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The Roles of Schools: The Place of Education

by Kieran Egan - 1992

Examines majaor constituent ideas of education (from Durkheim, Plato, Rousseau, Dewey), suggesting that they are mutually incompatible and consequently result in an incoherent concept of education. Proposes an educational scheme that would develop the kinds of understanding developed in cultural history, which would require focus on imaginative engagement. (Source: ERIC)

 “Education” is a rather messy concept. What I would like to do first is to consider some reasons why it is so messy. It is a concept whose meaning has accumulated over many centuries in the West, and the sense of education we have inherited has had rolled into it a set of powerful ideas. My purpose is not to attempt anything so bold as to try to clarify the concept of education; if anything so unexpected should come about, it will be entirely incidental to my purpose of concentrating on the messiness of the concept. I will try to unroll some of the constituents that form our common sense of education, and focus first on what seems to be lack of congruence among these constituents and so the incoherence of our common sense of education. I will then consider some implications for schools and teaching when one tries to implement an incoherent concept of education, and hint at a way of overcoming the incoherence.


All societies have procedures for initiating the young into sharing the norms, values, and commitments that govern social life and determine the distinctive identity of both the group and the individual within it. In oral cultures these procedures place a significant emphasis on memory, because without writing there is no other method of preserving knowledge, lore, and customs except by fixing them in living memories. Thus the techniques that aid memorization have considerable social importance in oral cultures. Commonly in such cultures lore is passed on using such media as rhyme, rhythm, and meter. The shaping of sound is important for making the message it carries memorable. Commonly too such media are reinforced with an instrument such as a drum or simple strings and a sounding board, which set up a lulling beat. Oral cultures discovered very long ago that information could be made more easily and reliably memorable by encoding it verbally in vivid images. Also, perhaps most commonly and crucially, such cultures discovered that lore coded into stories was much more easily remembered than if conveyed through any other medium. It is not too much to say that the story has been one of the most important of all social inventions. We find myths, usually considered sacred, in all oral cultures. These are stories full of weird characters engaged in bizarre events—whose vividness and what we would call literary power make them memorable. Stories and images also have the power to engage the emotional commitment of their hearers to the content represented. That is, they engage us not simply intellectually, but also affectively at the same time. They can thus communicate information or values or norms of behavior while engaging a commitment to them.

This process of initiating the young into the norms and values of the adult society has been called “socialization.” It is a term developed by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). He showed the extent to which we become recognizably human by being initiated into a society: “Man is man, in fact, only because he lives in a society.”1 To Durkheim, however, all education is a form of socialization: “Education consists of a methodical socialization of the young generation.”2 He also argued that societies can survive only if there is inculcated among members a sufficient degree of homogeneity, and that “education perpetuates and reinforces this homogeneity by fixing in the child, from the beginning, the essential similarities that collective life demands.”3 In this sense oral cultures, and literate, technologically sophisticated cultures, socialize their young to the prevailing norms and values of adult society. Whoever governs the initiation process—the teller of tales or the ministry of education and the school board—acts on behalf of the norms and values that are dominant in society at large. They shape a process that performs the homogenizing role Durkheim refers to; it is a process of convergence toward particular norms and values. To put it at its simplest, socializing aims to make people more alike. If a school in Albania or Iran routinely graduated liberal, capitalist entrepreneurs, it would be considered a disaster. In Winnipeg, this would not be considered so bad.

With the invention and spread of literacy in Western culture, it became clear that the kind of reliance on memory that is necessary in oral cultures was no longer so important. One could record customs, laws, social regulations, and so on, by means of the technology of writing. The use of vivid images and stories became socially less important. But images and stories had psychological effects other than as mnemonics. Plato captured this realization in, significantly, a story. He related to his young friend Phaedrus the old Egyptian legend about Thoth, the god-king of ancient Naucratis. Thoth was the inventor of draughts, dice, arithmetic, astronomy, and much else, including writing. When Thoth took his inventions to Thamus, the god-king of all Egypt—perhaps looking for development funding—Thamus was impressed with many of them. But he had no time for what Thoth considered his greatest invention, writing. He expressed his objection in this way:

The discovery of the alphabet will create forgetfulness in the learner’s souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. Your invention is not an aid to memory. . . . You give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be the hearers of many things and they will learn nothing.4

Thoth might reasonably have complained that the point of writing was to off-load a burden from memory and release the mind for other kinds of activity. But Thamus had a deeper insight, one that we have perhaps neglected somewhat. That is, that by replacing the imagistic, story-shaped and shaping world of mythic consciousness one did not simply gain a release from a burden. Literacy was not a simple gain. One also lost the intensity of participatory experience in an immediate life-world, in which one’s store of knowledge and lore was profoundly and vitally meaningful. As the eye, which derived knowledge efficiently from writing, replaced the ear as prominent in accessing information, so the participatory, emotion-laden message of the speaker no longer enveloped and impacted directly on the body of the learner.

