The Flaw in Progressivism

Kieran Egan

Conclusion (followed by bibliography)



For most of our human and pre-human ancestors' past, the mind's evolution has been a product of the brain and of culture developing together. With major growths in the brain we find some evidence of greater tool use, and no doubt there were other cultural artifacts or behaviors which have not survived in any records we currently have access to. In the past 60,000 years, and with accelerating speed from about 30,000 years ago, and, with ever-increasing speed in the past 3,000 years, there has grown a significant disjunction between brain and cultural development. The brain's evolution continues in its purposeless and slow Darwinian way, but culture is developing in a purposeful and fast Lamarkian way&endash;&endash;what is learned in one generation is passed on to the next. And this trick has been accelerating very rapidly due to writing, in which we can record, with greater or less adequacy, our memory, experience, and thoughts, and pass them along to future generations. Of course we have that natural substratum on which all cultural development rests and rides, but, as Skidesky put it, "biology has supplied us with the tools to transcend biology"(2000, p. 27). We have learned the trick of how to transcend our brain's evolutionary pace. Understanding human development increasingly is a matter of studying how culture influences and constitutes the mind.

A recent result of our cultural development is science. That is, people have worked out methods of refined observation, experiment, and inference that disclose to us a reliable kind of understanding of the natural world we live in. When these scientific methods are applied to the cultural world we have made, and of which they themselves are a part, they are not quite as impressive. They are good at exposing the nature of things, but less good at exposing the culture of things&endash;&endash;the human meanings of which so much of our consciousness is made up. When they have been applied to trying to understand the processes involved in education, they seem less impressive still.

Discovering the nature of learning, or "the natural psychological reality in terms of which we must understand the development of knowledge" (Piaget, 1964, p. 9), has been assumed to be the way to go to make education more effective. I have given a series of reasons why I think this has been and is unfruitful. I have also given a series of reasons for doubting or discounting the main implications this approach has yielded for educational practice.

In the alternative view I have been recommending, the education of children today is a matter of ensuring they make their minds most abundant by acquiring the fullest array of the cultural tools that can, through learning, be made into cognitive tools. I have drawn on Vygotsky in trying to make this argument, because he more than anyone seems to me to have had an understanding of the process whereby the cultural becomes cognitive and an understanding that it is the cognitive tools we acquire that most clearly and importantly established for us the character of our understanding.

I noted in the Introduction that the central belief&endash;&endash;the most fundamental tenet of progressivism&endash;&endash;is that to educate children effectively it is vital to attend to the nature of the child, and particularly to their modes of learning and stages of development, and to accommodate educational practice to what we can learn about these. I claimed that I would show that belief to be mistaken. The flaw in progressivism is the belief that we can disclose the nature of the child. Whatever is the substratum of human nature is less accessible and less useful to the educator that understanding the cultural/cognitive tools that shape and mediate our learning, development, and everything else to do with the conscious world of educational activity. And as all tools are not equal so we need to be guided by an overarching theory of education when conducting any educational inquiry.

One works hard to write in a book what one thinks about a topic, and obviously one works harder to make the arguments better than one casually makes them in discussions with colleagues. Because some people have been very good at writing out their ideas, we tend to think of the completed book as some kind of more secure and established expression of our ideas than those casual conversations. And so it ought to be. But I think we often tend to forget how most books are made up of a set of passing thoughts that are variously in the process of changing. All this is a mumbling acknowledgement that this book is no canonical document. And by the time it is printed and in your hands, I will be curled in a corner moaning and groaning about all the things I now regret having written here and don't any longer quite believe in the way I have stated them and, worse, all the things I wish I had written. Perhaps better to see the book as just a large and unwieldy chunk of conversation about the topics is deals with. If you would like to continue this conversation, you might like to visit my WWW Home Page, on which you will find a link to discussions of the topics of this book. Try



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