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Education and Psychology: Plato, Piaget, and Scientific Psychology


reviewed by Barry Wadsworth & Richard La Brecque - 1986

coverTitle: Education and Psychology: Plato, Piaget, and Scientific Psychology
Author(s): Kieran Egan
Publisher: John Wiley, New York
ISBN: 0807727172, Pages: , Year:
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The argument presented by Kieran Egan in Education and Psychology: Plato, Piaget and Scientific Psychology is that, among theories, only educational theories have useful implications for educational practice. All other theories, including psychological theories, are viewed as necessarily deficient. Piaget's theory is examined to illustrate the deficiencies involved in translating psychological theory (and theories in general) into educational practice. Plato's theory is presented as an educational theory and is used to illustrate the structural differences between educational and noneducational theories.


Egan argues primarily by assertion that Piaget's theory is not a theory of education and does not yield clear, undisputed implications for education. My sense is that in general this assertion is correct. Piaget's theory is primarily a description (not a prescription) of how people acquire knowledge (how intellectual and affective development proceed) and what the psychological mechanisms underlying development are inferred to be. Piaget never represented or intended his theory to be a theory of education, though he has spoken to what knowledge is and the constraints development necessarily places on learning and knowledge. No psychologist worth his or her salt would claim that theory can be directly translated into educational practice. Piaget does not.


On educators using psychological theories, Egan warns: "If we borrow psychology's theories we also borrow its focus of interest, and lose our own" (p. 5). If this indeed happens, then education loses. It seems to me that the useful trick here is to borrow psychology's theories while maintaining a focus on education. It is not at all clear to me that this is impossible.


Egan writes that the "minimal requirements for an educational theory . . . are that it characterizes its ideal product in terms of a recognizable kind of person, and that it tells us what things we should teach, when and how in order to produce a person of this kind" (p. 117). Constance Kamii describes a program for mathematics education in the early school years explicitly based on Piaget's theory.1 This program has been developed with teachers in elementary classrooms and seems to meet the above criteria for what constitutes an educational theory-at least for mathematics education during the early elementary years. It is also a program based largely on psychological theory. I would be most interested in Egan's assessment of this work in light of his argument.


Egan's presentation of Piaget's theory is not as adequate as it could be. While his basic argument is not necessarily derailed, readers (as well as Egan) can undervalue the potential of Piaget's theory. For example, Egan implies that Piaget believes his theory describes developmental phenomena that are universal (p. 64). Piaget himself made no claims to the universality of his concepts; indeed, he has suggested that there is evidence that this is not the case.2


More telling, Egan, while making a qualitative distinction between the end products of educational theory and Piaget's theory, writes: "In an educational theory the end product is a kind of person. In Piaget's developmental theory it is a kind of thinking" (p. 8). This reference to Piaget's formal operations is a too simplistic, and I think incorrect, interpretation of Piaget's view. Piaget's extensive work on affective development, particularly his concepts of autonomy, normative feelings, and personality development along with intellectual development, focus directly on a "kind of person" as well as on a kind of reasoning.3


As a Piagetian scholar of sorts and as an ex-junior high school teacher still interested ultimately in educational practice, I find much in Piaget's theory that is attractive. The single most educationally useful bit of Piaget's theory, in my view, is the conception that all knowledge is constructed by the individual. 4 If one comes to believe in the notion of construction of knowledge, the impact can be enormous on one's way of conceptualizing almost every aspect of the educational enterprise.


Egan does not mention Piaget's notion of construction of knowledge nor some other important Piagetian concepts. While this less than optimal construction of Piaget's theory is not fatal, it does, I believe, make the view of what the theory is, and what it potentially can and cannot do, less persuasive.


Egan is telling us that educators would be better off with a "good" educational theory than with a "good" psychological theory. This is problematic. I would feel more encouraged if Egan gave us-or pointed to-an educational theory that fit today's real needs. The fact is that there are no comprehensive educational (or psychological) theories. If there were, the argument could seek empirical validation.


Egan has fashioned a well-argued case for appropriate educational theory that can assimilate psychological “facts.” As a psychologist of education I am provoked by this book to consider these issues further – they are important. Ii encourage educators and psychologists to read Egan’s full argument but urge them not to give up on the potential value of noneducational theories, including Piaget’s.


Education and Psychological: Plato, Piaget and Scientific Psychology



RICHARD LA BRECQUE, University of Kentucky



Kieran Egan’s Education and Psychology is aa brief as to the true nature of educational theory as well as a critique of what passes for such in contemporary educational thought. Egan argues t=for what he views as the proper role in educational theory of scientific theories of behavior. Although he helps to clarify the nature of educational theory, his “English Prejudice” against a science of culture prevents him from appreciating the contribution a nonreductive scientific theory of human behavior could make to the core educational values he holds for the development of persons. The following syllogism summarizes his entire case:


Major Premise: Psychological theories can have implications for education only if they describe constraints       on our nature.


