The introduction to

The Educated Mind: How Cognitive

Tools Shape Our Understanding

by Kieran Egan

Published by the University of Chicago Press


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 1-8 of The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding by

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Those of us who were around during the economic crisis of the late sixteenth century in Europe find some

features of the current educational crisis oddly familiar. There is a major social puzzle, which touches and

irritates nearly everyone, and lashings of blame fly in all directions. Today we are puzzled by the schools'

difficulty in providing even the most rudimentary education to so many students, despite a decade or more of

effort by expensive professionals. The costs of our educational crisis, in terms of social alienation, psychological

rootlessness, and ignorance of the world and the possibilities of human experience within it, are incalculable and

heartbreaking.

 

In the sixteenth century, average citizens saw prices for all commodities begin to rise rapidly. Most obvious were

the increased amounts they had to pay for necessities like clothes. The citizens blamed the clothiers for greedily

raising prices. The clothiers protested, blaming the merchants who were greedily demanding more for their

cloth; the merchants in turn blamed the weavers, who blamed the wool merchants, who blamed the sheep

farmers. The sheep farmers said they had to raise their prices to be able to buy the increasingly expensive

clothes. And so it went round. Who was to blame?

 

It took some time, and much blaming, before Jean Bodin (1530-1596) worked out that none of the obvious

candidates was at fault. Rather, the general rise in prices was connected with the import into Europe of Central

and South American gold and silver and with the European monarchs' use of this bullion through their royal

mints. That is, the monarchs increased the money supply and thus stimulated inflation. A development in

economic theory resolved the central puzzle and laid a tenuous foundation for greater understanding and practical

control of economic matters.

 

So who is responsible for our modern social puzzle, the educational ineffectiveness of our schools? (By "modern"

I mean the period beginning with the late-nineteenth-century development of mass schooling.) For media pundits

and professional educators, there is no shortage of blameworthy candidates: inadequately educated teachers, the

absence of market incentives, the inequities of capitalist societies, the lack of local control over schools, the

genetic intellectual incapacity of 85 percent of the population to benefit from instruction in more than basic

literacy and skills, drugs, the breakdown of the nuclear family and family values, an irrelevant academic

curriculum, a trivial curriculum filled only with the immediately relevant, short-sighted politicians demanding

hopelessly crude achievement tests while grossly underfunding the education system, a lack of commitment to

excellence, vacuous schools of education, mindless TV and other mass media, the failure to attend to some

specific research results.

 

Along with the cacophony of blame comes a panoply of prescriptions: introduce market incentives, make the

curriculum more "relevant" or more academic, reform teacher training, ensure students' active involvement in

their learning, and so on. Back in the sixteenth century, a litany of cures for inflation also was proposed: restrain

merchants' profits, introduce price controls, restrict the export of wool, introduce tariffs on imported cloth, and

so on. We can now look back indulgently at those prescriptions and see that they were irrelevant to the real cause

of the problem: They would have been ineffective in slowing inflation and would in most cases have brought

about further economic damage. Similarly, we are likely to look back on the current list of prescriptions to cure

education's ills as irrelevant because they, too, fail to identify the real cause of the problem.

 

The trouble is not caused by any of the usual suspects. Instead, as I intend to show, it stems from a fundamentally

incoherent conception of education. I will try, first and briefly, to show the lack of coherence that marks most

people's notions of what schools ought to be doing, and, second and less briefly, to propose an educational theory

that can enable schools to become more effective--a theory that lays a foundation for greater understanding and

practical control of educational matters.

 

Oh, dear--the problem has to do with one educational theory and the solution with another one? The comparison

with sixteenth-century inflation suggested something more richly tangible, like gold from Eldorado. The promise

of a new educational theory, however, has the magnetism of a newspaper headline like "Small Earthquake in

Chile: Few Hurt."

