Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget

Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget

by Kieran Egan

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The ideas upon which public education was founded in the last half of the nineteenth century were wrong. And despite their continued dominance in educational thinking for a century and a half, these ideas are no more right today. So argues one of the most original and highly regarded educational theorists of our time in Getting It Wrong from the Beginning. Kieran Egan explains how we have come to take mistaken concepts about education for granted and why this dooms our attempts at educational reform.

Egan traces the nineteenth-century sources of Progressive thinking about education and their persistence even now. He diagnoses the problem with our schools in a radically different way, and likewise prescribes novel alternatives to present educational practice. His book is both persuasive and full of promise—a book that belongs on the must-read list for anyone who cares about the success of our schools.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300105100
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 07/11/2004
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 224
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Kieran Egan is professor of education at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia. A recipient of the Grawemeyer Award in Education, he is also author of the best-selling book The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding and many other books and articles about education.

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Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Kieran Egan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-300-09433-7

Chapter One



I will describe the essential ideas of progressivism through the work of the least well known of my subtitle's stars, Herbert Spencer. Although John Dewey's educationnal ideas are widely known today, in many regards, they are built on the bases laid by Spencer, though Dewey harnessed them to quite different social and political agendas. The third figure I consider, Jean Piaget, wrote two books about education, but neither advances progressivist theory much; Piaget's contribution lies rather in his developmental ideas. Spencer's formulations are important because nearly everyone involved in establishing the new state schools in the late nineteenth century read them. The influence of ideas is rarely easy to establish, but it would be very odd to deny the author of these ideas an important role in shaping modern schooling and forming progressivist educational theory.

Apart from the huge number of publications of his various works, and their translations into many languages, Spencer was offered (and refused, where possible) honors from learned societies in the United States, England, Italy, Denmark, Belgium, Greece, Austria, and Russia. Some thinkers held what may seem now wholly extravagant valuations of his work. The novelist and critic Arnold Bennett, who read Spencer's First Principles on his honeymoon during the winter of 1906-1907, wrote: "If any book can be called the greatest in the world, I suppose this can.... it is surely the greatest achievement of any human mind.... as a philosopher, he is supreme in the history of human intelligence" (1933, 192). Bennett, of course, was hardly an expert critic of philosophy, as he admitted, and maybe the conditions of the reading affected his delight in the text, but nonscholarly readers widely shared his view. Even someone as unlikely as Matthew Arnold wrote that he often read Spencer as a kind of bracing for his mind (Honan 1981). The American educator F. A. Barnard wrote, "We have in Herbert Spencer not only the profoundest thinker of all time, but the most capacious and most powerful intellect of all time. Aristotle and his master were no more beyond the pygmies who preceded them than he is beyond Aristotle" (Hofstadter 1955, 31). The Atlantic Monthly in 1864 declared: "Mr. Spencer has already established principles which, however compelled for a time to compromise with prejudices and vested interests, will become the recognized basis for an improved society" (776).

Spencer's name is so rarely mentioned in educational writings today that it is easy to forget how avidly his book was read and reread by pretty well everyone involved in making the new state schools. This was especially the case in the United States. The influential clergyman and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher wrote to Spencer in 1866 explaining that the "conditions of American society have made your writings far more fruitful and quickening here than in Europe" (Duncan 1908, 128). I am sure that many of the ideas I shall lay out here will be familiar, though perhaps readers will not associate them with Spencer: most tend to be credited to Dewey or taken as implications of Piaget's theories; or they are assumed to be products of recent notions like "constructivism" or even thought to have emerged from modern "grass-roots" practice. And of course, not all the ideas originate with Spencer-Locke and Rousseau, to name two hardly forgotten figures, can also stake claims as originators. But Spencer is particularly interesting because his formulations were so influential at the crucial period when American public schools, and those of many Western countries, were being formed. And he wrapped these principles in the prestige of science, claiming them not as another set of philosophical speculations, such as those from the Swiss thinker Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) or the German educators Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776-1841) and Friedrich Wilhelm August Froebel (1782-1852), but as scientific hypotheses.

* * *


A context for Spencer's work includes two dramatic ideas that had created much intellectual ferment by the time his writings were becoming widely known. The first was articulated by the Scottish scientist Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875). As a young man Lyell studied law, but he later developed a consuming interest in geology. Between 1830 and 1833 he published his Principles of Geology, in which he argued that all the available physical evidence supported the view that the earth was not created, as was widely held, in 4004 B.C. This date had been calculated more than a century earlier by Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656), a renowned scholar and apparently a man of such charm and sweetness of character that his devotion to the royalist cause in England's civil war did not prevent him from being treated favorably by Oliver Cromwell or from being buried in Westminster Abbey. To arrive at this date, Ussher had totted up the years of the events in the Bible, counting backward carefully to the exact year of the creation.

Lyell argued instead that not only did a study of geology show evidence of gradual changes in the earth over immense spans of time but the forces that had brought about those changes were continuing to operate in the present. In place of an instantly created world, which had remained stable at least since the major catastrophes mentioned in the Bible, Lyell proposed a long-established world that was in a constant state of much more gradual change.

One could now retain one's faith in a 4004 B.C. creation if one believed that God had made the world with marks of eons of past changes and the bones of extinct animals already in it. Yet that sophistication, with its image of a playful or mysterious God sprinkling the created earth with clues to forms of life that had never existed, was not an idea that attracted wide adherence. Instead, in the nineteenth century combatants clashed for and against the new scientific view that conflicted with the claims of the Bible, if read literally.

Into this growing conflict came the vastly more disturbing second idea, the theory of evolution as propounded by Charles Darwin (1809-1882). There had for a long time before Darwin been theories of evolution; indeed Spencer himself had been promoting evolutionary ideas for many years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. In his 1852 essay "The Development Hypothesis," Spencer had in fact used the word evolution and had propounded elaborate arguments about how it accounted for changes in history and society.

By the 1850s, then, many people accepted that some of the most widely held past beliefs about the world and about humankind's place in it were radically mistaken. For this receptive audience, Spencer published Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical in 1860. Here he argued that education, too, had been radically mistaken in the past. Education, he wrote, had been most often conducted by forcing irrelevant informattion into the minds of reluctant children by methods that were patently barbarous; instead, he proposed, we should draw on new scientific principles to make the process efficient as well as pleasant for the child. In the past, education had dealt with subjects that held their place in the curriculum by dint of tradition and the affectations to an ornamental culture of a leisured class; instead, he argued, we should make the curriculum of direct relevance and utility to the lives our students would actually lead. In the past, schooling was centered on the knowledge written in texts or authorized by teachers, whereas instead the child's own developing needs and expanding activities should be central to the curriculum and to teachers' efforts.

Spencer aimed to show how learning and development, and the daily activities of the classroom, were parts of the same laws that shaped the stars above and the earth below. Those laws shaped the evolution of human beings from simple organisms long before, and those same laws shaped the development of each child from the earliest moments in life to adulthood. In essence, Spencer argued that the whole cosmos was subject to natural laws and that these laws were accessible to scientific scrutiny.

The greatest and most fundamental of these laws is that we live in a dramatic universe that is subject to constant change and that this change follows an invariable development from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous or, as he sometimes put it, from the simple to the complex We see this law operating in the earth's development from a largely homogeneous mass of molten material to such heterogeneity as cheap tin trays, cabbages, kings, imagined talking middle-class rabbits, and computer keyboards-to name a random few.

We can see the same laws operating in the cosmos at large, in the evolution of species, in the development of societies in history, and in the changes from the child's to the adult's mind. By observing how the cosmic principle of "simple to complex" plays itself out with regard to human psychology and its development through life, we can devise a new approach to education. This is what Spencer offered.

Beginning with the natural process of the child's development rather than with the knowledge one wants the child to learn, Spencer argued, creates a recognition that children are naturally inquiring, constructing, and active beings. So, the developing powers of children provide the basis for his educational philosophy.

Education, he believed, is concerned with the whole person, not just the intellectual part. We should be concerned primarily not to produce scholars in the old sense but rather with what a person most needs to know to be able to perform his or her duties in life most adequately. Spencer's curriculum, then, would no longer follow fashions of culturally prestigious subjects, such as Latin and Greek and details of European political history: "The births, deaths, and marriages of kings, and other like trivialities, are committed to memory, not because of any direct benefits that can possibly result from knowing them: but because society considers them a part of a good education-because the absence of such knowledge may bring the contempt of others.... Men dress their children's minds as they do their bodies, in the prevailing fashion" (1928, 2).

If we grant that there are observable regularities in children's development, then, Spencer pointed out, "it follows inevitably that education cannot be rightly guided without knowledge of these laws" (1928, 23). He felt that these laws were largely ignored in the educational practices of his time, and that, if only they were adhered to, the whole process of education could be made more efficient, effective, and pleasurable to the child and teacher. He emphasized how easily the child learns about "the objects and processes of the household, the streets, and the fields" (24) and argued that the educator should observe such effortless learning and explore how it could be replicated by sensible teaching.

Spencer underlined the centrality for successful learning of direct experience. We must recognize, and act on the recognition, that "the words contained in books can be rightly interpreted into ideas, only in proportion to the antecedent experience of things" (1928, 24). Spencer made a central principle of his pedagogy that children's understanding can expand only from things of which they have direct experience. Words in books about things of which they have no experience can be learned only in an arid sense. We can teach children to repeat back what is learned as might a parrot, but they may understand the meaning of the rote-learned words no better than would the parrot.

Traditional education, as Spencer put it, is primarily concerned with making "the pupil a mere passive recipient of other's ideas, and not in the least leading him to be an active inquirer or self-instructor" (1928, 25). By becoming such inquirers or self-instructors, children become active in making sense of their experience, just as they so effectively do in the home, street, and field.

"The rise of an appetite for any kind of information," Spencer argued, "implies that the unfolding mind has become fit to assimilate it, and needs it for the purposes of growth" (1928, 51). As we feed the body with the best and most appropriate foods at different stages of life so that it grows to its fullest potential, then so with the mind, we must provide the best food to further its fullest growth. We must constantly, as Spencer said, conform to the natural process of mental evolution. We develop in a certain sequence, and we require a certain kind of knowledge at each stage, "and it is for us to ascertain this sequence and supply this knowledge" (53).

Spencer laid out seven principles for intellectual education. The first is that "we should proceed from the simple to the complex." This, as he acknowledged, is a principle that has always been accepted in some degree. But Spencer elaborated a new sense in which it should be understood: "The mind develops. Like all things that develop it progresses from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous" (1928, 58). We must, then, recognize the gradual development of the mind and build our teaching and curricula so that they conform with and support that developmental process.

The second principle is that the "development of the mind, as all other development, is an advance from the indefinite to the definite" (1928, 59). Spencer believed that from original chaos order gradually emerged-an idea he carried over to the child's mind in his belief that children's cognition is initially indefinite, chaotic, and vague and gradually becomes more definite, ordered, and clear.

Spencer's third principle is that "our lessons ought to start from the concrete and end in the abstract" (1928, 60). This he considered crucial for all teaching, especially in the early years. He argued that abstract ideas are accessible and meaningful only in the later years of schooling, and even then he pointed out that introduction of new material should begin with concrete aspects of it from the student's experience and then move gradually toward abstractions. Elementary school lessons should deal always with the practical and the concrete, with children's everyday experience, which they understand by dint of their own explorations and active involvement: "In the child we see absorption in special facts. Generalities even of a low order are scarcely recognized, and there is no recognition of high generalities" (1966a, 354).


Excerpted from GETTING IT WRONG FROM THE BEGINNING by KIERAN EGAN Copyright © 2002 by Kieran Egan. Excerpted by permission.
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