The Lost Tools of Birthing

Between Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales who died in 1400, and Edmund Spenser, who published The Sheapherd’s Calendar in 1576, you will scan your anthologies of English verse in vain for a renowned poet.
Why did English literature blossom in the 14th century only to enter an aesthetic dark age until Spenser? And why did the late 16th century, the Elizabethan age, experience a flowering that many students of English literature still consider a golden age? How did nearly 200 obscure years disappear in the radiance of Spencer, Sidney, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and so many great poets, writers, explorers, and scientists?
Grammar and rhetoric.
In 1540, King Henry VIII issued an Executive Order that every school throughout the realm should teach a uniform grammar. In the 1544 version, the following “letter to the reader” explains why he issued his history-altering decree:
“His majesty considering the great encumbrance and confusion of the young and tender wits, by reason of the diversity of grammar rules and teachings (for heretofore every master had his grammar, and every school diverse teachings, and changing of masters and schools did many times utterly dull and undo good wits) hath appointed certain learned men meet for such a purpose, to compile one brief, plain, and uniform grammar, which only (all others set apart) for the more speediness, and less trouble of young wits, his highness hath commanded all schoolmasters and teachers of grammar within this his realm, and other his dominions, to teach their scholars.”
Every English school child in Elizabethan England memorized this famous “Lily’s Grammar.” Even earlier, Dean Colet had re-founded St. Paul’s school in London, where he implemented a curriculum and text books written and assisted by his friend, Erasmus. By the time Shakespeare reached the Stratford Grammar School in 1571, the curriculum and methods of St. Paul’s had spread throughout England. Sister Miriam Joseph describes the manner of teaching:
“The method prescribed unremitting exercise in grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Grammar dominated the lower forms, logic and rhetoric the upper. In all forms the order was first to learn precepts, then to employ them as a tool of analysis in reading, and finally to use them as a guide in composition…. The boy must first be grounded in the topics of logic through Cicero’s Topica before he could properly understand the one hundred and thirty-two figures of speech defined and illustrated in Susenbrotus’ Epitome Troporum ac schematum et grammaticorum et rhetoricorum”
The assumption behind this Renaissance curriculum is the same assumption that an athlete or a painter or a dancer makes when he seeks excellence: virtue requires “unremitting exercise,” which is to say, disciplined mastery of the craft.
The Lost Tools of Writing is a shadow of the curriculum Erasmus and Lily established in 16th century England. It is hoped that this shadow, learned by eager students and taught by humble teachers, can plant the seeds of a thousand individual Renaissancen.
The Lost Tools of Writing rests on the conviction that our world is populated by geniuses and intelligent people who fail to realize their genius or fulfill their intelligence for lack of disciplined training in the craft of writing. When the insights and epiphanies come, the unprepared mind has no vessel to preserve it.
The more intelligent the student, the more frustrating the experience.
Perhaps it strains the point to insist that writing is a craft with tools that empower the craftsman through practice, that writing produces artifacts that can be objectively assessed for their consistency with the principles of the art, and that the goal of instruction is for the student to attain self-mastery, which is synonymous with freedom.
If American education is going to be reborn, if the United States are going to experience a much-needed rebirth of freedom, it will only occur through a wide-spread commitment to the verbal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
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Firstfruits

How do you teach a group of 7th grade students the meaning of “firstfruits” in relation to the resurrection?

At the beginning of each year I like to take my students through a simple overview of the biblical narrative with something I have put together under the title of “God’s Redemptive Story.”

Outlined in this story are 7 clearly defined parts: creation, redemption, kingdom (of Israel–or, Man), Jesus, church (kingdom of Heaven/God), resurrection, and new creation.  You can read any portion of scripture and locate the reading within one of these 7 parts.  It is simply a helpful tool for young students who are now being asked to read and think about scripture anew.

While I was discussing the basic concepts of the resurrection I came upon Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, “Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”  I saw numbness settle upon my students with the word “firstfruits.”

And then it hit me.  My colleague had brought in a tomato plant and set it outside our classrooms, and I remembered one red tomato standing out through the leaves.  “Alright, outside,” I said.

In the end, it boiled down to Christ being the one ripe tomato, the “firstfruit,” and the rest of us being a bunch of green tomatoes to follow after in like manner.  Our hope is to ripen into a perfect red tomato. (No, there was absolutely no mentioning of that vegetable cartoon.)

