Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Further thoughts on Poetic Knowledge, chapter two, part two

This is my contribution to the on-going book discussion of Poetic Knowledge by James Taylor. Although this week's discussion is supposed to cover only half of chapter two, there is so much in there, that I thought about writing more than one post for this section. Then I had to chastise myself for acting in direct opposition to what I think is the most fundamental point I want to make, which concerns the importance of integration and wholeness of knowledge. Therefore, I will say what I want to say in one post, no matter how difficult.

The title of this chapter is "The Philosophical Foundations," and Taylor delves pretty deeply into the philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, and others. He is tracing the historical "conversation" on the validity of poetic knowledge from its known roots to the present. It isn't easy to read or to follow, and I'm not going to attempt to summarize. For me, the topic crystallizes in a few key ways. First of all, as I mentioned in my last post, poetic knowledge is closely allied with love. Education is concerned with "ordering the affections"--teaching us to know and love that which is beautiful and good. I liked this quote from Augustine:
Because love is a movement [of the soul] and every movement is always toward something, when we ask what ought to be loved, we are therefore asking what it is that we ought to be moving toward....It is the thing in regard to which possession and knowing are one and the same.

This is not a thing that can be accomplished by systems, lesson plans, or direct command. You can make a child memorize the multiplication table, but you cannot force him to see the relationships that exist within it, and thrill with appreciation for the patterns and wholeness and orderliness of it. For that relationship to occur, you have to give him a chance to know it and "discover" for himself some of the possibilities. Poetic knowledge cannot be forced, and my personal feeling is that it is unlikely that everyone will develop a poetic relationship with every area of knowledge. We can but try, which is why Charlotte Mason urges us that it is not "how much" a scholar knows that is the measure of his progress, but "how much he cares," and about how many things has he learned to care?

Caring about something...loving it...requires that a person be allowed to interact with the wholeness of the subject at hand--to meet the universal in the particulars, and to interact with it personally. A required unit on insects, for example, which points out the peculiar characteristics of all insects, perhaps requires the identification of a few (via pictures), and finishes with a written test on the subject matter before moving on to reptiles is not likely to produce a roomful of enthusiastic amateur entomologists. Consider the child who has leisure to observe a beehive, an anthill, a ladybug. Perhaps he knows its name already, or perhaps he has to ask (asking shows that he cares a little bit already). Perhaps he wonders what they are doing, or why. Perhaps he is amazed by some insect feat of prowess, or overwhelmed by their numbers, or curious about their ability to fly. Perhaps he is merely amused at the idea of walking on six feet. If he is anything at all besides indifferent, he is experiencing the tiny beginning of a relationship with knowledge about insects, a poetic understanding of their little lives that no factual "knowing about" will ever match. How far his interest in insects will go depends on many things (my own extends primarily to keeping them out of the house), but his knowledge of one kind of insect that he has observed closely is the gateway to the greater, more universal knowledge that could be learned.

A few other examples come to mind, and I fear that many of us, educated in the fragmented, analytic system of education, can be confused about what constitutes "wholes" and "parts." A few examples spring to mind, and I have had...warm discussions...on a few of these topics. "Art" is not a whole thing to be introduced. You cannot know "art" or develop a relationship with "art." You can acquire poetic knowledge about an individual picture or sculpture, and through close association and affection (love) for some pieces of art, develop an understanding about the more universal topic of "art." An apple is not a part of tree--it is a whole thing, complete in itself, both coming from a greater whole (the tree), and containing within it another whole (the seed). The universe is made up of whole things within greater whole things, which work together to make up still greater whole things, and not of discrete things that have no connection to anything else.

In our increasingly fragmented post-modern culture, letting our children experience the wholeness and connectedness of knowledge is probably one of the most important things we can do for them. I marked every instance of words like "whole" and "integrated" in this chapter, because it seems to me to the most vital thing--the one thing that we must see and grasp for ourselves, if we want to have a chance to convey it to those we teach.

Poetic knowledge is important because it recognizes the wholeness of the learner in the first place. We are neither entirely material or entirely spiritual beings--we are both. We perceive the world through our senses, but we also bring emotions and rationality to bear on what we perceive. I really could not begin to articulate the various aspects of sense and intellect that are discussed in this chapter, but my heart resonates with this conclusion:
It is also important to restate that this is all an integrated experience, not occurring in mechanical steps or linked together as a chain...

