Authority and memorizing

Modern thought resides in the realm of fantasy, perhaps nowhere moreso than on the question of authority. The Middle Ages are mocked for their constant appeal to authority, an appeal that Francis Bacon is supposed to have freed the human race from with his Novum Organon, an appeal to use the nascent scientific method of induction as the only source of truth.

But on what basis do we mock the Medieval thinkers for their submission to authority?

Somebody told us!

Authority to the modern mind seems to be a negative idea. We seem to think it is necessarily evil. But it is not. To the Medieval mind, authority was rooted in knowledge. To be an authority was to know what you are talking about.

It is the same to the modern mind, with this difference. We are so individualistic, so disconnected from reality, so controlled by manipulators, so eager to create ourselves, that we have created a vocabulary and set of practices that thinks and acts as though we can function without authority. We’ve driven the whole concept of authority into our subconscious.

Living in this condition leads us through all manner of emotional contortions. Many people will embrace an idea as long as the people in front of them don’t know where they got it. That’s easy to do now, because we spend so much time learning from people we don’t know that the impersonal nature of knowledge and authority seem normal to us. But intellectually and spiritually, we enter a state of confusion. We take on ourselves the existential burden of creating ourselves and the Cartesian burden of finding truth within ourselves, independently.

So we remain forever adolescent, constantly showing off our knowledge and abilities, perpetually terrified that people will discover the truth.  We are emotionally bound.

And the solution is so simple. We simply need to admit that we know almost nothing apart from what authorities have discovered and told us. This is true in math, grammar, science, history, philosophy, the arts, and religion. But our distrust for authority is so intense that we pretend to not need any.

If we wish to remain moral and spiritual dwarves and loners, I suppose we don’t need any authority. But if we are going to grow, we need to learn from those who know so very, very much more than we do. This is common sense. It is necessary. The fact that authorities abuse their authorities cannot alter that fact. As the French Revolution illustrated, when you reject authority all you do is assert your own tyranny.

I am arguing for more clear-headedness on this matter.

Those who reject authority other than their own (Dewey, Keating, etc.) want us to pull the pages out of our text books and start over with a barbaric yowp.  Now we have a culture letting out one long, extended yowp.

Those who accept authority other than their own recognize the need to submit to authority and the need for what the authority above them have to say. So rather than have their students practice primal scream therapy, they have them memorize the Bible, and Homer, and Virgil, and Dante, and Shakespeare.

Students taught in that atmosphere of authority are give the resources they will need when they have to fight their own battles in the unjust world in which we live. They will not be abandoned to yowps and guns and roses.

More on teaching great books

We’ll be sending out a CiRCE Paper (our E-magazine) tomorrow with an article about how to teach The Iliad when you haven’t read it. As with any hopefully useful article, not everything I wrote made it. So here are some deletions (by the way, if you don’t receive The CiRCE Papers and would like to, click here and you can sign up for free and you’ll receive our free E-book too):

When you read a great book, you are standing beside the ocean. You could learn a lot by getting a bucket, filling it with water, and studying the drops in that bucket for the rest of your life. But you’d learn more about the ocean itself if you stood there and just looked, just taking in all you can see and feel and smell for a little while (and by the way, nobody has ever seen the whole thing). Maybe then you could swim in it, get in a boat and sail, even go fishing. You should experience it during different times and seasons as well.


So it with Homer. Don’t focus all your energy on studying the drops of water you can get in your bucket just because they’re more easily measurable. Focus on the big ideas. Every great book expresses one or two great ideas. In the Iliad, it could be justice. In the Odyssey, wisdom.


Ask your students, in language they can relate to, is Agamemnon fair? Is Achilles? Do Neptune and Kalypso treat Odyesseus justly? Is Odysseus wise? Were the Phaeacians wise to host Odysseus? Was Agamemnon a wise leader?


These are questions that can be asked about almost any book worth reading. And they can lead to incredibly profitable discussions!