How could you teach that, that clearly, without a garden?

The Sack of Truth: A Fairytale at the Heart of Redemption and Classical Education

Ruth Sawyer’s classic fairytale “A Sack of Truth” saved the lives of my sophomores and redeemed mine. Not only is the title brilliant and amped for discussion, but the tale smacks paradigmatic for classical education. It contains that which is really real and true.

I am now even more convinced of the power of fables and fairy tales to shape one into a right human being—and to truly educate by cultivating wisdom and virtue in the heart.

If you haven’t read the tale, I’ll briefly summarize:  There lives a king in Spain. His daughter is ill. A doctor says only the finest pears in Spain will cure her. The king asks for the finest pears from all over to be brought and the one whose pears heal his daughter will be richly rewarded.

A poor peasant with three sons has a pear tree that produces other-worldly golden pears. He sends his oldest son to the king with a basket of pears. On the road he meets a sad-faced woman carrying a little child who asks him what he has in the basket. Rather than offering the sad woman and child a pear to eat, he snubs her. It is a kind of test. The woman turns his pears into horns. When he arrives to the king with horns, the king throws him into a dungeon.

The second son is sent with a basket. He responds to the needy woman in the same way and fails the test. He is also thrown into the dungeon.

Importantly, when the third son is introduced, this is what is said of him: “No one had ever thought him very clever, only kind and willing and cheerful.” When he meets the sad-faced woman he thinks to himself, “I must not be greedy with those pears. There is the old saying—‘He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year.’” He uncovers the basket and gives a pear to the child.

He shows compassion and therefore passes the test and gets to the king. His pears heal the king’s daughter. The king offers him anything he wants. Again the story says, “he thought of the old saying: ‘gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.’ He asks for the release of his brothers.

The rest of the story involves the sack of truth, but I won’t retell that part here. Essentially, things work out well for the youngest son.

In my class, we discussed much concerning this. Here are some of the questions I raised:

I asked if they were admitted to our very-hard-to-get-into high school because they were clever or because they were kind, willing, and cheerful.  Clever was the obvious answer. I responded that as a result they have been admitted into an institution that desires to create the two older brothers.

Standard education is very interested in what a child can do or how much he or she knows (cleverness), not in who the child is.

I asked if the students’ very full and heavy backpacks were sacks of truth, sacks of knowledge, or sacks of BS :). We concurred that, unfortunately, they were not sacks of truth. And if they decided to call them sacks of knowledge, then through discussion we realized that it would have been better to call them sacks of BS because at least BS knows that it’s BS.

In other words, there’s a big difference between truth and knowledge. And there’s a big difference between knowing and knowledge. Notice that Aristotle said, “All men desire by nature to know.”  He did not say “all men desire by nature, knowledge.”

Why are our schools founded upon gaining knowledge and not on desiring to know?

I asked what the youngest son did when he faced his crises, his moments of temptation.

The students said that he recalled two old sayings: “He who plays the fox for a day, pays for a year” and “gratitude is better scattered than kept in one’s pocket.”

I asked if he looked the sayings up on the internet.

Students: No

I asked if a nearby animal shouted them out.

Students: No

I asked how he knew the old sayings.

Students:  he remembered them.

I asked where he got them:

Students:  in fables and fairy tales.

I asked them what lines will come to them when they find themselves in their moments of high temptation.

Will they be lines from the latest blockbuster movie or video game?

Or maybe, just maybe…

If we read enough of them in the next nine months…

Classic fables and fairy tales.

By which we will fill our sacks of truth.

And save our souls.  And a needy mother and child on the way… and maybe even the king’s daughter.

Could William Faulkner Write?

I don’t like to travel without an interesting compelling time-filling book, and I’m driving up to PA tomorrow in what is still called a car because that is what the people over at Hertz call it – a bright cool air-conditioned chamber with the windows all closed because as a man I realize that hot air prevents coolness from spreading and the open window will let more heat than cool in – so I was glancing over my office qua study bookcase covered with anthologies of great books and poems and individual novels from which life-changing insights broke in random gusts, breaking the backs of cultures on the rack of history and I made the mistake of picking up Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. I read the first page and a half and thought, “This demands a response.”

