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Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressive Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget.

Getting It Wrong from the Beginning: Our Progressive Inheritance from Herbert Spencer, John Dewey, and Jean Piaget. By Kieran Egan. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. Pp. x, 204. $16.00.)

This is an insightful, provocative, and highly readable book. It is not, however, nor does it purport to be, history. Although the names in the subtitle suggest a study of three major figures in the history of education, the book is actually about the deeply rooted errors that its author sees in the theoretical assumptions that underlie "progressive education."

The book contains a useful summary of Herbert Spencer's "progressive" educational ideas, but it adds little to what is generally known about the Englishman and treats both John Dewey and Jean Piaget in the most cursory and mechanical fashion. Essentially, the author uses these three figures as "representative" thinkers, standing for certain "progressive" ideas with no discernible connection to historical developments. Identifying Spencer's contributions, for example, the author repeatedly notes that other people held similar ideas. One of Spencer's ideas was "at least as old as Aristotle," while another was "hardly new" (42, 44). Indeed, stressing his importance, Kieran Egan casually notes that Spencer "took many of his principles from Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi" (46). Such statements do not lead to careful examinations of intellectual influence, social context, purposeful adaptation, or personal motivations. Rather they are general assertions that the ideas were obviously important and widely accepted.

That said, for the readers of a history journal, it is equally important to stress that the book is a valuable work that makes a substantial contribution to current debates over educational theory and research. First, it offers a probing analysis of the basic assumptions that have undergirded "progressive education." The author identifies and examines a series of interrelated "flaws" including the assumptions that children have a "natural" method of learning, that the natural method is rooted in the child's familiarity with the concrete rather than the abstract, that the goal of education is to discover and emulate that natural method of learning, and that scientific psychology is the proper instrument with which to inquire into the child's nature and hence to discover the secrets of that natural method. Progressive educators, the author maintains most broadly, have too often been captives of "scientific" theories that were not really scientific and "educational" theories that were not truly about education.

Second, the author outlines an "alternative angle of vision, or paradigm" based on the proposition that we can never understand the child's "true" nature by relying on a psychology committed to "biologizing" the mind (158, 98). He argues that the mind is physical but nonetheless quite different from both the body and the rest of nature; that education is ultimately a defined and normative concept rather than an empirical phenomenon; and that "learning" is not a simplistically natural process but rather one that relies primarily on the use of ever-changing "cultural-cognitive tools" such as language, discipline, imagination, and other key values and techniques that humans have developed and passed down over the centuries (179). Egan even makes a wise and refreshing, if most likely unpopular, case for the utility of "rote" memory work as part of a complex learning process that "forms a resource for our imaginations" (137).

General readers will find the author's argument rich, provocative, and quite likely persuasive. Specialists in education and psychology will find it one that commands their attention and compels serious reflection.

Edward A. Purcell, Jr.

New York Law School
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Author:Purcell, Edward A., Jr.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2005
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