 

Educational theorizing is generally dreary because we have only three significant educational ideas: that we must

shape the young to the current norms and conventions of adult society, that we must teach them the knowledge

that will ensure their thinking conforms with what is real and true about the world, and that we must encourage

the development of each student's individual potential. These ideas have rolled together over the centuries into

our currently dominant conception of education. There are just so many variants that one can play with so few

ideas before terminal staleness sets in, and matters are made worse by most people's unawareness of the

fundamental ideas that shape their thinking about education.

 

The good news, I suppose, is that there are indeed only three ideas to grasp. The bad news is that the three ideas

are mutually incompatible--and this is the primary cause of our long-continuing educational crisis. My first task

in chapter 1 is to elaborate those ideas a little, to show in what ways they are mutually incompatible and to show

that this incompatibility is the root of our practical difficulties in education today. My second task in chapter 1 is

to introduce the new educational theory and indicate why it might be a better bet than any other, or any

combination of others, currently around.

 

One unfamiliar feature of this new theory is that it describes education in terms of a sequence of kinds of

understanding. A further oddity is that it conceives of education as so intricately tied in with the life of society

and its culture that it is also a theory about Western cultural development and its relationship to education in

modern multicultural societies. I characterize Western cultural history, and education today, in terms of an

unfolding sequence of somewhat distinctive kinds of understanding.

 

What kind of category is a "kind of understanding"? Perhaps by reflecting on the following piece of information,

you will gain a preliminary sense of what I mean.

 

In 1949, at the El Quantara railway station in the Suez Canal Zone, there were ten lavatories. Three were for

officers--one for Europeans, one for Asiatics, and one for Coloureds; three were for warrant officers and

sergeants, divided by race as for the senior officers; three were for other ranks, also divided like the others by

race; and one was for women, regardless of rank, class, or race. One might respond with outrage to the injustice

of such arrangements and to the injustice inherent in the society that these arrangements reflect. One might feel a

simple tug of delight at accumulating such a piece of exotica. If one considers social class a prime determiner of

consciousness, such lavatory arrangements will have a particular resonance; if race, another; and if gender, yet

another. One might fit this information into a narrative of social amelioration between earlier unjust

authoritarian regimes and later democratic systems. One might consider it dispassionately as reflecting one

among a kaleidoscopic variety of social systems human beings have devised and those lavatory arrangements as

no more or less bizarre than whatever today would be considered more just, proper, or "normal." One might

consider the arrangements with relief, taking the perspective of the officers, or with resentment, taking that of

the other ranks, or with mixed feelings, taking that of the women.

 

In each of these responses the information is understood in a somewhat different way. Today a response will

rarely involve just one of these ways of understanding the facts; we commonly adopt a number of such

perspectives, understanding the information as complex, polysemous.

 

My primary aim in this book is to unravel some of the major strands or layers of our typically polysemous

understanding. I try to separate out a set of general and distinctive kinds of understanding and characterize each

of them in detail; I distinguish five, which I call Somatic, Mythic, Romantic, Philosophic, and Ironic. I try to

show, furthermore, that these kinds of understanding have developed in evolution and cultural history in a

particular sequence, coalescing to a large extent (but not completely) as each successive kind has emerged. The

modern mind thus is represented as a composite. This conception of the mind is a bit messy, but it tries to adhere

to what systems theorists call the principle of requisite variety: that the model conform with the complexity of

what it represents.

 

My second and related aim is to show that education can best be conceived as the individual's acquiring each of

these kinds of understanding as fully as possible in the sequence in which each developed historically. Thus I

construct a new recapitulation theory, distinct from those articulated in the late nineteenth century mainly in

terms of what is identified as being recapitulated.

 

I try to show that each kind of understanding results from the development of particular intellectual tools that we

acquire from the societies we grow up in. While these tools are varied, I will focus largely on those evident in

language: the successive development of oral language, literacy, theoretic abstractions, and the extreme linguistic

reflexiveness that yields irony. I explore the implications of being an oral-language user for the kind of (Mythic)

understanding one can form of the world, and the kind of (Romantic) understanding that is an implication of

growing into a particular literacy, and the kind of (Philosophic) understanding that is an implication of fitting

into communities that use theoretic abstractions, and the kind of (Ironic) understanding that is an implication of

self-conscious reflection about the language one uses.

