, and illustrates his point by the example of the mediæval university. The fact that the mediæval universities entered into the practical affairs of their time is less important for us than the manner of their entrance. Here we are concerned primarily with the nature of professional education in the Middle Ages. Not every vocation was a profession then. A profession was a body of men trained in a subject matter which had intellectual content in its own right. The aim of the group was the common good. These two requirements must have had something to do with limiting the professional disciplines to three: medicine, theology, and law.

If these standards were invoked today, there would not be many more professional disciplines now than there were in the Middle Ages. Only a Socrates could give intellectual content to some of the curricula now called professional. It is forty years since anyone would seriously ask the question put in 1896 by an old Wisconsin lawyer to a young one from the East: ‘Is it really true that there are men in New York who are practising law for money?’ A Chicago business man lately said in announcing an important deal, ‘Our only motive is to make a profit.’ Under these circumstances it may be doubtful whether business is yet a profession and whether the law has remained one.

Whatever effect the effort to achieve the mediæval ideal proposed by Mr. Whitehead might have on the number and variety of a university’s professional and vocational interests, certainly it would change the course of study and the attitude of teachers and students toward it in those professional schools that remained. The purpose for which any action was studied or taught would be to increase our understanding of that action and what it implies. The primary object of our course of study would be to give the student a grasp of the theory of the discipline. It would not be supposed, as it often is to-day, that the university should familiarize him with vocational practices. It would be supposed, as it too seldom is to-day, that he should learn the principles of the subject. Armed with these, he could familiarize himself, after leaving the university, with the practices of the vocation.

With these modifications I should be willing to accept the moral which Mr. Whitehead draws from the participation of the mediæval universities in the life about them. There was then no ‘university’ which was presumably speculative, with professional schools that were presumably practical. The whole institution was both speculative and practical. The insight that produced this organization was that everything speculative has significance in the practical dimension, and everything practical, to be worth study, must have a speculative basis. Our professional schools are so definitely committed to familiarizing the student with vocational practices that they have diffused themselves all over the realm of the practical and have emphasized immediate utility to the exclusion of their intellectual tradition. One consequence of this is that a student who does not enter the vocation after graduating from a vocational school has largely wasted his time. If such a student had studied at Paris, or in the Academy, or even if he had listened to Protagoras, he could at least feel that he had had an education.

The course of study and the spirit in which it was administered in our early universities could lead to the consideration of law, medicine, and theology as sciences. A university experience could be the guide either to a professional career or to an enlightened life, or both. If vocational schools are to contribute now to the effort of the universities to fashion the intellect of the modern world as the University of Paris fashioned that of the Middle Ages, it would seem that such changes in them as would make them almost unrecognizable to contemporary eyes might be required.


In the third place, Mr. Whitehead underlines the unity of knowledge and the consequent unity which should be aimed at in education. He says that science, philosophy, and religion express three factors belonging to the perfection of human nature; they can be studied apart, but must be lived together. The great triumph of the mediæval university was precisely here: the major disciplines were studied to a certain extent together. The three factors were studied together because they must be lived together. They were reconciled in the university and ‘in the one life of the individual.’ The community of learning begun with the classics and the liberal arts was extended to the highest levels of the university. Within the American universities we have confusion, discord, and division. Witness the fragmentary and scattered course of study and the extremes to which the departmental system has been carried. If the new epoch now opening is to be anything but an epoch of collapse, if the universities are to exert intellectual leadership, they must repeat the triumph of their forbears. It will be much more difficult now than it was then; for the great gains we have made in science are matched by the losses we have sustained in philosophy and religion.

It seems idle to hope that unity and harmony can flow from a policy of treating all subjects as of equal importance. The consequence of this policy must be conflict and competition. Unity and harmony involve organization. In any organization there must be order; and order involves subordination. The mediæval universities found order through theology. I do not see that we can do so. But unless we are willing first to admit the necessity of some principle of order, and second to seek for one, we cannot expect the universities to be helpful in ushering in the fourth European cultural epoch.

In seeking for a principle of order that will serve contemporary needs we come at once upon philosophy. Mr. Whitehead’s philosophy, his conception of an organic universe, which seems to suggest to him the educational principle that all things are potentially of equal significance, will hardly be effective, as we have seen, in making the American universities agents of unification and harmony. Let us try another approach, in terms of the distinction to which Mr. Whitehead refers between certainty and probability, knowledge and opinion. We cannot abandon this distinction because clear-headed men have disagreed. To the extent that men are rational they have found and will doubtless continue to find that they can and should agree on matters of knowledge, though they may still disagree on matters of opinion. The object of a university is to increase the domain of knowledge and the extent to which men are rational. It is in this sense that a university acts as an agent of unification, struggling through discord to harmony.

Nor can we abandon what Mr. Whitehead first calls the indubitable distinction between knowledge and opinion because of his later remark that the important characterization of knowledge is in respect of clarity and vagueness. Mr. Whitehead does not abandon it himself. Even Hume could not hold to the bitter end the position that the only distinctions in cognition are in terms of degrees of clarity. He never questioned that there was a difference in kind between knowledge of the relations between ideas and knowledge of matters of fact.

Mr. Whitehead’s condemnation of skepticism as self-destroying carries with it the insight that the skeptic must presuppose a distinction between knowledge and opinion. There must be some certain, clear knowledge. If there is knowledge, it should be taught as such, and it should be taught first. Let us then enumerate the disciplines in which there is certainty and let us place them at the beginning of our curriculum. Where we have no certainty, let us teach in accordance with the weight of the evidence, giving our doctrine such probability as can be found for it by appropriate arguments.

One result of this programme would be the reordering of the course of study. To-day most fields of learning are treated as matters of opinion, except mathematics; and in certain quarters even mathematics is regarded as arbitrary and postulational. Another result of this programme would be the reduction of the number of subjects; for when we realized how much opinion we were teaching as knowledge we should be compelled to eliminate some of it, or at least to seek and teach a rational basis for it. A third consequence of this approach would be the alteration of the content of courses: matters of fact, which are probable, would be subordinate to and illustrative of laws and the relations between ideas, which are knowledge.

In order to obtain these results you must have a faculty which can distinguish knowledge from opinion because of having been trained in the liberal arts or their modern equivalent, whatever it may be. Such a faculty, for example, would know what its own metaphysical presuppositions were, or would be able to eschew metaphysics. Its members would know that they were engaging in metaphysics when they enunciated metaphysical propositions; they would try on these occasions to use a method appropriate to such speculations; and they would be as conscientious in acquiring proficiency in these methods before announcing their conclusions as they would be to practise the method of mathematics before coming to a mathematical conclusion. Under such conditions we may have a unified university, not because an official dogma has been imposed upon it, but because teachers and students can know what they are talking about and can have some hope of understanding one another. In this view the ideal of a university is an understood diversity.

In such a university great teachers could play their part; they would find no restrictions placed upon their powers of suggestiveness and revelation. Lesser souls, administrators and competent teachers, would have some light to guide their decisions and their instruction. Methods would be rigorous, techniques would be purified, the pieces of that puzzle which is the curriculum would fall into place. Such a university might be an agent of harmony and unification without suppressing the vagrant intellect or violating the claims of freedom. Such a university might in the modern world repeat the brilliant leadership of the University of Paris.