During the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. in Athens, as literacy became increasingly common, initiation of the young might still involve a significant diet of stories, but they had lost something of the intensity of participatory myths. Schooling increasingly used literacy, but the most popular schools that prepared youths for a place in Athenian public life still emphasized the skills of shaping sound to have a persuasive impact on others. Athens was a society in which politics, the law, and public life in general turned on the voice, and the more persuasive the voice, the more powerful the individual. The “finishing” schools, then, focused on what we commonly call rhetoric.

The school of the rhetorician Isocrates was renowned throughout the Greek world in early fourth-century Athens, and families paid heavily to have their sons trained there for public life. The curriculum included learning the regulations governing the social institutions of the time, and the techniques of oral language use that would be most influential within those institutions. It was a process of education that we might characterize straightforwardly as socialization in Durkheim’s sense. The process of initiating students into the prevailing social norms and values is also central to the mandate of schools today. Our schools have the duty to ensure that students graduate with an understanding of their society, and we also expect them to hold values and commitments that are generally similar to those of the society at large. While we might not like Durkheim’s insistence on the term, we must recognize that a central aim of our schools is toward homogenization of children; we aim to make them alike in important ways.

Plato (c. 428-347 B.C.) had a new idea of how people should be educated. He wrote The Republic as a kind of elaborate prospectus for his school, and not really conforming with good advertising practice today, he articulated his ideas in a way that pointed out the inadequacy of those governing Isocrates’ school. Plato’s revolutionary idea was that education should not be primarily concerned with making students fit into the currently dominant social norms and conventions, nor with having them share the dominant values and commitments. Rather, education was to be a process of learning those forms of knowledge that would give the student a privileged rational view of reality. Such a view would enable the student to transcend what Plato considered the contingencies, the confusions and delusions, that constituted the dominant norms and values of everyday life. By careful study of increasingly abstract knowledge the mind could be carried to an understanding of what was ultimately true, real, and of human importance. Isocrates’ students did not pursue the truth but only what might persuade others to believe what they believed. Plato had only contempt for such a conception of education. He articulated, ironically, with immense rhetorical force and clarity and with some starkly vivid images, a new concept of education, and he outlined a curriculum and methods of instruction designed to implement it.

Plato’s concept of education is one that has retained its hold ever since he articulated it. It remains influential still. Whatever you and I mean by education contains at least a significant part of what was initially Plato’s idea. We consider that an inescapable part of the role of schools is to ensure the learning of various forms of knowledge that will increasingly carry the student toward a better-informed understanding of the nature of the world and human experience. This is something different from socializing. It is concerned with a notion of some transcendent truth and reality that is to be pursued regardless of prevailing norms and conventions. Indeed, one of its roles is to make students skeptical about prevailing norms and conventions.

So schools today incorporate in some degree the concept of education that Plato articulated. They attend to the intellectual cultivation of the young in all kinds of ways that exceed the requirements of current social conventions. Drama, logarithms, ancient history, and much else are pursued for reasons beyond straightforward socialization. One result of such intellectual cultivation is an enhancement of the individuality of each student. Thus schools today try to implement a concept of education that has so far accumulated two distinct constituents. They strive to make students share prevailing values, norms, beliefs, and commitments, and they also strive to make students skeptical about prevailing values, norms, beliefs, and commitments. Put a bit tendentiously, schools strive both to make students more alike and to make them more distinct—a hard act to get right.

