Sympathetic Identification or Critical Analysis?

All learning is imitation, if only we understand what imitation is. All teaching, then, is either exemplifying or presenting what the student will imitate.

This can apply to the classroom, but the truth is, we spend most of our active time teaching and learning anyway – or at least attempting to do so – so it would be foolish either to apply this only to the classroom or even to begin our reflections on learning with the classroom.

The classroom seeks to make learning super-efficient by removing every extraneous movement (usually by sending him to the office), but I remain skeptical about the effectiveness of this approach. As a teacher, I have alway found the classroom to be something with which you must do the best you can rather than the best there is, which is, I suppose, the reason why they have extended courses on classroom management at teachers colleges and at education conferences.

Imitation, however, comes in layers. I am beginning to suspect that you can see these layers played out, perhaps in reverse order, over time in European art.

The most obvious layer of imitation is when the artist (art is imitation) imitates the surface of the artifact he is imitating. For example, I can imitate a poem by Wordsworth quite easily by memorizing it. I can imitate a painting by DaVinci by coloring it in a coloring book.

Inasmuch as every following layer of imitation depends on this layer, I am unwilling to dismiss it as insignificant or unhelpful.

In the second layer of imitation, I would imitate the form of the artifact. While I simply retained the words in my head in layer one, now in layer two I would try to replace the words themselves with words of my own, but I would do so in the form (fable, lyric, etc.) of the original artist.

This is what Benjamin Franklin refered to when he used “hints of sentiment” and what Andrew Pudewa uses with IEW when he has students make key word outlines. The reason was activated by the imitation of level one, but not very vigorously. In level two, we call on it for more energetic activity.

Layer three imitation goes beyond the form to the qualities found within the form, such as voice, energy, harmony and other more abstract principles. Here the reason is seriously challenged even in analyzing, not to mention imitating, the artifact. This cannot be done by the would-be artist who is unwilling to practice the first two layers of imitation.

Finally, the artist becomes an artist in his own right when he imitates the artistic process itself: the process of creation. This varies from art to art and artifact to artifact, but there remains the universal process of creativity that applies to every art and artifact: attentively perceive, contemplate, conceptualize, re-present or articulate.

The master teacher is able to guide his students from the first through the fourth stage organically and dynamically and the gifted student is able to pass from one stage to the next with an alacrity rooted in attentive perception.

Most artists (including teachers) are unaware of this sequence and are drawn by thy mystic cords of necessity, the rational call of harmony, and the volitional impulse to beauty. But when programs are constructed to teach students en masse that disregard this organic sequence and strive instead to teach on mechanistic assumptions, a vast array of talent is squandered and human souls atrophy in the desert of negligence.

Thus scientific materialism undercuts the teaching of literature and composition by applying un-artistic, unfitting, counter-productive tools of assessment.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the greatest English philosophers of the 19th century, comes to my aid in his analysis of the poetic process. For simplicity, I quote from English Romantic Writers, ed. David Perkins, 1967 and I italicize for emphasis.

Coleridge often contrasted organic with ‘mechanical’ form. The ‘mechanical’ he said…, is predetermined and subsequently impressed on whatever material we choose, as when ‘to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened.’ The organic form, on the other hand, ‘shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fulness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.’ Each exterior thus becomes a ‘true image’ of ‘the being within.’ The concept of organic form… gave rise to an approach to art that stressed sympathetic identification rather than analysis from a critical distance. And it stimulated  a criterion of evaluation that rests on the extent to which all the ‘parts’ of a work of art… interconnect and sustain one another.

I have never seen a clearer and more concise description of the heart of the classical education that arises from a close understanding of what a “logos” is, that Plato and Aristotle groped for, that Chaucer and Shakespeare expressed, and that nobody of whom I am aware ever developed in a more timely way than Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

As I continue to reflect on teaching in a manner that sustains and is compatible with liberty and as I continue to explore the impact of the German philosophers on German and American education, I will frequently return to the foregoing passage  as something of a locus classicus of sound artistic theory and therefore of how to practice the art of teaching.

I promise to try to write more clearly as I develop some of these thoughts. ; )


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