Culture and Education

(the omitted chapter: Part One)

Kieran Egan

Educational development

"Development" is also the appropriately imprecise term to use about the process of education. That peculiar kind of individual development we call education is tied up with this peculiar kind of Western cultural development. It is our attempts to accumulate, or recapitulate, in our young the coded achievements of Western cultural development since the invention of literacy that has made education such a problematic enterprise for us. Traditional oral cultures do not experience the same uncertainties, controversies, and anxieties about the aims, content, and methods of education. The conception of education in the West is peculiar and different from that in traditional oral cultures in the same way that Western cultural development has been peculiar and different.

Central to educational development is the mysterious process of learning. I call it mysterious, even though each of us is entirely familiar with it on a daily basis, because we have seemingly intractable difficulties explaining it. In learning, we somehow grasp knowledge we did not have previously: if there is nothing new in our minds, no learning has occurred. Novelty is also a key feature of this process. Many theories of learning try to minimize the problem of novelty; they emphasize how new knowledge is logically or psychologically connected with what is already known. (The pervasiveness of this characteristic of learning theories in education has generated the ed. biz. folklore that learning is a process of moving "from the known to the unknown." This has become the largely uncontested teaching principle that you should always begin a new topic with related knowledge the student is already familiar with and move gradually from that to the new, emphasizing the connection between the two.) But however far one tries to minimize the novelty, it remains at some irreducible level to be accounted for. Indeed, the capacity to grasp the new is the very heart of learning. If new knowledge is always simply an extension or elaboration of what is already known, the process could not have got started, and we would be in an infinite regress--back with the preformationists to Eve's womb.

This obvious point needs emphasis because of the common reluctance to face up to how little we understand about learning. The tendency to look under the bright lamp where one can see clearly for the coin we have dropped, even though we dropped it in the shadows up the street, is echoed in the tendency to focus on those features of learning that are most graspable at the expense of what is central though mysterious. The mystery of learning, to make matters even worse, is not simply how the human mind grasps new knowledge, but further how each individual constructs and reconstructs immensely complex patterns of understanding from knowledge while learning. Recognition of this added dimension has been aided by the conception of "learning as invention" which Jean Piaget (1973a) has helped us grasp, and which Jerome Bruner (1986, 1990) has comprehensively elaborated as "the construction of meaning."

Learning, that is to say, is a process in which each individual grasps new knowledge and constructs new meaning. Knowledge existing in coded form in books has no meaning until it is decoded into the living conceptual stuff of a human mind, and once incorporated into a living mind it becomes unique. Like snowflakes, no two concepts are alike: "It is quite certain that, however great the convergence among a community on definitions of concepts and concept prototypes...there is variation from individual to individual in the content and structure of the vast majority of concepts, scripts, and categories" (Nelson, 1977, p. 223). Knowledge, once learned by some individual, is living material that takes distinct shapes, associations, and affective coloring in each individual mind.

Educational development, then, like cultural development, is made problematic by the constant novelty, the new meaning-making, the generation of new kinds of understanding, that is central to the process. When we look for attempts to account for educational development, we find general theories whose outlines will be familiar from chapter one.

First is the view that education is brought about by children being gradually initiated into the norms, values, and conventions of their society; derived from oral cultures and Durkheimian socialization. Second is the view that education is brought about by the individual mastering particular forms of knowledge that bring about rational understanding of the world and experience; derived from the Platonic academic program. Third is the view that education is brought about by the fulfillment of each individual's potential, as far as possible; derived from the Rousseauian progressive adherence to our natural process of development. The inevitability and pervasiveness of socialization is generally acknowledged; the theoretical competition for the role of the main dynamic of education has generally been between the two latter views.

The common sense response to this kind of division of the complex phenomenon of education, is that we can do all of these three things together, if we only plan carefully. In particular, the way I have argued for the incompatibility of the traditional and the progressive views may seem overwrought, too dramatic a response to a dilemma that requires rather just a balanced understanding of the value of both positions. The problem is not that the aims of these various views are incompatible, but that they are made so as a result of seeing one or the other of them as containing the main dynamic that drives the process of education forward. They are not unlike liberal and conservative political parties which, looking at society, focus on rather different aspects of it as important, identify different procedures for improving it, have somewhat different conceptions of what count as improvements, and so identify the central dynamic of social improvement in ways that are incompatible. Adherents of both parties want to end urban violence and poverty, want full employment and a clean environment, and so on, just as educational traditionalists and progressivists both want the development of the individual's moral, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual potentials, and both want sophisticated academic understanding, and so on. What is at issue in these significantly different views of society and education is not just aims and programs, but more subtlely and profoundly views of the causal mechanisms that operate within them. And these in turn perhaps rest on conflicting moral interpretations of our role in society, and society's proper forms and goals.

