ROMANCING EDUCATION: WHITEHEAD ON
THE LOVE OF LEARNING
Foster N. Walker
A few years after leaving school, I experienced an intense joy and empowerment of self-initiated learning—a veritable romance with inquiry—that had been completely absent from my school experience (Walker, 2000). I had to recall early life and out-of-school activities to find any previous taste of this passion for my own understanding of things. When I began teaching children I wanted to convey this experience to them, and to a large extent did, holding to the vague notion of interest. However, I had no consistent guidance from a systematic grasp of the natural unfolding of learning, and many residual assumptions from my experience of school still shackled my pedagogical imagination. That is, until I encountered Alfred North Whitehead in his book, The Aims of Education and Other Essays.
Whitehead showed that the predominant character of the learning of young children, and the secret of its joy and success amidst all difficulties, is what he calls “romance” (1929, pp. 15–21). He further showed that the general pattern of any human learning, in which intelligence is allowed to proceed with its natural rhythm, begins with a stage of romance, and proceeds through stages of “precision” and “generalization.” Generalization evokes a new romance stage and so a new three-stage cycle begins. Under circumstances favorable to this pattern, intelligence is at its peak effectiveness, and experience is intensely alive.
The loss is incalculable to teachers, to students, and eventually to the whole society, that Whitehead’s ideas on romance as the proper departure for any learning and development have been largely ignored in school and university pedagogy. Yet this neglect is not altogether surprising. Educators must usually have intuited that in some way he would upset the whole apple cart. What interested him was the alteration of the whole equation of learning when a romance stage is added.
When Whitehead points out that “in our conception of education we tend to confine it to… the stage of precision” (1929, p. 18), he implies that seriously allowing romance would change the whole conception and practice of education. At the very least, the precision with which teachers are familiar is not the precision stage that emerges naturally from a specific learner’s romance