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Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 37, No.

4, 2005

Educational Theory as Theory of


2005 Philosophy
Oxford, Article
UK 2005
and Theory
of Society
Culture of Australasia

Culture: A Vichian perspective on the

educational theories of John Dewey and
Kieran Egan
College of Staten Island of CUNY, NYC

At the center of every well-constructed theory of education is a philosophical anthropology-
reasoned speculation as to the origins on mans conditions in the history of culture, especially
the particular phenomenon of consciousness that underlies historical periods. Using the lens
of one of the most significant theories of culture produced, we examine the philosophical
anthropological accounts reflected in the theories of John Dewey and Kieran Egan, which
are responsible for their divergent educational plans.

Keywords: culture, theory, curriculum, Dewey, Egan

Referring to the work of 18th century Italian philosopher Giambattista Vico, James
Engell (1985) says:
It might be said, then, that Vicos project is the humanization of
knowledge. This does not mean salvaging an avid roster of traditional
values often associated inappropriately with humanism. It is rather an
attempt to render knowledge relevant to human life and social
institutions, to save knowledge from becoming inert, to help it serve
human welfare, justice, and health. The key faculty for this synthetic
endeavor is the mature imagination, and the key instrument used by the
imagination in this role is languagethe vehicle that makes knowledge
directly relevant to human needs and desires, placing the power of
knowledge before society in public debate, legislatures, universities, and
courtrooms. Technical, mathematical, and crafted media are not ruled out
but subsumed; it becomes primarily through language that society
communicates with itself, defines its values and problems, and attempts
to reach solutions. (Engell, 1985, pp. 3536)
John Dewey and Kieran Egan, two contemporary educational theorists, share with
Vico the project to humanize knowledge and make it relevant to human life and
social institutions. While sharing the same goal, each thinker makes a very different

2005 Philosophy of Education Society of Australasia

Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and
350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA
476 Theodora Polito

proposal on how to achieve this goal in the educational project. Each philosophers
educational theory offers a distinct road map on how to form the mature imagina-
tion and its key instrumentlanguage. It is the purpose of this paper to illuminate
these distinctive road maps by deliberating on the divergent philosophical anthro-
pological accounts that form the foundation running through each educational
theory. Without uncovering these divergent philosophical anthropological accounts
and assessing how accurate and /or complete they are, we are unable to evaluate the
road maps that have been built upon their foundations. When I speak of these
thinkers philosophical anthropological accounts, I am referring to their reasoned
speculations as to the origins of mans conditions in the history of culture, especially
the particular phenomenon of consciousness that underlies a particular historical
period. Like every well-constructed theory of education, both Dewey and Egan
have at their center a philosophical anthropology. These philosophical anthropological
accounts are reflected in their respective educational theories and can be examined
in the light of one of the most significant theories of culture ever produced. Here I
refer to The New Science written by the early eighteenth century Neapolitan philo-
sopher Giambattista Vico. Vico was also a classicist, a historian as well as a student
of law, languages, and human customs. The perspective I take in this paper is
Vichian because I believe it offers the best cultural lens to critique these accounts.
In what follows, I will first outline Vicos explanation of the origin of human
thought and compare this to Deweys account. Following this, I will review
Deweys educational plan and his proposal for cultivating a mature imagination,
and critique it from a Vichian perspective. Finally, I will present the theories of
a contemporary educational philosopher, Kieran Egan, whose work does reflect a
Vichian perspective on education, and contrast his approach to forming a mature
imagination with the approach of Dewey.
Vico argues persuasively in The New Science that the origins of the human mind
and the civil world of institutions were created by men who were poets. These poets
thought by using images and metaphors, which he terms imaginative universals.
Only later in world history did conceptual or abstract universals appear. For Vico, the
origin and development of the institutions of marriage, family, property, law, art,
and religion were products of a collective mind operating poetically (Vico, 1948).
Vico believes we owe a great debt to these original mythmakers, who created a
world through their poetic imaginations and not their rational imaginations. For
Vico, the truth is what we make and not what we find out. Isaiah Berlin says that
Vicos notion of social development is powered by the dynamics of desires, passions,
needs which feed the creative imagination and generate images, ritual, systems of
belief, symbols, forms, social orders, languages, entire cultures (Berlin, 1976, p. 37).
Vico considers myth a projection of the needs and worldview of a developing
society. Myths had their beginning in the public needs and utilities of the people
which simultaneously create language and social institutions. He believed that
language itself could reveal the network of meaning in which social institutions
operate. For Vico, the myth represents the common wisdom of ancient people and
reflects the sensus communis, the underlying agreements which create and sustain the
community. These underlying agreements are a practical judgement concerning

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the needs and utilities around which a community has formed a consensus
(Schaeffer, 1990, p. 83). These underlying arguments were judgements without
reflection shared by an entire class, an entire people, an entire nation (Vico, 1948,
p. 63).
For Vico, language develops in response to social praxis as embodied in the
communis sensus of myths. What accounts for social change in Vico is not reflective
problem-solving but communis sensus. John Schaffer says that sensus communis is
the way language relates to public life and its institutional and ethical activity. Or
rather, it enables humans to use language to modify and adapt institutions, a use
Vico always envisions as occurring in the public arena (Schaeffer, 1990, p. 138).
For Vico, to uncover our origins, any theory of knowledge, any theory of social
progress must be founded on a theory of mythical consciousness which is the
touchstone of any understanding. While the history of science is a project of
humanistic understanding, it cannot recover for us all the world of human values.
The notion of value in cultural life rests upon our sense of identifying and recol-
lecting what is continually being lost (Verene, 1976, p. 33). That is why Vico relied
heavily on the original poetic meanings of words rather than what the word came
to mean later on. The study of these original meaningsetymologyis a key to
recovering the original thought and customs of men. For this reason, Vico paid
great attention to the study of language as a developing social institution. In The
New Science, Vico shows how language and mind have developed together and are
tied to evolving social and cultural forms.

