Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Norms & Nobility, chapter 3

As my internet time grows more limited, I think I'll post all my thoughts on chapter 3 at the same time.

Chapter 3 draws our attention to the role of the teacher in classical education. David Hicks paints us two pictures of "ideal" classical teachers--Socrates and Isokrates. Most of us are familiar with Socrates, and his method of question and inquiry, which is a good example of the kind of inquiry that David Hicks wants us to see. Isokrates, on the other hand, is...well, what? I never heard of him before reading this book, and I have been unsuccessful in learning much from the internet. Whatever he might have written, I haven't found that any of it has been translated and published for a long, long time.

Only recently did I realized that David Hicks primary source of information about Isokrates is probably Marrou's History of Education in Antiquity, in which he features prominently. And Marrou probably read Isokrates in the original Greek. I own a copy of Marrou's book, and it is on my "to be read" list, but it is so long and detailed, I fear it may be some time before I get through all of it (I have dipped in here and there).

In the meantime, I take Hicks word for it that Isokrates focused on training children to be adults, and that he understand that children value that knowledge which they perceive as bringing them closer to the world of adult-hood. From the teacher's vantage point, this is accomplished by taking his place as a fellow-learner who is a good bit further down the road than his pupils--he is there example, and the one who is able to ask the questions that will set them to thinking and discovering for themselves. The knowledge to be acquired--not the teacher, and not the child--is the most important thing.

I am reminded of something Charlotte Mason writes in Philosophy of Education:

The teacher who allows his scholars the freedom of the city of books is at liberty to be their guide, philosopher and friend; and is no longer the mere instrument of forcible intellectual feeding.
In this case, "books" should be understood to be the source of knowledge, and anyone familiar with her will know that real books, not textbooks, are needed.

I think that those of us who are homeschoolers, and who have not been classically educated ourselves, need to (humbly!) take our places beside our students and acknowledge that we, too, have a lot to learn. I am not Socrates or Isokrates, or Charlotte Mason, either. I fall way short of David Hicks ideal classical teacher, and for that reason, a knowledge-based education, in which both my students and I turn to excellent books as our teachers is very appealing to me. David Hicks recognizes this need for teachers, too, and his indictment of the trappings of modern education is that they are set up to conceal the teacher's lack of real knowledge.

Most of the time, I consider myself as much as student as my children, and I would love a classical teacher to lead us both.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Norms & Nobility, chapter 2, II and III

I said that I would write more about the logos, and so I must. The rest of chapter 2 is devoted to explaining how logo and mythos (which, according to Hicks, resolve themselves in a “dialectical unity of opposites”) are essential to normative education. Words have definitions, but they they also connotations, and emotional content which add layers of depth and understanding which definition alone does not provide.

Unfortunately, the modern scientific rationalism insists that denotation alone is all that is valid, and so words with connotations and normative qualities (such as “valor,” “shame,” “sacrifice”) are ejected from education in favor of concrete, utilitarian objects. David Hicks mentions distributor caps, but I am going to say things like “nouns” or “prepositions,” because we so often want to treat our words as if they are no more than objects.

David Hicks says, “At the heart of classical education is the word: the complete mastery of its shades of meaning, of its action-implicit imperatives, of its emotions and values.” That is the heart—-the living, beating, vital part-- of classical education, and not any sort of dry, life-killing reduction of words to mere grammatical constructions. There is a place for both—-the emotional, atmospheric words that fire the imagination, and the disinterested analysis of their meanings-- but the imaginative side has the preeminence.

Charlotte Mason understood this so well. She knew that ideas were necessary for the mind to grow on, and that those ideas were best conveyed in literary language. You cannot simply say, “lying is shameful behavior” as a bald fact. Instead, truth and deceit are conveyed through stories and examples (mythos) that make the virtue of truthfulness a desirable goal, and educate the conscience to be ashamed of speaking a lie.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Norms & Nobility, chapter 1, IV

The conclusion to chapter 1 is so rich, I could happily write more pages about my thoughts on it than David Hicks wrote in the first place. But that would be a bad idea. Instead, I'll focus again on one key thought because it meshes almost exactly with something that Charlotte Mason tells us.

