A Whiteheadian form of a Liberal Arts Education
(pre-conference paper)
Marcus Ford
When thinking about a liberal arts education little attention is given to metaphysical considerations. The
assumption is that issues in higher education are far removed from our understanding of reality, a topic
best left to theoretical physicists, cosmologists, and philosophers (or, perhaps, just cosmologists and
theoretical physicists). Education, we assume, is metaphysically neutral.
But in fact all thinking is metaphysical. We cannot not have a worldview and this worldview affects all of
our thoughts and actions. The term “liberal arts” does not have a univocal meaning. Its meaning is tied
to a way of thinking about reality. A secular liberal arts college offers a different type of education than
a religiously-grounded liberal arts college because it starts with a different understanding of reality. And
a liberal arts education grounded in a Whiteheadian metaphysics would look different from one
grounded in a pre-modern worldview or one predicated on the dominant worldview. Metaphysics
matter.
One of the distinctive features of Whitehead’s metaphysics is that it is relational. At the very heart of
Whitehead’s worldview is the idea that to be anything at all is to be a creative synthesis of everything
that has been—or, as he put it, “the many become one and are increased by one.” Everything actual is a
response to everything that has been and a co-creator of future events—a co-creator alongside every
other actuality. That each of us is a creative synthesis of everything else has implications for how we
ought to think about a liberal arts education. That each of us is a co-creator of the future also has
profound implications. Understanding who we are requires knowledge of the world. Deciding who we
will be and what kind of future we will help make imposes a moral responsibility upon us.
Equally important to Whitehead’s worldview is the idea that the universe is both valuable and
purposive. Every actuality has value both for itself—intrinsic value—and value for all subsequent
events—extrinsic value. Moreover, there is an aim toward an overall increase in value. In Whitehead’s
words, “The teleology of the universe is directed to the production of beauty “or, as he said elsewhere,
there is a three-fold urge in the universe, “(i) to live (2) to live well, (iii) to live better.” The universe is
not devoid of value nor is it without direction. It aims to maximize moral and aesthetic value. This, too,
has profound implications for a liberal arts education. A liberal arts education that is value free, that
does not aim at an increase of moral and aesthetic value, is not a Whiteheadian form of liberal arts
education.
In regards to value and purpose, Whitehead’s worldview shares certain features of the pre-modern
worldview and stands in sharp contrast to the modern scientific worldview, the worldview that is
endorsed or merely presupposed by the modern secular university and secular liberal arts colleges. The
modern scientific worldview understands the universe to be both value-less and direction-less. Reality,
including human existence, is explainable wholly in terms of purpose-less forces, or what Aristotle called
“efficient causes.” Beauty is in the mind of the beholder, as is truth and goodness.
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Against this nihilistic backdrop, contemporary culture has supplied the values and the purposes that
humans require in order to live. The teleology of modern life is the production of wealth. The threefold urge of modern society is (i) to make money, (ii) to make more money, and (iii) to make more
money still.
This characterization of contemporary society is, of course, an exaggeration. No society has a single
focus. In addition to Western society’s concern for individual wealth there is also some concern for
justice, environmental health, national honor, beauty, personal meaning, and so on, but these values
are subservient to economic values. It is not unusual for people to argue, for example, that the costs
associated with reducing greenhouse gases are financially unacceptable or that we cannot afford to live
up to our moral responsibility to provide health care to everyone. Reasonable people can disagree
about almost any issue, but the idea that we must intentionally shrink the economy, or even certain
segments of the economy, is typically regarded as “utopian” or otherwise beyond the pale of serious
consideration. Economic growth is the fundamental value of modern society.
College students mirror the wider society. In 2012, 81% of college freshmen surveyed reported that
“being very well off financially” was either a “very important” or “essential” personal goal (HERI 2012)
and most see college as a means to that end. In that same survey 74.6% of students cited “to be able to
make more money” as the reason for going to college, surpassing for the first time, “to gain a general
education and appreciation of ideas (72.8%).
Insofar as the vast majority of college students go to the college for the purpose of increasing their
earning power and report “being very well off financially” as either “very important” or “essential,”
secular liberal arts programs tend to argue for their importance chiefly in economic terms. A good
liberal arts education will be looked on favorably by future employers. It is, they say, a good economic
investment in yourself. The skills and habits you acquire while earning a liberal arts degree are easily
transferrable to the world of business. (This argument, however, is typically framed, not in terms of
those who choose a more technical degree, such as engineering, but in terms of those who do not earn
an undergraduate degree of any kind. In terms of earning power, the ten most profitable
undergraduates degrees, in descending order are: petroleum engineering (with an average starting
salary of $119,000); computer and information system management; aircraft pilot and flight
engineering; computer hardware engineering; nuclear engineering; actuarial science; chemical
engineering; material engineering; and registered nursing.) When it comes to being very well off
financially the best hope for a liberal arts major is to go on to earn a degree is medicine or law or, in the
case of many Ivy League students, to move into the financial sector.