Let us jump a couple of millennia to consider another distinctive idea that has become part of the concept of education we try to implement through our schools. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 - 1778) thought most of the educational practice he saw around him was disastrous. He admired Plato’s conception of education but concluded that it lacked something, which was undermining its implementation. What happened when dull pedagogues took hold of Plato’s idea was that they focused on the knowledge required and devised curricula that organized knowledge in a more or less logical order. What they entirely failed to do was to take account of what the student was able to learn at different ages and how learning proceeded most effectively. In Emile (1762) he set out to rectify these omissions and supply a set of educational ideas complementary to Plato’s.5

But it did not quite work out like that. Rousseau’s central theme was to argue that if you want to teach so that students understand, then you have to make your teaching conform to the nature of student learning. The key was to perceive nature’s way: “Fix your eyes on nature, follow the path traced by her.”6 Therefore, the more we know about the nature of the student, about his or her development, motivation, learning, and so on, the better we will be able to teach.

Rousseau’s work has been enormously influential, and some of his ideas have crept into our current concept of education. That we need to attend to the individual student and individual differences, to stages of development, to learning styles, to forms of motivation, and so on, is commonly taken as self-evident. Our concept of education is also more flexible as a result of Rousseau’s work, in that we recognize that the aim of teaching is not some distant ideal to which all is to be subordinated, but is ever-present; we recognize that the quality of educational experience yesterday, today, and tomorrow is quite as important as, and is a constituent of, any more distant aim. In Plato’s scheme it was the final achievement of noesis to which all prior teaching was aimed. This led later dull pedagogues to enforce learning, by terror if necessary, to move the student toward the goal. Rousseau made clear that the immediate educational experience was a part of the goal, not just a means to an end.

Rousseau’s ideas did not work out to be the neat complement to Plato’s that he had intended. Indeed, there seems to be a fundamental incompatibility between the two, and it is an incompatibility that has had a powerful and baleful influence on schooling through this century up to the present. The incompatibility lies in their different presuppositions about the dynamic, or cause, of education. For Plato the dynamic of education, what caused the process to go forward, was the acquisition of particular forms of knowledge in a particular sequence. For Rousseau, the dynamic lay in a spontaneous, natural developmental process. That is, in Plato’s scheme, knowledge drives the educational process, and its stages are recognized by the amount and kind of knowledge that has been acquired. In Rousseau’s scheme, natural development drives the educational process, and the acquisition of knowledge is subject to that process. In Plato’s case, knowledge determined educational development; in Rousseau’s, development determined what knowledge was meaningful.

Let us pause for a moment and consider the three ideas we have seen so far. Each one we recognize as an indispensable part of our modern concept of education; we recognize the need, first, to socialize students to prevailing social norms and values; second, to ensure that students accumulate significant knowledge to attain a truer view of the world and experience; and third, to fulfill the potential of each stage of life in accord with our natural development. These three ideas, and their apparent incompatibilities, have been rolled into our general concept of education. We expect the schools today to socialize children to the prevailing social conventions and develop commitment to those conventions, and also to make headway in the Platonic program of critical rationality, which involves skepticism of all conventions and encourages intellectual contempt for the kinds of commitment socialization induces. We expect the curriculum to be constructed on the traditional disciplines of knowledge to shape students’ minds, while letting the students’ natural processes of learning, development, and motivation determine what should be learned at what time.

When we keep these ideas at a sufficiently general level it looks as though we should be able to address each of them somehow. But when we look closely at the implications of each of them, we run into problems of mutual incompatibility. Our general concept of education that has incorporated all three, and others, seems radically incoherent; its most prominent features seem discordant. The challenge for a curriculum that tries to implement such a concept of education is to make people more alike while making them more distinct, and to use knowledge to shape the nature of the individual while letting the nature of the individual determine what knowledge is relevant.

The incoherence has been evident in those long arguments between child-centeredness and subject - centeredness, traditionalist and progressivist, experience and basic-skills, process and product, society determining schools and schools shaping society, and on and on. That is, the major conflicts that rack educational discourse today are one result of our having inherited a concept of education that has mutually incompatible elements. Whenever we try to implement one of these components of our concept of education, we conflict with requirements of the others. If we try to balance them, giving each proportionate importance, we can only reach flaccid compromises at a level that removes from each component its distinctive character and force.

This is, I think, a reasonable description of the condition in which our schools try to implement our incoherent concept of education today. We try to socialize students, but not so much that would risk accusations of indoctrination; we try to make them alike while trying to honor principles of pluralism. We try to incorporate the Platonic program, but not so much that would risk accusations of elitism; we try to make students rational and skeptical while insisting they be committed to prevailing norms and values. We try to fulfill the Rousseauian requirement that we develop the unique individuality of each student and let each individual’s natural interests determine the curriculum, but not so much as to endanger socialization or risk accusations of replacing education by entertainment or psychotherapy or solipsism. We allow, that is to say, each component of our concept of education inadequate scope for its proper implementation, and adequate scope only to undermine the others.


