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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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).

Why History Class Must Die!

By Brian Philips

Currently, the Peanuts comic by the late Charles Shulz strip stands out as a source of great wisdom and insight in our culture. I say this with partial sarcasm, only partial.

One particular strip showed Sally in Sunday School class, her teacher before her. He began, “Today we are going to discuss Church history. What do you know about Church history, Sally?”

She thought. Finally, she spoke up, “Well, I know our pastor is about 50…” Tragic insight. Tragic, accurate insight from Shulz.

American culture, Christians included, suffers from an odd sort of historical amnesia. Ours is a forgetful people. Of course, we do not realize we are forgetful because we have forgotten all we should have remembered. To make the memory lapse more bearable and seem less significant, we redefine history to make it unimportant. Cue the modern history class.

Students around the country open textbooks written by men and women determined to let us know all that has happened in the history of the universe…in 1000 pages or less. Along the way, they happily interpret events to clue us into their “real meaning” and leave out details and events deemed forgettable. At the end of the process, we are handed a text free of the nagging baggage of primary sources, eyewitness accounts, original documentation, and literature of the period. Oh, what a burden lifted. Now we have a history we can live with, a history that can be taught in a semester! But, now we have a history that is faceless, revisionist, and inhuman.

Events of the past happened to real people – men, women, and children who endured or enjoyed it all in real time and real places. The modern “textbook” approach to teaching history removes those real people from the process. When primary sources, documents, and stories are removed, we are left treating history as fantasy. History courses must be taught using the literature of the period. We must do them the honor of hearing them out, considering their words, and evaluating the events of the past through those who lived it.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (Part 1)

Andrew Pudewa honored me with an invitation to his IEW Symposium on writing a few weeks ago and what a blessing it was. Keep your eyes open for a July 2012 repeat of this wonderful conference.

One of the things he asked me to address was the question, “How can we cultivate wisdom through writing?” During this talk I got a little carried away on one or two points, so I didn’t say everything I hoped to and I also offended at least one person in the audience enough for her to get up and leave.

Nevertheless, I think IEW will be including this talk in a DVD or CD set in the not too distant future and I did make some discoveries along the way that I’d like to share with you.

Naturalistic materialism has come to dominate modern thought, which eliminates the soul from consideration. Thus when we try to define education, we find ourselves either confused or reduced.

In the old days, prior to the triumph of naturalism, education had to do with wisdom and virtue. Now it is necessarily utilitarian. Here’s why: Wisdom and virtue are qualities of the soul in which the will is guided by reason rather than appetite.

To the naturalist, there is no soul to be guided or formed, only a highly complex chemical structure called the brain. There is no will to be guided by a reason that also doesn’t exist.

In the old days, at least in its ideals, the goal of education was twofold: discipline the will to virtue and cultivate the reason to wisdom.

The way we understand the reason is determined by the paradigm with which we approach it. If I am a naturalist, I will think of the reason as the ability to calculate my advantage and make adaptations accordingly. Thus, I will build education on that presupposition.

If I actively believe in the Divine Image and apply that belief to my thoughts, I will think of the reason as that faculty that perceives the law of God written in our essence and that, from that preconscious perception, produces the impulses and activities that give rise to language, creativity, knowledge, membership in communities, and the other things that make us human.

In such a context, the education I provide will not be a matter of learning processes by which I can adapt to or overcome the environment. Instead it will cultivate the virtues that lead to every human excellence.

The reason and the will will be cultivated and the appetites controlled.

Conventional education does exactly the reverse.

How then can we cultivate wisdom? More on that in my next post.

A Piece of Work

To prepare for the 2011 conference, may I suggest you read Hamlet and watch at least two versions of it. I like Brannagh, but it has useless and gratuitous and utterly distracting pornographic shots thrown in. Don’t watch it without some means to avert your gaze from their shame, as any gentleman or lady does when he sees it.

I also like Zefferelli’s Hamlet (Mel Gibson) but it leaves out pretty crucial elements and is overly Freudian in its interpretation.

Hamlet is a series of magnificent set-pieces, soliloquies and discussions that penetrate the inner chambers and ventricles of the heart while undulating the spectator between heaven and earth, none more, perhaps than the scene shown in the two versions below. “What a piece of work is a man.”

Zefferreli:

Brannagh

Compare this with 3:1 (To be or not to be) and 4:4 (What is a man) both of which you can see on YouTube. You can see a bit of a progression of Hamlet’s attitude to man, and therefore to action, but he’ll still rise and fall a few more times before his final fall (or is it a rise?).

As a devotee of Hamlet as the greatest play ever written, I crave your thoughts, reflections, and insights on these scenes.

How to Conquer Age-Segregation and Successfully Teach Students of Any Age

Leigh Bortins has recently completed her book, The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education. I look forward to reading it over the next few weeks and responding with the occasional comment here.

Already in the Introduction she makes a radical and disorienting statement that makes the book worth reading. She says, “This curriculum works for a student of any age, but that is a hard idea to digest because we think in terms of grade levels.”

Exactly. One of the many ways Darwin rules Christian schools through Dewey is the application of the industrial concept of the assembly line to education. Prior to the 20th century there were occasional schools that broke students into age groups, but I haven’t seen any evidence of schools that separated students into grades that went through the day together.

It’s an amazingly harmful practice educationally in that it undercuts any number of non-linear learning opportunities and it breaks down the society of the school. But Leigh’s point is important for the content and manner of our teaching.

The classical curriculum works for the student of any age. You don’t have to be obsessed with “age-appropriate” material. You do need to be attentive to student appropriate delivery. And you need to be attentive to the students capacity to absorb the material, which is affected by, but not governed by, age, or at least maturity.

