Three Conflicting Pillars – Synthesized

I took some time to re-read Kieran Egan’s book The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding. I’ve referred to his premises in Education’s Three Conflicting Pillars. These three premises are:

  • education as socialization
  • education as a quest for truth (Plato)
  • education as the realization of individual potential (Rousseau)

The same topic was later revisited with a good discussion between Brian Alger, Rory McGreal, and Terry Wassall, and myself.

Later, I then went back to Egan’s website and came across a shorter article that summarizes the main premises of the book, Why Education is So Difficult and Contentious:

“… educational thinking draws on only three fundamental ideas – that of socializing the young, shaping the mind by a disciplined academic curriculum, and facilitating the development of students’ potential. All educational positions are made up of various mixes of these ideas. The problems we face in education are due to the fact that each of these ideas is significantly flawed and also that each is incompatible in basic ways with the other two. Until we recognize these basic incompatibilities we will be unable adequately to respond to the problems we face.”

Egan’s suggestions for a curriculum based on process, not content, has made sense for me ever since I read The Educated Mind and some of his other writings in 1997. The book includes a Planning Framework that still makes more sense to me than any other curriculum framework that I have seen to date. You have to read the book to understand how to implement it, though.

After ten years, Egan’s ideas remain fresh and workable for the Internet Age and I strongly recommend this book.

4 Responses to “Three Conflicting Pillars – Synthesized”

  1. Paul Hillsdon

    I commend you Harold for bringing education down to it’s core and initiating a thought provoking conversation around the edu-blogosphere.

    The one thing I would argue against in some of the other posts and comments is this idea that the current system is all “doom and gloom”, and kids are raised to be mindless drones who can’t do anything. The reality is that, yes, the current system has many problems, but it does succeed in generally educating the majority of people with at least the basic skills of life. Thanks to great teachers around the world, it usually goes beyond that. I just think we need to appreciate that school is at least working somewhat and has overall made for a smarter, wealthier, and more equal society.

    Anyways, I still don’t understand how these three pillars are so conflicting. I can find many a situation where in my schooling these goals were achieved.

    And if we’re talking “what is the purpose of schools”, my simple answer would be to raise students that have the capacity to change the world. Obviously, a certain degree of knowledge, and quite a few skills are required to do something so powerful. But that would be my ultimate goal of a school.

  2. Harold

    Paul, I’d first suggest that you read Egan’s article that I linked to, as it shows the conflict between these three goals better than I can.

    My own experience in watching our children go though school is that the first 6 years or so are quite effective at learning the basics. After that, school has a tendency to beat their brains into submission, or at least remove their passion for learning, IMO.

    If I had to quickly redesign public education, I would keep elementary school and replace high school with something more resembling the Quebec CEGEP system.

  3. Jennifer Nicol

    “Those of us who were around during the economic crisis of the late sixteenth century in Europe find some features of the current educational crisis oddly familiar.”

    I love a great opening line. The sentence just above is what greets the reader who follows Harold’s link to Egan’s work. Attention grabbed, I’m on my way over the library to check out the book.

    Regarding CEGEP… I have always instinctively admired the CEGEP system (in which students spend 3 years in a secondary system before going to cegep — kind of a junior college– in which they can stream to either academic or technical). It just seems to make sense… it seems to be the right age to stream towards either academic or technical. And developmentally, kids that age seem ready for something a bit more ‘grown-up’ than high school, before being tossed into the cold, deep waters of university, or choosing a trade.

    But do we know how the graduates fare after their cegep years, compared to other systems. I assume the quebec government has done evaluations… has anyone seen any studies on this?

  4. Harold

    Only anecdotal evidence, Jennifer. I remember Quebec students being better prepared for university than we students were from BC. I know that CEGEP is much cheaper than university, or even community college in other provinces, so you can get a skilled trade at a CEGEP without going broke. They used to offer RN programs, but I think that they have migrated to universities.


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