Culture and Education

(the omitted chapter: Part One)

Kieran Egan


[Much of the material of the introduction was incorporated into the book.]

Cultural and educational development

"Development" is a handy term; it has a somewhat mealy-mouthed appeal. It hints at the meanings of "evolution" and "progress" without committing us to the freight they carry. Its value here is that it suggests processes that involve some kind of improvement while not being very precise about the nature of the improvement being suggested. This kind of imprecision is appropriate as it well reflects the main problem scholars have had in trying to deal with both cultural and educational change. Both are familiar processes about which we have considerable knowledge but both remain difficult to grasp and difficult to give any adequate explanatory account of. They are both complex and multi-faceted, to be sure, but the central difficulty in securely grasping them seems to lie rather in the fact that their causal principles, the dynamics that work within them and drive them onward, are opaque. At best they appear as through a glass darkly.

What causes the processes of cultural and educational development to go forward? Why do we not live like other animals, instinctively reproducing the form of life of our ancestors? What caused human beings to begin the processes of cultural innovation and enables us to continue it at, apparently, an ever-increasing rate? And what is it about human children that enables them in a few years to reconstruct for themselves this elaborating culture? Fortunately I do not have to answer these questions, but I do want to show that the reasons we have difficulty answering both sets, about culture and children, have something in common. I will try to show that even though we cannot give very precise explanatory accounts of cultural and educational development, it is possible to see enough to disclose clear links between the two processes, and so to answer the question about just what is recapitulated in education.

I will begin by looking briefly at the two processes separately, then I will focus on what they have in common, and then show how these common features enable construction of a cultural recapitulation conception of education on firmer bases than was achieved in the nineteenth century.


Cultural development

We are unlike other animals in that we have a "culture." For the time being I mean by this gun-toting word nothing more than--to choose a classic definition--"a set of attributes and products of human societies...which are extrasomatic [outside the body] and transmissible by mechanisms other than biological heredity, and are essentially lacking in [non]-human species as they are characteristic of the human species as it is aggregated in its societies" (Kroeber and Kluckholn, 1952, p. 283).

All cultures, anthropologists generally accept, show signs of some degree of development from less complex to more complex stages (Johnson & Earle, 1987). Nineteenth century social theories, applying their interpretation of Darwinian evolution, tended to see these changes straightforwardly as progressive, and cultures as further "progressed" the more they approximated contemporary Western societies. The ethnocentrism later evident in such schemes as Morgan's (1877) image of progression from Savagery to Barbarism to Civilization led to a severe reaction by Boas (1920). He and his influential students asserted the uniqueness of each culture and eschewed generalizations across cultures. This austere approach kept anthropologists out of one kind of trouble, but it did also inhibit them from dealing with some of the more obvious features of social change; it allowed greater precision and control but at the cost of ignoring some of the most interesting anthropological questions about human societies.

The current consensus among anthropologists is a more sophisticated, carefully non-ethnocentric, cultural evolutionism, which emphasizes, following Leslie White (1959), increasing control of energy for human purposes and control over nature in general. Still, attempts to explain this cumulative development ran into chicken-and-egg problems; e.g., does population growth stimulate technological development or do technological developments increase food supplies, stimulating population growth? Problems concerning development in traditional, oral cultures seem to ramify enormously when we consider development in Western culture. Even so, it is true that very many anthropologists find the subject of social change or cultural evolution one they prefer to avoid. Despite the interest of the questions raised, they are repelled by the history of ethnocentrism that has surrounded the topic, by its theoretical difficulties, by the seeming unavoidability of value judgements and the fear of suggesting, or being interpreted as suggesting, that some cultures and conditions are inferior to others, by the troublesome vocabulary that includes such freighted words as "evolution," "primitive," "modern," and so on. (See the Introduction to Hallpike, 1986.)

One of the characteristics of Western culture--indeed, the one that tends to receive most attention--is that it began to "develop" in peculiar ways a few millenia ago. It has proven very hard to pin down the nature and causes of this peculiar development, but its products are obtrusively evident all over this planet, and on our moon, on Mars and Venus, and now even outside our solar system. The story of this development is a familiar one. Typical accounts focus on the invention of agriculture, early trade, irrigation projects, the invention of symbols, the Greek alphabet, new building techniques, elaborated administrative systems, weapons development, new forms of art and literature, rational disciplines of inquiry, science, and the flood of technological inventions that have transformed much of the world. Most accounts, either implicitly by their selection of significant episodes, or explicitly in a theory, try to explain why this process of cultural development has occurred the way it has. The explanations tend to be less satisfactory than the descriptions.

To understand the peculiar development of Western culture, it is necessary to know not only the "order in which the human race has mastered its various kinds of knowledge," but also what caused and causes the development and why it has developed in the order it has. There is a massive and contentious literature on this topic, and all I aim to do here is abstract some of its general features.