The financial argument for a liberal arts education, it must be noted, is relatively new. Less than a
hundred years ago, Robert Maynard Hutchins, the boy-president of the University of Chicago, recalled
the apologetic attitude of one of his college classmates from Oberlin who was actually engaged in
making money. Rather than bragging about his wealth, this Oberlin graduate insisted upon telling his
fellow alumni privately that he devoted his extracurricular life to civic betterment. As Hutchins
recounted, It was, “an Oberlin assumption that a man might be rich or honorable, but hardly both"
(Mayer 1993:15&19). But the belief that one could not be both honorable and wealthy was not just “an
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Oberlin assumption,” it was a view shared by all liberal arts colleges with ties to the Christian faith,
which is to say, to almost all liberal arts colleges. This idea goes back to Jesus’s claim, "No one can serve
two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise
the other. You cannot serve God and wealth,” a position repeated by the Apostle Paul when he said,
“Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires
that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”
Most liberal arts colleges today to not take this position. How could they? If modern society values
wealth, as it clearly does, and if 81% of all college students view becoming very wealthy as “very
important” or “essential,” then on what basis would a liberal arts college claim that the desire for wealth
is immoral? The modern scientific worldview does not support this judgment or any other ethical
stance. Ethical norms, from this perspective, are arbitrary.
Even still, secular liberal arts colleges are at least somewhat ambivalent when it comes to celebrating
wealth. Although not willing to take a clear stance against the desire to be wealthy, secular liberal arts
colleges often put forth a justification for this type of education that has nothing to do with its material
advantages. A liberal arts education, they say, will make your life more interesting. Judith Shapiro, the
former president of Barnard College, made the case for a liberal arts education in this way: "You want
the inside of your head to be an interesting place to spend the rest of your life."
This type of justification is likely to be much more appealing to individuals who are positioned to be very
well-off financially than it is to people struggling to get into or remain in the middle class. For these
individuals making the inside of one’s head an interesting place will be judged less important than
putting food on the table, gas in the car, and paying one’s medical bills. Indeed, it may be judged less
important than driving a new car and living in a big house and wearing designer clothes. A liberal arts
education, from this perspective, is a luxury they cannot afford or do not value.
Given the modern scientific worldview, it is difficult to justify this rationale for a liberal arts education,
or more precisely, this justification is meaningless. Who is to say what is an is not interesting, indeed, if
the inside of one’s head is nothing more than atoms endlessly knocking about, what does it even mean
to be interesting and who or what is experiencing this interest?
For Whiteheadians, however, this is a very powerful rationale for a liberal arts education. From this
perspective the “inside of one’s head” is a summing up of the entire world into a unique experience and
there really are better and worse ways to sum things up. Each moment of experience is a moral and
aesthetic achievement that is more or less successful. The value of a liberal arts education is that it has
the potential to increase the intrinsic value of our personal experience, to make us more alive, more
sensitive, more attuned to the wonders of the world. A liberal arts education is one way to further the
aim of the universe to promote goodness and beauty.
But there is a second justification for the value of a liberal arts education for Whiteheadians that is
inextricably tied to the first justification, namely, making the world a better place. For Whiteheadians,
each event, including moments of human experience, gives rise to new events and in that way each
event is a co-creator of the world. The decisions we make influence everything that is to come. From this
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perspective, we do not live just inside of our heads, we also live in the world that we are all creating
together. The value of liberal arts education is that it has the potential, not simply to making the inside
of heads a more interesting place to live, but also the potential to make the world itself a more valuable
place--more fully alive, diverse, just, and beautiful.
Based on the twin goals of making the world a better place and enriching human experience, a
Whiteheadian liberal arts edcuation would look different from a liberal arts education that was devoted
only to enhancing personal success as defined by the standards of society or enriching one’s interior life.
It would be more environmental, political, and holistic.
There are a handful of environmental liberal arts colleges, such as the College of the Atlantic and
Prescott College, and most liberal arts colleges offer majors in environmental studies and
environmental sciences, but most liberal arts colleges understand environmentalism—care for the
earth--as a personal choice unrelated to a liberal arts education. Students are required to study science
and math, but they are not encouraged to love the earth (or more accurately the myriad of living
creatures that make up the biosphere) or to care about its future. Given the modern scientific
worldview loving the earth is unwarranted. What does it matter if there is a robust, diverse, biosphere
or not? There is no perspective from which to say one form of existence is preferable to another. A
planet without life is no better or worse than one with life.
