A Review? More of an Homage.

The new year begins for our Apprenticeship on Monday and because of a late cancellation we have one difficult to fill seat remaining. While I would invite you to pray that the seat fills, that is not the real purpose of this post, which is to comment on David Hicks book Norms and Nobility.

I would like to say I discovered this book, but the truth is that it was forced upon me. When, in 1994, I began to research in earnest the meaning of classical education, I entered the term into the computer of the Concordia University library.

The title Norms and Nobility came up, but the description seemed so unpromising and my interests were so directed to what was done in the ancient world as opposed to what we ought to do now that I ignored it.

I tried another phrase, perhaps classical learning. One book: Norms and Nobility.

Yet another. One book.

No matter how I tried to phrase my search, even “classical education in the ancient world,” or “classical learning among the Greeks,” or “classical education as understood by Plato in 385 BC and not including anything David Hicks has to say about it,” every time I hit that enter key, one book came up.

It was as if the computer was possessed.

Finally, I let out a sigh, sagged my shoulders a little, and wrote the code.

I walked over to the shelf where the computer insisted this book was waiting for me and there it sat, all by itself, in a coarse blue hardback cover.

Norms and Nobility.

I sluggishly pulled it forward, so sluggishly that it dropped to the floor, where I started kicking it out of the aisle toward a nearby table. Arriving at the table, I grudgingly, perhaps even bitterly, bent over to pick it up, grabbing a corner in complete disregarding indifference to the well-being of the spine.

At this point, my appetites were much more interested in food than in Nobility and Norms or whatever, so I yawned a bit, stretched a bit more, and left the library to seek the life found hidden in a Snickers bar.

Feeling a bit better, I strolled back up the three flights of stairs and returned to my table.

The book was gone.

I didn’t care much about the Noble Norms or whatever, but I was pretty irritated about the inconvenience its disappearance caused me. I had a paper to write, dang it, and this was the only book the stoopid modernized library computer could find for me.

So I went back a little peavishly to the shelf from which I had pulled it earlier.

It wasn’t there either.

My peave was no longer little. Now I was downright upset. What a waste of my precious sacred time this book was proving to be.

So I went to the libariarians desk, which I could scarcely approach without thinking of that terrifying scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Jimmy Stewart is looking for Donna Reed only to learn from Clarence that, God have mercy, “She’s in the LIBRARY!” and I cautiously approached this poor forlorn creature and demanded of her where my book had gone.

She said it was back on the shelf, “Were you still needing it?”

No, I put it on my table because I’m such a Noble Norm. I didn’t say it, and therefore it is not in quotes, but I wanted to.

What I did say was, “No, it’s not, I just looked there, it’s not there.”

“Yes, it is, I just put it there,” she said. 

I was already married, so I couldn’t continue to flirt with her.  “I just checked,” I said, one last time, in my most savagely polite voice.

She huffed a bit and lifted her delicate frame resolutely from her librarian’s chair behind her librarian’s desk and puffed her way past me like a wisp of smoke and walked over to the wrong aisle.

“That’s the wrong aisle,” I tossed before her tread.

“No it’s not,” she repudiated.

She stepped down the aisle and pulled out the very same book I had dropped on the floor earlier and let it drop on the floor and walked back to her desk without another word.

“Dang,” I thought. She was right. So I kicked the book back toward the table, picked it up by its scruffy ears, and tossed it back on the table.

This time I opened it and began reading. At the beginning, which is terribly unusual for me.

“Ten years ago I wrote the book you are about to read,” said the Preface to the 1990 edition, and I thought, “What is this, some kind of David Copperfield plup? And what makes him so sure I’m going to read this book anyway?”

I forced myself onward, but I can’t say I really became interested until I got to the fourth paragraph where he wrote:

This is not a book about ancient education. it is about an ancient ideal expressed as “classical education” against which the modern school is weighed and found wanting.”

Now, I had grown up in this modern school and we had had a very uneasy relationship. I liked most of my teachers, enjoyed going to school for the most part, and learned a bit here and there. But I knew from around 7th grade on that it was a fraud for two reasons.

