The Lost Questions

The Lost Questions

From "The Educated Mind"

Lector:: Sorry to poke in here with the same issue I let drop earlier. Are you suggesting that the ages you have indicated are simply a matter of convention and nothing to do with intellectual development?

Auctor:: No. I am suggesting, again, that one cannot easily discuss the role of psychological development by itself. Here I'm just observing that learning to use these intellectual tools takes time--a few years to become fluently literate, more years extending one's theoretic grasp, and so on--and that while psychological development is no doubt going on "underneath" these kinds of understanding, and no doubt would be important for a full explanation of these changes in children's understanding, the rather imprecise ranges I suggest are adequate for all practical purposes. I suspect there is no point looking for greater precision because there is probably quite a lot of latitude in when and how the various intellectual tools can be acquired.

Lector:: I'm sure you don't mean "no point," rather "relatively unproductive" or, from a research perspective, "into diminishing returns," or something like that.

Auctor:: Yes. Thank you.


Auctor:: I have tried to adhere to a non-biological and rather vague use of "development," which is of course related to growth, evolution, progress, and so on, and which . . ."

Lector:: Yes, indeed! It's that relationship to progress that . . .

Auctor:: Let me deal with this question first.

Lector:: All right. Carry on. I'll add it to the list. You'll never make it out of this chapter.

Auctor:: Where was I? So, these kinds of understanding are only "somewhat" distinctive in that they are not wholly different forms of thought, mutually incomprehensible; they are not so much like different computer programs as like modules of a well-integrated program, focusing on different tasks but each able to comprehend the others. Well, that's not a great metaphor either; tempting though computer metaphors are for mental operations, they always seem to confuse as much as they clarify. So I can't be very clear about how distinctive "somewhat" means. I can only refer you back to the characterizations of the kinds of understanding and say that the differences described there are what I mean by "somewhat."
The "somewhat" is also there to constrain the degree to which kinds of understanding might be considered distinct. There is a strong tendency, as John Stuart Mill has pointed out, for all distinctions to drift into oppositions. So much study of "mythic" thinking and the "non-rational" mind has tended to exaggerate, it seems to me, differences among cultures. This focus on intellectual tools suggests an image of different cultures in which the alienness of the "other" is not so great. It is a matter of understanding, not alien minds, but minds similar to our own deploying similar tools in somewhat distinctive ways.
I have also resisted describing these different kinds of understanding as stages, or phases, or--as I have elsewhere--layers. In part this was to avoid the teleological implications associated with such terms, but also I resisted this obvious terminology because common features of stage theories do not seem to apply to this scheme. For example, when Mythic understanding begins to give way to increasingly abundant development of Romantic understanding, Mythic understanding does not necessarily cease its development. And while Romantic understanding is most abundantly developing, Philosophic understanding may be stimulated and its development may begin to accelerate. So the image is not one of moving from one stage to another; it is more messy. You might picture the kinds of understanding, rather, as concentric circles expanding out from a somatic core, in which tendrils grow from each circle both outwards and inwards, disrupting the imprecise membrane between each kind.

Lector:: This seems a very naive way of dealing with processes of development about which there is a vast theoretical and experimental literature, and about which you seem totally ignorant. You have claimed to be drawing on Vygotsky, but you seem unaware of his characterization of the process. I quote from memory: "Child development is a complex dialectical process [biology and society] characterized by periodicity, unevenness in the development of different functions, metamorphosis or qualitative transformations of one form into another, intertwining of external and internal factors, and adaptive processes which overcome impediments that the child encounters" (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 73). You should at least embed your naive account in current and ongoing discourse of research on development. You could have given your discussion a leg-up by drawing on Merlin Donald's work, which you have cited. He writes that "our modern minds are thus hybridizations, highly plastic combinations of all the previous elements in human cognitive evolution, permuted, combined, and recombined. Now we are mythic, now we are theoretic, and now we harken back to the episodic roots of experience, examining and restructuring the actual episodic memories of events by means of cinematic magic" (Donald, 1991, p. 356). And at the very least you could have drawn on the complex, subtle, and extensive discussion in Piaget's work and that of his followers.

Auctor:: Right. Sorry. I'm clearly not as familiar with all this as I should be.

Lector:: Well, if you were to familiarize yourself with it, you would be able to discuss these issues in a less naive fashion and in a form of discourse used by the educational psychologists whom, I gather, among others, you would like to interest in this theory.