Deweys Philosophical Anthropology

Unlike Egan, Vico, Cassier, Levi Strauss, and Nietzsche, Dewey does not account
for the origin of thought in the aesthetic. In Art and Education, Dewey discusses
the central role that aesthetic activity has played in civilization. He argues that we
cannot separate art products from the human conditions which brought them into
being or from the human consequences that they engender in actual life experience
(Dewey, 1958, p. 3). While giving the aesthetic a prominent communal role, he
falls short of identifying it as the creator of community and therefore the creator
of the civil world of institutions. For Dewey, the aesthetic enhances the commu-
nitys experience by connecting its important activities; however, it does not create
community. The community existed prior to its creation of art activities which
enhance its experience. Dewey says that men create art when they experience a loss
of rhythm with the environment. Artistic creation leads them to recover a union
with the environment (Dewey, 1958, p. 15). For Dewey, even the myths of ancient
people were immediate enhancements of their experience of living. Dewey says,
Myths were something other than intellectualistic essays of primitive man in sci-
ence. Uneasiness before any unfamiliar fact doubtless played its part. But delight
in the story, in the growth and rendition of a good yarn, played its dominant part
then as it does in the growth of popular mythologies today (Dewey, 1958, p. 30).
Instead of looking for the origins of the modern mind in the aesthetic, more
precisely the myth, Dewey looks for the origins of the modern mind in the original

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occupations and industries of ancient people. In The School and Society, Dewey
It is through these occupations determined by this environment that
mankind has made its historical and political process. It is through these
occupations that the intellectual and emotional interpretation of nature
has been developed. ... In educational terms, this means that these
occupations in the school shall not be mere practical devices or modes
of routine employment, the gaining of better technical skills as cooks,
seamstresses, or carpenters, but active centers of scientific insight into
natural materials and processes, points of departure whence children shall
be led into a realization of the historic development of man ... the point
of departure from which the child can trace and follow the progress of
mankind in history, getting an insight also into the materials used and the
mechanical principle involved. In connection with these occupations the
historical development of man is recapitulated. (Dewey, 1971, pp. 19 20)
For Dewey, the origins of thought occur as ancient people imaginatively solve
problems in order to secure food, shelter, and clothing necessary for self-preservation.
As problems were solved collectively, new conditions were brought about that
reshaped cultural conditions. These new cultural conditions became a further
source of problems which stimulated more thought and more complex imaginative
problem-solving. Eventually, the history of mens occupations and industries
becomes the history of science.
With the advent of the scientific method, mind in society both accelerates and
refines its problem-solving capacities while retaining itself as an imaginative col-
lective activity, cooperatively organized. By perfecting mankinds problem-solving
propensity, science perfects a method that creates a cognitive system whose
abstractions and theories free it from local concerns while also giving it wide
application (Dewey, 1966, p. 222). For Dewey, we need only look at the history of
science to see how mind has advanced in society. Dewey says, One who is ignorant
of the history of science is ignorant of the struggle by which mankind has passed
from routine and caprice, from superstitious subjection to nature, from efforts to
use it magically, to intellectual self-possession (Dewey, 1966, pp. 228 229).
Deweys interpretation of the history of science record has some validity. However,
it runs into trouble if it is too broadly interpreted as suggesting that mans problem-
solving capacities can alone account for the origin and development of the cultural
world. This broad interpretation of Deweys ideas presupposes the necessary con-
nection between mans problem-solving capacities directed towards self-preservation
and the origin of ancient institutions such as religion, marriage, family, property,
and law. Deweys philosophical anthropology does not account for the origin of
these institutions, which can be accounted for by the aesthetic. I will elaborate on
this idea later. However, for now, I want to suggest that Deweys account of how
humanity arose is insufficient because it overestimates the connection between
humanitys problem-solving capacities and social change while underevaluating the
power of the aesthetic to create the world. Also, because the aesthetic is not bound

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to the rational, it can encompass the realms of magic and superstition as engines
that have sometimes driven social change. Dewey is inclined to degrade the realms
of magic and superstition because he champions mans rational ascent throughout
cultural history.
It is this philosophical anthropology which leads him to conclude that primitive
history suggests industrial history, which in turn gives economic history its privi-
leged status as a record of mans intellectual and moral ascent. Dewey says:
For one of the chief reasons for going to more primitive conditions to
resolve the present more easily perceived factors is that we may realize
how the fundamental problems of procuring subsistence, shelter and
protection have been met, and by seeing how these were solved in the
earlier days of the human race, form some conception of the long road
which has had to be traveled, and of the successive inventions by which
the race has been brought forward in culture. (Dewey, 1966, p. 215)
By making an overinclusive connection between primitive and industrial history,
Dewey ends up overprivileging economic history as the primary route whereby we
gain self-knowledge. Dewey says:
Economic history is more human, more democratic and hence more
liberalizing than political history. It deals not with the rise and fall of
principalities and powers, but with the growth of the effective liberties,
through command of nature, of the common man for whom powers and
principalities exist.... Surely no better way could be devised of instilling a
genuine sense of the past which mind has to play in life than a study of
history which makes plain how the entire advance of humanity from
savagery to civilization has been dependent upon intellectual discoveries
and inventions, and the extent to which the things which ordinarily figure
most largely in historical writings have been side issues, or even
obstructions for intelligence to overcome. (Dewey, 1966, pp. 216 217)
Dewey can devalue political history as a collection of side issues or even obstruc-
tions because, for Dewey, it is economic history that illuminates the growth of
effective liberties and makes plain the entire advance from savagery to civilization
through intellectual discoveries and inventions. It is this command of nature,
resulting from mans propensity to inquire and solve problems, that accounts for
social change. Dewey gives little epistemological status to the aesthetic impulse, man
as an interpreter of nature who by responding to it simultaneously creates meaning
and civil institutions. He cannot connect the origins of humanity with the aesthetic
because, for Dewey, knowledge is a record of cultural creation through inquiry and
not a record of cultural creation through interpretation.
A contemporary challenge to Deweys philosophical anthropology comes from
the field of evolutionary psychology and cultural anthropology. In 1991, Merlin
Donald in Origins of the Modern Mind traces how our present cognitive architecture
has evolved from chimps and apes. He asks how did humans, given our non-symbolic
mammalian heritage, come to represent knowledge in symbolic form. He concludes

