Theory and Practice and Running

Romance and Precision

Alfred North Whitehead was a metaphysician (whatever that is) who taught mathematics at Cambridge in the late 1800s. He contributed¬†a theory of social and educational philosophy about which I recently learned. Theories are cool for theorists and academics, but most of us don’t bump up against them in our daily lives, nor do we pursue active participation in said theories. Or at least, I don’t think we do, intentionally.

Whitehead suggested the existence of a necessary rhythm to all learning, consisting of three stages:

  • Romance
  • Precision
  • Generalization

In his work, he noted that this sequence follows, roughly, the life stages of early childhood, adolescence and adulthood, but also that all three segments exist in all aspects of learning.

Romance is the playful stage, where a natural enthusiasm for learning is obvious. I think back to the word explosion years, when each of my kids seemed to learn 100 new words a day, when the names of animals and plants and pots and pans created a gleeful gibberish around the house. Every new connection fired up their little faces and growing brains.

As we grow, we move into Precision. Our eldest moved from the word “bug,” to distinguishing insects from arachnids, to naming the various species of butterflies. She was precise in her language and learning.

Finally, they reach (or will reach) the Generalization stage, when that set of knowledge allows them to study broad materials, synthesize information, where romance and precision combine, and pave the way for continued learning.

Cool cool cool cool. So what?

When I learned of this theory, the rhythm of growth and the sequence of learning, my first practical understanding of the idea was rooted in running.

I started running because it was more fun than walking The Dog, who continued to poop under my sewing machine. Everything about it was fun. Splashing in puddles, sweating in the summer heat, ice on my lashes in the winter, buying new, cool gear, finding out that my body could do more than I had ever imagined. Whee! It was pure Romance. I made new friends, ran first races, finished new distances. Being a novice is amazing, and I’m sure, not a little annoying to those who no longer classify as such. I didn’t have a plan, or a weekly mileage goal. I just ran.

Over time, I wanted to run certain distances in specific amounts of time. This meant gathering more information, enlisting experts, and getting more serious. Precision. My coach wrote out detailed workouts. Each week was a series of different runs: recovery, track, tempo, and long distance. Each run was to be accomplished at a specific pace. My paces, splits and thoughts were compiled into gorgeous data sets examined by Coach. She used the data to alter my training. If I missed a workout or a pace, I worried that my goals were out of reach. But the precision formed a knowledge base in me. I could, if asked, suggest reasonable advice on running to a beginner.

Which means that I have reached the Generalized phase: my love for running, the playfulness and emotional release has married the precision of training. I know how to run, how to train smart, how to eat, rest and move.

It’s the idea of rhythm that enthralls me. There is a rhythm to learning as there is a rhythm to running, as there is a rhythm to our days and our lives. There’s also that weird meeting of theory and practice; when we have a name for the thing, does the thing become more abstract or less so?


Where do you see theory in practice? What is romancing you?