Toward the end of the nineteenth century a set of great institutions took shape in Western societies. They remain central features in the structure of societies today. They were formed in response to a set of related social conditions and they were informed by a related set of ideas and ideological commitments. These institutions include the factory, the hospital, the prison, and the school. It occasionally serves someone’s rhetorical purpose to dwell exaggeratedly on features these institutions share, though it is nevertheless true that we will not succeed well in understanding any one of them if we fail to attend to the common ideas and ideology that affected them all.

Our present interest, however, is the school. Before the late nineteenth century, it is worth recalling, there had never existed schools as we know them. The phenomenon of mass schooling with national or provincial curricula, and all the paraphernalia we take for granted when we think of schooling, is largely an invention of the late nineteenth century.

Mass schooling drew significantly on the factory for a number of models in its organization. The rational efficiency of the factory was much admired, and has influenced many social institutions. One sees this influence continue pervasively, though perhaps also unconsciously. For an example of pervasive and often unconscious influence one need only consider the planning procedure most commonly recommended to preservice and in-service teachers. They are told to begin planning a unit or lesson by first articulating their objectives as clearly and precisely as possible. Then they should select content that will help attain those objectives, then decide on the methods most appropriate for teaching that content to attain those objectives, and finally evaluate the degree to which they have been successful in attaining the objectives laid down in the beginning. This is a barely disguised translation of factory procedures, in which one first designs in detail one’s intended product, ensures the supply of materials necessary to build it, arranges the skills needed to put the components together, and finally tests to ensure that it works as planned. To point to such similarities is not necessarily to criticize them—though it might persuade one to reassess whether a procedure found ideal for turning out identical units in a factory is such an obviously ideal method for planning teaching—but recognizing such similarities helps us to see how factory and school, for example, are institutions with a significantly shared heritage.

The shaping of these great social institutions into the forms we still recognize today took place under, and helped in turn to give modern shape to, centralized states. A feature of the development of mass schooling was its control by the centralized states of Europe and America—a model followed almost universally since. One of the dimensions in which we can see the history of schooling in the past century and a half is as a struggle for control in which the centralized states beat off or diminished the claims of church, family, and other cultural subgroups or local interests. The slogan under which the centralized state fought this battle was “equality of opportunity.” The state claimed to be able to offer all students an equality of opportunity that was denied them if control of schooling rested with other groups in society. Accommodations have been reached here and there with other interests, but by and large this battle has been won by the state—its main weapon being control of funding for schools.

The state’s interest in schools is largely confined to socialization. The state has little interest in encouraging diversity, and skepticism about its authority. Not that there is any concerted attempt to constrain diversity or skepticism, just that they tend to be inconvenient to centralized states. In our committedly pluralist society, the state obviously condones a degree of diversity and skepticism. But the principal tasks for the state’s schools are to prepare students to be able to deal responsibly with the requirements of democratic social life and with the kinds of social institutions we have in place, to be able to hold a job that will be suitable for the individual and productive in the economy, to be able, and disposed, to use leisure in nondisruptive ways, and to share the general values, beliefs, and dispositions that are dominant in adult society. So the state’s interest in schools is to have them perform in significant degree the homogenizing role Durkheim described. In the United States particularly, this provided a major function of the schools in the early part of this century. They were considered wonderfully successful in transforming the children of varied European peasantries into Americans. The main American innovation in curriculum, social studies, was a prime agent in this achievement. A more jaundiced view might see the schools and the social studies curriculum doing for the immigrants’ European cultures what the U.S. cavalry was busy doing for the native Indian cultures. Both were energetically reducing cultural diversity and expanding social homogenization.

