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.
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.
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.
*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.