Auctor:: Yes. I see your point. Perhaps if I might just pick up on the claim you quote from Donald about the plasticity whereby we combine and recombine the elements of cognition developed during our evolution. The "distinctive" part of my too-frequently used phrase, "somewhat distinctive," is there to constrain the degree of coherence we manage to achieve by combining the various kinds of understanding, whether they are derived from evolutionary adaptations or from invention and learning. The sense we tend to have of a holistic cognition seems to me illusory, an illusion supported by the plasticity of our mental operations. That is, I think kinds of understanding do retain some degree of autonomy, and so our thinking in general is more incoherent than we allow ourselves to recognize. While I agree with Donald about the plasticity that combines and recombines different kinds of understanding once they have been developed, I also think that they are not entirely absorbed one into another to create some single holistic cognition. Some tasks differentially evoke and stimulate different kinds of understanding, and we can and do move from one to another in response to particular challenges. Sometimes two different kinds of understanding will yield perspectives that create conflicts about how we should perform a task, or how we should behave in particular situations. The earlier example of taking a Romantic or Philosophic stance with regard to a forest rather crudely exemplifies an aspect of what I mean. So we have, you might say, a five-fold mind, or, more dramatically, we are a five-minded animal, in whom the different kinds of understanding jostle together and fold in on one another, in part coalescing, in part remaining "somewhat distinct."
So that is the first point I would make to elaborate a little on what I mean by the kinds of understanding "to some degree" coalescing. They do seem to me to achieve a degree of coalescence, or combination and recombination as Donald puts it, but that degree is limited. I talked earlier of mixed forms, using the example of the Romantic Marxist, whose thinking mixes a Philosophic general scheme with Romantic "heroizing" of Marxism or Liberalism. Perhaps an appropriate image for this limited coalescence is partially scrambled eggs, in which one can "somewhat" distinguish the yoke from the albumen, but in some areas they are indistinguishably mixed, and one certainly cannot unscramble them. But coalescence is a concept metaphorically derived from the behavior of gases and liquids, and perhaps we might better draw images from that source.


Q: Are all your answers going to be this long?

A: No.

Q: Let me see if I've got this straight. You are proposing a developmental theory here. Yes, I know you're not claiming that, but a developmental theory is incorporated in, or implied by, your overall educational theory. Developmental theories take observations of differences in people's minds at, say, ages five, ten, fifteen, and twenty, and try to explain these differences. Observations might come from students' performances on certain logical tasks, or from the kinds of stories and T.V. shows that turn them on, or from those surprising regularities in children's representational drawings over the years, or from longitudinal clinical studies, or from therapeutic interventions, or whatever. Furthermore, you suggest we have traditionally relied on three general kinds of explanation, three kinds of theory: so we have Rousseauian kinds, which explain the differences in people's minds as they grow older as due to the mind's own genetically-determined maturation process; and we have Platonic kinds, which explain the differences as due to logical sequences of prerequisites within each area of knowledge determining what can be learned; and socialization-based theories explain any regularities we observe in mental development as due to complex sociocultural contingencies shaping minds as they develop, and so regularities we may observe in young children's interests and behaviors are created by adult constructions of "childhood" and the complex and subtle pressures that make children conform with expectations.
As with the three general educational theories, you seem to be suggesting that each of these has something important to contribute to our understanding of development, but that each is by itself inadequate and there are significant incompatibilities among the three kinds of theory. Most of us, I guess, see some validity in each kind of developmental theory, and we try to construct our conception of development rather vaguely by accepting all three, with greater or lesser weight allotted to each. You imply that this common mix īn' match approach is prone to incoherence here just as it is with the more general conceptions of education.
In their place, you are proposing to explain the developments we observe as due primarily to the cognitive tools people accumulate. Your conception of cognitive tools, and the kinds of understanding they generate, entails logical and psychological constraints operating within them, while also recognizing profound sociocultural influences in the way societies shape and make available particular cognitive tools. So you seem to suggest that your theory saves, and brings into coherence within a new category and with a distinct dynamic, the salvageable parts of the three conventional kinds of theory, while dumping their separate explanatory claims.
Am I getting the picture right?

A: Well, it's not the way I would have put it, but you seem to be on the right track, as far as I can discern.


Q: Irony in your scheme is the aim of education, and I'm willing to agree that a certain amount of irony is a good thing. But too much irony leads to the break-down of social cohesion. If everyone was extremely ironic, it's hard to imagine how society would function.