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that what drove brain expansion was not the cognitive demands of toolmaking or
spatial mapping of the environment, but the growth in the size of the social group.
The functioning of large groups imposed greater demands on memory.
According to Donald, the first major transition in this evolutionary process
begins when apes who occupied an episodic culture, living in the present as a series
of concrete episodes, progress toward a human mimetic culture where the ability
to mime and reenact events creates a memory system. It is now possible for the
group to collectively invent and maintain customs, games, skills, and representa-
tions which unify it by sharing knowledge. Donald gives the example of Paleolithic
cultures which habitually acted out conquest, thus preserving this important custom.
Even within this first transition, problem-solving is not what leads to change in the
architecture of the brain. Control over nature through toolmaking was a product
of this period, but not its primary product.
The second transition from mimetic to mythic culture continues this ordering.
Here, first languages are invented which construct conceptual models of the universe.
Donald says,
even in the most primitive human societies, where technology has
remained essentially unchanged for tens of thousands of years, there are
always myths of creation and death and stories that serve to encapsulate
tribally held ideas of origin and world structure. Stories about seminal
events in historyattempts to construct a coherent image of the tribe and
its relationship with the worldabound. These uses were not late
developments, after language had proven itself in concrete practical
application; they were among the first. (Donald, 1991, p. 213)
In all human cultures, the language of myth soars to great heights, while the use
of language in tool technology is limited. Myth permeates and regulates daily life,
channels perceptions, determines the significance of every object and event in life.
Clothing, food, shelter, familyall receive their meaning from myth (Donald,
1991, p. 215).
Donald reveals a Vichian perspective when he says that myth was a new kind of
integrative thought which drove rapid language development. It is this unique
intelligence underlying language that led to the creation of complex cultures. Myth
is a powerful method of thinking which through metaphor unifies formerly dis-
connected pieces to create new meaning. Language is created not in conjunction with
utilitarian problem-solving but as an advance in integrative thought.
Whereas Vicos account of social development locates the origin of science in
myth and magic, not the early occupations of man, Deweys account is at a loss to
explain the epistemological status of the myth. Instead, myths for Dewey enhance
experience but do not create it. Language is not at the center of Deweys philo-
sophical anthropology. Instead, for Dewey, it is mans cognitive capacity to inquire
that drives the development of language. It is this philosophical anthropology which
accounts for Deweys educational theory.
Building from this philosophical anthropology, Dewey formulates an educational
plan which he believes will recapitulate the development of the mental processes

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experienced by the culture from its primitive origins to the present. By recreating
this process in school, children will move in the direction of the scientific method
and the scientific expert, just as the culture has moved. For Dewey, the twentieth
century school is particularly mandated to assume responsibility for this recapitu-
lation process now that in his view the educable avenues of home and community
have been cut off to most children. In fact, in The School and Society, Dewey calls
for a radical change in the educational programs of school to compensate for the
educational loss experienced by children who are no longer part of the pre-industrial
context where occupations and industries were situated in the home and local
community. For Dewey, when children were part of the economic survival of the
community, they interacted with the real phenomenon world which provoked in
them real problems to solve. These particular interactions with the environment
helped develop their thinking. For Dewey, thinking, by ancient man or modern
child, always entails interactions with the environment around a problem.
Describing the educative benefits of this pre-industrial context, Dewey says:
We cannot overlook the importance for educational purposes of the close
and intimate acquaintance got with nature at first hand with real things
and materials, with actual processes of their manipulation, and the
knowledge of their social necessities and uses. In all this there was a
continual training of observation, of ingenuity, constructive imagination,
of logical thought, and of the sense of reality acquired through first hand
contact with actualities. The educative forces of the domestic spinning
and weaving, of the sawmill, the gristmill, the cooper shop and the
blacksmith forge, were continuously operative. (Dewey, 1971, p. 11)
According to Dewey, the Industrial Revolution ended this domestic educative process.
Now children are placed in schools for long hours with little opportunity to interact
with environments that are thought-provoking. Instead, schools offer children logic-
ally prearranged and organized knowledge. Preplanned and packaged, this inert
knowledge excludes from childrens awareness the record of inquiry that brought
it about. Because the logic of this subject matter is the logic of the trained mind,
it is not accessible to immature minds in this form. To restore the connection with
this record of inquiry, schools have to introduce to children the occupations and
industries that are significant to them and are also the cultural source of subject
matter. For Dewey, in this way and only this way, childrens thinking can be
aroused and developed. Furthermore, it is the responsibility of the school to restore
the connection between mans enduring occupations and highly developed subject
For Dewey, the intellectual possibilities of school occupations are large:

That they take hold of the more primary and native equipment of
children (appealing to their desire to do) is generally recognized; ... But
they may also be used for presenting typical problems to be solved by
personal reflection and experimentation, and by acquiring definite bodies
of knowledge leading later to more specialized scientific knowledge. ...

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But intelligent consecutive work in gardening, cooking, or weaving, or in

elementary wood and iron, may be planned which will inevitably result
in students not only amassing information of practical and scientific
importance in botany, zoology, chemistry, physics, and other sciences,
but (what is more significant) in their becoming versed in methods of
experimental inquiry and proof. (Dewey, 1991, pp. 168 169)

