Why we think and how we can do it better

Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thoma...

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We think to determine three things: whether something is true, whether something should be done, and whether something commands our appreciation. In other words, we think to know truth, goodness, and beauty.

In each case, a judgment is made. A judgment is embodied in a decision and expressed in a proposition.

When we know the truth, we don’t need to think about it so much as to enjoy it. When we know what is good, we need to act, which will arouse a thousand more questions, few of which will reach the conscious mind. When we know what is beautiful, we need to adore.

Thinking begins when we feel a contradiction. This is because thinking, as we generally experience it, is the quest for harmony, that is, a mind without contradictions. Thus Socrates: “Great is the power of contradiction.” It makes us think.

How then does The Lost Tools of Writing teach thinking? Mainly by pushing the responsibility for making decisions back to the students. Every essay involves making a decision – whether so and so should have done such and such, whether X should do Y, etc.

But if you want to undercut thinking in a hurry, give someone a responsibility without the tools to fulfill it. In my view, this is the cause of over 95% of students’ laziness. Therefore, LTW does not drop the task on the student, telling him to bear a burden that his teachers won’t bother carrying, and then walk away. It provides the tools to make decisions.

First, it provides the topics of invention. These are the categories of thought, without which one cannot possibly think about any issue adequately. It provides practice using these categories (topics) in real world issues, but not issues that concern them directly. They have not yet learned how to think based on principles, so I don’t want them getting emotionally involved in issues they cannot understand yet.

Because thinking takes practice.

It also takes order, and that’s what the canon of arrangement teaches. I’m not sure people generally appreciate how important order is to sound thinking. After all, the object of thought is a harmonious solution to a question, and the only way we can know if our solutions are harmonious (i.e. lacking contradictions) is if we see the parts in relation to each other.

Thought also requires judgment or assessment. The thinker needs to know if the form of his thought is sound, if the proportions and emphases match the reality about which he is thinking, if the more important parts are given their due emphasis.

This tends not to come under the Progressive reduction of thought to “critical thinking” but it is an essential element of clear and honest thinking.

In the canon of Elocution, LTW teachers yet another mode of thinking: the quest for the fitting expression, which requires a subtlety of judgment that cannot be gainsaid.

Here’s the thing: we can only appreciate what we can perceive. What we perceive depends on two things: the thing we are perceiving and the eyes with which we perceive it.

Now by “the eyes with which we perceive it” I do not mean only the eyes of the body, but also what Shakespeare called “the mind’s eye.” The mind’s eye perceives what it perceives as it perceives it because of the concepts it possesses while it perceives it.

When I listen to music, I cannot hear what my good friend John Hodges can hear. He is a composer with a tremendous and informed gift for music. But notice that he has an informed gift. He knows music. As a result, his experience of music is very different than mine.

In fact, he once converted me about a piece of music. When first I saw Les Miserables, I thought of it mostly in political terms and judged it to be sentimental claptrap. But when John explained the musical qualities, how characters had their own tunes, how the story put melodies out in one place, then withdrew them, the reinserted them in other places to tell the story through the music, I came to understand why it is regarded by those who can perceive these things as a masterpiece.

I was informed. My mind’s eye could see better. My appreciation grew.

Even so, modern readers (and that means most of us) struggle to read great poetry, while we can watch movies with incredible complexity. Why? Because since we were very little we have gone to the theatres and learned how to watch movies. We understand the art form without even having to think about it very much.

Poetry is not what it used to be, at least not in the classroom. The conventions are regarded as evil, the forms as tyrannical. Consequently, nobody reads Longfellow anymore.

But LTW is a classical curriculum. If that means anything it means that we respect the conventions. 2500 years of artistry gave us quite a remarkable treasure trove of riches. In elocution,  we teach students schemes and tropes so they are capable of appreciating Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, and Spenser, and by appreciating their artistry, they can enter into the astounding insights that lie between their paradoxes and dilemmas.

Through LTW students begin or continue to grow toward a perceptive, insightful, and refined mind. Standardized testing and critical thinking become fleas they snap off their shoulders because they are on to important things, like making decisions and acting on them, adoring the beautiful, and knowing truth.

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.

The Tempest: A Tale of Man, Nature, and Freedom

I have the feeling Shakespeare has been shadowing me lately and writing his plays based on things I’m thinking about. You laugh, but think about this.

I’ve been reading the Tempest to prepare for discussions with the apprentices. So this morning, I read Act 5, and I come across lines like this:

Ariel: If you now beheld them/ Your affections would become tender.

Prospero: Dost thou think so, spirit?

