Essay 22: Education and Jean Piaget: Using “Moby Dick” as a Counterweight to Piaget

The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (who died in 1980) was perhaps the greatest theorist of cognitive development and education of the twentieth century.  His books are classics and his various explorations of childhood games, rules, knowledge, education, etc. are of outstanding quality.

A central work of Piaget’s for our purposes of educational deepening is his small masterpiece To Understand Is to Invent: The Future of Education.

We respectfully disagree with arguments put forth in this book which we see as overly narrow. Take these words on the uselessness of Eskimo knowledge: “We are like the old Eskimo who was asked by an ethnologist why his tribe so piously preserved certain rites, and answered that he could not understand what was the meaning of that, saying: ‘We preserve our old customs so that the universe will continue.’ ”

Piaget continues: “For primitive man, the universe is a great machine in unstable equilibrium where all is related to everything else (the social customs and physical laws are not differentiated one from another). If one removes even one of its pieces, even without knowing what purpose it has, the whole machine risks being thrown out of gear.” (Jean Piaget, To Understand Is to Invent: The Future of Education, Penguin Books, 1977, page 134)

Children too come under Piaget’s “disapproval” when he says a few paragraphs later:

“Every child has thought one day that the moon was following him, and, according to several primitive societies, the course of the heavenly bodies is ruled by the movement of men (in ancient China, for example, the Son of the Heavens insured the seasons by his moving about). The Chaldeans and the Babylonians made notable progress in freeing themselves from this initial egocentric vision and in understanding that the heavenly bodies have a trajectory which is independent of us…The Copernican revolution can be considered a most striking symbol of the victory of objective coordinations over the spontaneous egocentrism of the human being.” (Jean Piaget, To Understand Is to Invent: The Future of Education, Penguin Books, 1977, page 137-138).

Piaget, for all his acuity, sets up a rigid dichotomy between Western adults and primitive man and children. Primitive man is childish and children are primitive so they go together.

We find this extremely constraining and surprisingly, perhaps, point of Melville’s 1851 classic MobyDick as a counterexample to Piaget.

Ishmael, the narrator, is the only survivor of the shipwreck of the Pequod which is not only a ship but also a global university of sorts, a site of knowledge of all kinds: Ahab’s, Starbuck’s, Ishmael’s. Ishmael deeply respects the dignity and self-possession of the “primitive” sailor and harpooner Queequeg, whose coffin allows him not to drown. He (Ishmael) respects and finds moving the ‘primitive’ religious ceremonies of the native Queequeg for his god Yodo and Ishmael participates modestly and reverently.

Relentless dismissiveness of indigenous ways of seeing the world are dangerous and have led Western man to the current climate crisis and the complete paralysis in coping with it. Indigenous man’s basic belief that the “earth own us” and is Our Mother would be a healthy antidote to Western “techno-nihilism.” In Moby-Dick, Ishmael’s tolerance, openness, mildness, and cosmopolitan emotional life, saves him and this is a counterweight to Piaget-ism. He says in the beginning of the book that ships and voyages were “my Harvard and my Yale.”

Furthermore, childlike visions of the world (“the moon is following me”) are the basis, potentially of scientific advances later on since as Einstein and Feynman kept emphasizing, the trick in life and science is to “remain childlike all one’s life and keep asking all those children’s questions all through one’s life such as “why is the sky blue?” You will be told by the physics book Rayleigh Scattering, which explains the blue sky and then you ask, why is that? if we were wired differently would it still be blue? Is it blue or just seems so? What are colors like blue?  Why would cosmic evolution, if it pertains, evolve in this way (i.e., where Rayleigh scattering applies)?

In other words, to set us a rigid binary world where modern physicists are right and indigenous people and children are naive if not idiotic is not attractive to someone who wants a wide-angle and deep education and combine modern science, a great accomplishment, with Ishmael’s openness to other modes and types of being, another kind of great accomplishment, as Melville shows us.

This is especially true since the chapters in Moby-Dick, “The Whiteness of the Whale” and “The Doubloon” show us that finality in knowledge is not attainable and that modesty (i.e., Ishmael-ism) is what’s appropriate for man (e.g., open, inclusionary, tolerant views).

Real understanding (our goal) is to invent (following Piaget’s word) clusters of connected views, beyond specialization, and this would be the future of education. This can only be done by rescuing and including “childlike” and indigenous modes of understanding, a bit like Melville’s Ishmael.