Review of The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding, by Kieran Egan. (Chicago:University of Chicago Press, 1997). Prepared by James D. MacNeil for the 21st Century Initiative.

Introduction to the Main Ideas

Kieran Egan’s recent book, The Educated Mind, offers an exciting reframing of the debates concerning the problems of education and proposes a provocative antidote: increase our understanding of understanding.

Egan’s point of departure is that, “The problem is not so much with the school, but with the way we conceive what the school is supposed to do”. Schools in the West currently operate under the strain of three incompatible ideas. Egan describes these ideas as:

  1. Rousseau’s emphasis on individual human development,
  2. Plato’s idea that reason and knowledge can provide a privileged access to the world, and
  3. the idea of socialization of children into their societies’ and nations’ values and beliefs.

Rousseau maintains that the internal processes of a child and the environment drive human development. Plato maintains that knowledge drives human development. The aim of socialization is not with development at all, but rather with homogenizing children and preparing them for responsible membership in society. Due to historical circumstances and ideological pressures, the present educational program in much of the West attempts to integrate all three of these incompatible ideas. In the process, it has failed to effectively achieve any one of the three.
As a first step to unpack this confusion, Egan suggests that we reframe the debate. Rather than debating back and forth between the Platonic program (the “great books”, e.g.) and the “intertwined means and ends” approach of the child-centered, experiential program (a la Rousseau and Dewey), Egan offers a way out – a revamped theory of recapitulation blended with insights of the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky. In this way, as we shall see below, recapitulation provides a useful framework for rethinking the goals and methods of education and human development. “Education”, proposes Egan, “…can best be understood as a process in which the individual recapitulates the kinds of understanding developed in the culture’s history (p.73).”

In the wake of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection in the 19th century, “Recapitulation” became an explanatory framework for all kinds of social and natural phenomena. Its application to education was articulated by the 19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer, “If there be an order in which the human race has mastered its various kinds of knowledge, there will arise in every child an aptitude to acquire these kinds of knowledge in the same order…. Education is a repetition of civilization in little” (quoted in Egan p.27).

The simple idea of recapitulation is that the development of an individual human being proceeds through stages that roughly follow, or recapitulate, the gradual trajectory of evolution of the human species. To identify what exactly is recapitulated in the developing individual, Egan turns to Vygotsky. Vygotsky’s notion is that human beings make sense of the world by using “mediating intellectual tools” (such as symbolic language) that in turn affect the kind of sense we make of the world. The units that get recapitulated, according to Egan, are the types of understanding that are generated by different “mediating intellectual tools”. We can identify what is recapitulated in the development of an individual, then, not in terms of knowledge or psychological processes but in terms of mediating intellectual tools and the types of understanding they generate.

The types of understanding are called Somatic understanding, Mythic understanding, Romantic understanding, Philosophic understanding and Ironic understanding. Every child is born with some Somatic understanding, that is, a pre-linguistic, physical-based sensibility that grasps the concrete world. Somatic understanding results from an “infant’s mind discovering its body” (p.242). Somatic understanding recapitulates the adaptive evolution of the early hominids.

Mythic understanding comes with the acquisition of language. Mythic understanding is a pre-literate understanding that uses the power of language to make sense of the human universe. It is readily observable in the spontaneous discourse of children who are gaining command over a spoken language. The primary ‘tool of sense-making’ at this stage is the forming of “binary oppositions” (p.37), which all children seem adept at executing. Egan observes that such binary structuring – the forming of dualistic characterizations – is one of the earliest cognitive developments in children, and for good reason. “Organizing one’s conceptual grasp on the physical world by initially forming binary structures – hot/cold, big/little, soft/hard, crooked/straight, sweet/sour – allows an initial orientation over a range of otherwise bewildering phenomena (p.40)”. Children also make sense of the complex world of human emotions and values by dividing phenomena into opposites, such as good/bad, happy/sad, love/hate. Many popular fairy tales are laid out along a binary structure, such as Hansel and Gretel, which uses a well-known security/fear structure (p.40).

The Mythic understanding of young children enables them to dwell comfortably in a land of myth and fantasy, and their orally-based ‘mediating tools’ allow them access to a community of magical beings, including ghosts and goblins, tooth fairies, the Easter bunny and Santa Claus and so on. During this stage children make sense of the world by dividing it into black and white. As they develop through subsequent stages they will fill the gray areas in between and round out their comprehension of a complex world. Mythic understanding is prevalent from the time grammatical language is formed until the ages of 6-8. This understanding recapitulates the historical development of oral societies and traditions.

Romantic understanding comes with literacy (including numeracy) and rational thinking – recapitulating the evolution of written language systems. As children enter the early Romantic understanding stage, around ages 6-8, they begin to learn ‘abstract systems of reference’ (such as the degrees on a thermometer) and thus supplement their perception-based knowledge of the world (such as “hot” or “cold”). Children thus begin to learn the use of abstract, symbolic language, which human societies have codified in writing systems. The young learner moves from Mythic understanding, which uses the symbol system of oral language, to the Romantic understanding, which uses the symbol system of written language (numbers and letters). In doing this they gain the ability to think abstractly and use decontextualized language. It is during this stage that the child develops a sense of and autonomous self and of an autonomous real world.