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On Learning: A Response to Floden, Buchmann, and Swille

by Kieran Egan - 1987

A response to the article by Floden, Buchmann, and Swille.

When inviting a response to the Floden, Buchmann, and Schwille article, the editor described it as presenting an “important and counter-intuitive” argument. That it is an important article seems to me beyond question. Whether it will appear counter-intuitive will turn obviously on one’s intuitions about moving from everyday experience to disciplinary understanding. This is perhaps the location of one of the criteria for dividing educators into “traditionalists” or “progressivists,” though, in Europe particularly, one often finds progressive and even radical thinkers about education taking it for granted that, as Bertrand Russell put it, the first task of education is to destroy the tyranny of the local over the imagination. Their argument will probably be seen as counter-intuitive in the United States of America more than elsewhere. This is no doubt due in part, as the authors note, to the great influence of John Dewey’s ideas. I think Dewey’s influence may be more pervasive than the authors recognize, however, and may be detected even in the way they have posed the problem of breaking with everyday experience. This creates some difficulties in their argument, to which I will try to point.

Whether counter-intuitive or not their article is important for the great clarity with which it persuasively opposes what has been a very widespread assumption in educational thinking. The authors have concentrated on making their case with precision, supporting it with good reasons and evidence, and meeting a range of possible objections. They have not dwelt on particular implications of their argument in any great detail, but it is obvious that its implications are wide and deep ranging, both for teaching practice and for the curriculum. The common exhortation to begin any new topic or unit of study by seeking connections with students’ everyday experience, for example, is shown to be of dubious educational value. The assumption they undermine, for an example related to the curriculum, is the main support of social studies. Social studies are designed to gradually “expand horizons” outward by attaching new knowledge and concepts to those presumed to be already familiar from students’ everyday experience. In Dewey’s view at least, social studies were of vital importance because they provided the means of ensuring that disciplinary knowledge did not become detached from everyday social experience, and for this reason he considered them “so important that they should give direction and organization to all branches of study.”1 If Floden, Buchmann, and Schwille are correct in their general argument, where does this leave social studies?

A further important feature of their article is the careful argument to show that attempts to collapse education to socialization, whether on pedagogical (relevance) or on social (equality of opportunity) grounds, are misguided. They support a strong distinction between socializing and educating, and defend the proper role of the school as a place apart from existing social conventions and assumptions, owing allegiance rather to the traditional pursuit of truth. They defend the school against its decline into merely another, or a substitute or supporting, socializing institution. It has a unique role, connected with a conception of education tied to inculcating forms of understanding, some of which will be entirely unnecessary for and irrelevant to everyday living, and some of which may even be subversive of its dominant forms and assumptions. Connectedly, they argue powerfully that inducing conformity to prevailing middle-class conventions, linguistic usage, role expectations, and so on, while possibly useful in preparing the more successful inductees for economic success, is quite distinct from educational success.

The role of respondent should be other than simply cheerleader, however. More appropriate is the probing of possibly constraining assumptions in the authors’ argument, suggesting alternative ways of approaching the problem, and perhaps even hinting at different solutions. Let me begin working in these directions by putting the authors’ argument into a wider context of debate—a context they sketch themselves but that might be put to further use.

Educational philosophers periodically reflect on the nature of educational theory, and various educationists refer casually to theories of many kinds, so that one might imagine our field to be littered with theories. There is not much to be gained from haggling about the term, but one might reasonably observe that in its sense of general organizing scheme there are only two educational theories, perhaps two and a half. The first and most persistently influential is Plato’s. In this scheme we must first get clear what we mean by education and what its end will look like. We must then design a curriculum that will carry the child to that end from ignorance and conventional confusion by means of those forms of knowledge that encourage, or entail, the growth of rationality and its power to expose the truth about reality. Each step of the process is determined by our sense of the end. In such a scheme the curriculum is the dynamic that carries the educational process forward. The second theory is Rousseau’s. He saw it as a complement to Plato’s. Rousseau argued that the stages of the journey to educated adulthood have distinctive characters of their own that need to be brought to their own perfection or ripeness. Childhood, then, is not to be seen merely as the beginning of a process, a stage defined by ignorance and its lack of adult rationality. Childhood has its own form of perfection, to whose ripening we must carefully attend. In Rousseau’s theory, the dynamic of the educational process is the natural growth or ripening experience of the child, to which disciplinary knowledge must be made to conform if it is to be effectively and usefully learned.