Ariel: Mine would, were I human.

Ah yes, he’s been thinking about next year’s conference theme: What is man?

But that’s not all. He goes on:

Prospero:
And mine shall.
Hast thou, which are but air, a touch, a feeling
of their afflictions, and shall not myself,
One of their kind, that relish all as sharply
Passion as they, be kindlier moved than thou art?
Though with their high wrongs I am struck to th’ quick,
Yet with my nobler reason ‘gainst my fury
Do I take part. The rarer action is
In virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent
The sole drift of my purpose doth extend
Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel.
My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore,
And they shall be themselves.

I think that we fail to realize how much Shakespeare’s philosophy and ethic enabled his poetry. Shakespeare was a wise man, a man of such profound insight that his literature tempts people like Harold Bloom to turn it into a secular literature.

He knew human nature. Notice the language he used, some of which would now be considered archaic because it does not reduce man to something kindless (unkind).

“Shall not myself, one of their kind… be kindlier moved than thou art?”

In other words, should I not, sharing the same nature/kind with these men, act as one who shares a nature/kind with them. Should I not act humanely, humanly?

Do you see how very high a conception of humanity Ariel has? “Mine would, were I human.” Where does it come from? Until this day, he’s only known two humans, Prospero and his daughter Miranda.

It reminds me of Miranda’s words when she sees the nobly dressed dukes and kings later in Act 5: “How beauteous mankind is. Oh brave new world that has such people in’t.”

She’s young and naive and has enjoyed the loving affection of a good father. By brave, she means wonderful, imaginative, splendid – bedecked in wonder might be a fitting expression.

She had not endured what her father had. He replies to her awe: “‘Tis new to thee.” He is less impressed.

And no wonder, he had been betrayed by a brother, “that entertained ambition, expelled remorse and nature.” Nevertheless, to this brother he says, “I do forgive thee, unnatural though thou art.”

Ariel and Miranda are full of admiration for humans. Prospero less so. And yet, Prospero respects them more. He has one goal in mind, expressed a few different ways.

Line 36: Penitence.
Line 40: They shall be themselves
Line 197: To “requite them with a good thing” which restores a just order
And then, the very last word of the play, at the end of the last two lines:

As you from crimes would pardoned be
Let your indulgence set me free

In other words, the purpose of Prospero’s project (line 1) is that these human beings would realign themselves to nature and thus be set free.

Ironically, perhaps, it takes something more than nature to achieve that end.

Read the Tempest with these three themes in mind (but just read it for the pleasure of it) and you will be drawn deeper and deeper into truths that will open your eyes and, while they will “take the ear strangely” you will “be wise hereafter, and seek for grace.”

On Hunger

In Matthew 6 our Lord expresses his much recited and much neglected promise. Laying out, as it were, the foundational principles of the life to which He calls those who would follow Him, He says:

No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.

Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing?

…Now if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will He not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?

Therefore do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or What shall we wear?” For after all these things the Gentiles seek. For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.

But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.

Some people, for whatever reason, treat this passage more like a command than a promise. When they do so, the tone changes, the meaning of the passage, though not the content. A barrier is created between the disciple and Christ, because the disciple’s attention is directed to himself instead of to the words of his Lord. Something inside us always wants to take on the burden, but the whole point of this passage is to put it down.

It is instructive that Matthew 6 is part of the sermon on the mount and that the sermon on the mount follows Matthew 4, in which we read of Christ’s temptation.

“Command these stones to become bread.”

“All these things I will give you…”

Christ knows what it is to be tempted. In fact, the temptations He endured make a joke of the ones we confront. He knows how to deal with temptation.

In each case, He appeals to the word of God. But notice something else. In each case, we can see that He is looking in a different direction. He isn’t seeking bread. He isn’t seeking “all the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” He isn’t even seeking to prove Himself or His God.

He is seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness, so He is not worried about these other things. He knows that His Father knows His needs, so He is content to say that “Man shall live… by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

Jesus was tempted at the beginning of His task because He is the second Adam. Look back to Genesis 3 for a moment and compare what happens there in the light of Matthew 4 and Matthew 6.

God the maker has created an all-good creation and placed the man in a garden, which he is to tend. The only restriction He gives him is that he must practice the tiniest of fasts: don’t eat from this one tree.

Mind you, this was one spectacular tree. When Eve looked at it, she saw that it was good for food, but it was also pleasant to the eyes and could make one wise.

But they were to fast from this one fruit. They were to believe that man lives by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. They were to seek first God’s righteousness and to trust that the other things would be given.

