Kieran Egan’s “The educated mind” 1

I grew up in a small hamlet on the edge of the English Fens. The clay soil it was built on retains nutrients and moisture, so, well-drained, it provides an ideal medium for arable farming. Arable crops aren’t very romantic. The backdrop to my childhood wasn’t acres of lacy apple blossom in spring or aromatic hops in summer, although there were a few fields of waving golden wheat. I grew up amongst potatoes, swedes and Brussels sprouts. Not romantic at all, but the produce of East Anglia has long contributed to the UK population getting through the winter.

A few weeks ago on Twitter Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) asked me what I thought about Kieran Egan’s book The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding. This book is widely cited by teachers, so I read it. It reminded me of the sticky clay and root vegetables of my childhood – because sticky clay, root vegetables and other mundane essentials are noticeable by their absence from Egan’s educational and cultural framework. For Egan, minds aren’t grounded in the earth, but in language. To me the educational model he proposes is the equivalent of clouds of apple blossom and heady hops; breathtakingly beautiful and dizzying, but only if you’ve managed to get through the winter living on swedes and potatoes. My agricultural allusion isn’t just a simile.


Egan begins by claiming there’s a crisis in mass education systems in the West due to their being shaped by three fundamentally incompatible ideas; socialisation, Plato’s concept of reason and knowledge, and Rousseau’s focus on the fulfilment of individual potential. To resolve this inherent conflict, Egan proposes an alternative educational framework based on the concept of recapitulation. Recapitulation was a popular idea in the 19th century, fuelled by the theory of evolution and the discovery that during gestation human embryos go through phases that look remarkably like transformations from simple life forms to more complex ones. As Ernst Haeckel put it ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’.

The theory of recapitulation has been largely abandoned by biologists, but is still influential in other domains. Egan applies it to the intellectual tools – the sign systems that children first encounter in others and then internalise – that Vygotsky claimed shape our understanding of the world. Egan maps the historical ‘culturally accumulated complexity in language’ onto the ways that children’s understanding changes as they get older and proposes that what children are taught and the way they are taught should be shaped by five distinct, though not always separate, phases of understanding:

Somatic; pre-linguistic understanding
Mythic; binary opposites – good/bad, strong/weak, right/wrong
Romantic; transcendent qualities – heroism, bravery, wickedness
Philosophic; the principles underlying patterns in information
Ironic; being able to challenge philosophic principles – seeing alternatives.

At first glance Egan’s arguments appear persuasive but I think they have several fundamental weaknesses, all originating in flawed implicit assumptions. First, the crisis in education.

crisis? what crisis?

I can see why a fundamentally incoherent education system might run into difficulties, but Egan observes:

“…today we are puzzled by the schools’ difficulty in providing even the most rudimentary education to students”… “the costs of…social alienation, psychological rootlessness and ignorance of the world and possibilities of human experience within it, are incalculable and heartbreaking.” (p.1)

Wait a minute. There’s no doubt that Western education systems fail to provide even the most rudimentary education for some students, but those form a tiny minority. And although some school pupils could be described as socially alienated, psychologically rootless or ignorant of the world and possibilities of human experience within it, that description wouldn’t apply to many others. So what exactly is the crisis Egan refers to? The only clue I could find was on page 2 where he describes ‘the educational ineffectiveness of our schools’ as a ‘modern social puzzle’ and defines ‘modern’ as beginning with the ‘late nineteenth century development of mass schooling’.

To claim an educational system is in crisis, you have to compare it to something. Critics often make comparisons with other nations, with the best schools (depending on how you define ‘best’) or with what they think the education system should be like. Egan appears to fall into the last category, but to overlook the fact that prior to mass schooling children did well if they manage to learn to read and write at all, and that girls and children with disabilities often didn’t get any education at all.