Minor Premise: No psychological theory at present describes constraints on our nature.


Conclusion: Psychological theories at present have no implications for education.


The key words are “implications,” “constraints,” and “nature.” All three are interrelated in his overall thesis.


Regarding “implications,” Egan believes Plato does educational theorizing correctly. Plato first develops a comprehensive social philosophy – a conception of the good society – and then envisages the kind of persons whose behavioral patterns are congruent with the conception. He then elaborates an educational schema that is designed to develop such persons. In doing so, he provides answers to the questions of what should be taught, how it should be taught, and when it should be taught. Although Plato’s educational theorizing includes a developmental sequence of experience, this is dictated by his vision of the educated person and not vice versa. Egan states:


He [Plato] does not give us a distinct theory of development, in the manner of psychology, but rather deals with individual development in terms of the sequence of what should be learned and how teaching might be conducted. That is, it is an educational theory with a developmental form. [Emphasis in original.] (p.43)


 Plato, then, is using the implications approach to educational theorizing in its only defensible way. You start first with a normative conceptualization of the educated person and then “identify what, how, and when things should be done to develop your conception” of the educated person. The Piagetians, Egan argues, violate this canon of educational theorizing, because they allow their developmental theory of cognitive development to indicate what our conception of the educated person is to be. The educated person, the aim of education, is an individual who reaches the formal operations level of cognitive development. Education is cognitive development.


Paigetians are criticized by Egan not only for reducing the question of what ought to be our conception of the educated person to the “isness” of cognitive development, but also for their assertion that their research on cognition represents constraints of nature. Educators, therefore, have no rational choice but to heed Piagetian theory when they address the question of what, how, when, and why.


For Egan constraints of nature are those aspects of human behavior that are a function of spontaneous developmental processes, and not learning, and , therefore, necessarily so. These constraints of nature are to be distinguished from constraints of culture, which result in “contingently,” “arbitrarily,” “historically” conditioned behavioral patterns.


From this distinction between constraints of nature and of culture, Egan argues that Piagetian theory of cognition is not a description of constraints of nature on cognitive development but a description of constraints of culture. He bases his argument on evidence piled up by U.S. researchers that what Piaget describes as development is actually learning, which is a function of participating in historically conditioned and intentionally contrived cultural environments.


From his review of the U.S. studies on Piagetian assumptions about cognitive development and the Piagetian assertion of the difference between development and learning, Egan defends his syllogism. Cognitive development theory, å la Piaget, cannot have implications for education as it does not describe constraints of nature; instead it describes constraints of culture. That being so, educators need not feel compelled to formulate ends means in education on the basis of Piaget’s psychological theory. In fact, what educators should infer from Piagetian theory is that they ought to focus their attention on altering the historically contingent factors that have led to the psychological regularities Piagets and his followers have described. Egan, states: Such regularities discovered by psychologists are products of the kinds of forces that is the educator 's job to shape. Only if the forces are natural, and thus

necessary, does the educator have to be constrained by them." (Emphasis original; p. 135).


Egan does not stop here in his diatribe against the use of scientific theories of human behavior in educational theorizing; he condemns the very idea of a scientific theory of human behavior. This mistaken and misguided line argument is unnecessary to support Egan's thesis that psychological theories do not describe constraints of nature and, therefore, cannot have implications for educational practice.


Although Egan attacks what he calls the "Psychological Fallacy," he exhibits. The English Prejudice, which is the fallacy that scientific theories for describing and explaining human behavior are inappropriate because they are based on scientific presuppositions that have relevance only for physical phenomena. Human behavior is to be characterized as "human conduct." The latter is rule-governed behavior and is pulled, not pushed; that is, human action is goal-oriented and driven by human intentions and purposes. Thus, human activity cannot be reduced to physical movement, which can be explained by the physical science concept of causality. Nomological laws are to be applied only to physical phenomena, which lack consciousness and intentionality. These laws are to be eschewed when referring to human activity. A science of human behavior is impossible.


Richard Bernstein's study Praxis and Action best describes what is happening in Egan’s critique of scientific theories of human behavior. Bernstein compares and contrasts three images of humankind that have been employed in discussions of the issue of " what, if anything, is distinctive about man, especially human action." The first image is the "scientific image of humankind," whose presupposition is that human behavior can be accounted for in casual terms associated with the physical sciences.