Wholeness. Oneness. Integration. Unity. A synthetic universe in which all things interlock and move and work together in an organic whole that staggers the mind, and makes the most complex mechanical process look shabby by comparison. We can't grasp that all at once, or perhaps not ever completely. But when we deal with knowledge in terms of wholeness rather than as isolated parts, we are functioning in the poetic mode, and behaving as whole-hearted human beings, and we are experiencing in the minute particulars the greater universal truths.

Having written all that, which sounds so serious, I just have to add that, among my other markings in this chapter, I've made marginal notes about Orson Scott Card. It's because this discussion reminded me that in Ender's Game, Ender understands deeply the fact that he must love his enemy in order to know him well enough to defeat him.


At 3:01 PM , Blogger Silvia said...

Wonderful, Karen, a must read... I will come back to your post. I will keep thinking about all you wrote.

I can tell you understood very well, and I am understanding even better this section after reading your post.

At 5:52 PM , Blogger Shari said...

I agree with you, Karen. I especially liked what you said about art. This is so very true!

At 6:26 AM , Blogger Mystie said...

Especially being in the thick of planning for our next school year, in the back of my mind is the burning question, "So what am I supposed to *do* with this?" :) As with Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, though, I think the answer is something along the lines of "Don't overdo your doing."

Actually, after the Leisure book club a couple years ago, Poetic Knowledge seems to be giving background and detail and much more complete word pictures of what learning in a leisurely manner is all about.

And remembering not only that objects are wholes, but that our children are wholes, body and soul together, is foundational.

In knowing about things in this chapter, I noticed that he mentioned knowing through the story of a thing (i.e. the subject in its stream of historical context rather than as an entity unto itself) and through having experienced things "relationally" or directly.

It made me wonder if we should be doing more field trips.

At 8:25 AM , Blogger Karen G. said...


It's not so much a "to do" list as it is something to think about and be aware of. I never thought about it all when my kids were smaller, although I was following a CM education very closely. You can't make the connections for your children--they have to do that for themselves. What I am more careful about now that I am more aware is that I don't contribute to the fragmentation, which is why we read through history chronologically, do seasonal nature study of things we can actually see (instead of reading about the Amazon jungle or Australian kangaroos and calling it "nature study"), for example.

At 4:46 PM , Blogger Mystie said...

We'll be studying birds and reading Hillyer's CHOW, so that is helpful. We will focus on the birds we see, perhaps being more intentional about making expeditions to the local birding island.

At 3:18 AM , Blogger Kelly said...

Karen, I love the way you talk about particulars in the context of the whole. It's hard to keep the right tension there.

Mystie, we studied our local birds three years ago, and even though we're not formally studying them any more the kids are still noticing them and studying them on their own. Our school table sits near a bay window that looks out over a barberry shrub, a birdfeeder, a pyracantha, some perennial herbs, my clothesline, the goat pasture, and the woods. It's a nice view, but it means that in the middle of Sir Walter Raleigh laying down his cape for Queen Elizabeth, someone will yell, "Look at that bird!"

I really hate interruptions of this sort but I'm learning not to squelch it, especially if the bird is a bluebird or a bald eagle, which we do see on occasion. I've learned to count those sightings as gifts (I'd never seen a live bluebird or a non-captive bald eagle before we lived here) and let the children watch as long as the bird stays before returning to the lesson.

Anyway, this is like what Karen said about insects -- the child notices a few in his yard, is interested and learns a little about them, and that fascination with those particular bugs can create a love of other bugs.

At 3:55 AM , Blogger Willa said...

I loved what you said about seeing a "whole" thing and how that related to what Taylor says about the particular.

That also, come to think of it, gives me a better understanding of what was wrong with Bitzer's knowledge of a horse compared to Sissy Jupe's.

It also seems very true that when a child is given the dry husks of answers before he has even had the delight of asking the question, he is losing out on something.

At 8:43 PM , Blogger Brandy @ Afterthoughts said...

Thank you for this wonderful post, Karen!

Sometimes I fear I am so tainted by my own analytical education that I cannot do this! But knowing that so much of it really involves that same old masterly inactivity, a sort of staying out of the way--this helps.

What you said about art helps a lot, too, and I am seeing the application everywhere now...

At 11:00 PM , Blogger Karen G. said...

Well, Brandy, I'll tell you a little "secret" (ha ha--for the whole world to read if they want to). I truly believe that a synthetic, whole, unified way of thinking about the world is what we find in the Bible, and to the extent that a person received solid Biblical teaching, and has allowed that to influence the way they think, that person will have counter-acted in part the analytical, fragmented thinking we got in our schools...

At 3:56 AM , Blogger Stephen Page said...

Great post. Well said.


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