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.

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Marking Readiness

In her newest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch outlines the primary causes behind today’s deterioration of our schools, and prescribes four vital courses to generate education reform.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB), according to Ravitch, largely contributed to the problems plaguing today’s schools.  The vine that sprouted from this federally mandated reform was accountability.  Students must acquire a certain level of knowledge, and teachers must be held responsible for getting their students to that place.  The rat race had begun.

The fruit from this vine spoiled on at least three accounts.  When the primary objective is to produce immediate results, what more efficient model exists in our culture than the modern management networks applied in the business world?  Ravitch notes that business model management may work well in the corporate world, but education is not a business.

As school districts from NYC to San Diego adopted business models of management, teachers and principles went into survival mode in order to secure their jobs.  The single mark of concern rested with student test scores.  NCLB instituted the use of standardized testing in order to measure student progress.  The quickest and surest way for educators to succeed was to teach toward the test.  The test became king and determined the educational success or failure of our schools.

The problem with testing is that it has chipped away at the heart of education and produced illusory knowledge.  However, Ravitch does not entirely oppose the use of testing.  She devotes a small amount of time briefly tracing the short history of testing (roughly a hundred years) and the benefits it can yield when appropriately administered and evaluated.

Yet, the form into which testing has evolved seeks to measure knowledge according to prescribed standards.  Were these prescribed standards those carved by nature they would be appropriate for the human child and unalterable.  But they are not.  They are standards that continually flex to the ungrounded values espoused by temporal notions of progress.

For what end do we covet such notions of knowledge?  Readiness?  Readiness for what?  Is it possibly for a pre-scripted part that contributes not to what it is to be a Man or a Woman, but to the progress of an economic ideal upheld and valued in our current culture?

The purpose for testing in today’s educational institutions boils down to producing a readiness for either adulthood or employment.  The two are not the same, nor do they go together.  The one attends to the meaning of our humanity, the other to the product of our labor.

Before I became an educator I used to start colts for a world champion reigning cowhorse trainer.  My job was to take an unbroken colt (2 year old) and get him ready for the next phase of his training.  Sometimes that could take six months, three months, or sometimes one month.  It all depended on the horse.

At some point during a colt’s training (education) my boss would ask me, “Is the filly ready?”  He never asked me if she passed the test.  There was no test. Yet there were various indicators that marked her readiness.

Before she could work on a real cow she had to be able to turn, stop, backup, know her leads and how to change leads, relax her neck, lower her head, position her shoulders, ribs, and hips, pivot on her inside rear foot, tuck, spin, and leap – among other things.

Some horses were always better than others with these things, but none of these things were exercises foreign to the nature of a horse.  Any horse could learn to do these things because they were things that a horse does naturally.

As a trainer I was teaching the horse when to do them and how to perfect them, or rather to execute them with greater precision and finesse.

As the trainer I was the only one who knew where the horse was in his training and what he needed to learn.  When I was asked if a horse was ready, I was asked with a very clear and defined image of what a “finished” horse looked like.  That was the goal I worked towards in every horse I trained (hundreds of them in my career).

The question of readiness was not the same as that of passing a test.  In fact, there were days when a horse would perform well and then the next day act as if he had never learned a thing.  Others could go through all the exercises physically, but were still not ready mentally.

We always trained a horse with a view to developing him both mentally and physically, and only the one working with the horse every day knew “where” he was in his training.

A horse’s readiness was not the measurable result of a day’s set of tested exercises.  Their readiness was a state of presence that emerged from days, months, and years of training.  The mark of readiness was set upon the backdrop of a horse’s entire training and not upon the result of a single test.

Do we misread our students by looking to their test scores rather than to their education as the mark of their readiness?  Perhaps what we should be doing is asking a student’s teacher, “Are they ready?”

Hamlet:             the readiness is all.

The Mechanism of the Organic: A Tribe Called Coleridge

A few beats in regard to the organic and mechanical components in the act of creation:

Concerning the creative process, there appears to be a connection between Aristotle’s Poetics and Poe and Coleridge. Aristotle seems to believe that creating art comes by “remixing” artistic elements and devices already in existence. Coleridge picked up on this and influenced Poe (and Flannery O’Connor). For Coleridge (and the Romantics), imagination was essential to the creative process. He divided imagination into three categories: Primary, Secondary, and Fancy. This is what he says about the first two:

“The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite of the eternal act of creation of the infinite I AM. The secondary I consider as an echo of the former, coexisting with the conscious will, yet still identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation.”

So, what do these three categories mean? It seems to me that the first, Primary Imagination, is almost like an out-of-body experience. It is pure imagination; it is spiritual and divine. Note here that it is not Aristotle’s remixing idea, which relates to Coleridge’s other two categories. Primary Imagination creates pure, new ideas. It is akin to Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” 

Coleridge’s Secondary Imagination is that which is filtered by our conscious, rational act of creating.  Hence, it is imperfect and impure. But of course it is entirely necessary and essential, for there would be no way to capture the primary imagination’s creation without it. And this seems to correlate with Wordsworth’s “spontaneous overflow” that is captured only by being “recollected in tranquility.”

