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The Educated Mind : How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding is a 1997 book on educational theory by Kieran Egan.

Main arguments

Criticism of previous education theories

Egan argues that the whole of educational theorizing pivots around three basic ideas of what the aim of education should be:

  1. the need to educate an elite of the population in subjects that are important academically. (Plato). Here we also find the ideas: reason and knowledge can provide a privileged access to the world; knowledge drives the student mind development; education is an epistemological process.
  2. the right for every individual to pursue their own educational curriculum through self-discovery (Rousseau). Here we also find the ideas: the student development drives knowledge; education is a psychological process.
  3. Socialize the child - homogenize children and ensure that they can fulfill a useful role in society, according to its nation values and beliefs.

Egan argues in chapter one that, "these three ideas are mutually incompatible, and this is the primary cause of our long-continuing educational crisis"[1]; the present educational program in much of the West attempts to integrate all three of these incompatible ideas, resulting in a failure to effectively achieve any of the three[2].

Following the natural mind development

Egan's proposed solution to the education problem which he identifies is to: let learning follow the natural way the human mind develops and understands. According to Egan, individuals proceed through five kinds of understanding:

  1. Somatic - before language acquisition) the physical abilities of one's own body are discovered; somatic understanding includes the communicating activity that precedes the development of language; as the child grows and learns language, this kind of understanding survives in the way children "model their overall social structure in play".
  2. Mythic - concepts are introduced in terms of simple opposite (e.g. Tall/Short or Hot/Cold). Mythic understanding also includes comprehending the world in stories.
  3. Romantic - the practical, realistic limits of the mythic concepts are discovered. Egan equates this stage with the desire to discover examples of superlatives (e.g. 'What is the tallest/shortest a person can be?') and to the accumulating of extensive knowledge on particular subjects (e.g. stamp collecting). So this kind of understanding includes "associations with the transcendent qualities of heroes, fascination with the extremes of experience and the limits of reality, and pervasive wonder".
  4. Philosophic - the discovery of principles which underly patterns and limits found in romantic data; we order knowledge into coherent general schemes.
  5. Ironic - it involves the "mental flexibility to recognize how inadequately flexible are our minds, and the languages we use, to the world we try to represent in them"; it therefore includes the ability to consider alternative philosophic explanations.

"Drawing from an extensive study of cultural history and evolutionary history and the field of cognitive psychology and anthropology, Egan gives a detailed account of how these various forms of understanding have been created and distinguished in our cultural history".[3]

Each stage includes a set of "cognitive tools", as Egan calls them, that enrich our understaning of reality. Egan argues that recapitulating this stages is necessary to overcoming the contradictions between the Platonic, Rousseauian and socialising goals of education.

Egan resists the suggestion that religious understanding could be a further last stage, arguing instead that religious explanations are examples of philosophic understanding.

Connections with other authors

Egan main influences come from the Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky[2]. The idea of applying theory of recapitulation to education came from 19th century philosopher Herbert Spencer, although Egan uses it in a very different way. Egan also uses educational ideas from William Wordsworth and expresses regret that Wordworth's ideas, because they were expressed in poetry, are rarely considered today.

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It is possible to draw parallels with Piaget's stages of development; 'somatic' is a combination of the Sensorimotor stage and the Preoperational stage. 'Mythic' is the Concrete operational stage and 'Philosophic' and 'Ironic' are elaborations of the Formal Operational stage[How to reference and link to summary or text]. [dubious]

In popular culture

The same year the essay was published (1997), Italian comedian-satirist Daniele Luttazzi used Egan ideas for his character Prof. Fontecedro in the popular TV show Mai dire gol, aired on Italia 1. Fontecedro was satirizing the inadequacies of Italian school system, and the reforms proposed by Luigi Berlinguer, 1996-2000 Ministry of Education of Italy. Fontecedro' sketches brought Kieran' theory to extreme levels with surreal humor. The jokes were later published in the book Cosmico! (1998, Mondadori, ISBN 88-04-46479-8), where the 5 stages mind development is also cited at pp. 45-47.


  1. Kieran Egan (1997). The educated mind (introduction), Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-19036-6.
  2. 2.0 2.1 D. James MacNeil, review of The educated mind, for the 21st Century Learning Initiative, September 1998
  3. Theodora Polito, Educational Theory as Theory of Culture: A Vichian perspective on the educational theories of John Dewey and Kieran Egan Educational Philosophy and Theory, Vol. 37, No. 4, 2005

previous works on ironic knowledge:

  • Bogel, Fredric V. "Irony, Inference, and Critical Understanding." Yale Review 69 (1980): 503-19.


See also

  • Merlin Donald

External links


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