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.

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. ; )

A Few Questions I’m Constantly Thinking About

Some Christians are hesitant about going back to the classical authors and theorists for fear of becoming ancient pagans. I understand that hesitation, but have had to ask myself some tough questions.

Especially this: Where do we get our education practices?

Where is the bell in the Bible? Where the classroom? emphasis on fun/entertainment? recess? certification? accreditation?

Where do these things come from? What about our teaching methods?

My argument is simply that the classical educators were much more Biblical than most Christian schools.

Here’s another question: is education by its nature feudal, capitalistic, socialistic or something else? Why?

And here’s one specifically for classical educators: are we exaggerating the power of “associative” theories of memory in the grammar stage and are we using behavioral approaches to teaching and epistemology (theories of knowledge)?

Important questions, I think.  What do you think?

Thoughts on knowing and the end of education

The english word epistemology seems like a technical word because it doesn’t come from the Anglo-Saxon or French and because it has taken on a rather precise meaning.

As a result, the word can intimidate the reader.

It doesn’t need to. It just means “what is knowable” or maybe “a set of beliefs or theories about knowledge.”

You can imagine that what you believe about knowledge would matter when you teach or build a curriculum.

What can we know? How do we come to know it? What does it mean to know? How is what we can know in one area related to what we can know in another area?

Your answers to these questions are your curriculum, so those answers matter.

So let’s take a moment and start to think about them.If we don’t, we’ll find ourselves teaching materials and in ways that we don’t understand and may not even agree with.

I would like to propose up front that we can find three broad theories of knowledge more or less commonly followed today and pursued through history.

For convenience, I will call them

  1. The Christian and classical view of knowledge
  2. The traditional view of knowledge
  3. The Pragmatic view of knowledge

The pragmatic view is the one people follow most closely in our day when they are consciously following a theory. It’s greatest champions have been men like Francis Bacon (knowledge is power), William James, John Dewey, and Machiavelli.

In the pragmatic view, knowledge is the ability to do something, especially to adapt to and exercise power over the environment. Dewey and James are the most explicit theorists, and Dewey’s pragmatic theories dominate contemporary education, even in Christian schools.

Pragmatists are skills focused and they want children to construct their own realities. They tend to undercut traditions other than their own, seeing them as constraining and even oppressive.

In the old fashioned sense of the word, knowledge is impossible because there is nothing to known in that old fashioned sense and there is nothing that can know it anyway.

In other words, the world and everything in it is constantly changing, so there is no permanent “idea” or essence of a thing that you can know. You can just “know” what it is like now and adapt accordingly. This ability to adapt is knowledge.

In the traditionalist view, knowledge is the retention and reproduction of symbols. That sounds a little silly at first, so let me explain what I mean. Every tradition contains practices, rituals, artifacts, and texts (written or spoken) that embody that tradition.

When a member of a tradition wants to pass on that tradition (tradition literally means “to hand on,” from the Latin traduo), he teaches his students the practices, rituals, artifacts, and texts (which is what I mean by symbols) of that tradition.

Sports are relentlessly traditional because you become great, not by developing radically new techniques, but by imitating and then transcending those who were great before you. The very few exceptions (e.g. the Fosbury flop) only prove the rule.

The best reason for handing on a tradition is that a tradition embodies the wisdom of its members, especially those who came before.

When handled properly, the traditional symbols lead the recipient to the wisdom contained in or, better yet, pointed to by, the symbols.

When a school requires students to memorize poetry, repeat gestures, sing songs, learn the forms of grammar and literature, read old books, and otherwise remember and recite facts and information, it is acting traditionally.

A community embodies its soul in its traditions, so no community that is opposed to tradition can survive.

The great traditional educator of the contemporary world is ED Hirsch, with his Core Knowledge sequence.

You have succeeded as a student in a traditional school when you have demonstrated mastery of the content and symbols of the tradition.

The trouble with tradition arises from two possible sources. It may be that the ideas embodied in the symbols are false. In that case, the tradition may hold a community together, but it may do so by leading the whole community into error.

Or it may be that the members of the community look to the symbols and their preservation rather than the ideas and realities embodied in the symbols of the tradition.

