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Some cautionary notes on jean piaget’s genetic epistemology

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David W. Jardine
University of Calgary, Canada


“We are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality–judiciously as you will–we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that’s how things will sort out”

An unnamed White House advisor to George W. Bush (cited inMacMillan, 2006, A19).

In that text, the work of Immanuel Kant is explored as one of the ancestries of Jean Piaget's genetic epistemology and, more closely allied to educational theory and practice, contemporary constructivism.

Part of the logic of Kantianism is that we know in advance of meeting the world (a priori) what anything we meet can essentially and necessarily and universally be. The categories of pure reason define the essential forms of that which counts as reasonable or, as Kant (1964, 138) put it, "the a priori conditions of a possible experience in general are at the same time conditions of the possibility of objects of experiences." Differently put, the categories of pure reason construct objects in light of their own forms. The world becomes a reflection of the universality and necessity that I presume myself to already embody. This is the logic, of course, of colonialism. It is also the logic of the preemptive strike. Since I create reality by acting, I already know in advance what the world ought to think of such acting. Therefore, I need not listen.

What follows are some cautionary thoughts on constructivism, developmentalism, and their current appeal.

Development: Belonging or Breakdown?

The way we treat a thing can sometimes change its nature. (Hyde, 1983, xiii)

There are no “pure facts” if by “facts are meant phenomena presented nakedly to the mind by nature itself, independently respectively of the hypothesis by means of which the mind examines them and of the systematic framework of existing judgements into which the observer pigeon-holes every new observation. (Piaget, 1974a, p. 33)

The old unilateral options of gericentrism (appealing to the authority of age, convention, tradition, nostalgia) and pedocentrism (child-centered pedagogy) only produce monstrous states of siege which are irresponsible to the matters at hand, that is, to the question of how life is mediated through relations between old and young. (Smith 1999, 140)

In educational theory and practice, we have a choice when it comes to how we might treat the generous legacy that Jean Piaget has handed us. We can start with the psychopathological individuality of the child and try to understand his or her developmental make-up: “where the child is at,” as goes the educational adage. On that basis, we can then break down the disciplines that are entrusted to educators into corresponding developmentally sequenced parts and make these developmentally appropriate materials available in developmental sequence to the individual child. With the child and the child’s developmental means at the center of our considerations, we can divide and arrange the world (of reading, of writing, of mathematics and so on) around the child, in accordance with our understanding of this individualized center. And, in the process of watching the child work and testing the results of our intervention, we can more accurately “target” what to do next.

This way of treating the legacy of developmentalism can result in teaching practices that have a very recognizable, and, I suggest, pedagogically unsound, character. With reading, for example, we end up having files full of developmentally colour-coded readers, each of which has been specifically designed to developmentally follow the others, but no one of which contains a story actually worth reading. It has come to mean, in practice, that we present children with sequenced mathematics worksheets, each geared to the development and practice of an isolated skill (adding, subtracting, adding two digit numbers and so on) when in fact, in the world of mathematics, no such isolation actually exists. In Faculties of Education, new teachers are inculcated, for example, with an image of mathematics that no longer has anything to do with the living discipline of which it is meant to be a reflection. I have run into teachers that believe that addition must be taught to children before subtraction, because that is how such matters are sequenced in curriculum guides. I've also run into teachers who, under the numbing influence of developmentalism, believe that the alphabet must be taught in alphabetical order.

In both these cases, the world of language and the world of mathematics are subjected to what could be called a developmental breakdown, the very sort of breakdown required by established science as its central “method of operation”:

The object [reading, writing, mathematics] is disassembled, the rules of its functioning are ascertained, and then it is reconstructed according to those rules; so, also, knowledge is analysed, its rules are determined, and finally it is redeployed as method. The purpose of both [of these analytical breakdowns] is to prevent unanticipated future breakdowns by means of breaking down the object even further and then synthesizing it [putting it back together in strictly in light of the demands of the method of operation of established science]. (Weinsheimer, 1987, p. 5)