Fine-tuning the state’s schools for these roles took place during the early decades of this century. The great national committees in the United States led to reforms that percolated into Canada as much as a couple of decades later, but left Canadian schools and curricula, and their ideology of education, not readily distinguishable from those of the United States. The most articulate, if not always unambiguous, proponent of the new schooling was John Dewey. He cast his arguments for a “progressivist” shaping of schools in terms of a contest between an archaic, elitist, ornamental, solipsistic education and a modern, democratic, practical, and socially attuned one. Dewey transformed some of Rousseau’s central ideas into a form appropriate for an industrializing, urbanizing, democratic state. The dynamic of the educational process for Dewey is what he calls “growth,” a version of Rousseau’s internal, natural development. It is a process that is stimulated by everyday social life and that leads to the individual’s being at home, competent, and effective in an urban industrial democracy. Like Durkheim, Dewey uses “education” in a manner that seems generally synonymous with “socialization”: “What nutrition and reproduction are to physiological life, education is to social life,” and “Not only is social life identical with communication, but all communication (and hence all genuine social life) is educative.”7

Dewey, of course, also wrote eloquently about the importance of aesthetic cultivation, as well as much else. Indeed, there seems very little of educational significance that he did not address. For whatever reason, however, his writings have been very variously interpreted. What has persisted, or constantly resurfaced, have been his concern to humanize the experience of schooling, to encourage students’ activity and inquiry (what we now seem to call “critical thinking”), and to imbue in them the values of democratic social life. These have blended with the state’s persistent agenda of preparing students for economically productive employment.

So the socializing that we saw first in oral cultures has become modernized significantly through Dewey’s pervasive influence. That influence remains profound and pervasive, as Cremin and Kleibard have argued.8 In addition, the sense that the dynamic of education is to be located in the process of individual development has gained a tenacious hold. These gains have come at the expense of the Platonic program and its belief that only through the acquisition of particular forms of knowledge can the individual come to understand what is real and true. So, for example, the typical educator today acknowledges that the range of disciplinary knowledge has to find some place in the curriculum, but it is generally considered adequate only to ensure that students are “exposed” to those parts that have no evident socializing value.

It is not only Plato’s program that has lost ground of late, however. While the socializing procedures of oral cultures have found a secure niche in modernized forms, the psychological techniques they developed to initiate the young and ensure memorization of and commitment to the lore of the tribe have also been depreciated under the more utilitarian regimen of the modern state’s schools, The centrality of the story form and image formation have been largely displaced by discursive prose, theory, and the concept. The latter set encourages literal, practical, and productive thinking; the former set encourages affective and imaginative thinking. Neither set is more valuable than the other in the abstract; each set is more valuable for particular tasks than the other. Both, however, are educationally valuable, in that the development of both enlarges our capacity for making sense of our world and experience.

Looking at the contemporary educational scene in light of the main ideas that have become part of our concept of education, it seems inescapable that one should also comment on a part of Rousseau’s legacy. The enterprise he set in train, of uncovering the nature of students’ learning, development, motivation, and so on, has not been notably successful. Nevertheless it looms large and is immensely influential in our schools and in their administration. Administrators, for example, are encouraged to ask “What is the research base?” for any innovation recommended. The pervasiveness of the assumptions driving this kind of question are puzzling on two counts. First, there does not seem an equivalent concern with the “research base” of what is already in place—which is just as well because most current practices lack one. Second, the methods that currently dominate educational research allow at best only a very insecure grasp on the phenomena that concern us. We still lack, for example, any theory of learning that comes even close to accounting for the most simple everyday cases of learning we are all familiar with. For another example, the great enthusiasm for Piaget’s work was due to his apparently exposing important features of development. It would be a rather foolhardy optimist who could remain enthusiastic about the promise Piaget’s theory or its recent revisions hold out for educational practice. The theory’s insecurity and limitations make earlier general attempts to read implications for education from it seem a wild spasm of dizzy hope, now replaced with a more sober regret. One must begin to wonder how long educators’ apparent faith in “scientific psychology’s” promise to deliver knowledge that will aid educational practice can hold out. I must confess it looks to me increasingly like a religion whose god deserted some time ago—if she was ever there in the first place.

I have suggested that some of the major constituents of our concept of education are mutually incompatible, and that consequently our dominant concept of education is incoherent. I have suggested that attempts to implement an incoherent concept of education lead to confusion and the mutual undermining of the aims of each of the separate constituents. I have suggested in addition that during this century we have seen a distinct tilt in favor of a modern, centralized state-required form of socialization, along with, somewhat incidentally, a largely ineffective industry of pseudo-scientific research that is supposed to fine-tune the educational process. We have seen a depreciation of the Platonic program and of the role of emotion and imagination in schooling.

