Kieran Egan’s “The educated mind” 2

The second post in a two-part review of Kieran Egan’s book The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding.

For Egan, a key point in the historical development of understanding was the introduction by the Greeks of a fully alphabetic representation of language – it included symbols for vowels as well as consonants. He points out that being able to represent speech accurately in writing gives people a better understanding of how they use language and therefore of the concepts that language represents. Egan attributes the flowering of Greek reasoning and knowledge to their alphabet “from which all alphabetic systems are derived” (p.75).

This claim would be persuasive if it were accurate. But it isn’t. As far as we know, the Phoenicians – renowned traders – invented the first alphabetic representation of language. It was a consonantal alphabet that reflected the structure of Semitic languages and it spread through the Middle East. The Greeks adapted it, introducing symbols for vowels. This wasn’t a stroke of genius on their part – Semitic writing systems also used symbols for vowels where required for disambiguation – but a necessary addition because Greek is an Indo-European language with a syllabic structure. The script used by the Mycenaean civilisation that preceded the Greeks was a syllabic one.

“a distinctive kind of literate thinking”

Egan argues that this alphabet enabled the Greeks to develop “extended discursive writing” that “is not an external copy of a kind of thinking that goes on in the head; it represents a distinctive kind of literate thinking” (p.76). I agree that extended discursive writing changes thinking, but I’m not convinced that it’s distinctive nor that it results from literacy.

There’s been some discussion amongst teachers recently about the claim that committing facts to long-term memory mitigates the limitations of working memory. Thorough memorisation of information certainly helps – we can recall it quickly and easily when we need it – but we can still only juggle half-a-dozen items at a time in working memory. The pre-literate and semi-literate civilisations that preceded the Greeks relied on long-term memory for the storage and transmission of information because they didn’t have an alternative. But long-term memory has its own limitations in the form of errors, biases and decay. Even people who had memorisation down to a fine art were obliged to develop writing in order to have an accurate record of things that long-term memory isn’t good at handling, such as what’s in sealed sacks and jars and how old it is. Being able to represent spoken language in writing takes things a step further. Written language not only circumvents the weaknesses of long-term memory, it helps with the limitations of working memory too. Extended discursive writing can encompass thousands of facts, ideas and arguments that a speaker and a listener would find it impossible to keep track of in conversation. So extended discursive writing doesn’t represent “a distinctive kind of literate thinking” so much as significantly extending pre-literate thinking.

the Greek miracle

It’s true that the sudden arrival in Greece of “democracy, logic, philosophy, history, drama [and] reflective introspection… were explainable in large part as an implication of the development and spread of alphabetic literacy” (p.76). But although alphabetic literacy might be a necessary condition for the “Greek miracle”, it isn’t a sufficient one.

Like all the civilisations that had preceded it, the economy of the Greek city states was predominantly agricultural, although it also supported thriving industries in mining, metalwork, leatherwork and pottery. Over time agricultural communities had figured out more efficient ways of producing, storing and trading food. Communities learn from each other, so sooner or later, one of them would produce enough surplus food to free up some of its members to focus on thinking and problem-solving, and would have the means to make a permanent record of the thoughts and solutions that emerged. The Greeks used agricultural methods employed across the Middle East, adapted the Phoenician alphabet and slavery fuelled the Greek economy as it had previous civilisations. The literate Greeks were standing on the shoulders of pre-literate Middle Eastern giants.

The ability to make a permanent record of thoughts and solutions gave the next generation of thinkers and problem-solvers a head start and created the virtuous cycle of understanding that’s continued almost unabated to the present day. I say almost unabated, because there have been periods during which it’s been impossible for communities to support thinkers and problem-solvers; earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, drought, flood, disease, war and invasion have all had a devastating and long-term impact on food production and on the infrastructure that relies on it.

language, knowledge and understanding

Egan’s types of understanding – Somatic, Mythic, Romantic, Philosophic and Ironic – have descriptive validity; they do reflect the way understanding has developed historically, and the way it develops in children. But from a causal perspective, although those phases correlate with literacy they also correlate with the complexity of knowledge. As complexity of knowledge increases, so understanding shifts from binary to scalar to systematic to the exceptions to systems; binary classifications, for example, are characteristic of the way people, however literate they are, tend to categorise knowledge in a domain that’s new to them (e.g. Lewandowski et al, 2005).

