Education as Mimesis

Education as Mimesis

For EDUC 901
29 October 2012
It is the third or fourth session of Stephen’s Curriculum Studies colloquium and I experience the sensation of stepping outside my body to watch and listen to myself share a particular insight I’ve pulled from the reading and current discussion to my prior experience. As I approach a phrase I mean to use ironically, I raise my hands to insert air quotes and my mouth forms to produce a distinct clicking noise. Time stops. My peers and Stephen stare at me. I’ve just imitated Kieran and I acknowledge as such as an aside and the room erupts in laughter. Where did this come from? I did not do it consciously; it just happened.


The goal in the next few pages is to explore the relationship between mimesis and education. Mimetics - mimesis, imitation, mimicry - is largely absent from educational conversations (excluding the ones included below, of course). I have hunches as to the reasons for why mimesis has fallen out of favor and plan to weave them through an analysis of perspectives on mimetics. The question that elicited this analysis originally concerned the virtues and ethics of mimesis in education, but it is the pragmatic that demands a shift in the question to an understanding of mimesis in the practice of pedagogy. Put bluntly, we (as participants in educational endeavors) are already always engage in mimesis - so why not understand just what we are doing?

Personal and Current Contexts

We all would like to think that we are our own person, independent of any one else. We are told from birth (and as adults in every diversity training program) that we are unique. Pluralism at its best is the simultaneous acknowledgement and celebration of multiple perspectives. Plato’s critique of the poets in The Republic, Itard’s work with socializing Victor, and Locke’s focus on the virtuous gentleman calls these everyday presuppositions into question. How does mimesis occur in the everyday life of a school and, more broadly, in teaching and learning? As easy as it would be to ignore and explain away the phenomenon, something is left undone by not exploring it further.

At present Western culture is obsessed with owning and possessing ideas in the same way as owning cars, houses, and cell phones. In the age of digital technologies and global communication capabilities, is it possible - is it realistic - to attribute and own ideas? This begins a (dangerous) change of pace: Where does ownership lie when a student learns (absorbs) another’s idea? (e.g. from Plato, Locke, etc.). In due time I will call upon the ideas of others and reference their contributions to understandings of mimesis. Are they my ideas? Or are they simply the other writers that I cite? Is it a combination? Copyright law and traditional conceptualizations of who owns what have been transformed by the revolution in digital communications. Plagiarism is a damning offense in academia; you must cite and footnote and when in doubt, cite and footnote again.

Returning to how imitation and mimesis occurs within the realm of ideas and educational life, consider teacher identity. Is a teacher truly an innovative educator or are they imitating practices that have been deemed as good teaching? Considering content and curricula; Whose knowledge is being passed on to children (or constructed in children’s minds depending on your philosophical bent)? In what ways are teachers role models for students insomuch as we expect that student will embody the teacher’s own behavior and beliefs? How do students influence each other in their learning? Influence and model are concepts that attempt to name mimesis but lack a full expression of the phenomenon. Donald’s (1991) framework of mimetic culture will be helpful in moving forward.

Mimetic Culture

Merlin Donald in his book Origins of the Modern Mind (1991) presents a theory of human cognitive development grounded in evolution that offers an interesting perspective on mimesis in the generation of human culture. Put extremely simply, over time man evolved through cultural frameworks that involved the integration of specific cognitive tools that assisted in the development of humans. Beginning with primates, the first humans existed in an Episodic Culture, transitioned to a Mimetic Culture, then to a Mythic Culture, and finally to the External Symbolic Storage and Theoretic Culture. Donald argues that the Mimetic Culture was the critical mediator between the transition from ape to human (p. 162). Instead of relying solely on episodic memory (the core of the Episodic Culture), hominids in the Mimetic Culture transitioned into interactions and relationships based on intentional mimetic representation. “Mimesis rests on the ability to produce conscious, self-initiated, representational acts that are intentional but not linguistic” (Donald, 1991, p. 168, emphasis added). Within this developmental model of cognition, language does not appear until the Mythic cultural stage.

