On Kieran Egan’s The Educated Mind (Chicago, 1997)

Why are teenagers so damn sure they are right? What is fascinating about ghosts? Why was I obsessed with the Guinness Book of World Records in middle school? Kieran Egan’s The Educated Mind touches on these questions in persuasive and humorous ways, even as it develops a well-researched, erudite model of human cognitive abilities and a practical sensitivity to the implications of these for individual development and education. I first read this book back in 1997, and just recently taught it again in a Philosophy of Education course. I’ve been surprised by the absence of discussion of Egan in literary critical and theoretical circles (surprised because so much of his argument turns on literary and philosophical materials widely known to and discussed by those in my discipline). And I’ve long wanted to talk about it with others. It’s one of those books that I find so highly persuasive that I’m left wondering — what’s the catch?

Egan is an Irish-born educator, raised and educated in England, who currently is Professor of Education at Simon Fraser University. He is the author of fourteen books of which The Educated Mind, published in 1997, may be considered the most important in that it elaborates in a single work a comprehensive version of Egan’s theory of education; a theory that he has subsequently evolved in a practical direction through the Imaginative Education Research Group and through such publications as Teaching as Storytelling, An Imaginative Approach to Teaching, Teaching and Learning Outside the Box and other works.

What interests me in The Educated Mind is Egan’s idea of “kinds of understanding.” A kind of understanding, for Egan, is a set of cognitive tools we employ to engage and to make sense of ourselves and our world. He describes in detail five of these: mythic, romantic, philosophic, ironic, and somatic. As individuals our ability to develop each of these kinds of understanding is tied to linguistic development and so higher at certain ages and in certain cultural situations than in others. But Egan emphasizes that every healthy human being has the capacity for all of these kinds of understanding and that, while the acquisition of each one entails some decrease in our facility with previous ones, the previously acquired kinds of understanding remain incorporated and transformed within the newly acquired ones.

For Egan the kinds of understanding are most important for their implications for educational theory, curricula, and teaching, which is very interesting, but not what I want to focus on in this post. Nor am I particularly interested in talking about his argument that in developing these five kinds of understanding human individuals recapitulate the discovery and development of these kinds of understanding in the species as a whole. I can say more about these two important dimensions of Egan’s book if anyone is interested. But I am more interested in his “kinds of understandings” in themselves as ways of grouping human capacities. These overlapping groups of capacities are available to all of us, particularly in adulthood, and useful, each in its own way, depending on the situation we find ourselves in, the challenges they present, and the sense-making purposes we may set for ourselves.

The characteristic tools comprising Mythic understanding, which correlates learning to speak and so is predominantly active from ages 2-7, include the capacity for forming binary oppositions and mediating them (ghosts mediate between the binary “live” and “dead”; clothed, talking animal characters like Peter Rabbit between the categories “nature” and “culture”),for abstract thinking, metaphor, rhythm and narrative, images, stories and affective meaning, and humor. Egan compares the capacities characteristic of Mythic understanding to “the tools of the poet.”

Romantic understanding Egan characterizes as a “somewhat distinctive kind of understanding supported by an alphabetic literacy bent to the development of rationality.” Running roughly from ages 7 to 15, it serves also as a transition between Mythic and Philosophic understanding. Some of its distinguishing characteristics include a fascination with limits of reality, extremes of experience, and contexts for daily life (think of The Guinness Book of World Records or the mega ergon of Herodotus’s Histories),

an interest in individual transcendence within reality (having heroes, stories of heroes), emotionally inflected knowledge, delight in unexpected associations, and descriptive rational investigation.

Philosophic understanding (perhaps beginning around age 15, with no definitive end point): “the central feature of Philosophic understanding,” Egan writes, “is systematic theoretic thinking and an insistent belief that Truth can only be expressed in its terms.” Enter teenagers. Its central characteristics include a craving for generality, a shift in interest from great events and heroes to social agents in the shaping of reality, strong sensitivity to the lure of certainty, a predilection for general schemes and anomalies, pattern making. A key condition for the development of philosophic understanding, both historically and for individuals, Egan argues, is the establishment of communities committed to fostering it.

Ironic understanding, which accompanies linguistic self-reflexivity, “gains the theoretic generalizing capacity of Philosophic understanding while keeping ironically in check the easy belief that truth resides in general schemes.” The tools or capacities comprising Ironic understanding include, as I mentioned, self-reflexivity, openness to self-contradiction, openness to possibility, flexibility, recognition of some validity in all perspectives. In talking about Ironic understanding, Egan persuasive runs through the ways in which it can incorporate each of the three prior kinds of understanding, undercutting their vicious excesses and enlarging the scope of their virtues. And this leads him to a nice distinction between “alienating irony” and “sophisticated irony” (I take it, since he seems always at pains to match matter and manner and so in this section on irony is keenly linguistically self-aware, that he uses the adjective “sophisticated” to make reference to the Sophists).

