That is an excellent book. One point Kieran makes, that might be of
specific interest to writing teachers is that what he calls philosophical
and ironic understanding can only be acquired after extensive education
(post secondary), and require ongoing institutional support for their
sustenance--and even then not everybody "gets" it.
This is counter to the prevailing view in many literature courses, where
relativism rules, and orality and literacy are often seen as separate but
equal, or maybe with orality given a slight edge.
It's also counter to the position of other cognitive researchers, like
Steven Pinker, who states unequivocally in How the Mind Works that literacy
has no effect on consciousness, and grants us no unique status among other
species. (Of course, he also says art and music have no role in natural
selection, and therefore represent only excess cognitive capacity for
auto-stimulation--despite his early promise, he remains, alas, a totally
Kieran wrote an earlier book which I also really like, in which he
discusses and applies some of the same ideas in The Educated Mind--it's
called Teaching as Story Telling: An alternative approach to teaching and
curriculum in the elementary school. (The Althouse Press: U of Western
Don''t be put off by the title--it applies to post secondary education just
as well as elementary school. I'm quoting from the blurb on the back:
Many educators have criticized the dominant objectives-based planning
schemes (I'll say!!!); this is the first book to provide a clear and
workable alternative. This is not a book about using fictional stories in
teaching, nor about how to tell stories more effectively; rather it is
about how to use the power of the story-form in order to teach anything
more engagingly and meaningfully. It provides a model for planning that
encourages us to see lessons and units as good stories to be told rather
than sets of objectives to be attained. [Just like The Educated Mind,] The
text contains numerous examples of how the model can be used in planning
lessons and units in Social Studies, Mathematics, Language Arts, and
I used ideas from both of these books when I redesigned the Business
Communication course I'm teaching this summer, and he really does offer
creative, humane techniques. I had fun designing the syllabus, I love
teaching the course, and oh yeah, the students seem pretty cheerful too
(though this could also be attributed to the unflagging efforts of my
You can check it out at our web-site (which is set up and maintained by
Tanya Teslenko, who is also teaching a section of the course):
--you have to type this in on the address line, you can't get to it through
the SFU home page menus for some reason. We've got the course outline, some
of the assignments, study guides, and some other material.
I'm not sure Kieran would recognize his ideas as I've applied them, so you
might not either. But hey, you might.
And anyway, you might be interested in checking it out for another
reason--I've used your article "On Becoming a Rhetor" as one of the course
readings, and also as a model of methodology for the final research
assignment (Lil Rodman from UBC also cites your article in her Technical
Communication, and I think she said one of her assignments at the end of Ch
1 is based on it, too, did you know?)
There you go--see your name in lights on the west coast.
> From: Jamie MacKinnon <[log in to unmask]>
> To: [log in to unmask]
> Subject: The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools . . .
> Date: July 3, 1998 5:33 AM
> In case it interests someone, here's a thumbnail description sent me by a
> friend in Vancouver, Peter Herd, of The Eductated Mind, a recent book by
> Kieran Egan (posted by Jamie MacKinnon)
> Lately, I've been having trouble understanding academic writing AND
> remembering the arguments, particularly when most of my reading is
> done late at night after brain shut-off or during the day while I'm often
> interrupted. With that caveat in mind, here is a superficial summary
> (oooh! I wish I could remember the good parts) of:
> The Educated Mind - How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding
> by Kieran Egan, SFU education prof.
> The problem with current education practice is that it is influenced by 3
> incompatible ideas:
> 1. socialization - the initiation of the young into the knowledge,
> and values of society
> 2. the search for the truth about reality - Plato's influence, abstract
> knowledge, rational thought
> 3. the development of the individual (Rousseau) - discovery learning,
> drawing on students' experiences
> Egan has developed an idea (based on the recapitulation theories of the
> 19th century, Vygotsky, et al) that connects past cultural development
> with contemporary educational development.
> There are 5 stages of understanding that people go through as they
> develop. Egan calls them mythic, romantic, philosphic, ironic, and
> somatic. Stages are added to, not replaced.
> 1. Mythic understanding
> -occurs in conjunction with oral language development
> -characterized by binary structures common in myths (good-evil...). Note
> that oppositions are a product of our thinking, not the phenomena.
> -can be developed through the use of fantasy, metaphor (kids' language
> rich in metaphor), rhythm, narrative, images
> Even with young kids, we can approach the big questions (history,
> society...) through imaginative story-telling. It's not necessary to
> on their personal experiences (current curriculum theory)
> 2. Romantic understanding
> -occurs in conjunction with written language, beginning of "reason"
> -some magic is lost - literacy leads to literal interpretations
> -between ages 5 & 10, magic becomes questioned (Santa Claus)
> -binary opposites become gradations (hot/cold...add warm, cool...)
> -kids are attracted to narrative story-telling, heroes, Guiness Book of
> Records stuff
> -Examining the exciting elements of events and issues can provide a
> context for more detailed, broader examination later
> -Romantic understanding is lively and energetic - less concerned with
> systematic structures than with unexpected connections
> 3. Philosophic understanding
> -central feature is systematic theoretical thinking and a belief that
> truth can be expressed in its terms
> -not just a theoretical pursuit or mental game - philosphic ideas can be
> translated into political and social action through organizations and,
> increasingly, by spreading them electronically
> -beware of generalizations - the lure of absolute truth
> 4. Ironic understanding
> -irony is a powerful rhetorical tool used for effect, not just disguising
> what might be better stated literally
> -ironic understanding is reflexive - it enables us to apply the questions
> and doubts we have about others to our own sense making.
> -"ironic understanding requires expanding our sympathies and
> to those who seem unlike us."
> 5. Somatic understanding
> -preceding and a part of every kind of understanding but separate from
> language and conceptual components of the others
> -connected to behaviour, physical development, body language, survival
> "Our initial understanding...is Somatic; then we develop language and a
> socialized identity, then writing and print, then abstract, theoretic
> forms of expressing general truths, and then a reflexivity that brings
> with it pervasive doubts about the representations of the world that can
> be articulated in language. But irony is a general strategy for putting
> into language meanings that the literal forms of language cannot contain;
> along with this, Ironic understanding involves abstract, theoretic
> capacities, plus the capacities stimulated by literacy, plus the winged
> words of orality, and also our bodily foundation in the natural world."
> Egan claims that a proper education today requires that individuals
> recapitulate the various kinds of understanding and deploy them
> He has sections on implications for the curriculum and implications for
> teaching (some of these ideas have been noted above).
> He also attempts to refute claims that he is proposing a return to
> ethno-phallo-Euro-centred way of thinking.