The Educated Mind
Criticism of previous education theories
Egan argues that much of educational theorizing pivots around three basic ideas of what the aim of education should be:
- to educate people in content that would give them a "privileged and rational view of reality." (Plato). Here we find the ideas: reason and knowledge can provide a privileged access to the world; knowledge drives the student mind development; education is an epistemological process.
- to realize the right of every individual to pursue his own educational curriculum through self-discovery (Rousseau). Here we also find the ideas that the student development drives knowledge and that education is a psychological process.
- to Socialize the child - to homogenize children and ensure that they can fulfill a useful role in society, according to its values and beliefs.
Egan argues in chapter one that, "these three ideas are mutually incompatible, and this is the primary cause of our long-continuing educational crisis"; the present educational program in much of the West attempts to integrate all three of these incompatible ideas, resulting in a failure to effectively achieve any of the three.
Following the natural mind development
Egan's proposed solution to the education problem which he identifies is to: let learning follow the natural way the human mind develops and understands. According to Egan, individuals proceed through five kinds of understanding:
- Somatic - (before language acquisition) the physical abilities of one's own body are discovered; somatic understanding includes the communicating activity that precedes the development of language; as the child grows and learns language, this kind of understanding survives in the way children "model their overall social structure in play".
- Mythic - concepts are understood in terms of binary opposites (e.g. Tall/Short or Good/Evil), images, metaphor, and story-structure.
- Romantic - the limits of reality are discovered and rational thinking begins. Egan connects this stage with the desire to explore the limits of reality, an interest in the transcendent qualities of things, and "engagement with knowledge represented as a product of human emotions and intentions" (p 254)
- Philosophic - the discovery of principles which underlie patterns and limits found in data; ordering knowledge into coherent general schemes.
- Ironic - it involves the "mental flexibility to recognize how inadequately flexible are our minds, and the languages we use, to the world we try to represent in them"; it therefore includes the ability to consider alternative philosophic explanations.
"Drawing from an extensive study of cultural history and evolutionary history and the field of cognitive psychology and anthropology, Egan gives a detailed account of how these various forms of understanding have been created and distinguished in our cultural history".
Each stage includes a set of "cognitive tools", as Egan calls them, that enrich our understanding of reality. Egan suggests that recapitulating these stages is an alternative to the contradictions between the Platonic, Rousseauian and socialising goals of education.
Egan resists the suggestion that religious understanding could be a further last stage, arguing instead that religious explanations are examples of ironic understanding preserving a richly developed somatic understanding.
Egan's main influence comes from the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. The idea of applying theory of recapitulation to education came from 19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer, although Egan uses it in a very different way. Egan also uses educational ideas from William Wordsworth and expresses regret that Wordworth's ideas, because they were expressed in poetry, are rarely considered today.
In popular culture
The same year the essay was published (1997), Italian comedian-satirist Daniele Luttazzi used Egan ideas for his character Prof. Fontecedro in the popular TV show Mai dire gol, aired on Italia 1. Fontecedro was satirizing the inadequacies of Italian school system, and the reforms proposed by Luigi Berlinguer, 1996-2000 Ministry of Education of Italy. Fontecedro' sketches brought Kieran' theory to extreme levels with surreal humor. The jokes were later published in the book Cosmico! (1998, Mondadori, ISBN 88-04-46479-8), where the 5 stages mind development is also cited at pp. 45–47.
- Kieran Egan (1997). The educated mind (page 13). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-19036-6.
- Kieran Egan (1997). The educated mind (introduction). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-19036-6.
- D. James MacNeil, review of The educated mind, for the 21st Century Learning Initiative, September 1998
- Theodora Polito, Educational Theory as Theory of Culture: A Vichian perspective on the educational theories of John Dewey and Kieran Egan Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 37, No. 4, 2005
previous works on ironic knowledge:
- Bogel, Fredric V. "Irony, Inference, and Critical Understanding." Yale Review 69 (1980): 503-19.
- Kieran Egan (1997). The educated mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-19036-6.
- Book dedicated section in Egan official website
- Conceptions of Development in Education, Egan's essay that explain the main ideas of the book
- From the Imaginative Education Research Group: A brief guide to imaginative education, Some thoughts on "Cognitive tools", Cognitive tools that come along with oral language, Cognitive tools that come along with literacy, Cognitive tools that come along with theoretic thinking
- Excerpts from google books
- Using entheogens as cognitive tools to foster Somatic and Mythic types of understanding