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Kieran Egan: The Educated Mind:
how cognitive tools shape our understanding
(University of Chicago Press: 1997)


“We have only three significant educational ideas: that we must shape the young to the current norms and conventions of adult society, that we must teach them the knowledge that will ensure their thinking conforms with what is real and true about the world, and that we must encourage the development of each student’s individual potential.... The good news, I suppose, is that there are indeed only three ideas to grasp. The bad news is that the three ideas are mutually incompatible.”
(Egan, p. 3)

Educational theory is hardly mainstream reading. Despite this undoubted fact, education is seemingly never viewed as a genuine area of expertise - with the consequence that debates surrounding the topic are amongst the most politicized and ill-informed of all policy areas in the modern world. This is deeply unfortunate for several reasons, including that of self-understanding...for, without some valid sense of how we came to know what we do, it is unlikely we can sensibly build upon our knowledge, or usefully reflect upon its strengths and limitations.

Sadly, the politicization of educational debates includes those who should know better: those trained to become teachers. A key reason for this, as Kieran Egan explains in The Educated Mind, is that our educational models are deeply incompatible, leading to ideological committment and the bitter non-communication it so often delivers. Too often, the dominant approach is to pick & choose from research findings, in search of those that can be seen to bolster one’s case, instead of asking the questions that are actually required.

Egan’s work, in this context, is refreshingly different. By basing his educational model on the confluence of the best supported aspects of modern developmental psychology & the practical insights of the best teachers, he does an end run around our currently intractable disputes, and demonstrates that these have little to do w/the realities of how children learn...and thus, how teachers should actually teach. He begins with Lev Vygotsky:


“Vygotsky...argued that we make sense of the world by use of mediating intellectual tools, that in turn profoundly influence the kind of sense we make. Our intellectual development, then, cannot adequately be understood in terms of the knowledge we accumulate or in terms of psychological stages like Piaget’s, but requires an understanding of the role played by the intellectual tools available in the society into which a person grows.... Higher psychological processes - such as the dialogic question-and-answer structure - begin in interactions with others, as ‘external’ social functions that were themselves invented perhaps long ago in cultural history, and then become internalized and transformed into psychological functions...[which] lead to qualitatively different ways of making sense.”
(Egan, p. 29)

Vygotsky’s ideas have proven crucial to modern developmental psychology, and are strongly supported by contempory neuroscience, which itself owes a major debt to him via his colleague, Alexander Luria (an important influence upon Oliver Sacks, amongst many others). They have also been highly influential in the world of early childhood education - undoubtedly the most successful section of that troubled discipline...if the opinions of its subjects are given any credence. Vygotsky’s work also dovetails fascinatingly with historical and cross-cultural theories upon the significance of literacy to intellectual formation. The result is a multi-stage model of education, which makes sense of a wide variety of disparate facts well-known to observant parents and teachers. This is a theory deeply rooted in practice, as well as a wide range of evidence and ideas drawn from a startlingly broad range of academic enquiries.


“Educational development, I am suggesting, is a process whose focus of interest and intellectual engagement begins with a myth-like construction of the world, then ‘romantically’ establishes the boundaries and extent of reality, and then ‘philosophically’ maps the major features of the world with organizing grids.”
(Egan, p.126)

“These kinds of understandings are not neat, discrete categories, each in its distinctive primary color, each marked off definitively from the others.... Working with the ‘tools’ of oral language leads to the set of characteristics...I am calling Mythic. The Romantic layer is a little more complicated; I have identified it not simply with the ‘tool’ of alphabetic literacy, but with a cluster of further, related social and cultural developments in ancient Greece. The Philosophic layer is is shaped by an even more diffuse ‘tool’, or ‘mediational means’; it requires not only a sophisticated language and literacy but also a particular kind of communication that in turn requires particular kinds of communities or institutions to support and sustain it. The central feature of Philosophic understanding is systematic theoretic thinking, and an insistent belief that Truth can only be expressed in its terms.”
(Egan, pp.104-5)

Another major point in favour of Egan’s approach is that he does not dismiss the trade-offs that come with acquiring our new world views. Nor does he see later developing forms of understanding as necessarily “better” than earlier ones - or view this process as simple replacement. Instead, each has its own strengths and limitations, and all work together (ideally) when we confront complex problems which demand multi-faceted understandings. Not only that, but he has clearly searched the literature in depth for the widest range of ideas which can make sense of the behaviours of children: and has carefully used these to develop a subtle and realistic model of the tasks of education. A good example of this is the use he makes of Merlin Donald’s theory of a non-languaged “mimetic” level in human evolution and culture.