A: But Ironic understanding, even developed to its fullest, does not entail the destruction of prior kinds of understanding. Fullest development of Irony, in this scheme, implies a rich development and continual use of all the prior kinds. So, while Irony implies a sophisticated consciousness of the mechanisms, or organisms, of social cohesion, of their limits and constraints, this does not imply that the ironist holds them in contempt, or is cynical about them, or despairs about them. The ironist is not a nihilist, is not anti-social, or a-social, or uncommitted to the preservation, or committed to the overthrow, of particular social norms and forms; in this scheme the "sophisticated" ironist is distinguished from the "alienated" ironist--and the latter is the target of your complaint. The ironist, conscious of the limits and constraints of social cohesion may be more conscientious and attentive to civic duties than those who are unconscious of the roots of their social solidarity, and, so, likely unconscious that social solidarity is relatively frail.


Q: You began by drawing on Vygotsky to support your recapitulation idea. But Vygotsky was opposed to recapitulation. He argued, as have many others, that ontogenesis cannot recapitulate sociocultural history because social forces function in relative isolation in the latter, and are entirely unaffected by the maturation of the brain--which is crucial in ontogenesis. Obviously, development in mental life follows certain general and formal patterns whether it concerns the individual or the species, but your conception of identical stages being determined by particular intellectual tools cannot work because it ignores maturation. Suggesting that ancient adults are the same as modern children in some important way just won't wash.

A: Well, again, I don't ignore maturation. And I am suggesting that modern children are also like ancient children in some important ways, and that modern adults are like ancient children and like ancient adults, in as far as they share use of the kind of intellectual tools I have been trying to characterize. Vygotsky and Luria distinguish between bifurcated lines of development in the young child, calling one "natural-psychological" and the other "cultural-psychological." The former concerns the genesis of psychological processes but is quickly augmented by the latter, which accounts increasingly for the development of higher psychological processes based on the use of intellectual tools (cf. Wertsch, 1985, p. 23). Maturation plays an increasingly small role in Vygotsky's accounts of the development of higher psychological processes, and he focuses almost exclusively on the influence of mediational tools. So I am not sure that this novel recapitulation theory is so out of step with Vygotsky's principles as it may initially appear to be if one concentrates on his reason for dismissing nineteenth century recapitulation theories. As I noted above, I think the effects on understanding caused by the acquisition of intellectual tools far outweigh what one might be able to derive from some putative developmental process. So, when you observe that it is obvious that mental development follows certain general and formal patterns, you might see this theory as an attempt to flesh out just such a pattern.


Q: What about Gardner's multiple-intelligences, and the fact that some kids learn better in different ways?

A: This theory is not about everything, even though it does try to get at something of quite general importance about education. While it will need to accommodate to other theories and findings related to them, there are many things to do with children's learning and so on that it doesn't enlighten.


Lector:: That took a chapter?

Auctor:: Well, it wasn't a very long chapter.

Lector:: Then why scrap it?

Auctor:: I decided that it was not only a bit tangential to my main purpose, but it raised a host of issues I don't adequately understand.

Lector:: Not you alone. What on earth is "enabled and constrained by the logic ...," and so on, supposed to mean?

Auctor:: You can think of the imagination as trying to understand everything, but being constrained by logic. For example, one might want to grasp mathematics, but one has to begin with certain parts of mathematics, like rules of addition, say, which are prerequisite to other parts, like logarithms, before one can learn those other parts; you have to organize some basic historical knowledge into a chronological scheme before you can develop theories about it. And while they are difficult to access by themselves, there are also psychological constraints on what the imagination can grasp. These constraints are also "enabling" because they provide the means whereby the imaginative grasp can move forward.

Lector:: The more you explain, the less clear it becomes.

Auctor:: You're getting a hint of why I scrapped the chapter-long version.


Q: You have written about literacy and orality as though they are "things," which have clear implications for sense-making or understanding. But Shirley Brice-Heath, prominently among others, has convincingly shown that people's intellectual activity and, one assumes, their understanding are influenced less by whether they are in oral or literate societies and more by the kinds of discourse they are initiated into to perform the various life-tasks that face them. A colleague earlier quoted the general supporting principle for this position, in Peter Tulviste's formulation, that types of thinking correspond not with different cultures but with different forms of activity. But you seem to think that literacy has all these Romantic implications you spell out, but there are social discourse groups in which literacy is not used to support these forms at all.

A: Yes, I agree. I did try to emphasize that I was using "literacy" as a kind of shorthand for the specific set of characteristics that became associated with its early use in Greece and which have ...


Lector:: But if literacy can be deployed in various discourse communities in heterogeneous ways, why do you isolate and privilege the uses of a particular discourse community as though we have no alternatives to emulate, or recapitulate? You suggest thereby that the Greek developments were the proper ones; you make what is purely a cultural contingency seem like a natural or logical development.