Critics often miss a crucial point. Mass education systems, unlike specific schools, cater for entire populations, with all their genetic variation, socio-economic fluctuations, dysfunctional families, unexpected illnesses and disruptive life events. In a recent radio interview, Tony Little headmaster of Eton College was asked if he thought the very successful Eton model could be rolled out elsewhere. He pointed out, dryly, that Eton is a highly selective school, which might just be a factor in its academic success. One obvious reason for the perceived success of schools outside state systems is that those schools are not obliged to teach whichever children happen to live nearby. Even the best education system won’t be problem-free because life is complex and problems are inextricably woven into the fabric of life itself. I’m not suggesting that we tolerate bad schools or have low aspirations. What I am suggesting is that our expectations for mass education systems need to be realistic, not based on idealised speculation.

incompatible ideas

Speculation also comes into play with regard to the incompatibility of the three ideas Egan claims shape mass education in the West. They have certainly shaped education historically and you could see them as in tension. But the ideas are incompatible only if you believe that one idea should predominate or that the aims inherent in each idea can be perfectly met. There’s no reason why schools shouldn’t inculcate social values, teach reason and knowledge and develop individual potential. Indeed, it would be difficult for any school that taught reasoning and knowledge to avoid socialisation because of the nature of schools, and in developing reasoning and knowledge children would move towards realising their potential anyway.

If, as Egan argues, Western mass education systems have been ineffective since they started, his complaint appears to be rooted in assumptions about what the system should be like rather than in evidence about its actual potential. And as long as different constituencies have different opinions about the aims of the education system, someone somewhere will be calling ‘Crisis!’. That doesn’t mean there is one. But Egan believes there is, hence his new framework. The framework is based on the development of written language and its impact on thinking and understanding. For Egan, written language marked a crucial turning point in human history.

why write?

There’s no doubt that written language is an important factor in knowledge and understanding. Spoken language enables us to communicate ideas about things that aren’t right here right now. Written language enables us to communicate with people who aren’t right here right now. The increasing sophistication of written language as it developed from pictograms to syllabaries to alphabets enabled increasingly sophisticated ideas to be communicated. But the widely held belief that language is the determining factor when it comes to knowledge and understanding is open to question.

The earliest known examples of writing were not representations of language as such but records of agricultural products; noting whether it was wheat or barley in the sacks, wine or oil in the jars, when the produce was harvested and how many sacks and jars were stored where. Early writing consisted of pictograms (images of what the symbols represent) and ideograms (symbols for ideas). It was centuries before these were to develop into the alphabetic representations of language we’re familiar with today. To understand why it took so long, we need to put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of the early adopters of agriculture.

food is wealth

Farming provides a more reliable food supply than hunting and gathering. Farming allows food that’s surplus to requirements to be stored in case the next harvest is a bad one, or to be traded. Surplus food enables a community to support people who aren’t directly involved in food production; rulers, administrators, artisans, traders, scribes, teachers, a militia to defend its territory. The militia has other uses too. Conquering and enslaving neighbouring peoples has for millennia been a popular way of increasing food production in order to support a complex infrastructure.

But for surplus food to be turned into wealth, storage and trade are required. Storage and trade require written records and writing is labour-intensive. While scribes are being trained and are maintaining records they can’t do much farming; writing is costly. So communities that can’t predict when a series of bad harvests will next result in them living hand-to-mouth, will focus on writing about things that are difficult to remember – what’s in a sealed container, when it was harvested etc. They won’t need to keep records of how to grow food, look after animals, histories, myths, poems or general knowledge if that information can be transmitted reliably from person to person orally. It’s only when oral transmission stops being reliable that written language as distinct from record-keeping, starts to look like a good idea. And the more you trade, the more oral transmission gets to be a problem. Travellers might need detailed written descriptions of people, places and things. Builders and engineers using imported designs or materials might need precise instructions.

Spoken language wasn’t the only driving force behind the development of written language – economic and technical factors played a significant role. I don’t think Egan gives these factors sufficient weight in his account of the development of human understanding nor in his model for education, as I explain in the next post.


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