Just like primitive man and modern adults, children need to interact with environ-
ments that provoke perplexity, confusion, and doubt, suggesting problems which
move them to make further observations of the environment and engage experi-
mentally with it. According to Dewey, this loss of equilibrium moved early humanity
to experiment with the environment to secure a need. Children need to recapitulate
this process. They, like early man, will not be provoked to think unless this inter-
action with the environment disturbs their equilibrium (Dewey, 1991, p. 12).
According to Dewey, for thought to develop, the problems need to suggest to the
children something to do. Without occupations and other real stuff to provoke in
them problems, children will lose contact with subject matter. They will also lose
opportunities to think because thinking necessitates that the child search out data
to deal with the problem and develop the habit of judging and reasoning which
gives the most control over the environment. For Dewey, the habit of judging and
reasoning is the best intellectual tool that the school can help develop in children.
Once this tool has been intellectualized, the child has the ability to control many
situations. Thus, children become open to more experience and are able to learn
In order to combat the propensity of schools to sever thinking from experience,
Dewey suggests that schools need to be equipped with laboratories, shops, gardens.
They need other and more varied resources for obtaining information such as
books, pictures, talks, and trips. Children need to freely engage in dramatization,
play, games for reproducing situations of life. All the above is needed so that
children can acquire and apply data. It is through these significant activities that
children learn to think by gaining practice in selecting what data are appropriate
to solving the particular problem. All this is needed for the child to bring experi-
ence forward. Thinking for Dewey is precisely this method of educative experience
which has remained the same since the beginning of humanity.
Dewey believes that the imagination and its key instrument, language, develop
in children as they gain command of the method of inquiry. For Dewey, language
and thought grow within cultural history and within individual history essentially
within the context of collective experimental inquiry of instrumental problems.
To develop in children the method of inquiry, the school must first begin by
stimulating their four natural impulses. Their four impulses are: the social impulse
as shown in conversation and personal intercourse; the constructive impulse finding
expression in play, in movement, in gesture and make-believe; the investigative
impulse finding expression in interaction with materials; and the expressive
impulse, the art instinct, which grows out of the communicating and constructive
instincts. Children like the childhood of humanity first act on the environment

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through these mediums which reflect their instinct to communicate (Dewey, 1971,
pp. 4344).
The problem for the Deweyan teacher is to initially connect these impulses with
the occupations and industries (the roots for which organized knowledge can
grow), so that perplexity, confusion or doubt, the origin of the method of inquiry,
is activated. The teacher helps children articulate their perplexity, confusion or
doubt and helps them in the formation of some tentative plan or project, the
entertaining of some theory which will account for the peculiarities in question,
the consideration of some solution for the problem (Dewey, 1991, p. 12).
The data at hand cannot supply the solution, but only suggest the solution. Also
suggesting the solution is the childs past experience and prior knowledge which
are represented in their imagination.
Spotlighted here is the childrens full and free use of language stimulated by the
continual contact with materials which, according to followers of Dewey, are the
primary texts of these classrooms. Unlike books filled with facts and printed
words, materials are more like outlines. They offer openings or pathways by and
through which children may enter the ordered knowledge of the adult world
(Cuffaro, 1995, p. 33). In this way, the childrens thought and language grow out
of their personal interactions with the material. Children have a lot to talk about
when they have a variety of materials and facts in their minds. Dewey believes that
their language becomes more refined and full because it is controlled by realities.
Children control the form their language productions take which are not overly
structured by the teachers language or the books language. Within this context,
their language productions are essentially for practical and social purposes.
To guarantee maximum interactions with materials and other people, classroom
space and time need to be reconceptualized and rearranged. In this way, children
will produce an abundance of language. Dewey suggests that the classroom take
the form of a busy workshop so that children and teachers can move freely among
material and each other to maximize language productions. This reconceptualization
of classroom time and space will also put each thinker in contact with other thinkers.
Accordingly, some inquiries will be collaboratively undertaken since childrens
common interest, the industries and occupations of man, run deep in human nature.
At first, the teachers language interactions with the children will support and
extend their practical and social productions of language. For Dewey, the element-
ary school has the responsibility to gradually support the transformation of the
practical and social use of language into an intellectual tool. In order to move in
this direction, the classroom needs to construct specific language activities that
help children to become more conscious of their thought and language. Dewey says
the problem of the school is to direct pupils oral and written speech, used prima-
rily for practical and social ends, so that gradually it shall become a conscious tool
of conveying knowledge and assisting thought (Dewey, 1991, p. 179).
In The Dewey School, Mayhew and Edwards describe a variety of written and
verbal language activities that were routinely practiced in the school whereby the
childrens consciousness was widened. In the early grades, the classroom emphasis
was on childrens oral productions which were stimulated by contact with materials

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and activities and not the teachers orality. The experience of oral language at this
stage was gradually connected with the emergence of literacy. Individual children
were given time and support to speak to their classmates about their ongoing
activities. Gradually, the children discovered the use of written language in its
natural relation to experience. They kept track of their work from day to day, giving
others the results of their special activities. The teachers interacted with their
written and verbal language productions to support the transformation of this
language into an intellectual tool. Dewey discussed this process in How We Think.
The successful accomplishing of the transformation requires the enlargement of the
students vocabulary and making this vocabulary more precise and accurate as the
student develops habits of consecutive discourse.
Mayhew and Edwards tell us that conversation was the means of developing and
directing experience in the classroom while also expanding the students thought
and language. Each days recitation was a debate, a discussion of the pros and cons
of the next step in the groups activity.... Language was to them all a tool by which
they could convey to others the effect produced on them by some fact, event, or
social situation. It had come to be more than a means of social communication; it
was a medium of expressing thought (Mayhew and Edwards, 1965, p. 339).
Thought for Dewey becomes an intellectual tool as the students language enters
a consecutive discourse arena by way of their first-hand experiences. It is this
language, derived from direct experience, now expanded and made more precise
and accurate, that has become an intellectual tool.
It is important to note that for Dewey, the development of thought and language
takes place optimally within the short history of the students own lived experiences
which are predominantly connected to practical and social purposes. The student
has little sense of the origin of his thought outside the domain of his activity. In
Deweys educational theory, cultural memory is strongly curtailed in favor of the
students individual memory.
For Dewey, to be educable, subjects such as history and geography which strive
to uncover origins must be connected to the students first-hand activities and the
ongoing occupations of the community. He warned that when education is divorced
from these sources, students are unable to make connections between subject
matter and everyday experience, thus losing the opportunity to enlarge their ordinary
Deweys educational plan privileges the students first-hand public experiences
with materials and events in the local environment as the major avenue moving
towards a mature imagination and its key instrument, language. For Dewey,
language and thought develop as the students make more connections of how their
local environment works either politically, socially, economically or physically. The
connections made by the children in this public arena form a public language. This
public language is a kind of communal truth in that this particular public makes
sense out of a new problem or situation. Both ordinary experience and the language
it provokes are enlarged simultaneously within this public.
Deweys insistence that all pedagogy begin with childrens local experience led
him to dismiss the classics as a major vehicle for developing a mature imagination.