Mimetic representation operates in multiple modalities and includes gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Donald’s framework posits that mimesis was key for the development of social groups, norms, and, ultimately, “the first truly human culture” (1991, p. 193). The obvious lack of language in mimetic culture is intriguing. Without words and grammar, mimetic representation allowed for the development of tools, games, play, dance and other rituals that over time developed into the foundations of social structure. Mimesis remains central even to modern cultures: “No matter how evolved our oral-linguistic culture, and no matter how sophisticated the rich varieties of symbolic material surrounding us, mimetic scenarios still form the expressive heart of human social interchange” (Donald, 1991, p. 189). From the perspective offered by this developmental model for human cognition, mimetic representation is not only integral to human culture but it is impossible to ignore.

Donald’s developmental framework situates mimesis as “the most basic medium of human communication” (p. 188). Adopting this presupposition, we move to Plato, Itard, and Locke’s treatment of mimetics concerning teaching and learning.

Mimesis in Education: Plato, Itard, Locke

Plato tackles mimesis in Books III and X in The Republic. Mimetic representation of the epic poets, and in particular Homer, is Plato’s target. He creates a distinction between the (1) simple narrative and (2) mimesis in the sharing of a poet’s story. Simple narrative is appropriate and acceptable while mimetic poetry is forbidden. In the oral presentation of the poem a poet is not to imitate or embody the personae of the character who is speaking or acting. Imitation is dangerous for the listeners and for the virtuous man/city. Plato does not necessarily argue for the banishment of the oral tradition, but a severe censorship. If humans are to have a mind then their charge in life is to learn to think for himself and identify what is true about the world as it is, not trusting mere imitations of the world. Plato’s critique of the need for the philosopher-kings’ censorship of the poets situates the value and nature of art in human culture. With an eye to education, Plato would be wary of mimetic representation on the part of the teacher. Simple truths may be acceptable, but imitating another would be too risky for the greater good.

Itard’s Wild Boy of Aveyron offers a direct educational implementation of mimetic representation and mimetic theory, approach that is enacted to this day in Montessori schools (Ross, 2012). Itard takes Victor into his care and attempts to assimilate him into human society. While Victor is spoken at/to during his training it is presupposed that he cannot engage linguistically. The communication between Itard and Madame Guérin to Victor is based in imitating gestures and bodily movements. Considering Plato’s argument that humans should not be imitating truth but rather focused on identifying truth in and of itself, Victor’s mimetic behavior would suggest a certain emptiness, a going-through-the-motions without meaning or understanding. The features of mimetic culture that Donald (1991) suggests are demonstrate in the film. Victor communicates his needs and desires via bodily gestures and vocal grunting. What remains questionable is where mimetic representation transitions into learning and embodied knowing. Is Victor acting out meaningless (for him) actions as he is “taught” his alphabet? Within the lens of Donald’s mimetic culture, would Victor have been able to absorb and transition more quickly? More efficiently? Can Donald’s developmental theory even be applied in this way?

Locke’s model for an ideal education, beyond the body, virtue, and academic curriculum, frames educational encounters as a series of conversations between the student and other learned, virtuous gentlemen. Connecting the mimetic cultures of the past, Donald (1991) threads mimetic culture to the present by referencing the Vygotskian pedagogy. Specifically, Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development (ZPD) is presented as a modern mimetically-based tool for teaching and learning. The types of conversations proposed by Locke seem to suggest the context of Vygotsky’s ZPD; communication cannot be too difficult or too simple but just right to encourage learning. In the modern day classroom this continues to evolve in the heterogeneous groupings minds so that the smarter will rub off on the not-as-smart. The result, in theory, is for the not-as smart minds to imitate the smarter and thereby becoming smarter. The conclusion is commonsensical and is, essentially, Locke’s argument that to educate a virtuous gentleman he must be surrounded by other virtuous individuals. Is this all that bad?

