From: SDon1000 <SDon1000@aol.com>
Dear Prof. Egan,
I very much appreciated The Educated Mind, as I have appreciated your work on narratives and imagination. I have been reading widely in field of education recently, and I find your work, as well as that of Jerome Bruner, to be more insightful than most of what receives public attention in the education debates.
My own training is in economics and public policy. I was a professor at Columbia until the birth of my daughter, at which time I chose to live in the same city (Washington, D.C.) as my husband and devote myself to mothering for a few years. My daughter's cognitive and emotional development has engaged and fascinated me, and turning her over to a school--even a "good" independent school--has been unsettling. It was very reinforcing to have you articulate the loss involved when it is assumed that children in early elementary years should learn only about their immediate world; that the "big picture," or "theory" has no place in the elementary classroom (even if "theory" is the story of Charles Darwin and the finches).
I suggested to my daughter's kindergarten teachers that their unit on marine mammals could be expanded beyond learning to classify, to include the story of scientists puzzling about how mammals ended up in the ocean, and the relatively recent discovery of fossils that confirm a "reverse evolution" from land to sea. It is a story that has intrigued my daughter, but her teachers dismissed it with a smile and the certainty that all the teacher training materials agree that "theory" is inappropriate for kindergarten. "It's a story," I insisted. But "evolution" is a theory, and so the story was dismissed.
The experience was repeated in first grade, but with a different twist. The class was studying chickens, and they incubated eggs. They talked about fertilization and the life cycle, and drew embryos at different stages of development. The school believes that science should be exclusively "hands on" at this age (a view for which they get a great deal of support in the literature). My daughter wanted to know what a chicken is anyway; why does it have wings if it can't fly? And who are its ancestors? We went to the library and very quickly put together the story of a completely fabricated bird that resembles only slightly the red jungle fowl of India from which it descended. Its spread through Europe because of its value as an egg layer, and its breeding for ever greater egg laying capabilities, were a profound lesson in unnatural selection which, as it turns out, gave scientists in Darwin's day the idea of natural selection. My daughter's teachers again were uninterested in incorporating this story into their curriculum. But this time they were candid about the discomfort they felt at not knowing themselves about how the modern day chicken came to be. And later when my daughter wanted to know if they could expand their study of insects to try to find out why insects changed from being so big at the time of the dinosaurs to being much smaller today, they were again candid about not knowing themselves, and not feeling like they had the support from the education community for pursuing those lines of inquiry with first graders.
All of this is to say that I very much agree with your view that the stories (or histories) of how something came to be as it is, or how we came to understand or discovered something, can be very compelling to even very young children. But I believe very few teachers know the stories, or feel confident in their existing knowledge to go out and construct the stories on their own. The simple, fundamental questions--like what is a chicken anyway?--are typically asked by the untrained (children), or by the well trained who are intellectually confident or secure. The cost of never having been taught the stories of how we came to understand something is deep intellectual insecurity. When one is taught physics, for example, by learning properties specified in a text book without having a sense of how those properties were discovered and what difference it made anyway, then one's knowledge is contingent on those who know more passing their knowledge along, and it is only as good as the memory of what was studied in the book. A recipe for insecurity. I believe that the large majority of teachers are unprepared for self-initiated inquiry because of this intellectual insecurity.
I am in the midst of experiencing the benefits myself of the form of recapitulation that you favor. I am attending a set of lectures at the Smithsonian on the cosmos, given by leading scientist in particle physics and cosmology. I am also watching the PBS Steven Hawkings Universe series. I am keenly aware that the former leaves me feeling that there is a very complicated world out there that I grasp only weakly. When the lecturers ask for questions, I have none. After the PBS programs, I am full of questions. I feel stimulated and excited to think and read more. I think the key difference is that PBS always includes the stories of how an area of inquiry began, and what discoveries allowed for new understandings. I feel the psychological difference it makes when a history makes a discovery one's own. The experience of the act of discovering (even discovering for oneself through a story about a discovery made by others) makes one feel included in the community of learners, rather than outside the circle of those whose knowledge one will never comprehend.
An additional benefit of recapitulation, then, is that the stories would do this for teachers as well as students. Uninspired teaching rests, I think, on a foundation of insecure knowledge. The stories would help secure the knowledge for both the teachers and the students. But the job is not just to persuade teachers that recapitulation is desirable. They also need to be given the stories. A friend (an historian who is also taking time to parent ) and I have talked from time to time about undertaking a project that would prepare curriculum materials of this type, particularly for early elementary years. But surely with all the attention narrative as a teaching tool has attracted, there must be other such projects underway. Do you know of any at present? We would love to know your thoughts if you should have a few moments to pass them along, or your suggestions regarding curriculum materials of this sort that have already been done.