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Like Rousseau, he downgraded the early use of the classics on the grounds that
through language, they imposed authority on the minds of children and prevented
them from having genuine direct experiences. Books needed to come as adjuncts
to the childs experience.
For Vico, the classics have their value precisely because they provide access to
the sensus communisthe permanent fund of human meaning and value. By provid-
ing this access to this communal sense of truth, they help students make sense out
of new conditions and problems. A substantial part of Egans educational plan sets
out ways to access the classics for all students by connecting them to the students
inner life. We now turn to Egans philosophical anthropology to see the grounds on
which he can do this.

Egans Philosophical Anthropology

Kieran Egan is an educational philosopher as well as a student of the classics,
anthropology, cognitive psychology, and cultural history. His study of these dis-
ciplines leads him to develop a philosophical anthropology which speculates that
the civil world was created through the aesthetic power. For Egan, resonating Vicos
ideas, ancient humanity created this world out of its cognitive capacity to create
metaphor. Through metaphoric exercise, the mind created identity in perception
putting together two unrelated and separate phenomena to create what Vico called
topics. As topics were createdGod, marriage, family, burial of the dead, so were
born simultaneously human thought, language, and community.
Egans most ultimate assumptions about the nature of the cultural world depends
upon this metaphoric theory (Egan, 1988). What accounts for creation and early
social change in Egans philosophical anthropology is not reflective problem-solving,
but a kind of judgement without reflection shared by an entire group and expressed
in the language of myth.
This metaphoric activity of the first men was not rational like Deweys utilitarian
problem-solving, but felt and imagined. The first men were creatures of their senses
who believed only what was apprehended by the senses or produced by their own
wild imaginations. Their beliefs derive from associative and analogical rather than
rational kinds of thought. Like Vico, Egan believes that we could not have acquired
the capacity to think in consistent and controlled manners proper to rational adults
except by first being able to think imaginatively and associatively. Only through
associative and analogical thought could we transfer meaning from one realm to
another to create new relations.
In Egans philosophical anthropology, as in Vicos, it is languaged thought that
co-determines the civil world. It is the language of metaphor which ushers in and
determines the form that the first institutions take. There would be no civil world
without the poetic language of the first men. The world they created is constituted
by language. For Egan, language and reality develop in constant interaction with
each other. Language responds to the worlds changes and, in turn, changes the world.
For Egan, language is not merely a tool of second-order consciousness useful to
solve problems of first-order consciousness. Instead, language is the primary form

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of consciousness that resembles life itself. Human nature and language are intim-
ately interconnected with each other. They are, in fact, two corresponding aspects
of a single reality. For this reason, language has a history and it is in the history
of our language that we recover our humanity. It is in language that we discover
the gradual making of the institutions which make us human. It is the structure of
this history of language which Egan tries to capture in his educational theory.
There is no historicity of language in Dewey; therefore, there is no historicity of
consciousness. For Dewey, mans consciousness has remained fundamentally the
same since the birth of its existence to the present. The form that consciousness
takes is to inquire about the outer world in relation to needs of self-preservation.
For Dewey, mans attempt to relate inner needs, desires, passions to the outer
world has low epistemological status. His account claims that mans ascent derives
from this propensity to solve utilitarian problems. For Dewey, modification of the
world and modification of the mind are the result primarily of technological advances.
For Dewey, it is this technological advance which drives language development.
Deweys metaphysics poses a problem. Eric Voegelin says that reason is not an
independent creative principle; reason can only operate within the field staked out
by languaged mythical creativity (Voegelin, 1998, p. 145). It is myth and metaphor
and not utilitarian problem-solving which generate the realms of law, morality, religion,
custom, arts, and, therefore, is the originator of the civil world and language.
Without the historicity of language, human nature and the human mind remain
essentially unchanged in history. Egan supports the view of the historicity of lan-
guage which has co-determined the modification of our mind and our institutions.
His educational theory accounts for and describes the changes in our language and
consciousness throughout cultural history. For Egan, our cultural history reflects
five distinct kinds of understanding or languaged engagements with the world.
These languaged engagements with the world persist in our present world and
make up the educated mind.
For Egan, education is best when it recapitulates the five distinct languaged
engagements with the world that have created collective human culture. Drawing
from an extensive study of cultural and evolutionary history and the field of cog-
nitive psychology and anthropology, Egan gives a detailed account of how these
various forms of understanding have been created and distinguished in our cultural
For instance, let us begin with somatic understanding which appears before
humans had oral language. At this time in evolutionary history, humans repres-
ented thought through the body. Here, prelinguistic thinking was basically a talent
for using the whole body as a communication device. It is through this collective
sensing that life in society began, as the first men stated their sense of themselves
through their body. This form of understanding is also prevalent in children from
birth to two.
Next in cultural history came mythic understanding which is associated with
preliterate, oral societies where storytelling or myth acted as the main intellectual
tool in making sense of the world. These myths were produced through metaphor
and analogy and acted as public speech. They are the backbone of human speech