 

Now "tools" is obviously an awkward word; I mean something like the "mediational means" the Russian

psychologist, Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934), describes as the shapers of the kind of sense we make of the world.

Vygotsky argued that intellectual development cannot adequately be understood in epistemological terms that

focus on the kinds and quantities of knowledge accumulated or in psychological terms that focus on some

supposed inner and spontaneous developmental process. Rather, he understood intellectual development in terms

of the intellectual tools, like language, that we accumulate as we grow up in a society and that mediate the kind of

understanding we can form or construct. In chapter 1 I try to show how the focus on mediating intellectual tools,

rather than on forms of knowledge or on psychological processes, enables construction of a new educational idea.

So, my gold from Eldorado that is designed to carry us past our present educational problem and transcend the

ideological logjam at its core is a set of language-based intellectual tools that generate Somatic, Mythic, Romantic,

Philosophic, and Ironic kinds of understanding.

 

By "language based" I mean that my focus is on more general cultural phenomena that nevertheless are fairly

distinctly reflected in language use, and in each discussion it is with the language forms that I begin. Merlin

Donald notes that "the uniqueness of humanity could be said to rest not so much in language as in our capacity for

rapid cultural change. . . . [W]hat humans evolved was primarily a generalized capacity for cultural innovation"

(1991, p. 10). The kinds of understanding are attempts to characterize a basic level of significant innovative

changes in human cultural life, historically and in individual experience.

 

A working title for this book had been "The Body's Mind." Given my references to language, intellectual tools,

and cultural innovations, one may ask why the body figures so prominently. We had, as a species, and have, as

individuals, bodies before language. Language emerges from the body in the process of evolutionary and

individual development, and it bears the ineluctable stamp of the body: Phrases and sentences, for example, are

tied to the time we take to inhale and exhale--though when we speak we take in quick breaths and release them

steadily (in a process Steven Pinker describes as syntax overriding carbon dioxide [1994, p. 164] ); similarly, we

use language to represent the world as it is disclosed by our particular scale and kind of organs of perception. In

other words, our body is the most fundamental mediating tool that shapes our understanding. This is obvious, of

course, and Somatic understanding refers to the understanding of the world that is possible for human beings

given the kind of body we have. In the theory to be elaborated in the following chapters, each kind of

understanding does not fade away to be replaced by the next, but rather each properly coalesces in significant

degree with its predecessor. The developments in language uses and their intellectual implications that I explore

are, then, always tied in some degree to this embodied core of understanding. This becomes especially important

when I sketch my conception of Ironic understanding and confront some common assumptions of postmodernism.

 

In chapters 2 through 5 I describe both the minting in Western cultural history of the five kinds of understanding

and the forms they commonly take among students today. I also attempt to show that education can best be

conceived as the process of developing each of these kinds of understanding as fully as possible. The first kind of

understanding, the Somatic, I discuss in chapter 5 after the Ironic, for reasons that will be given there. Apart

from that, in each chapter I characterize one kind of understanding, showing its emergence in Western cultural

history, giving examples of its occurrence in various historical periods, and indicating perhaps surprising

parallels between these historical occurrences and the lives and activities of students today. Among other things,

these accounts offer new explanations of the nature of fantasy and why four- and five-year-olds commonly find it

so engaging, of ten-year-olds' interest in the contents of The Guinness Book of Records, of eleven- and

twelve-year-olds' emotional associations with pop singers or sports heroes, of academic sixteen-year-olds' interest

in general ideas, metaphysical schemes, or ideologies, and so on. The unfamiliar category of "kinds of

understanding" has at least the virtue of bringing into focus features of students' thinking and learning that are

prominent and powerful in their lives but have been somewhat neglected in educational writing.