Perhaps that is why our Lord fasted for 40 days and 40 nights before He was tempted.

They listened to the tempter.

Now here is something that seems worth noting: our Lord told us in Matthew 6 not to worry about what to wear. It seems to me that most of us, when we read that, take these words rather literally, which we should. In other words, we take Him to be talking about being anxious about having clothes to protect us from the cold.

But take a look at Genesis 3. Do you notice the role of clothes in that context? Why do Adam and Eve cover themselves?

Because they feel shame.

No wonder. This goodly frame the earth had come to seem a sterile promontory, this brave o-erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, had come to appear no other thing than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.

And worse, The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals, noble in reason and infinite in faculty, has become the quintessence of dust.

Adam could say, Man, that is, I, delight not me. No, nor woman neither.

We who are born with shame and practice hiding it in some dark corner of our soul from the day our mothers greet us with their tears, we cannot imagine what it must have felt like to feel shame for the first time.

Oh what a noble mind is here o-erthrown.

The primary purpose of clothing has never been to keep us warm, but to keep us invisible, undiscovered – covered.

Clothes are the means by which we hide our shame.

It seems to me, therefore, that our Lord’s words in Matthew 6 go deeper than we might have thought. The greatest fear we have in following Christ is that we’ll end up ashamed. People won’t respect us. But worse, it might not pay off. We might fail. He might fail.

We would never say it that way; we only make decisions as though it might happen.

This fear of shame drives the conventional school and compels us to grunt and sweat under a weary life, to bear the whips and scorns of time, and all for what?

For words. For nothing.

For air that spills from others’ mouths and evaporates into the air, forgotten.

If we want to see the coming of the kingdom of heaven, then we must abandon the kingdoms of this world and all they offer. We must turn from bread and clothes as the way to validate ourselves, and we must seek Him.

Or maybe it would be more fitting to say, we can seek Him. He calls us to it. He promises to attend to the things we worry about most: hunger and shame.

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.

Being Mechanical

Hence! home, you idle creatures, get you home:

Is this a holiday? What! know you not,

Being mechanical, you ought not walk

Upon a labouring day without the sign

Of your profession? Speak, what trade art thou?  –Julius Caesar

 Sometimes I tell my middle school students they must learn how to tell time.  I draw this advice from Qohelet’s poem on time in Ecclesiastes 3 because it weds the appropriateness of an event to a particular time.  You do not laugh when it is the time to mourn. 

 I tell my students this because I want them to pause and recognize who they are and where they are, and then determine what they ought to do – the three basic ingredients of any event. 

Telling the time” rightly marks a discerning step that can draw the appropriate act from a situation.  Who I am and where I am inform what I should do.

 For instance, if I am a student in a classroom, then my actions must properly mirror my situation.  Jumping over chairs and groaning “Ooh” suits an animal in the jungle, but not a child in Latin class.  Believe it or not, I have indeed witnessed this scenario teaching middle school students, and remain perplexed as to why they would endorse and entertain such behavior. 

 These three ingredients (character, setting, and action) must fuse if we are going to judge the rightness of any event.  I must know my nature (being mechanical) and my setting (labouring day). Then I can discern the act that suits the situation (to be idle or work?). 

To disturb any one of these three elements is to create a disharmony that will eventually lead to chaos and disorder.

 The Tribunes in Julius Caesar have a right to fear, because Caesar’s actions have led men to fall out harmony, and such imbalance may cause everything to dissemble.

 Yet, the beauty of Shakespeare comes from the cobbler’s reply that he is “a mender of bad soles.”  Or did he mean “souls”? 

Has Rome grown to such a sickened state?  Is Caesar seeking only to restore health, to free the captives? For men ought not be mechanical, but idle and free to govern themselves, right?

What Sayest Thou?

There are few pleasures in life greater than watching someone you mentor grow. Buck Holler joined the CiRCE apprenticeship far beyond any need for me to mentor him, and yet he has embraced my instruction with an eagerness that shows why he hardly needed it. It is my great pleasure to introduce Buck to you as our newest Quiddity author, from whom you will be hearing much in the coming aeon. This is Buck’s third post, and those of you who visit often can already see why I’m so happy to have him on board.

Something Buck doesn’t mention in what follows is that the kids he’s teaching are not yet in high school! With that, over to Buck:

The question I ask my students with nearly every book we read is, “Who most rightly acts?”

We recently finished reading act one of Julius Caesar, and that question divided my class of 18 into three groups. (I will narrate their replies as accurately as possible.)

The majority of students sided with the Sooth Sayer because he simply gives Caesar the truth without force or going overboard.  He gets to the point and allows Caesar to do what he will.

