Further discussion of

The Educated Mind.

Kieran Egan

Since Sept/98.

From: "Cil Wigmans" <cwi@ghlyceum.nl>

To: <Kieran_Egan@sfu.ca>

Subject: The educated mind

Date: Thu, 28 Jan 1999 17:05:32 +0100

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Dear mister Egan,


Sitting behind my computer, I hesitate where in the world I should start, trying not to bore you with my personal history or my inevitably blunt vocabulary (being a Dutchman who stammered his first English words at the age of 12). For over 4 years I have been a general director ("the principal") of a Dutch comprehensive school with 3300 pupils in the age of 12 to 19 and over 300 staff members. I have just finished reading your "The educated mind" and it stimulated me very much.

From 1976 to 1987 I was assistant professor of education at the Free University of Amsterdam. I remember that the last two books I discussed with my masterclass were Bruners "Actual minds, possible worlds" and a little booklet by one Kieran Egan called "Teaching as storytelling". When it fell so out that in the beginning of this schoolyear 36 new teachers were appointed at our school and the coordinators who had to coach them asked me for literature to help them, I took that little booklet from my personal library. That made me think of the inspiration it once had given me and I searched the internet, looking for Kieran Egan. Your homepage amazed me and I immediately ordered your latest book. From a hundred questions that came up reading it, despite all the ones you raised and answered yourself, I would like to concentrate on one issue. To make myself clear I need to tell you something about my personal background and about the peculiar situation in the Dutch society and the schoolsystem.

In 1982 I wrote a dissertation titled: "Onderwijs en bevrijding" ("Education and liberation", subtitle: "A development theory from a messianic point of view". In fact the subtitle contained the word "prejudice" referring to Gadamers "Wahrheit und Methode"). I had studied education, philosophy and theology and this book was an attempt to combine my fascination with the cultural-historical ideas of Lev S.Vygotskij and Alexej Leontjew, the "messianic" philosophy of Adorno, Horkheimer and especially Ernst Bloch ("Das Princip Hoffnung", "the principle of hope") and the protestant liberation theology (which in our part of the world is very much inspired by Jewish tradition) to an educational theory in which the great stories of exodus and exile would play a major part.

In 1987 I became general director of an institute for (protestant) religious education in the Netherlands. You should know that 30% of all schools in Holland are protestant schools and that in primary schools it is still a tradition for teachers to tell biblical stories 3 or 4 times a week. The material and curriculum for these were produced by my institute. So my job was, with the help of a team of 25 people, to show the possibility of telling biblical stories as a means of educating children to become critical, liberated human beings and preventing the often occuring scepsis of the 13, 14 year olds who turn their back on the "childish belief" in miracles and in "creation as a theory about the beginning of the world" . I had to deal with massive opposition from the dedicated followers of fashion in religious education who condemned my approach calling upon Fowler and Piaget and reminding me of Rousseau fulminating against people who try to confront children with religion before the age of 12.

In my opinion biblical stories provide an immensely strong stimulation for methaphorical use of language when told without the traditional attempt to make children believe these stories actually describe facts and historical data. The midrasjim in Jewish tradition are a means of teaching and learning and 95 % of the Tenach material was developed during or directly after the Babylonian exile as an attempt to deal with unanswered questions and existential problems.

If you are still with me I could try to formulate my question(s).

Your theory is, as you put it yourself, based on specific assumptions and presuppositions, quite different from those common in our educational system and theories of teaching and learning.

A main assumption is that human beings are equipped with instruments to make sense of the world. Meaning is not a property of nature. Language (the word) is our main tool to give meaning to reality. Ironic understanding (deconstructive thinking) is in a sense the awareness that our attempts to deal with the world are constructs of our more or less educated minds. In spite of (or thanks to) my calvinist upbringing I came to realize the "truth" of that insight. When talking and writing (and preaching) about the educational value of biblical stories I emphasize, that deep inside the "mythic story", or better even the poem of creation, there is the ironic insight that creation is the continuing fight against a senseless world which is "tohoe wa bohoe", "formless and void". The only "weapon" in that fight is the Word. God and man are (or should be) comrades, companions in the battle, creating light against darkness, land against the deadly sea, fruits of justice against the bitterness of oppression, and all the binary oppositions you can think of in stories of good and evil. When it says in the story that God brought all he had made to Adam and asked him to name it all, there is a sense of curiosity: What names, what meaning will come forth, what quality of life will be created by mankind in a world that is hostile and full of senseless suffering? (By the way: it is interesting to notice that in the Koran, the same story about Eden is told with a slight (?) difference. Allah didnt ask Adam to give names to all creatures. He whispered all the names in Adams ear! In my opinion this difference has had great consequences in the development of science.)