David Hicks defines "dialectic" thinking in this way: "Dialectic is simply the form of the activity of thinking: the mind's habit of challenging the thoughts and observations originating inside and outside itself and of engaging in a desultory dialogue with itself until the issues are resolved."

He's going to say a lot more about it later, but you get the picture--an internal dialogue in which the mind proposes questions, or discovers them elsewhere, and asks itself to work out an answer, going back and forth internally, seeking a resolution of ideas.

And in more than one place, Charlotte Mason tells us, "the mind can know nothing but what it can produce in the form of an answer to a question put by the mind to itself. ..." She said that she received the quote from a "philosophical old friend," but was unable to trace it to its source. I've never found a source, either, but she says that she became more and more convinced of the truth of that statement. And what is it, but a slight variation of Hicks' definition of dialectic? Classical inquiry requires this kind of thinking to become deliberate, and it is through this kind of thinking that the question will arise, "what ought I to do?" about the knowledge thus acquired, and only from there can the possibility of right action resulting from right thinking begin.

There's a lot more in this little section, of course, but I can't resist the opportunity of calling attention to CM's grasp of this oh-so-classical way of thinking.


Okay, one more thought, because I am a little concerned that my latin-is-not-a-prerequisite-for-education-in-the-classical-tradition stance is causing distress where I don't want it to. David Hicks points out at the end of this section that although the classical educators agreed on the purpose of education, they were divided as to how it should be carried out. There were two basic positions, and Hicks points out that each made use of the strengths of the opposition in their own case. But he says this: "Philosophical and rhetorical learning--as two rival approaches to education--enriched classical culture without disturbing its profound unity." There are essentials, and there are non-essentials. Classical education has room for various approaches.

For instance, here is one of my favorite quotes from Augustine's "On Christian Doctrine," from the section in which he is discussing the value of classical training (oratorical training, as the Romans viewed it) to Christians.

And, therefore, as infants cannot learn to speak except by learning words and phrases from those who do speak, why should not men become eloquent without being taught any art of speech, simply by reading and learning the speeches of eloquent men, and by imitating them as far as they can? And what do we find from the examples themselves to be the case in this respect? We know numbers who, without acquaintance with rhetorical rules, are more eloquent than many who have learnt these; but we know no one who is eloquent without having read and listened to the speeches and debates of eloquent men. For even the art of grammar, which teaches correctness of speech, need not be learnt by boys, if they have the advantage of growing up and living among men who speak correctly. For without knowing the names of any of the faults, they will, from being accustomed to correct speech, lay hold upon whatever is faulty in the speech of any one they listen to, and avoid it; just as city-bred men, even when illiterate, seize upon the faults of rustics.

Isn't that great? He is saying that continual exposure to the best use of language allows us to acquire the talent of using language both correctly and eloquently, without even studying the minutia of grammar. Augustine was both classically educated, and an educator himself--his observations led him to believe that exposure to excellent speech would result in eloquence, without formal training. The same principle may be applied to writing--excellent writers may be developed from continual exposure to the best writing, coupled with deliberate attempts at imitation. This isn't "traditional" classical education, but it is a legitimate approach to classical education, which can be supported by authors like Augustine and Erasmus. Oh...and Charlotte Mason. ;-)

Norms & Nobility, chapter 2, I

The first time I read N&N, this chapter was where the going got tough for me (as best I can recall). This is not a long book, but it is dense with ideas. I had a bit of trouble the first time I read this, and didn't immediately grasp the meaning of "mythos" and "logos" as David Hicks uses the words here. Over time, I have added some other words in the margins that helped me to understand. David Hicks speaks of Mythos and Logos, as Ruth Beechick speaks of Heart and Mind. We could use the words Rhetoric and Philosophy, or Spirit and Logic, or Conscience and Rationality. These two are set at odds with each other, but at the same time, both are a part of the human attempt to understand and interpret the world.