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Educational Theory as Theory of Culture 487

and cognition and also prior to literal language. According to Egan, this mythic
form of thinking is prevalent in children from two to seven or eight years. Romantic
understanding is a form of understanding made possible by the spread and develop-
ment of literacy. Egan tells us that the shift from learning the first symbol of oral
language to the second symbol system of written numbers and the alphabet
occurred gradually in cultural history. It led to a conceptual revolution in ancient
Greece. Thus was generated the philosophical, scientific, historical, descriptive,
legal, and moral forms that make up the modern world. The key feature of this
understanding is that it generated a new consciousness. The writer could record
the details of reality now that she was freed from the constraints on memory made
by the oral tradition. Also, this new consciousness, born from the ability to gather
and inspect written texts, supported a new kind of inquiry that aimed to uncover
what is real and true.
Egan gives as an example of this new kind of inquiry born with the Histories of
The Histories remain a fascinating read, full of the exotic, strange, and
wonderful, of stirring events and an epic conflict between the awesome
Persian Empire and the tiny, quarreling Greek states. ... The Histories
read like an ancient Guinness Book of Records, crammed with stories about
the brave and noble, descriptions of the exotic and bizarre, and
expressions of wonder at amazing achievements and huge and strange
buildings. The kind of understanding it displays is not easily sustained
without writing. (Egan, 1997, pp. 8283)
The Histories usher in a romantic consciousness. Here, the capacity to feel wonder
at the particularlity of the world through association with the transcendent qualities
of heroes is prominent. Also, romantic understanding has the capacity to be fascin-
ated with extremes of experience and the limits of reality. It is a prevalent way to
make sense of the world for children from about eight to fifteen years of age.
Next in cultural history comes philosophical understanding, characterized by the
capacity to search for general patterns or recurrence in phenomena. This kind of
understanding is supported by communities that use it pervasively such as univer-
sities. This form of understanding is found not only in the philosophy class but is
pervasive in all university courses. This form of understanding begins at around the
age of fifteen or sixteen. It can easily lead to ideology if not supported by extensive
knowledge gained through romantic understanding. The final stage of development
is ironic thinking, which is supported by communities that involve constant reflexive-
ness on their linguistic forms. For Egan, there is also danger for the ironist.
Unlike mythic speech, irony makes a split between speech and the brain which can
lead not only to lies but also to social decadence through the loss of collective
meaning. Egan tells us that because no one theory can make sense of the world,
for the ironist, she is sensitive to the limited and crude nature of the conceptual
resources she can deploy. The trick for the ironist is not to become impotent, and
thus she is dependent on making sure that her philosophical capacities are not

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488 Theodora Polito

Within each form of understanding, there developed in cultural history specific

and distinct intellectual tools to grasp and make sense of the world. Egans educa-
tional theory identifies and describes these languaged tools so as to support childrens
learning at each stage of their development. Within the context of this paper, I will
only be able to report on one or two intellectual tools for the mythic and romantic
forms of understanding. These stages correspond to the ages of children in the
primary and secondary school. For a more comprehensive rendering, I suggest
Egans The Educated Mind (1997).
In The Educated Mind, Egan describes how educators can stimulate the appropriate
form of understanding for a particular age grouping. Each pupil, insofar as she
successfully learns to handle the particular intellectual tools in the culture associated
with the particular form of understanding, will develop the corresponding level of
understanding. The intellectual tools for mythic understanding are five distinct
languaged engagements with the world: metaphor, rhythmic language, images
generated from words, abstract and affective oppositionals (binary structuring),
and story structuring.
Egan describes how stimulating just one of these tools can have profound learning
consequences. For instance, binary structuring is prominent in young childrens
thinking, myths and fairy tales. Common binary structurings are good-bad, love-
hate, kind-selfish, beautiful-ugly. It is impossible to exhaust examples because it is
these binary oppositions which come with language that allow young children to
take in all kinds of ideas from many different stories that are structured around the
binary oppositions that children already possess. Egan shows us that in some
important ways, young children are abstract thinkers as well as concrete thinkers.
By overlooking this one intellectual tool that is a consequence of language and
myth, we have overemphasized the notion of children as concrete thinkers.
Dewey seems to have overlooked this one intellectual tool that can give children
access to ideas and situations far removed from their immediate local experiences.
For Egan, it is not necessary or advisable for educators to support children explor-
ing the world with what they already know and experience. Nor must they begin
these explorations with hands-on discoveries made by children. Egan shows how
utilizing this one intellectual tool, educators can directly access history for young
By stimulating this one intellectual tool of mythic understanding, educators can
offer children a narrative history of the world as long as they structure their oral
stories on the binary oppositions that children already possess, such as freedom vs.
oppression, knowledge vs. ignorance, security vs. fear, civilization vs. barbarism.
They can tell young children the great stories of our civilization. Egan makes
evident the rich possibilities of this approach by putting forth some sample topics
such as slavery in the ancient world, the Greek city states against the Persian
Empire, the Roman Republic and the spread of the Empire, feudal protection
systems after the fall of the Empire. Teachers can create an integrated story of
civilization as seen through the struggle for freedom vs. oppression. Children
already know these concepts. Egan shows us how we can create these stories
without explicitly teaching about oppression or freedom or even necessarily using

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Educational Theory as Theory of Culture 489

the words. Egan says that for children to use and elaborate these concepts, while
learning their world has gone through great struggles and problems analogous to
their own, makes educational sense. Binary structuring, especially when it carries
emotion, is a mythic tool that provides the child with a grasp of new content while
also moving children into the direction of romantic understanding. These stories
that are told captivate childrens imaginations because they are embedded in the
sensus communisthe public sense of the good which is available to children through
the classics. In creating these stories for children, the teacher is reinterpreting the
historical classics in order to give young children access to them. She presents her
story so that the children unconsciously ground it in the sensus communisthe
public sense of the good.
Egan maintains that there are strong parallels between the Histories of Herodotus
and the forms of thinking commonly evident in students today, ages eight to
fifteen, when literacy is becoming integrated into their daily activities and when
they are learning the abstract decontextualizing skills that go with rationality. He
observes that inducing literacy in children does not always stimulate the cognitive
changes or social transformations that have been linked to literacy development.
Egan says that literate childrens access to the treasure house of stored experience
poses some problems. We must recognize, however, that with this potential abun-
dance comes a twofold cost: first, the time and disciplinemoral as well as intel-
lectualrequired properly to access and benefit from the experiences stored in
writing; second, the losses in forms of thinking that consequently become less
clear, less accessible, less life-enhancing (Egan, 1997, pp. 78 79).
Egan tells us that educators of children ages seven to sixteen who wish to
preserve some of the life-enhancing vitality of mythic understanding would do well
if they developed curricula that would stimulate the tools of romantic understand-
ing. What are the romantic intellectual tools? I continue with my thumbnail sketch
of Egans comprehensive analysis.
The first tool that Egan identifies is extremes of experience. Children of this age
are interested in the extremes of experience, as reflected in their obsession with the
Guinness Book of Records. Any topic can be organized using this tool. For
instance, when studying the American Revolution, the class could explore the
longest battle, the shortest battle, the bloodiest battle, the battle that took the most
prisoners of war. The second intellectual romantic tool depicted by Egan is chil-
drens interest in the limits of reality. Continuing with the topic of the American
Revolution, students could study in minute detail one of the battles of the war, or
chronicle the transformation of one small town during the War, or study in detail
the life of one farmer turned soldier. If this autonomous reality were infinitely
extensive, we would be infinitely insignificant. By discovering the real limits of the
world and of human experience, we form a context that enables us to establish
some security and to establish proportionate meaning within it (Egan, 1997,
p. 32).
The third romantic tool Egan identifies is childrens tendency to associate themselves
with transcendent human qualities. They can come to understand important fea-
tures of the American Revolution by focusing on heroes who exemplify transcendent