These two theories have not come easily together. They have, nevertheless, provided the terms, and perhaps the polarities, of the major educational debates of this century. The trouble is that it is difficult to think of education as a process of potentials ripening according to natural predispositions and at the same time as the accumulation and internalization of disciplines and their logics. It is a bit like the rabbit’s or duck’s head perception trick. Attempts to bring them together have to contend with the obvious role disciplined knowledge plays in education and the equally obvious role played by the developing everyday experience of the individual. Which provides the dynamic of the process? Is there a 50-50 contribution? 40-60? 0-100? One can try to gloss over this dilemma, collapse one to the other in some more or less ingenious way, or suggest that they proceed in a dialectically interacting fashion, but the typical result of attempts to overcome the dilemma have been either flaccid compromises or principles of interaction that lack the kind of clarity and precision a useful theory requires. Unfortunately, perhaps, much of the debate in education during this century has been less concerned with how to overcome the dilemma, or how to conceive of education in such a way that the dilemma does not arise, than with taking sides on the greater importance of developing everyday experience or of disciplines, or vice versa, or arguing that one or the other is the primary source of the dynamic of the educational process.

Which brings us to John Dewey. More persistently and fertilely than anyone else he tried to overcome the dilemma we have inherited from Plato and Rousseau. It is hard to write about Dewey’s works, and especially to make any generalizations, in such a way that at least seven-eighths of one’s readers will not find inadequate, giving evidence that the writer (any writer) does not understand what Dewey was really getting at. A curious aspect of the North American educational scene is that most educationists seem to have a rather different view of what Dewey was about, along with a conviction of their privileged insight, supported irrefutably with textual evidence. Do you prefer Goodman’s, Cremin’s, or Hofstader’s John Dewey? Dewey’s writings seem to serve as a kind of educationists’ Rorschach test. Floden, Buchmann, and Schwille suggest, and show, that Dewey is ambivalent on the fundamental dilemma presented by Plato and Rousseau. More generally, one might better say that he is polyvalent. No body of modern writing about education contains so many insights, profound observations, pedagogical ideas, and practical recommendations, and no body of modern educational writing so rewards rereading as Dewey’s. But—perhaps there is no way to make this point and avoid lynching, so I may as well put it directly—taken as a whole Dewey’s educational writings are incoherent. This is to say nothing other than that they do not add up to a single coherent vision; they add up to a multitude of insights, perspectives, and visions. This is not intended as a piece of gratuitous abuse but is to bring us to what seems to me the main problem with the Floden, Buchmann, and Schwille article.

If one accepts Dewey’s dichotomies one will get stuck in Dewey’s impasses. Throughout the article we are expected to accept Dewey’s formulation of the dichotomy between everyday experience and academic disciplines. If we accept these as distinct and useful categories for dealing with education we accept as a central problem how one of them becomes the other, or how we get from one of them to the other. The Rousseauean and Deweyan view, augmented by the research and theorizing of Piaget, is that the interaction between the two—whether we call them ripening experience and “words, words, words,” or natural and formal learning, or development and learning, or experience and disciplines—identifies the dynamic in the former and claims that the latter can be smoothly mastered if it is tailored to fit the ripening experience or the natural spontaneous development of the individual. The alternative, Platonic, view, which is furthered by Floden, Buchmann, and Schwille, is that the practices that follow from implementing the Rousseauean position do not allow disciplinary understanding to escape from, as Russell put it, the tyranny of the local over the imagination. The essential start for disciplinary understanding is in enabling the Platonic dynamic to begin its work on the mind, to begin breaking with everyday experience and the conventional, inadequate, and false ideas it generates.

Floden, Buchmann, and Schwille have accepted the dichotomy largely in the terms in which Dewey formulated it. They have, valuably, reasserted the inadequacy of educational practices that resist breaking with experience—reasserted, that is, the Platonic line. In making their argument there are two—at least, two that I notice—significant absences, two ghosts not invited into the debate.

The first is Piagetian refinements of the Deweyan and Rousseauean position. The authors deal with old progressivist assertions about how experience must remain paramount, and they deal with Dewey’s ambivalence on the issue. But they have ignored Piaget’s and more recent Piagetian neoprogressivist accounts of how we can—and must—shape disciplinary understanding to the spontaneously developing experience of the individual student. Piagetians, after all, do have a relatively complex account of how abstract, formal understanding of disciplines can be achieved that runs counter at crucial points to the authors’ call for breaks. The Piagetian position is hardly unassailable, but it is a coherent and competing account of the issue the authors are centrally concerned with, and needs to be addressed.