One, because on occasion they would herd the hundreds of us into the cafeteria where we would be given standardized surveys that asked us about things that were none of their business and we couldn’t help but laugh at the patheticness of their open manipulation of our minds.

Two, because twice between grades 7 and 9 the teachers in the Milwaukee Public Schools went on strike. This put me in an interesting bind. I had been told repeatedly how important education was. I had always been told repeatedly how important I (you know, the future and all that) was. Occasionally, teachers and principles even tried to tell us they cared about us.

Well, I was a kid, I couldn’t work these things out. To me, the message was: either school doesn’t matteror we don’t care about you.

I concluded both, though I always had individual teachers with whom I enjoyed conversing.

But I got Hicks point. The modern school is wanting.

One thing I have always loved is learning. That is why I’ve never respected systems schooling. It’s too hard to learn in such a setting.

So when I read

The tacher, not the curriculum, needs to be the focus of reform. The greatest value of the curriculum proposed in this book, I now believe, is that it sustains and nurtures teachers as practioners of the art of learning while discouraging non-learners from entering the profession.

I thought maybe this Hicks guy might have something to say after all.

By 1994 I was just about old enough to figure out that the really important questions don’t have easy answers and that the answers they have have to be adapted to circumstances. So I was touched when Hicks spoke of The Rector of Justin as a novel that raises “the sort of questions that possess a wisdom apart from answers.”

I was beginning to sense that this Mr. Hicks was almost as insightful as I was.

Then he started talking knowingly about Polybius and Livy, Montaigne and St. Augustine. He was able to critique in a sentence the flaws in the thinking of men like Hegel, Comte, Marx, Darwin, and Freud (some of whom I had heard of!).

Every now and then he’d throw out a wise metaphor, like

Classical education refreshes itself at cisterns of learning dug long ago, drawing from springs too deep for taint the strength to turn our cultural retreat into advance.

and I’d have to admit Mr. Hicks was worth listening to.

I couldn’t put the book down, but everything he said demanded so much reflection.

Classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language adn of conscience through myth. The key word here is inquiry. Everything springs from the special nature of the inquiry. The inqiry dictates the form of instruction and establishes the moral framework for thought adn action.

Before long I realized that I had hardly smelled, much less tasted the inner life and soul, the living truth and penetrating beauty, the soul-transforming goodness of what classical education could be.

Soon my spirit was soaring into worlds of virtue and truth, straining to see the tyrannizing image of the ideal man and how a child can be equpped to see or blinded to the vision of this ideal, meditating on the place of the sciences and what can be learned through the senses, rearranging my mind and the ideas that furnished it to attempt to grasp a way of thinking that had room for both truth and Socratic instruction, dwelling on the possibility that a Mozart is born in every neighborhood, and seeing that in fact, only the Christian tradition can fulfil the potential of education (which is to produce a human being).

It wasn’t long before this vision of Nobility in education had brought me to the point of metanoia, of repentence and turning around, and I realized that the computer had pushed me in the direction of a book that itself belonged in the great conversation.

This morning, I picked up Mr. Hicks book again, reading for the apprenticeship, where we use it as a text book. I felt like a child again. Or maybe a patient just having been through surgery, when the bandages are taken off the eyes. It is still too bright for me. I still can’t see it all.

But how beautiful it is; how true; how good.

I have made it my mission to ensure that every possible human being reads this book. At CiRCE we have sold hundreds of copies at a steep discount to the market price because it needs to be read. It needs to be digested. It needs to absorbed.

It needs to be done.

Norms and Nobility is the best and most important book written on education since CS Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man in 1943.

14 Responses

  1. Charles, I think you’ve expressed it well.

    The source of the spring is so deep underground that we can’t pollute and that spring is the source of our strength.

    It’d be nice to get back to the source.


  2. Kimberly,

    If you’d like a guide through your reading of Norms and Nobility, may I point you to this blog: http://dominionfamily.blogspot.com/

    Cindy has been reading through N&N and blogging her reflections since April (?), if you click the Norms and Nobility tag at the bottom of the current post, you can scroll through all the previous posts and start at the beginning. There are also links to other blogs discussing N&N within most of the posts.