The spirit/heart/mythos side of our nature is educated and informed by story. I loved the line, "A good myth, like a good map, enables the wanderer to survive, perhaps even flourish, in the wilderness." But a second, and equally important aspect of the mythos side of learning is the sense of community and oneness that is created by a group who accept a common mythos.

I'm seeing new (to me) things in N&N in this read-through. Hicks mentions that modern artists and writers, lacking access to a common mythos, make up their own individual symbols and stories, and observers are left to try to understand without a context or common understanding. Without a context, messages become meaningless.

After reading this section, I could not resist returning to another favorite book on education, "The Bible and the Task of Teaching" by David I. Smith and John Shortt. I just skipped to chapter 6, entitled "Once upon a time...," in which the authors say almost exactly the same things as David Hicks. They say
Stories are all around us in our daily lives and are of many kinds, many genres. From very early in life, we meet with fairy tales, fables, folk tales, myths, legends, epics, parables, allegories and many more besides. They have different settings, plot-lines and themes. We listen to them, read them, view them in plays and films, hear them in song, make them up, change them. They make us laugh, cry , reflect, imagine, lose ourselves.

The stories that surround us help to make us what we become. They shape our attitudes to life, form our ideals and supply our visions. They provide us with identity and ways of living. They furnish us with heroes and antiheroes.

And yet, as important as the stories and the mythos are, they are not the all. There is the logos side of man, the rational sense, the desire for order and logic. Which I guess I'll mention next time.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Norms & Nobility, chapter 1, III

I love to dive into these sections and discuss them at length--I have thoroughly enjoyed the discussion so far, and am grateful to Cindy for starting it. Because I am now in the US, and my internet access may be sporadic or limited, I'm going to post when I can instead of trying to match her pace.

In an attempt to be brief, I'm going to call attention to the one thing that seems most important to me in this section--these quotes:

"Not everyone is obliged to excel in philosophy, medicine, or the law, nor are all equally favored by nature; but all are destined to live in society and to practice virtue." (Vittorino da Feltre, 15th-century Italian educator)

"The truth is that knowledge of external nature, and the sciences which that knowledge requires or includes, are not the great or the frequent business of the human mind. Whether we provide for action or conversation, whether we wish to be useful or pleasing, the first requisite is the religious and moral knowledge of right and wrong, the next is an acquaintance with the history of mankind, and with those examples which may be said to embody truth, and prove by events the reasonableness of opinions. Prudence and Justice are virtues and excellences of all times and of all places; we are perpetually moralists, but we are geometricians only by chance." (Samuel Johnson)

When we acknowledge that classical education is about educating the spirit of man for virtue, and we desire to teach dialectical thinking toward that end, we have to consider that this kind of education is for everyone, not an elite, and it does appear, from these quotes, that that was the way the older educators viewed their task.

Comenius, in his Great Didactic, urged "A Liberal Education for All," and Charlotte Mason uses his title when she shares her vision for exactly that. The best part of classical education--the part that gives us an ideal to reach for, encourages general curiosity, and teaches us to think dialectically (synthetically), so that we understand the relationship between knowing what is right and our responsibility to do it, is something that should belong to everyone.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Norms & Nobility, chapter 1, II

This section begins, "Aristotle is our best introduction to the idea of a classical education." Now, I have read Aristotle, but I have never finished any of his works. One of the virtues of many classical works is that they are short, by modern standards (I suspect it has a lot to do with the fact that they were written and copied entirely by hand). However, Aristotle seems to be a bit longer-winded, and harder to follow than Plato, for example. So, although I want to see for myself what he means when he tells me "Aristotle is our best introduction...," I am going to take David Hicks' word for it for the moment.

Knowledge, for Aristotle, was an activity, not the result of learning and certainly not "a measurable state of mind." And the following quote deserves to placed in bold, highlighted in neon, and rigged up with a flashing border and trumpet sounds. But, how lucky for my readers, I am html-illiterate, so I'll just ask you to picture it that way.

"The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows."