Only a master of the symbols can transcend them. The clearest example of this fact seems to be our Lord and his response to the Pharisees. He recognized that they were, in varying degrees, living off the traditions instead of living by them.

As a result, they began to contort the traditions handed to them to their own advantage and became wolves among sheep.

In our Phariseeism, we can forget how very easily we become pharisees.

But long before the Pharisees began to contort the traditions, they had come to see the traditions either as ends in themselves, or, worse, as means to other ends than what they pointed to.

The Sabbath, for example, was a tradition handed to the Jewish people through their covenant with God. It was meant to be a Holy Day of rest. As such, it pointed the covenant people to something beyond a one day/week religious experience.

Symbols, in other words, don’t refer to themselves. This is easiest to see when we look at words. The word “lamp” is a sound symbol. It does not refer to itself, but to an invention with which we are all familiar that can enlighten a room.

There is a reality beyond the symbols.

In the Christian classical view of knowledge, the goal of learning is to perceive that reality.

We hand on and love and honor our traditions, not so people will know them, but so they will know what they refer to.

Of course, you usually can’t know what they refer to without knowing them because the reason you need symbols is precisely because it takes great wisdom to come to know the realities in the first place.

Here’s one way it could happen. A wise person comes to understand something about life. He wants his children to understand it to. They can’t, because they are young. So he makes up a fable. That fable becomes part of the tradition.

If the child actually contemplates the fable, he can move more rapidly to the insight of his wise father than his father was able to himself.

To the Christian and/or classical educator, it has always been necessary, but it has never been enough, to know the greatest symbols (in the sense I used the word above) of the tradition.

The goal is always to see what the symbols point to.

Knowledge, therefore, to the Christian classical educator is perception of reality.

The pragmatic educator is not content to “know” in this sense, because he does not believe such knowledge exists. He focuses on skills of adaptation.

The traditional educator at his best strives for this kind of knowledge, but he encounters so many temptations (especially honor from men who don’t see the reality beyond the tradition) that he rarely transcends the tradition.

And if he does, he’ll say something a little off kilter and offend the traditionalists around him, who will scapegoat or crucify him one way or another.

The Christian classical educator loves practical applications of his knowledge. But not as much as he loves the knowledge itself. Truth is the delight of his soul, the queen of his mind.

He does not demand of her that she step down and serve him.

The Christian classical educator loves the traditions on which he was raised. But not as much as he loves the truth and beauty embodied by that tradition.

The Christian classical educator takes the knowledge of the traditional educator and the skills of the Pragmatic educator and, guided by the good, weaves them into a beautiful tapestry of truth that nourishes the soul until the disciple has attained wisdom and virtue himself.

But only because he has come to see that knowledge is not mere power, nor is it mere recall of symbols and facts, but it is the perception and apprehension of reality itself.

Memory and Transfiguration

Our memory is not logical or journalistic or rational. Lewis compared it, in his book on 16th century English literature, to the difference between going on a train and growing as a crop.

Ride a train and you reach a station, which you then leave behind for the next, and then again you leave the next behind for the succeeding station until you arrive at your end.

On the other hand, when a plant grows, it carries with it everything it has experienced, converting it into itself.

Human memory is more like the crop.

We don’t just recall facts from previous events. In fact, most of our memory is not even conscious and some of it is never brought to the level of consciousness.

But everything that ever happens to us, everything we ever do, everything we experience quite literally becomes part of the substance of our selves. We can view it all as the means by which God creates us.

It seems to me that we must not neglect this fact when we think about “soul formation” – our own or those we are responsible to nurture. In other words, all parents, teachers, heads of school, bosses, and civic leaders need to consider this carefully.

It actually makes our job easier.

When Peter, James, and John saw Christ transfigured, Peter was so taken with the experience (after all, here was the Christ revealed, the apocalypse (unveiling) of the kingdom of God) that he wanted to keep it. “Let us build some tabernacles,” he said.

I so love Peter’s impulses, maybe this one more than any other. Here he sees Moses in his glory, Elijah glorified, and Christ Himself transfigured from our disfigured state of human nature to that glorified state He attained through the resurrection (Romans 1). They’re all taken into a cloud of radiant glory, the energy of the eternal God surrounding them with His uncreated light.