So, even though I have no time for it, and even though I can’t possibly say anything intelligent, I am going to take a few moments and respond to this page and a half.

My first thought, by the time it formed itself into a proposition, sounded something like this: “How does such a book find a publisher?”

It’s not that it doesn’t deserve to be published, it’s just that it breaks every rule in the publishers library of rule books. How did the first editor get past the second page? This book, were it handed in to a college professor, would have almost certainly been dismissed as ridiculous.

But the error would have been the professor’s, I guess, because its now among the great books in the American canon.

My trouble, and the trouble is mine and it is a vice, is that when I pick up a book to read on my own, I want to know it will be worth my time. I am a distressingly pragmatic reader. I want to take something out of the reading and I want to do it quickly.

So when I read, “From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that — a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with ….” I wonder:

How do I know Faulkner isn’t playing a joke on me?

The thing is, it may be that Faulkner is writing this exactly as it needed to be written given the reality he is embodying in this description. It may be that unless we see all these things interpenetrating each other verbally we can never perceive how they interpenetrated each other in reality. In other words, maybe high school essay prose won’t express the idea Faulkner is trying to express.

So I flip randomly and end up on my head. Then I flip the pages of my book randomly and end up on page 87, where I read this:

“She must have seen Judith now and Judith probably urged her to come out to Sutpen’s Hundred to live, but I believe that this is the reason she did not go, even though she did not know where Bon and Henry were and Judith apparently never thought to tell her.”

And just as I’m about to plunge into despair, he follows that with this:

“Because Judith knew. She may have known for some time; even Ellen may have known. Or perhaps Judith never told her mother either.”

He can write short sentences – but he won’t write in a perfectly linear way, that’s evident. Every phrase seems to be a qualification of the preceding one.

Now, being a child of the age, I prefer to read fast and to get on to the next book, but it’s pretty obvious that if I’m going to read Absalom, Absalom I’m going to have to slow down and think about what I’m reading. I’ll probably even, horror of horrors, have to read it more than once.

Who’s got time for that? There are 54 great books in the great books set and this isn’t even one of them! Plus I have to read Hicks, Plato’s Phaedrus, and The Tempest for the apprenticeship, study Latin, study poetics for LTW development, and read things for next year’s conference – etc. etc.

Who’s got time for a leisurely read?

It reminds me of Emo Phillips doing the triathlon. He swims for about five minutes and then thinks, “This is stupid, the bike is getting rusty.”

So who knows, maybe I’ll read Faulkner or maybe I won’t. I know that until I do I can’t be considered educated, but that’s the way the cookie bounces. I blew my chance to get educated when I went to school as a child. Now I just do what I can.

But it does seem to me that the effort would be worth it. For one thing, I would have to read in a manner I’m not accustomed to reading and that’s always a good thing to do. Reading is an almost miraculous activity in that it opens the mind, not only to new ideas, but to new forms of thinking, to new patterns of perception.

I like the standard clear strong manly English sentence with a subject, predicate, direct object. I like the periodic sentence too, where the verb (imitating Latin and German), till the end of the sentence, is withheld. It seems to hold the attention while the reader, anxious to see whether the sentence will heal or wound itself with its ending, poised on a balance beam, waits; and the writer, heels over head, dismounting the same beam, nothing promises.

But Faulkner: what is he doing?

Here’s how it appears to me. He is not writing, or so it seems to me from the two pages I’ve read, about actions or about the world outside. He seems instead to be writing about perceptions, relationships, and recollections all flowing together – not a flow of thought subjectivism, but a dynamic interaction between the world around and the organ of perception.

His form, therefore, while it is not easy, would seem to be essential, as much a part of the story as the words themselves. It will be demanding, as much poetry as prose. But if I ever have the time and if I ever feel like it, I might well read this book. For now, I’m happy with my Spider-Man comic.

“Teaching Attentiveness” – chatting today @ 3pm ET.

Teaching Attentiveness

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (Part V)

Part 1

In my previous post, I argued, with David Hicks, that wisdom can be cultivated through writing when you move from the whole to the part, rather than from the part to the whole, or when you approach the task synthetically first rather than analytically.

I’m guessing that requires a bit of clarification.

