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.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thoughts on Poetic Knowledge, chapter two (part one)

I'm hopelessly late in this week's discussion of the first part of chapter two, but life is what it is. I want to join in this discussion, but finding the time to devote to it is tricky.

I read over the chapter, including my marginal notes, which made reference both to Charlotte Mason (of course), and also to Alfred North Whitehead. It's been several years since I read The Aims of Education by Whitehead, so I had to pull the book out and look over my notes there to recall the similarities. One thing that I think is important to understand about "poetic knowledge," as it is called by Taylor in this book, is called by other names from other authors. Thus, when you read about "romantic knowledge" in Whitehead or "synthetic knowledge" from David Hicks (Norms & Nobility), it's really important to realize that they are talking about the same thing. Taylor borrowed the word "poetic" from some older authors, and it is valid, but it is not the only term to describe what he means--what Charlotte Mason called "the science of relationships."

Poetic knowledge is very much the difference between knowing things, and knowing about them. Our information age has made "knowing about" extremely easy, and it is easy to confuse a second-hand familiarity with real knowledge. We mustn't. The real knowledge is the poetic knowledge of close association, interaction, and ultimately, love.

This poetic knowledge begins with a sense of wonder, and I really like the quote from Dennis Quinn:
Wonder, always considered a passion, was classified by Aquinas and many before him as a species of fear....There are, of course many kinds of fear..[and] it is helpful to distinguish wonder from some passions in its immediate family. When we do so, we see that wonder is the most rational form of fear.

This kind of wonder, that makes us approach some new and unknown with awe and reverence, is, I think, what the Bible means when it tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

It is, of course, closely connected with the sense of ignorance that makes us aware that there is something we do not know, and that we need to know, or want to know--a state of humility without which true education cannot take place.

The one author that springs to mind when I think about this is Jostein Gaarder. I have read everything he has written (that has been translated into English), and I have never encountered anyone better able to articulate this sense of wonder than he does--from The Christmas Mystery to Sophie's World. I don't agree with all of his conclusions, but there is no doubt that understands the right frame of mind for looking at one thing--a flower, an orange, a sheep--and understanding how truly amazing it is--how worthy of our awe, because it is such an amazing thing, "infinitely more than nothing."

Now that I've wondered all over the map, it's probably pretty clear why I didn't get any kind of post done earlier for this chapter. In the end, it was this or nothing. I've avoided reading everyone else's thoughts until I posted my own, so I'm to do that now. You may want to join me.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

I haven't blogged about Poland or Krakow for a long time, although I remain "Krakovianka"--a resident of Krakow (similar to "New Yorker").

But I have something to share that compels me to call up blogger and type away. My family and I visited a new museum recently, and most of this post was written immediately afterward, in great enthusiasm. I've been to any number of museums here in Krakow (not all of them), but this museum is unique in my experience. The Oskar Schindler factory, made well-known via the film Schindler's List, has been converted into a museum about the war years here in Krakow. The exhibits are laid out in a convoluted path which draws you through the museum in chronological order.

It begins in the pre-war era, with period photographs of entertainers and people living ordinary lives. It was the end of summer--people were just finishing up their vacations--when Nazi Germany invaded. It's really not possible to use words to explain the way the museum makes this an experience, not just an exhibit. There are areas of light and darkness. There are video clips that you view through the window of a home, or a tram. There are prison cell-like cubicles (complete with barred windows on the doors) where you can read about the arrests, and listen to first-hand accounts (in Polish, with English subtitles). Period furniture, clothing, accessories, weapons, and posters are used throughout the exhibits. The section on the ghetto is experienced between authentic walls that resemble those that surrounded that area. When you read about the labor camps, you are are behind barbed wire and walking on very rough gravel. You can duck into a basement where some Jews were hidden in the dark and damp for years to save their lives. You can walk through the main square of Krakow (the way it is evoked is truly amazing), where Nazi flags are flying, and learn with horror that on the first anniversary of the invasion, the main square was renamed "Adolf Hitler Plaza." I was shocked to see a picture of a small indoor market where I've shopped for years with swastika-blazoned banners on the front!! The exhibits lead you through the museum and through the course of the years from 1939 to 1945 in Krakow, until the liberation.