Now, my question has to do with your remark, that your book is about moral education as much as intellectual education (p.186). It has to do with your sneaky sympathy for Platos view of moral inadequacies breeding illusions and confusions. Later on (p.194) when talking about mythic binary thinking having contributed to racism and sexism you state that: "In an educational program we will want to emphasize each tools best use"

Does this not ask for a moral judgment a priori? Does this not imply that the educators task is to choose what stories are best told and how stories are best told to develop moral qualities in children? Is not our main goal to make it possible that students gain "belief" in the possiblity to give meaning to reality beyond ironic deconstruction? I don't plea for spiritual thinking as a "higher stage" of understanding. I simply don't believe that virtues and values are immanent qualities of (human) life. There could very well be a difference between your "belief" and mine that has to do with the tradition we are brought up in. Could it be that your Jesuit background has given you an optimistic perspective in the sense that in the Roman-Catholic dogmatics the distinction between "creation" and "nature" has not been made, while in the calvinist (and jewish) tradition the concept of "revelation" as the source of our knowledge of good and evil has always been emphasized?

Now, I'm not very interested in a theological discussion. My main interest is an educational one.

In the chapter you wrote on the curriculum you talk about the importance of biblical stories to gain insight in the rise of western literary developments. (you refer to Northrop Frye's comparison to the multiplication table as basic for the knowledge of mathematics). In one breath you talk about biblical stories and the Greek and Norse myths. Now in my culture many people (due to the horifying experience with Nazi ideology) see a large gap between "Edda and Tora", and for other reasons (that have to do with the body-soul dualism) between "Athens and Jerusalem". So again my question is about the selection of stories and how they should be told.

When you work out suggestions for the curriculum that should stimulate romantic understanding, you talk about a twofold criterion for selecting content. The first focuses on "transcendent human qualities" like compassion, courage, power, patience, genius, hope, strength, tenacity, persistence etc. The second one is "the ready engagement by whatever stimulates wonder and awe". Both are as you put it, "romantic characteristics" converted into criteria for selecting content.

My question regards the meaning of "transcendent". Are these human qualities and virtues (is "power" or "strength" or "courage" a quality or a virtue?) inherent to romantic understanding? Or are they part of a "philosophic anthropology"? Or is it up to the teacher which human qualities he (or she) emphasizes as an expression of his or her personal belief or conviction? Compassion and power for instance can easily be seen as conflicting qualities (Nietzsche!) and to make them compatible you need a (narrative) context in which the hero is the one who suffers with the suffering and bears their sorrow; a strong biblical motive (i.e. "the king" of psalm 72 or "the servant" in Isaiah 53) as you undoubtedly know.

This set of questions not only has to do with my personal fascination, trying to develop a concept of education in which the inspiration of a messianic perspective is not "additional" but the heart of the matter. It also has to do with my everyday work, trying to establish a school that is "special" not only because the government does not rule it, but because it is a protestant-christian school (this has nothing to do with churches or formal confession, but simply with the inspiration of the people who once founded the school). I want to teach the teachers in using methods of teaching that come very close to what you present in your book. I want (them) to develop material and curricula that contain stories of wonder and awe, that stimulate mythic, romantic, philosophic and ironic understanding in students. Doing all this I want students to become critical, liberated human beings, full of compassion, full of hope, who seek justice and KNOW (not only know) the difference between right and wrong, good and evil, light and dark, life and death. Our world needs human beings who are capable of making sense, of giving meaning, of creating something new instead of becoming "like their fathers". I do not want them to be converted into christians. I want them to become human (which in my opinion is not self evident).

I hope that despite my questions you will read in this letter my admiration for your work. It contains a vast source of stimulating material for my work. But my ironic (or philosophic? or mythic?) understanding was not satisfied by the way you elaborated the claim that your book is about moral education or with the assumption that moral development is a matter of natural evolution.


Yours sincerely,

Dr. Cil Wigmans

Christelijke schoolgemeenschap Groene Hart Lyceum.

Alphen aan den Rijn

The Netherlands


P.S. If you think this letter can contribute to the open discussion on your website, I do not object when you give it a place. If in that case you feel like correcting my english for better understanding, go right ahead.

