To be educated is to be human.

Note: This post is part of our League Symposium on Higher Education in the 21st Century. You can read the introductory post for the Symposium here. To see a list of all posts in the Symposium so far, click here.

The phrase “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” refers to embryological parallelism, the idea that the development of any individual organism strongly parallels that organism’s evolutionary history. For example, in mammalian embryos, the backbone appears very early, followed by other neural developments in the order that they first appeared in mammalian macro-evolution. The cerebrum is the last brain structure to develop in the individual human, as it is the newest structure in macro-evolutionary terms.

Structures that evolved and were then discarded appear briefly during development and then disappear. If we look at whale embryos, for instance, legs begin to develop before retracting back into the body cavity. Hair also grows briefly, but whale embryos lose this hair at further stages of development. Birds have fingers early on, but these eventually fuse to form wings. Birds also possess the genes for teeth, but these genes have been “turned off”, and teeth never actually develop in birds. Both human and monkey embryos briefly have tails to reflect our be-tailed common ancestor, but this tail disappears abruptly in humans, whereas it continues growing in monkeys.

This parallelism between macro-evolutionary history and individual organismic development has not been comprehensively explained, although we do know a great deal about its mechanism. For now, we’ll investigate whether and how such a mechanism could be applied to education: that is, does the educational development of the individual student recapitulate the macro-history of human society? If so, how does it do this?

. . .

In order to answer these questions, first, it may be prudent to consider the purpose of an education. There are several theories on the purpose of an education, but three stand out: (1) Plato said that education should be to give the student a privileged and rational view of reality; (2) Rousseau suggested instead that education should be about giving the individual the right to pursue her own curriculum through self-discovery; (3) Others – most notably philosopher John Dewey – have suggested that the purpose of education is to socialize children – to homogenize them and allow them to fill productive roles in society. For the most part, all education systems embrace one or more of these paradigms: Plato’s concept of preparing a future elite, Rousseau’s idea of intellectual freedom, or Dewey’s functionalist program.

In my research on this topic – which has been informal or observational and has spanned several years, student types, and countries – I have come across some notable variations on one or more of the above paradigms for education which are consistent with the idea of education as analogous to embryological parallelism. For instance, Herbert Spencer and Sigmund Freud seem to implicitly support this idea in their writings.

Nevertheless, the most interesting theory I have come across in my informal research is Kieran Egan‘s idea (through psychologist Lev Vygotsky) that an educational system should follow the natural mind development. Egan believes that education should follow the way the human mind naturally develops. He identifies five stages of understanding: somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic, and ironic. Somatic understanding, according to Egan, refers to the stage before language when a child discovers the physical capacities of his own body. The mythic stage is when the mind becomes capable of representing opposites and by extension image, metaphor, and story structure. The romantic stage is when rational thinking begins and the limits of reality are discovered. Philosophic understanding represents the systematization of disparate data under the umbrella of general principles, with a corresponding recognition of patterns and limits. Finally, an ironic understanding recognizes the limits of human knowledge itself – whether this limit is temporary or essential – and remains open to the existence of other valid philosophic explanations. (Hold on to this idea of ironic understanding, as we’ll discuss it in more detail later in the post, when we directly address higher education.) Egan has written extensively on education theory. I must admit I have had little opportunity to investigate his work in detail.

Great Books is the second noteworthy educational theory consistent with the idea of the education of the individual recapitulating the intellectual development of society. The idea of Great Books arose at a time when American universities were focused on specialized, technical education at the expense of general knowledge. The Great Books approach to learning stresses that any Western education should be grounded in a general familiarity with the history of Western thought. Dewey famously argued against the idea that there should be significant cross-over in education (i.e. that knowledge of rhetoric or philosophy could be of pragmatic use in law or medicine). Dewey was wrong.

The history of Twentieth Century failure in the sciences and social sciences – and perhaps Twentieth Century failure in general – is the history of conceptual failure; or it is the history of proceeding in an entirely reasonable path from flawed first principles. Indeed, the Twentieth Century can be read as the triumph of analysis over critical thinking and this triumph’s ensuing tragedy.

