Introduction to Primary Understanding.


Michael Apple


In his analysis of the political and educational dilemmas we face in

deciding what we should teach, Fred Inglis wisely notes that the school

curriculum has a significance that extends well beyond itself. The

curriculum "is no less than the knowledge system of a society." It

contains "not only the ontology, but also the metaphysics and ideology

which that society has agreed to recognize as legitimate and truthful

.... [It] is the reference point and acknowledged definition of what

knowledge, culture, belief, morality, really are.'' Our ideas about

education, then, tell us an immense amount about ourselves. They are

statements about our values, about the kind of society we live in, about

truth, justice, equality, and human caring. As such, these ideas are by

their very nature political and ethical, and intensely valuative.


Thus, any attempt to portray education as a technical enterprise in

which we are only concerned with how to get children to efficiently

learn x is doomed to failure. It founders on the kinds of questions that

naturally arise when one recognizes the power of Inglis's points. Whose

knowledge is legitimate? What and whose values should guide its

selection?2 What should education be for? The fact that we ignore these

kinds of questions at our own risk is made even clearer when we place

them within the shifts that are now occurring in educational policy in a

number of Western nations.


We are currently living in a time when what education is for is being

reconstructed. The idea that education is for children, both for

exploration and criticism of accepted wisdom and values, and for

understanding the entire range of knowledge and struggles that has

characterized the human condition is rapidly disappearing. In its place

is a view of education as part of a strategy of economic development, of

national and international competition, and of socialization into the

beliefs of a limited segment of the population. As curricula and

teaching methods become more and more standardized and rationalized, and

as decisionmaking in education becomes increasingly driven by an

accountant's profit and loss sheet, we are in danger of losing our wider

visions of what education can and should be.


These bureaucratic tendencies have had a number of important results

besides the withering of our vision. As I have argued elsewhere, they

have led to the deskilling of teachers and have redefined important

knowledge and values in a strikingly conservative way.3 They have also

led to a situation in which both teachers and students are finding it

increasingly difficult to have their voices, their meanings and needs,

become significant in classroom life. Thus, for instance, it is now

official policy in some school districts in the United States that no

teacher may deviate from the approved textbook. Anything that goes

beyond such already approved material is simply illegitimate and is a

"waste of time". Obviously, there will be teachers whose classrooms are

alive with creative activity and who reject the reduction of education

to being simply an element of reindustrialization. Yet current

conditions in a number of countries are making it that much more

difficult for educators at all levels to retain and expand a more

substantive set of educational visions and practices.


This can be especially problematic in early childhood education, in that

time period when children have their first experience of schooling. In

many ways, the current processes of deskilling and standardization are

robbing children of any organic sense of the relationship between

curricula and their own cultural pasts and presents. As Kieran Egan puts

it, the curriculum becomes trivial "when it should be intellectually at

its richest." This trivialization is exactly what Egan sets out to

counter. He wants to provide us with an alternative reading of what

education can and should be like. The current volume is the first of a

series of books in which the author plans to elaborate an education that

"recapitulates" a sequence of four forms of knowing--Mythic, Romantic,

Philosophic, and Ironic. Each form builds on the others and the totality

enables us to prevent the reduction of education to the trivial. Many

others have raised objections to the dominant ways education is carried

out in classrooms. Such criticism is essential. Yet few have linked

these criticisms to the development of coherent alternatives. This sets

Primary Understanding apart from most other literature for it

articulates a vision of difference and provides a model of curriculum

organization and teaching to put those ideas into practice.


The vision of education that lies behind Primary Understanding is not

simply one of maximizing gains, which in the current social context all

too often merely means getting children to compete over achievement test

scores. It also stresses a process of schooling that minimizes losses.

It seeks to preserve the poetic and imaginative in our children in a

time when so many forces seem to conspire to purge them from our

collective memory.


In Egan's argument: "The foundations of education are poetic. We begin

as poets." Any education of young children that does not recognize this

is, for Egan, less insightful than it should be. Given the utter import

of "poetic understanding," and given the significance of fantasy in

children's lives, we must develop educational theories and practices

that not only encourage fantasy but are based directly on its principles

and devoted to its exploration.4 As he puts it:



The neglect of children's fantasy in writings and research in education

during this century has meant the exclusion of an influence on

curriculum and learning that... has led to impoverishment and imbalance

in schooling .... Children's fantasy raises some considerable challenges

to the principles on which typical early childhood curriculum is based.

Those presently dominant principles seem to exclude much content that

might well be included to enrich children's early years of schooling;

they tend overall towards the prosaic and dull and exclude much

intellectual excitement, and they fail to appreciate that fantasy is not

an opposite of rationality but reflects the element that gives

rationality life and energy.



The author recognizes that all subjects tell stories, These are

narratives about the human condition. Yet because they are narratives,

they can be constantly reinterpreted. They might have ended differently.

"The human mind in virtue of possessing an

imagination can experiment with different endings.''5 Egan's own focus

on stories, on the free yet still disciplined reign of imagination,

fantasy, and myth and their importance in providing alternate readings

of one's cultural past and present illuminates the intricate connections

between the stories our subjects tell and the sense of possibility our

children see. Just as importantly, these stories enable a connectedness

between children and the past that is much richer than what is currently

available in school settings. Such a sense of connectedness is

absolutely essential in a society in which our ideas of continuity and

community are withering. For people to care about "the common goods,''6

it is just this sense of the collective nature of our stories that is



In elaborating his model, the author is sensitive to the ideological

issues that might be raised concerning his proposal. His concrete

suggestions document this, for example, his argument that one should

organize young children's initial study of history around the telling of

the dramatic stories of human struggles against oppression. He enables

us to ask the question of whose stories should be told in new and

interesting ways.


In its development of a new theory of primary education, Primary

Understanding also challenges our taken-for-granted perspectives on a

number of educational issues. Egan argues expressly against the

dominance of psychology in education, claiming that it cannot provide a

thorough understanding of children's lives and cannot fully give us the

principles under which educational activity can or should go on. In the

process, he raises important questions not only about the accepted

models of psychological research in education, but about figures who

have offered alternatives, such as Dewey and Piaget. This is coupled

with impressive criticisms of our accepted notions of literacy as well.


Some readers will recognize the influence of Vygotsky on the conceptual

underpinnings of parts of this work. Yet it also shows its debt to Ong

and others who have demonstrated the utter importance of language and

tradition in constructing our social reality. This synthetic quality is

another of the reasons many readers will find Egan's position so

attractive. The breadth of its scope, its challenge to widely accepted

educational theories and practices, the central place it gives to the

poetic, and the provocative nature of its claims all combine to make

Primary Understanding a significant contribution to the debate over what

education should be for.



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