The exhibit ends in a brightly-lit circular room called the Room of Choices. Written all over the walls, in many languages, are brief comments from those who tell how they helped, or were helped by others, during the difficult years. Set within the walls are rotating pillars (each in a different language). On the rotating pillars are the words and testimony of those who did not help when they could have. The thing that struck me about all of them was that the help they were asked to give, or considered giving, was of the smallest kind. One person planned to share some food with another, but by the time they reached the person, they had eaten it all. Another saw that clothing was being collected to give to Polish prisoners, and she packed up her dead brother's clothing to donate...but left the bundle at home, and missed the opportunity. Those folks had little to share, but they could have shared...even meant to share...but they didn't. The small amount of food or the warm sweater wouldn't have fixed the evil situation they were all in, but it would have provided comfort to one person, for a little while. The excuses were tinged with regret...the remembrance that they could have helped, but failed to do so.

As I thought about it later, it seemed so easy to say, "I'd have done this or that" if I'd been living in Krakow in 1941, but...it was those small regrets that really struck me. We don't have the power to fix, for example, the dreadful results of a tsunami in Japan, but is there something that it is in our power to do? Some small service, or sacrifice, or helping hand. Those little things count.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Thoughts on Poetic Knowledge by James Taylor, ch. 1

I decided to reread this book along with those who are are reading and discussing it in book-club format. I first read it several years, ago, so my copy is already well-marked with my original comments and thoughts.

Being practically a disciple of Charlotte Mason in the realm of education, I was most forcefully struck by the fact that poetic knowledge is precisely what Miss Mason is aiming to achieve with her young learners, and therefore her methods are most efficacious is achieving what is essentially somewhat elusive and spontaneous.

James Taylor takes up the whole first chapter to convey what he means by poetic knowledge, and tells us
So whatever poetic knowledge is, it is not strictly speaking a knowledge of poems, but a spontaneous act of the external and internal senses with the intellect, integrated and whole rather than an act associated with the powers of analytic reasoning. It is, according to a tradition from Homer to Robert Frost, from Socrates to Maritain, a natural human act, synthetic and penetrating, that gets us inside the thing experienced.

For my friends who are familiar with Charlotte Mason, don't you immediately see this as virtually identical to her "science of relations," wherein she urges us to allow children to form their own relationships with every branch of knowledge.

The concept of synthetic and analytic knowledge could have been lifted right from her own writing. In Formation of Character, she explains:
There is also a time for sowing the seed of this knowledge, an intellectual as well as a natural springtime; and it would be interesting to examine the question, how far it is possible to prosecute any branch of knowledge, the sowing and germination of which has not taken place in early youth. It follows that the first three lustres* belong to what we may call the synthetic stage of education, during which his reading should be wide and varied enough to allow the young scholar to get into living touch with earth-knowledge, history, literature, and much besides. These things are necessary for his intellectual life, and are especially necessary to give him material for the second stage of his education, the analytic, which, indeed, continues with us to the end.

I could say much more on the subject, but this is a blog post, and not the book I ought to write. The most important point for me is taking careful note of that world "whole." Studying the wholeness of things, and their place within greater wholes, is the key to opening the door to synthetic/poetic knowledge, and avoiding the analytic knowledge trap. This is most important because those of us who grew up in institutional schools have experienced only an analytical approach to knowledge, and we need to be very, very careful to avoid the tendency to break everything down into small parts. None of us would give our children a vitamin tablet, a bit of sugar, and a dose of fiber and imagine that it was the equivalent of giving him an apple. The whole apple is much better for him, and so is the wholeness of poetic knowledge. It goes without saying that it tastes better, too.

*Let me save you the trouble I went through to figure out what she means. Lustre can apparently be understood, in French, as a span of 5 years. It is thus used in a poem by Victor Hugo, and should be understood in this case to mean up to the age of 15 or so.