The Educated Mind

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The Educated Mind
The Educated Mind Cover Pic.jpeg
AuthorKieran Egan
Publication date

The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding is a 1997 book on educational theory by Kieran Egan.

Main arguments[edit]

Criticism of previous education theories[edit]

Egan argues that much of educational theorizing pivots around three basic ideas of what the aim of education should be:

  1. to educate people in content that would give them a "privileged and rational view of reality"[1] (Plato). Here we find the following ideas: reason and knowledge can provide a privileged access to the world; knowledge drives the student mind development; education is an epistemological process.
  2. to realize the right of every individual to pursue his own educational curriculum through self-discovery (Rousseau). Here we also find the ideas that student development drives knowledge and that education is a psychological process.
  3. 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";[2] 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.[3]

How knowledge grows in the mind[edit]

Egan's proposed solution to the education problem which he identifies is to show how knowledge and understanding develop in the mind as we pick up sets of cognitive tools in our negotiations with those around us and with the natural world itself. This individual process, he argues, mirrors, as a result of logical and psychological pressures, a related process in human cultural development. Thus, he describes his theory as a "cultural recapitulation" theory, taking care to differentiate it from the conceptions of recapitulation common in the late 19th century and early 20th century. According to Egan, individuals can pick up sets of cognitive tools that will coalesce into five distinctive kinds of understanding:

  1. Somatic - (before language acquisition) the physical abilities of one's own body are discovered, as are our emotions; 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".
  2. Mythic - binary opposites (e.g. Tall/Short or Good/Evil), images, metaphor, and story-structure are prominent tools in pre-literate sense-making.
  3. Romantic - the limits of reality are discovered and rational thinking begins, connected with the development of literacy. 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)
  4. Philosophic - the discovery of principles which underlie patterns and limits found in data; ordering knowledge into coherent general schemes.
  5. 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, and is characterized by a Socratic stance in the world.

"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".[4]

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.

Connections with other authors[edit]

Egan's main influence comes from the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky.[3] 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[edit]

The same year the essay was published (1997), Italian comedian-satirist Daniele Luttazzi used Egan's ideas for his character Prof. Fontecedro in the popular TV show Mai dire gol, aired on Italia 1. Fontecedro was satirizing the inadequacies of the Italian school system, and the reforms proposed by Luigi Berlinguer, 1996-2000 Ministry of Education of Italy. Fontecedro's sketches brought Egan's 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 five stages of mind development are also cited at pp. 45–47.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kieran Egan (1997). The educated mind (page 13). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-19036-6.
  2. ^ Kieran Egan (1997). The educated mind (introduction). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-19036-6.
  3. ^ a b D. James MacNeil, review of The educated mind, for the 21st Century Learning Initiative, September 1998
  4. ^ 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.


External links[edit]