Learning in depth: knowledge and the imagination

Kieran Egan
Faculty of Education
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, B.C. Canada V5A 1S6
Word count approx: 2,250.



A dual criterion commonly mentioned when people try to define what it means to be educated is that such a person must, among other things, have a significant breadth and depth of knowledge; they must be aware of a wide array of the forms of knowledge humans have created, and they must know something in considerable specificity. I want to make a case, perhaps paradoxically, that fulfilling the depth of knowledge part of the criterion is important for the development of the imagination. And I want to make what might seem a slightly eccentric proposal for how we might do this best in schools

What general educational purpose does knowing something in depth serve? Apart, that is, from the obvious value that deep knowledge serves for someone working in a technically demanding area or someone in a profession that requires considerable detailed knowledge. But the criterion has always—since Plato’s days to our own—been posed in terms of what deep knowledge of something does for the mind. What reasons are usually given?

The most common claim is a kind of tautology: lacking deep knowledge of something is to lack an adequate understanding of what knowledge is, and how it functions. If one’s knowledge of everything remains at a general and superficial level, one never really comes to appreciate what knowledge can do. It also leaves one prey to those who take advantage of the gullible—one lacks the defences that deep knowledge can provide. One of the things one learns in the process of learning in depth is how claims to knowing can be built and attacked and defended—it’s all part of the slow process of finding the insecurity of our claims to know. People who know nothing in depth commonly assume what knowledge they have is secure, clear, and straightforward.

One of the great paradoxes of education is that only when one knows something deeply can one recognize how little one actually knows. The superficial knowledge of vague generalities is a curse of education—the target of Pope’s “a little learning is a dangerous thing.” Alexander Pope suggests that if you are to drink from the springs of knowledge, you will experience the paradox that:

. . . shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

How can we cure this problem of superficiality? Well, mostly we try to do it, particularly with students who have an academic bent, by having them specialize in some area. But this is usually not really knowledge of anything in depth—just a less superficial look at quite a wide area, like the sciences or math or literature.
Another reason sometimes given for requiring that every student should learn something in great depth is because the imagination can work only with knowledge the student had learned. The imagination works only with what one knows and can do nothing with all the knowledge students have “learned how to learn” or the knowledge they know how to access, but have never actually learned and don’t carry with them in memory.

The proposal

Students in their first days of schooling are to be more or less arbitrarily assigned a topic, which they will study till leaving school, in addition to the usual curriculum. So one child might be given the topic of medieval footwear, or the rings of Saturn, or dust, or apples, or mollusks, or food production, or ancient Persian pottery, or leaves, and so on.

Every month during their life at school, students would work on their portfolio with a teacher. An hour each month, or perhaps a little more frequently if necessary, would be laid aside for consultations, and the student might informally discuss problems between official portfolio times. At the end of each year students would be expected to make a presentation on their topic. If a student has been discussing a topic with a friend, they might jointly make a presentation, such as the leaves on apple trees, or dust in the rings of Saturn.

By the time they graduate from school the students will be well informed about something. Indeed, each student will know close to as much about some specific topic as almost anyone on earth. They will also recognize that the topic about which they have such expertise is something that has expanded so vastly in their understanding that they realize they know next to nothing about it. Pope again:

But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise!

Some might go on to study their topic in greater detail in universities. The fruits of this curriculum innovation will be students who know something in great detail, and also who know something about the nature of knowledge, and who will have developed some humility and expertise in the face of casual knowledge claims by the inadequately educated.

Let’s take an example. Sara was assigned the topic of apples in her first week of school. She began her portfolio by drawing red and green apples, and indicated that one was a McIntosh and the other a Granny Smith. Then there was a list of apple varieties. The first part of the list was composed from the varieties Sara had found in shops, and then she had added some extra ones that grew locally that weren’t in the shops. Then there was a more elaborate list, clearly pulled from the internet, but she had made some additional notes next to those she had eaten—notes about size and color and taste. She had a five star system to indicate which she thought best.
Later Sara had noted that her list included less than a hundredth of the 7,500 varieties that currently are cultivated around the world. She began a file on apple history, which included pieces about the earliest sweet and flavorful apples, such as those we eat today, being first identified in Kazakhstan many thousand years ago. She had a map identifying the area, and also a world map with small notes indicating places where there were very old records which mention apples.

Then she had a file on stories about apples: the Bible story--though it mentions only ‘fruit,’ it is usually assumed to indicate an apple; the Swiss story of William Tell shooting the apple off his son’s head; John Chapman, better known as ‘Johnny Appleseed’; the story of Newton’s falling apple; and so on. Then she had a file made up of games and verses and sayings about apples, and it included a side-branch in which she had written definitions of what such phrases as ‘the apple of my eye’, or ‘one rotten apple spoils the whole barrel,’ and why people say ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away.’