Coleridge’s third category, Fancy, is rather Aristotelian. Here imagination creates by remixing already existing things in fresh, new ways– especially juxtaposing opposite or contrary things. In his Biographia Literaria, he says the imagination “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities: of sameness, with difference; of general, with the concrete; the idea, with the image.”

Plato’s dictum “Great is the power of contradiction” relates nicely to this. So does the fruitful activity of comparison in the rhetorical canon of invention.

In conclusion, we see that all three are essential in the creative process. Coleridge’s Primary Imagination is akin to the organic, and his Secondary and Fancy categories are akin to the mechanical.

After all, as the clever and artistic nineties hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest asks in their “What?” track,

What is position if there is no contortin’?

What is a glock if you don’t have a clip?

What’s a lollipop without the Good Ship?

What’s America without greed and glamour?

          So we might also ask, what is organic without the mechanical?

Not a, not a, not a, not a darn thing

What’s Duke Ellington without that swing?

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. ; )

Inside, Outside, Upside Down

You can live from the inside, or you can live from the outside.

You can think from the inside, or you can think from the outside.

You can read from the inside, or you can read from the outside.

You can teach from the inside – but only if you live, think, and read from the inside.

To live, think, and read from the inside you must enter into the thing you live with, the thought you are thinking about, the text you are reading.

To live, think, and read from the outside, you only need to look at it.

Most living, thinking, reading, and teaching are done from the outside.

The greatness of the great teacher is the ability to get inside and lead his students there.

Things can only be loved on the inside, where they cannot be measured.

Things can only be measured on the outside, where they cannot be known.

By living on the outside, we have turned education and our civilization upside down.

A Filosopher Reflects on Philing

Owen Barfield was an inkling to whose daughter, Lucy, CS Lewis dedicated The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

He was a first class scholar in his own right who was comfortable with Latin, Greek, German, French, and who knows what other languages. I would love to read his book called History in English Words, which he described as a “general and superficial survey of semantic development.” How can that not make your heart melt?

The following quotation comes from another of his books called Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning.

… the rational principle must be strongly developed in the great poet. Is it necessary to add to this that the scientist, if he has ‘discovered’ anything, must also have discovered it by the right interaction of the rational and poetic principles? Really, there is no distinction between Poetry and Science, as kinds of knowledge, at all. There is only a distinction between bad poetry and bad science.

As a great believer in different kinds of knowledge, I have to pause here and draw a rather technical distinction that you’ll want to skip over to get to the bold text below.

He is looking at the words Poetry and Science as they are used now. He’s describing a very metaphysical mode of knowing that was developed and explained by Coleridge and Shelley in the early 19th century.

What he’s getting at, I think, is that Descartes and Bacon, with their pretensions for the scientific mode of knowing, were off base. The highest forms of knowledge discovered by the poet and the scientist are the same.

These words can and have been used differently, and that can create confusion. These uses pre-date Bacon and Descartes, so they arise from a quest for true knowledge as opposed to Pragmatic utility.

I am referring to the distinctions Dr. James Taylor makes in his masterful opus, Poetic Knowledge, which you need to read if you want to teach knowingly.

He describes four kinds of knowledge as identified in the classical tradition and developed by Thomas Aquinas and others: the poetic (pre-rational, rooted in the senses), the rhetorical (persuasion by evidence), the dialectic (one of two options – beyond a reasonable doubt), and the scientific (absolute certitude – notice that this is not what modern “Science” means).

So in the Classical Christian tradition, there is a distinction between poetic and scientific knowledge, but neither term refers to what the terms poetry and science refer to today.

End of metaphysical digression

Barfield is arguing against the false claims of the scientist (from now on, I’m using the terms in the modern sense) to have some sort of knowledge the poet can’t have. This arises from and relates symbiotically to hubris:

That the two or three experimental sciences, and the two or three hundred specialized lines of inquiry which ape their methods, should have developed the rational out of all proportion to the poetic is indeed an historical fact–and a fact of great importance to a consideration of the last four hundred years of European history. 

A disordering has taken place, he suggests, in European culture and in the European soul.

But to imagine that this tells us anything about the nature of knowledge; to speak of method as though it were a way of knowing instead of a way of testing, this is–instead of looking dispassionately at the historical fact–to wear it like a pair of blinkers.

Modern science, that following on the work of Bacon and Descartes, provides a method for testing theories. It is dialectical and rhetorical, in Taylor’s sense above, but it is not (oh the irony) scientific.

Now, Barfield has a great deal more to say. Poetic Diction is one of those rare books with something jarringly insightful on every page. I am in the process of reading it through quickly, sans reflection, to get something of the gestalt in my head.

But I was prompted to write the foregoing because of a practical matter I am dealing with. Order.

More to the point, filing.

