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The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding

reviewed by Shawn M. Rowe & James V. Wertsch - 1999

coverTitle: The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding
Author(s): Kieran Egan
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226190366 , Pages: 299, Year: 1997
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In the spirit of rethinking school reform by rethinking our assumptions about what we learn and how learning occurs, Kieran Egan presents the problems of education in the United States today as stemming from an incoherent conception of purposes. In his view, education is plagued by a lack of clarity concerning three mutually incompatible goals: socialization, the acquisition of knowledge, and the fulfillment of personal potential—goals Egan associates with ideas outlined by Durkheim, Plato, and Rousseau, respectively. His solution is not to throw out the goals, but to reconceive education as the development of successive types of understanding (“somatic,” “mythic,” “romantic,” “philosophic,” and “ironic”), each made possible by the mastery of a particular set of cognitive tools, especially linguistic ones. In this sense, Egan is a part of what some have called the “discursive turn,” with its focus on the positive and negative roles of language in shaping human interaction and thought.

Egan devotes the bulk of the book to developing an account of successive types of understanding associated with the mastery of a succession of age-appropriate cognitive tools. He grounds this argument in Vygotskian ideas and argues that it can help set American education straight while allowing accomplishment of all three of the goals of education he identifies in his introduction.

In each of several chapters, Egan describes how children take up new cultural tools at different ages and thereby make sense of the world in new ways. In the process of growing children come to understand the world and their relationship to it in different ways, but their earlier kinds of understanding do not disappear; rather, they “coalesce” to varying degrees and form the constellation of ways of understanding the world we associate with educated, Western adults.

Egan models the succession of types of understanding on the development of thought in the Western world and tries to demonstrate how children master the tools and ways of thinking in roughly the same order that Western civilization has. In addition to problems of equating the thought of a 10-year-old to that of Herodotus, this raises the general specter of what he terms recapitulationism with a Eurocentric twist. Many of Egan’s anecdotal observations about age-related interests and behaviors are persuasive, but he recognizes the problems he is raising and goes to great pains to separate his line of reasoning from what he calls 19th-century recapitulationist theories. Extensive passages in the book are taken up by arguments that his theory is not about the superiority of some kinds of understanding and the people who employ them and the inferiority of others and the people who employ them.

In the end, however, it is not clear how Egan can get around this problem. One possibility would be to harness the notion of “leading activities,” as outlined by El’konin (1972) and developed by others, such as Newman, Griffin, and Cole (1989). In this view, a common set of human activities (formal instruction, peer interaction, labor, etc.) is assumed to characterize many sociocultural settings, but these settings differ in how they organize and privilege the activities. When trying to understand children’s development in such a setting, the argument is that one or another activity takes on a leading role at different points. The advantage of formulating things in this way is that it does not presuppose the kind of one-activity-at-a-time view that leads us to characterize either a civilization or an individual in terms of a single mode of thought. Whether it would allow Egan to escape all the difficulties with which he struggles is not entirely clear, but it may be a beginning.

The fact that Egan struggles with these issues at all is admirable. Recapitulationism has fallen into such disrepute in contemporary discussion that one must have very sure footing to bring it up. Egan has such sure footing. The range and depth of scholarship reflected in this volume is simply remarkable. The reader is treated to informed and insightful treatments of topics ranging from ancient Greek philosophy to postmodern accounts of knowledge. And all this is done in an engaging style that keeps the argument flowing from one step to the next. It is hard to imagine Egan will convince all his readers of what he has to say, but he will push just about every one of us to a new, “higher” level of reflection.


The writing of this paper was assisted by a grant from the Spencer Foundation to the second author. The statements made and the views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.


El’konin, D. B. (1972). Toward the problem of stages in the mental development of the child. Soviet Psychology, 10, 225–251.

Newman, D., Griffin, P., & Cole, M. (1989). The construction zone. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 101 Number 2, 1999, p. 267-269
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10687, Date Accessed: 12/3/2021 1:38:14 AM

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