More Reviews of

The Educated Mind


Egan, Kieran (1997)The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding. Chicago, Il.: The University of Chicago Press.

By D. James MacNeil

For The 21st Century Learning Initiative

September, 1998


Kieran Egan's recent book, The Educated Mind, offers an exciting reframing of the debates concerning the problems of education and proposes a provocative antidote: increase our understanding of understanding.


Egan's point of departure is that, "The problem is not so much with the school, but with the way we conceive what the school is supposed to do". Schools in the West currently operate under the strain of three incompatible ideas. Egan describes these ideas as 1/Rousseau's emphasis on individual human development, 2/ Plato's idea that reason and knowledge can provide a privileged access to the world, and 3/ the idea of socialization of children into their societies' and nations' values and beliefs. Rousseau maintains that the internal processes of a child and the environment drive human development. Plato maintains that knowledge drives human development. The aim of socialization is not with development at all, but rather with homogenizing children and preparing them for responsible membership in society. Due to historical circumstances and ideological pressures, the present educational program in much of the West attempts to integrate all three of these incompatible ideas. In the process, it has failed to effectively achieve any one of the three.


As a first step to unpack this confusion, Egan suggests that we reframe the debate. Rather than debating back and forth between the Platonic program (the "great books", e.g.) and the "intertwined means and ends" approach of the child-centered, experiential program (a la Rousseau and Dewey), Egan offers a way out - a revamped theory of recapitulation blended with insights of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. In this way, as we shall see below, recapitulation provides a useful framework for rethinking the goals and methods of education and human development. "Education", proposes Egan, "...can best be understood as a process in which the individual recapitulates the kinds of understanding developed in the culture's history (p.73)."



In the wake of Darwin's Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection in the 19th century, "Recapitulation" became an explanatory framework for all kinds of social and natural phenomena. Its application to education was articulated by the 19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer, "If there be an order in which the human race has mastered its various kinds of knowledge, there will arise in every child an aptitude to acquire these kinds of knowledge in the same order.... Education is a repetition of civilization in little" (quoted in Egan p.27).


The simple idea of recapitulation is that the development of an individual human being proceeds through stages that roughly follow, or recapitulate, the gradual trajectory of evolution of the human species. To identify what exactly is recapitulated in the developing individual, Egan turns to Vygotsky. Vygotsky's notion is that human beings make sense of the world by using "mediating intellectual tools" (such as symbolic language) that in turn affect the kind of sense we make of the world. The units that get recapitulated, according to Egan, are the types of understanding that are generated by different "mediating intellectual tools". We can identify what is recapitulated in the development of an individual, then, not in terms of knowledge or psychological processes but in terms of mediating intellectual tools and the types of understanding they generate.


The types of understanding are called Somatic understanding, Mythic understanding, Romantic understanding, Philosophic understanding and Ironic understanding. Every child is born with some Somatic understanding, that is, a pre-linguistic, physical-based sensibility that grasps the concrete world. Somatic understanding results from an "infant's mind discovering its body" (p.242). Somatic understanding recapitulates the adaptive evolution of the early hominids.


Mythic understanding comes with the acquisition of language. Mythic understanding is a pre-literate understanding that uses the power of language to make sense of the human universe. It is readily observable in the spontaneous discourse of children who are gaining command over a spoken language. The primary 'tool of sense-making' at this stage is the forming of "binary oppositions" (p.37), which all children seem adept at executing. Egan observes that such binary structuring - the forming of dualistic characterizations - is one of the earliest cognitive developments in children, and for good reason. "Organizing one's conceptual grasp on the physical world by initially forming binary structures - hot/cold, big/little, soft/hard, crooked/straight, sweet/sour - allows an initial orientation over a range of otherwise bewildering phenomena (p.40)". Children also make sense of the complex world of human emotions and values by dividing phenomena into opposites, such as good/bad, happy/sad, love/hate. Many popular fairy tales are laid out along a binary structure, such as Hansel and Gretel, which uses a well-known security/fear structure (p.40).


