CEPA eprint 1377 (EVG-087)

To hell with psychology (Book review)

Glasersfeld E. von (1984) To hell with psychology (Book review). Journal for Research in Mathematics Education 15(5): 389–391. Available at http://cepa.info/1377
Review of: Kieren E. (1983) Education and psychology: Plato, Piaget, and scientific psychology. Teachers College Press, New York. xiii + 210 pp. $16.95.
Advertised as “a direct attack on one of the accepted bases of current study and research in education,” this text fulfills the promise. It attacks and attacks. Indeed, the author’s dogged persistence leads him stumbling far into areas of philosophy in which, as he himself admits, he should not be considered an expert. On the first page of his introduction he tells us what he thinks:
No psychological theory has, or can have, legitimate implications for educational practice.
Candor is sometimes disarming. Here, however, the candid contention is reiterated with such frequency and furor that readers are driven to focus on the ways and means that the author uses to demonstrate his claim; and, in this reader’s view, the author’s arguments are anything but convincing.
The main difficulty is that Egan deliberately confuses theory of education and a specific type of educational program.
In an educational theory the end-product is an explicitly characterized ideal kind of person…. We want to know what we should teach in order to produce a person capable of enjoying and improving Western democratic social life and its culture (or that of some other culture). (p. 9)
The parenthesis is obviously added to mitigate the somewhat chauvinistic tone, but it flatly contradicts what Egan has asserted a few lines before. Cultures, after all, differ substantially in what they consider the “ideal kind of person,” and Egan himself has warned us that the educational measures to produce “a Spartan warrior” or “a Christian gentleman” cannot be the same. Some hundred pages later he concludes the chapter on “Educationally Useful Theories” by saying:
The theory will be culture-bound and value-saturated, and will involve claims about desirable political and social structures. (p. 124)
Psychology, however, “aims at becoming a scientific discipline” (p. 6), which is to say it tends to concoct theories that are “value-less” and, consequently, useless to education.
On these premises Egan pits an interpretation of Plato that eliminates Socrates against an interpretation of Piaget that eliminates genetic epistemology. The absurdity of the enterprise manifests itself in many ways. Among them, that after all the fuss about the “culture-boundness” and “value-saturation” of theories of education. Egan declares that “we may consider Plato’s educational scheme in its own right, abstracted from the epistemology, ontology, and political philosophy with which it was designed in concert” (pp. 110-111). It would, in any case, seem difficult to adopt Plato’s theory of education but discard his theory of knowledge. Here, it is impossible because, as Egan has told us earlier, Plato held that “the process of education is the process of coming to know this world with increasing security” (p. 48). For Egan, however, this is not an epistemological statement but a simple, commonsense fact. Like the Athenian establishment, he too would have prescribed the hemlock cup to anyone who taught, as Socrates did, that certain knowledge of the world was not a viable goal.
Not surprisingly, the Piagetian notion that each child must construct its own ways and means to cope with its own experience is anathema to an author who, with Plato, knows what the products of education should look like, because the author knows what ought to be. What is surprising is that Egan generalizes his contempt to all psychologists and puts James, Dewey, Skinner, and Bruner in the same wastebasket as the abominable Piaget. In fact, Egan would have educators impart the “right” knowledge to their pupils, and the best way to do this would be to forget psychology.
Few would argue against Egan’s underlying complaint that our educational methods and institutions seem to be doing little to develop ethical attitudes that benefit “our culture,” let alone humanity as a whole (which today would seem even more important). But the suggested remedy of scrapping psychological and sociological investigations altogether and retrieving Plato’s values and educational goals is unlikely to be accepted as a cure by many educators. Mathematics educators in particular will rightly prefer to focus on teaching mathematical know-how, leaving the principles of ethics to the home and, perhaps reluctantly, to those representatives of society who are supposed to be competent in that area.
The crowning absurdity of Egan’s thesis, however, is this: If one examines the psychological presuppositions inherent in his interpretation of Plato, one finds the tacit assumption of a developmental progression such that certain topics and types of instruction would be more suitable for certain stages than for others. Psychologists, after all, have always tried to elaborate that assumption and to specify explicitly what would be feasible and useful at the successive points in the students’ development. If their theories are still tentative and often turn out to be insufficient or mistaken, that is hardly a reason to stop the investigation.
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