This process of “breaking down even further” is precisely what has happened to the rich and vigorous legacy of Piaget’s work. His legacy has, in many schools, turned into rigid, lockstep developmental sequences in our understanding of children and their ways of knowing. In parallel, it has turned into equally rigid developmental reconstructions of the living disciplines entrusted to schools. By presenting to the developmentally isolated individual child materials that are developmentally geared to his or her developmental level, we have, in effect, “prevent[ed] unanticipated future breakdowns” by having already broken down “mathematics” into its developmental parts and doled them out in a developmentally appropriate way—we have acted, one might say, pre-emptively. This or that mathematics worksheet is not too hard for this individual child, and not too soft. It’s just right, just difficult and challenging enough to, in Piagetian terms, disturb the child’s current assimilatory schemata and cause the accommodations required to lead to the next level of equilibration, the next stage of development.

Once the developmental sequences (of mathematics and of the child’s cognitive development) are set, there will still be future breakdowns, but they will no longer be precisely unanticipated. If something unanticipated occurs when the child works on certain problems in mathematics, that simply calls for analysing the situation in more developmental detail--more accurate targeting of his or her developmental skills, for further divisions or subdivisions of skills and stages, for more severe and systematic isolation of tasks, materials or expectations, for different, more accurate testing procedures, and so on.

In cases like this, the outcome of the analytic process of “breaking things down” into their component parts (requisite of the way of knowing of established science) is to break apart the experiences that our children are offered in school. And if such breakdown and developmental reassembly runs into trouble, the only recourse is to break things down even more. This process actually treats mathematics as if it were the object of a scientific investigation. And, of course, it treats the children all around us in the very same way, as objects with developmental “properties” (constructed in sequenced and sub-sequenced line). It presents children with an experience of the living discipline of mathematics and its living ways and means that has been subjected to a type of knowing (in Piagetian theory, logico-mathematical knowledge that underwrites the empirical sciences) to which, Piaget claims, children are not especially party. What is presented to young children, then, is the reconstructed, broken down outcome of a form of thinking that, paradoxically, developmentalism itself suggests young children do not especially experience, have not learned, have no interest in, and are not developmentally capable of understanding.

As Piaget has taught us, this way of treating mathematics (as broken down into a developmental sequence and doled out accordingly in schools) changes its nature by demanding that mathematics live up to the criteria of being an object of logico-mathematical breakdown. The living and breathing world of mathematics as living discipline and all the ways we and our children have of knowing it and experiencing it and understanding it as part of the great human inheritance, is replaced with an objective developmental sequence of isolated skills and activities, all geared to the individual child and his or her developmental “needs.” Mathematics, thus broken down, is now perfectly suited to be managed and controlled by school, but the very experience that draws us, as adults, to the beauty and elegance and pattern and profound questioning of mathematics has been pre-emptively replaced.

This way of taking up Piaget’s legacy of developmentalism can produce an array of unintended consequences: breaking down children into objectively determined clusters of “developmental needs,” breaking down the community of the classroom into “developmental groupings,” and breaking down the interrelatedness of the living disciplines—again, all with beneficent pedagogical intent.

Certainly this sort of developmental parsing (of children’s ways of knowing, and of the curriculum areas entrusted to schools) can help a teacher identify and clarify aspects of mathematics, as well as aspects of children’s coming to know such matters. But to then attempt to teach by immersing developmentally isolated children in the isolated, analytical results of this developmental parsing of the living disciplines is odd indeed.

But what, then, are we to do? Are we supposed to ignore the developmental needs of children and treat them like little adults? Doesn’t this erase the sense of the uniqueness of children’s ways of knowing? Of each individual child’s special ways? Are we supposed to pile on tasks and demands irrespective of children and their needs and abilities? Isn’t this teacher-centeredness or discipline-centeredness at its worst?