Consider the following two accounts of particular developments. The invention of writing had the consequence that people began to record their local myths, legends, lore, memories of significant events, and so on. Sets of these records, when examined together, would bring to light inconsistencies among them. One Greek family might claim that a great-great-grandparent was a god, at a time when another account would claim that gods no longer had intimate dealings with mortals. These had to be coordinated somehow. Other accounts claiming that only giants or gods inhabited the world a dozen generations back had to be coordinated with travellers' stories of Egyptian records showing hundreds of generations of human high priests. Attempts to coordinate the constant inconsistencies led to sorting out principles for determining which claims deserved more credance, and this critical inquiry into the past led to the discipline of history: that is, an attempt to describe and account for what has happened in which one's present interests, hopes, and fears play no part, or as little part as possible.

Monks' desire to wake up at regular intervals during the night in order to chant the canonical hours led to the invention of more reliable and complex time-recording devices. These became increasingly popular throughout late medieval Europe. Water-powered bellows invented for fifteenth-century blast furnaces, and water-powered mills invented to crush ore, led to the production of sprung metal, which was adapted to replace weights in driving clocks. The invention of the telescope led to astronomers requiring yet more accurate clocks, which was satisfied by the regularity achieved by pendulum power. But pendulums were no use at sea, so the search for better quality springs led to new forms of smelting, and this included among its consequences, along with a few more inventions and discoveries, the Industrial Revolution and the automobile.

In both of the above abbreviated examples a logic is discernible. One invention leads logically to the next, which leads to another, which leads to social changes, new kinds of understanding, and further inventions, and so on. Such accounts expose a logic of invention and discovery, and of cultural development or impose a logic on them. The pace and shape of that development is obviously seen as influenced by social and psychological conditions. We can understand the motives that stimulate the spread of literacy and clocks, even if we cannot understand what Arthur Koestler called "the act of creation" that brought them about in the first place (Koestler, 1964). So while human emotions and intentions play an obvious role, the explanation is given in terms of the unfolding logic implicit in the inventions, discoveries, ideas, institutions, and so on, that make up Western cultural history. Such accounts are plausible because there clearly is a logic, a graspable order, to the process; some things could be invented only after other things, some ideas are logically dependent on other ideas.

Jonathan Miller (1978) argues that the ancient Greeks failed to work out the function of the heart in the body not because they did not have as much data as William Harvey early in the seventeenth century, but because the suction pump was not invented till the late medieval period. That is, he suggests it was not just a serendipitous failure of discovery in one period and success in another, but that the discovery of the heart's function was in some loose sense logically dependent on the invention of suction pumps to clear mines of water. The simpler piece of technology made it possible or easier to understand the function of the more complex biological organ.

Similarly one might see the early nineteenth century embryology arguments between preformationists and recapitulationists only being resolved after the invention by Vaucanson and Jacquard of coded programs to automate pattern-making in weaving machines or, as in the case of Herman Holerith's punched cards in the U.S.A., to count populations. The idea of a coded program built into an organism, lately identified in our DNA, offered a new and better explanation for how an embryo grows into an adult human being.

Alternatively, some accounts imply that cultural history is best understood if we see its dynamic in terms of the psychological development that occurs when minds interact with the natural environment: "This interaction is the basis of cognitive growth, which is governed by laws general to human beings in all societies" (Hallpike, 1979, p. 59). This psychological approach is most crudely evident in those nineteenth century evolutionary conceptions of development from primitive savagery to sophisticated rationality--represented in those old classroom wall-charts showing hairy monkey-thugs transforming over the millenia into upright gleaming men, or in the "upward urge" from Savagery to Barbarism to Rationality. Sigmund Freud, in Totem and Taboo (1950), sketched a rather different scheme, but it was similar in that social evolution was explained in terms of more fundamental psychological phenomena; prominent in this case were incest and the neuroses that were the staples of his psychoanalytic method. In such accounts, primitive mentality gave way to the superior mental conditions of modern Western adults.

A more testable and sophisticated psychological argument has been offered by C.R. Hallpike (1979), who has drawn on Piaget's theory of psychological development to help account for the process of cultural development. His is an account of how "the human mind had gradually come to a more correct understanding of such basic features of the world as space, time, causality, probability, number, measurement, and so on" (Hallpike, 1986, p. 130). Psychological accounts are plausible because on the face of it, there seem significant cognitive differences between people today and those whose thinking has left traces in the earliest myths and literature. They are plausible, too, because cultural development is obviously due to some characteristic of the human psyche.

These general kinds of explanation--the logical and psychological-- are not, of course, as distinct as this categorization suggests. All accounts have elements of both. The typical Marxist account, for example, is articulated in terms of the social changes that become perspicuous when one understands the logic of the economic laws in which lies their ultimate explanation. But those laws rest on assumptions about human hopes and fears, and about other human motives such as greed. So, giving accounts of cultural development that focus on the unfolding logic of invention and discovery or focus on psychological operations and increasingly sophisticated cognition helps to elaborate our grasp over an enormously complex and somewhat mysterious process.

But both kinds of account are unsatisfactory--to their framers as well as their readers in many cases. The trouble with these attempts at explaining the dauntingly diverse, multi-faceted, and complex topic of Western cultural development is their difficulty in explaining the constant novelty that is so obtrusive a characteristic of the process. The central peculiarity of Western "development" is its constant innovation, its generativity. The logical and psychological accounts help us to grasp the complex process, to give it order and pin it down for further, more detailed, critical examination. While these accounts enlarge knowledge of the process, and open the way to more sophisticated understanding, the generative element that is the dynamic of the process eludes our grasp. It is as though, to use Aristotle's term, we can give no account of the "efficient cause" of cultural history--that initiating, motivating, dynamic source of the process.

My aim here is not to provide a more adequate account of the dynamic of western cultural development--(if I could I would be rapidly writing a different book)--but rather is to point to certain features of the process. For reasons that will be clearer in the next section, I am particularly interested in pointing at the absence of any adequate account of the dynamic or the "efficient cause," of the process. Clearly this missing component is some human psychological capacity--we do not see anything like cultural development in animals--but it is not a capacity which the psychological theories currently available seem able to deal with. It lies in the human capacity to think of things as other than they are, which is the primary cause allowing us then to go about reshaping the world to conform with what we have imagined. The dynamic, that is to say, is imagination.

Calling the ineffable dynamic of Western cultural development "imagination" does not, of course, solve any of our problems. It does not enlighten the process or tell us why it began to have the peculiar effects we can describe over the past few thousand years. Imagination is clearly a generic human capacity evident in all cultures. Nor is recognizing the central role of imagination in the slightest original:

If man's logical and critical faculties had surpassed his imagination and creativity, and if he had been content to govern his life by criteria acceptable to rational materialists, it does not seem that very much would ever have occurred at all in the way of evolution (Hallpike, 1986, p. 372).

Let me deal with an apparent paradox in passing. Imagination is a component of the human psyche, and I have suggested above that both logically and psychologically based theories of cultural development are equally inadequate in their inability to locate the dynamic of the process. The paradox is resolved by recognizing that current psychological theories leave imagination unaccounted for. This is especially true for those psychological theories which have been found of some use in addressing cultural evolution; Piaget's theory, for example, focuses exclusively on a limited range of logico-mathematical capacities, regardless of whether the subject matter of his experiments is logical tasks or children's play and dreams (Brainerd, 1978; Gardner, 1991).

Recognizing imagination as the dynamic of the process of cultural development isn't very helpful, because we cannot explain what imagination is either. What we mean by the word is the capacity to think of things as possibly being so (White, 1990). But in any adequate account of Western cultural development the action of this capacity will have to be central.

So if this brief skipping across attempts to describe and explain cultural development takes us no closer to an explanation, what does it do? Well, I think it points to a very general model of what such an explanation will have to look like. The model is a troika: the central lead role is taken by the imagination and the two constraining, conditioning roles are taken by logical and psychological forces. That is, the imagination provides the generative dynamic of the developmental process, but our freedom to make real what is imagined is constrained or conditioned by what is already known and by the logic of invention and discovery, and also is shaped by human hopes and fears, and by what is psychologically possible in prevailing social conditions. For example, to think of human beings flying through the air or travelling in the underworld is first an act of imagination. Moving in the direction of either of these images depends on their satisfying some hope or fulfilling some desire or providing some security from fear and also on the development, invention or discovery, of the knowledge and materials that are necessary to make either image a reality. Imaginative freedom, then, drives cultural development but the process is constrained by what is psychologically and logically possible. Imagination also provides images of what is possible that can stimulate desires, hopes, fears and also can stimulate invention and discovery.

Now as models go I guess this is no great shakes. The neatness of the three distinct elements is a little muddied by the obvious overlaps between imagination and other psychological conditions. (Our hopes and fears are hardly distinct from our imaginations.) But, bearing this in mind, it is useful in distinguishing major features that any adequate explanation of cultural development has to account for. Apply it for a moment to James Burke's engaging and popular books and T.V. shows, such as Connections (1978), from which I stole for the earlier example about monks and automobiles. He shows how one innovation which satisfies some social purpose or psychological need, can combine seemingly fortuitously with a second innovation elsewhere, to produce a third major innovation somewhere else. He commonly says about what might have otherwise been considered the brilliantly original third invention, "Well, it was obvious, wasn't it?" As a logical development it seems so after he has made the series of connections so perspicuous. What is not obvious is why any of these innovations should be occuring. The implicit assertion that "thick description"--providing an intricately detailed description of a process--can replace explanation is misleading. It may provide excellent accounts of the "material" and "formal" causes, and the addition of a fuller psychological component might provide an adequate account of the "final" cause, but we would be still without a sense of the "efficient" cause. That is, even if imagination is very difficult to grasp, recognizing its centrality to the process of cultural development will keep clear that however well we can describe certain of its conditions and constraints, something crucial about the process remains to be explained and understood.



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