“We are human beings before we are languaged.... Our shared experience, our language, culture, and history constrain and socialize the activity of our brains, but a...unique and private mental world is with us from the beginning; its imagistic, concrete, vivid forms of thought remain throughout our lives, endlessly active without, or ‘below’ language.... While one can exaggerate this unique ‘take’ on the world, one can equally, as is currently fashionable, exaggerate the extent to which language mediates our understanding.”
(Egan, pp. 167-8)

Egan is also to be congratulated for his merciless way with educational cant of all types: whether general, progressive, or conservative appears to make little difference to him...the focus remains on childrens’ real needs and abilities, and how best to cater to these. Vygotsky’s “zone of proximate development” is critical to this endeavour, in that it forces educators to engage with the farther reaches of the child’s understandings, rather than remaining within “safe” - and hence “boring” - territory.


“The pervasive influence of ideas of the young child as learning best and first ‘how to do’, and of being a ‘concrete thinker’, along with the considerable focus on logico-mathematical thinking, has had a peculiar and destructive effect on early education. Enormous emphasis has been placed on those intellectual skills that young children manage least well and develop slowly...with an equivalent neglect of what children do best - metaphoric, imaginative thinking.”
(Egan, pp.52-3)

Developmental psychology has come a long way in the last forty years, but few of its most impressive findings have made it through to the wider public. Some of these are truly startling, and clearly support Egan’s contention that later-developed forms of understanding are more complementary than superior to their precocious counterparts:


“In comparative tests of recognizing appropriate metaphors...’the highest number of appropriate metaphors was secured from the pre-school children, who even exceeded college students’ (Garner and Winner, 1979, p.130). Most intriguing was ‘the capacity of at least some children children to perform this game at an astonishingly high level. Not only do such youngsters frequently contrive clever names for the very objects which have stumped our adult pilot subjects; more dramatically, some of them can nearly effortlessly come up with a whole series of appropriate and appealing metaphoric meanings.’”
(Egan, pp.54-5)

“The first educational implication of Mythic understanding...is that young children be encouraged to become fluent and effective users of varied language; this is accomplished through evoking, stimulating, and developing the capacities for forming binary oppositions and mediating them, for abstract thinking, metaphor, rhythm and narrative, images, stories and affective meaning, humor, and no doubt a number of other capacities language development implies.... These capacities might be seen as organs of the imagination.”
(Egan, pp.68-9)

Egan consistently attempts to draw together the different forms of understanding he is theorizing, not content to view these in isolation. This may make for messy theory but, as he so cogently argues, it is what the evidence suggests. Moreover, we should not let idealist philosophies govern our notions of theoretical adequacy, given that they themselves are the result of only one form of understanding.... Instead, what we really require is a clearer notion of how these all work together.


“Consider the mythic capacity for oppositional thinking. The starkness of those early oppositions, establishing conceptual categories in terms of the child’s feelings, are reduced in Romantic understanding, but are still commonly used in exploring extremes of experience and the limits of reality.... In Philosophic understanding, oppositional thinking is modified further; it is evident in the dialectical thinking that is characteristic of Philosophic understanding, and it is adapted also to the interplay of general schemes and particular anomalies. Even more schematically, we can see how Mythic stories become modified to Romantic narratives, which are further modified to Philosophic metanarratives.”
(Egan, p.160)

One of Egan’s major targets in current educational practice is the gradualist assumptions underlying most of our curriculum. As he rightly observes, the result is not only boring to students, it also flies in the face of children’s own interests...strongly suggesting that it is a badly misconceived approach. Rather, Egan suggests we should take our cues from their own tastes for fairytales and the nigh-on universal fascination of (somewhat) older children w/The Guinness Book of Records - which he takes as a crucial marker of the fundamental nature of romantic understanding.