Egan doesn’t just see literacy as an important factor in the development of understanding, he frames understanding in terms of literacy. What this means is that in Egan’s framework, knowledge (notably pre-verbal and non-verbal knowledge) has to get in line behind literacy when it comes to the development of understanding. It also means that Egan overlooks the key role of agriculture and trade in the development of writing systems and of the cultures that invented them. And that apprenticeship, for millennia widely used as a means of passing on knowledge, is considered only in relation to ‘aboriginal’ cultures (p.49). And that Somatic understanding is relegated to a few pages at the end of the chapter on the Ironic.

non-verbal knowledge

These are significant oversights. Non-verbal knowledge is a sine qua non for designers, artisans, architects, builders, farmers, engineers, mariners, surgeons, physiotherapists, artists, chefs, parfumiers, musicians – the list goes on and on. It’s true that much of the knowledge associated with these occupations is transmitted verbally, but much of it can’t be transmitted through language, but acquired only by looking, listening or doing. Jenny Uglow in The Lunar Men attributes the speed at which the industrial revolution took place not to literacy, but to the development of a way to reproduce technical drawings accurately.

Egan appears sceptical about practical people and practical things because when

those who see themselves as practical people engaging in practical things [who] tend not to place any value on acquiring the abstract languages framed to deal with an order than underlies surface diversity” are “powerful in government, education departments and legislatures, pressures mount for an increasingly down-to-earth, real-world curriculum. Abstractions and theories are seen as idle, ivory-tower indulgences removed from the gritty reality of sensible life.” (p.228)

We’re all familiar with the type of people Egan refers to, and I’d agree that the purpose of education isn’t simply to produce a workforce for industry. But there are other practical people engaging in practical things who are noticeable by their absence from this book; farmers, craftspeople, traders and engineers who are very interested in abstractions, theories and the order that underlies surface diversity. The importance of knowledge that’s difficult to verbalise has significant implications for the curriculum and for the traditional academic/vocational divide. Although there is clearly a difference between ‘abstractions and theories’ and their application, theory and application are interdependent; neither is more important than the other, something that policy-makers often find difficult to grasp.

Egan acknowledges that there’s a problem with emphasising the importance of non-verbal knowledge in circles that assume that language underpins understanding. As he points out “Much modernist and postmodernist theory is built on the assumption that human understanding is essentially languaged understanding” (p.166). Egan’s framework elbows aside language to make room for non-verbal knowledge, but it’s a vague, incoherent “ineffable” sort of non-verbal knowledge that’s best expressed linguistically through irony (p.170). It doesn’t appear to include the very coherent, concrete kind of non-verbal knowledge that enables us to grow food, build bridges or carry out heart-transplants.

the internal coherence of what’s out there

Clearly, bodies of knowledge transmitted from person to person via language will be shaped by language and by the thought-processes that produce it, so the knowledge transmitted won’t be 100% complete, objective or error-free. But a vast amount of knowledge refers to what’s out there, and what’s out there has an existence independent of our thought-processes and language. What’s out there also has an internally coherent structure that becomes clearer the more we learn about it, so over time our collective bodies of knowledge more accurately reflect what’s out there and become more internally coherent despite their incompleteness, subjectivity and errors.