The rest of the class divided those favoring Brutus and Cassius from 2 students who chose Mark Antony and one who supported Caesar.  What occurred was beautiful.  I will share two particular highlights that I enjoyed.

A Cassius supporter challenged the Caesar fan by asking, “Which is the greater injustice” — I love that lead — “killing someone, or destroying something that took hundreds of years to build?”  This student then drew the analogy of a man seeking to destroy the Vatican.

Another student who supported Brutus drew a parallel to the sacrifice of Jesus calling on the necessity at times of a sacrifice.  The young lady supporting Caesar replied, “I need to think.”  Ah, I love it.  I told her, “Thinking is good; it is all right to think.”  Approximately five minutes later she returned with this reply.  “The difference between Jesus and Caesar is that Jesus knew he was being sacrificed and Caesar did not.  If you truly love someone, you tell him the truth, help him, and even allow him to make the decision of what to do with his life.”

Then class was over.

So, who most rightly acts?  What sayest thou?

Sympathetic Identification or Critical Analysis?

All learning is imitation, if only we understand what imitation is. All teaching, then, is either exemplifying or presenting what the student will imitate.

This can apply to the classroom, but the truth is, we spend most of our active time teaching and learning anyway – or at least attempting to do so – so it would be foolish either to apply this only to the classroom or even to begin our reflections on learning with the classroom.

The classroom seeks to make learning super-efficient by removing every extraneous movement (usually by sending him to the office), but I remain skeptical about the effectiveness of this approach. As a teacher, I have alway found the classroom to be something with which you must do the best you can rather than the best there is, which is, I suppose, the reason why they have extended courses on classroom management at teachers colleges and at education conferences.

Imitation, however, comes in layers. I am beginning to suspect that you can see these layers played out, perhaps in reverse order, over time in European art.

The most obvious layer of imitation is when the artist (art is imitation) imitates the surface of the artifact he is imitating. For example, I can imitate a poem by Wordsworth quite easily by memorizing it. I can imitate a painting by DaVinci by coloring it in a coloring book.

Inasmuch as every following layer of imitation depends on this layer, I am unwilling to dismiss it as insignificant or unhelpful.

In the second layer of imitation, I would imitate the form of the artifact. While I simply retained the words in my head in layer one, now in layer two I would try to replace the words themselves with words of my own, but I would do so in the form (fable, lyric, etc.) of the original artist.

This is what Benjamin Franklin refered to when he used “hints of sentiment” and what Andrew Pudewa uses with IEW when he has students make key word outlines. The reason was activated by the imitation of level one, but not very vigorously. In level two, we call on it for more energetic activity.

Layer three imitation goes beyond the form to the qualities found within the form, such as voice, energy, harmony and other more abstract principles. Here the reason is seriously challenged even in analyzing, not to mention imitating, the artifact. This cannot be done by the would-be artist who is unwilling to practice the first two layers of imitation.

Finally, the artist becomes an artist in his own right when he imitates the artistic process itself: the process of creation. This varies from art to art and artifact to artifact, but there remains the universal process of creativity that applies to every art and artifact: attentively perceive, contemplate, conceptualize, re-present or articulate.

The master teacher is able to guide his students from the first through the fourth stage organically and dynamically and the gifted student is able to pass from one stage to the next with an alacrity rooted in attentive perception.

Most artists (including teachers) are unaware of this sequence and are drawn by thy mystic cords of necessity, the rational call of harmony, and the volitional impulse to beauty. But when programs are constructed to teach students en masse that disregard this organic sequence and strive instead to teach on mechanistic assumptions, a vast array of talent is squandered and human souls atrophy in the desert of negligence.

Thus scientific materialism undercuts the teaching of literature and composition by applying un-artistic, unfitting, counter-productive tools of assessment.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the greatest English philosophers of the 19th century, comes to my aid in his analysis of the poetic process. For simplicity, I quote from English Romantic Writers, ed. David Perkins, 1967 and I italicize for emphasis.

Coleridge often contrasted organic with ‘mechanical’ form. The ‘mechanical’ he said…, is predetermined and subsequently impressed on whatever material we choose, as when ‘to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened.’ The organic form, on the other hand, ‘shapes as it develops itself from within, and the fulness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form.’ Each exterior thus becomes a ‘true image’ of ‘the being within.’ The concept of organic form… gave rise to an approach to art that stressed sympathetic identification rather than analysis from a critical distance. And it stimulated  a criterion of evaluation that rests on the extent to which all the ‘parts’ of a work of art… interconnect and sustain one another.