All of these are real dangers, but we have another way to take up the grand legacy of Jean Piaget’s insights. Let’s try an analogy here. When I used to go out into the garden with my seven-year-old son, I didn’t send him off to a “developmentally appropriate garden.” I took him to the same garden where I was going to work, a garden full of a whole array of work to be done, things to be experienced, lessons to learn, tools to use, knowledge to apply and to cultivate and enrich. And so, too, worms came there, and ravens, and deer, and bears, each with their own ways, each with their own abilities and experiences, each with their own work to do. Now, once my son and I got to the garden and got to the work that place needed from us, of course we worked precisely as each of us was able. We are not identical in ability, experience, strength, knowledge, wisdom, patience, interest and so on. But both of us were working in the same place, doing some part of the real work that the garden requires, each cultivating the garden and ourselves in ways that are different and yet somehow belong together—akin, one might say. That place where we met and worked together was rich and generous enough, full of enough possibilities of exploration and work, to embrace and hold together our differences in relations of kind (see Jardine, Clifford & Friesen, 2003, 111—12). It allowed my son’s ways of working, knowing and experiencing—and mine—to fully show themselves. And, of course, I learned something about that place and my own ways of knowing and experiencing it by living in the presence of my son’s ways of knowing and experiencing it (and vice versa).

Each person’s work in the classroom can be treated in an analogous fashion. This or that particular child’s ways of knowing and engaging in the work of understanding and exploring triangles or number sequences, for example, need not be treated as a subjective or interior possession. They can be treated as something that happens out in the whole world of mathematical relations—with others, in the presence of others and their work in this place. Each person’s work, in all its individuality and uniqueness, is therefore taken up as adding to the richness of the place in which we find ourselves living together, in all our differences. We can fill the classroom and children’s lives with generous, multileveled experiences of these mathematical fields, and we can, in and through this diverse place, allow the differences of individual children to appear not in (developmental) isolation, but in the midst and presence of all those participating in the work at hand.

In such a place, we can let go of “learning the ways of mathematics” as only an underdeveloped child’s problem. We can recognize that mathematics itself is difficult and complex and multifarious, and that the struggles children have with this way of knowing are just like the problems adults might also encounter. This way of treating the Piagetian legacy allows us to experience children’s struggles, not as developmentally isolated phenomena, but as belonging to a long, ongoing, intergenerational history, an ancestry of human work (see Jardine, Clifford & Friesen, 2003, p. 119), work to which we as adults and teachers, also belong, in our own ways.

In this way of proceeding in the classroom, our actions are no longer meant to narrow attention, isolating children and the topic, and break things down. Our actions, rather, expand the depth, diversity and lived reality of the topics (“places”) we take our children in the classroom. Jean Piaget’s legacy is still significant here. It can help teachers to become sensitive to and understand the nuances children bring. It can help teachers understand that the knowledge children cultivate in this place is genuinely knowledge of this place, not some trivial “kids’ work” done only because you don’t yet know. Children and their ways of knowing, questioning and exploring are not developmental strangers living in some developmentally portioned-off world. Rather, “there are children all around us” (Piaget 1971, 13)—right here, for example, in the world of triangles and their angularities, each working their way through this topic, this topography, in their own unique way.

Both of these ways of working in the classroom—breakdown or belonging—can lay claim to the legacy of Piaget. The way we treat a thing can sometimes change its nature.

On the Belonging of Established Science

This more “ecological/topographical” (see Jardine, Clifford & Friesen, 2003; Jardine, 2000) way of treating the legacy of Piaget’s work can be extended into a critique of that very legacy.

Piaget’s descriptions of the “methods of operation” of established science demonstrate how, in order to give a reliable account of its results, science must remain within the confines of that way of knowing. We are all familiar with the language of “contamination” and “despoiling results” in established science.

Here is a simply example of what we are confronting. After considering his fireplace imaginings of floating DNA helixes, James Watson's was lead to ponder “Pretty. And hopefully scientific." ( Within the methods of operation of science, the beauty of his image and the contingent circumstances in which he first imagined it are irrelevant. Also irrelevant is the long and complex history of the image of helixes, and how this image was available to Watson as a way of understanding what he was seeing—a way of understanding inherited in our language and in our imagination from Latin and originally from the Greek eilyein, “to wrap or roll.” Equally irrelevant are the drawings that Watson might have been arguing over, trying to picture the shape of DNA; the blackboards full of diagrams; heated conversations with colleagues; long hours reading relevant literature, searching out and testing various experimental designs; the bodily tiredness and frustration; the sip of single-malt Scotch; the trouble maintaining research funding and finding suitable outlets for the publication of results; all the politically and economically and personality/status charged quarrels over who was “first author,” all the hope, the despair, the joys, the breakthroughs.