The Lost Tools of Writing, for example, is for students of any age as long as the teacher can adapt it to the readiness of the particular student. That’s because LTW, and classical education generally, is focused on contemplating ideas, not reproducing behavioral outcomes.

Because classical education focuses on ideas, it teaches the skills and content necessary to grasp the ideas. Schools that focus on skills or content to the neglect of ideas lose the skills and content because they have no meaning without the ideas.

Put the Idea back in the heart of learning and you will find that foolish practices like age-segregating students will either give way to wiser practices or will react against them.

The trouble is that we are so accustomed to this Darwinian, Naturalistic, Industrial, anti-human approach to education that we find it to inconvenient to restore the Christian, supernatural, agrarian, humane modes of education that gave us science and industry in the first place.

Love Never Abdicates

We 20th century Naughts share a common error when we think.  We tend, against our better judgment and against our natures, to look at the universe and all that is in it – material or immaterial – scientifically, as though life were one big laboratory.

However, the cosmos is not a great scientific experiment nor can we live wise, successful, or prudent lives on that basis. Life is an art, not an experiment, and the differences are far-reaching.

So are the similarities. For example, both involve uncertainty and what we might loosely call experiments. The artist does not approach her work with complete certainty about where the next brush stroke belongs, how the next line should scan, or when the orchestra should reach the crescendo. She experiments.

The difference between art and science is not whether the artist and the scientist experiment, but how they judge the success of the experiment, which implies further that each has a different purpose for their experiments.

The artist judges by fitness – by whether the stroke, line, or note harmonize with the elements and idea of the specific work of art. The artist is formal.

The scientist judges by fitness as well, but his fitness carries a much narrower, a more precise (perhaps) purpose. Does the information gathered fit the hypothesis? The scientist is, at least in an ideal way, factual.

It’s ironic when you think about how little practical information can be gained through the so-called scientific method. No doubt, if we think about the discoveries made by scientists over the last 800 years, we are astonished. And some of those discoveries are so immensely powerful that they seem to be quite practical.

Nor do I want to diminish the use that has been made of many of these discoveries. But the scientific discoveries are only practical, that is to say, they only benefit people, when they are applied in an ethical context. When scientists function within a power context (in other words, when scientistific research is driven by political ends and the drives of businesses whose highest function is to make money), the results are quite mixed.

They are only beneficial to the people who benefit from them. And people only benefit from them when they are brought into an artistic framework.

I have to leave this point somewhat unfinished and no doubt provocative (please don’t make me say anything I didn’t say when you attack me – I am in no way opposed to science; I love it and I yearn to see it restored to its rightful place) because it isn’t what I meant to write about.

What I meant to write about is how I and virtually everybody I know is trained from early childhood to think in the scientific mode while the artistic mode atrophies.

We are trained to assume that things should be assessed quantitatively instead of formally.

We tend to believe what is scientifically compelling, and dismiss those elements of being that stand outside the reachof the sciences as either unimportant or as merely personal.

To read the news web sites, one would think that we don’t know of any other ways to find truth than through the sciences. Newspapers constantly call on experts, who generally are readers of statistics, often from a particular brand called “social sciences.”

Let me list a few examples of this bias that come easily to one’s mind:

We build our subdivisions (not neighborhoods) on the technical ideas of the civil engineers, not the formal ideas of the artists. Even our architecture tends toward a technical, rather than a formal approach.

Our economy is regulated by people who seem unable to even imagine valid information that stands outside their technical analysis. They do not think about the nature of an economy (which literally means “household customs”), of the household in it, of the soul in the household, etc.

Political science, so-called, is utterly informal. People learn how to scientifically measure and thus to manipulate the masses. The person in that mass does not merit the politician’s personal attention. The symbol embodied in a person, yes, but not the person.

Our inner cities are the results of technical analysis applied to a reality that is fundamentally artistic.

So are our suburbs, our schools, our malls, and even our entertainment, though at least movies and music are unable to completely eliminate the artistic element that makes up their essence.

Even religious life is approached scientifically in America. Consider church growth and even the Emerging church. Progressive, cutting edge, and failing utterly to grasp the nature of the Bride of Christ.

We don’t trust the person who cannot back his case up with the sheen of scientific research, regardless of whether the issue relies on scientific research. We might not even know how an issue could possibly NOT rely on said research.

The sciences are powerful and admirable. They are marvelous servants; it is their nature to serve. But they do not and they cannot tell us what is right and wrong, how things ought to be, what the nature and essence of a thing is, whether and how we should use the power they give us, or the forms of beauty.

They cannot tell us (though they can provide information – they can advise us) how to raise children, how to nourish our souls, how to love our spouses, how to develop our virtues, how to arrange our flowers, which books to read, how to manage our time, how to build our communities, the foundations of sound government, how to play an instrument, whether a song is beautiful, what love is, what truth is, what knowledge is, what goodness is, what justice is, what freedom is, or, for that matter, what anything IS.

Happily humans are not finally scientific by nature. We include a scientific impulse in our nature, but we are artists, formalists, creators by nature. Even the great scientists approached science like an art, and that is because underlying and mastering the scientific method is a deeper commitment to the arts of truth and knowledge. When that commitment is lost, the sciences become tyrannical and tyrants use the sciences for their ends.

This post is an appeal to get back to nature. To stop surrendering our common sense to the latest research. To stop believing that the misapplication of the methods of the natural sciences can save us. Only love can save us. Only beauty can save us. Only truth can save us. Only the Good can save us.

And, while each of these rejoices in the work of the natural sciences, none would ever bow their knee to them. Love never abdicates.