What, then, should we do? It is hard to find people who are happy with the current graduates of, or dropouts from, our schools. We would all like to see improvements. I will assume that my diagnosis above, while very general, uncovers some of the reasons our practice is not as successful as it might be.


“What causes education?” may seem an odd and brusque question. What is odder than its appearance here is its absence in most educational discourse. When we are concerned to bring something about, make something happen, normally we ask what causes it. When we know the answer to that, we know better how to proceed. If one is engaged in educational research of any kind and one does not know what causes education, or one identifies the cause incorrectly, one’s research, however refined and methodologically scrupulous, will most likely be educationally fruitless. Every piece of research in education goes forward on an assumption about what the answer to this question is, even if the researchers are unaware of what assumed answer underpins their work.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, two of the great and indispensable ideas about education considered earlier have provided the major contenders for, or pretenders to, the causal throne. The first, the Platonic contender, claims that education is caused by the individual’s learning appropriate knowledge that gives a privileged view of reality, freed from the illusions and confusions due to personal interests, social circumstances, and so on. The second, the Rousseauian contender, claims that education is caused by the individual’s successfully attaining increasingly sophisticated cognitive skills, enabling critical thinking, problem solving, and the autonomous pursuit of self-determined goals. These two contenders suggest different explanations for most of the phenomena of educational interest. For example, consider the very general features in the development of children’s and students’ understanding. The fact that children at, say, age six typically do not understand some things that are typically understood at, say, age sixteen is explained by the first contender as due to a lack of certain prerequisite knowledge and by the second contender as due to certain cognitive structures not yet having developed. For the first contender, that is, it is a time-related, logical matter; for the second, it is an age-related, psychological matter.

Not many people seem to back one or the other of these contenders exclusively. Both are commonly taken as containing some truth, and most educational research goes forward on an implicit assumption that knowledge accumulation and psychological development somehow work together as casual factors in education. “Somehow working together as causal factors in education” is, of course, rather different from “causes education,” and the difference betrays the conceptual jelly that serves as the foundation for most educational research.

There is one major problem for the common assumption that these two contenders somehow work together as causal factors, and another problem that I would like to raise. The major problem for those who, apparently unconsciously, assume some compromise or mutual accommodation between the two contenders is that they are mutually incompatible, as are the general ideas they are derived from. The second problem I would like to raise follows if you will countenance even briefly the possibility that both claims are false, and jointly false, and in any combination false.

The incompatibility is evident in the first contender’s claim that accumulating knowledge determines psychological development and the second contender’s claim that psychological development determines what knowledge can be learned. Each, that is, identifies the dynamic of the process, and the cause of education, differently, and in a manner that is not open to compromise.

If we countenance even briefly the possibility that the two major contenders are punched-out has-beens, what alternative is there? Everyone recognizes that you cannot be educated without accumulating knowledge—though there may be endless disputes about what knowledge is of most worth, nor can one be educated without the development of higher psychological processes or cognitive skills—though there may be endless disputes about how to characterize these. So any alternative contender, or pretender, will somehow have to encompass these two, and in a way that will suppress the incompatibility that results from locating the causal dynamic of education in either of them.

Let me try to resuscitate a contender assumed to have been decisively floored by the rising psychological developmental scheme. I would like to give it an overhaul as well. Before the metaphors go completely out of control, let me recommend an updated cultural recapitulation scheme. In this scheme, education is caused by the individual’s recapitulating the kinds of understanding developed during the culture’s history. What is recapitulated, that is to say, is not the knowledge accumulated nor the processes of cognitive sophistication achieved, but rather the kinds of understanding, or sense-making capacities, developed in our cultural history, and central to these is that educationally somewhat neglected form of thinking, prominent in oral cultures, which we call imagination.


Let us return to our beginning and consider what sense it can make to suggest that early education, for example, recapitulates a kind of understanding evident in early cultural history. How can a focus on imagination help? I began with some characteristics of oral cultures, and let me briefly remind you that young children coming to school live in an oral culture. This does not mean that their thinking is the same as that of adults in oral cultures, but simply that the things they have to think with do not include literacy. We can note a number of what I will call sense-making strategies that seem to be common to minds that live in oral cultures.