Of course he wants to stay. Have you ever seen anybody whose face shone like the sun and whose clothes were as white as light? “Lord, it is good for us to be here,” he says in one of the more obvious statements recorded in human history. “If you wish, let us make here three tabernacles.”

He knows perfectly well that everything else in his life has just faded into the quintessence of vanity. He knows that there is nothing else worth looking at or thinking about or doing. He wants to stay.

But he’s not quite responding the way he ought, so he is silenced.

“While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Hear Him!”

Imagine how much Jesus much have enjoyed hearing those words. The disciples, on the other hand, were terrified and fell on their faces.

“But Jesus came and touched them and said, “Arise and do not be afraid.”

The moment was over. “When they  had lifted up their eyes, they saw no one but Jesus only.”

You can imagine how excited they were. I can see Peter turning to James and John saying, “Wait till we tell the others about this! Thomas won’t believe it.”

But Jesus even blocks this desire. “Tell the vision to no one,” he says, “until the Son of Man is risen from the dead.”

“The what!” I picture Peter saying. If he doesn’t yet quite get it, he’s probably thinking, “That could be thousands of years. I can’t wait that long!!”

In fact, he does get it, because his question is much more profound. “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”, which is their way of saying, “Oh, so you are the Messiah. But what about this point?”

And then they get down from the mountain and ran into a man whose son had epilepsy but the disciples couldn’t cure him. They lacked faith, Jesus tells them, and this kind of demon requires prayer and fasting.

I cannot imagine that Peter, James, and John did not experience this miracle differently from the other nine. They had been in a glorious train station with all the radiance of ineffable light. Now they were in a little train station where the lights were off and no one was on duty.

Only, they brought the first train station with them. They had been changed. Not, by any means, completely. But by witnessing the transifiguration of Christ they too had been transfigured.

Not many of us have been in the presence of the transfigured Christ, but most of us have experienced some sort of ineffable moment in which some trace of Christ’s glory shone on us. Probably we tried to repeat the experience, the way we do with a soul-breaking song or a heart-lifting conversation.

It can’t be done. We can’t build a tabernacle for the experience.

But we can carry the experience with us. Yes, we can remember it with our conscious mind, and that’s a good idea. But it’s also necessary that we absorb the experience into our souls and that means attentiveness. It means being wholly there when He visits us.

For example, during communion, if our mind is elsewhere the experience will barely touch us. If our body is uninvolved, the experience will glance off us. If our spirit is consumed by anxiety, He will find no doorway into our souls.

We must be present, to be there for Him, to receive Him.

Every time we are there for Him, He takes possession of a tiny corner of our selves. And with each portion He inhabits (I am speaking to the weakness of our flesh), He enlarges our souls to make more room for Him. And oh how radiant is that tiny corner He inhabits, how He resurrects it, how He His love overflows from our hearts through our hands and into the souls of those we love.

We find that we agree with the Father who called Him His beloved Son, “in whom I am well-pleased.” When we are given a glimpse of a shard of His glory reflecting into some distant corner of our souls, we always agree with Peter, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.”

And when He says, “Yes, it is. But you have to go pray and fast and, like Me, endure suffering and crucifixion before you can be transfigured,” we carry that goodness in the deepest core of our selves. We are changed by it.

That is how our souls are formed, or better, healed. And that is the power of the memory He has empowered us with.

Come, let us rejoice,
Mounting up from the earth to the highest contemplation of the virtues
Let us be transformed this day into a better state
And direct our minds to heavenly things, being shaped anew in piety
According to the form of Christ.
For in His mercy the Saviour of our souls has transfigured disfigured man
And made him shine with light upon Mount Tabor.

personhood and memory

Those dark and pathetic medieval thinkers had some truly extraordinary insight into the workings of the human mind. Every time I pick up Mary Carruthers’ The Craft of Thought: Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200, published by Cambridge University Press, my amazement is renewed. There was something so much more whole, so integrated, about their theories of thinking.