The second ghost flittering around the article represents a more, and yet less, surprising absence: less surprising in that it tends to be commonly ignored in educational debates on learning;2 more surprising in that it seems a blatantly obvious paradigm of what the authors are searching for. There is no mention in the article of the plain fact that one of the most evident features of children’s thinking is that it constantly, and long before they reach school, exhibits breaks with everyday experience. Their article is written as though the mental life of children is constituted of either concrete immersion in everyday experience and the conventional concepts stimulated thereby or of accumulated and accumulating knowledge of various disciplines. But, as the title of a recent article by Maxine Greene puts it, "Whatever Happened to Imagination?“3 Children’s mental life brims with wicked witches, star-warriors, and a vast menagerie of half-human, half-animal or half-alive, half-dead creatures such as ghosts, spirits, hobbits, talking middle-class bears, and so on. If the topic is breaking with experience then perhaps something may be learned from the vigorous everyday mental activity of children in which breaks with everyday experience are commonplace. Relatedly, if one is concerned to “’lure’ students into initially unfamiliar subject matter,” why not pause to consider the techniques that have been routinely doing this with casual ease and almost invariable efficacy for millennia? Prominent among these is the story.

Imagination and stories are not very prominent in educational thinking and research. The breaks with everyday experience that we associate with them perhaps seems to be going in the wrong direction—making for the “affective” gate of our emotional life rather than the “cognitive” gate toward disciplined rationality—but this way of conceiving of our mental life only perpetuates the fruitless dichotomies. (There is nothing wrong with dichotomies, of course; they are among the main props of our thought. But we do need to set them up right.) Let me reapproach this point by means of the remaining half an education idea.

During the latter part of the nineteenth century, “recapitulation” theories had a powerful if rather brief influence on education. Their main principle was the construction of curricula in such a way that children would gradually learn about their culture in the sequence in which human experience in general discovered and invented it historically. Such recapitulation schemes were supported by two plausible ideas: first, the fact that knowledge developed or was invented or discovered in the historical sequence in which it was immediately guaranteed a kind of logic to a curriculum patterned on that sequence, and, second, there seemed a kind of symmetry between “primitive” knowledge, ideas, and interests and those of children and so psychological development could be conceived as recapitulating the psychological progress of “the race.” The brevity of recapitulatory influence in education was in part due to the undermining of its developmental models. These had been blended from biological notions of ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny, and from anthropological notions of “primitive” human cultures. The biological bases were shown to be unfounded4 and the nineteenth-century armchair anthropologizing was unable to survive the influence of Durkheim, Lévi- Bruhl, and Malinowski. Other difficulties involved the rather literal-minded way the historical development of culture was seen in terms of accumulating knowledge laid out in historical sequence. Dewey flirted with recapitulation ideas early in his career, but—and this was their death-blow in education—they came into direct conflict with progressivism’s central principle that the starting point of instruction should be what was present in children’s experience.

Recapitulationist ideas are brought to mind by Floden, Buchmann, and Schwille touching on the work of Scribner, Cole, Olson, Hallpike, Goody, Watt, and others. Children in our societies recapitulate, for example, the process of becoming literate, the history of which development is becoming a focus of increasingly detailed scholarly concern. The recapitulation here is not some mysterious cultural influence or some rather inaccessible psychological process. It can be grasped in terms of the technical aids literacy provides to thinking. Literacy does not cause, say, abstract rational forms of thought, but it appears to be a necessary condition of their systematic and cumulative use.5 Similarly, in oral cultures certain forms of thought and expression dominate because of the need in such societies to remember the verbal bases of the institutions, on which their identity and intellectual security depend. So those resources of language that aid memorization become of crucial social importance. These include meter, rhythm, rhyme, vivid images involving human actions and emotions, and—most powerful of all cultural inventions for ensuring memorization, emotional identification, and thus social cohesion—the story form. Over unknown millennia in oral cultures these techniques were invented and elaborated. The need to remember gave rise to the stimulation of vivid mental images in story forms. The need to remember, we may say, gave birth to the imagination, or it evoked, stimulated, and enormously developed one aspect of human thinking, which we call imagination.