Make these commitments:

Commitment 1: I will listen to the book

Instead of letting a curriculum guide you, let Homer guide you

Commitment 2: I will teach my students how to read and think

Instead of introducing them to yet another book, teach them the skills of active reading

Read by asking questions

Read purposefully


Too often the questions we ask are rooted, not in our interest in the text, but in our distrust of the students. We ask them if they know so and so because if they don’t they didn’t read carefully.
In my opinion, that is not a fair assumption and it leads to a hunted feeling among students.


Here’s something to be careful about: when you are teaching, an outline can be very helpful. So can a few notes on key ideas developed in the text.
However, they will be a lot more helpful for you than they will be for the student. We teachers can easily fall into what I call the analytic fallacy. That’s the idea that because you and I want to understand the text in an adult way, therefore our students do too.
It ain’t so.
First, just let them read the story. Don’t insist they like it. Then raise some very basic questions. That’s the key right there. If the students are asking questions, these tools that you have found helpful can be helpful for them too.

But don’t give them outlines until they help answer a question. And don’t give a lecture about a key idea until it will help your students answer a question.

By the way, that should be a question they are actively asking. If the discussion is driven by questions, you’ll be amazed how much you can teach your students about reading and thinking just by reading and thinking about what they are reading.


The great benefit of teaching through a great question is that it causes you to focus on the right things.
Instead of focusing on details, focus on the big ideas.


Shakespeare’s Language and the Evolution of Human Intelligence

I was watching a bit of Brannagh’s Hamlet tonight and luxuriating in the language (some of which I understood) when my dear wife asked me for my opinion. “Do you think the groundlings actually understood what was going on in those plays?”

To which I answered yes, but the reasons are probably another blog post.

Then she asked for another opionion. Why do you think people today can’t understand it?

I must warn you, I’m about to say something that will sound caustic. You probably want to cover your children’s ears while you read this.

The reason we can’t understand Shakespeare or read the King James Version of the Bible or grapple with Milton or almost any poetry is because we systematically school children in our culture to become increasingly stupid. Charlotte Mason uses the term “stultify” to describe what we do.

 I understand that sounds very harsh, so I need to defend the position.

First let me say that this problem is systemic and cannot be blamed on any particular teacher or parent. Those who govern American education at the highest level are highly irresponsible, do not understand the effect of systems on education, and bear primary responsibility for this folly. In addition, text book publishers have profited immeasurably from poor theory, so they bear high responsibility as well.

What then is the problem?

It’s the way we teach reading. I can and will approach this from many angles over the next little while, but today I want to express one simple point. When we teach reading, we treat the child like she is a mechanism learning a process. We do not teach it like she is a person interacting with ideas.

The notion of a child as a mechanism learning a process arises from Dewey’s theory of instrumentalism or pragmatism, which I haven’t the time to develop right now but there are scads of resources explaining it on the internet. In short, it reduces humans to mechanisms, knowledge to a process, and learning to a technique. The person is displaced.

But to read is not simply to decode symbols (i.e. sound out letters or translate pictures into words). To read is to be a person interacting with ideas (usually embodied in metaphors, sometimes, for older people, expressed as abstractions). That’s what pre-school children do when you read a fairy tale to them while they sit on your lap.

The pre-school child handles complex syntax with little trouble. He cuts through it to the tensions and questions and actions of the main actors. It’s a human instinct to do so. Then we get them to school and we only let them read what they can sound out. In fact, and this is the FATAL mistake: even the books we read TO them have to be at what we call “their level” by which we mean what they can sound out.

This is silly. Children can understand and interpret texts far beyond anything they can sound out. But Victorian cuteness and sentimentality have overtaken the classroom, and the child’s mind and moral development suffer for it.

As a result, we undercut the development of the child’s mind by interfering with it. In kindergarten we limit our oral reading to texts with a syntax no moron would need by the time he is three. See Dick Run! Why? Why would I want to see Dick run when I can listen to something like this:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and movement how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.