For example, whereas we tend to think of memory (without wasting too much time thinking about something so banal and unimportant, of course) as a conscious intellectual process by which we force our minds to recall information, Mary Carruthers tells us that their notion was “a much more expansive concept, for it recognized the essential roles of emotion, imagination, and cogitation within the activity of recollection.”

One way to abbreviate her point would be to argue that they saw recollection, or memory, as something done by humans in human ways – as something personal.

But lest you misunderstand the meaning I intend that word personal to carry, I want to quote a little longer section from her next paragraph:

“In medieval monasticism, the individual always had his or her being within a larger community, within which a single life was “perfected,” “made complete,” by acquiring a civic being and identity. That civic being, I will suggest, was brought into consciousness through learned practices that were both literary and rhetorical in their nature.

Perhaps this is idiosyncratic, but when I hear the word personal I tend to think of the act of hiding things away in a private place. “Don’t touch that – it’s personal.” “Now you’re getting personal” (i.e. you are asking questions that have to do with my private self and you should stay away from that area). Even, “Have you accepted Christ as your own Personal Saviour?”

But, while there’s a validity to these uses, the relatively exclusive “Personal” use of the word personal betrays an emphasis in our thinking that I believe to be both inconsistent with reality and harmful.

The word “personal,” as you can readily see, arises from the root word “person.” I love this word for many reasons, one of which is that Christians can unflinchingly look back on it as one of the most significant contributions to human thought. Prior to the Ecumenical councils, persona basically meant a mask and was a theater term. Of course, with the decline of Christian thought and its influence, with the redirection of so much Christian thought away from Christ to man, the word is reverting back to that common use. The reality of personhood is reverting back to the masks we hide ourselves with instead of the essence that we hide with those masks.

Personhood really only came to be understood when the Fathers of the church drew the distinctions between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. But it’s crucial to notice that the person’s of the Trinity are defined by their RELATIONSHIPS to the other persons. In other words, God Himself never existed in some imperious isolation, towering above all those non-existing contingent entities that relate to others. It is not a weakness to relate to and even to need others. It is essential to personhood.

My son David was recently married and Karen and I just celebrated our 25th anniversary. I doubt many parents of married children have missed the joy of watching as their child’s beloved drew out qualities in their child that had been waiting for the beloved to arrive. I sometimes wonder if that isn’t the real joy of youthful love – young people find something worth living (if not dying) for and it draws out powers and emotions they never knew they had. It’s an exciting journey of self-discovery, the key to which is that they pay no attention to themselves – or at least they think they don’t.

Meanwhile, I can tell you that in 25 years of marriage there have been plenty of times when Karen has had to deny herself (at least a dozen!) and a few when I have had to as well. Soren Kierkegaard suggested that life has three “stages” to it. The first he called the aesthetic, when people avoid making decisions and take in as much as they can for themselves. This stage always leads to despair and, therefore, boredom.

Then the point comes when a young adult needs to make a once for all choice – a commitment. Some decide to make the choice and proceed to the ethical stage. Others refuse and are stuck in the aesthetic. You can easily see this in the difference between a faithful married couple and the barracudas that swim through our bars, dorms, and youth groups.

The sense of irony is crucial to growing into this second stage, because it looks as though you are setting limits to yourself. Commitment means, by its very nature, self-denial. It means you won’t indulge the appetite of the moment, but it also means you will set aside deep burning desires that never really go away.

And there comes, for many, a time when that deep burning desire is set in conflict with the committed love for a husband or wife or children or friend. The decision one makes at that time determines the kind of person he will be from that point forward.

If he goes back on his commitment – if he turns his love into a theory – then he becomes the kind of person whose love will be theoretical, which often means sentimental and a little desperate.

If he keeps it, he will find the rest of his life limited, but he will find that he becomes a man.

Every successful artist knows that it is in the limits that they achieve greatness. Every successful businessman knows that success comes from focus. Everybody who has ever succeeded at anything has known that he succeeded by denying himself.

But so often we read or hear about living without limits. It’s childish, aesthetic, madness.

Because when we try to live without limits, which is to say, without sacrificing anything for our relationships, the very thing that draws us out of ourselves, the very thing that causes us to become human, to discover our capacities and limits (yes we have them!), to discover where and how and why we matter, has been treated as an obstacle.