Whiteheadians understand the world differently. Not only is every event of value to itself, all events are
interrelated. Environmentalism, broadly understood, is the ultimately liberal art. It is the art and science
of everything that is. In its more common meaning, environmentalism is focused on the natural world—
the world that does not include humans. For Whiteheadians this realm of being is important both for its
own sake and for its relation to human well-being, but our environment, our full environment, also
includes each other. Our families, friends, and the communities we live in are also part of our
environment as is the stranger—the people we do not know, those who are “other” than us. Everything
is connected. The division between our “environmental problems” (in the traditional sense of the term)
and our “social problems” is, from a Whiteheadian perspective, artificial and is itself a problem that
must be corrected.
Because our environment, broadly understood, includes our fellow human beings, a Whiteheadian
liberal arts education would also be more political than the standard liberal arts education today. The
most basic meaning of the liberal arts, going back to Ancient Greece, are those subjects and skills
necessary for free people to take part in civic life and governing the polis. The liberal arts were meant to
be political in the sense that all human life is political. Our actions and inactions have social
ramifications. Buying a iPhone made in China, driving a big car (driving any car at all), and eating meat,
for example, are all political actions.
Liberal arts education today is largely apolitical. Students are required to study history, sociology,
political science, biology, and economics, not as subjects and skills necessary for shaping public life—not
for the purpose of being responsible citizens in their local communities and in the community of
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nations--but rather as academic disciplines, each separate from the other, each free of any ethical
judgments. Students are being educated as scholars/researchers and as workers, not as citizens.
There is no doubt that modern society requires scholars and workers, but we need these scholars and
workers to be thoughtful, informed, and wise citizens, individuals capable of governing the polis (which
now includes making decisions that have global implications) and, perhaps not surprisingly, the type of
education that is needed for citizenship is very different than the kind of education needed for
scholarship and employment. A scholarly and employment-based education can be largely free of moral
considerations and cannot be narrowly focused. Indeed, in many cases, the narrower the focus the
better. When studying economics, for examples, best to leave aside environmental, historical, and
political considerations, as well as moral considerations. Likewise, when one is studying petroleum
engineering or actuarial science. Education for citizenship, however, cannot be free of moral
considerations nor can it be artificially divided up into academic disciplines, each separate from the
other. In the world in which we live, economic issues are not, and can never be, value-free nor can they
be separate from social justice issues, environmental issues (narrowly conceived), or issues of politics
and history. And environmental issues (narrowly conceived), and social issues, cannot be separate from
economic, political, and social justice issues, nor can they be value-free. Everything is connected and all
decisions have moral implications.
Moving away from academic disciplines and shifting the focus away from training scholars and workers
to training citizens, or training citizens who are also scholars and workers, will require a major reworking
of the curriculum and “institutional traditions and standards.” This transition will likely be resisted by
many professors on the grounds that it is undermining the centrality of academic disciplines and
scholarship as currently conceived and they are exactly right, it is. This is the nature of a major
transformation, it delegitimizes the existing order. When it comes to changing our institutions of higher
education, faculty tend to be extremely conservative. Many are open to changing “society,” meaning
the social order in general, but not changing the very institutions they work within. The tragic irony of
this position is that changing how we think about reality and how we educate are youth is the most
basic way of changing society as a whole. Socrates understood this, as did the citizens of Athens who
voted to exile him. So long as our educational institutions remain essentially unchanged, fundamental
social change is all but precluded.
In addition to being more environmental and political, a Whiteheadian form of liberal arts education
would differ from the traditional liberal arts college today by focusing, not just on student’s intellectual
development, but on their development as a whole person. The current form of liberal arts education
tends to separate out a student’s intellectual development from his or her emotional, moral, and
psychological development and to neglect the latter in favor of the former. The reason for this is
twofold: one, since the primary focus on undergraduate education is scholarship the moral and
emotional development of a student is not important, and two, since there is no value-free meaning to
the concept of psychological health and responsible adulthood a college has no business encouraging
one form of development over another. Both of these reasons are evident in Steven Pinker’s response
to William Deresiewicz’s claim that a liberal arts college should help students “build a self.” Pinker
writes, “Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite education [Pinker teaches at
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Harvard] but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in
graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotion I have participated in,
we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she managed it.” Helping students become
mature, responsible, healthy adults, according Pinker, is not the job of a liberal arts college.
Whiteheadians disagree. Students are not simply intellects, they are embodied minds, and thinking is
not disconnected from our emotions and our values. Of course, there is not just one way of being a
mature, responsible, healthy, adult, which is why we need both a variety of liberal arts colleges and why
each college needs to encourage a range of diversity, but from a Whiteheadian’s perspective, there are,
objectively speaking, better and worse ways to live one’s life and there are emotional immature and
morally flawed individuals. Individuals who lack compassion for the suffering of others, who think only
of their own immediate interests, and who are unwilling or unable to see how they are connected to the
world as a whole are not the equal of those who can.
