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In the sixteenth century, average citizens saw prices for all commodities begin
to rise rapidly. Most obvious were the increased amounts they had to pay for
necessities like clothes. The citizens blamed the clothiers for greedily raising
prices. The clothiers protested, blaming the merchants who were greedily
demanding more for their cloth; the merchants in turn blamed the weavers, who
blamed the wool merchants, whoblamed the sheep farmers. The sheep farmers said
they had to raise their prices to be able to buy the increasingly expensive
clothes. And so it went round. Who was to blame?
It took some time, and much blaming, before Jean Bodin (1530-1596) worked out
that none of the obvious candidates was at fault. Rather, the general rise in
prices was connected with the import into Europe of Central and South American
gold and silver and with the European monarchs' use of this bullion through
their royal mints. That is, the monarchs increased the money supply and thus
stimulated inflation. A development in economic theory resolved the central
puzzle and laid a tenuous foundation for greater understanding and practical
control of economic matters.
So who is responsible for our modern social puzzle, the educational
ineffectiveness of our schools? (By "modern" I mean the period beginning with
the late-nineteenth-century development of mass schooling.) For media pundits
and professional educators, there is no shortage of blameworthy candidates:
inadequately educated teachers, the absence of market incentives, the inequities
of capitalist societies, the lack of local control over schools, the genetic
intellectual incapacity of 85 percent of the population to benefit from
instruction in more than basic literacy and skills, drugs, the breakdown of the
nuclear family and family values, an irrelevant academic curriculum, a trivial
curriculum filled only with the immediately relevant, short-sighted politicians
demanding hopelessly crude achievement tests while grossly underfunding the
education system, a lack of commitment to excellence, vacuous schools of
education, mindless TV and other mass media, the failure to attend to some
specific research results.
Along with the cacophony of blame comes a panoply of prescriptions: introduce
market incentives, make the curriculum more "relevant" or more academic, reform
teacher training, ensure students' active involvement in their learning, and so
on. Back in the sixteenth century, a litany of cures for inflation also was
proposed: restrain merchants' profits, introduce price controls, restrict the
export of wool, introduce tariffs on imported cloth, and so on. We can now look
back indulgently at those prescriptions and see that they were irrelevant to the
real cause of the problem: They would have been ineffective in slowing inflation
and would in most cases have brought about further economic damage. Similarly,
we are likely to look back on the current list of prescriptions to cure
education's ills as irrelevant because they, too, fail to identify the real
cause of the problem.
The trouble is not caused by any of the usual suspects. Instead, as I intend to
show, it stems from a fundamentally incoherent conception of education. I will
try, first and briefly, to show the lack of coherence that marks most people's
notions of what schools ought to be doing, and, second and less briefly, to
propose an educational theory that can enable schools to become more
effective-a theory that lays a foundation for greater understanding and
practical control of educational matters.
Oh, dear-the problem has to do with one educational theory and the solution
with another one? The comparison with sixteenth-century inflation suggested
something more richly tangible, like gold from Eldorado. The promise of a new
educational theory, however, has the magnetism of a newspaper headline like
"Small Earthquake in Chile: Few Hurt."
Educational theorizing is generally dreary because 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. These ideas have rolled together over the centuries into our
currently dominant conception of education. There are just so many variants that
one can play with so few ideas before terminal staleness sets in, and matters
are made worse by most people's unawareness of the fundamental ideas that shape
their thinking about education.
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-and this is the
primary cause of our long-continuing educational crisis. My first task in
chapter 1 is to elaborate those ideas a little, to show in what ways they are
mutually incompatible and to show that this incompatibility is the root of our
practical difficulties in education today. My second task in chapter 1 is to
introduce the new educational theory and indicate why it might be a better bet
than any other, or any combination of others, currently around.
One unfamiliar feature of this new theory is that it describes education in
terms of a sequence of kinds of understanding. A further oddity is that it
conceives of education as so intricately tied in with the life of society and
its culture that it is also a theory about Western cultural development and its
relationship to education in modern multicultural societies. I characterize
Western cultural history, and education today, in terms of an unfolding sequence
of somewhat distinctive kinds of understanding.
What kind of category is a "kind of understanding"? Perhaps by reflecting on the
following piece of information, you will gain a preliminary sense of what I
In 1949, at the El Quantara railway station in the Suez Canal Zone, there were
ten lavatories. Three were for officers-one for Europeans, one for Asiatics,
and one for Coloureds; three were for warrant officers and sergeants, divided by
race as for the senior officers; three were for other ranks, also divided like
the others by race; and one was for women, regardless of rank, class, or race.
One might respond with outrage to the injustice of such arrangements and to the
injustice inherent in the society that these arrangements reflect. One might
feel a simple tug of delight at accumulating such a piece of exotica. If one
considers social class a prime determiner of consciousness, such lavatory
arrangements will have a particular resonance; if race, another; and if gender,
yet another. One might fit this information into a narrative of social
amelioration between earlier unjust authoritarian regimes and later democratic
systems. One might consider it dispassionately as reflecting one among a
kaleidoscopic variety of social systems human beings have devised and those
lavatory arrangements as no more or less bizarre than whatever today would be
considered more just, proper, or "normal." One might consider the arrangements
with relief, taking the perspective of the officers, or with resentment, taking
that of the other ranks, or with mixed feelings, taking that of the women.