So here is a paradox. Such messy, contingent, circumstantial, worldly things—such imaginal, bodily, concrete, speculative, economic, cultural, political, motivated and philosophical ways of knowing and experiencing—are not irrelevant to the actual eventual accomplishment of the scientific discovery of the double-helix shape of DNA molecules. Established science, despite its “self sufficient” (Piaget 1970b, p. 5) and “intrinsically intelligible” (p. 4) method of operation, does its work right here, in the world. But the “circumstances” do not and cannot appear as part of that accomplishment, because established science demands that its accomplishments begin only once its “method of operation” is enacted. In established science’s account of its scientific accomplishments, these surrounding worldly events—these other ways of knowing and living in the world that surround its work and make its work possible—do not and cannot appear. Such an appearance would despoil the logico-mathematical method of operation that defines the study as scientific. After all, that book that I’ve cited by James Watson is autobiographical, not “scientific.”

Piaget is quite clear on this point: “Science begins as soon as the problem can be isolated in such a way as to relate its solution to investigations that are universally accessible and verifiable, dissociating them from questions of evaluation and conviction” (Piaget 1974b, p. 20). And, further, established science necessarily follows “the essential rule of only asking questions in such terms that [logico-mathematically framed] verification and agreement is possible” (Piaget, 1965, p. 12). However, the actual doing of established science as part of the human enterprise is itself not possible without all the complexits of ways of knowing and living and acting in the midst of which it operates.

The complex ways of knowing that Jean Piaget’s work has identified (bodily, imaginal, playful, concrete, linguistically complex, ancestral), therefore, do not simply form a developmental sequence that (ontogenetically or phylogenetically) precedes established science. This complex array of ways of knowing surrounds houses and makes possible established science in ways that Piaget himself does not particularly address.

At work here is what Hans Reichenbach, in Experience and Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations and the Structure of Knowledge (1938), described as the difference between the “context of discovery” that surrounds established science and its self-defined, logico-mathematically delimited context of justification “Pretty” is part of the context of discovery, but it does not help justify the double-helix character of DNA as a scientific finding.

Perhaps Piaget’s work does not give us a good picture of the development of the actual operation of established science as a human enterprise, but only a picture, so to speak, of its ways of justifying its results, a justification that has deliberately purged itself of the very complexity of ways of knowing that it in fact deeply relies upon. Or has it?

Rosalind Franklin, a micro-chemist, was the first person to discover the structure of the DNA molecule but as a female Jew in an all-male scientific organization, her colleagues, Maurice Wilkins, James Watson and Francis Crick, refused to give her credit. Wilkins gave Franklin’s data to Watson and Crick without her permission and would not allow her to attend their meetings to discuss her results. Wilkins would not accept females in the doctoral program he supervised as late as the 1970s. Franklin was unable to share in the 1962 Nobel Prize with them because she died of cancer in 1958, and only living people can receive a Nobel Prize. Not only did she discover the helical structure of DNA, she showed Watson the mistakes in his original double-helix model which led to his award-winning conclusions. (Vare & Ptacek, 1988, 214–15)

So much for the lovely story about fireplaces and helix imaginings. Maybe this is a feminist exaggeration and distortion. Or maybe it’s the truth finally out. Certainly it is no wonder that Piaget’s work focuses only on what occurs within the confines of the method of operation of operation of established science. It may well be that, within the confines of sciences' self-justification, that "a single truth alone is acceptable when we are dealing with knowledge in the strictest sense" (Piaget, 1965, p. 216-7). However, what occurs beyond those confines is often difficult indeed, with no clear and controllable methodology to help us sort out once and for all what its “single truth alone” might be. This just may be precisely the sort of life-world “surrounding of established science”—how it is actually accomplished, only one part of which is its internal, logico-mathematical method of justification—that we want children to know about in our school curriculum. After all, coming up with a good hypothesis takes imagination, even though scientifically testing it does not. Cultivating children’s ability to imagine is thus essential to their coming to master science, even though it is not essential to the ways of justifying scientific findings.
The Sciences are Self-Sufficient”