When my child is 12, what good will it have done him to have had to read something as inane, as jejune, as ridiculous, as empty, as stultifying, as stupidifying, as “see Dick run”? On the other hand, the passage above will feed the child’s soul to the day he dies. It will help him know who he is, his place in the cosmos, his likeness to God, his obligations. It will provide comfort in dark hours.

When he begins to learn formal writing skills, it will sing in his mind as an ideal to be sought for. It will provide examples of schemes and tropes. It will provide a sequence of perfect word choices.

In short, those two lines from Hamlet will feed his soul from the day he first has them read to him through his later encounter with the play in high school through the trials and tests of adulthood (for which, after all, an education is meant to prepare a child – unless we look to Professor Umbridge as our model), to the day he lies on his bed or goes into battle ready to meet his maker.

See Dick run. I’d rather not.

The consequence of our folly is that we habituate students to read and write at absurdly low levels. Then to top it off, we sentimentalize what they read, fearing that they can’t deal with monsters and werewolves.

In all these ways we truly dis-educate our children by teaching them.

What should we do if we want to cultivate our children’s intelligence and moral development (and yes, they go hand in hand)?

We should read to them works that they cannot understand. We should read rich metaphorical works, like fairy tales, folk tales, fables, mythology, legends, Bible stories. We should not ask them to analyze them.

We should just read them. We can discuss them in personal ways, but to transfer this personal activity into an intellectual exercise before 2nd or 3rd grade is counter-productive.

We should teach children to decode phonograms, but we should not convince ourselves that this is reading. It’s a very different intellectual exercise that prepares children for reading. But they do more reading with their ears than with their eyes when they are learning to decode.

Most of all, we should never forget that we are teaching persons, not mechanisms that need to master a process for efficient operations.

Principles of Classical Education

Andrew Campbell wrote a wonderful book called The Latin-Centered Curriculum that describes a classical education that strives for simplicity and focus. On his web site he lists 10 foundational principles of classical education that I find compelling and sound. To spend a few months reflecting on them, asking, “What does this imply for the way I teach?” would be a profitable exercise for any teacher who wants her teaching to transform and not just to inform.

How not to read a fairy tale

After today’s earlier post I was browsing the web for some more Grimm news, when I came across this site. This is what happens when professionals get involved in teaching literature to children. Truly, I think the temptation is irreistable. Please don’t teach this way. Maybe, if you have to feel grown up while you teach, do it in fourth grade. But why you’d want to I’m not sure.

Here’s one that should be tried only by those who have mature judgment and don’t think little kids can handle complicated moral debates. To debate whether a fairy tale character should have done something generally questionable is different from debating whether the child ever should. In other words, the discussion should stay in the realm of the particular: whether this character should have done this act; not wander into the realm of the abstract: whether it is ethical to sometimes deceive.

I think she’s a little naive about children’s moral capacity and the effects of premature abstraction, but am subject to correction. What do you think?

Teaching Fairy Tales and Personal Knowledge

I am continually amazed at the power of fairy tales to enliven a boy’s childhood. Fairy tales might be the place where the folly and harm of impersonal knowledge is most easily seen. Here’ Bruno Bettelheim in his magnificent book The Uses of Enchantment:

Like all great art, fairy tales both delight and instruct; their special genius is that they do so in terms which speak directly to children. At the age when these stories are most meaningful to the child, his major problem is to bring some order into the inner chaos of is mind so that he can understand himself better–a necessary preliminary for achieving some congruence between his perceptions and the external world.

“True” stories about the “real” world may provide some interesting and often useful information. but the way these stories unfold is as alien to the way the prepubertal child’s mind functions as the supernatural events of the fairy tale are to the way the mature intellect comprehends the world.

Strictly realistic stories run counter to the child’s inner experiences; he will listen to them and maybe get something out of them, but he cannot extract much personal meaning from them that transcends obvius content. These stories inform wihtout enriching, as is unfortunately also true of much learning in school. Factual knowledge profits the total personality only when it is turned into “personal knowledge.”… A fare of realistic stories only is barren.