The Mythic of understanding of young children enables them to dwell comfortably in a land of myth and fantasy, and their orally-based 'mediating tools' allow them access to a community of magical beings, including ghosts and goblins, tooth fairies, the Easter bunny and Santa Claus and so on. During this stage children make sense of the world by dividing it into black and white. As they develop through subsequent stages they will fill the gray areas in between and round out their comprehension of a complex world. Mythic understanding is prevalent from the time grammatical language is formed until the ages of 6-8. This understanding recapitulates the historical development of oral societies and traditions.


Romantic understanding comes with literacy (including numeracy) and rational thinking - recapitulating the evolution of written language systems. As children enter the early Romantic understanding stage, around ages 6-8, they begin to learn 'abstract systems of reference' (such as the degrees on a thermometer) and thus supplement their perception-based knowledge of the world (such as "hot" or "cold"). Children thus begin to learn the use of abstract, symbolic language, which human societies have codified in writing systems. The young learner moves from Mythic understanding, which uses the symbol system of oral language, to the Romantic understanding, which uses the symbol system of written language (numbers and letters). In doing this they gain the ability to think abstractly and use decontextualized language. It is during this stage that the child develops a sense of and autonomous self and of an autonomous real world.


During the stage of Romantic understanding, children are commonly obsessed with the extremes of human achievement and qualities, such as the largest, tallest and oldest human being, e.g. - the kind of facts that have been popularized in Guinness Books of World Records as well as other books of lists (p.85). While children are trying to master notational systems of alphabets and numbers, they are also becoming avid collectors, sorters, and rankers of things. According to Egan they are trying to gain a grasp on the limits of various systems in order to assure themselves that the world is 'knowable' (p.87). They are also preoccupied with heroes and heroic achievements. Egan refers to these objects of obsession as "human qualities of transcendent degree" (p.90). These are the stuff of a Romantic understanding of the world. The Romantic understanding might be called the 'initial wonder' of a romantic rational inquiry (such as Darwin's amazement of the diversity of finches in the Galapagos) that leads to systematic and theoretical inquiry (such as Darwin's developing the theory of evolution based on natural selection). Egan suggests that the failure to recognize Romantic understanding as a prerequisite to theoretic thinking may be part of the explanation for widespread failure of math and science instruction (p.97).


Mythic understanding and romantic understanding require oral language and written language respectively. The next type of understanding, Philosophic understanding, also requires the development of a certain set of communication tools. The tool of Philosophic understanding is 'systematic theoretical thinking'. Scientific thinking, for example, is included under the heading of Philosophic understanding. The full development of Philosophic understanding also requires a belief that truth can be uncovered and expressed in the language of reason and logic. Furthermore, according to Egan, Philosophic understanding requires the support of certain communities or institutions, such as those that existed in Greece at the time of Plato and Aristotle (p.104). The development of Philosophic understanding occurs from about the age of 15 onwards. The participation of the learner in supportive institutions, such as colleges and universities, increases the chances that Philosophic understanding in the individual will bear fruits and lead to the next type of understanding, namely Ironic understanding.


When Socrates declared "All that I know is that I know nothing", he was displaying an advanced degree of Philosophic understanding that recognizes the inadequacy of our conceptual schemes and our lack of mental flexibility in trying to make sense of the world. Ironic understanding is not more than the pervasive irony of the post-modern theorist. It is a "more inclusive ironic understanding" that "gains the theoretic generalizing capacity of Philosophic understanding while keeping ironically in check the easy belief that truth resides in general schemes (p.157)." In other words, in Ironic understanding, learners use philosophic tools and capacities with greater flexibility and to better effect. They are able to progress intellectually by comparing, contrasting and combining competing truth claims and systems.