I conclude from my efforts that in a pragmatic world the philosopher will be out of place – unsuited.

The pragmatist orders things for their utility. The question is, “What will I use this for? Then file it accordingly.”

The philosopher, humbling himself before everything he encounters, orders things according to their nature, whether or not he can make use of them.

Happily, sometimes, even frequently, utility and nature overlap. Of course, as a would-be philosopher, I cling to the hope that in the end they overlap perfectly. What creates the disruption is false perceptions of utility, which lead to false perceptions of reality. But sometimes they overlap even in the immediate.

For example, businesses are, by nature, Pragmatic concerns. Their purpose is to produce results. They measure those results with a rather reductionist but quite powerful proxy called “cash.”

So the business, living in a realm dominated by conventions, don’t have to worry much about contradicting nature. They can ignore it almost completely. It’s natural for them to do so. (oh the irony)

Thus busines files can be ordered by utility pretty completely.

But schools are different. They are not Pragmatic institutions measured by an abstraction. They are, by nature, philosophical institutions of the highest order, requiring more wisdom than any other institution except the family. That is probably why most of them become not-for-profits.

A business model may help a school succeed as a business, but it runs the risk of destroying it as a school.   

However, since the late 19th century, schools have been trying to operate pragmatically. For example, much of the practice of the modern school arises from scientific management and factories.

The bell, for example, at the beginning and end of 50 minute sessions. Who would do that to a child? Who would believe that a child could learn best in that setting? What an unnatural way to order things!

It didn’t matter. Schools had become institutions for utility, not for education. Please note the distinction, as it cuts to the heart of our failure as a nation to educate our children.

Another clear example of Pragmatics overthrowing truth in schools jumps out with the curriculum and the way it is ordered.

The arrangement of classes simply doesn’t lead to discoveries of truth. I say that not based on some party conviction, but on the constant statements of high school and college students that I talk to, like:

  • “You say that because you are X”
  • “We have to agree to disagree”
  • “That’s your opinion”
  • “That’s true for you”

What all of these and so many more statements share in common is that they confess one thing: You can’t know the truth.

These deeply felt convictions arise, not from philosophical persuasion, but from being formed by a structure that doesn’t lead to truth (and also from a resistance to submitting to truth).

When students are assessed, the assessors don’t ask whether they can see truth better or whether they are more free than they were at the beginning of the lesson. All too frequently, they ask where they perform in an abstract exercise against an abstract group of people so they can, at best, determine whether to move them along the assembly line.

I saw a commercial for one of those nationwide colleges like University of Phoenix or LaSalle or something like that. The graduate talked about how much she valued it because it gave her a certification from an accredited institution.

Abstractions like certification and accreditation have replaced practical, concrete virtues like wisdom.

This is a cancer that eats at our cultural soul. What kind of adult student would freely subject herself to a process whose highest virtue is that it “certifies” her. What kind of a school would make that what they advertise? What kind of a society would value it so disproportionately and uncritically?

Answer: a Pragmatic society; which is a synonym for a soulless society.

So I’m trying to file my papers without eliminating my soul. I guess I just don’t fit.

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Suggested resources:

Poetic Knowledge, Dr. James Taylor
Poetic Diction, Owen Barfield
File… Don’t Pile, Pat Dorff

The Order of Knowledge

James Daniels just reminded me about the order of knowledge and showed how you can see it disintegrate in western philosophical thought.

At the top of all knowledge is theology, the knowledge that holds all other knowledge together.

Below that is philosophical knowledge, knowledge of metaphysical things like being, mode, and change.

One more step down we find moral or humane knowledge, the knowledge of how we fulfill our natures as human beings in community (politics) or by ourselves (ethics).

Then comes natural science, or the knowledge that we can gain of the physical world around us through modes like observation and measurement.

Each kind of knowledge is gained when you ask questions that require that kind of knowledge for an answer, such as what is being (philosophy), how can I be happy (ethics), what makes a tree grow (science), or what is truth (theology).

Asking the right kind of question causes a person to develop the sorts of tools that sort of question requires.

Using those tools then arouses a given faculty in the human soul – a faculty of perception that fits the knowledge sought.

James showed me how in the 13th century you begin to see an attack on the validity of theological knowledge, which put philosophy at the top of the ladder. Of course, it couldn’t answer theological questions, so people got mad at philosophy for not being able to do what it isn’t capable of doing, so they dropped it for the moral sciences.

Need I say that they proceeded to fail? So people gave up on the moral sciences and trusted only in the natural sciences.

Then came the 20th century. Now the natural sciences are still highly regarded, but nobody really believes they provide ultimate truth except maybe Richard Dawkins.

Thus we live in an age of complete epistemological scepticism, newspeaked into “tolerance.”

Then to undermine the whole project, children are no longer taught how to gain knowledge because people don’t believe it is there to be gained anyway. So they grow up believing there is no knowledge and they live accordingly.

Thus the Hebrew intuition is verified once again: “The fear of God is the beginning of Knowledge.”