“The currently dominant attempt to build understanding by gradual extension from the familiar...is not particularly effective in developing Romantic understanding and, indeed, by itself it is ineffective.... With their literacy-sponsored discovery of autonomous reality, students lose their ready engagement with giants who were a mile high and midgets no bigger than your thumbnail. They turn intellectually to discover who was really the biggest and smallest person who ever lived. Myth gives way to reality, while also persisting in providing a template for the questiona and interests that drive our inquiries.... Romance deals with reality, but it does so with persisting mythic interests. It is a compromise with, rather than a capitulation to, reality.... Put simplistically, literacy generates conceptions of reality, and the mind explores reality by trying to grasp its limits and extremes; we see the same process at work in cultural history and in students today. By grasping at the limits and extremes, we set in place a context that establishes more ample, clear, and ‘realistic’ meaning to the details and experiences of our everyday world.”
(Egan, pp.86-8)

“The persistence of Romantic understanding into Philosophic general schemes gives the latter energy, life, and an extended, affective meaning that the theoretic activity alone cannot provide. Reciprocally, Philosophic understanding gives direction, more general purpose, and focus to Romantic capabilities.... [Moreover] irony can greatly enlarge the scope of operations of Romantic capabilities, by corroding their connection with characteristic Romantic objects.”
(Egan, p.159)

“The constant interaction between general schemes and particular knowledge fuels...Philosophic understanding. The general scheme constantly requires further knowledge to support it; the further knowledge will commonly be somewhat anomalous, and require refinements or revisions of the general scheme.... In the inescapable and irresolvable  difference between reality and our ideas about it lies the fuel of Philosophic inquiry. A mass of diverse knowledge is necessary...[if simplistic schemes are to be avoided]. The problem is not that a crude, simple scheme does not organize enough knowledge, but that it can comfortably organize anything.... If it is crude enough, everything becomes evidence to support it, and nothing challenges it.”
(Egan, p.130)

Hence the persistence of Platonic and Freudian models, despite the lack of any empirical support for these approaches. Egan is highly critical of narrow philosophic understanding (of which Platonic Idealism is perhaps the exemplar), insisting throughout that we need to broaden the scope of what educationalists see as knowledge. This, however, is (thankfully) not a plea for psuedo-science, or vague notions drawn from “self-help” tracts, rather, it is a coherent argument in favour of the reassessment of more apparently “naive” understandings in the light of a richer notion of human nature. Understandably, then, Egan has no time for the narrowly reflexive skepticism of postmodern theories, even though he singles out “Ironic understanding” as the final in the developmental sequence he is exploring. The reason for this is simple. Postmodernism privileges irony...whereas a truly ironic understanding will avoid privileging any approach:


“What Ironic understanding will absorb of Philosophic understanding are those abstract theoretic capabilities that can bring intellectual order to complex phenomena.What Ironic understanding will not absorb is the belief that general schemes can uncomplicatedly mirror the truth.... [As well] Ironic understanding avoids commitment to the credulity common in Philosophic understanding, but also avoids commitment to the incredulity common common in postmodernism.... The trick is to keep one’s irony pervasively skeptical, without letting it undercut and disable the exercise of Philosophic capabilities. Irony without Philosophic capabilities is impotent.”
(Egan, pp.156-7)

And, penultimately, in a return to the “Somatic understanding” modelled partly upon Merlin Donald’s work, Egan comes full circle in arguing that the key to keeping ironic reflexes tempered yet constructive lies in our pre-languaged & embodied understandings denied by Post-Saussurean cultural theorists overly obsessed by language.


“Somatic understanding provides to Ironic understanding something beyond language, something foundational to all later understanding. It is not the kind of metanarrative foundation sought in Philosophic understanding. The tension between the Somatic foundation of consciousness and the Ironic, flexible, linguistic superstructure allows the Ironic language-user an understanding of ultralinguistic experience; this Somatic experience provides us with something below language that our language can strive to be true to, and that truth can be something more than Rortyesque agreements with fellow language-users.”
(Egan, pp.169-170)

Kieran Egan’s The Educated Mind is the result of a truly interdisciplinary enquiry. Brilliantly argued, surprisingly entertaining, and clearly predicated upon the actual ways in which children learn, it offers us a genuine breakthrough in educational theory. As well, in a world where we are continually reminded of the importance of “lifelong learning”, Egan’s work helps make sense of the different modes of understanding we routinely make use of, and can teach us all about the trade-offs we invariably make...and, unfortunately, so rarely think about.


“Literate rationality can support a kind of understanding that can enhance our lives  and make them more abundant. Induction into literate rationality supports Romantic understanding, and that induction can be managed better or worse. Better involves preserving, perhaps in a somewhat transformed way, the characteristics of the prior kind[s] of understanding; worse involves the suppression of characteristics of Mythic understanding. Worse, I fear, is the more common.”
(Egan, p.100)



John Henry Calvinist