We become human only in committed relationships. We discover our own inner lives only in relationships. We develop our personhood only when we give it to another.

Frankly, like all men, I wish I could have done many things with my life that I have been unable to do because I chose to marry Karen and to beget five children.

And because I did not do them, I became a man and can now boast as my greatest achievement that Karen and I have been married for 25 years. I can’t wait to see what we’ve become after 50!

This might seem to have taken us a long way from the discussion of memory with which I began this blog, but it hasn’t really. Personhood values memory. Memory sustains relationships. But because what we do in schools is so “academic,” we fail to think about and realize the full personal value of a trained memory. As a result, we have forgotten nearly everything that matters.

But at least we get a good feeling when we worship our relevant God with contemporary music. Who cares if those who have denied themselves on behalf of the church and their communities are driven away by our preference for the tastes of the young and hip. Family traditions, church traditions, social traditions – they just get in the way of…


The individual always had his or her being within a larger community, within which a single life was “perfected,” “made complete,”

Principles 11-15 for an education for freedom

11. An education for freedom enables the student to rule his own appetites through reason. This requires a spirited sense of one’s human dignity and a profound fear of shame, so that the student learns to order his affections, appetites, loves, and goods. (Reason doesn’t extinguis appetites and passions: it orders them into a harmony)

12. The student who will be free learns to distinguish reality from appearances

13. The student who will be free learns to love goodness more than any other good

14. An education for freedom is rooted in a faith in and perception of the following ideas: nature, honor, justice, ordered relationships, truth, goodness, beauty, and freedom itself

15. An education for freedom is rooted in but transcends tradition

(One through 10 were published in previous posts earlier this week: 1-5; 6-10, 16-23)

Arithmetic for a Slave

In their 1920 book How to Measure, Guy Wilson and Kremer Hoke describe what they call “the newer psychology in arithmetic.” They say (the bold parts are my emphasis):

The arithmetic of a generation ago was based upon a belief in formal discipline. The purpose was to develop general powers. While arithmetic is doubtless as useful as any other subject in developing general ability, it is now realized that responses are specific and that ability gained in one line contributes to success in another line only in so far as the two lines have elements in common. There is no such thing as general ability in a subject. There are, in fact, as many separate abilities in even a single subject as there are different specific responses. Arithmetic has been developed rapidly in line with this newer psychology and we have come to realize that each separate response in the useful tool materials of arithmetic must be mastered, and in turn must be tested if the diagnosis of the pupil’s ability is to be complete.

Now , let me say that these measures and tests of which Wilson and Hoke speak (they list 19 available tests on the following pages) are in some cases very valuable, especially when every single school age child is compelled to be in the classroom, willy or nilly. I do not mean, in this post, to question the value of their tests and the diagnoses their tests enabled. What I mean to challenge is the psychology behind the tests.

“There is,” they say, “no such thing as a general ability in a subject.” This statement asserts the fundamental premise of the progressive educator and renounces the fundamental psychology of the Christian and classical tradition. And where did this new psychology come from?

Oh, look! Here’s a big surprise: Teacher’s College, Columbia University. Whoodathunkit? And the theorist: Edward L. Thorndike, a behavioral psychologist who formulated laws of learning that, Diane Ravitch tells us in Left Back, A Century of Failed School Reforms, “were based on the observed connection between stimulus and response.” After all, the last thing the progressive educators wanted was to think about “metaphysical or traditional sources of authority,” when they could make themselves the authorities.

Ravitch’s description is exceptionally clear, as is all her writing, so let me share an extended quote with you:

Thorndike and his colleague Robert S. Woodworth conducted several experimnets to determine whether training one mental function would improve any other mental function. In one instance, subjects were asked to estimate teh length of various lines or estimate weights. In another, subjects were instructed to select certain letter combinations (e.g. the letters e and s) or words  or geometic figures. They also tested the influence of memorizing “on the general ability to memorize.” From their various experiments, the authors found that “the amount of improvement gotten by training in an allied function is small.” They concluded that, “It is misleading to speak of sense discrimination, attention, memory, observation, accuracy, quickness, etc., as multitudinous separate individual functions are referred to by any one of these words. These functions have little in common. There is no reason to suppose that any general change occurs corresponding to the words ‘improvement of the attention,’ or ‘of the power of observation,’ or ‘of accuracy.'” The alleged benefits of mental discipline, they held were “mythological, not real entities.” Rather than seeing the mind as a collection of separate functions (or “faculties”), they maintained that “the mind is, on the contrary, on its dynamic side a machine for making particular reactions to particular situations.” (Page 64 in Ravitch)

The effect of this research?