Do you see the significance of fairy tales for your children? So often we want common sense to rule the nursery. Well, that common sense is not something that enables the child to manage his world. Heck, it doesn’t even work for us. When I use my common sense, I know that my trials are going to continue, that no fairy godmother is going to come to my rescue, that I’m on my own. I become hopeless. But the fairy tale tells me my fairy godmother is looking out for me.

And that seems like a valuable piece of news. No wonder materialist culture, Christians who take their common sense too far and their anxieties even farther, and rationalists tend to oppose fairy tales.

The great thing about teaching fairy tales is that all you have to do is tell them – or, if necessary, read them. The child’s soul will do the work. If they want them retold, retell them. Over and over, if necessary. They are the means by which we can tend the heart of virtue, to use the title of Vigen Guroian’s fine book on this subject.

Fairy tales are an instance of poetic or personal knowledge, of living ideas.

Harry Potter and sympathetic treatment

As I have blogged twice about Harry Potter, both with qualifications for Rowling’s greatness, I think I should add something that has struck me recently and which I consider one of her great powers: the ability to engage sympathetically with the inner workings of the human mind.

Probably my favorite magical device in the whole series is the brilliantly named Pensieve.  She introduces it perfectly. The tone is set in the gravity and secrecy and soberness of Dumbledore’s office. Harry enters it and is surprised by its function. Then Dumbledore quietly draws Harry out of it and back to his office. The quietness and sensitivity of the scene and the actions shows an inner warmth in Rowling toward the secret workings of the mind: the memories, the challenge of keeping them ordered, the yearning to make them objective and understand them.

Perhaps the best chapter in the fourth book.

How to give your child a good lunch

Here’s a good little article from Kathy Ireland (the Christian Martha Stewart) with some appealing ideas for preparing lunch for your child (or for your child to prepare for himself) during school.

How to Teach Harry Potter

Of course, a lot of people would ask, “Why to teach Harry Potter?” and they’re right to ask. The reason is because kids are reading it. That doesn’t mean you should make kids read it who otherwise wouldn’t (it isn’t THAT good), but for those who are, it would make for good discussion.

There are two big issues with Harry Potter: One, whether it expresses a sound “worldview” and two, whether it is well-written.

Sticking with the chiastic motif, let me reflect on the second question first. It is very unevenly written. Rowling uses tons of cliches, describes things as “oddly” or “strangely” something or other too often, and occasionally becomes too cute. Many people have suggested that she gets better as she proceeds. I agree. The first and second volumes don’t offer much. The third steps up.

The fourth almost does, but she seems to make the same mistake as an author that her readers did as readers. She’s too absorbed in the world she’s created. The story should have been half as long, but she lingers too much on the details of Christmas presents and the way things are mailed. The fourth volume is the most disappointing. A person who hadn’t read the first three and fallen under her spell would be much less likely to find it interesting or compelling as a starting point. You can’t say that about, for example, any of the Narnia Chronicles.

Also, I can’t get past the feeling that the magic is childish in its use. In daily activities or on special occasions, the magicians can do whatever they want. Some of it is explained as the stories develop, like when the house-elves are revealed as providing the food. But it’s too easy, too light, too pleasant. With all the magic, they should never have an inconvenience. I need to reflect more on this point, because it’s important and I’m not ready to draw a conclusion yet, but I know I don’t find the magic so prevelant in my fairy world. Again, it seems childish – a shallow form of wishful thinking.

In the sixth and seventh she’s back to developing a good plot again.

And when it comes to developing a plot, Rowling is brilliant. By book five, she has created a compelling world, developed characters of great variety (some simple caracatures, like the Dursleys, some complex like Harry, some subtle like Dumbledore), and raised enough questions that the reader is swept into Harry’s and Dumbledore’s quest. Harry is not always likable, an important element of his likability. But we want him to grow and to win. He does both, at tremendous cost.