 

I realize that this talk of Western cultural development, intellectual tools, and kinds of understanding may not

exactly quicken the pulse of those hoping to discover better ways of preparing our children for productive work

and satisfying leisure. And the references to Western culture, along with the announcement I now warily

make--that I will be constantly discussing and quoting ancient Greeks--may add a seal of hopelessness to this

enterprise for more radical spirits. I think neither group should feel disappointed. One simple aim of this book is

to show that the occasionally derided "basics" of education may be much more effectively attained than is now

common; another is to establish as the appropriate aim of education a kind of Ironic understanding that is quite

distinct from the traditionalist conception of the educated person.

 

Chapter 6 provides a chance to reflect on the theory and to clarify its unfamiliar features. This chapter deals with

a range of political, ideological, pedagogical, methodological, moral, and other issues raised by the presentation

of the theory to that point. I pretend there that I am answering questions from a varied and critical audience that

has had the preternatural patience to sit through the preceding chapters; despite my best efforts at

evenhandedness, the skeptical questioners may come off as waspish, bad tempered, obtuse, evil minded, and

perhaps somewhat drunk, and the answerer as the essence of sweet reason. (Mind you, this Western "reason" is

another prominent issue to be dealt with.)

 

Chapters 7 and 8 then explore the theory's implications for the curriculum and the classroom. The overall shape

of the book, then, is a funnel that begins with general theoretical issues, moves through more concrete theory

construction, and concludes with a somewhat detailed look at practical implications. Readers whose primary

interest is in the theory's practical implications might find the earlier chapters hard going, so I sketch the

implications fairly thoroughly in chapter 2 and, to a lesser degree, in the succeeding chapters, hoping that such

readers will be able to manage the trek through chapters 7 and 8 without further oxygen.

 

I have organized the book into two parts. The first deals primarily with modern people's recapitulation of the

kinds of understanding developed in their cultural history. The second looks at implications of the theory for the

curriculum and for teaching practice. This division is designed to alert the reader to the rather different styles of

the two groups of chapters. It is not possible to discuss the social studies curriculum in eighth grade or the science

curriculum in third grade in quite the same style as one can lay out the theoretical argument. In addition, I try to

relate the theory's implications as closely as possible to current curricula and to everyday classroom practice. It

might seem less glamorous than what the earlier discussion prepares one for, but I hope nevertheless that the

genuine practical improvements that follow from the theory will be clear.

 

Unusually for a developmental scheme, the gains that come with each new set of intellectual tools are represented

as entailing some loss of the understanding associated with the prior set. For example, when we become literate

we do not cease to be oral-language users, but we do commonly lose some of the understanding that is a part of

being exclusively an oral-language user. While this theory identifies cumulative aspects of understanding, it also

represents education, and cultural history, as processes in which we can lose more by way of alienation and

emotional as well as intellectual desiccation than we gain by way of understanding and aesthetic delight. Stand

outside a public high school at the end of the school day and you will see this only too painfully. The educational

trick is to maximize the gains while minimizing the losses. If we are unaware of the potential losses, we do little

to minimize them.

 

This is not a book of new discoveries or of new knowledge generated by research. Rather, it simply reorganizes

long-known ideas into a coherent scheme. My aim is not to present some exotic new conception of education, but

rather to articulate a theory that is more adequate to what has long been meant by the word. We have lived with

important but inadequate and mutually incompatible educational ideas for such a long time, and have even

become comfortable with the discomforts they have caused and cause, that a theory aiming to remove the

discomforts must itself seem rather a nuisance. In his own work in economics, John Maynard Keynes expressed

the problem succinctly:

 

The composition of this book has been for the author a long struggle of escape, and so must the reading of it be for most

readers if the author's assault upon them is to be successful--a struggle of escape from habitual modes of thought and

expression. The ideas which are here expressed so laboriously are extremely simple and should be obvious. The difficulty

lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been,

into every comer of our minds. (1936, p. xxiii)

 

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