The college I attended was well-known for producing excellent teachers, and I had to take an education course as part of my program. Their pet phrase (which I do still remember after 20+ years, so maybe they had a point) was "Repetition is the key to learning." Naturally, their methods involve a great deal of drill, drill, drill, and they publish a popular line of curriculum. I wasn't deeply interested in education as such at the time, but years later, when I was, I recalled that little mantra, and realized how faulty it was. Repetition is not the key to learning, it is the key to rote memorization. Some may define rote memorization as learning, but...I don't.

Giving primary attention to facts gets in the way of what James Taylor calls "poetic knowledge"--that true knowledge that I think of as equivalent to Charlotte Mason's "education is the science of relations." Charles Dickens gave us an absolutely stark, brutal picture of where that kind of education leads in Hard Times, and "Gradgrind" is synonymous with fact-based education which has no room for that intimate, personal knowledge that is necessary for classical education. Classical inquiry simply cannot take place if you do not care about your subject, and no once can care about history, for example, if they think that history is a list of dates to memorize, supplemented by lists of kings, presidents, empires, and wars.

I think David Hicks is brave for saying that the Victorians perverted classical education, so I am going to be brave, too, and say that Dorothy Sayers--educated in schools that followed that Victorian model--was completely off base when she linked "facts" and "poll parrot knowledge" to classical education. Her essay, "The Lost Tools of Learning," does contain some interesting ideas, but it is no traditional approach to classical education.

Anyone who objects to teaching a fact-based education is going to open themselves up to criticism on the grounds that ideas cannot be discussed without some knowledge of facts. And this is true. And that is just the point. An idea-based education using classical inquiry is going to have to include some facts by the way. It's not possible to neglect them entirely (and I am not suggesting that we should). But it is certainly possible to pursue a fact-based education without a whiff of an enlightening idea to lend savour to a dry-as-dust mental meal. I've yet to meet/read a single classical educator among the ancient, medieval, or renaissance teachers, who agrees with Dorothy Sayers that classical education should begin with facts. I could say a lot more, but I guess I'll save that for another time.

I'll put it in these terms. You may know some facts about Krakow, the city where I live. You may know that it is Poland. You may know something about its history. You may know a bit about what it looks like, having seen pictures or films of it. But I live here. I can find my way to any given street, nod familiarly at the landmarks along the way, and share interesting tidbits about many locations here. I can tell which trams or buses will take you where you want to go, where to get a pizza, and how much you'll have to pay to visit Wawel castle. I know what the hejnal sounds like when the trumpeter blows from the tower, and what the river looks like at night, and where the swans like to congregate. You know similar things about your hometown (whose name I may never even have heard). But that is difference between factual knowledge and poetic knowledge--and you'll see that the poetic knowledge hasn't neglected facts, just placed them in context. This is the difference between knowing things, and knowing about them. Classical education, if it is going to achieve its goals, requires the former.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Norms & Nobility, chapter 1, I

I come from the Town of Stupidity; it lieth about four degrees beyond the City of Destruction.

David Hicks opens his chapter with that quote from John Bunyan. I love it. I come from there, too. But, like Christian in Pilgrim's Progress, I hope I have turned my back on it and am heading for a much better place.

In the first sentence, Hicks says, "The popular mind associates the idea of a classical education with the narrow and elitist schools of Victorian England. In fact, these schools perverted classical education..." and he goes on to explain how. I am going to say that it takes a brave man to write that--to say the the educational system that produced Matthew Arnold, Winston Churchill, JRR Tolkien and C.S. Lewis perverted classical education. The so-called classical schools of England did not produce whole generations of Tolkiens and Lewises--those men were exceptional. (As Cindy points out, Lewis is the one who wrote about "men without chests"--people who do not care.) What they did produce were generations of aristocrats who had little interest in books and knowledge--they absolutely killed dead any interest in intellectual pursuits, let alone the pursuit of wisdom and virtue.

David Hicks declares that "classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and of conscience through myth." I said in my last post that language skills as an end in themselves were no better than upholstery, but in fact, language must be the means by which classical education takes place, because only through language can we explore the ideas, ideals, stories, and philosophies that must be considered.