We can't simply run empirical tests to discover which one actually is the main dynamic of the educational process. Our assumptions are tied in with what we conceive the process to be, with what we consider its aims to be. It is a little like our conservative and liberal parties promoting freedom and equality. Only the most ideologically extreme wants one of these ideals totally at the expense of the other. Most people recognize that a democracy that ignores either one of them will not be a democracy for very long, but most people also recognize that there is a tension between the two: the more freedom, the less likely are you to see equality, and ensuring more equality requires curtailments of freedom. Liberals tend to believe that more emphasis on equality will carry us towards a better society, a better end, whereas conservatives tend to believe that more emphasis on freedom will produce, in the end, a better society. We can try to find the best balance at any particular time for our society, given our social aims and moral stances, but this does not resolve the incompatibility between the two social ideals. We cannot hope to attain both, as we cannot hope to rehabilitate and punish at the same time. It is not that they are logically incompatible, but that because of the ways we think of them as causal factors in bringing about some end, we ensure their practical incompatibility. Knowledge accumulation and psychological development are not incompatible, unless you consider one rather than the other as more important as a causal agent in education. Our traditional conceptions of education do precisely this. And those who look for a balance between the two--as do most conscientious administrators--find themselves unable to identify any clear causal mechanism in education; they produce flaccid compromises that remove the distinctive dynamics that have so far been identified in the traditional and progressivist positions. What I want to identify is not another compromise, but a different causal dynamic.

If accumulating knowledge was the dynamic of education, it would not be possible to observe, in A.N. Whitehead's words, that the most knowledgeable people can be among "the greatest bores on God's earth" (1929, p. 1). Knowing a great deal does not mean the same as being educated. Similarly, having developed the most refined, psychological skills and operations can leave someone terrifically well equipped to address all kinds of problems but equipped also with such ignorance it sets one's teeth on edge. Piaget's claim that the "ideal of education is not to teach the maximum, to maximize the results, but above all to learn to learn, to learn to develop, and to learn to continue to develop after leaving school" (Piaget, 1973b, p. 30) is as inadequate in its way as the position it begins by criticizing. And both positions somehow put together do not do the job. The generative element that is crucial to the educated person is guaranteed by neither.

The solution I will propose, first in general and abstract terms and later, throughout the rest of the book, in more detailed and concrete terms, is that the two main modern competitors for, or pretenders to, the role of the causal dynamic of education are properly seen rather as necessary conditions or constraints on the process. Accumulating knowledge and psychological development are neither of them the "efficient cause" of education. The dynamic, the efficient cause, is that generative, meaning-constructing, rather mysterious capacity which each of us possesses, which is central to learning, and which I will, again, identify as the imagination.

Howard Gardner notes that: "The deep problem for the developmentalist attempting a synthesis is to understand the relationships among the constraints imposed by nature, the constraints imposed by culture, and the degree of human inventiveness that nevertheless manages to emerge" (1991, p. 37). The deep problem for the educational theorist is similar, and a model I will suggest for the solution is, again, a troika in which imagination takes the central, dynamic role and the two conditioning, constraining roles are taken by disciplinary logic and by psychological development.

This model for a solution to our incoherent conception of education shares weaknesses with its echo in the previous sub-section. In particular, it separates psychological development and imagination. As long as we bear in mind that the model is making distinctions for a limited purpose, and not trying to reflect divisions etched in the world, we should find the model can fulfil its limited purpose. The distinction can be sustained because of the fact that currently available theories of psychological development do not try to incorporate an account of the imagination (Egan, 1992, Ch. 1).

The immediate value of the troika model is that it preserves the necessary contributions of disciplinary understanding and of psychological development to education but removes from them the feature (their claim to be the dynamic of education) that brought them into mutual conflict. We can now consider the role of knowledge accumulation, for example, without having to assume that it also provides the dynamic of education. This may seem so rarified and vague a theoretical point that to hold it up as crucial to solving some of the major problems of the school down the road probably looks slightly lunatic. O.K.--scratch the "slightly." But yet, I think we can get from here to the schools down the roads.


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