In each of these responses the information is understood in a somewhat different
way. Today a response will rarely involve just one of these ways of
understanding the facts; we commonly adopt a number of such perspectives,
understanding the information as complex, polysemous.
My primary aim in this book is to unravel some of the major strands or layers of
our typically polysemous understanding. I try to separate out a set of general
and distinctive kinds of understanding and characterize each of them in detail;
I distinguish five, which I call Somatic, Mythic, Romantic, Philosophic, and
Ironic. I try to show, furthermore, that these kinds of understanding have
developed in evolution and cultural history in a particular sequence, coalescing
to a large extent (but not completely) as each successive kind has emerged. The
modern mind thus is represented as a composite. This conception of the mind is a
bit messy, but it tries to adhere to what systems theorists call the principle
of requisite variety: that the model conform with the complexity of what it
My second and related aim is to show that education can best be conceived as the
individual's acquiring each of these kinds of understanding as fully as possible
in the sequence in which each developed historically. Thus I construct a new
recapitulation theory, distinct from those articulated in the late nineteenth
century mainly in terms of what is identified as being recapitulated.
I try to show that each kind of understanding results from the development of
particular intellectual tools that we acquire from the societies we grow up in.
While these tools are varied, I will focus largely on those evident in language:
the successive development of oral language, literacy, theoretic abstractions,
and the extreme linguistic reflexiveness that yields irony. I explore the
implications of being an oral-language user for the kind of (Mythic)
understanding one can form of the world, and the kind of (Romantic)
understanding that is an implication of growing into a particular literacy, and
the kind of (Philosophic) understanding that is an implication of fitting into
communities that use theoretic abstractions, and the kind of (Ironic)
understanding that is an implication of self-conscious reflection about the
language one uses.
Now "tools" is obviously an awkward word; I mean something like the "mediational
means" the Russian psychologist, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), describes as the
shapers of the kind of sense we make of the world. Vygotsky argued that
intellectual development cannot adequately be understood in epistemological
terms that focus on the kinds and quantities of knowledge accumulated or in
psychological terms that focus on some supposed inner and spontaneous
developmental process. Rather, he understood intellectual development in terms
of the intellectual tools, like language, that we accumulate as we grow up in a
society and that mediate the kind of understanding we can form or construct. In
chapter 1 I try to show how the focus on mediating intellectual tools, rather
than on forms of knowledge or on psychological processes, enables construction
of a new educational idea. So, my gold from Eldorado that is designed to carry
us past our present educational problem and transcend the ideological logjam at
its core is a set of language-based intellectual tools that generate Somatic,
Mythic, Romantic, Philosophic, and Ironic kinds of understanding.
By "language based" I mean that my focus is on more general cultural phenomena
that nevertheless are fairly distinctly reflected in language use, and in each
discussion it is with the language forms that I begin. Merlin Donald notes that
"the uniqueness of humanity could be said to rest not so much in language as in
our capacity for rapid cultural change.... [W]hat humans evolved was
primarily a generalized capacity for cultural innovation" (1991, p. 10). The
kinds of understanding are attempts to characterize a basic level of significant
innovative changes in human cultural life, historically and in individual
A working title for this book had been "The Body's Mind." Given my references to
language, intellectual tools, and cultural innovations, one may ask why the body
figures so prominently. We had, as a species, and have, as individuals, bodies
before language. Language emerges from the body in the process of evolutionary
and individual development, and it bears the ineluctable stamp of the body:
Phrases and sentences, for example, are tied to the time we take to inhale and
exhale-though when we speak we take in quick breaths and release them steadily
(in a process Steven Pinker describes as syntax overriding carbon dioxide [1994,
p. 164] ); similarly, we use language to represent the world as it is disclosed
by our particular scale and kind of organs of perception. In other words, our
body is the most fundamental mediating tool that shapes our understanding. This
is obvious, of course, and Somatic understanding refers to the understanding of
the world that is possible for human beings given the kind of body we have. In
the theory to be elaborated in the following chapters, each kind of
understanding does not fade away to be replaced by the next, but rather each
properly coalesces in significant degree with its predecessor. The developments
in language uses and their intellectual implications that I explore are, then,
always tied in some degree to this embodied core of understanding. This becomes
especially important when I sketch my conception of Ironic understanding and
confront some common assumptions of postmodernism.
In chapters 2 through 5 I describe both the minting in Western cultural history
of the five kinds of understanding and the forms they commonly take among
students today. I also attempt to show that education can best be conceived as
the process of developing each of these kinds of understanding as fully as
possible. The first kind of understanding, the Somatic, I discuss in chapter 5
after the Ironic, for reasons that will be given there. Apart from that, in each
chapter I characterize one kind of understanding, showing its emergence in
Western cultural history, giving examples of its occurrence in various
historical periods, and indicating perhaps surprising parallels between these
historical occurrences and the lives and activities of students today. Among
other things, these accounts offer new explanations of the nature of fantasy and
why four- and five-year-olds commonly find it so engaging, of ten-year-olds'
interest in the contents of The Guinness Book of Records, of eleven- and
twelve-year-olds' emotional associations with pop singers or sports heroes, of
academic sixteen-year-olds' interest in general ideas, metaphysical schemes, or
ideologies, and so on.
Excerpted from The Educated Mind
by Kieran Egan
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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