“The former results from the achievement of reflexiveness that undercuts and suppresses general schemes, romantic associations, and mythic stories. (The common suppression of earlier kinds of understanding that we recognize in ourselves and in other people echoes – recapitulates? – the common polemical attacks on intellectual predecessors in our cultural history; perhaps it is stimulated by a kind of shame at earlier unsophistication.) This alienating irony rejects the validity of any perspective, believes in no metanarratives, sees all epistemological schemes as futile; in short, it doubts everything.

Sophisticated irony is different in that it succeeds in achieving reflexiveness without suppressing Mythic, Romantic, and Philosophic understanding. By preserving the earlier kinds of understanding as much as possible, we may develop a kind of irony that enables its users to recognize validity in all perspectives, to believe all metanarratives, to accept all epistemological schemes, to give assent to every belief. Well, that puts it simplistically, of course. This openness to possibility is not credulity or simplemindedness but, rather, the result of a flexible, buoyant recognition of a multivocal world, within and without. Put incautiously, as above, sophisticated Ironic understanding might seem cheerfully open to self-contradiction: committed to foundationalism on the one hand and antifoundationalism on the other; to traditional epistemology and the Enlightenment project as well as to Niezschean insights and to the postmodern project. But the sophisticated ironist enjoys an abundant consciousness of varied ways of understanding, and can appreciate a varied spectrum of perspectives while concluding that some are better or more valid or more helpful or more beautiful than others in partricular circumstances and for particular purposes. . . . .The product of alienating irony is impotence; sophisticated irony is liberating and empowering.”

Interestingly, Egan follows his account of these four types of understanding with a brief account of Somatic understanding, which involves pre-linguistic, physical understandings for which we may not have adequate verbal means of expression. “The Somatic,” Egan writes, “is a somewhat distinctive kind of understanding that sequentially precedes the Mythic, coalescing and accommodating with each subsequent kind of understanding as they develop on the Somatic foundation.” Egan means to emphasize that “very young, pre-language using children have an understanding of the world. This is not an ‘animal’ perception; it is a distinctively human ‘take’ on the world. It is constituted of how we first make sense with our distinctive human perceptions, our human brain and mind and heart and whatever else our bodies can deploy in orienting themselves.” In short, here he is talking about “a knowledge from the body, beyond human words.”

I can’t resist noting here that he uses an anecdote concerning Vladimir Nabokov to illustrate the point. He recalls that in his later years, Nabokov would insist, for interviews, that all questions be submitted in writing. He would then write out answers and he and the interviewers would read these prepared interviews. Egan recalls that in one such interview, one of the presubmitted questions was “Why do you insist on this peculiar interview procedure?” Nabokov replied, “Because I think like an angel, I write like a competent craftsman, and I talk like a fool.” Nice.

The last three chapters of the book include a humorously staged discussion (Chapter 6) between himself and the readers of his book in which he entertains objects and requests for clarifications, and then two chapters on “Some Implications for the Curriculum” (Ch. 7) and “Some Implications for Teaching” (Ch. 8). I haven’t really followed Egan’s career closely since this book came out in 1997. But I see from his website that he has published a number of works, many of them practical interventions in the field of Education, building upon the foundation laid here. Moreover, he’s developed the Imaginative Education Research Group which operates a website stocked with materials that teachers at all levels can use in order to present academic content in ways that also exploit and develop the age-appropriate kind of understanding of their students.

But I’m still most interested in Egan’s model for two reasons. First, as a way of thinking about the different kinds of understanding operating in criticism. I mean not only that certain kinds of understanding seem to predominate in certain individual critics, but also that perhaps truly excellent criticism makes use of all these kinds of understanding. Secondly, I’m interested in the kind of light that this model could shed on my own life story. As I’ve begun to think more deeply about particular periods of my life it’s interesting, comforting and perhaps even wise to recast what I might be inclined to see (with regret or embarrassment) as insufficiency, blindness, mistake, or defect instead as a normal expression and exercise of a particular kind of understanding. It might have been working a bit off the chain, unchecked by others kinds of understanding, or misapplied to the situation or purposes at hand. On the other hand, some of those same moments or even others involving what I think of as successes or achievements might also be seen through this lens as moments in which a particular kind of understanding was working at a high level and, though perhaps unbalanced by other kinds of understanding, succeeded anyway because I was operating within a situation that rewarded that kind of understanding.

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