Dear Dr. Wigmans,

Thank you for such a thoughtful and thought-stimulating e-mail message. I am not sure I can answer your main questions satisfactorily. I did begin a book with the title "What stories should we tell children?", but I have put it on one side, as I'm not at all sure I know the answer(s). (I do hope to return to it, as I keep thinking of it and how I might add to it, constantly.)

I'm not at all sure I am happy with the notion that I think moral education is a matter of natural evolution. I do acknowledge that your inferences from what I wrote are perfectly reasonable, and that I simply didn't think hard enough about it before I wrote those sections. I wanted only to indiccate that I hadn't forgotten about moral education even though I hadn't been discussing it explicitly.

To respond even remotely adequately, I think I'm going to have to do some hard work and hard thinking. You will guess that I want to suggest that the "transcendence" of transcendent qualities is more a matter of their being persistently recognized human virtues, because of their universal value in human communities. (I refer to the Brown book on Cultural Universals a few times in The Educated Mind.) So there is an element of philosophical anthropology in this, rather than an appeal to any notion of a supernatural world and God. And I suppose I want to base curriculum choices--for stories and transcendent qualities--on some notion of what is good for human communities, which is why I want to reject Nietzschean conclusions about what qualities might be incompatible in his conception of which qualities are most important.


Basically, I don't think I know what I'm talking about here. Or, rather, that my intuitions about how I can salvage my claim about the moral dimension of the book are so tenuous and uncertain, that I think I'm going to have to leave this till I grow up.


With thanks and best wishes,




I'm afraid I haven't added to these discussion sections for some time. Not that my e-mail hasn't been busy, but I have had some problems entering the files and adding new items. Probably a small technical matter, but it was enough to deter me. Also I was having too much fun with my Japanese garden, and most of my web additions of late have been to those pages.


Interestingly, after the first set of comments and questions after the book's appearance, there has been a distinct shift from the fairly general questions that appear on the two earlier pages to much more personal and particular questions and issues. Many, indeed most of these, haven't been of a kind that I felt I could post on a Web page. Probably a majority of the questions that have come in during 1998 have been from students who have been compelled to read the book on courses. A number that I'll add today have, to my shame, been sitting in a waiting file for months. Looking at my email files, I see there are lots of messages I haven't entered--too many to go back and try to line up with the replies now. But I'll try to keep entering new comments or questions as they come in from now on. I have also misplaced some--apologies all round. Here we go, then, with some additional items.

From: "Eric Cohen" <Eric@Funderstanding.com>

To: <Kieran_Egan@sfu.ca>

Subject: Question

Date: Fri, 28 Aug 1998 10:55:30 -0400

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I recently stumbled upon your book on Amazon. I am about 100 pages into it

and am completely fascinated. It has already impacted my work and I look

forward to gaining additional insight from it. Thanks for writing it and for

taking the time to write it well.


I was wondering, what is the definition of a mediating intellectual tool? As

I think about recapitulation theory I am trying to understand the place for

technology within it. I wonder if recapitulation theory suggests that

technology should be taught to kids at the end of the cycle as perhaps it is

a mediating intellectual tool. (Since technology is a recent tool I assume

that suggests it should be used as a framework for older children?) Based on

your framework I assume that it is not, but rather a tool to facilitate

other mediating intellectual tools? Perhaps it is a meta-mediating

intellectual tool?? If technology is a mediating intellectual tool how would

that affect recapitulation theory, given that kids are better off when they

learn to use technology at an early age?


Also, I am trying to get a better understanding of the age ranges that each

'understanding' affects. E.g., mythic appears geared to 2 - 8 year olds,

romantic for 8 - 15. How about Philosophic and ironic? I am trying to

understand the relationship between this to adult learners--would I assume

that curriculum for adults would be most affected by their

philosophic/ironic understanding?


Thanks again!


Eric Cohen




212.353.8388 - v; 212.353.2172 - f


Dear Eric,


Thanks for the message. I have been, rightly, I think, criticized for using the word "tool". I picked it up, for lack of an alternative I could think of, from Vygotsky. It doesn't make a lot of sense to talk about irony, for example, as an intellectual tool, except in the most metaphoric sense of the word. So "tools" has nothing to do with technology and its material tools, but is used to refer to intellectual "tools" or capacities (another inapprorpriate word) like forming images from words or,indeed, using metaphors. Some of the questions you raise will be answered, as well as I can manage, in Chapter 6--where I set up a kind of question and answer session.