The sciences are self-sufficient and alone guarantee their own reflection. (Piaget, 1965, p. 225)

[Established science involves] an ideal, perhaps a hope, of intrinsic intelligibility supported by the postulate that the structures are self-sufficient and that to grasp them, we do not have to make reference to all sorts of extraneous elements. (Piaget, 1970b, pp. 4–5)

It is at this juncture that things start to take a troublesome turn and the seemingly politically and culturally innocent realm of “the concepts and categories [and methods] of established science” (Inhelder 1969, 23) begins to bear a heartbreaking resemblance to old colonial impulses.

We can rest assured that Piaget knew full well that established science has grown up out of the history of the human species, that it must also grow up out of the life of the developing child, and that it grows, too, up out of the life of the scientist who lives in the world in ways that go beyond the confines of his or her eventual scientific work.

The question now is, what does it grow up into?

Here Piaget’s legacy takes a difficult turn, and interweaves with darker images and more troubled dreams. As was the wont of late-19th and early 20th century philosophical speculation, Jean Piaget believes that by growing into established science, humanity grows into self-sufficiency, independence, objectivity, disinterestedness, renunciation, “maturity.” In Piaget’s work, the concepts, categories and methods of established science are not simply an adaptation that belongs among and is surrounded and sustained by others. Science is, he contends, “an extension and perfection of all adaptive processes” (Piaget, 1973, p. 7). Human intelligence as manifest in the concepts, categories and methods of established science is the crowning moment of the "self-organizing principle inherent in life itself" (Piaget, 1952, 19, my emphasis). More strongly put, it is that adaptation, that way of constructing an understanding of the world, toward which life itself strives.

To help tease out these ideas, let’s begin with a passage from a very early work that Piaget wrote as a nineteen-year-old during the ravages of the First World War. In this prose-poem, titled “The Mission of the Idea,” Piaget lays out great themes that will define his life’s work and that therefore underwrite the legacy inherited by educational theory and practice:

Life is good, but the individual pursuing his self-interest renders it bad. Every individual instinctively, unconsciously serves its species, serves life. But self-interest may lead the individual to keep for himself some of the vital energy which he might bring to others. One day intelligence appeared, illuminated life, opening new domains to mankind. But here again self-interest appeared, now armed with reason. But man, having tasted of the fruits of the tree of life, remains caught in this conflict between self-interest and renunciation (Piaget, 1977, pp. 29–30).

This early hymn to God, to life, to humanity at its best, finds amazing echoes in Piaget’s later descriptions of the nature of the “renunciation” of “self-interest” that is central to established science. This renunciation occurs through the transformation of the self, over the course of development, from a self-centered subject to an anonymous, replaceable, “disinterested” subject who operates solely in terms of “processes common to all subjects” (Piaget, 1965a, p. 108). Thus:

A distinction must be at once drawn between the individual subject, centred on his sense organs or on his own actions—and hence on the ego or egocentric subject as a source of possible deformation or illusion of the “subjective” type in the basic meaning of the term—and the decentred subject who coordinates his actions as between them and those of others; who measures, calculates, and deduces in a way that can be generally verified; and whose epistemic activities are therefore common to all subjects, even if they are replaced by electronic or cybernetic machines with a built-in logical and mathematical capacity similar to that of the human brain. (Piaget, 1973, pp. 7–8)

This “decentred subject” is still a human subject, but it is now a subject who operates not according to self-interest, but according to and only in terms of the method of operation of established science—only in terms of the essential nature of the inevitable “organizing activity inherent in life itself” (Piaget, 1952, p. 19), deployed deliberately as its method. This method “serves life” (Piaget, 1977, p. 30) by cleaving solely and strictly to its essential, invariant nature (the universal and necessary functional a priori). Through such “decentration,” in which we move away from self-interest, we “no longer intervene as an individual or distorting subject, but as an epistemic subject, the condition and instrument of objectivity” (Piaget, 1967, p. 338). “As long as one does not seek verification by a group of facts established experimentally or by deduction conforming to an exact algorithm (as in logic),” Piaget argues, “the criterion of truth can only remain subjective” (1965a, p. 12).

