CHILDREN'S MINDS, MIDDLE-CLASS RABBITS, AND CLOCKWORK ORANGES

(I am grateful to Elliot W. Eisner and Teachers College Press for granting me permission to post here Dr. Eisner's Foreword to the book.)

 

FOREWORD

 

Kieran Egan's Children's Minds, Middle-class Rabbits, and Clockwork Oranges: Essays on Curriculum is a collection of erudite essays that address a number of important themes bearing upon educational theory and practice. Let me recite six of them here: First, schools, being an instrument of our culture, reflect a logo-centric conception of mind. Second, theories of development have been predicated upon a cultural conception of mind that renders those theories both inadequate and misleading with respect to the work of education. Third, the character of mind, what education has a responsibility to foster, is impacted by what might be regarded as the technologies of mind that are made available to the young. Fourth, assumptions that curriculum planning practices should proceed from now to then, from here to there, misunderstand what children are able and like to do: the unfamiliar may be much more stimulating than what is immediately at hand. Fifth, imagination is the apotheosis of reason, not a diversion from the real business of thinking. Sixth, knowledge is not a thing, a ìshippableî commodity, but a living process that occurs within the human mind. Books and other codified symbol systems are its prompts.

 

Forewords are not locations within which to provide a highly distilled abstract of the work that readers are to encounter, yet it seems appropriate to comment on the forgoing themes for they are central to the elegant analyses that Kieran Egan has provided in the body of the text.

 

Consider the first. We tend to think about theories, especially scientifically grounded theories, as being ideologically neutral descriptors of reality. After all, science is predicated on something called objectivity and theories are intended by their makers to describe the world the way it is. Yet, increasingly as Kieran Egan and others before him have pointed out, the very language one uses to conceptualize and theorize about the world establishes not only descriptive parameters, but expresses values concerning what is important. One object of attention in Egan's book is the work of Jean Piaget. Piaget, by his own definition a genetic epistemologist, is interested in describing the unfolding of human intellectual capacity, marking its course and, in effect, providing parameters to those in education who would seek to influence its development. Yet, some of the assumptions that Piaget makes concerning differences in the cognitive stages that he identifies are, as Egan has shown, problematic at best. What we take to be as an ineluctable unfolding of the human capacity to know -- a genetic epistemology -- may be largely a function of how tasks used to evoke responses from the young have been couched, and how children use prior experience in conceptualizing the tasks put before them. These factors raise questions about the role of experience in influencing how Piaget's tasks are addressed. Furthermore, the hierarchy that Piaget provides in his work -- from concrete operations to formal ones -- conveys an inherant conviction that a scientific form of rationality represents the pinnacle of human cognitive achievement; we will have none of that artsy stuff in a Piagetian conception.

 

The implications -- indeed the power -- of Piaget's views concerning what counts as up in cognitive development can hardly be underestimated. Yet clearly there are many, many forms of thinking and acting that require complex forms of reasoning that are neither captured by Piaget's schema nor locatable in his stage theory of cognitive development. By calling attention to some of the logical difficulties in Piaget's theories, Kieran Egan helps us acknowledge other aspects of our cognitive selves that could be important candidates for educational development. In this sense, a more generous conception of mind offers educators a more generous array of educational goals to address. In an age in which so many people ring their hands about the inadequacies of schools, concerns which typically tend to result in constraining programs even further, attention to a more generous conception of mind is to be welcomed. Kieran Egan provides such a conception in his book.

 

Another theme that runs through the chapters of this book pertains to what might be regarded as ìtechnologies of mind.î One of the important contributions of culture to human cognition is that culture makes available to the young through acculturation and through an instrument called ìthe curriculum,î an array of symbolic forms or forms of representation that students learn to use. These forms of representation become instruments through which thought processes are played out. Humans, clearly, have the capacity to visualize as well as to articulate. And humans have developed the technologies to depict as well as to describe. The technologies of mind that are available in the culture have epistemic functions. That is, each form of representation addresses the world in different ways and each has the capacity to disclose aspects of that world that are special to both the world and the forms used to describe it. The implications of such a view of cognition, that is, its dependency on the forms of representation an individual learns to use and which in turn is influenced by what is made available to him or her, are not without consequence. The curriculum, it can be said, is at base a mind altering device and the ways in which mind is altered through the curriculum is through the provision of content that is appropriated and processed by children and adolescents: children learn to think about aspects of the world that may have never dawned upon them prior to being exposed to an array of ideas that come from elsewhere. The concepts of electrons and atoms, for example, are not likely to be invented by 12 year olds.