On some level, even though it is easy to say we do not know how to help students build a self because it
is not taught in graduate school or that it is not a college’s responsibility to help student’s become
mature, responsible, healthy adults, the fact is we do know, generally, how to help young people mature
and liberal arts colleges, even elite, highly competitive colleges, put some effort in this direction.
Students are encouraged to travel abroad, participate in service-learning projects, engage in sports, and
participate in the arts, all as means to something more than just getting smarter. They are also
encouraged to seek out psychological counselling when they need it.
Where a Whiteheadian form of the liberal arts differs from the now standard, secular form, of the liberal
arts is that for Whiteheadians the goal of helping students become mature, responsible, healthy
individuals is central to the mission of education whereas now it is regarded as secondary and is
relegated, almost exclusively, to extracurricular activities. For Whitheadians “building a self,” to use
Deresiewicz’s language, is both a curricular and extracurricular mission. To make it just an
extracurricular matter in an academic setting is to marginalize its importance. Moreover, to discount it
as a possibility in the curriculum while supporting it importance outside the curriculum sends students
mixed messages puts the institution as war with itself.
In addition to being more environmental, political, and holistic, a Whiteheadian form of liberal arts
education would place a much greater emphasis on metaphysics. Secular liberal arts colleges do not see
metaphysics as a liberal art, rather they presuppose the modern scientific worldview without making
students aware of its history, its full-implications, and its limitations and in this way encourage students
not to think deeply about the nature of reality.
A Whiteheadian liberal arts education would expose students to a variety of metaphysical positions,
including Whitehead’s. It would not, however, require students to be Whiteheadians. For
Whiteheadians, any sort of dogmatism, including a Whiteheadian dogmatism, is antithetical to a liberal
arts education and runs counter to Whitehead’s own thinking. Human thought is fragmentary and
limited. Metaphysics is always tentative and open to criticism. Requiring students to uncritically accept
a Whiteheadian way of thinking is no better than requiring them to subscribe to some other
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metaphysical outlook. It was Whitehead who said, “A self-satisfied rationalism is its own kind of antirationalism.” Still, not to teach Whitehead’s metaphysics, alongside other ways of thinking about reality,
if only as a proposition to be considered, is to indirectly support the idea that there is no viable
alternative to the modern scientific worldview (which is clearly not the case) and it encourages students
not to think for themselves. This is not the type of liberal arts education that we need.
It is easy to forget that the kind of liberal arts education we have today rests on a particular way of
understanding reality and that there are other forms of liberal arts education, based on different
metaphysics. The discussion we need to be having now is not simply about the value of a liberal arts
education as opposed to other forms of higher education, but more specifically, what kind of liberal arts
education do we need now and what is the nature of reality? The first discussion is largely pragmatic,
the second is metaphysical, but even this distinction is misleading in that pragmatic arguments are also
rooted in a worldview. There is simply no way to avoid metaphysics when thinking deeply about
anything, including higher education.
The pragmatic argument for a Whiteheadian form of liberal arts education, in its bluntest form, is that
that the current form of liberal arts education isn’t working. The world is being systematically destroyed
and human suffering is increasing while the number of individuals being educated is increasing.
Increasing the number of college graduates is likely to make matters worse, not better. The only way to
save the world from the destructive behavior of well-educated people is to change what it means to be
educated. This pragmatic argument, however, assumes that the world is worth saving, that human
beings have free will, and that it is the right thing to do even if it we are not likely to succeed. These
ideas presuppose a way of thinking about reality, which is to say a metaphysics.
The kind of secular liberal arts education we have now is not metaphysically neutral. It presupposes the
adequacy of the modern scientific worldview and in doing so supports the idea that the world has no
intrinsic value and that all moral norms are subjective. Social norms, especially the value wealth and
economic growth, go largely unchallenged and are at least implicitly accepted if not openly promoted.
A different kind of liberal arts education is possible, one predicated on the idea that reality is
fundamentally social, that to be anything at all is to have some value for oneself and some value for
others, and that moral and aesthetic norms are as real as mathematical truths. Today it is not enough to
support the liberal arts as they are currently understood. We must first transform the liberal arts so that
they better reflect our deepest intuitions and our clearest thinking about the nature of reality and
address the needs of the world and the existential needs of students. More deeply than they need to be
extremely wealthy, students need meaning in their lives. They need to be needed and they need to
understand their lives within the context of something more meaningful and fundamental than the
economy.
In their current form, liberal arts colleges cannot do what needs to be done. They cannot provide
students with a metaphysics of meaning and they cannot challenge the dominant values of modern
society which are destroying the planet and promoting human suffering. We need a different way of
thinking and being in the world and in order to this to happen we need a different form of liberal arts
education.
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A Whiteheadian form of a Liberal Arts Education