Concluding Thoughts and So what?

Kemp (2006) attempts the salvation of mimesis in education by approaching the phenomenon tangentially via hermeneutics. While mimesis has been pushed to the edge of pedagogy (Kemp describes it as repressed), understanding the teacher-student relationship is impossible without it. In education we traditionally focus on the formation of students. Drawing on Paul Ricœur’s theory of narrative, Kemp reconnects mimesis to education:
We form and teach ourselves the moment we appropriate stories and ideas—which is a re-figuration. This is the actual mimesis, the creative representation (the putting forth) of a ‘hermeneutic identity’ … We can only retrieve the narrative’s meaning because we already are familiar with the meaning given by the everyday world in which we live and in relation to which we understand the meaning of actions, goals, means, success, defeat and so forth. (Kemp, 2006, pp. 175-176)

Kemp references Aristotle’s critique of Plato’s denunciation of the poets in The Republic in ultimately framing all of culture as series of mimetic acts. Education, however, continues to resist mimesis: “Today the position is that we in no way mimic anything in the process of learning” (Kemp, 2006, 177). This is not the case in other contexts; athletes imitate their coaches, musicians imitate their tutors, and craftspeople work as apprentices to masters. While a full exploration of the roots of the falling out of favor of imitation within the teacher-student relationship is beyond the scope of this analysis, the separation between pedagogy and mimesis begins with Plato and Aristotle and continues through time into neoclassicism, romanticism, and protestantism.

Returning again to Donald’s (1991) distinction of mimesis as intentional representation, it is clearer that an additional distinction needs to be made - the phenomenon of unintentional imitation or pre-consciousness mimesis. Locke’s conceptualization of the education of a virtuous gentlemen relies on covert imitation. Itard’s work with Victor was focused, transparent, and intentional mimesis. But what of unintentional mimetic representation? In what ways are educators and students acting out (unconsciously imitating) particular ways of being that are not their own? Or are these imitations their own? Even with the distinction of intentional and unintentional imitation, does an escape route exist?

“Mimesis must be understood as a productive imitation that enters into all individual formation and education” (Kemp, 2006, 183). The question is not whether education should acknowledge imitation as a tool for teaching and learning but rather how mimesis should be integrated into the pedagogical context.
The teacher is the representative of the historical community. The teacher, highly critical or not, is the intermediary of traditions, for even critiques must be based on premises and conceptions of man in order to be sound. Consequently, the teacher has something to offer the student, something to be imitated; the teacher cannot merely be the occasion that spurs the student to bring out truths hidden inside. The best teacher is the one who can make his or her student autonomous. Mimesis must be a creative imitation, and that naturally can only happen if the student appreciates the teacher—even when considering a particular teacher as the best teacher for him or herself. The teacher forms the student, but the student forms him or herself through the choice of teacher he or she wants to follow as the master. (Kemp, 2006, 183)

Creative mimesis is the term used to reframe imitation within pedagogy. There is an expectation that the student (apprentice) will imitate the actions and behaviours of the master and ultimately move just beyond the skill and creativity of the master. If mimetic representation is conscious, if it is distinguishable, something can be done with it. What needs attention is not a resolving or diminishing, but an acknowledging and embodying.


Donald, Merlin (1991). Origins of the modern mind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Itard, J.M.G. The Wild Boy of Aveyron.

Kemp, P. (2006). Mimesis in Educational Hermeneutics. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 38(2), 171–184. doi:10.1111/j.1469-5812.2006.00186.x

Locke, John. Some Thoughts concerning Education. Hackett Pub Co Inc ISBN: 0872203344

Plato, The Republic. Dover. ISBN: 0486411214

Ross, S. (2012). The Montessori Method: The Development of a Healthy Pattern of Desire in Early Childhood. Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, 19(1), 87–122. doi:10.1353/ctn.2012.0004


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