Take economics as an example, as it is a discipline still with analysis in abundance yet particularly lacking in critical thinking skills: the history of mainstream economic thought over the last hundred years or so has been a history of ever-more-complex, ever-more-mathematically-elegant models which are all based on the absurd presumptions that individuals are perfectly rational actors, individuals act based on perfect information, and our economic programs will do what we say they will do. Actual behavior contrary to the models is often explained away as epiphenomenal or unrelated. Unpredicted results of national economic programs are often rationalized away as the result of “liberal” or “conservative” contamination. Little attention is paid to alternative theoretical structures, and those who do suggest that alternative contructs may better explain actual events are derided as “crackpots” or “radicals”.

In Egan’s parlance, it does seem that much of contemporary social and natural science can be described as “philosophic” – i.e. arrested before the onset of ironic understanding. This is appropriate, since ironic understanding would be necessarily grounded in exposure to and extensive contemplation of disparate philosophic systems, such as those one would be exposed to in a certain type of generalized higher education if that generalized higher education were not sacrificed in favor of technical, specialized concepts with relatively short half-lives.

. . .

The idea of education recapitulating the history of human thought raises the further question of how to define ourselves. Any education system consciously incorporating the principles explained above must decide whether it is going to recapitulate the intellectual history of the world, Western Civilization, Western Europe, Anglo-America, the United States, the Northeast, New England, Massachusetts, Eastern Massachusetts, Suffolk County, Boston, the South End, the Jones Family, or Jane Jones Jr. In a world with increasing physical mobility, this becomes a difficult puzzle to solve indeed. We could imagine that the best possible system would probably spend some time on each level. In a student’s home, she could expect to learn her family’s history and values well enough plus gain a valuable way of looking at society at large; and at school, she could expect to come to understand the history of that school’s location and to spend some time learning at greater levels of human organization. At a national (or global) university, she could naturally expect what she learns to be at the national level or above.

It is important to note that what I am describing here is not what ought to be but what is: what I have described as individual education recapitulating societal development is not unlike our existing educational system at all. Notably, long-standing institutions such as tenure, which isolate students and teachers from the fickleness of transiently-popular ideas, also prevent central planners from micromanaging curricula. Given this individual autonomy and the tendency of nature and culture to follow similar patterns, it is possible that education systems – in the United States at least – represent an emergent order wherein the education of any one individual correlates strongly with a stablized and somewhat normalized intellectual history of the collective.

The defining quality of the United States as a nation is that never in the history of the world up to this point has there been a greater diversity of peoples and their corresponding cultural norms and value systems sharing one space. Accordingly, many of the problems we struggle with in education (that Finland and Japan notably do not) are due to the fact that many different kinds of people means many different kinds of development to recapitulate: the methods and minutiae of such recapitulation resist just one mode of analysis at the public primary and secondary levels and can remain stunted or ineffective if we are focused too much on analysis at the expense of critical thinking.

Post-secondary education in the U.S., however, is the world’s best because by and large it does manage to recapitulate such a broad range of development that is this nation’s inheritance: American post-secondary education succeeds because of an extremely delicate balance of prestige; a very wide range of qualities and services suiting various means, abilities, and desires; the profit motive’s presence without prominence; and a certain perpetual spirit of egalitarianism (scholarships, need-blind admissions, etc.) to temper the effects of economic or cultural rigidity on individual development. The post-secondary education system in the United States provides services corresponding to a disparate number of complex demands, from those of people who have no options but to take on debt and be provided room, board, and education in exchange (like prisoners), to those of people who seek to maximize their own utility via cool cost-benefit analysis (as we saw a bit in our recent law school threads), to those of people who go to college because it’s the “thing to do”, to those of people trying to accumulate cultural capital or social status, to those of people who provide the system with a lot of money – perhaps in the form of donations – in exchange for prestigious degrees for their progeny or mundane immortality, to those of people who think of college as just the step before professional school.

That higher education in the U.S. provides many options, disparate services, is not overly-standardized, and cannot be compressed into a single market for economic analysis allows for a maximally-flexible system that maximizes what people can get for their investments no matter what it is they want. As long as our society’s entropy continues its unabated increase throughout the Twenty-First Century, methods and modes of individualized recapitulation of societal development will continue to correspondingly increase in number. If we in our infinite wisdom try and succeed in standardizing post-secondary education, it will become something more akin to what secondary education already tries to be, and new forms will take up the torch of bottom-up cultural recapitulation. Such a future is already starting to include internet technologies, technical education, job training, professional education, continuing education, and other post-tertiary programs, as they correspond to individual demands in a society that continues to fly apart from itself.