The implication is that in education, the internal coherence of knowledge itself should play at least some part in shaping the curriculum. But because the driving force behind Egan’s framework is literacy rather than knowledge, the internal coherence of knowledge can’t get a word in edgeways. During the Romantic phase of children’s thinking, for example, Egan recommends introducing topics randomly to induce ‘wonder and awe’ (p.218), rather than introducing them systematically to help children make sense of the world. To me this doesn’t look very different from the “gradual extension from what is already familiar” (p.86) approach of which Egan is pretty critical. I thought the chapter on Philosophic understanding might have something to say about this but it’s about how people think about knowledge rather than the internal coherence of knowledge itself – not quite the same thing.

the cherries on the straw hat of society

The sociologist Jacques Ellul once described hippies as the cherries on the straw hat of society* meaning that they were in a position to be critical of society only because of the nature of the society of which they were critical. I think this also serves as an analogy for Egan’s educational framework. He’s free to construct an educational theory framed solely in terms of literacy only because of the non-literate knowledge of practical people like farmers, craftspeople, traders and engineers. That brings me back to my original agricultural analogy; wonder and awe, like apple blossom and the aroma of hops, might make might make our experience of education and of agriculture transcendent, but if it wasn’t for coherent bodies of non-verbal knowledge and potatoes, swedes and Brussels sprouts, we wouldn’t be in a position to appreciate transcendence at all.

References

Lewandowski G, Gutschow A, McCartney R, Sanders K, Shinners-Kennedy D (2005). What novice programmers don’t know. Proceedings of the first international workshop on computing education research, 1-12. ACM New York, NY.

Uglow, J (2003). The Lunar Men: The Friends who made the Future. Faber & Faber.

Note
*I can’t remember which of Ellul’s books this reference is from and can’t find it quoted anywhere. If anyone knows, I’d be grateful for the source.

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.

recapitulation

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.

getting it wrong from the beginning: natural learning

In my previous post, I said that I felt that in Getting It Wrong From The Beginning: Our Progressive Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey and Jean Piaget Kieran Egan was too hard on Herbert Spencer and didn’t take sufficient account of the context in which Spencer formulated his ideas. In this post, I look in more detail at the ideas in question and Egan’s critique of them.

natural learning

Egan says that the “holy grail of progressiveness … has been to discover methods of school instruction derived from and modelled on children’s effortless learning … in households, streets and fields” (pp.38-39). In essence, progressives like Spencer see all learning as occurring in the same way, implying that children find school learning difficult only because it doesn’t take into account how they learn naturally. Their critics see school learning as qualitatively different to natural learning; it requires thinking, and thinking doesn’t come naturally and is effortful so students don’t like it.

It’s inaccurate to describe the learning children do in ‘households, streets and fields’ as ‘effortless’. Apparently effortless would be more accurate. That’s because a key factor in learning is rehearsal. Babies and toddlers spend many, many hours rehearsing their motor, language, and sensory processing skills and in acquiring information about the world around them. Adolescents do the same in respect of interacting with peers, using video games or playing in a band. Adults can become highly competent in the workplace or at cooking, motor mechanics or writing novels in their spare time. What makes this learning appear effortless is that the individuals are highly motivated to put in the effort, so the learning doesn’t feel like work. I think there are three main motivational factors in so-called ‘natural learning’; sensory satisfaction (in which I’d include novelty-seeking and mastery), social esteem and sheer necessity – if it’s a case of acquiring knowledge and skills or starving, the acquisition of knowledge and skills usually wins.

School learning tends to differs from ‘natural’ learning in two main respects. One is motivational. School learning is essentially enforced – someone else decides what you’re going to learn about regardless of whether you want to learn about it or see an immediate need to learn about it. The other is that the breadth of the school curriculum means that there isn’t enough time for learning to occur ‘naturally’. If I were to spend a year living with a Spanish family or working for a chemist I would learn more Spanish or chemistry naturally than I would if I had two Spanish or chemistry lessons a week at school simply because the amount of rehearsal time would be more in the Spanish family or in the chemistry lab than it would be in school. Schools generally teach the rules of languages or of science explicitly and students have to spend more time actively memorising vocabulary and formulae because there simply isn’t the time available to pick them up ‘naturally’.

progressive ‘myths’