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490 Theodora Polito

human qualities such as compassion, courage, power, patience, genius, hope,

strength, tenacity, persistence, and so on. In so doing, children begin to see events
of the American Revolution as the result of the emotions and consequent actions
of important individuals history. Even within the thumbnail sketch of some romantic
tools, we can see that a study of the American Revolution organized in this
manner is more engaging than the typical textbook. All the detail and facts are
clearly more romantic as they reveal the wonders of the American Revolution while
supporting each childs identification with a complex historical reality. Egan says
childrens intense interest in the extremes and limits of reality and transcendent
human qualities conflict with curricula that recommend we go from known to
As children utilize these romantic tools to grasp new knowledge, the simple
binary structure of mythic understanding begins to fade away. Throughout the
romantic curriculum, the focus will be on bringing mythic understanding within
the constraints of a complex reality. By stimulating these romantic intellectual
tools, students will be accumulating a lot of knowledge. For Egan, unlike Dewey,
accumulating a lot of knowledge is important. He says that if one has too little
knowledge or too narrowly focused knowledge, one gets a weak philosophical
scheme. One becomes prey for any ideological or metaphysical schema.
Given this thumbnail sketch of some intellectual tools, the implications for language
development are abundant. These implications can also be contrasted to Deweys plan.
For Egan, the primacy of language is evident in cultural history and in the
history of each child. The childs mentality and sense of reality develop in constant
interaction with the language tools she is predisposed to deploy at specific stages
in life. These tools exist in the culture; however, they exist randomly and in con-
junction with other language tools specific to different stages of development. Egan
has made a comprehensive inventory of the language tools for each stage by drawing
on the insights of cultural history and by making observations of modern children
and adults within particular stages. He has also made extensive suggestions as to
how teachers can connect these tools with the essential school disciplines. For
instance, he shows teachers how to storify mathematics, history, and science for
oral performance which will support rapid and powerful learning for mythic meaning
makers. Vital mythic classrooms would stimulate often and in abundance the language
tools of orality, namely: metaphor, rhythmic language, images generated from
words, binary and story structuring.
The tools are part of a comprehensive orality that has been handed down to us
through myths, fairy tales, and the language and lore of childhood games. Some
are available from popular culture such as jokes. A great deal of oral texts for
science, history, and mathematics can be created by teachers, and still other imag-
inative texts can be created and performed by children. Even at the mythical stage
of Egans educational program, both the teachers and the children, when shaping
these oral texts, are enacting the classical and Renaissance humanist programs of
rhetoric education with its injunctions to teach, to delight, and to move.
The childrens performance of oral text is what has come to be known as primary
rhetoric. These texts are conceived and performed orally without the aid of reading

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or writing. They are stimulated by the teachers oral performance of text. The
teachers oral texts, whether they be adaptations of classic literary texts such as
myths or adaptations of historical materials, are what is known as secondary rhetoric
because they rely on reading and writing. It is the teachers secondary rhetoric that
makes possible the childrens primary rhetoric because she has shaped language
persuasively. When the teacher stimulates the language tools of orality that the
children possess, namely, metaphor, rhythmic language, images generated from
words, and story structuring, they can both take in text and also create their own.
Egans educational program conceives of thinking at this stage as occurring in oral
Dewey overlooked the powerful intellectual tools of orality because he was suspicious
of the common pedagogy of his day which demanded that children memorize vapid
oral texts which could not provoke their imaginations. Deweys educational ideas,
sympathetic with the ways children try to make sense, attempt to legitimize these
ways for pedagogical use. However, he is overly invested in one toolnamely that
childrens imaginations can only be stimulated by their first-hand explorations of
phenomena. In so doing, he overlooks the tools of orality and develops essentially
a visual analogue for early intellect from an inadequate philosophical anthropology
which gives no account of how metaphor, myth, and other oral texts co-determined
the creation and development of the civil world. For Dewey, intellect grows in
children as it did for the childhood of humanity through observation and manipu-
lation of phenomena. For Dewey, language is an outgrowth of this activity. Only
much later in social development does language direct exploration. This is why in
Deweys educational ideas, language and literacy develop best when connected to
this visual analogue for intellect. In overcrediting this visual analogue for intellect,
he missed the power of orality to create culture by directing its activities and also
to stimulate childrens imaginations. For Egan, young children live more intensely
within an oral analogue for intellect. Oral texts can express emotions, desires,
intentions, and moral injunctions more easily than visual material alone. Dewey, in
stressing a visual analogue for intellect, made it more difficult for young children
to connect their experience of subject matter with their own private lives. Let us
take an example from Democracy and Education (Dewey, 1966, pp. 200 201).
Dewey recommends that childrens active occupation of gardening in school can
lead to attainment of diverse subject matter. For Dewey, from continuous garden-
ing activities, children can learn about the chemistry of soil, facts of plant growth,
elementary botany, injurious and helpful animal life, the role of light, air, and
moisture, and the place farming and horticulture have in the history of the race.
Nowhere in this diverse subject matter is the childs inner world given a language.
Instead, the leap from the childs active doing to this subject matter is accom-
plished at the expense of the childs inner world and language. The young child is
given the experts knowledge and the experts language which are foreign to her
life. Scientific language splits off the specialist from the non-specialist with its
renunciation of the individual at the starting point of its investigations. Its concern
is not the human being. Its true concerns are purely formal aspects of the subject
matter. Within this structuring of subject matter, the child is not yet prepared to