The Thorndike-Woodworth studies had a dramatic effect among pedagogical professors, who greeted them as proof  that the theory of mental discipline had been decisively ‘exploded.’ Parents and other members of the public continued to talk about ‘training the mind,’ but educationists believed that this had been revealed as a myth.

The issue of transfer of training became crucial to the viability of the academic curriculum, and the implications for the schools were mind-boggling. Some educational psychologists, citing Thorndike and Woodworth, insisted that nothing learned in one situation could be applied to any other, so that all training must be specific to the task at hand. Seen in this light, nothing taught in the school had any value or utility except to satisfy college admission requirements or to prepare those who planned to teach the same subject in the future or those who might have an occupational purpose for learning subjects such as algebra, chemistry, history, or German.

But we’re just getting warmed up:

Pedagogues quickly realized that Thorndike’s experiments had undermined the rationale for the traditional curriculum and that it was up to them to create a new education, one that would train the students for the real world of work.

Did you just feel the earth move? Did you just hear the shackles click? Ravitch continues:

Thorndike confidently asserted that scientific research had made obsolete the once-customary claims about “training of the reason, of the powers of observation, comparison and synthesis” or “training the faculties of perception and generalization” or “disciplining the senses.”… Now pedagogical science would decide which youngsters should study Latin, geometry, English, bookkeeping, cooking, sewing, or woodworking, and which subjects should be removed from the curriculum.

OK, fine, so what does this have to do with testing? I turn again to Ravitch:

Thorndike had faith in the scientific value of measurement, and he developed intelligence tests, aptitude tests, and every other kind of mental test. Only such faith, detached from any cultural values, could make possible the assumption that studies such as Latin and geometry had been decisively invalidated by laboratory experiments in which students memorized nonsense syllables or underlined meaningless letter combinations.

Because I believe that most of my readers will see the prima facie folly of Thorndike’s approach I won’t spend a great deal of time on the refutation (that isn’t really my point anyway, which I’ll come to shortly). But let me include Ravitch’s reference to Pedro Orata, who exposed Thorndike’s theories in his doctoral dissertation. This highlights some crucial points:

Orata… contended that Thorndike’s experiments had been profoundly misleading; that the efforts to replicate them had been inconclusive; that they tested only “mechanical habits,” which were of little value; and that Thorndike’s theory supported an apprenticeship system, not a democratic system of education. Orata pointed out that psychologists who had trained students to understand “meanings, concepts, and principles or generalizations” had demonstrated considerable transfer of training. When students understood what they were learning, why they were learning, and why it had implications ouside the classroom, they were likely to transfer what they had learned to new situations. Transfer of training occurs, Orata pointed out, when teachers make it a goal of instruction.

Thorndike’s experiments had been focused too narrowly on habit formation and drill, Orata complained, excluding any role for logical thinking and concept formation. His emphasis on the specialized nature of mental functions had made no provision for “disinterested study, for the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake,” or for gauging the ways in which studies of literature, science, and the arts taught importnat intangibles such as open-mindedness and appreciation of other cultures.

No, when you don’t value knowledge apart from its utility, I don’t suppose you would make provision for “knowledge for its own sake.” And yet, to this day, curricula still base their pedagogy on Thorndike’s careless, disrespectful quasi-science, probably because it gave power to people who develop abstract and rather arbitrary measures of students’ development. 

Freedom is rooted in the notion of ideas. The man who cannot see the truth of principles cannot make up his own mind. The man who cannot transfer learning from one domain to another cannot function on his own. Thorndike developed the psychological underpinnings of an education for slaves.  Wilson and Hoke affirmed the application of this slave’s training to measuring arithmetic.

