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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Friday, 20 October 2017

"The Educated Mind" by Kieron Egan

This fascinating book traces the development of thought in a human.


The Somatic phase (0 to 5 yo). This is prelinguistic. Egan argues that it carries on into later life too: "As when we become literate we do not cease to be oral-language users, so when we become oral-language users we do not cease to be prelinguistic sensemakers" (p 166)

The Mythic phase (5 to 10 yo) As language begins, so do myths. Egan points out that creation myths often include naming. Myths feature binary dualisms. Vygotsky noted that children assemble collections using contrast rather than similarity: in group, out group. Egan believes that binary oppositions are fundamental to all language eg "nouns (stasis) and verbs (change)" (p 39) "Organizing one's conceptual grasp on the physical world by initially forming binary structures ... allows an initial orientation over a range of otherwise bewilderingly complex phenomena." (p 40) Subsequently oppositions are used "to ascribe meaning to any intermediary terms" like putting warm between hot and cold. (p 40). Although some educators seem to assume that kids of this age cannot understand concepts such as "oppression and freedom, love and hate, good and bad, fear and security" (p 43) a kid couldn't understand Star Wars without such concepts.

The Romantic phase (10 to 15 yo) typified by the Histories of Herodotus which scorns the myths preceding it but tells history as the story of great men. This is the most fascinating part of Egan's thesis. He points out that aged 5 "magic is entirely unobjectionable" but aged 10 you need to know the details. (p 71) Bacchilega (1997, 8) states that "In folk and fairy tales the hero is neither frightened nor surprised when encountering the otherworld". Is this because they are aimed at an audience of five-year-olds? However, Egan understands that"In some cultures this transition from a world in which fantasy and magic perform explanatory work does not take place in anything like the form that is common in the West." (p 72)

"Romantic understanding represents crucial elements of rationality developing along with persisting features of myth" (p 80). He now makes observations about characteristics of this phase. Kids of this age are interested in extremes: "Why is the average ten-year-old so interested in who was the tallest person who ever lived?" (p 84) He thinks this is to do with self-contextualising. Similarly kids of this age collect. And finally kids of this age hero-worship because "When we are ten ... we are typically subject to endless rules and regulations - parental, societal, and , not least, natural. The person, institution, or team that the child associates with usually gives clear clues to the constraints found most problematic. ... The tension characteristic of romance comes from the desire to transcend a threatening reality while seeking to secure one's identity within it." (p 90)

The Philosophic phase (15 yo and older) is typified by Thucydides who attempted to explain history as a system (he used a disease metaphor. This is the world of the ideology. It is the world of the Enlightenment.

"Students begin to grasp that what we are does not result from romantic choices and associations but from laws of nature, human psychology, social interactions, history, and so on, which apply to our selves as to everyone else The fading of the importance of romantic associations, then, can appear more a matter of putting aside childish things; having seen as through a glass darkly, students can attain a fuller, theoretic, consciousness of their place in the world." (p 124)

"Establishing the truth about history, society, and the cosmos is serious business. When Philosophic understanding dominates the mind, it can work with powerful intensity. The seriousness of Philosophic concerns, and the focus on knowledge that supports or challenges any one general scheme, tends to reduce interest in the extremes and in the dramatic. Romantic knowledge thus is often dismissed as irrelevant, pointless, a trivial pursuit; Romantic hobbies and collections lose their interest. ... A note of earnestness common in modern Philosophic students echoes Victorian high seriousness." (p 125)

However "This form of intellectual activity can easily slip into narcissism." hence the popularity of anthropology, sociology and psychology (p 126) Furthermore, if the developed world view is seen to fail it can lead to "angst, tears, depression, suicide, pills" (p 131).

The final (?) Ironic phase: This is the postmodern world. "All generalizations are false" (p 137)
"A more common theme in the Western intellectual tradition is that without some clear foundation, come bedrock of truth, human life and our sense of the natural world are chaotic and meaningless. The fear of raw contingency has long driven the pursuit of truth. But in this century ... ironic voices have suggested that nothing much happens if we give up looking for foundations to knowledge, and even for meaning; the sky holds in place, daily life goes on." (p 139)
"What was so disturbing about Darwin's ideas was ... the mechanism of natural selection and its implication that we owe our precious consciousness not to God, framing our symmetry for some high purpose, but to blind chance, to raw contingency." (p 139)
"In the early dialogues ... Socrates lives up to his claim that he 'knows nothing and is ignorant of everything' ... he deconstructs other's claim to knowledge but offers nothing positive of his own in their place. He solves no problems, shows that all the proffered solutions are inadequate, and cheerfully leaves us to sort things out as best as we can. ... To Thrasymachus, this is merely a cheap rhetorical ploy, ensuring for Socrates that he cannot be caught in the contradictions in which he delights to catch others; but it is a ploy whose cost is often destructive and negative, establishing nothing, and as such is pointless and irritating." (p 140 - 141)
"After endless philosophical work by the greatest Western thinkers, almost nothing is agreed, nothing is uncontested. If the enterprise were possible, surely something would be secured by now." (p 153)

This is AFTER an introductory chapter in which he dissects education as having three old, incompatible ideas:
Socialization:  "to inculcate a restricted set of norms and beliefs - the set that constitutes the adult society the child will grow into. ... a prominent aim of schools is the homogenization of children" (p 11)
"Intellectual cultivation": "to connect children with the great cultural conversation" (p 14)
"Fulfilling the individual potential of each student" (p 16)

Beautifully written and powerfully convincing. But does it belong to the philosophic stage or the ironic stage?

Other brilliant moments:
  • "The very structure of modern schools in the West ... can accommodate only a very limited range of nonconformity. ... pushed to extremes ... the socially necessary homogenizing process can become totalitarian in its demands for conformity." (p 11)
  • "The crucial feature of stories is that they end" (p 63)
  • Syllogisms "cannot be managed easily or at all by people who cannot read alphabetic script" (p 75)
  • "The archetypal romantic figure is the hero. The hero lives, like the rest of us, within the constraints of the everyday world but, unlike the rest of us, manages somehow to transcend the constraints that hem us in." (p 88) 
  • "We are born alone and we die alone, and in the short interval between, underneath our languages, histories, cultures, and socialized awareness, we live alone." (p 167)
October 2017; 279 pages

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