That tremendous cost justifies the whole series. Rowling has wooed an entire generation away from sentimentalism and has added to the call for a more heroic age in which friendship, self-control, and courage replace the cynicism and sentimentality (fraternal twins) of the 20th century.

Which brings up the next issue.

The worldview question is much more complicated. Apparently, Rowling is a practicing Christian in the Church of Scotland, so it’s interesting to speculate on whether she intended to express or even attend to the Christian worldview in her writings. Nobody can do so perfectly, of course, so it would be easy to find areas where she falls short. It would also be valuable to find areas where she represents it well.

But the Christian worldview insists that things be regarded and judged according to what they are (the kind of thing they are), not by whether a given artifact agrees with a series of statements somebody has determined are dogma. So the first worldview question has to be whether Potter succeeds as literature.

Here are some questions I would ask a class to prepare them for a read of Potter (before they know it’s what we’re going to read):

  1. (see the earlier post) If you were writing a fantasy/fairy tale, would you give magical power to humans? Why?
  2. What is the difference between a man and a boy?
  3. Can you write a Christian story without talking about God?

However, if you read the book continually asking whether or not it is “written from a Christian worldview” you won’t be able to answer the question because you won’t be reading the book. First you need to read the story. Of course, if there are immoral actions or vile values exalted, such things stick out pretty quickly, though a really good book could create the appearance of such exaltation and then undercut it. The point is, you have to read the books before you can judge them.

That doesn’t mean, and this is a critical point, that we are somehow bound to read every book and watch every movie before we can make a judgment. For the most part, we aren’t supposed to be spending so much time on empty entertainment (i.e. as watching movies usually is) anyway. So as a practical matter, we need the help of others to decide where to spend our time.

This is just common sense, but I’ve wandered from my point, so I’ll hang up now.

Knowledge and Little Children

Charlotte Mason spoke of Living Ideas. James Taylor developed the ideas of John Senior and others under the concept of Poetic Knowledge. Michael Polanyi wrote an important book called Personal Knowledge. Christian de Quincey pushed a lot farther with his book Radical Knowing, looking to eastern mysticism for his foundations.

But in all of these cases, the author challenges what westerners seem to take for granted. That knowing is a conscious, rational process or act. The truth is, conventional western ideas of knowing are rooted in Descartes and Bacon, and they have been deterioriating among philosophers of knowledge for over 200 years. Old habits, especially bad ones, die hard.

I’ve been forced to reflect on these issues because I’m working on a pre-school curriculum and also because I keep finding myself in conversations with heads of school and teachers who have ideas about how to teach young children that don’t make a lot of sense to me.

Let me address the second point first because one, it’s most easily described, two, I like chiastic structures, and three, it seems to be pretty common so I’m most likely to offend a lot of people.

What I keep hearing is that in the grammar stage children should be taught reams of information through repetition because they are in the grammar stage and the grammar stage is about facts. Some go so far as to say that they should not be required to use reason yet because they can’t.

The thing is, teaching this way differs from everything else we do with children at this stage. For example, in the classic illustration, if a four year old child touches a stove, do we respond by having him memorize a jingle about things to avoid in the kitchen. No, we are perfectly comfortable with the child’s instinctive, “hard-wired” capacity to recognize both cause and effect with one hand and associations with the other. We comfort the child.

But if we want to teach a seven year old grammar, we have him sing songs about it, songs that are remarkably abstract, that refer to things he doesn’t know, and that he will be quizzed on the next day.

Let me be clear and careful: I have no trouble with singing songs to help kids remember things (though they need to get rid of the crutch/song as fast as possible), nor do I object to them memorizing passages that use language beyond students’ understanding (creeds, catechisms, Shakespeare, etc.). My heart still leaps up when I recall my then four year old daughter standing front of the student body at Providence Academy and reciting Wordsworth’s “My heart leaps up…”

No, that is not my objection. My objection is to two contradictory notions, both of which I keep finding people seem unwittingly to hold: 1. that the child has learned grammar when she has memorized this chant/jingle/song and 2. that children at that age can’t learn grammar anyway so they should just learn this chant/jingle/song.