Egan’s criticism of Spencer’s ideas centres around three core principles of progressive education; simple to complex, concrete to abstract and known to unknown – Egan calls the principles ‘myths’. Egan presents what at first appears to be a convincing demolition job on all three principles, but the way he uses the constructs involved is different to the way in which they are used by Spencer and/or by developmental psychology. Before unpacking Egan’s criticism of the core principles, I think it would be worth looking at the way he views cognition.

the concept of mind

Egan frequently refers to the concept of ‘mind’. ‘Mind’ is a useful shorthand term when referring to activities like feeling, thinking and learning, but it’s too vague a concept to be helpful when trying to figure out the fine detail of learning. Gilbert Ryle points out that even in making a distinction between mind and body, as Descartes did, we make a category error – a ‘mind’ isn’t the same sort of thing as a body, so we can’t make valid comparisons between them. If I’ve understood Ryle correctly, what he’s saying is that ‘mind’ isn’t just a different type of thing to a body, ‘mind’ doesn’t exist in the way a body exists, but is rather an emergent property of what a person does – of their ‘dispositions’, as he calls them.

Emergent properties that appear complex and sophisticated can result from some very simple interactions. An example is flocking behaviour. At first glance, the V-formation in flight adopted by geese and ducks or the extraordinary patterns made by flocks of starlings before roosting or by fish evading a predator look pretty complex and clever. But in fact these apparently complex behaviours can emerge from some very simple rules of thumb (heuristics) such as each bird or fish maintaining a certain distance from the birds or fish on either side of them, and moving in the general direction of its neighbours. Similarly, some human thinking can appear complex and sophisticated when in fact it’s the outcome of some simple biological processes. ‘Minds’ might not exist in the same way as bodies do, but brains are the same kind of thing as bodies and do exist in the same way as bodies do, and brains have a significant impact on how people feel, think, and learn.

the brain and learning

Egan appeals to Fodor’s model of the brain in which “we have fast input systems and and a slower, more deliberative central processor” (p.39). Fodor’s fast and ‘stupid’ input systems are dedicated to processing particular types of information and work automatically, meaning that we can’t not learn things like motor skills or language. Fodor is broadly correct in his distinction, but I think Egan has drawn the wrong conclusions from this idea. A core challenge in research is that often more than one hypothesis offers a plausible explanation for a particular phenomenon. The genius of research is in eliminating the hypotheses that actually don’t explain the phenomenon. But if you’re not familiar with a field and you’re not aware that there are competing hypotheses, it’s easy to assume that there’s only one explanation for the data. This is what Egan appears to do in relation to cognitive processes; he sees the cognitive data through the spectacles of a model that construes natural learning as qualitatively different to the type of learning that happens in school.

Egan assumes that the apparent ease with which children learn to recognise faces or pick up languages and the fact that there are dedicated brain areas for face recognition and for language implies that those functions are inbuilt automatic systems that result in effortless learning. But that’s not the only hypothesis in town. What’s equally possible that face-recognition and language need to be learned. There’s general agreement that the human brain is hard-wired to extract signals from noise – to recognise patterns – but the extent to which patterns are identified and learned depends on the frequency of exposure to the patterns. For most babies, human facial features are the first visual pattern they see, and it’s one they see a great many times during their first day of life, so it’s not surprising that, even at a few hours old, they ‘prefer’ facial features the right way up rather than upside down. It’s a relatively simple pattern, so would be learned quickly. Patricia Kuhl’s work on infants’ language acquisition suggests that a similar principle is in operation in relation to auditory information – babies’ brains extract patterns from the speech they hear and the rate at which the patterns are extracted is a function of the frequency of exposure to speech. The patterns in speech are much more complex than facial features, so language takes much longer to learn.