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492 Theodora Polito

take in the specialist language with its loss of the authority of images. The loss of
the authority of images happens at the point the child leaves the active doing phase
of her investigations. Unwittingly, Dewey has cut off the child from its imaginative
nature and natural language, as he tries to keep the students experience moving
in the direction of what the scientific expert knows.
Egans educational ideas do not suffer this criticism because he utilizes an oral
analogue for intellect. At the mythic stage, his way to structure subject matter is
to storify history, math, and science so as to make them analogous with the stu-
dents life and natural language. The oral performance of these stories is dependent
on the authority of images created through words. These stories, created and
performed, will maintain fidelity with the childs private world while also accessing
new subject matter.
Egan carries his oral analogue for the intellect through the romantic stage as he
enriches it with other peoples written texts that the student can now take in. The
romantic meaning makers, like the preacher, lawyer, politician, can now create her
own oral performance based on written texts she has appropriated or now that she
can access romantic tools to structure both her written and oral performances. For
example, the student can now seek in written historical texts those transcendent
qualities which will allow her to structure a romantic narration driven by human
emotions and intentions, allowing access to vivid events and characters. There are
not enough available written romantic texts that contextualize science, history or
mathematics. However, the student, now in possession of romantic tools, can create
their own romantic texts. Like the preacher, lawyer, and politician, these texts
come alive in rhetoric performance, which is always meant to persuade. Egans
educational program for the romantic stage creates a synthesis of written and oral
pedagogy that emphasizes verbal memory directed towards teaching and delighting,
whether performed by student or teacher. In his educational project, both the
romantic teacher and the romantic student are performing secondary rhetoric. The
romantic meaning maker can maintain her subjective knowledge because it both
gives her a language of her inner life as it moves her towards the details of reality
and a more literal sense of the world. She can narrate a human story that is civic-
minded and capable of creating a moral sensibility. Alasdair MacIntyre in After
Virtue asserts that to make moral judgements, one must see oneself in a narrative
frameworkto ask what one ought to do is to ask what kind of story is one part
of (MacIntyre, 1981).
Egans educational plan is always moving both the teacher and the student
towards rhetoric performance which creates and serves community. His education
is a reaction against the narrowing of what reason is. Reason cannot be reduced to
scientific reasoning. The bulk of lifes questions deal with deciding between prob-
abilities. Egans educational program for the mythic and the romantic stages makes
accessible to students a variety of languaged engagements with the world that lead
to rhetoric. Egan realizes that public life needs a specific discourse. It cannot be
left to the language of scientific inquiry. Public life is too complex to be left to
Deweys scientific language. For Egan, truth in public life is not valid accounts of
sense perception or logical inferences; rather, it is a rhetorical truth in that it makes

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Educational Theory as Theory of Culture 493

sense. In the book The Rhetoric of Human Sciences: Language and Argument in
Scholarship and Public Affairs (1987), the authors describe throughout this edited
volume how rhetoric is a major element in all inquiry: the humanities, of course,
but also religion, social sciences, law, and the organization and dissemination of
natural scientific inquiry as well.
In the last ten years, many scholars have investigated exactly how rhetoric works
within a particular field (McCloskey, 1985; Nelson, 1998; Brown, 1987). Although
rhetoric depends heavily upon a consensus of values, according to Vico, the sensus
communis is constantly reinterpreted and reshaped by the decisions of the commu-
nity. For Egan, like Vico, rhetoric is the best intellectual tool that the school can
develop in students because it is a way to take in the classics, reinterpret them, and
make them relevant to the new challenges inherent in social complexity.

In this essay, I argue that the educational theories of John Dewey and Kieran
Eganmore precisely, their plans on how to best form the imagination and its key
instrument, languagegrow out of their distinctive philosophical anthropological
accounts that form the foundation running through their theories. Their theories
endeavor to render knowledge relevant to human life and social institutions. In
both theories, the role of language is the vehicle that makes knowledge directly relevant
to human needs and desires. In this sense, they are commensurate discourses.
Egans educational project is grounded in a philosophical anthropology that connects
myth with the creation of new forms of life. His project describes how this creative
consciousness has been transformed within human historyfrom mythic to romantic
to philosophical to ironic consciousness, while preserving the vitality of all prior
stages. Without the preservation of the mythic and romantic in our modern con-
sciousness, an arid, inert or ideological philosophical consciousness would be born.
This condition would lead to social decadence through the loss of collective meaning
of an impotent ironic consciousness.
Both thinkers speak with great passion regarding the relation of art to civilization.
Dewey, like Egan, asserts the cognitive value of aesthetic experience. Unlike Egan,
his philosophical anthropology does not describe the aesthetic penetration into the
world which creates new forms of life. For Dewey, new forms of life are the result
of utilitarian problem-solving in its primitive form or in the new mode of scientific
thinking: analysis of nature or analysis of the social environment through advancement
of the social sciences.
It is not the purpose of this paper to denigrate the rational-utilitarian segment
in our civilization. Any philosophical anthropology needs to take it fully into
account. In fact, deliberation on Egans theory to describe how these two realms
are integrated needs to be undertaken. This work is beyond the scope of this paper.
To achieve a dynamic educational theory, its underlying philosophical anthropo-
logy would reflect a balance of these two realms. Deweys theory does not reflect
a balance. Instead, there is a tendency to narrow the field of experience to the area
of reason, science, and pragmatic action. Without a theory of the aesthetic and its

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494 Theodora Polito

relation to language, what gets lost are those streams of experience that allow for
a spiritual orientation and integration of personality. What also gets lost is the
multiplicity of types of language engagements with the world that our history
makes possible.

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