the curate’s egg, the emperor’s new clothes and Aristotle’s flies: getting it wrong from the beginning

Alongside a recommendation to read Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse, came another to read Kieran Egan’s Getting It Wrong From The Beginning: Our Progressive Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget. Egan’s book is in a different league to Peal’s; it’s scholarly, properly referenced and published by a mainstream publisher not a think-tank. Although it appears to be about Spencer, Dewey and Piaget, Egan’s critique is aimed almost solely at Spencer; Piaget’s ideas are addressed, but Dewey hardly gets a look in. During the first chapter – a historical sketch of Spencer and his ideas – Egan and I got along swimmingly. Before I read this book my knowledge of Spencer would have just about filled a postage stamp (I knew he was a Victorian polymath who coined the term ‘survival of the fittest’) so I found Egan’s account of Spencer’s influence illuminating. But once his analysis of Spencer’s ideas got going, we began to part company.

My first problem with Egan’s analysis was that I felt he was unduly hard on Spencer. There is a sense in which he has to be because he lays at Spencer’s feet the blame for most of the ills of the education systems in the English-speaking world. Spencer is portrayed as someone who dazzled the 19th century public in the UK and America with his apparently brilliant ideas, which were then rapidly discredited towards the end of his life and soon after his death he was forgotten. Yet Spencer, according to Egan, laid the foundation for the progressive ideas that form the basis for the education system in the US and the UK. That poses a problem for Egan because he then has to explain why, if Spencer’s ideas were so bad that academia and the public dismissed them, in education they have not only persisted but flourished in the century since his death.

misleading metaphors

Egan tackles this conundrum by appealing to three metaphors; the curate’s egg, the emperor’s new clothes and Aristotle’s flies. The curate’s egg – ‘good in parts’ – is often used to describe something of variable quality, but Egan refers to the original Punch cartoon in which the curate, faced with a rotten egg for breakfast, tries to be polite to his host the bishop. The emperor’s new clothes require no explanation. In other words, Egan explains the proliferation of Spencer’s educational theories as partly down to deference to someone who was once considered a great thinker, and partly to people continuing to believe something despite the evidence of their own eyes.

Bishop: “I’m afraid you’ve got a bad egg, Mr Jones”; Curate: “Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!”

Aristotle’s flies

The Aristotle’s flies metaphor does require more explanation. Egan claims “Aristotle’s spells are hard to break. In a careless moment he wrote that flies have four legs. Despite the easy evidence of anyone’s eyes, his magisterial authority ensured that this “fact” was repeated in natural history texts for more than a thousand years” (p.42). In other words, Spencer’s ideas, derived ultimately from Aristotle’s, have, like Aristotle’s, been perpetuated because of his ‘magisterial authority’ – something which Egan claims Spencer lost.

It’s certainly true that untruths can be perpetuated for many years through lazy copying from one text to another. But these are usually untruths that are hard to disprove – the causes of fever or the existence of the Loch Ness monster, or, in Aristotle’s case, the idea that the brain cooled the blood, for example – not untruths that could be dispelled in a few second’s observation by a child capable of counting to six. Aristotle’s alleged ‘careless moment’ caught my attention because ‘legs’ pose a particular challenge for comparative anatomists. Aristotle was interested in comparative anatomy and was a keen and careful observer of nature. It’s unlikely that he would have had such a ‘careless moment’, and much more likely that the error would have been due to a mistranslation.

The challenge of ‘legs’ is that in nature they have a tendency over time to morph into other things – arms in humans and wings in birds for example. Anyone who has observed a housefly for a few seconds will know that houseflies frequently use their first pair of legs for grooming – in other words, as arms. I thought it quite possible that Aristotle categorised the first pair of fly legs as ‘arms’ so I looked for the reference. Egan doesn’t give it but the story about the four-legged fly idea being perpetuated for a millennium is a popular one. In 2005 it appeared in an article in the journal European Molecular Biology Organisation Reportsand was subsequently challenged in 2008 in a zoology blog.

male mayfly

male mayfly

Aristotle’s observation is in a passage on animal locomotion and the word for ‘fly’ – ephemeron – is translated by D’Arcy Thompson as ‘dayfly’ – also commonly known as the mayfly (order Ephemeroptera, named for their short adult life). In mayfly the first pair of legs is enlarged and often held forward off the ground as the males use them for grasping the female during mating. So the fly walks on four legs – the point Aristotle is making. Egan’s book was published in 2002, before this critique was written, but even before the advent of the internet it wouldn’t have been difficult to check Aristotle’s text – in Greek or in translation.

Spencer in context

I felt also that much of Egan’s criticism of Spencer was from the vantage point of hindsight. Spencer was formulating his ideas whilst arguments about germ theory were ongoing, before the publication of On the Origin of Species, before the American Civil war, before all men (never mind women) were permitted to vote in the UK or the US, before state education was implemented in England, and a century before the discovery of the structure of DNA. His ideas were widely criticised by his contemporaries, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong about everything.

It’s also important to set Spencer’s educational ideas in context. He was writing in an era when mass education systems were in their infancy and schools were often significantly under-resourced. Textbooks and exercise books were unaffordable not just for most families, but for many schools. Consequently schools frequently resorted to the age-old practice of getting children to memorise, not just the alphabet and multiplication tables, but everything they were taught. Text committed to memory could be the only access to books that many people might get during their lifetime. If the children didn’t have books they couldn’t take material home to learn so had to do it in school. Memorisation takes time, so teachers were faced with a time constraint and a dilemma – whether to prioritise remembering or explaining. Not surprisingly, memorisation tended to win, because understanding can always come later. Consequently, many children could recite a lot of text, but hadn’t got a clue what it meant. For many, having at least learned to read and write at school, their education actually began after they left school and had earned enough money to buy books themselves or could borrow them from libraries. This is the rote learning referred to as ‘vicious’ by early progressive educators.

The sudden demand for teachers when mass education systems were first rolled out meant that schools had to get whatever teachers they could. Many had experience but no training and would simply expect children from very different backgrounds to those they had previously taught to learn the same material, such as reciting the grammatical rules of standard English when the children knew only their local dialect with different pronunciation, vocabulary and grammatical structure. For children in other parts of the UK it was literally a different language. The history of England, with its list of Kings and Queens was essentially meaningless to children whose only prior access to their nation’s history was a few stories passed down orally.

This was why Spencer placed so much emphasis on the principles of simple to complex, concrete to abstract and known to unknown. Without those starting points, many children’s experience of education was one of bobbing about in a sea of incomprehension and getting more lost as time went by – and Spencer was thinking of middle-class children, not working-class ones for whom the challenge would have been greater. The problem with Spencer’s ideas was that they were extended beyond what George Kelly calls their range of convenience; they were taken to unnecessary extremes that were indeed at risk of insulting children’s intelligence.

In the next post, I take a more detailed look at Egan’s critique of Spencer’s ideas.


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