Auctor:: I think we have been round this issue a few times already. I am trying to pick out the uses of literacy that have been most significant in shaping current Ironic understanding and that have deployed the widest range of intellectual resources developed in the West. Some have used literacy for little more than keeping control over increasingly complex trade or business dealings. And to hear some voices making demands of schools, this business aspect is as much use as some people still find in literacy. The odd development of literacy from recording information to reflecting the sound of speech led to distinctive developments in which implications of literacy were unforeseeably elaborated. Any study of the development of literacy's potential can ignore Greek drama, history, philosophy, and science only under the pressure of the most exotic ideological compulsion. Also, as I had cause to mention with regard to the "privileged" set of characteristics I discussed as Mythic understanding, the Romantic set have also been prominent in cultural initiation in "heroic" societies. Further, I would want...

Lector:: O.K. You're covering old ground. Carry on with trying to answer the main question.

Auctor:: I'm not sure what to carry on to. I am using "literacy" to refer to visuographic storage systems and have focused particularly on the alphabet and its development in the West because the alphabet has been particularly fertile in elaborating complex ways of enabling minds to interact with its accumulating stored resources. I am not arguing that becoming literate automatically and necessarily leads to being able to exploit all these resources; if that were so, education would indeed be nothing other than literacy training. As you point out, simple literacy by itself doesn't imply anything in particular about understanding, which is why I have emphasized the importance of education in developing its potential resources and the importance of educational communities for stimulating, supporting, and sustaining particular uses of literacy and particular kinds of literate discourse.


Lector:: You are suggesting that adopting your theory is like adopting a different paradigm? And that empirical tests only yield facts relevant to the paradigm under which that kind of research is done? That normal empirical research can only support the paradigm that determines researchers' way of seeing the field and their tasks within it? So how do we choose among paradigms?

Auctor:: Well, according to Kuhn, you typically don't choose. You grow up within a paradigm and even if there is a "paradigm shift" during your career, you carry on more or less with the old presuppositions till you die, and younger people adopt the new one. Who knows? Certainly normal empirical research will generate anomalies within a paradigm, but most researchers simply ignore them and get on with their paradigm-determined work. One trick someone trying to assess paradigms or general theories can use is to see whether the old or the new leaves the field clogged with more anomalies. The difficulty here, of course, is that we tend to see anomalies within our paradigm or general theory.

Lector:: You aren't being much help.

Auctor:: I know, I know.


Q: You mentioned that you were happy to use the term "development." Sorry to hark back to this. One of its attractions to you is its vagueness. But its vagueness does not strip it of its inescapable meaning of change resulting from the unfolding of capacities which are present from the beginning and which mature under the proper nutritive conditions. I'm not sure you can use this term and also talk about the kinds of understanding as "cultural artifacts."

A: You point again to complex issues I really don't understand. We lack adequate metaphors for the processes of cultural and educational changes; they are sui generis, and we don't know anything else like them. The best I have been able to come up with is the troika model of generative imagination shaped by psychological and epistemological constraints. This model seems to me to have the virtue of acknowledging the parts of an adequate developmental account, even though I have nothing of particular interest to say about any of them.

Q: How much Mythic understanding does one need before Romantic understanding can be properly developed, and how much Romantic before Philosophic, and so on?

A: I'm not sure. While I've distanced this scheme from "hierarchical integrative" theories, there clearly is a hierarchical dimension to it. The degree to which earlier kinds of understanding are developed influences what is possible in developing subsequent kinds of understanding. In my first sketch of this scheme I tried to indicate how these constraints might be conceived by resorting to a crazy use of numbers, a kind of metaphoric quantification. So 25% of potential development of one kind of understanding would constrain the subsequent kind to 5% or 10% development, with nothing possible for further kinds. 75% development of one kind would permit 55% or 60% of the next kind, and 35% or 40% of the next, and so diminishingly on. 100% of one, allows 100% of subsequent kinds. To develop any significant Ironic understanding requires most Somatic to be in place, 80% Mythic, 65% Romantic, and 50% Philosophic. Yes, of course, this is a mad use of pseudo-statistics, and runs the danger of suggesting a single line of development that can be quantified--two misrepresentations. But it indicates economically the sense in which, it seems to me, inadequate early development constrains later possibilities significantly. That is, as Plato and Rousseau both concluded, the beginning years are the most important for education. No doubt there are exceptions, and no doubt this hardly tells the whole story.

Return to Home Page Return to The Educated Mind Page