Egan’s understanding of mind and brain colours the way he views Spencer’s principles. He also uses the constructs embedded in the principles in a different way to Spencer. As a consequence, I feel his case against the principles is considerably weakened.

the three principles of progressive education

simple to complex

Spencer’s moment of epiphany with regard to education was when he realised that the gradual transition from simple to complex observed in the evolution of living organisms, the way human societies have developed and the pre-natal development of the foetus, also applied to the way human beings learn. Egan points out that this idea was challenged by the discovery of the second law of thermodynamics which states that isolated systems evolve towards maximum entropy – in other words complexity tends to head towards simplicity, the opposite of what Spencer and the evolutionists were claiming. What critics overlook is that although the second law of thermodynamics applies to the isolated system of the universe as a whole and any isolated system within it, most systems in the universe aren’t isolated. Within the vast, isolated universe system, subatomic particles, chemicals and living organisms are interacting with each other all the time. If that wasn’t the case, complex chemical reactions wouldn’t happen, organisms wouldn’t change their structure and babies wouldn’t be born. I think Egan makes a valid point about early human societies not consisting of simple savages, but human societies, like the evolution of living organisms, chemical reactions, the development of babies and the way people learn if left to their own devices, do tend to start simple and move towards complex.

Egan challenges the application of this principle to education by suggesting that the thinking of young children can be very complex as exemplified by their vivid imaginations and “mastering language and complex social rules when most adults can’t program a VCR” (p.62). He also claims this principle has “hidden and falsified those features of children’s thinking that are superior to adults’” (p.90), namely children’s use of metaphor that he says declines once they become literate (p.93). I think Egan is right that Spencer’s idea of cognition unfolding along a predetermined straight developmental line from simple to complex is too simplistic and doesn’t pay enough attention to the role of the environment. But I think he’s mistaken in suggesting that language, social behaviour and metaphor are examples of complex thinking in children. Egan himself attributes young children’s mastery of language and complex social rules to Fodor’s ‘stupid’ systems, which is why they are often seen as a product of ‘natural’ learning. Children might use metaphor more frequently than adults, but that could equally well be because adults have wider vocabularies, more precise terminology and simply don’t need to use metaphor so often. Frequency isn’t the same as complexity. Research into children’s motor, visuo-spatial, auditory, and cognitive skills all paints the same picture; that it starts simple and gets more complex over time.

concrete to abstract

By ‘abstract’ Spencer appears to have meant the abstraction of rules from concrete examples; the rules of grammar from speech, of algebraic rules from mathematical relationships, the laws of physics and chemistry from empirical observations and so on. Egan’s idea of ‘abstract’ is different – he appears to construe it as meaning ‘intangible’. He claims that children are capable of abstract thought because they have no problem imagining things that don’t exist, giving the example of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit (p.61). Peter Rabbit certainly isn’t concrete in the sense of actually existing in the real world, but all the concepts children need to comprehend his story are very concrete indeed; they include rabbits, items of clothing, tools, vegetables and gardens. And the ‘abstract’ emotions involved – anger, fear, security – are all ones with which children would be very familiar. Egan isn’t using ‘abstract’ in the same way as Spencer. Egan also claims that children’s ability to understand symbolic relationships means that Spencer was wrong. However, as Egan points out, symbols are ‘arbitrarily connected with what they symbolize’ and the ‘ready grasp of symbols’ is found in ‘children who are exposed to symbols’ which suggests that actually the children’s thinking does start with the concrete (what the symbols represent) and moves towards the abstract (the symbols and their arbitrary connection with what they symbolize). Spencer might have over-egged the pudding with respect to concrete to abstract principle, but I don’t think Egan manages to demonstrate that he was wrong.

known to unknown

Spencer was also insistent that education should start with what children knew – the things that were familiar to them in their own homes and communities. Egan raises several objections to this idea (pp.63-64):

1. “if this is a fundamental principle of human learning, there is no way the process can begin”
2. ‘if novelty – that is things unconnected with what is already known – is the problem … reducing the amount of novelty doesn’t solve the problem”
3. this principle has dumbed down the curriculum and comes close to “contempt for children’s intelligence”
4. “ this is the four-legged fly item … no one’s understanding of the world … expands according to this principle of gradual content association”

With regard to point 1, Spencer clearly wasn’t saying we have to know something in order to know anything else. What he was saying is that trying to get children to learn things that are completely unconnected with what they already know is likely to end in failure.

