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.


At 5:41 PM , Blogger Dominion Family said...

Thanks for this, Karen. I wanted to spend more time on General Curiosity but I was afraid I would overstate it and get hung out to dry.

I intuitively feel that it is a key concept from which all the other ideas on CE should spring but I am fall over myself trying to make sense of it.

At 8:33 PM , Blogger Brandy Afterthoughts said...

Thank you for this.

I have had the feeling lately that one of my children is "starving" in the sense of needing more than I have offered at the educational feast, so to speak. I am trying to determing what I need to do to feed this child, and what you have written has helped me think through that a bit.

I do have one question: what do you suggest for parents who have a naturally narrow-minded young child, one who seems to desire nothing more than to specialize in some odd subject, such as trains or sheep or something? Just...curious. ;)

I loved this, by the way: "missing out on the feast because they spent all their time polishing their forks." Perfect.

At 8:47 PM , Blogger Jami M. said...

I also loved the feast/forks metaphor. I'm chewing slowly on this post and Cindy's and hope to have my own contributions in the next day or two. I'm feeling some appropriate twinges of guilt about how unenthusiastic I often am about certain areas of knowledge (*cough* nature *cough*) and how my children need more encouragement for natural curiosity in that area.


At 10:24 PM , Blogger Krakovianka said...

Jami, you didn't ask for a suggestion, but I have one. My old boss used to say to me, when I would get a little frantic about a huge project with a deadline, "How do you eat an elephant?--one bite at a time." "Nature study" is an elephant--utterly overwhelming if you tackle it as a whole. Pick one little thing that is somewhat interesting to you, and to which you have easy access--maybe a nearby creek, maybe wildflowers, maybe farm crops (we used to live across the street from a cotton field--my 5yo son learned a lot from that), maybe squirrels in the park, or crows, or cactus--anything. Just pick one thing that's *easy* to start with, and move on from there. One thing usually leads to another.

At 10:27 PM , Blogger Krakovianka said...

Cindy, I am very curious what you mean about being "hung out to dry?"

Brandy, I think it's very natural for kids to focus on a few things that interest them in their spare time. The variety can be offered during schooltime hours, but it's natural for all of us to prefer some "foods" over others. I don't know how old your kids are, but if they are young, you will probably find that their interests broaden as they grow older, and they will add more and more things to their list of favorites.

At 4:43 PM , Blogger Dominion Family said...

I have always erred on the 'general curiosity' side of homeschooling and while I strongly believe in the dialectic, I have also believed that it will follow if we get the curiosity right. Without the curiosity we are just teaching the wind and I think that we see that illustrated everywhere.

But when I do speak out about that, I find that it offends people and that people get nervous that I am promoting some sort of 'feel-good' curriculum, the very thing that causes some people to reject Charlotte Mason because they see her ideas as fluff.

I have just not found a way to say that I think things like precise grammar are important but that without the general curiosity it is a bit useless.

One person who argues with me about this, someone I greatly admire, insists that it is our duty to teach precisely and that the curiosity will follow and I do believe that is a possibility and can happen. I just hold the line that we must build the broad base before adding the mortar.

So in falling off the horse, he would fall off one way and I would fall off the other.

At 5:43 PM , Blogger Mystie said...

Jami: me, too!

Karen, it's nice to "meet" you. :) Do you think there's any difference between a "classical" and a "liberal arts" education? Are they the same thing or is there some difference between them? After reading vol.6 I started the "imaginative hypothesis" that classical is liberal arts plus Latin. :) I'll test that by asking your opinion.

At 6:09 PM , Blogger Jami M. said...

I'll take a stab at your question, Mystie.

I think the liberal arts are the fullest expression of a classical education. And the more narrow specifics of Latin and Greek languages, literature, and history provide excellent content on which to practice those arts. The art of grammar can be taught and learned more fully with the use of an inflected language and by the reading of fine literature. Dialectic is learned in asking good questions, and where better to find those than by entering into the Great Conversation initiated by the Greeks. Rhetoric finds it's instruction and models in the classical world as well, though we are lucky to have many great English additions to the Conversation. That covers the first three of the liberal arts and the quadrivium arts also find their roots in classical authors and works. I think a liberal arts education which does not add in the Christian tradition and later English literature (I say particularly English, but there are certainly other authors who add much to the Conversation), then I think we've missed the point.

So it's not as much as "plus Latin" but that Latin is one tool by which the trivium arts can be more fully taught. Though perhaps not the only way, since there are many people with a rich understanding of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric who do not know Latin.

At 6:11 PM , Blogger Jami M. said...

Thank you, Karen for your encouragement about nature studies. My children drag me along a bit in this area. :-) I'm fortunate to have recently met another Ambleside mom with whom I can share the fun of nature outings. We're planning to go study wildflowers later this week.


At 10:16 PM , Blogger Krakovianka said...

"distinguo"--define your terms.

"Classical" education can be defined in a number of ways, and is understood to mean different things to different groups. "Liberal" education is, I think, equivalent to one of those definitions--the one which focuses on the classical ideals without the emphasis on the classical languages.

Here are my 4 ways to define classical education (there may be more). (I think I used to have 4 ways--what am I missing?)

1. The educational methods used by real Greeks and real Romans in antiquity. (what they really did way back then)
2. Learning Greek and Latin and studying the classical authors in the original languages. (what classical education was when it began to be called that during the renaissance)
3. Equating the Trivium with stages of child development and dealing with content at each level according to one aspect of the Trivium. (ala Dorothy Sayers, circa 1947)
4. Distilling the essential truths and methods of the classical practices, and implementing them in our native languages (what could be called a liberal arts education, and what David Hicks is describing).

I tend to say, if I have to say anything about it, that I'm educating "in the classical tradition."

Cindy, only those who haven't read her could dismiss Charlotte Mason's ideas as "fluff." She was virtually self-educated, and she read *everything* about education, both modern and ancient. If you make a list of her direct references to books and authors, you will have a longer list of reading material than you could finish in 10 years. As I mentioned on your blog, David Hicks even includes her in his bibliography.

At 10:45 PM , Blogger Jami M. said...

Okay, I guess I've merged 2 and 4 in my own mind and in the definition I give to people. And my definition I think is largely shaped by the Circe institute's which makes much of the trivium and quadrivium arts of the medieval period for the purpose of cultivating wisdom and virtue. At least as far as I've understood them.


At 10:21 AM , Blogger Krakovianka said...


I think the Circe Institute comes closer to understanding classical education (well, they DO get it, actually) than those who begin with Dorothy Sayers. I've not followed their teaching as closely as some of you, but I have the absolute highest regard for Andrew Kern in particular. My only question is still going to be...why can't the trivium and quadrivium be addressed in our native language?

At 9:27 PM , Blogger Dominion Family said...

Would you mind if I copied and pasted your 4 angles on CE for my next post? I will also link over here.


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