The second image of humankind, the "manifest image of man," is a rejection of that presupposition and is illustrated by Peter’s argument for what he refers to as the "Rule Following Purposive Model" for describing and explaining human behavior. This model assumes that human actions cannot be sufficiently explained in the causal terms associated with the physical sciences and that human actions require "teleological explanations" – explanations involving knowledge of the ends and reasons for why a human action was performed.


The third image of humankind, the "synoptic view of man," argues that the manifest image of man of "new teleologists" attempts to settle the issue of what is the nature of human action by conceptual fiat. The synoptic view's displacement hypothesis champions" see the new teleologists engaging in a Strawsonian "descriptive metaphysics" in which they attempt to pull off two things: one, using conceptual analysis as a descriptive metaphysics for determining  what is most real about man (descriptive metaphysics, a description of the most basic concepts used in thinking about the world and humankind, is a utile enterprise as it is a logic of appearances, and not of reality, argues Bernstein); two, disguising within the rules of ordinary language analysis a prescription of how man is to be viewed.


This critique of the new teleologists is another way of describing the English Prejudice, namely, assuming that ordinary language analysis of human action reveals something more than just what people believe to be true about humankind. But, as the critics of the new teleologists argue, ordinary language analysis reveals only our belief about the way things are.


Egan shares the new teleologists' view of humankind and their rejection of a scientific view of human behavior. For example, he states that " given the terms in which human behavior has traditionally been conceptualized the conditions common in the physical world do not seem to hold in the human world" (p. 131). With regard to the issue of cause versus meaning in describing and explaining human behavior, Egan sides with the meaning folks. This is seen in his statement that humans " have meanings which vary in interminable ways depending on contexts made up from things like intentions, history, and other cultural contingencies" (p. 131). The new teleologist world view also is seen in Egan's concern for the role of consciousness and intentionality: "The study of human behavior can become scientific only when it is conceptualized in a manner which removes consciousness and intentions as inevitable casual agents” (p. 164).



If Egan is to realize his own goals for education, he must alter his attitude toward a science of human behavior. His educational theory begins with a social philosophy and a concomitant conception of the educated person. A principal feature of the good society for Egan is that people act in accordance with reasoned behaviors. They are not automatons or mindless functionaries, as they act with consciousness and intentionality and are not driven by antecedent casual forces.


This is not a view of the true nature of humankind to be established a priori by conceptual analysis- the descriptive metaphysics imperialist strategy. It is a conception of a person as an ideal educational outcome, a conviction of value as to how we ought to think about what it means to be human.


Egan should reconsider the feasibility and the desirability of a scientific theory of human behavior. It will be a scientific theory that incorporates, rather than excludes, the theoretical concerns of the new teleologists, whether ordinary language analysts or phenomenologists. This more inclusive paradigm can be a nonreductive scientific theory of human behavior by not denying the significance and import of consciousness and intentionality in human activity. It will, however, assume that these characteristics are shaped by the institutions in which human beings are functioning. A scientific theory of culture can help us to understand the strategic barriers in institutional life to the fuller manifestation of conscious control of human affairs.  Science, making sense of institutional life, can indicate the strategic actions. that are Imperative for making more of a reality Egan’s conception of what it means to be a person.



We have in the making a nonreductive scientific theory of human behavior. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills's Character and Social Structures develops A theoretical framework for a science of human behavior. Baran and Sweezy, in their approach to political economy, admit to the reality of Intentionality in human action but see constituting of objects determined by the objective necessities of economic systems. They speak, for example, of the objective necessities of capitalism becoming the subjective intentions of capitalists. Marvin Harris's5 anthropological theory represents a self-conscious effort in the struggle for a nonreductive science of culture. Although these theorists do not deny the element of consciousness and intentionality in human affairs, they do insist that people are led by the social necessities permeating institutional life to seek certain goals and pursue particular values. Their underlying assumption is that a science of culture has the potential to be liberating and emancipatory. A science of culture can inform us as to the nature of the social necessities that impel people to act in certain patterned ways, acting on behalf, for example, of one set of goals as against another. These theories do not describe constraints of nature, but constraints of culture, constraints that function as social necessities but are nevertheless capable of being changed radically. A science of culture promises to reveal for us why these social necessities have arisen, how they function to shape human intentions and direct consciousness, and why they persist in a social formation.


In sum, Egan is unintentionally furthering the status-quo supporting belief that there cannot be a science of culture. In doing so he undermines the means to the values he holds most highly for the education of persons and methodologically turns us away from, to use his words, "the kinds of forces that it is the educator’s job to shape.”




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 87 Number 4, 1986, p. 618-625
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 695, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 8:28:18 PM

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