 

But there is another way in which forms of representation influence the ways in which children think and that has to do with their relevance for the processes that will be employed. To think musically is to think with and through patterned sound having expressive properties. To think logically is to impose upon the structure of thought a set of criteria that statements need to meet. To think mathematically requires one to create visions in which quantitative relationships are displayed and managed. To think historically is to be able to put pieces and episodes together to form a narrative that can be retold and which reveals what is important to know about the past. Each form of representation not only reveals, it also conceals. And Kieran Egan is quick to point out that our theoretical conceptions of what matters regarding educational development is made manifest in the opportunities to learn that schools make possible.

 

A third theme addressed in the book challenges the widely held practice, particularly in the field of the social studies, that the way to proceed is through an expanding horizons concept: first one starts with the self, then the family, then the neighborhood, then the state, then the nation, then the world. As intuitively appealing as this conception is, Egan points out that youngsters are interested in things that are very far from what they know first-hand: dinosaurs, Mars, ìthe torture instruments of the middle ages.î In other words, it is faulty to assume that youngsters do not have the capacity to understand and find interest in ideas and practices that are not already in their midst. It is precisely the capacities of very young children to exercise their imagination that needs to be sustained rather than diminished in school. One of the great tragedies of many educational systems is their penchant for cultivating a logo-centric conception of mind that diminishes the imaginative and romantic side of human nature. Egan calls for a resortation of attention to this aspect of the human condition. I couldn't agree more.

 

Imagination has been associated with the frivolous, with fantasy, with the less important, indeed with the process of play and, as we all ìknow,î play is the opposite of work. In a society with deeply seeded Calvinist roots, play and imagination are at best questionable and at worst a distraction from what really matters.

 

When imagination is seen as reflecting reason functioning at its best moments, a fresh conception of what the development of mind entails is made visible. A culture whose inhabitants are afraid to imagine are unlikely to be much good at the creation of literature, at the making of art, at the doing of science, in fact, at doing virtually anything well. Herbert Read, the English poet, philosopher and passivist argues in his work that art is based on the principle of origination and upon the practice of perception. Read means that art depends upon the individual's ability to conceptualize, that is, to imagine possibilities worth pursuing and has a sensitivity to form that makes it possible for the contents of imagination to be realized through the forms that the individual makes. This conception for Read is as applicable to fields like physics and mathematics as it is to painting and music. The aim of education, says Read, is the creation of artists, individuals who are able to make things well. I think that Kieran Egan would agree.

 

A final theme that I wish to comment on pertains to Egan's conception of knowledge. As I have already indicated, knowledge is not an object, it is a process. It is not a noun, it is a verb. It is not something that one discovers and ships to the four corners to the earth, knowledge is something that leads a life of change in the context of the human mind. What we know we can forget, what we have learned we can change, what we come to understand, we can share, but only in so far as the individuals to whom we speak or act or display what we have come to understand are able to participate and use in meaningful ways what we give them. As I said earlier, what we can do is to provide prompts. As John Dewey once pointed out, the best that we can do as teachers is to shape the environment in ways that increase the probability that the material and conditions that the individual will address will have productive intellectual consequences.

 

In the end, what Kieran Egan's book is about is the promulgation of an expanded conception of human capability and a more diverse, multifaceted view of what it means to know. Educators in North America -- and social scientists as well -- will benefit from his observations. There is so much in our society that pushes us toward a narrowing view of the mission of schooling. Our blinkered vision of what counts and our anxiety about test performance reduce our aims, ironically, while we speak of becoming more rigorous, having higher standards, being tougher about the consequences of not doing well in school. Kieran Egan's view is a humane one. It is also one that is extremely challenging. Whether the values he embraces are achievable in a meritocratic society remains to be seen. In any case, the chapters on the pages that follow enumerate a generous and attractive vision. That itself is an important achievement.

Elliot W. Eisner

Stanford University

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