If we consider the intellectual lives of young children today, and wish to focus on their imaginations, we might find it useful to consider those things young children find most imaginatively engaging. They include—surprise!—stories with vivid events and images, rhyme, rhythm, and meter, and other elements prominently valued in oral cultures. If we consider the most engaging stories of young children, we find them structured on abstract binary oppositions like security/fear, brave/cowardly, big/little, good/bad (much as Levi-Strauss shows myths to be).9

Even the briefest look at children’s thinking from this perspective opens up profound conflicts with some of the ideas that dominate educational thinking and practice today. To take only one example, it is commonly claimed that young children are concrete thinkers, and that if you want to make lessons and units meaningful you must make sure the content is made accessible in concrete terms. Seeing the imagination as central to education immediately makes clear that by the time they come to school what most engages children involves the most powerful and abstract ideas that we ever develop. If you tell a child the story of Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham you presuppose that the child understands concepts of oppression, resentment, and revolt. If the child did not, the story would be meaningless. So we might, from even so brief a glance, enunciate as a principle for early childhood education that any concrete content you want children to find meaningful must be articulated on some powerful abstraction. (What we learn over time is to make these abstractions explicit, but regardless of their explicitness they are already clearly a part of children’s imaginative grasp on the world.) To teach concrete content untied to powerful abstractions is to starve the imagination.

To take another quick example with older students: Consider the kinds of imaginative engagements of a typical group of twelve-year-olds. Imagine that you suddenly have to teach a lesson, and you want to engage the students’ interest, and you have two topics prepared, with materials ready. You can take in either “Important features of your local environment” or “Torture instruments through the ages.” Which do you think you would find it easy to make more engaging? Yet we usually seem to employ an almost opposite principle. It has been commonly assumed that to make things engaging to students it is important to make topics relevant to their everyday experience. We have tended to think of experience largely in terms of their overt daily social interactions, and rarely in terms of their imaginative lives. What kind of reading most easily engages middle-school students’ imaginations? It is the kind of thing you find in the Guinness Book of World Records, to take a prominent, somewhat male-oriented example. It is, that is to say, content concerned with the extremes of the real world and human experience. The imagination deals with reality by focusing not on the immediate world around the student, but on those things that are most distant, strange, and exotic. As T. S. Eliot notes in “Little Gidding,” it is only at the end of our exploring that we come to the place where we started and know it for the first time. Or, like fish who discover water only when they leave it, the student is so immersed in current local experience that it is not available to intellectual scrutiny.

This briefest look at a second imaginative engagement yields principles for teaching and curriculum design that run counter to many that are taken for granted today, Our currently dominant principles have given us, for example, the “expanding horizons” curriculum, moving from the known to the unknown as a logical organizer of curriculum material, beginning with students’ everyday environment and experience as a paradigm of what is engaging and meaningful. By taking a brief glance at students’ typical imaginative engagements, these enormously influential principles are thrown into doubt. They are, I think, simply mistaken, derived from false assumptions about what causes education, and they are responsible for the boredom and meaningless of so much schooling to students. If we get the cause of education wrong, it is not some refined matter of abstract theory; it comes down to disaffected and ignorant students.


In summary, I think the dominant concept of education that currently shapes our schools is incoherent. It contains a set of indispensable insights, but various of them have been taken as causes, when they cannot bear that role. The result is poor schooling, boredom, disaffection, and ignorance. The solution is to identify the cause of education more accurately. This will give us a clearer sense of the enterprise and will yield more accurate and effective principles for teaching and curriculum design.

It is, I recognize, unfashionable to argue that the practical problems facing our schools are due to refined theoretical problems. We are more familiar with diagnoses that blame, and seek remedies in, management procedures, or teaching techniques, or the kind of knowledge constituting the curriculum, or inadequate provision for student choices and self-expression. While there are no doubt symptoms of our problems in all of these, they are there only as a result of theoretical incoherence. There is little point in trying to treat the symptoms while ignoring the cause. The cause, I have argued, lies in the concept of education that dominates thinking about such things as management procedures, teaching techniques, student learning, the curriculum, and so on. While operating with our incoherent concept of education, we will run into constant problems with these parts of the education system. The problem is not with complexity; we can get a handle on complexity and operate efficiently within complex systems. With the educational system, the problem is theoretical incoherence, and its most disturbing symptom is that it disempowers all those who work within it.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 93 Number 4, 1992, p. 641-655
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 249, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 11:48:58 AM

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