The kinds of understanding are not in any sense fixed to age ranges, except perhaps the first two--somatic and mythic--where an evolutionary compulsion seems to work, ensuring the somatic is at a peak till about age 2 then mythic capacities become enlivened from about 2 or 3 to about 7 or 8 or 9. Because these are culturally stimulated kinds of understanding they may not be attained except in the most marginal way by some people. They will vary from culture to culture, etc. In the experience of a typical, somewhat academically-oriented person (because that "career" stimulates many of the "tools" fairly deliberately) the "philosophic" tends to kick in around 15 and the ironic, typically, in the early 20s. BUT do look at the qualifications on all this in Ch. 6. These are not psychological stages that are driven by some internal psychological mechanism; they are products of the "tools" one picks up during one's experience.


Would you mind if I add your q. and this answer to my web page discussion?

Best wishes,




I just finished reading "The Educated Mind." A great book that I learned a

lot from. Much appreciated!


I was wondering what lessons one could extrapolate for adult learners. For

example, let's say I am teaching adults how to improve their collaborative

skills on the job. Since these people might be new to the concept would we

first introduce mythic stories? Then would we introduce romantic and to

really get things going introduce philosophic stories? I recognize that as

with kids there will be significant overlap. But I am wondering if the same

sequence would work for adults who are unfamiliar with a topic.


Howard Gardner wrote on p. 49 of Leading Minds "My study provides abundant

evidence that, more often than not, the less sophisticated story remains

entrenched-the unschooled mind triumphs." Would this suggest that if one

were trying to educate an adult audience who is new to a topic (from outside

the domain being taught) the focus should be on mythic-type stories??


Thanks for feedback!


Eric Cohen




Dear Eric,


Thanks for the message. I'm not certain of the best way to go with adults--a lot would depend on their general sophistication. But, don't think of mythic thinking as inevitably "childish". We, adults, use mythic and romantic, etc. forms of thinking all the time. I think Howard Gardner's comment refers to "the unschooled mind", which is the product of the kind of effortless "stupid"--to use Jerry Fodor's term--learning of our earliest years. It is "stupid" because we cannot not learn a language and a folk-physics and a folk-sociology etc. That these may conflict with later forms of understanding, is the dilemma most of the great educators wrestled with. But I don't think this means that "mythic" ideas will always displace "ironic" in that sense. That is, I think what Gardner is referring to is something different from the kinds of perspectives on knowledge that I am referring to.


Most of the people who have used my scheme with adults have claimed that they have indeed found that easing the way in with a mythic perspective, then moving on to a romantic, works quite well. Much of this has ben with ESL adults, so I would be interested in what you might discover.


Best wishes,





From: SDon1000 <SDon1000@aol.com>

To: Kieran_Egan@sfu.ca

Subject: recapitulation



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.



Suzanne Donovan


name: Harold Jarche

institution: Canadian Forces

email: jarche@hotmail.com

topic: new: Laws of Media

comments re: The Educated Mind: I have recently finished reading "The Educated Mind" and must say that it is one of the most refreshing and engaging books on education that I have read in many years. I am in the process of completing my Masters thesis in Adult Education at UNB and have noticed some interesting parallels that have not been mentioned in previous discussions. I believe that Marshall McLuhen's "Laws of Media" (1988) address the effect that each type of understanding has on the "next" one. According to McLuhen & McLuhen (1988), all artifacts, ideas or technology, have a tetradic effect on the user. The first half of the tetrad is that the artifact intensifies or enhances something while concurrently obsolescing something else. Secondly, this same artifact will also retrieve something previously obsolesced by an older artifact, and when pushed to its limits will effect a reversal of its intended use. Could this be used as a way of examining how, for example, Philosophic understanding changes Romantic understanding?

Further on this topic, I find it interesting that you have identified five types of understanding. Robert Logan, in "The Fifth Language" has identified five languages that humans have developed (speaking, writing, mathematics, science, computing) and how each has replaced the previous one as our dominant way of communicating. Logan has been strongly influenced by McLuhen and uses the tetrad to examine the influence each language has had on our understanding and communication.

I am recommending your book to my son's teachers (he's in kindergarten) and hope that they will be influenced by it. It has given my wife and I many things to discuss about our children's education.

Thank you, and keep up the good work


Harold Jarche


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