Clavier Companion - July/August 2017 - 80
Questions and Answers
Q: I've read that Frances Clark often
used classics, literature, and social
sciences that don't seem related
to piano teaching in her pedagogy
classes. Would you comment on this
and, if possible, give some examples?
A: This is the second response of what could be
dozens of answers to this wonderful question. In the
last issue, we focused on an essay entitled "The Laws
of Habit" from the turn-of-the-twentieth century
American psychologist, William James, from Talks to
Teachers, a collection of his work.
In this response, we focus on another twentiethcentury author: Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947),
an English mathematician and philosopher who
developed a serious interest in educational reform.
Educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, Whitehead
held several important faculty positions in England
before moving to Harvard in 1924. His most complete
thinking on education is found in a small collection
entitled The Aims of Education and Other Essays,
which brought together various writings and public
talks he delivered between 1912 and 1927.1
For me, Whitehead-introduced by Frances
Clark-was as influential as William James, and I have
referred to my tattered, yellowed copy of The Aims
of Education throughout my entire career. More lines
are highlighted in this book than just about any other
that I own-including all of the quotes below. Almost
a hundred years later, Whitehead's ideas strike us as
surprisingly modern, and like James, there is both
clarity and authority-ideas that have been validated
by a century of advancements in psychological
science. I recommend that every serious teacher
own this book and read it in its entirety. A few
In the first essay, "The Aims of Education,"
Whitehead writes, "In training a child to activity of
thought, above all things we must beware of what
I will call 'inert ideas'-that is to say, ideas that are
merely received into the mind without being utilized,
or tested, or thrown into fresh combinations." He
goes on to opine that an education with inert ideas
is not only useless, but positively harmful. What a
Further he writes, "The only use of a knowledge
of the past is to equip us for the present." How I
wish every music history or theory teacher I have
had understood that point. How I wish that every
time I taught music history or theory, that thought
had been in the front of my mind for the benefit of
In a wonderful passage, Whitehead asserts, "With
good discipline, it is always possible to pump into the
minds of a class a certain quantity of inert knowledge
. . . The child then knows how to solve a quadratic
equation." For the sake of argument in music teaching,
instead of solving a quadratic equation, let's say the
child knows how to resolve a IV V I cadence or how to
play a D major scale. Whitehead asks, "But what is the
POINT [emphasis mine] of teaching a child to solve a
quadratic equation?" Or resolving a IV V I cadence or
playing a D major scale?
Whitehead observes, "There is a traditional
answer to this question. It runs thus: The mind is an
instrument, you first sharpen it, and then you use it
. . . there is just enough truth in this answer to have
made it live through the ages. But for all its half-truth,
it embodies a radical error which bids fair to stifle the
genius of the modern world."
This leads into one of the most wonderful passages
in the literature on education-which I quote in full.
The mind is never passive; it is a perpetual
activity, delicate, receptive, responsive to
stimulus. You cannot postpone its life until
you have sharpened it. Whatever interest
attaches to your subject matter must be
evoked here and now; whatever powers
you are strengthening in the pupil, must
be exercised here and now; whatever
possibilities of mental life your teaching
should impart, must be exhibited here and
Read this slowly, and think about it in relation to
music lessons. Whitehead is telling us that at the first
lesson, the second lesson, and in every lesson all the
time, we've got to get to the good stuff. We've got
to experience the joy and the thrill of making music.
We've got to hear and revel in beautiful sound. We've
got to feel rhythmic vitality, pulse, and control. These
things (and others) are the POINT of learning to
resolve a IV V I cadence, play a D major scale, or any
of the other "basic" musical skills. We can't wait for
these things until the mind or skill set of the student
has been "sharpened."
The second essay in this collection, entitled "The
Rhythm of Education," was one of Clark's favorites,
but we'll have to wait for another time to explore it. In
the meantime, beware of inert ideas!
Originally published as The Aims of Education and Other Essays.
New York: The Macmillan Company, 1929.