FINDING FLOW THROUGH DISCIPLINE AND
William J. Garland
A constant challenge of teaching is structuring the educational situation so that students will find learning both interesting and challenging. This is a recurrent theme in Alfred North Whitehead’s thoughts about education in The Aims of Education. Here Whitehead claims that learning has a natural rhythm, one which manifests itself in three stages, which he characterizes as romance, precision, and generalization. The stage of romance encompasses our first encounter with a new subject matter. This is the time for adventure and discovery, imaginative visions of new possibilities, seeking and savoring a wealth of new experiences. In this stage we accumulate new facts without being concerned about exactly how to categorize them. Instead, our minds are captivated by visions of an indefinite welter of new possibilities.
The stage of precision is the stage of discipline and systematic organization. Here we attend to the multitude of facts we have encountered in the first stage and organize them in terms of conceptual frameworks. This is the stage of exact formulation and careful analysis. The stage of precision is the natural successor to the stage of romance. The mind craves order, system, and exactness so that it will not wander aimlessly amidst the wealth of new facts it has encountered in the stage of romance. The drive toward discipline and precision is just as natural as the drive toward the freshness of new experiences. In fact, learning things for which you presently have little inclination can be a valuable aid for character development. As Whitehead remarks, “it is necessary in life to have acquired the habit of cheerfully undertaking imposed tasks” (1929, p. 35).
The third and final stage in learning is the stage of generalization. This is the Hegelian synthesis of romance and precision. As Whitehead put it, “It is a return to romanticism with the added advantage of classified ideas and relevant technique. It is the fruition which has been the goal of precise training” (1929, p. 19). Following the lead of Robert S. Brumbaugh, I would claim that “mastery” is a better term for this stage than “generalization” (Brumbaugh, 1982, p. 45). The term “generalization” suggests a mere theoretical competence, and this is not what Whitehead has in mind. In this third stage, we have mastered a field of study in the sense that we have developed habits of thinking which we can automatically apply to our subsequent actions (1929, pp. 36–37). This is