The biggest problem for Twenty-First Century education, then, is that there will be not enough of it; nor will there be until the education of individuals comes to outpace societal development – that is: when pigs fly. If we want progress in education, there must be a prodromal progress in the greater human society.

Please do be so kind as to share this post.
Share

40 thoughts on “To be educated is to be human.

  1. I have so far only skimmed this because I’m short on time, and I’m somewhat skeptical (as is the post) about the idea it sets forth as its topic (though at the end, I think the view has broadened somewhat), but I can already tell that this is one of the two or three finest pieces of writing to be published on this site in some time, and among the finest ten or fifteen in its history. I look forward to digesting it more fully later today.

      Quote  Link

    Report

  2. I know this is off-topic, and I’m sorry about that –

    but recapitulation theory is known for two things: one, implying that the human fetus isn’t particularly human in its early development; and two, being widely discredited.

      Quote  Link

    Report

    • There’s certainly no reason to apologize. You’re definitely right about recapitulation theory: it’s been replaced by more sophisticated modern ideas, but, at least in my experience studying biology, it is still used extensively as an explanatory device. I’m not sure whether or not recapitulation theory implies anything about the “humanness” of the fetus, whether or not this fetus is deemed to overlap more or less with fetal forms of other creatures. But I can understand why people would take sides on such a question and how it could be turned into a contentious debate.

        Quote  Link

      Report

  3. Take economics as an example, as it is a discipline still with analysis in abundance yet particularly lacking in critical thinking skills: the history of mainstream economic thought over the last hundred years or so has been a history of ever-more-complex, ever-more-mathematically-elegant models which are all based on the absurd presumptions that individuals are perfectly rational actors, individuals act based on perfect information, and our economic programs will do what we say they will do. Actual behavior contrary to the models is often explained away as epiphenomenal or unrelated. Unpredicted results of national economic programs are often rationalized away as the result of “liberal” or “conservative” contamination.

    Except that none of that is true.

      Quote  Link

    Report

      • Krugman is a fine economist, but he has a tendency to badly underestimate the intelligence of others in his field and be poorly read on anything that goes outside his narrow scope. Economics is an enormous field encompassing everything from behavioral and neural economics to social construction. Just a brief glance at say Freakonomics or Nudge would give you a sense that economics as a field is far more complicated than that silly stereotype.

          Quote  Link

        Report

        • I’m well aware of the wide-ranging and indeed interesting models of the world offered by the economics discipline, even if they do not allow themselves to be falsifiable. I can continue to consider them interesting and simultaneously criticize the fact that they regard themselves too highly.

            Quote  Link

          Report

            • I’ve been watching the gold market going bonkers today. No particularly good reason for it. You’d think, what with Iraq blowing itself up, the Norks creating instability in the world, Russia going apeshit, China’s economy in trouble — gold should be going up.

              Neuro-economics is gobbledegook, a ridiculous pseudoscience. Our knowledge of the brain is vastly imperfect. We do not understand why human beings behave the way they do, even less why mobs act the way they do. Mobs don’t act in their own best interests. They’re led about by Robespierres and Dantons and eventually they self-destruct. I do AI. I don’t fully understand the neural nets I train but I can examine the connections. But then, I train my nets. I can teach them how to behave. There is no teaching a mob. Markets do not act in their own best interests: like mobs, they whirl about and eventually implode without external regulation.

                Quote  Link

              Report

                • Now prove it. Mobs don’t behave rationally. Often as not they’ll eat their own, videlicet the French Revolution, Russian Revolution, Chinese Revolution. The list is very long.

                  A teachable mob is a contradiction in terms. Anonymous and al-Qaeda are proof they aren’t. OBL’s over there in Pakistan, remonstrating with Zarqawi — quit destroying our credibility. All these Anony-mice, skript kiddies who can’t even conduct a proper DDoS.

                    Quote  Link

                  Report

                  • Irrational behavior is easier to control than rational behavior, Blaise.

                    An actual, literal, mob? Can be steered, guided, provoked. People make livings doing this sort of shit.

                    “The Mob” as you’re talking about it? Anonymous, Occupy, Tea Party? Oh, yes, they can be taught.