    Take small bites and chew slowly. It’s a rich, dense book!

    Jami Marstall

    • Jami,
      Thank you for recommending http://dominionfamily.blogspot.com/. I’ll take a look. I just finished chapter one and am left ruminating. It will be good to meet with another mind.

      Enraptured by Hicks’ writing, I’ve wandered about the room musing “Virtue, after all, is not a parlor game, but a perpetual activity,” and “Be always at work carving your own statue.”

      Inside my beloved copy of Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart I have copied, “The theoretic life completes the individual, holding him against the warmth of the divine spark in his nature and making sense of an existence otherwise consumed by the infinite wishing of one thing for the sake of another.” Indeed, Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing. Yet, I’m now left wondering was Kierkegaard’s divine influence the Bible or Aristotle?

      And I’m left at the end of chapter one asking, Philosopher or Rhetorician? Or, is this the wrong question?

      I appreciate your advice to “take small bites and chew slowly.” Long ago I gave myself permission to go slowly. I think this is because I have always identified with the tortoise. 🙂

      Thanks again!

      Ah, if only “to burn always with a hard gemlike flame.”

      • Kim,

        This response seems meet. Kierkegaard helped me see some important things too, though I was more on the Either/Or side than the Purity of Heart. When the Bible and Aristotle agree, I’m not sure it matters all that much which influences on a given point.

        The philosopher and the rhetorician are made one in wisdom and virtue.

        I’m eager to hear what you think of Hicks work. What a blessing to do your friend such a favor!


        • I’ve made it through Part I, Chapters 1-8. There is so much to say. I have so many questions. And so many of my arrangements of thought —that I believed were finally and firmly in place within me— have once again, been knocked loose. I’m both energized and exceedingly uncomfortable.

          Yet, as we know, “brevity is the soul of wit… (so) I will be brief.” 🙂

          One thing: Chapter 8, The Promise of Christian Paideia, has helped me both understand my own question of Philosopher vs. Rhetorician better, and helped me come to rest, at least for now, with his answer of Love and Faith.

          “Man cannot be virtuous or wise until he gets off center.” Love helps us get off center and serves to relieve us from our demanding conscience. And finally, the Christian Faith, unifies: “By resolving the contradiction between the good and evil in man at the level of faith, promising a knowledge of life’s meaning and purposes happily wedded to man’s responsibility, Christianity injected a hopeful note and rewarded the classical tradition’s strivings for a link between right thinking and right acting.”

          • This book has that affect Kimberly. It opened my eyes and reordered my mind and opened new areas of questions in many areas. Those are the things that important books do.

            Every time I’m tempted to write a book about classical education, I realize it’s all already there!

            Indeed the Christian faith does unify – because it pleased the Father to make all things one in Him!

            Continued blessings on your readings.

  3. I probably should point out that the story above is a fib. It’s purpose is to express how I didn’t have any desire to read the book but that it kept getting pushed on me by the computer, which part of the story is true.

    • Thanks for pointing that out. Honesty is the best policy!

      Can you explain what “for taint the strength” means?

      • Sounds like a typo. Where is it?

        • “Classical education refreshes itself at cisterns of learning dug long ago, drawing from springs too deep for taint the strength to turn our cultural retreat into advance.”

          • Ah, I see! “for taint” there goes with too deep, not with the strength. “springs too deep for taint.”

            • So, the “strength to turn” is drawn “from springs too deep for taint” — too deep to be polluted; from ideas too ancient and well established to be polluted by modern ideas.

              Is that close to the meaning of what he is saying?

  4. Thank you Andrew Kern!

    I arrived home from NC last night, grabbed Norms & Nobility off my shelf, and started reading. I’ve owned this book for a year, but I didn’t choose it. It chose me.
    A friend of mine asked me if I would be interested in buying some of his books. So, I did. As it turns out, this one was in the stack. I thought I was doing him a favor. Now I see he was doing me one. Time to read —it needs to be done.

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