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.


At 1:39 AM , Blogger Go quickly and tell said...

Very much enjoying your commentary.

At 6:27 PM , Blogger Jami M. said...

James Daniels, who speaks at Circe conferences, often returns to the idea that Truth is a person, the Logos, Christ. It seems that if that is our belief then we'll agree that true knowledge will require relationship with the thing we wish to know about. We're created to learn by relating. The little girl in Hard Times (whose name completely escapes me right now!) *knows* horses. She has spent time with them, observed them, loved them. But Gradgrind doesn't accept her knowledge because it's not precise factual terms, not scientific. You *know* Krakow, Karen. And I feel somewhat lost in my new city of Austin, TX because we have only been here 9 months and the facts I have learned about this city are not yet related. I have lists of things I've learned, but no general affection or context. People ask me if I feel "at home" yet, and while I know how to get to the grocery store or where to find a good taco, I don't have that familiarity which comes with true relationship and time spent with those facts.

I fear I'm going to have to put "Poetic Knowledge" on my current re-reading pile too, along with Charlotte Mason and N&N.


At 7:49 AM , Blogger Brandy Afterthoughts said...

You really helped me here. The contrast you set up between knowing about and knowing in context clarified something I've been pondering.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

At 9:14 PM , Blogger Brandy Afterthoughts said...


I just wanted to give you my condolences for what happened to your country this weekend. The news of the accident was just awful, and I instantly thought of you as you are the "face" of Poland to me, being the only Polish resident I've ever encountered in any way. My prayers are with your country.


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