He was born in 1942 in Clonmel, Ireland, and was raised and educated in England. After a brief period as a novice in a Franciscan monastery, he graduated from the University of London with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history in 1966. He subsequently worked as a research fellow at the Institute for Comparative Studies in Kingston upon Thames. He then moved to the United States and began a PhD in the philosophy of education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Egan completed his PhD at Cornell University in 1972.
At Simon Frazier University in British Colombia, Egan was the director of the Imaginative Education Research Group, which was founded by the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University. The goal of this group is to improve education on a global scale by developing and proliferating the ideas of Imaginative Education.
Egan argued that beneath many of the debates around schools was a more fundamental disagreement: what should the goal of education be? He pointed to three major options:
Option one was to give students the same understandings and habits to help them succeed in society. Egan called this the “socialization” goal, and suggested it may have been the original purpose of schools.
A second option was to give students an understanding of truth, allowing them to change society. Egan called this the “academic” goal, and suggested that this goal was introduced by Plato.
The third option was to give students the chance to develop their own understandings and skills through a process of self-discovery, allowing them to create themselves as individuals. Egan called this the “psychological” goal, and suggested it came from Rousseau.
Egan noted that, when facing these three appealing goals, educational leaders often seek a compromise by combining them together. This, he argued, was a mistake and the fundamental cause of why schools struggle to educate students well. He wrote-these three ideas are mutually incompatible, and this is the primary cause of our long-continuing educational crisis.” Egan added-the present educational program in much of the West attempts to integrate all three of these incompatible ideas, resulting in a failure to effectively achieve any of the three. Throughout his career, he attempted to develop a new theoretical grounding for education.