Some criticisms of the Theory

Egan clearly and entertainingly describes each of the types of understanding in great detail in his book. He also points out how the different stages interrelate, and he foresees several potential criticisms. First of all, although the stages are described as somewhat distinct, they are not discrete stages a´ la Piaget. Each stage incorporates and builds on the previous stage. Once we have acquired a type of understanding, we continue to use it and hone it throughout our lives. The Romantic understanding, for example, deals with reality in a newly developed rational manner, but according to Egan, "it does so with persistent mythic interests." (p.86) Just like the cultural and psychological evolution of the human species, the individual must gradually and deliberately progress and add each type of understanding to their toolkit. By the same token these supplementary and over-lapping types of understanding can undermine each other if teaching and learning are not mindful of the types of understanding. If literacy, numeracy and rationality (Romantic understanding) are imparted to children to early or in an overly 'decontextualized' way that does not accommodate their ever-evolving intellectual dispositions, then there is a danger of undermining Mythic understanding. This would be akin to a pre-literate society irretrievably abandoning their oral tradition with the introduction of literacy and book learning. There is another potentially more damaging scenario, observed by Egan, where Mythic understanding can be lost, only to be replaced by a poorly introduced and inadequately grasped Romantic understanding. In this case the learner languishes with a debilitated imagination and impoverished writing and thinking skills. "Herein lies the roots of alienation"(p.102). An analogous predicament with a preliterate society in transition is easy to imagine.


Despite its attractive simplicity, the original 19th century recapitulation theories were discredited because the theories could not demonstrate why and how children should in fact acquire knowledge and skills in the sequence that the species developed. Stephen Jay Gould also warned in his The Mismeasure of Man that recapitulation provided a convenient criterion for ranking human beings into lower and higher groups. Egan uses the theory carefully and explicitly addresses questions regarding the dangers of ranking. By invoking Vygotsky Egan he appears to circumvent many of the criticisms of recapitulation. Egan's scheme is not as susceptible to the abuses that Gould warned about. The rankers of human beings were assessing human intelligence based on knowledge, psychological processes, hard-wired functions of the brain, and even brain capacity (during the heyday of phrenology). Egan is suggesting a recapitulation of types of understanding. The development of the types of understanding do pass through several somewhat distinct stages. However, it is inaccurate to consider different stages as more primitive or more advanced. Indeed, the five types of understanding, as we shall see below, can be acquired by all human beings under the right conditions. Egan claims that "all types of understanding are embryonic in all minds because of the presence of symbolic language".


The criticisms of recapitulation could equally apply to any theory (including those of Piaget, Vygotsky or even Gould) which is applied dogmatically. At any rate, in the words of Steven Mithen, "it would seem a missed opportunity bordering on academic negligence if [one] were to ignore the idea of recapitulation" (p.63 The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science). Egan recognizes that his framework is a work in progress. He explicitly encourages feedback about his thesis. He even includes his website address and email address in the book (p. 173).


Implications for teaching and curriculum

Egan's theory of the types of understanding suggest that curricula and pedagogy should form to fit the type of understanding that learners' minds are engaged in, and not vice versa. A particular pedagogical approach or content matter is not prescribed. Specific course content and pedagogy will be determined according to local and historical conditions. What matters is that the teaching and learning reflect careful consideration and understanding of the types of intellectual tools that learners are deploying at different stages of their development.


For example, when the student is in the stage of Romantic understanding, all topic matter can be taught in an engaging and comprehensible way if the teacher is able to invoke some human qualities of transcendent degree to which students will be able to associate (p.91). This is reminiscent of William James' exhortation to teachers to teach everything as a humanity, including math and science. For example, when teaching geometry talk about the Greek philosophers who shaped it, their struggles, successes, fears, etc., and how geometry assumed for them a quasi-spiritual significance. Another familiar example would be teaching about the discovery of electricity by relating the personal stories and struggles of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison, and others.


One of the many provocative examples Egan presents is a criticism of the experience-based method of teaching that starts with what is familiar to the learner and gradually expands to broaden understanding. Egan claims that this method may be inappropriate when applied to learners who are entering the Romantic understanding stage. Learners at this stage are actually very little concerned with what is most near to them. Indeed, they are preoccupied with the extremes of human experience, such as the Great Wall and the Pyramids, the tallest man or the longest fingernails in the world, etc. (p.85) Teachers should, in a sense, start with what is far from the child learner and work back to what is familiar!