Young children also live in an oral culture. That is, the resources they have available for thinking do not include those provided by literacy. In cities and schools—places in which children have interacted over many years and centuries—there has persisted an oral culture of games, songs, and forms of thought that share a wide range of features with those evident in oral cultures throughout the world—prominently rhythm, rhyme, meter, vivid images involving human actions and emotions, and stories.6 This is not because people in oral cultures are simpleminded, “primitive,” and like children in ours, but simply because the resources of thought available are similar. What they think about may be quite different; what they have to think with is quite similar.

Children in our society do not move from orality to literacy, they move from orality to literacy-and-orality. The resources of orality are not to be left behind. Indeed, they form the foundations of our education. Literacy is not opposed to orality; it can provide development of capacities in addition to those of orality, and they will coalesce in ways that will alter those of orality. But as rationality is a development from and an elaboration of forms of thought evident in myth, so academic disciplines are a development from and an elaboration of forms of thought evident in everyday experience.

This is perhaps a circuitous route to criticizing the categories on which the article turns. “Everyday experience” is a very vague term, defined largely by being distinguished from academic disciplines. Everyday experience seems largely to involve the technical resources of thought associated with orality—and these are resources we rely on every day. The logic of orality is primarily and prominently that of metaphor. It is complex to the point of our having little conceptual grasp of it, although we rely on it for every sentence we use. The logics of rational disciplines are simpler and clearer, although hard enough for us to reflect on the ways we reflect. Again, the logics of rational disciplines are not opposed to metaphor; they grow out of it and are built on it.

Let me try to pull together the threads of this response. The challenge facing us in education is to find a way to give due weight to the great insights of Plato and Rousseau. Both are indispensable, but they seem to entail conflicting ideas of how to teach and how to set up a curriculum. Until we can work out a way of conceiving of education such that both their insights are honored without our becoming entrammeled in the long conflict they have generated, we can at least try to maintain a balance between them. It is to this balancing that the Floden, Buchmann, and Schwille article seems to me to contribute. They reassert the importance of the Platonic insight in an environment that seems to have gone a little too far in the direction of the Rousseauean. We should be able to embrace both, but embracing one, at least in the terms and categories in which educational thinking is presently framed, entails giving too little weight to the other.

The techniques of thinking that we see in oral cultures are among the basic tools of human thinking anywhere. Rationality is not an enemy of these, as Plato, ambivalently, presented it.7 If we understand better how systematic and cumulative forms of rationality developed from the forms of thought in oral cultures we may be better able to understand how academic disciplines can be developed from “everyday experience.” If we understand better how imagination, metaphor, and story serve as agents of sense-making, we may be better able to understand the way refinements from these make more precise sense of more restricted phenomena. The techniques of orality are the foundations of education. If we conceive of our task of building curricula in terms of breaking from our experiential foundations we are unlikely to build securely. That is Rousseau’s insight. I think a new kind of recapitulation theory might be stitched together, one that can get us past the Plato-and-Rousseau-generated dilemma. What is recapitulated as children move from an oral to a literate-and-oral culture is the forms of thought, the techniques of thinking, that have developed through human history. By studying how the techniques of orality led into those of rationality, and how literacy enabled the realignment and redeployment of those basic techniques in developing disciplinary understanding, we may be able to design curricula that allow us to bring childhood to ripeness in the child while at the same time, and without breaks and conflicts, move the child in the direction of rationality and disciplinary understanding.

Easy to stand here pointing, of course. My response to the article overall is admiration at the clarity and force of its argument, which I read as a reassertion of a part of an argument made by Plato. It deals with it in the terms of modern educational debate, and these terms seem to me to have been powerfully influenced by Dewey. As the job of respondent is to try to indicate possible limitations and alternative ways of conceiving or resolving the problem, I have tried to point at a way in which the categories the article accepts as more or less discrete—everyday experience and disciplines—entail remaining in, rather than trying to transcend, the major educational dilemma we face. The direction that seems to hold out hope of transcending the dilemma is a more sophisticated recapitulationism that focuses on forms of understanding in terms of the technical resources available to thought, historically and developmentally. These technical resources will include those found in myth, such as rhythm, meter, story-forms, and so forth, and the poetic tropes—a point made by Vico some time ago—and the cultural inventions and discoveries spawned in movements such as romanticism and modernism. These technical resources enrich the possibilities of our thinking and so our experience—academic disciplines, after all, are enlargements of our experience—and these are what can be recapitulated during the process of education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 88 Number 4, 1987, p. 507-514
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 602, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 3:41:40 PM

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