                    As I said, active area of psychology research. Besides, half of what /b/ does is to troll. and that’s just learning the psychology of how to push buttons…

                      Quote  Link

                    Report

                    • Blaise,
                      1) Seven Deadly Sins: Lust, Greed, Envy…
                      http://consumerist.com/2007/12/03/spirit-airlines-holds-milf-sale-denies-having-seen-american-pie/
                      Made you look… eh?
                      American Apparel’s ads are deliberately designed to show girls in questionable states of “ability to give informed consent.”
                      There’s an ad company that makes radio ads for products that don’t work, it basically sells based on people’s greed.
                      Ninja Loans, Liar loans…

                      Do I really need to go on? Let me know what you’d like me to cite, and I’m willing to do it…

                      Anonymous put a nice happy flashy graphic on an epileptic website. (naturally, it wouldn’t be funny if it actually hurt people). Oh, the hilarity (and humanity). Go read about it. It’s a great troll.

                      Am I missing anything? Let me know what you’d like me to cite.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • Heh. Why don’t you work on a ruleset for predicting VIX. I said the markets don’t move in accordance with common sense. Now there’s the dataset, give me an algorithm which might give me better than even odds for entering VIX long or short.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • A bit of explanation might be in order. VIX measures market volatility and is basically a measure of market idiocy and fear. Yesterday, gold went apeshit. Today, gold is also going apeshit. When markets move, we’d like to think there are reasons for those movements.

                      Generally speaking, gold is a fear buy. But yesterday, despite all the entirely justified fear, gold dropped (in fact markets tanked across the board) and today it’s the exact opposite.

                      These markets aren’t motivated by fear. These markets are currently motivated by a far more fundamental force: neurotic stupidity — and VIX is how you measure it. Beyond a certain point, there’s no calculating stupid. Though you can hoodwink or buffalo one person at a time, panicking a rational market requires a Mount Everest sized asteroid of data impacting everyone’s happy little plans. No such data is in evidence.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • Blaise,
                      You make bets.
                      Surely you know the story of the “Greater fool?”
                      I won’t call the market rational, exactly, but it
                      does conform to the data it’s given… mostly.

                      Predicting VIX isn’t the model you want, anyhow.
                      Fixing VIX is. Go ahead, start a war. Get a few Jews
                      lynched in France (not like that’d be hard these days).
                      Half a dozen other unpleasant things. Use the money you
                      make for something good.

                      Lot easier than writing a model without all the data.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • Solomon the Wise had something to say about a fool when he is silent.

                      Now when these advocates of bio-phrenological behaviourists can show me one working economic model — hell, I’m not asking for falsifiable here, just better than even odds — and a dataset which does more than predict the past — then we can start talking seriously about its multi-disciplinary aspects, etc.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • And do us both a favour, Kimmi. Quit trolling me. And quit saying stupid things like “fix VIX” Take that up with our Libertarian compadres who think markets are rational. They’ll explain it all to you.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • Blaise,
                      Okay, this is simple microeconomics stuff: a person is far more willing to buy with a credit card than they are with cash. But it holds up, any way you want to slice it.

                      I’m not gonna do macro from behaviorist modeling, because I think that’s actually pretty dunderheaded.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • Blaise,
                      I’m not trolling you. I’ve made a couple of trollish comments around here, but not to you (I believe my best was: “Jews were the first terrorists”, oh, but that had people howling. I believe I made my point, by being factually more accurate than my competition). You’re not predictable enough, nor do I really want to get under your hide.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • Irrational behavior is easier to control than rational behavior, Blaise.

                      No, BlaiseP is very correct on this one. As an example, please refer to the financial crisis in 2008. That is the one example I can explain most.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • BlaiseP,

                      Well, you’re hardly alone in picking fights with me. Maybe I need a vacation from the League, too.

                      If you’re seriously considering this, which would pain me greatly, please email me first to discuss. If there’s something that I can do or should be doing that I’m not, I would appreciate it if you would let me know.

                      By the way, I don’t think markets are rational at all although I am surprised that the efficient markets hypothesis lived past 2008.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • Dave,
                      Perhaps we’re referring to different people-scales? Advertising has proven to be quite affective at controlling people, mainly through the use of greed and lust, both of which are non-rational behaviors (no, buying a bud will not get you loads of hot chicks at your door).

