Culture and Education

(the omitted chapter: Part Three)

Kieran Egan

Culture and education

It is possible now to point out a significant connection between Western cultural development and an individual's education within Western culture. The connection between cultural history and education is not some aptitude that arises in the child's mind nor is it a matter of learning knowledge in the same general sequence as it was invented or discovered, but is rather due to both processes being driven by, or caused by, the constructive, generative human imagination conditioned and constrained by the logic whereby knowledge can be accumulated and by the nature of psychological development. The imagination is free, generative, meaning-constructing, but it can only work with what it can grasp and that is constrained by the logical sequences in which knowledge can be accumulated, and it is further conditioned and constrained by the psychological developmental process human beings have to go through.

This troika of imagination, knowledge accumulation, and psychological development are not of course discrete entities. They work together in our experience. Working together they produce distinctive ways of making sense of our experience of the world. As we know more, as our psychological development proceeds, as our imagination has more to work with, the kinds of sense we can make changes; we develop somewhat distinctive kinds of understanding; the quality of our consciousness of the world and of our experience changes somewhat.

Education has quite sophisticated fields of psychological studies and philosophical studies. The former have focused on learning, psychological development, motivation, and so on, the latter on the nature, structure, and logical sequencing of knowledge, on the analysis of key educational concepts, on the constituents of the ideally educated person, and so on. There has been very little study of the imagination, for reasons to be discussed below. And there has been even less that has focused on the general kinds of understanding that result from these three working together, as they do, in our experience. In part this lack is due to the most sophisticated tools of inquiry being those derived from psychology and those from analytic philosophy. Given the purposes for which those tools were made, it is no surprise that they have not encouraged those who have deployed them to address issues that spread across and beyond the fields in which they can operate most effectively. Even so, the inquiry that follows is in significant degree parasitic on both psychological and philosophical studies in education; it could not have proceeded without the work done in those traditions of educational inquiry.

What I want to explore, then, is the changing character of the products of imagination, knowledge accumulation, and psychological development working together during the process of education. That is, I want to try to characterize education in a somewhat new manner, a manner that is, I think, more comprehensive and more practically valuable than the characterizations that currently throng educational discourse. I will try to characterize education in terms of the new category produced by considering imagination, knowledge accumulation, and psychological development working together. This category is what I am calling kinds of understanding. I will identify and describe four somewhat distinct kinds of understanding that, I think, better characterize the process of educational development than characterizations derived from current educational psychology or philosophy. I call them mythic, romantic, philosophic, and ironic kinds of understanding.

Many issues raised by this new way of characterizing education are probably better left until after the descriptions of each. (I'm thinking of questions like "Do they represent progress?" "How is a kind of understanding different from a Piagetian stage of development?" "What is the empirical support for these divisions and their characterizations?") But some caveats should be mentioned right away.

Because we are concerned with kinds of understanding, two of the more notorious problems of earlier recapitulation theories are avoided. The logical constraints on the child today--the knowledge the young mind can accumulate--are clearly different from those that held in ancient Greece or Medieval Europe. So we will not expect, pace Spencer and other recapitulationists, children today to be somehow predisposed to learn things in the order they were invented or discovered in cultural history. That is, particular content is not what is the subject of recapitulation.

Similarly, we will not look for some general psychological resemblance or homology between modern children and adults in oral cultures, or modern teenagers and ancient Greek adults. That is, it is not psychological development that is recapitulated. Dismissing these two old assumptions is rather easy, but the issue is rather more complicated, of course, and this too will have to be revisited later when I will have to answer in what ways ironic understanding is more advanced or better than mythic understanding, and whether development from one kind of understanding to the next is a progressive process.

But I can now give a new answer to the question of just what is recapitulated from cultural history in the process of education. It is a set of somewhat distinctive kinds of understanding, constituted of the generative play of the human imagination, constrained and conditioned by the logic whereby knowledge can be accumulated and the process of human psychological development. Cultural history is a general arena in which human imagination operated within the conditions and constraints of logic and the human psyche; education is a set of individual arenas in which imagination operates within the conditions and constraints of logic and the human psyche.

Now this neat verbal congruence obviously hides enormous differences. The second part of the trick is to show that there is a level in these very different cultural and educational processes that are actually congruent, and I will try to show that in Part Two. That girl at the bus stop on her way to school absent-mindedly picking her sweater to pieces and that boy next to her picking his nose are not easily conceived as engaged in a process made in part by Plato smitten by the handsome Dion in the tyrant's court in Syracuse, by the invention of air-pumps to clear water out of medieval mines, by the impossible linguistic fertility of Shakespeare, by the programmed loom and electronic computer, and by all that anguished mess produced by one damn thing after another. But that is the challenge for us.