The phrase Mr. Hicks uses to describe this process is contextual learning, by which he seems to mean something very broad, for he says later in the same paragraph that contextual learning “draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns.”

What then is contextual or synthetic learning?

It might help to think for a moment about the contrast between analytic and synthetic learning as it commonly plays out. You can easily see analytic learning at play, because it gives rise to the text book and the text book is supported by it.

Here’s what analytic learning looks like a little caricatured (but not as much as one might have hoped would be necessary):

You assign a story. When the students are done reading it, you give them a list of vocabulary words from the story and either tell them what they mean (if you don’t like learning at all) or ask them what they mean (if a trace of the love of learning has survived your education).

Then you ask them to list the characters and to describe each one: what they are wearing, their physical characteristics, maybe even some subjective elements like their motives or desires.

Not having recognized that the story is now dead (and the students interest in it), you proceed to discuss themes and motifs.

I hope you see the point, because just imagining/remembering this approach truly hurts me.

On the other hand, you can approach a story synthetically – as a whole from the whole.

Suppose I am going to read the fable of the tortoise and the hare. First, I would engage in a discussion about things they’ll encounter in the story that they have already experienced.

For example, depending on their CONTEXT (age, experiences, location, etc.) I’d ask them if they have ever seen or had a rabbit or a turtle. If so, I’d ask them to tell the rest of the group about the turtle and/or the rabbit. Do they like to pet their turtle? Do they ever race it?

I’d ask them if they’ve ever raced – especially a long race. Have they ever had to do a job that took what to them would be a long time (2 minutes for a kindergartner, 2 hours for a third grader, 2 days for a middle schooler, and 2 weeks for a high schooler).

What does it feel like to look at a big job at the beginning? etc. etc.

In other words, before engaging in the story itself, I would enter into the context of the story.

Next I would read it whole (if it is a huge story, like the Iliad, I’d read chunks of it whole). While we go through it, I’d watch for clues that some of them might not know words or anything else that causes them to stumble.

After reading the text, I’d do a little mini-analysis to heal the story. In other words, I’d make sure they didn’t fall into a ditch of incomprehension while we were reading and I’d pull them out. (If, while we were reading, the text became so difficult that some of the students couldn’t follow it, I’d stop and save them right then and there).

Here we could discuss (not define from a dictionary) what some of the words mean – always asking the students if they know or can determine before telling them.

After reading the story, I’d ask the core question that drove it. I WOULD NOT EVER TELL THEM THE MORAL OF THE STORY.

In the case of the tortoise and the hare, the moral is pretty obvious so it’s not as useful a fable as, say, The Ass’s Shadow. But there’s still a worthy discussion.

The driving question is, “Should the hare have rested?” This central question is always about a concrete action, not an abstract idea.

The fact is, the rabbit did rest. And so do we. So we need to figure out why it did so so that we can understand why we do.

So I urge my students to take a position and defend it or at least to argue both sides of the case. “Give me a few reasons why the hare should have rested,” I’ll say, and have someone write them down under an A.

  • He was tired
  • He was way in the lead
  • He didn’t need to hurry
  • His feet hurt
  • He felt confident
  • etc.

Meanwhile, I’m also asking why the hare shouldn’t have rested and having someone record the reasons under N.

  • He was arrogant
  • He was lazy
  • He lost
  • A hunter could have shot him
  • etc. etc.

Now notice something. I have begun to analyze the story. But I’m coming into the particulars from the whole (the context) rather than imagining that I can have much success working from the particulars analyzed out of their context to the whole (the context).

Now I’m going to read even more closely, but never leave the context. I’ll ask questions drawn from material logic and applied to rhetoric under the topics of invention.

  • What is a hare?
  • What is a tortoise?
  • What do you mean by rest?
  • How is the tortoise like the hare?
  • How are they different? in kind? In degree?
  • What is the relationship between the tortoise and the hare?
  • What caused them to race?
  • What caused the hare to rest?
  • What caused the tortoise to keep going?
  • What was the effect of the hare resting?
  • What was going on while the hare was resting?
  • Were there any experts or judges who had an opinion on this event?
  • Witnesses?
  • What other stories or characters does this remind you of?

The value of these questions varies from story to story, but the student who internalizes them is a good reader. He can do the analysis without even knowing he’s analyzing.