As you might flick through her portfolio as she enters secondary school you will see segments on the fact that apple trees are part of the rose family and that the biggest apple was around 4 pounds. She has a small file explaining why apples float. There is a note that the current Lady apple was first cultivated by an Etruscan woman called Api, and in France it is still called ‘pomme d’Api’—a good way to be remembered. The Greeks and Romans prized apples, and knows about twenty varieties; there are now around 7,500 varieties cultivated worldwide: Sara has a complex “family tree” showing the development from those early apples to our current abundance of varieties.

In her portfolio is a beautiful large sheet on which she had written, almost like a medieval manuscript, a copy of W. B. Yeats’s poem “The song of Wandering Aengus,” with an illustrations of the ‘glimmering girl / With apple blossom in her hair’ and of Wandering Aengus who had looked for her for so long, and thinking when he had found her that they would pluck ‘till time and times were done / the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun.’

She had a page attached, in which she noted that she first didn’t understand it well, but was attracted by its magic, and now she knows it so well, it goes everywhere with her, as do many other songs and poems, and texts about apples, each able to generate rich images at appropriate times, each of which makes her life that little bit more interesting. Yeats’s poem added a dimension to her sense of apples. It set up resonances that will stay with her for the rest of her life. And it is one of the nearly perfect poems in English.Some objections to the proposal

1. Students will get bored.
Boredom is a symptom of inadequate knowledge. The person with no intellectual resources is much more likely to be bored. The person who knows nothing by heart has had too little experience generating their own images from words; and boredom results from that. Generating images from words—which will be a constant feature of building a portfolio--always, even if only in smallest degree, excites an emotional charge. As Pope pointed out so neatly, the more you know about something the more interesting it becomes. The only danger of introducing this idea into everyday practice is that the students will likely revolt at the boringness of everything else.

2. The arbitrariness is absurd. At least students should be given some choice.
We grow to find interesting whatever we learn about in depth. (The old saying in monasteries was that the cell becomes irksome to those monks who keep trying to wander outside it, but the monk who keeps to his cell grows to love it.) The underlying principle that guides the arbitrariness is that everything is wonderful; and the more you know the more the imagination can play with knowledge and drive to deeper meaning and understanding. It is a commonplace of our experience that we will occasionally find fascinating books or movies we initially resisted. In the 1950s there was a study of the range of children’s interests in countries that had multiple TV channels and those that had only one. It was found that in countries with multiple channels children’s range of interests was narrower. It makes intuitive sense, of course. Given a choice we go to what is comfortable and familiar. There are good enough reasons to preserve the arbitrariness, though there may be rare cases where a change might be allowed.

3. The students will revolt against this specialized study in adolescence at least.
The accommodations with the adult world that adolescents make is never entirely easy, and in many cases leads to various forms of resistance to and revolt against the norms they are being expected to conform with. Will this area of rapidly deepening and enriching knowledge become something students revolt against? “I’ve had enough of damn apples! dust! medieval footwear! leaves!” Much more likely is that their topics of special knowledge will provide an area of recourse and solace to the alienated youth. People might let them down, but you can always rely on dust/apples/medieval footwear! Well, that puts it in joke form, but there are better grounds to expect that students will cling to their area of growing expertise—which by teen years will be much more formidable than almost any student attains in schools to day—than that they will discard it.

4. It would be impossible to organize appropriate support for such a scheme across different grades levels and different schools.
Well, this is another case of the administrative tail wagging the educational dog. If it is educationally desirable, then we make it possible. It really doesn’t represent such a challenge. The teachers do not need to be experts in all the areas—though as time passes, they will have themselves experienced it in their own schooling. The teachers need only to be able to make suggestions, help the students reflect on their topic, and so on. As the years pass, the teachers will increasingly become sounding boards, and the students will have their own sense of directions—and the directions will be elaborating endlessly for them.
Try it. You might be astonished.


The imagination can work only with what we know. It can’t work with the contents of the library or the internet. It can work only with what we know. Ignorance and vaguely grasped general knowledge provide only arid food for the imagination; richness of detail is what gets imaginations up in the morning.

One of the products of progressivism has been a sense that the opposite of education is not ignorance. Progressivism, as a general movement, grew from a recognition that much stored or “banked” or “rote-learned” knowledge did not an educated person make. So that bathwater was thrown out. Along with the bathwater were a number of babies. One of them was the importance of knowing something in depth, and learning much by heart, to the education of the imagination. My undergraduate students, as a result of the great educational purging of “rote-learning,” know by heart only the words of an occasional pop song or, some few, the words of a prayer. The rest is silence.
Generating images from words is crucial to imaginative development, and we almost prevent students from doing that today. We provide them with stereotypical images from morning to night. What do the silver apples of the moon, the golden apples of the sun call up in your mind and emotions? To Sara they spark a vast array of images, knowledge, stories, flavours, mysteries, and delight about apples stretching back through precise history, tangled with roses.


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