Books to Read

I’ve been reading in snatches of a page or two at a time a book that fell out of heaven into my lap at the conference this summer. If you are interested in a theological and philosophical understanding of the place of rhetoric in the Christian classical tradition, I don’t think you’ll find a book more stimulating than The Craft of Thought by Mary Carruthers, published by Cambridge University Press. It is subtitled Meditation, Rhetoric, and the Making of Images, 400-1200.

I have set it at the top of my priority list for study over the next few months, in part because it has a wealth of insight into classical rhetoric as applied in the middle ages. One of my convictions has long been that we live in a universe harmonized by the Divine Logos, the man Christ Jesus who reconciles all things in himself. Among the things he reconciles are the arts of the classical world.

Consequently, I have become increasingly persuaded that anything offered to God for His use will be received and purified, even education. It can, in fact, be used by Him to sanctify His people.

In Mary Carruthers book, she shows that the medieval monks believed in something very similar, if not identical. They used the arts of invention (the first canon of classical rhetoric, taught in The Lost Tools of Writing) to help them pray. This is a central element of this book, because, as Ms. Carruthers points out, her earlier book (which I intend to order soon), “The Book of Memory centers on Memoria [the fourth canon of classical rhetoric]; this one centers on inventio.”

Perhaps you can imagine how excited I was to pick up a book that realizes that thought is a craft, with tools that must be mastered, and that recognizes the place of invention in that craft.

Rest assured you will be hearing more about this book. Once again, I have randomly opened the book and found something wonderful. Let me leave you with her words:

The morally examined life is the work of a careful artist, an artist first of all not in stone or paint or even in words, but in linea, the richly textured lineaments of an educated and well-stocked memory. Linea is used here as a synonym of ratio, the mental schemes and schedules that Augustine found, along with images and notations of emotions, among the things in his memory.

The virtuous life as a work of art – here is the motif our age has no time to notice. Yet, perhaps here above all, we see the very heart and soul of beauty.

Training the Inward Eye

Bryan Smith presented some ideas on the importance of memory at the conference last summer. His talk was called Training the Inward Eye, and in it he showed how important memorizing good literature and rich texts is. Dr. Smith is one of those people with a deep learning that he politely veils for us so as not to create a barrier, but that shines out from time to time.

In this talk he discusses the need to counteract egotism (and how to do it), the limits of Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences, and Cardinal Newman’s insight into the problem’s of “child-centered” teaching. He paraphrases Newman: “You have these students who will be very proud of doing what they like to do. And that’s not education.”  Later he discusses the power and use of biography in our children’s curriculum.

While discussing the first of these (the need to counteract egotism), he discusses the myth of Narcissus. He says,

Here is a paradox… This is the great lesson to get children to see: if you sit like Narcissus and stare at yourself in the pool you will get not only a very narrow understanding of yourself and other people, you will get an incorrect understanding of yourself and other people. It is actually by turning away from yourself and looking at other peopel and their actions their opinions their experiences you will discover something. and its not going to be an incomprenedhisbe disconnedcted seris of things. you’re going to see patterns…. You will discover human nature, and when you discover human nature, and what you discover then is something about yourself – because you share that nature… one of the main aspects of education should be, “know thyself,” and you dont’ find it in the pool. That’s why CS Lewis said “To read literature is to know that you are not alone.

Modern thought seems to downplay the importance of getting children outside themselves. But our Lord tells us that we need to die to ourselves if we want to follow Him. Until we can do that, we can never know ourselves. We can’t know our powers, our limits, our inclinations, or our characteristic vices. Nor can we learn how to deal with sadness and grief without seeing how others do it. We can’t know ourselves until we leave the mirror.

Later he says, “We need to tell them that there is a human nature and that everyone shares it.” Indeed. We have more in common than the killer than we like to acknowledge.

Later again he talks about how to use good representational paintings to cultivate the “inward eye” to actually see, thus teaching them how to contemplate.

I highly recommend any of Bryan’s talks for their insights and practical, hands-on guidance. To specifically learn about this powerful idea of “training the inward eye,” get your hands on this CD by clicking here.