Either they are capable of learning grammar at that age or they are not. Since grammar is the application of logic to our verbal communications (not, as modern theorizers would have us believe, the mere application of rhetoric (i.e. usage) to our verbal communications), the question comes down to whether grammar stage children are capable of reasoning logically.

Of course, that becomes a question not of kind but of degree. Of course they are capable of reasoning logically. At a certain level, even a cat or a dog is capable of that. That’s why, apart from dead puppies, they come when you call. The question is how much, or rather, at how high a level is a small child capable of reasoning logically.

I’ve raised five children (the youngest is 12 now). I’ve taught every grade fro 2-12. I’ve interacted with preschool children. The one thing I can attest to, and that research verifies, is that children from the womb have an innate capacity – even a necessity – for logical reasoning. Around the time they reach the age of three, they begin to develop the ability to reason logically on purpose, consciously, using words and quantities (numbers and shapes).

They are not very good at it, which is why they are so cute.

By the time they reach kindergarten, they have become remarkably adept at it. They could outsmart any non-human creature in most purely logical activities, though I suspect they would probably lose to the cleverness of a chimpanzee on its own turf.

By the time they have reached third grade, the grammar stage proper on most charts I’ve seen, their reasoning capacity is extravagent and a wonder to behold, especially if they haven’t been to school yet or watched too much television. They can remember long passages (I had my third grade memorize the magnificat and Proverbs 8 each year), they can find associations between seemingly unrelated ideas, they can calculate and estimate.

And yet, there seems to be a notion that we should not engage them in discussions about what we are teaching them. We should just fill their heads with information.

This is NOT what Ms. Sayers was suggesting. Read her essay again and you’ll see something much more jolly, interactive, intellectually assertive on the part of the child. She demonstrated the pleasure that children derive from the rough and tumble of meaningless sounds, but she was not arguing for a meaningless classroom.

What I’m arguing is this: children can actually learn grammar, in the abstract, grammar itself – not just words that represent grammar. In other words, they can actually understand grammar lessons. But it matters enormously how they are taught.

The notion of how we teach causes me to realize that I may have wandered a little off course, so I need to correct myself and get back to the point, which is about knowledge and how we teach. I was pointing out that some people seem to have developed notions under the name of classical education that are not particularly effective at education and are certainly not classical. You can, perhaps, see it most clearly in grammar, where we are teaching “grammar” stage children grammar in ways that don’t make sense and don’t work.

What I’m really thinking about is, “Why do we do that?” Why do we simply press information into the heads of grammar stage children and call it teaching. I honestly believe there’s an element of naive pride involved. We have long heard that rote memory is deadening, and we have discovered that, in fact, children enjoy it, when put to a rythmn or a tune. We have been told that school should be fun and that children are not able to learn very much, but we have discovered that children are bored when you try to make them have fun (they prefer trees and playgrounds to classrooms no matter how entertaining you make the classroom) and they are able to learn a great deal.

So we aren’t going to be pushed around by those who smirk at us and throw down terms like “rote memory” and “drill to kill” at what we are doing. We’re the classic adolescent who lets his adversary control him by defining the opposition.

There is no opposition between learning by heart and thinking. Grammar school children CAN understand so much more than we seem to be willing to recognize. By denying that, we fall into the same trap that caught the conventional educator.

But why did it happen? Because, I’m going to argue in a following post, we have adopted the same rationalist and pragmatist assumptions about what knowledge is and that has prevented us from seeing the true glory of what Christian classical education can achieve.

 [This next line is a note I wrote to myself and I can’t cut it from this document. Software is weird – it redefines the word buggy]

Necessity may well be the most powerful teaching instrument available.