What is particularly difficult, in a context in which education has been largely conceived in terms of knowledge accumulation and psychological development, is to suggest that these are only partial constituents of a more complex category--kinds of understanding--which has not hitherto been characterized or recognized in educational discourse.

I have not forgotten socialization in all this, nor the growing recognition about the social and ideological agendas that have influenced what knowledge is privileged in the curriculum, nor the growing recognition of the ideological and sexist agendas that have influence how "normal" psychological development has been conceived. Any scheme, such as the one that follows, that proposes a model for educational development has to account for itself in terms of these relatively recent insights. This accounting might also be more clearly made after, and during, the characterization of the kinds of understanding, rather than here in the abstract.

What is imagination, and, if it is so important, why has it not been more prominent in educational theory and research?

I think it is possible to answer both parts of this question together. Imagination is a concept which has come down to us with a history of suspicion and distrust. Two of the main intellectual traditions that have shaped our understanding of the world and experience both have similar stories about imagination. The Hebrew Bible first uses a term that seems best translated as imagination in recounting the story of the building of the Tower of Babel. Jehovah said "Behold the people, how nothing will be restrained from them, from what they have imagined to do" (Genesis:11, 6). The human imagination was the instrument identified as responsible for the impious human attempt to encroach on God's prerogatives. Their punishment was the babel or babble of mutually incomprehensible languages. The Greeks told the story of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. The possession of fire empowered humans in ways that, again, encroached on what had been the prerogatives of the gods. Prometheus--whose name 'pro-metheus' means 'fore-thinker'--was chained to a rock as his punishment, and left to a very nasty fate.

In both the Hebrew and the Greek stories, human uses of imagination threaten to disturb their proper relationship with the divine. The capacity to plan ahead by imagining possibilities that do not exist, is dangerous--a threat not only to gods but to human authorities too.

Plato considered the imagination an inferior part of the mind. The most valuable intellectual function, which his educational program was designed to develop, was reason. Succumbing to the appeal of images, as against abstract concepts, strengthened the lower functions of our minds at the expense of the higher, and provided a constant seductive counter-pressure against the hard struggle for rationality, which alone disclosed to us the truth about reality. All images that human beings could make were, at best, merely copies of the original creative acts of the gods, and as the gods made reality, all copies and images must be inadequate and misleading in one way or another. However we interpret Plato's conclusion that poets and makers of original rhythms should be banned from his ideal society, it is clear that he bequeathed to us another powerful caveat about the value of the human imagination. Added to its dangers in leading us beyond our proper bounds, was the further likelihood that its stimulation came at the expense of developing reason, and its seductive images would always lead us away from or to the side of what was real and true.

Aristotle articulated a rather more complex view of the imagination. He did not so much displace the earlier distrust, or suggest that imagination was anything other than a 'mimetic' or copying faculty, but he argued that it did perform an important intellectual function. Believing that all ideas began as sensations, that the baby who had no ideas became an adult full of ideas, left the problem of how sensations were converted into ideas--how world-stuff became mind-stuff. This transformation, Aristotle proposed, was wrought by the imagination.

During the Middle Ages we find a now familiar distrust of "imagination," combined with the Aristotelian sense of it being potentially a useful intellectual servant. The problem with imagination, in most medieval writing about it, was the recognition that it was an untrustworthy servant, constantly threatening to become altogether too uppity. The imagination can be useful if it carries the mind towards God, but it must be constantly and firmly restrained by reason or it will more likely carry the mind and soul in the opposite direction. Its role as mediator between perception and ideas remains prominent, but here too it is a particularly weak and fallible part of intellectual activity, susceptible to confusing the images it generates with reality. This area of susceptibility is precisely the ideal stomping ground for the Devil. So, again, the imagination is not to be trusted; it is to be kept under the ever-vigilant control of reason.

The early Enlightenment did little to elevate the importance of the imagination. Descartes (1596-1650) considered it a source of confusion and "blundering constructions" that can only get in the way of the reason's analysis. This aggressive rationalism, along with the beginnings of scientific inquiry, saw the imagination as little other than a regrettable defect in our make-up: the cause of people having such difficulty seeing what was real and true without distortions. If it was granted any positive role at all, it was as a faculty that could produce an unserious pleasure or charm in the arts; a faculty of value for the idle hours when the mind's serious work was done and light entertainment was in order. These are very much the terms in which a proto-scientist like Francis Bacon (1561-1626) talks of it, and also, later, a literary man like Joseph Addison (1672-1719).