Egan spends two chapters of his book discussing the practical implications for teaching and curriculum. His sensitivity to the complexities of teaching and the challenges facing teachers bespeak extensive experience as an instructor. He offers assurance that a teacher need not be 'superhuman' to navigate through all these types of understanding, knowing when and where to move on to the next stage, and so on. Indeed, what is required above all else is an appreciation of the different types of understanding and sensitivity to where the learners are situated intellectually. Teachers can actually draw on one or more types of understanding at a time, for learners are commonly employing more than one type at a time. Teachers themselves also use several types of understandings. Once acquired, the types of understanding provide a set of tools that can be utilized, often complementarily, throughout our lives.


Egan is calling for an academically rigorous program that has a "clearer task of stimulating and developing the different kinds of understanding". Socialization, Plato's privileged knowledge and Rousseau's developmentalism are no longer part of the program (p187).

While Egan does remove Plato's ideals from the program, he does recognize that much particular knowledge is indeed required to develop each type of understanding. In keeping with his overall aim, he recommends that such knowledge be "knowledge about the world that stimulates, bit by bit, wonder and awe at being alive in this world at this time" (p219).


Relevance to the work of the 21st Century Learning Initiative


In his book, Kieran Egan provides insights into the nature of learning and understanding that can inform the 21st Century Learning Initiative's efforts at encouraging new approaches to learning.


Without mentioning biology explicitly, Egan recognizes that learning to some extent is a brain-based activity and thus is in accord with many of the research that the Initiative has synthesized to date. To Egan all knowledge is living in human minds. Knowledge is not the inert information that lines the pages of encyclopaedias. Teaching is a process of bringing knowledge to life in the minds of learners. In teaching history, for example, teachers should look for dramatic narratives that engage the emotions of the learners. An engaged and happy brain learns better.


Egan makes recommendations for curriculum that intimate a restructuring of school learning. For example, knowledge of all disciplines can be "humanized knowledge", that is, taught as a humanity. To accomplish this students may need to conduct "in-depth projects" on diverse natural or social topics or particular human biographies that would last several years &endash; projects that they would grow into as they progressed through the stages of the types of understanding. These types of activities, and the emphasis on enhancing the types of understanding, suggest that Egan shares John Abbott's interest in supporting the development of "transferable skills". "Transferable skills" are those skills that can be transferred across new domains of knowledge and disciplines. To Abbott, these types of skills will be essential for an educated population entering the next century (Abbott, forthcoming, 1998).


Like the Initiative Egan holds that our current educational programs are often unable to fully bring out our human potential. Egan's book is a theoretical and practical guidebook to helping teachers and learners to "subvert the natural constraints on our intellectual flexibility." With a grasp and command on our types of understandings and the ability to apply suitable learning experiences to fully develop each types of understanding, teachers and students will be able to more fully realize human potential. An educational program that understood Egan's types of understanding and emphasized transferable skills could 'evolve' a society where we would be poised to "surpass ourselves", borrowing the phrase of Bereiter and Scardamalia (whose work has been influential in the Initiative). A well-rounded, life-long learner who can deploy all five types of understanding and transfer their skills across domains could be the "polymath" that John Abbott refers to (Pers. Comm.)


In the end, Egan calls for an approach to learning that will develop a new type of person who will be equipped to thrive in a complex and uncertain world of the 21st century. In his words, "We have to adapt our undifferentiated learning capacity to deal with much more complex and flexible learning than it has been evolutionarily shaped to handle." (p. 278)




Other works cited


Abbott, John, The 21st Century Learning Initiative (1998 forthcoming) see also "A Policy Paper: The Strategic and Resource Implications of a New Model of Learning" October, 1998


Bereiter, Carl and Marlene Scardamalia (1993). Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise. Chicago, IL: Open Court


Smithen, Steve. (1996) The Prehistory of the Mind: The Cognitive Origins of Art, Religion and Science. London, UK.: Thames and Hudson

Reconceiving education


reviewed by Mary Lou McKenna, for University Affairs, Canada.