I can’t see how, in point 2, reducing the amount of novelty doesn’t solve the problem. If I were to attend a lecture delivered in Portuguese about the Higgs’ boson, the amount of novelty involved would be so high (I know only one Portuguese word and little about sub-atomic physics) that I would be likely to learn nothing. If, however, it was a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture in English for a general audience, the amount of novelty would be considerably reduced and I would probably learn a good deal. Exactly how much would depend on my prior knowledge about sub-atomic physics.

I do agree with Egan’s point 3, in the sense that taking this principle to extremes would result in an impoverished curriculum, but that’s a problem with implementation rather than the principle itself.

It’s ironic that Egan describes point 4 as the ‘four-legged fly’ item, since work on brain plasticity suggests that gradual content association, via the formation of new synapses, is precisely the way in which human beings do expand their understanding of the world. If we come across information with massive novel content, we tend to simply ignore it because of the time required to gather the additional information we need in order to make sense of it.

a traditional-liberal education

Egan’s critique of Spencer’s ideas is a pretty comprehensive one. For him, Spencer’s ideas are like the original version of the curate’s egg – not that parts of them are excellent, but that they are totally inedible. Egan says “I have already indicated that I consider the traditional-liberal principles equally as problematic as the progressive beliefs I am criticising” (p.54), but I couldn’t see where he’d actually done so.

A number of times Egan refers with apparent approval to some of the features commonly associated with a traditional-liberal education. He’s clearly uneasy about framing education in utilitarian terms, as Spencer did, but then Spencer was criticising a curriculum that was based on tradition and “the ornamental culture of the leisured class”. In the section entitled “What is wrong with Spencer’s curriculum?” (p.125ff) Egan highlights Spencer’s dismissal of grammar, history, Latin and the ‘useless arts’. In doing so, I think he has again overlooked the situation that Spencer was addressing.

As I understand it, the reason that Greek and Latin were originally considered essential to education was that for centuries in Europe, ancient Greek and Latin texts were the principal source of knowledge, as well as Latin being the lingua franca. From the Greek and Latin texts, you could get a broad understanding of what was known about literature, history, geography, theology, science, mathematics, politics, economics and law. If they understood what worked and what went wrong in Greek and Roman civilisations, boys from well-to-do families – the future movers and shakers – would be less likely to repeat the errors of previous generations. Over time, as contemporary knowledge increased and books were more frequently written in the vernacular, the need to learn Greek and Latin became less important; it persisted often because it was traditional, rather than because it was useful.

I’ve noticed that the loudest cries for reform of the education system in the English-speaking world have come from those with a background in subjects that involve high levels of abstraction; English, history, mathematics, philosophy. Egan’s special interest is in imaginative education. I’ve heard hardly a peep from scientists, geographers or PE teachers. It could be that highly abstracted subjects have been victims of the worst excesses of progressivism – or that in highly abstracted subjects there’s simply more scope for differences of opinion about subject content. I can understand why Egan is wary of utility being the guiding principle for education; it’s too open to exploitation by business and politicians, and education needs to do more than train an efficient workforce. But I’m not entirely clear what Egan wants to see in its place. He appears to see education as primarily for cultural purposes; so we can all participate in what Oakeshott called ‘the conversation of mankind’, a concept mentioned by other new traditionalists, such as Robert Peal and Toby Young. Egan sees a good education as needing to include grammar, Latin and history because they are pieces of the complex image that makes up ‘what we expect in an educated person'(p.160). I can see what he’s getting at, but this guiding principle for education is demonstrably unhelpful. We’ve been arguing about it at least since Spencer’s day, and have yet to reach a consensus.

In my view, education isn’t about a cultural conversation or about utility, although it involves both. But it should be useful. The more people who get a good knowledge and understanding of all aspects how the world the works, the more likely our communities are to achieve a good, sustainable standard of living and decent quality of life. We need our education system to produce people who make the world a better place, not just people who can talk about it.

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.