Into the eighteenth century the role of the imagination was conceived to be very limited. The generation of novelty associated with it, such as images of flying horses, or whatever, was seen as relatively insignificant. From perception we derived images of horses, and also of wings; these could be put together in the mind. There was nothing particularly significant in this. The imagination was assumed to be incapable of producing anything absolutely new; it simply reordered ideas which it received from the senses. And in general it should be discouraged from this reordering, its most evident facility, because it threatened to undermine reason and its hold on reality.

A significant new role was suggested for the imagination by two leading philosophers of the later Enlightenment. David Hume (1711-76) and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) both conceived of the imagination as being crucial to our ability to construct a coherent view of the world. Hume saw it as not simply converting sense impressions into ideas, but as taking fleeting, partial, constantly shifting sense impressions and delivering from these to the mind a coherent and stable view of the world. Kant went a step further, suggesting that the imagination even structured our perceptions, so that what we can perceive and know is predetermined by our imagination. What they did was implicate the imagination in the most basic levels of human meaning-making. It should be noted that the empiricist Hume acknowledged this role of imagination with some reluctance, calling it "a kind of magical faculty," and Kant later greatly reduced the significance he had earlier attached to it. Both, that is, ascribed to imagination functions that were required by their models of how knowledge was constructed, functions that remained mysterious. Even though they suggested an enlarged role for the imagination, it was hardly one easily understood.

The modern sense of the imagination as a productive, generative capacity comes very largely from the Romantics. In his Biographia Literaria (Ch. XIII) Coleridge declares, "The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation of the infinite I AM." Here, for sure, is a conception of imagination significantly different from anything that has preceded it. The difference is in the emphasis laid on its creative, generative power. The Romantics also absorbed what has been called Kant's "Copernican Revolution"; that is, as Copernicus had shown that the Earth orbited the Sun, and not vice versa, so Kant showed that the nature of the human mind determined how the world was perceived; it did not simply reproduced an image of reality delivered by the senses. The mind was thus conceived less as a mirror of a clear reality, but rather as a lamp onto a dark and complex reality (Abrams, 1958). The imagination was seen as so central to the process of making sense of the world that the Romantics attacked the claims of Science to be the one reliable path to uncovering the truth. The imaginative artist, they asserted, disclosed truth and reality no less, and in fact more profoundly, than the scientist: "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty," John Keats put it compactly.

The Romantics, however, commonly overstated what was possible through the arts; they dealt, after all, in images rather than the material world. As Kearney deflatingly observes the "Romantic imagination could not possibly deliver on its promises" (1988, p. 185), and as W.H. Auden concluded "Poetry makes nothing happen" ("In Memory of W.B. Yeats"). Romanticism elevated the imagination, but in the process set it in opposition to or in conflict with rationality. While Wordsworth recognized that imagination is nothing other than "Reason in her most exalted mood" (The Prelude, Bk. XIV, Line 192)--that the imagination is not some distinct faculty that operates separately from reason--too many Romantic artists identified the scientific mind, and the Industrial Revolution they saw as its product, as the enemy. So they bequeathed to us a conception of imagination that implied hostility to rationality.

What then is imagination? It is the capacity to think of things as possibly being so (White, 1990), our source of novelty, invention, and generativity; it is not distinct from rationality but rather is a capacity that enriches rational thinking. If it is so important why has it not been more prominent in educational theory and research? Its troubled history has made it, on the one hand, a suspect, untrustworthy capacity and, on the other, has represented it as somehow in conflict with the rationality which has traditionally been seen as the prime aim of education. On the third hand, of course, is the complexity of the concept. As Herder noted in the eighteenth century, "Of all the powers of the human mind the imagination has been least explored, probably because it is the most difficult to explore...--it seems to be not only the basic and connecting link of all the finer mental powers, but in truth the knot that ties body and mind together" (cited in McFarland, 1985, p. xiii).

The difficulties of doing research on the imagination have ensured that, while implications from research on a range of logico-mathematical skills and capacities have been fed into education, there have been no such implications from research on the imagination. Recognizing the importance of imagination and working out ways to encourage it in students has thus very largely been left to the initiatives of individual teachers and parents.

On the fourth hand, or second foot, it is probably fair to observe that the authorities that determine the curriculum and the social functions of schools have usually dealt ambiguously with the imagination. Such a way of putting it hints at a kind of conspiracy. I don't mean that; rather authorities' general recognition that the free-play of imagination does not sit easily with order, conventional ideas and systems, neat curriculum schemes, and so on, does not encourage them to encourage it. It is treated a little like a visiting rich relation who can be somewhat eccentric and might just run amok at any minute.