                      Besides, if humans were rational, we wouldn’t need to craft pseudorandom number generators that subtlely let people win.
                      (actual, good pseudorandom number generators are rarely used in video games).

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • Dave,
                      1) Trolling, good trolling, takes more work than I’m putting in.
                      2) Obviously your definition of trolling and mine are different. I do not think that disagreement is trolling, particularly when I am fully willing to defend my (varied) points and cite my sources. I would be interested to know what you consider trolling, both because you’re a moderator, and because you’re a participant.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

                    • Irregardless of my definition, if he’s asking you to leave him alone, please do so. If you poke at a hornet’s nest with a stick, chances are you are going to get stung.

                      As for the rest of what you said, I’ll have to address that later, but if you’re willing to defend points and cite them, rather than saying that you’re going to do it, just do it.

                        Quote  Link

                      Report

      • Krugman has made some excellent contributions to the field, but these days he seems content to simply confirm the prejudices of New York Times readers.

        Basically, economics doesn’t assume perfect rationality any more – not since Behavioural economics. And imperfect information has been in the mix for decades earlier than that.

        And as for “assumes polices will work perfectly”, economists may be the worst possible group to assign that label to. The first economist to warn about policies not always working according to plan was Adam Smith, in 1776. More recently, there’s a whole sub-discipline of economics called “government failure economics” talking about how policies can end up working not as well as was intended.

          Quote  Link

        Report

    • Economics has never learned to cope with irrational behaviour. If science is the accumulation of data from which predictions may be derived and tested, economics fails every such definition. Data it has in plenty, predictions also. When some clever economist manages to make even one of his predictions work based on all that data, then we might call it a science — but not until.

      Perhaps this lack of congruence is that irrational behaviour made manifest.

        Quote  Link

      Report

        • But it’s still something of a subdiscipline, is it not? Or at least not universally applied to all economic thought and analysis yet? It hasn’t been incorporated into *all* of the models that have tended to have such prominent place in popular policy discussions about the efficacy of fiscal policy, etc., etc., etc., especially in the aftermath of the crisis, or am I mistaken about that? I.e., merely from the existence of behavioral economics, it doesn’t just follow that every economic model or argument advanced today is immune to a charge that it relies still too much on assumptions about how people will respond to particular kinds of (ostensible) incentives.

            Quote  Link

          Report

          • I’m not even sure how you would apply it to all economic analysis, a lot of the time cognitive biases don’t actually matter, not enough to make accounting for them worthwhile.

            There’s more work to do sure, but Christoper’s argument was that economics was ideologically committed to rational decision-making to the point of denying alternatives, and that’s just wrong.

              Quote  Link

            Report

            • I’m not going to deny that there are intrepid economic researchers out there tying to shift paradigms; nor do I mean to insult the economics discipline specifically.

              I used economics as an example of the general phenomenon of prizing analysis over critical thinking – which I do believe is a problem for economics – since economics is a discipline with which I am rather familiar: it was my undergraduate major, and I generally try and keep up with developments in the field even though my academic attentions are now turned towards basic sciences.

              Economics in the academy or even in the think tank setting is probably definitely more immune to my charge than economics in the media or political realm. This kind of economics undeniably suffers from blindly adhering to core assumptions and then throwing the weight of complex analysis behind those assumptions – we could call this method “blinding with nonscience” if we wanted to.

              And, since my argument is about economics over the last century, and implicitly about economics in service of the Modernist program, certainly you can meet me halfway on this issue. Although I will admit that I should have made clearer who and what it was exactly I was criticizing, the strike at economics is ancillary to my greater point.

                Quote  Link

              Report

          • if you’re just going to blackbox people, then it doesn’t matter, much, what exactly they’re thinking, so long as you can model their behavior. (This comes to the fore in large scale models — in small scale models, the behavioural economics is the model).

              Quote  Link

            Report

        • I’ve been working this angle of AI for some years, trying to monetise this proposition. The more I look at it, the stinkier it gets, especially these realtime approval knobby thingies for political speeches. We’re doing okay on the individual front. At group levels, it’s still alchemical hocus-pocus. Economics has a terrible reputation for this sort of Cargo Cult Science. They’re not good mathematicians, worse philosophers and absolutely brain-dead when it comes to AI or CompSci.

            Quote  Link

          Report

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *