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.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for this series — it’s been extraordinarily helpful.

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