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.

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Is this a once in a lifetime opportunity?

I’m not altogether certain but it might be. How often do you get to spend a weekend with a translator of Dante, a founder of a Christian classical college, and a group of people driven to figure out what Christian classical education is and how to implement it?

I just attended the SCL conference in Charleston, SC and it was another extraordinary experience. Robert Littlejohn, in his plenary session, compared the Society for Classical Learning with the Association of Classical and Christian Schools. He pointed out that SCL is a society of educators while ACCS is an association of schools.

That got me thinking: What is CiRCE in relation to these two other organizations. I concluded that CiRCE is what we’ve always said and what CiRCE stands for: Center for Independent Research on Classical Education. We are, fundamentally, a research institute.

We’ve also been called Consulting and Integrated Resources for Classical Education. That’s because our research leads to insights and resources and we would be irrelevent if we didn’t make them available to others.

Our research, as indicated above, is driven by the question What is Classical Education? Since it’s a human activity, we also need to ask how it is or at least has been done.

So, for example, from our research we have contributed to the book Classical Education, The Movement Sweeping America. We also have a book in the pipelines on classical education in the ancient world. One thing that is driving my thinking right now is the relationship between classical and progressive education. Judging by the response to a talk I gave at SCL, this is a matter of some concern to classical educators, who are asking: Am I inadvertently teaching progressively?

Furthermore, our research into teaching approaches has enabled us to identify the three modes of instruction that have been used in the classical tradition as well as to question the validity of teaching “techniques.” Combined with our investigations into classical rhetoric, this research has led to the development of what we believe to be the most purely classical and certainly the most thorough writing program on planet earth. Classical modes of teaching combined with classical approaches to rhetoric produce astonishing tools!

Our research is not limited to book reading, however. When we produce materials they are field tested. For a long time. The Lost Tools of Writing has taken 15 years to develop – and we are not done.

So when you wonder “What is the CiRCE Institute?” come on back to this post and remind yourself. And if you want to participate in this work, please communicate with us. We never stop researching so we value your insights.

To help us keep going, look into our services and resources: apprenticeship, consulting, teacher training, workshops, conferences, conference CD’s and other recordings, books, and of course The Lost Tools of Writing.

And please, consider coming to the conference this summer. Expenses are up and the economy is down, but I guarantee you, this conference will nourish your soul and equip you to teach. And it will put you in the company of dozens of other educators who are as eager as you are to understand, ask questions, and learn new things.

Learn more at www.circeinstitute.org.