To push this one step further, through the development of such “decentration,” we become more and more alike, and, eventually, as the anonymous wielders of logico-mathematical knowledge, we become identical. The development of the child can thus be understood as the overcoming of difference, the very differences that Piaget’s genetic epistemology has so carefully detailed and explored.

Piaget’s work is clearly still full of old Enlightenment ideals regarding established science. Science is the crowning jewel of humanity, the sign of humanity’s maturity, its independence, reliability, reasonableness, logicalness, constancy, self-sufficiency, trustworthiness and so on. It may not be abstractly understandable as an “independent absolute” (Piaget, 1952, p. 19), but stands among other ways as the most mature, the least self-interested, the most independent and self sufficient, perfectly “self-regulating” (Piaget, 1971b, p. 26), since the terms of its self-regulation are the organizing activity inherent in life itself, and the “self” accomplishing such regulation is the “epistemic subject” who works only in accord with this method of operation.

It is at this juncture that Immanuel Kant, Piaget’s forebearer, is helpful once again to understanding what is at play in his descendant’s work. In Kant’s description of the central call of the Enlightenment, images of maturity and immaturity, of adulthood and childhood appear:

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in a lack of understanding, but in a lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude!: “Have courage to use your own understanding!”—that is the motto of the Enlightenment. (1964, p. 41, emphasis original)

We find similar images of adult and child, of maturity and immaturity (even of teacher and pupil) buried in a passage from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, a passage which clearly and declaratively lays out the character of human reason as a synthesizing, formative demand made upon things:

A light broke upon the students of nature. They learned that reason has insight only into that which it produces after a plan of its own, and that it must not allow itself to be kept, as it were, in nature’s leading-strings, but must itself show the way with principles of judgement based on fixed laws, constraining nature to give answer to questions of reason’s own determining. Reason … must approach nature in order to be taught by it. It must not, however, do so in the character of a pupil who listens to everything the teacher chooses to say, but of an appointed judge who compels the witnesses to answer questions which he had himself formulated. (Kant, 1964, p. 20)

Here we get images of the heretofore dependent pupil turning away from his teachers and their guidance (one meaning of “leading strings” is “pupilage” or “being led or taught by another”). Under the Enlightenment ideal, any guidance other than that demanded by reason itself (in Piaget’s work, demanded by the method of operation of established science) is ruled out as indicative of childishness or immaturity. Another image buried here is one of the boy cutting the leading-strings (or “apron strings”) that bind him to nature (that is, to his mother—another age-old allegorical thread to be explored). Once achieved, reason (in Kant’s work) and established science (in Piaget’s work) have no lingering dependency on anything that has given rise to them, given “birth” to them, one might say.

The Enlightenment image of reason, then, is pictured as the way in which humanity has overcome its immaturity or primitiveness; in Piaget’s work, “the child is the real primitive among us, the missing link between prehistorical men and contemporary adults” (Voneche & Bovet, 1982, p. 88; also see Malvern, 1994; Nandy, 1983). The child is the embodied primitive, suggesting wildness and animality (“leading-strings” also refers to a cord used to lead and train animals). Alice Miller (1989) has traced in detail how what she called the “black pedagogies” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries understood children to be wild and willful beings who must be made to “mind,” who must be “taught a lesson.”

And so the political and cultural consequences begin to roll out. If we begin with the belief that we are in command of the categories of maturity and civility that define the crowning jewel of humanity, we can believe as well that we are able—in fact morally obligated—to use any means necessary to bring our children in line with our preordained destiny. And all of this will be done, of course, with beneficent intent: For Your Own Good (Miller 1989).