What I mean by imagination in what follows, then, is our capacity to think of things as possibly being so. "It is imagination which enlarges the bounds of possibility for us, whether for good or ill" (Rousseau, 1911, p. 44). What "development" means, in both education and in our cultural history, is this enlargement of the bounds of what is possible for us, for good or ill. I think education entails both good and ill; it is not a simple progressive, improving process--the individual analog of those hairy, monkey-thugs becoming upright gleaming people. It involves losses as well as gains. But more of this as we go along.



So the theoretical moves that promise a way past some of our current educational difficulties include seeing education as a process that recapitulates kinds of understanding developed in cultural history. "Kinds of understanding" is a new category in terms of which we can conceive education, and it is a category that takes us past the mutually incompatible features entailed in conceiving education as a process of socialization driven by the requirements of reproducing current norms and values, or an academic process driven by the accumulation of particular forms of knowledge, or a process of self-fulfillment, of realizing potentials, driven by an internal process of psychological development. This new category also means that we do not have to find some accommodation, some impossible balance, among the competing claims of socialization, academic programs, and psychological development, as we shall see in Part 2. The new category--kinds of understanding--is derived from recognizing the centrality of the generative imagination to both cultural and educational development.

Cultural and educational development remain somewhat mysterious processes, despite our intimate familiarity with them. Recognizing imagination as central to them is simply to acknowledge the element of mystery at their core. "Development" is an appropriate term to use for these processes because it is a difficult, rather imprecise, concept. We do not have a precise term or metaphor for either of these processes, because there is nothing in the natural world or in the world of our technology that is quite like them. In trying to represent the central distinctive feature of education, John Dewey settled on the metaphor of "growth." Education was a process of growth, and its aim was constant further growth, he argued--and promptly got himself into trouble. The problem with education, and with cultural history, is that they are sui generis; there is nothing else quite like them. So it is well to be satisfied for now with the imprecision of "development." And "imagination" is not intended as an answer to the central mystery of educational and cultural development so much as the best available marker I can find for what remains mysterious about them. The major inadequacy of previous conceptions of education is that they forgot to acknowledge what we do not know.

I will be associating the kinds of understanding with particular age ranges in what follows--mythic up to seven or eight years, romantic from then to about fifteen, and so on. How is this connection made?--careful empirical research disclosing some predisposition to become "romantic" between eight and fifteen? No, the connection lies in the related causes that drive cultural and educational development. So I will be focusing on those techniques and technologies that support particular kinds of understanding; things like language, literacy, print, and so on. Put excessively crudely, I will argue that romantic understanding is a consequence of literacy, both in cultural history and in an individual's education, and the advent of romantic understanding at about age eight in Western culture is due to this being about the age at which literacy becomes internalized. That is, the development of romantic understanding is not caused by psychological development--it is not a "stage" like Piaget's--nor by learning particular kinds of knowledge. It is caused by learning sets of techniques that have implications for how we make sense of the world and of experience, techniques that imply kinds of understanding.

This way of putting it is excessively crude because it suggests a simple causal connection between, in the above example, literacy and romantic understanding. The example is designed to indicate how my association of kinds of understanding with ages is not based on familiar psychological research or philosophical analysis. It is misleading in the suggestion of simplistic causal connections between techniques and thinking. I will leave the elaboration of this complex and incompletely understood connection to the following chapters, but I would like to disabuse a too-simple interpretation of what I mean here. Certain technologies, such as those involved in literacy, can support and enable particular kinds of thinking that are difficult without them. Just as the pump did not cause seeing the heart's function, so literacy does not compel particular kinds of thinking. Clearly other factors play a role, and perhaps literacy is best seen as an effect of some more profound cause that might be identified. Also it was not impossible that someone could have worked out the function of the heart before the pump was invented, just that once people could see pumps at work it became easier to conceive of what the heart was doing. So, once literacy was invented, certain kinds of thinking became easier. We will in the following chapters be dealing with such complex, incompletely understood, connections. To make matters worse, "kinds of understanding" are not neat-edged, discrete entities; they overlap, mingle in various ways, cannot be tied precisely to techniques and technologies, are not stages we pass through methodically, may all be used by any individual in a typical day, and so, messily, on.

Well, this has all been theoretical shuffling; the value of the theoretical shuffling will be established only when its implications are laid out on the educational ground. The next section, then, will take the conception of education briefly sketched in the abstract here and flesh it out in terms of an educational program.

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