He does a character study, he learns the vocabulary, he examines the plot, he discovers themes and motifs – but all in a living context of reading the story as a story – not as a carcass to be dissected.

This matters enormously, because the task of the teacher is to arouse and direct the intellectual energy of his students. Teaching from the whole to the part makes this much easier.

Let me summarize.

Contextual learning, or teaching from the whole to the part, occurs when a person learns, as a person with a context, reading a book (or otherwise encountering ideas) that is a human artifact with a context of its own, in a context that brings the learner and the artifact together.

All three of those contexts are moral because they are human.

The opposite of contextual learning is reading, as a computer, a decontextualized text that contains information to be culled or, occasionally, understood at a very low level.

This approach gives rise to multiple choice tests which to prepare for undercuts the development of the students’ reading skills by compelling him to read in an unnatural, decontextualized manner with an extraordinarily narrow focus of attention.

It also gives rise to the sort of writing that a person brought up on that kind of teaching would be inclined to write, namely stories that can fit into an analytical test-taking context by avoiding moral issues and therefore compelling human interest.

Reading from the whole begins with the core question (Should….) and uses the analytical tools purposefully in order to answer the core question.

Good writing arises from good reading. You write to become wise when you read to become wise.

In my next writing post, I’ll explore how to put writing and reading in a symbiotic relationship.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (part IV)

Here is: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

I have vigorously defended contextual learning in my book because I believe that it is the key to how we learn as well as to the delight we find in learning. Children learn to speak by hearing words used in context, not by memorizing their definitions or studying their etymologies.

David Hicks: Norms and Nobility, page vi

Contextual learning is called by some synthetic learning. It is the learning that comes out of the whole to engage the part. It is the context that makes learning interesting, delightful, and profitable.

However, in the excessively analytical modes of thinking that dominate our schools, we are continually required to learn things out of their contexts, and therefore in ways that are less interesting, less delightful, and less profitable.

The archetype of the decontextualized lesson is the dissected frog. Wordsworth even treated this activity as a metaphor if not a synechdoce for modern education: we murder to dissect. We do it to Robert Herrick’s poetry as much as we do to the frog.

You don’t learn what a frog is by dissecting it. You have to experience it in context – at the pond, with its mates, etc.

All human action takes place in a moral context. Every human action arises from a human decision, and every human decision has a moral context.

Every historical or literary event, therefore, is fundamentally moral. Every story turns on an action by the protagonist and every action follows on a decision. In most stories it is the moral dilemma that drives the plot. Every story ends up celebrating some virtue, even James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, or DH Lawrence.

For this reason, literature and history have always been seen as morally formative “subjects.” Fundamentally, as Mr. Hicks points out elsewhere, history and literature are driven by the same basic questions.

Although in my curriculum proposal I use history as the paradigm for contextual learning, the ethical question “What should one do?” might provide an even richer context for acquiring general knowledge. This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom, and it draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns. It challenges the imagination and makes life the laboratory it ought to be for testing the hypotheses and lessons of the classroom.

ibid

The question that drives the human spirit, that arouses thought in child or adult, and that makes an education worth getting is this very simple question, “What should one do?”

Writing, therefore, can be used to cultivate wisdom when we teach students to engage in this inquiry. It must not be taught in isolation, as a specialized, abstracted skill. It should be taught as a way to refine thinking about things that matter, like whether Huckleberry Finn should have helped Jim escape, whether the colonies should have revolted against George III, whether Brutus should have assassinated Caesar, whether the grasshopper should have spent his summer playing music, whether Edmund should have followed the White Witch, etc.

It should be contextualized. Notice what Mr. Hicks said above: “This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom.”

I’ll have more to say on how to do this in later posts, but this is an important starting point. Not only can writing be used to cultivate wisdom, it must be so used. When you use writing as a tool by which your students ask the question, “What should be done?” or more precisely, “Should something be done?” you have begun to do so.

You’ve also just made reading, writing, history, and literature exponentially more interesting, delightful, and profitable.

I don’t know if there is any other question that can properly integrate or synthesize the curriculum (Most attempts at integration fail because of their analytical bias. They try to integrate at too low a level, setting aside ethical and philosophical matters).