Book Review

Dr Marshall A Cohen — History & Social Science, emeritus

By Marshall Cohen
Published: September 2010

With a tear for the dark past, turn we then to the dazzling future, and, veiling our eyes, press forward. The long and weary winter of the race is ended. Its summer has begun. Humanity has burst the chrysalis. The heavens are before it.
‘€ Edward Bellamy 1888

In 1888, Edward Bellamy published a remarkable American classic, Looking Backward. It was a tale of an imagined change that had befallen the United States between the high Gilded Age and a utopian future.
The novel’s hero, Julian West, falls asleep in the year 1887 and awakens to the brave new world of the year 2000.
In Bellamy’s imagined world, the industrial warfare, class conflict, and political corruption that characterized the late Nineteenth Century had given way to a planned society of rational cooperation.
What is most remarkable about Bellamy’s tract was its immediate popularity and influence. Nationalist Clubs sprang up throughout the United States, advocating Bellamy’s prescription for social change based on home-grown, American values.
If industrial and class warfare was the name of the game in Gilded Age America, then the culture wars and the struggle over public schooling is a major focus of conflict in our own age.
The price that we pay for a heterogeneous society is wildly differing notions of what our common schools should do and what values they should instill in our youth.
In a distinct departure from our history, some have suggested that we have no values in common and that it is not the school’s place to teach anything that is not purely technical and connected to the American occupational structure. In other words, there are some who loudly suggest that the only legitimate purpose of education is to prepare students for the workforce.
Kieran Egan is a “big picture thinker.
So pronounces Harvard’s Howard Gardner on the book’s back cover. To be sure, Professor Egan is neither a traditionalist nor a progressive.
He begins with the most fundamental question: what is the purpose of education? He rejects the purpose of delivering to students the received wisdom of the past in terms of drill in the canon. He also rejects the role of primary socializing agent on behalf of society.
Painting with a broad bush, Professor Egan rather coyly states that “Education is a process in which something good is done to the mind.
He proceeds to explain why the education wars have been so nasty, how the goals of our current system are inherently contradictory, and how education might take a direction that avoids some of the either/or suggestions so prevalent today and in the past one hundred years.
In the second half of the book, Egan takes the reader on a decade-by-decade imagined journey in which, like Bellamy, he shows how the utopian future evolved from the contentious past.
* * * * *
A number of educational writers have commented on the incompatible goals of American schools.
We mean to socialize children, acculturate them, and allow them to develop and self-actualize. These goals were seized upon at very specific moments in our history, and they can’t be integrated in a manner that is acceptable to all their adherents.
They are, Professor Egan argues, mutually exclusive, so the schools usually fall back on some mélange that nods in the direction of all three at the same time – an awkward gesture to say the least. “Our three defective ideas, he quips, “prevent each other from doing too much damage.
This is the kind of intellectual flabbiness that causes many, including the academic higher education establishment, to hold the schools in contempt. Piling on, Egan continues: “Ah what a wonder of compromise is our modern conception of education!
* * * * *
Egan professes at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, a school well known for its activism in the 1960′s and 1970′s and for its academic excellence today.
His university work has led to a vision of secondary education that he calls “imaginative education (IE). This vision is some sort of “third way that allows us to avoid the stark black and white views characterized by modern educational theorists.
To use imaginative education one must recognize that education is broadly cultural and involves what Egan calls a “cognitive toolkit.
And what is in this toolkit?
According to Professor Egan’s view, there are five different kinds of human understanding that develop somewhat sequentially in the life of a young person.
The first is somatic understanding, a pre-lingual form that enables a child to make sense of the world in his or her earliest years. As language develops, this mode is eclipsed by, but does not completely replace, something that Egan calls “mythic understanding,
The presentation of reality in narrative form connected to a strong emotional component and tied to concepts that involve polar opposites or dichotomies.
This mode of understanding is connected to metaphor and involves abstract thinking, so it gives the lie to the commonly held notion that children are only capable of “concrete thinking. (Jean Piaget)
In fact, teachers who subscribe to the ideas of imaginative education would try to utilize the human proclivity for this mode of understanding by using rich narrative as a tool.
Romantic understanding, the third mode, comes about when the child intuitively tries to define limits to the mythic qualities described in the polar opposites of mode two.
Romance, is defined as the “desire to transcend the boundaries of reality while recognizing that one is constrained by those boundaries.
The art of the teacher is to recognize what engages such a newly literate mind and to utilize it to present knowledge in an acceptable and useful way.
A preoccupation with heroes is a typical condition of this mode.
The fourth mode is a quantum leap from the other three. It involves the use of concepts made up of general ideas that grow out of the everyday world of particular events. This is called “philosophical understanding.
This important leap allows a person to develop very sophisticated theoretical thinking as well as the anomalies and contradictions these present. It also allows for the construction of “meta narratives that enable the grouping and classifying of complex patterns of thought.
Finally, after all of this cognitive growth, the mind is ready for the ability to discern the difference between what is said and what is meant: “ironic understanding.
This last mode enables the activation of humor, an invaluable tool for the educator.
* * * * *
Good schools and talented teachers, if they understand this scheme of development, can couch their lessons in developmentally appropriate language, using myths, stories, and metaphors to dress up material in order to facilitate learning.
Of course, teachers have been doing this for years without the developmental language of IE, but it’s always nice to have a theoretical scheme to justify practice.
Kieran Egan has a keen eye for the workings of institutions. His account of the six decades between 2010 and 2060 is wickedly delineated.
Particularly sly is his account of the parry and thrust of the various factions of reformers as they interact with politicians and the public over that fifty-year period.
For example, in the period between 2030 and 2040, reformers find themselves reintroducing structures that they have long since abandoned such as separating classical education from simple socialization in response to a set of political dilemmas.
Teachers are even trained differently for the different purposes, and that sets off a struggle over perceived status of the two sets of professionals.
In this way, some of the baggage of an outmoded style of education makes a reappearance due to structural pressures. His utopia is not devoid of the annoying struggles that have characterized our own era.
As with Bellamy’s tract, there is a ring of truth to the scenario as it unfolds. A modern reader knows in Bellamy’s case that the imagined utopia never materializes.
This modern reader must also have doubts that we will be delivered into a future world in which the good guys triumph.
Just so that we are not too comfortable with the utopian outcome, at the end of the book Professor Egan describes the fragmentation of the IE movement, and the continuation of the education wars, albeit on a less intense footing.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Still, according to this interesting tale, the future looks brighter than the present.
* * * * *
The Future of Education is a worthy addition to the literature about the purpose of schools. The general question of what we are educating children for is an important one and must not be forgotten in the rush to measure and quantify learning. Getting there in an efficient and effective manner is very important, but so is the question of where we are headed.

Read more

Like it? Share it!


Copyright © Denebola | The Official School Newspaper of Newton South High School | 140 Brandeis Road, Newton, MA 02459.
Site designed by Chenzhe Cao.