Once the leading-strings are cut, we can finally “stand on our own two feet” (“leading-strings” were used to teach children to stand and walk; this image is also used as a metaphor for “dependency”). Again from Jean Piaget’s The Mission of the Idea (1977, pp. 30–31): “The child on the point of becoming a man is irresolute and weak, his soul is in turmoil, painful no matter how beautiful its mysterious source. From this crisis comes a mature fruit, thus is born humanity.” We have now stepped fully into dangerous territories.

When Piaget (1971a, pp. 12–14) speculated that ontogeny (the stages of growth of the individual) might recapitulate phylogeny (the stages of growth of the species), he was not deliberately contending that our ancestors were like children, or that those from cultures and ways other than Enlightenment Europe might be full of the naiveté, immaturity and petulance of childhood. He is not deliberately suggesting that those who do not heed the Enlightenment call:

[B]elong to a different mentality: savage, primitive, underdeveloped, backwards, alienated, composed of opinions, customs, authority, prejudice, ignorance, ideology. Narratives are fables, myths, legends, fit only for women and children. At best, attempts are made to throw some rays of light into this obscurantism, to civilize, educate, develop. (Usher and Edwards, 1994, p. 158)

And yet, of course, this is precisely the legacy we are currently living out, a legacy of which Jean Piaget’s work is, however unwittingly and however unintended, a part. His work emerged in the wake of deeply imperial, deeply colonial, deeply self-confident and assured images of how the world works and how the peoples of the world are to be understood in light of the crowning achievement of European Enlightenment and European (and now North American) images of civility, democracy, reasonableness and liberty.

The Savage Childhood of the Human Race”

This surely isn’t the place to even attempt to untangle all of the threads of these issues. For now, I’ll offer only a sketch, a beginning caution.

We have all witnessed how the language of “development” has come to be used in our understanding of the diversity of cultures and peoples in the world. We know full well this history. For example, we know how, under the British Empire, the diversity of the Commonwealth was spread before the Crown as a wonderful, rich array of comparatively uncivilized, underdeveloped, less reasonable, less cultured, less “mature” places. We know from the work of Asish Nandy (1983; 1987) how those subjected to colonial rule were systematically and deliberately characterized as “children.” We are surrounded by an increasing number of critiques of these images of development:

[W]hen underdeveloped countries are called “developing” countries, it’s a way of saying they are like children—growing, developing. And it’s a lie. They are underdeveloped because more powerful countries are growing at their expense. Third World underdevelopment is a consequence of First World development, and not a stage toward it. (Galeano, 2000)

Eduardo Galeano (1997, p. 30) thus gives us pause over the image of “belonging” that we have too easily and too happily toyed with in Jean Piaget’s legacy: “The one [developed] and the other [underdeveloped] make up the same system.”

There is no good reason to map out the historical-developmental unfolding of things (phylogeny) unless it proves to be the case that “we” are the fulfillment, the flowering, the most developed, the most civilized. Unfolding the course of historical movement is always done, first of all, under the belief that there is an undeniable maturity and civility already possessed by those pursuing such unfoldings. Developmentalism is not possible in a culture that does not view itself thus. You don’t map out a developmental sequence in order to find that you are, say, “third” (world), but only to show what you already believe, that you are “number one.”

Developmentalism does not seek out the past (“previous stages,” both ontogenetic and phylogenetic) in order to help us live our lives on the basis of generously knowing and learning from living among ancestors, living among children, living among a diversity of cultures and beliefs. It seeks out development in order to help substantiate the belief that “we” have fulfilled our ancestry. “We” are its proper end. We can thus act pre-emptively vis-à-vis “the immature” because we already know what their future holds (just as we can imagine those deveopmentally sequences worksheets in grade one as a pre-emptive understanding of what children’s future development holds in store).