I think it is very important to explore the idea that classical education does not belong to a specific time or place. There is a reason it is called "classical," but it is worth considering whether or not that is really the best way of referring to it. For convenience sake, we must, but the fact remains that the spirit and methods of classical education, as well as its most desirable outcomes, can take place without ever conjugating a single Latin verb or declining a Greek noun. That sounds like heresy in some classical circles, but I don't think I'll be burned at the stake for saying so. Greek and Latin were so important to the Renaissance thinkers because all the books were written in those languages. If you couldn't read Latin, then you couldn't read, period. The primary reason they invested the effort into learning the ancient tongues was so that they could read the ancient books (the only books around). Then, they wrote in Latin as well, so that their contemporaries from every country could read and respond to their ideas. By the time you get to the Victorians, they were laboring over tedious Latin and Greek language exercises, but not reading extensively the literature of the ancient world, missing out on the feast because they spent all their time polishing their forks.

I think learning Latin and Greek as languages might play a role in a classical education, but learning Latin and Greek will not give you a classical education. Instead, David Hicks gives us three essential attributes of classical inquiry, and all them may be (I might even venture to say must be) accomplished in your native language.

The first of the three, and the most important one that needs attention if you have young children (elementary age) is that of general curiosity. Specialization is the enemy of classical thinking. The whole spectrum of knowledge, including history, religion, the nature of man, the natural world, and the spiritual realm, are of interest to the classical thinker. David Hicks is beginning to describe what he means by classical inquiry or dialectic, and he is going to spend more time on it later, so I'm not going to say more about it right now.

Instead, I'm going to point out two specific ways in which Charlotte Mason's philosophy fits into this framework that David Hicks describes. First, "education of the conscience" is a topic she addresses directly in several places, and she gives explicit examples of how certain stories and even novels can be called into service in this cause. I can't find a short, coherent quote on the conscience, but those who have read CM's work will recall that she mentions it frequently. (Vol. 6, pg. 131, but the whole chapter for a better overview if you want to pursue it.) CM links the conscience (the normative "ought") to the will, as well, because knowing what is right to do is not the same thing as doing it, and it is still the will to act out right knowledge that is the goal of the classical tradition.

The other point where CM's ideas suit the classical ideal is in her choice of curriculum--basically, there is no area of knowledge which can be neglected.

...all I have said is meant to enforce the fact that much and varied humane reading as well as human thought expressed in the forms of art, is, not a luxury, a tit-bit, to be given to children now and then, but their very bread of life, which they must have in abundant portions and at regular periods. This and more is implied in the phrase, 'The mind feeds on ideas and therefore children should have a generous curriculum.'

It was also one of Charlotte Mason's pet ideas that adults rarely develop interest in any areas to which they had not been introduced as children, and for that reason, it was the responsibility of the educator to put the child in touch with as many areas of thought and knowledge as possible, to allow him to develop relationships with every area of knowledge, to "set his feet in a large room."

This is another way in which the celebrated "public schools" of England perverted classical education--they narrowed the topics of study exclusively to ancient Greek and Rome, their languages, their cultures. (I once read the autobiography of a Victorian-era girl. She mentions that her brother could draw accurate maps of the ancient world, but was unable to locate Scotland.) One of the reasons that analytical, utilitarian science was able to trump humane letters in the educational realm shortly afterward was precisely because those schools offered such a narrow curriculum.

General curiosity--not narrow specialization--is the first attribute of classical inquiry. That is so opposite to what our modern culture expects and even demands that it is a formidable hurdle. But the description of what education looks like without classical inquiry is so grim, I think we are better off heading straight for the hurdle and falling over it head first than settling for...what we have. David Hicks says,

....human experience tends to be dealt with narrowly and reductively, broken down into isolated, unconnected units; students ignorant of what questions to ask are presented with uninvited and consequently meaningless information; and there is no basis for making moral and aesthetic judgments or for attaching learning to behavior.

I'd much rather be from the Town of Stupidity than residing there still.