Getting It Wrong from the Beginning

Our Progressivist Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget

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I noted some enthusiasm for this book in an anonymous review post at the Astral Codex Ten substack. And it turned out to be actually available on the shelves of Dimond Library at the University Near Here. (This is a very rare occurrence!)

The author, Keiran Egan, passed away last year. This 2002 book is one of many. The link above will take you to a detailed (and very long) review of his "magnum opus", The Educated Mind.

There has been a lot of research over the decades into cognitive psychology, including piles of exciting recent insights. This ought to be reflected in the way we teach the youngsters, right? But instead, we seem to be doing the same old stuff, in the same ways, year after year. Spending a lot of money, and the results are awful. What's going on?

Egan argues that the dominant philosophy in modern education is badly flawed, and he points his shaky finger of blame at an unlikely suspect: Herbert Spencer. Today Spencer is widely despised as a forefather of "social Darwinism". But in his own time, he was seen as a progressive, albeit one with a fondness for laissez-faire economics. And he was really a fan of evolution, even coming up with the term "survival of the fittest".

Spencer's view of evolution was flawed, in a Lamarckian way. Understandable, given the state of biological knowledge back then. But he applied that evolutionary view to just about everything he thought about, including education. And his conclusions about the "best" way to foster the development of human minds were widely promulgated, somewhat modified but not fundamentally altered by Dewey and Piaget. And (Egan argues) we're still operating under that fundamentally incorrect paradigm today. (In an amusing aside, he notes that Aristotle carelessly "observed" that flies have four legs; this observation was uncritically "repeated in natural history texts for more than a thousand years".)

What to do instead? Egan has suggestions, involving firing up childrens' power of imagination by telling timeless stories, encouraging their enthusiasms. I have no idea, because I don't even come close to dilettante-level in the area of educational philosophy. Again, the above link has much more detail, see what you think.

Egan's discussion is laced with humor, and a distinctive personal tone. It's not an easy read, but I found it accessible.

Last Modified 2024-01-11 2:55 PM EDT