In Kieran Egan's The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Under-standing, the key conception is reconception: of our ideas about education, our views of children's capacities, and in turn, our approach to curricula. Dr. Egan, a professor of education at Simon Fraser University invites us to rethink our attachment to what he calls three "great and powerful" ideas of education - as socialization, as intellectual cultivation (the Platonic ideal), and as individual development (the Rousseau ideal). Their essential incompatibility as educational goals, he argues, has generated "a set of flaccid compromises" we call schooling; he proposes instead a more coherent the-ory of education that would absorb these competing values and those of related debates about the function of education as properly academic or vocational.

Underpinning this new theory is a conception of the modern mind as a composite of "somewhat distinctive" kinds of understanding (Somatic, Mythic, Romantic, Philosophic and Ironic) that have developed in evolution and cultural history in a particular sequence. Education, argues Dr. Egan, "can best be conceived as the individua's acquiring each of these kinds of under-standing as fully as possible in the sequence in which each developed historically". Educational development, in effect, "recapitulates" cultural development.

Seeking to show how each kind of understanding results from the develop-ment of particular intellectual tools acquired in society, the author chooses as his focus those tools evident in language, exploring how the successive develop-ment of oral language, literacy, theoretic abstractions, and highly reflexive uses of language has restrnctured the ways in which Western culture makes sense of the world. The question then becomes how schools, through teachers and cur-ficuh, can enable students to develop the intellectual tools that they'll use to reproduce the kinds of understanding developed in the culture's history.

The answers suggested by Dr. Egan make for an engaging and provocative discussion, as he goes about tackling the conventional wisdom about what children can and should learn. The discussion of Mythic understanding is particuhrly illus-trative. The author associates this kind of understanding with the storytelling tools of oral cultures, such as binary structuring (ordering reality through hierarchical oppositions like good/evil), fantasy and metaphor. Acknowledging contemporary concerns about binary thinking and its associated stereotypes (for example, active male/passive female), he defends its importance nonetheless as a concept that makes sense to children, and says teachers should use binary thinking as a teaching toolSimilarly, he argues that teaching should respond to children's readiness to engage in abstract thinking and fantasy, in contrast to the accepted truths that children are concrete thinkers whose learning must proceed from familiar experience, the result of which is an intellectually impoverished curricu-lum "focusing on local trivia and 'hands-on' activities at a point when children's imaginations are energetically alive to grasp the world". Educators should also recognize that children think in metaphors and that these are no "linguistic frill".

Of the later kinds of understanding, Romantic is associated with transcendent human qualities, Philosophic with sys-tematic theoretic thinking, and Ironic with reflexive, skeptical thinking. All these kinds of understanding need to be fostered beyond the classroom by parents and the community. Colleges and universities also must design and teach curricula to support their continued development, but Dr. Egan is clearly critical of the situation in academia, "where reading enjoyable books and talking about them seems so unlike anything one could justify being paid for." The malaise of higher education, he asserts, "is that so few students see the point of it".

Despite the trepidation with which one may greet terminology like "recapitu-lation theory" and "kinds of understand-ing", worsened by Dr. Egan's early threat to bring in the Greeks (ancient ones at that), readers who persevere will find themselves well taken care of by an author who discusses cultural and histor-ical movements with admirable clarity, constantly gathers the strands of his argu-ment as he proceeds, and grits his teeth in empathy whenever we are compelled to negotiate a brief nasty patch of theory

The Educated Mind is written as a real conversation with its readers, punctuated by humour and a self-ironic stance in character with the author's laudable conviction that evolving theories - edu-cational, literary, cultural, or political -needn't erase their predecessors. What truly animates this book, however, is its appeal to imagination and wonder to en-liven the learning of chfidren and adults too - the man knows his Wordsworth, and he's not afraid to use him.


The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding, by Kieran Egan, published by University of Chicago Press, 1997, 312 pp. Cloth, $24.95.

Mary Lou McKenna is an instructor of English, writing and humanities at York University, Toronto, Canada.


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