Buried here is another thread with echoes of Piaget’s: “modernity is a single condition, everywhere the same and always benign. As societies become more modern, so they become more alike. At the same time, they become better” (Gray, 2003, p. 1). What societies become more like is defined, of course, by “the winners of the world” (Nandy, 1983, p. 47) because, to use Piaget’s terminology, having become a winner of the world means precisely that the winner’s ways of knowing and acting are more “adaptive” than the losers whose destiny it is to be eventually erased. The winners of the world are more mature, more civilized, less childish and self-centred. In one fell swoop, then, those who are underdeveloped have two options. As David Smith (2006) lays out so tellingly in his explorations of the work of Enrique Dussel, the choices are bleak: the myth of salvation or the myth of sacrifice. As educators know so silently yet so well, you will either be saved by becoming mature as prescribed by developmental norms, or you will not survive and be sacrificed I the name of maintaining the normality of those very norms.

Developmentalism thus adds a profound twist to the old colonialism. Under colonialism, we were able to believe that we stood in the midst of the world as the best—the freest, the most reasonable, the most civilized. Under developmentalism, we get a new twist on the modernist spirit of universality and necessity (recall, Kant’s criteria for the a priori): we are not just “the best” among others in the world, the most civilized, the most literate, the most moral, the most “free ” (all old colonial cants). If we add “development” to the modern spirit, we are that toward which the world is developing, naturally and of natural necessity. With the addition of “development” to the modernist idea of universality, we become “mature,” and the “developing world” becomes not only immature, but inevitably heading our way. “Underdeveloped nations” (as becomes the euphemism) become like not-yet-fully developed children whose future we already understand and embody, children who are in need of nurturing, love, encouragement—and strict discipline.

Just in case this interpretation seems to be getting a bit out of hand, consider the following excerpt from an interview with David Frum, a Canadian and the author of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech. In speaking with Evan Solomon, one of the hosts of the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s (CBC) television program Sunday Morning, Frum was attempting to lay out his vision of the place of past and future American pre-emptive actions in the Middle East. Images of childhood, adolescence and adulthood—images of development—appear:

EVAN SOLOMON: Is this a prescription for American imperialism? Is this the new empire? I know that you think it is a beneficent empire….

DAVID FRUM: No, no, absolutely not. This is the adolescence of the human race. This is the moment when human beings are making the transition from a world governed by violence to a world governed by law. Just as the North Atlantic is governed by law, we hope that some day the whole world will look like that. But the instrument whereby humanity is going to make that transition from the savage childhood of the human race to law-abiding adulthood is through the instrument of American power. It is America who is going to … maybe someday it will be somebody else’s … maybe someday it will be India’s job, a while ago it was Britain’s, but today it is America’s power that is going to spread the realm of law and civilization and democracy. (Frum & Solomon, 2004)

Perhaps there are ways that the troubled legacy of Jean Piaget’s work can help us hear what is at work in such statements.
A Final Pedagogical Mediation on Jean Piaget’s Legacy

In my role in teacher-education, I have been talking with student-teachers about a disturbing and yet inevitable aspect of teaching: that the students you teach think about you in ways that you might not think about yourself, that they experience and know the world in ways that go beyond our own. A first response might be, of course, bewilderment, paranoia, withdrawal, humiliation, anger, even violence. However, students are often able to read our hopes, intentions and experiences back to us in ways that have the potential to release us from the potentially deadly and deadening enclosures of our own self-narration.

This is a huge revelation for a new teacher: that we might listen to others, not only in order to understand them and what they believe better, but in order to understand ourselves better, to understand what we believe in ways that we could have never understood alone. It may be that it is precisely the release from the enclosures of our own self-narration that makes teaching and learning possible. Only in such release can we understand ourselves as living with others in the great, ongoing, sometimes terrifying, sometimes joyful conversation that constitutes being human. Our only hope just might be the realization that “genuine life together is made possible only in the context of an ongoing conversation which is never over yet which also must be sustained for life together to go on at all” (Smith, 1999, p. 139).

This, perhaps, is Jean Piaget’s greatest and most troublesome gift to those of us in education: that we are not just knowing, but known. We are not just experiencing others, but experienced by them. Our ability to take up this challenge with love and affection—“kind-ness,” one might call—despite all the sometimes overwhelming difficulties that challenge entails, might be the greatest test of our “maturity.”


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A briefer version of this work forms the final chapter of Piaget and Education: A Primer (Jardine 2005).

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