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?
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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.
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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.