Thank you for your attention, and for your bravery in providing your e-mail address.
Dear Ms. Donovan,
Thank you for the thoughtful letter. Well, I obviously agree with you and sympathise with the difficulty of persuading teachers that the dogmas they have been taught might bear reconsideration. I think you are right that a good deal of the problem is insecurity caused by their not having the basic knowledge that might make it possible for them to teach the topics as stories or theories or anything. While there has indeed been a lot of discussion of children's "narrative ways of knowing" I am not aware of curriculum materials being composed to take advantage of these evident abilities. But then I'm not any kind of expert on what's going on. But educational publishers are often very conservative. I suspect if you were able to produce materials that did provide teachers with the kind of knowledge they would need, many would be very receptive. I do receive quite a lot of comments from teachers to the effect that if only they had the resources they would be delighted to introduce more exciting stories into their early school classrooms.
name: Wendy C. Turgeon
institution: SUNY-SB and St. Joseph's college
comments re: The Educated Mind: Dear Mr. Egan.
I am involved in Matt Lipman's Philosophy and children movement.
I have read with great interest your schema of development and am
particularly intrigued by the connections between your critiques of
education and Lipman's.
I have a fairly strong antipathy to postmodernism and its relativistic
view of human knowledge and action. I found your articulation of
the Ironic framework to be most enticing. What we need is a way
to move beyond naive realism and/or centrism and yet avoid the
empty gulf seemingly espoused by the postmodernists, such as
What do you think of Lipman's work? I would be most interested
in hearing/reading your thoughts about his concept of philosophy and
the community of inquiry.
Your description of "philosophic understanding" strikes me more
akin to scientific understanding. but then, I admit to needing to
reread sections of your work more carefully.
Thank you for a stimulating reflection upon education.
Wendy C. Turgeon
Dear Dr. Turgeon,
In the previous folder of discussion there are a number of references to Matthew Lipman's valuable work. I haven't much to add to my comments there. The relationship between Philosophic Understanding and scientific thinking is difficult to untangle. Scientific thinking, particularly in its more positivistic forms is fairly obviously a straightforward example of a Philosophic Understanding, but more sophisticated scientific thinking can also include elements of all the kinds of understanding, I think. And the more it includes, I suspect, the better it is likely to be scientifically.
Date: Tue, 25 Nov 1997 00:15:45 +0000
Dear Kieran Egan,
I have a question to ask which is a bit critical (in the criticizing,
not the urgent, sense), so I want to take a moment to set it in
First, I am a great admirer of your work, at least what I have read
so far. I am a former teacher (most recently 5th grade) and a
professional storyteller, and your book, _Teaching As Story Telling_,
excited me as very few things have. I even led a workshop
for other teachers presenting some of the ideas in that book.
Currently, I am considering going back to school toward a PhD in
education, with the eventual goal of teaching at the college level.
Recently, I discovered your new book, The Educated Mind: How
Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding, and obtained it from the
library. I am currently reading it, and I find much that I agree
with; I think you are saying some very important things and I hope
they get heard. I also hope to communicate with you further once I
have read more.
Now, for my current question. Though, as I said, I largely agree
with what you have to say, I was very disturbed by the way you
dismissed Plato. "No one now believes that Plato's ideal aim of
direct knowledge of the real, the true, the good, and the beautiful
is attainable." "The Platonic program comes with ideas about
reaching a transcendent truth or privileged knowledge that is no
longer credible." Were you just trying to save time, or did you
really mean to so casually and categorically toss Plato's philosophy
aside? It seems to me that a more nuanced treatment would have been
more in order. I don't think a total rejection of Plato, and those
who may follow him, is necessary in order to establish that the
educational program based on his ideas is inappropriate or inadequate
and needs to be replaced with a better one.
Say what you like, but such things do happen --
not often, but they do happen.
Dear Peter Theodore,
Thank you for the message. A number of people have suggested that I would have been wiser to flesh out what I meant by the "dismissal" of the three "old" positions. I suppose that's one of the problems with setting up the argument in a somewhat polemical way. It seems to me that Plato's conception of education is so thoroughly a part of how the concept is used today that it makes little sense to simply dismiss it. What I was suggesting in the brief passage you mention is that I don't think many people today believe that the absolute certainty that Plato's program was designed to produce about moral equally with mathematical things , and everything in between, is attainable. And that, in western countries anyway, the generally accepted paradigm of secure knowledge is that produced by the physical sciences, even while there is considerable doubt about just how secure that knowledge can be, and the kind of physical science knowledge that we value was held by Plato to be relatively insignificant in grasping what is true about the world. I wasn't so much trying to toss Plato's philosophy aside as reflect what I understood to be a fairly commonly held view. maybe I am wrong in the way I read what people generally believe. And I don't think recognition of this flaw in his theory, already rejected by Aristotle, amounts to "a total rejection of Plato." The Republic is unquestionably my favorite book on education.
With best wishes,
Date: Sun, 16 Nov 1997 15:14:32 -0500
From: Grant Wiggins <email@example.com>
X-Mailer: Mozilla 3.0 (Macintosh; U; 68K)
Dear Professor Egan:
I was delighted by your most recent book,
not least for bringing back before us that interesting but problematic
idea of recapitulation. I'm a bit puzzled, though, as to just how far
you want to go with the idea. (I fear the danger here of reifying the
notion in just the way its founders did.) Why not simply say that there
are different ways of causing understanding? Why not just cast it as an
epistemological pluralism instead of a quasi-developmental account? In
my former life as a teacher I taught philosophy at the secondary level
and worked briefly with the Philosophy for Children material. I saw
firsthand how important it was to treat young students as would-be
philosophers rather than as pre-rational animals, where we are
perpetually postponing such questions in obedience to some
Piagetian-like rigidity about "not ready for that kind of work."
I have no doubt that as a provocation your theory is useful and
illuminating approach. But I know from my own work in assessment reform
how easy it is for people to start running around with schemas and
demanding that curriculum be ordered this way. I am quite sure you do
not wish that.
By the way, I thought the subtitle of your book was quite unfortunate in
that I think it will keep some people away from reading it if they are
unfamiliar with your work. "Cognitive tools" hardly does justice to the
philosophy and the more paradigm-like nature of each instructional point
of view (versus a kind of arid cognitive science implied by the
In any event, thanks for a great book, one that I am recommending
everywhere I speak. And the continuing conversation electronically is
wonderful. And have a peak at our web site (www.classnj.org),
especially after Dec. 1, where we expect to have not only e-dialogue but
a database of exmplary units using our own template - something you
might consider with yours.
Finally, you should know that I am writing a book with Jay McTighe for
ASCD called Understanding By Design. We will be highlighting the
crucial role of good templates and design tools, and we make reference
Dear Professor Wiggins,
Thanks for the interesting comments. As I mentioned earlier to a comment on the Web Page, I could indeed have presented the theory without reference to recapitulation, and could have avoided the quasi-developmental features that are prominent in the book. And I agree with you, and with the reviewer of the book for the New York Times, that there is a danger of people generally attracted to the idea reifying the recapitulationary sub-theme, and setting up simplistic "kinds of understanding" curricula--something which Howard Gardner clearly suffers with "multiple intelligences" curricula, as he indicates in his Multiple Intelligences: The theory in practice. But I guess, in the end, it seemed to me that there is a developmental sequence that should be honoured in all this, even if it is developmental in a sense rather unlike that that has been prominent in cognitive psychololgy for some time--but that, too, is very much in flux at present.
The title of the book, and the subtitle, are the contribution of my editors at Chicago. My own offerings were thought to be too aenemic. I tended to agree with them, and liked this title they came up with--it was something of a variant on a lot of titles we kicked around. "Cognitive tools" can be a bit alarming to some people for various reasons, of course. One group of people might be put off by by the technicist suggestions they read into it, and another group might be disturbed by the extent to which it may seem to yield to the Vygotskian side of the artificial Piagetian/Vygotskian divide that had been created. (You might be interested to learn that the first cover design, which was very attractive, was of a set of varied cogs. I thought the clockwork associations would have put off even more people.)
I'll certainly visit your Web Site, especially after Dec. 1st. The idea of exemplary templates is a good one. And I'll look forward to Understanding by Design.
With best wishes,
Date: Sat, 08 Nov 1997 23:21:23 -0500
From: "Peter F. Rousmaniere, Rousmaniere Designs" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Organization: Rousmaniere Designs
Subject: Inquiry re: The Educated Mind
Dear Professor Egan,
I have been engrossed in The Educated Mind for the past few days; I
believe I cam across it in a bookstore in Harvard Sq., in Cambridge
MA. I have one specific questions for you at this point. On page 168,
you mention that a rich and vivid appreciation of somatic understanding
is necessary to ward off "the anesthetizing socialization of the tribe."
Can you share with me your reasons for using the word "anesthetizing"?
I will explain the context of my inquiry. Chronic back pain among
workers usually is not explanable medically, and it occured to me that
it could be explained as a somatic expression.
I am a professional in the field of occupational injuries. (I have
virtually no knowledge of educational theory). One of the leading
concerns in occupational health is back pain. In fact maybe half the
costs of worker injuries can be attributed to back pain and chronic pain
in particular. The medical community is moving towards a position that
most persistent back pain cases which extend behind a short period of
time (several months) are not medical in nature--there is no medical
explanation for the expression of pain. Nor is it malingering, at least
for the majority of patients. As you may know, there is no objective
test to determine the existence or level of pain.
One clinician with whom I work says that persons who present with back
pain and who explain the origins of the pain to events well in the past,
usually of a family, work or social nature (such as a spouse leaving, or
the company going on night shift) are high risk for having chronic pain.
In your use of "anesthetizing" are you implicitly referring to some body
or literature or authority of whom your academic readers would be aware,
or did it occur to you originally? And can you comment on how somatic
expressions might or might not include chronic back pain?
I would be very grateful for a response.
Peter F. Rousmaniere
Dear Peter Rousmaniere,
Thank you for such an interesting message. I think what I was trying to express by "the anesthetizing socialization of the tribe" was indeed a recognition that our "somatic understanding" does not fade away into language entirely, but persists as a distinctive way of making sense of our experience. The anesthetising refers to the dulling of this sensibility that takes place, to some degree inevitably, as we become socialized by language to the norms of our particular society or "tribe".
I wasn't refering to any particular body of literature--if one exists that explores this feature of our understanding I'm afraid I don't know about it. I think I was more likely, in the choice of words, responding to some poet's phrase, which I can't consciously call up. But Eliot seems likely, perhaps Larkin, parts bits from both or others mashed together.
As for back-pain, well, that's an interesting idea I hadn't considered. In that I want to claim that we retain a somatic understanding, that becomes entwined with the other kinds as they develop, it seem obvious that the later kinds will influence that first kind of understanding, and perhaps philosophic distresses find their echoes in somatic forms. At one level this seems obvious--the deaths of close relations very commonly find a response in bodily distress. What I had not thought of is that the scheme sketched in the book might provide a way of representing this in its terms. I must think more on't.
With best wishes,
Date: 28 Oct 97 20:04:34 +0100
From: John Freal <email@example.com>
Subject: Thoughts on Philosophic Understanding
To: Kieran Egan <Kieran_Egan@sfu.ca>
I was formerly a research scientist at a medical school and now teach
mathematics at a public high school. You speak as if there has been
damage done by the scientific world view (p.135). This damage seems
insignificant compared to that done by scientific illiteracy and even
less than that done by that other culture that doesn't understand
science. I agree with you that the scientific perspective is limited,
but for vast majority of humanity ( as Chesterton said about
Christianity) it has not been tried and found wanting but has been found
difficult and not tried. The other scientists that I have known are in
the main also capable of mythic and romantic perspectives. You are
probably right in saying that philosophic understanding is not supported
by daily life in Western culture. That is probably why I could retire
if I had a dollar for every person that said to me, "I was never very
good at math." I believe that the scientific perspective is at the core
of our legacy from the Greeks, but I wonder if philosophic understanding
can ever be part of the general experience of humankind. Most days at
school I believe that it may be possible; yet there are also those days
I am really enjoying your book. I hope your work will be able to be
widely discussed. I would like to know if any schools have put your
ideas into practice.
Dear John Freal,
Thanks for the comments. I do agree in general, and think perhaps I was leaning over backwards a little too far in accommodating to the distrust of "technical rationality" that has been so prominent of late. As I have said in the earlier discussion, there seem to be quite a lot of individual teachers who are using the ideas, but I am not aware of larger scale implementations. And I seem to find it a full time job scribbling the stuff to do anything in the way of trying to organize implementation efforts. I have mentioned--for people interested to see examples of implementations--the book Journeys of Discovery published by Oxford University Press in Melbourne. It describes some units taught by Miranda Armstrong, Ann Connelly, and Kathy Saville in Eltham College, near Melbourne. They were also connected with the production of a video-tape by Claire Jennings, available, I think, from Deakin University.
Date: 02 Nov 97 13:02:30 +0100
From: John Freal <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: RE: Re: Thoughts on Philosophic Understanding
To: Kieran Egan <Kieran_Egan@sfu.ca>
You may certainly add my comments to your web page. I have some more.
The first is a sociopolitical observation. Several years ago a local education guru gave a personality inventory (Myers, Briggs) to the teachers of our school district, about 100 teachers K-12. The results divided our staff into thirds approximately, and the categories, although they went by other names, corresponded very closely to your socializers, academics , and developmentalists. So not only have we inherited three ideas about education, but we have also inherited a corresponding group of people to represent each.
The interests of the socializing influences in education, represented largely by business and economic groups (e.g. the Washington Roundtable), and those the modern academics are coming together over the development of academic standards for the schools of our state. Most of the rest of the educational world may take these sorts of standards for granted, but they, in the form of mastery tests at differeent grade levels, are fairly new to us. I find that the socializers that have promoted these standards are not the ones teaching in the schools, but the leaders out in the community. For example, the Washington Roundtable is composed of CEOs from the major corporations in the state. The socializers in education have been less eager to support the new standards, feeling threatened by academic standards. One driving force behind these standards has been the academics in the schools. Strange.
On a completely different topic: Mathematics does not seem to be very well represented in the cognitive tools you discuss. I would be interested to read your response to this. Mine would go something like the following. I believe that many of our mathematical tools develop from our somatic understanding. There is good deal of recent research that has documented this development in very young (less than one year old) children. (Sorry I can't give any references.) I have also noticed the development of spatial and number sense in my own children before they learned to talk. In education, however, we must deal with the tyranny of language in communicating the continuation of these rudimentary mathematical ideas. Language use is critical in the development of mathematical ideas, but because language is less precise than the mathematical ideas it tries to communicate, these ideas often get lost. Mathematical meaning may be almost as critcal to our civilization as linguistic meaning yet it is certainly less widely appreciated. The exception to this is in economic rewards. Given a base of competence in linguistic skill of all adult members of society, income in Western societies is most highly correlated with mathematical skill. Yet many adults proclaim their mathematical ignorance ("I was never very good at math.") in ways they would never proclaim their illiteracy. I think your schemes might be valuable in understanding how mathematical understanding develops. I have not seen anything else, including Piaget, which takes this very far.
Hoping to hear from you again.
It doesn't surprise me, as you'd anticipate, that the three ideas find each their adherents in nearly all conflicts about education--as it is the ideas themselves that are in conflict. Another way of looking at it is to see the ideas as mutually hostile parasites that take over as many human minds as they can and then use the humans to continue their battles.
I find your comments about mathematics intruiging, and would like to think about that further. I was reading a while ago Annette Karmiloff-Smith's Beyond Modularity. That has a good discussion of very early knowledge and a meticulous account of its development, using her preferred explanation of "representational rediscription" (the process whereby knowledge in the mind becomes explicit knowledge to the mind). Her account begins (and ends) as offering a non-modular alternative to Jerry Fodor. She might have taken further support from Terrance Deacon's recent book The Symbolic Species (had it been written six or seven years earlier), which provides the most complex and plausible anti-Chomsky, anti-Fodor, anti-Pinker, anti-modularity account of human intellectual development. A fascinating area of study at the moment, which I hope to emerge from knowing much less than when I entered.
name: David Clemens
institution: Monterey Peninsula College
Dear Professor Egan,
While reading the last of The Educated Mind today I was thinking about the "critical thinking movement" which has been an edu-fad in the U.S. Part of the program is to "infuse" critical thinking (always difficult to define precisely) into all grade levels. I am sure you are familiar with the theory. It seems to me that, by your terms, what is called critical thinking is essentially Philosophic, and I wondered if you feel that such an effort at infusion is counter-productive, dismissing the less Philosophic cognitive modes which students might be experiencing at younger ages. That is, the critical thinking movement seems to advocate a one-best-mode of thought and seeks to apply it across the board. What are your thoughts on the crit-think approach?
Dear Professor Clemens,
Part of the difficulty, as you suggest, is that "critical thinking" is one of those terms that allow a variety of practices in its name. I guess I have never been sufficiently clear about what it is to simple agree with what you say straightforwardly, but your point seems to me a good one. I have seen some really excellent programs for young children, designed explicitly as "critial thinking" practices, but the use of the term always seems a tad arbitrary. It seems another of the attempts--which do need constantly to be refreshed--to encourage children and their teachers to go beyond unreflective learning and teaching.
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