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· The Last Acquirement of the Educated Mind ·

The Aims of Education Address occurs tonight at The University of Chicago. If you're perhaps unfamiliar, it's a fall tradition, part of student orientation, given annually in Rockefeller Chapel by Chicago faculty stirring intellectual ambition in the young. Having read many of Chicago's best — their College published a handsome collection in 1997* — I envy fresh young minds there. I could profit from stirring oratory myself.

But I am rather stuck at home reading, without even the print version of the essay that, in 1916, prompted the university's academic tradition: Alfred North Whitehead's The Aims of Education (1929). It's still a thoughtful text. Its triple demarcation of learning's stages — up to sixth grade, then twelfth, then beyond (Romance, Precision, and Generalization) — alone justifies its study.

You may already be familiar with Whitehead's peroration, but what interests me is rather his seldom-included addition, wherein he introduces us, through Style, to something larger, Power.

 · Alfred North Whitehead · 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. . . .

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.

Although I like Whitehead's concluding sentiment — well and rightly quoted in English composition handbooks — it is not, however, his last word on education's stages. Clearly, we can see as much in what he adds:

But above style, and above knowledge, there is something, a vague shape like fate above the Greek gods. That something is Power. Style is the fashioning of power, the restraining of power. But, after all, the power of attainment of the desired end is fundamental. The first thing is to get there. Do not bother about your style, but solve your problem, justify the ways of God to man, administer your province, or do whatever else is set before you.

I do like his advice, and urge folks to follow it, suggesting also that they ask along with Whitehead: "Where, then, does style help?"

In this, with style the end is attained without side issues, without raising undesirable inflammations. With style you attain your end and nothing but your end. With style the effect of your activity is calculable, and foresight is the last gift of gods to men. With style your power is increased, for your mind is not distracted with irrelevancies, and you are more likely to attain your object.

Not bad advice — not just for the young, but also for the young-at-heart.


Wonderful! Thanks for this timely reminder of the need to return to the classroom with "style."

Posted by loretta markle on September 24, 2004 01:58 PM

And a bit of grace.

Posted by loretta markle on September 24, 2004 01:59 PM

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