I have never seen a clearer and more concise description of the heart of the classical education that arises from a close understanding of what a “logos” is, that Plato and Aristotle groped for, that Chaucer and Shakespeare expressed, and that nobody of whom I am aware ever developed in a more timely way than Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

As I continue to reflect on teaching in a manner that sustains and is compatible with liberty and as I continue to explore the impact of the German philosophers on German and American education, I will frequently return to the foregoing passage  as something of a locus classicus of sound artistic theory and therefore of how to practice the art of teaching.

I promise to try to write more clearly as I develop some of these thoughts. ; )

Plutarch on Mark Antony

…he left Italy and travelled into Greece, where he spent his time in military exercises and in the study of eloquence. He took most to what was called the Asiatic taste in speaking, which was then at its height, and was, in many ways, suitable to his ostentatious, vaunting temper, full of empty flourishes and unsteady efforts for glory.

Nice summary of both a character and the moral side of rhetoric.

This is from the Dryden Translation, The Modern Library Classics, volume 2, the chapter on Antony.

What is Literature Anyway?

When we teach literature, if we must, our students should not encounter a general, bewildering sampling of all the types of writing, their philosophical roots, their representative masters, and their characteristic obstacles.

Such an approach teaches literary relativism. (I suppose the act of having a literature class probably already assumes a literary relativism, or at least that literature has a relative place in the curriculum.)

Instead, students should learn the nature of literature from a given philosophy or theory of literature. Even if that theory is wrong it will be better than this mythical neutrality and expertise that the textbook pretends to.

Let me press this just a little further. Literature, in the classical tradition, never had a class of its own and it certainly was never taught as a historical phenomenon. Both the class and the historical approach seem to have developed during the 19th century in Germany, where the modern school was born and nurtured in the short-lived incestuous relationship of Enlightenment and Romanticism.

In the Christian classical tradition, children were taught grammar, which was a rich vein for the intellect.

Grammar comes from grammatikos: letters. It included what we mean by grammar, but that was considered a rather small, though foundational and important, portion of it. However, the word literature itself, which comes from the Latin litera: letters, is probably a better translation of what they meant by grammar.

So that would seem to be a direct contradiction of what I said earlier.

It seems that way because our minds are so fragmented, especially in the matter of languages.

Grammar was the close examination of literary texts.

There was the practical school of the Alexandrians, who developed what we think of as grammar precisely because people were unable to read Homer and they wanted to ensure that children could make the adaptations.

Then there was the more philosophical school of, for example, the Stoics, who believed that language was rooted in nature and therefore there was an ideal form that language should take.

They seemed to believe that Homer and possibly Plato had approached that form quite closely.

In both cases, when they approached grammar or literature (both mean “letters”), their purpose was to give the student a profound encounter with a great text.

They didn’t study very many texts. For example, one of my favorite educators, Vittorino de Feltre, took years to teach his students only a few books, such as Homer, Virgil, and a couple others. But they didn’t need to study very many texts for their purposes.

Their goal was to become “men of letters,” by which they did not mean that they had read lots and lots of “letters” by other people but that they were masters of their use. Such a goal requires a close analysis of a few texts, not a shallow introduction to a multitude of texts.

They placed a much higher value on intellectual skills (liberal ARTS) and the deep experiences that arise from close, sustained consideration of an idea than on a superficial acquaintance with a vast array of content.

They would have been puzzled by the compulsion to “get through the material.”

 But they were in a tradition, and I think this might be the critical point. They recognized that some texts were out of this world, came from another world, were works of heartbreaking genius and merited everybody’s attention and reverence.

As a result, they could feed on those texts for their whole lives without missing anything that mattered. Indeed, some of them could go on to produce their own works of immeasurable genius.

Since then, the tradition has been broken. Are there any schools that self-consciously regard themselves as carriers of that tradition, who deliberately set aside the relative trivia of the modern curriulum, and who teach their children deeply to contemplate those few masterpieces that sustain civilization and nourish our souls? Are there any schools filled with teachers who simply teach their students to contemplate beautiful and good things?

The worst of it is that once a tradition is lost, much of it can never be regained.

What am I dreaming about? A school that teaches its students only a few books and teaches them how to read them with all their hearts and souls and minds and strength. They read them, they translate them, they discuss them, they imitate them, they write about them, they live in their wisdom.

They do not demean literature by reading a bunch of novels because Shakespeare is too hard. And they recognize the full wealth of grammatikos, litera, letters, grammar.

This is what the president of Yale refered to in the 19th century when he said that the goal of eduation is to read Homer in the original.