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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Could William Faulkner Write?

I don’t like to travel without an interesting compelling time-filling book, and I’m driving up to PA tomorrow in what is still called a car because that is what the people over at Hertz call it – a bright cool air-conditioned chamber with the windows all closed because as a man I realize that hot air prevents coolness from spreading and the open window will let more heat than cool in – so I was glancing over my office qua study bookcase covered with anthologies of great books and poems and individual novels from which life-changing insights broke in random gusts, breaking the backs of cultures on the rack of history and I made the mistake of picking up Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom. I read the first page and a half and thought, “This demands a response.”

So, even though I have no time for it, and even though I can’t possibly say anything intelligent, I am going to take a few moments and respond to this page and a half.

My first thought, by the time it formed itself into a proposition, sounded something like this: “How does such a book find a publisher?”

It’s not that it doesn’t deserve to be published, it’s just that it breaks every rule in the publishers library of rule books. How did the first editor get past the second page? This book, were it handed in to a college professor, would have almost certainly been dismissed as ridiculous.

But the error would have been the professor’s, I guess, because its now among the great books in the American canon.

My trouble, and the trouble is mine and it is a vice, is that when I pick up a book to read on my own, I want to know it will be worth my time. I am a distressingly pragmatic reader. I want to take something out of the reading and I want to do it quickly.

So when I read, “From a little after two o’clock until almost sundown of the long still hot weary dead September afternoon they sat in what Miss Coldfield still called the office because her father had called it that — a dim hot airless room with the blinds all closed and fastened for forty-three summers because when she was a girl someone had believed that light and moving air carried heat and that dark was always cooler, and which (as the sun shone fuller and fuller on that side of the house) became latticed with ….” I wonder:

How do I know Faulkner isn’t playing a joke on me?

The thing is, it may be that Faulkner is writing this exactly as it needed to be written given the reality he is embodying in this description. It may be that unless we see all these things interpenetrating each other verbally we can never perceive how they interpenetrated each other in reality. In other words, maybe high school essay prose won’t express the idea Faulkner is trying to express.

So I flip randomly and end up on my head. Then I flip the pages of my book randomly and end up on page 87, where I read this:

“She must have seen Judith now and Judith probably urged her to come out to Sutpen’s Hundred to live, but I believe that this is the reason she did not go, even though she did not know where Bon and Henry were and Judith apparently never thought to tell her.”

And just as I’m about to plunge into despair, he follows that with this:

“Because Judith knew. She may have known for some time; even Ellen may have known. Or perhaps Judith never told her mother either.”

He can write short sentences – but he won’t write in a perfectly linear way, that’s evident. Every phrase seems to be a qualification of the preceding one.

Now, being a child of the age, I prefer to read fast and to get on to the next book, but it’s pretty obvious that if I’m going to read Absalom, Absalom I’m going to have to slow down and think about what I’m reading. I’ll probably even, horror of horrors, have to read it more than once.

Who’s got time for that? There are 54 great books in the great books set and this isn’t even one of them! Plus I have to read Hicks, Plato’s Phaedrus, and The Tempest for the apprenticeship, study Latin, study poetics for LTW development, and read things for next year’s conference – etc. etc.

Who’s got time for a leisurely read?

It reminds me of Emo Phillips doing the triathlon. He swims for about five minutes and then thinks, “This is stupid, the bike is getting rusty.”

So who knows, maybe I’ll read Faulkner or maybe I won’t. I know that until I do I can’t be considered educated, but that’s the way the cookie bounces. I blew my chance to get educated when I went to school as a child. Now I just do what I can.

But it does seem to me that the effort would be worth it. For one thing, I would have to read in a manner I’m not accustomed to reading and that’s always a good thing to do. Reading is an almost miraculous activity in that it opens the mind, not only to new ideas, but to new forms of thinking, to new patterns of perception.

I like the standard clear strong manly English sentence with a subject, predicate, direct object. I like the periodic sentence too, where the verb (imitating Latin and German), till the end of the sentence, is withheld. It seems to hold the attention while the reader, anxious to see whether the sentence will heal or wound itself with its ending, poised on a balance beam, waits; and the writer, heels over head, dismounting the same beam, nothing promises.

But Faulkner: what is he doing?

Here’s how it appears to me. He is not writing, or so it seems to me from the two pages I’ve read, about actions or about the world outside. He seems instead to be writing about perceptions, relationships, and recollections all flowing together – not a flow of thought subjectivism, but a dynamic interaction between the world around and the organ of perception.

His form, therefore, while it is not easy, would seem to be essential, as much a part of the story as the words themselves. It will be demanding, as much poetry as prose. But if I ever have the time and if I ever feel like it, I might well read this book. For now, I’m happy with my Spider-Man comic.

How to Cultivate Wisdom Through Writing (part IV)

Here is: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

I have vigorously defended contextual learning in my book because I believe that it is the key to how we learn as well as to the delight we find in learning. Children learn to speak by hearing words used in context, not by memorizing their definitions or studying their etymologies.

David Hicks: Norms and Nobility, page vi

Contextual learning is called by some synthetic learning. It is the learning that comes out of the whole to engage the part. It is the context that makes learning interesting, delightful, and profitable.

However, in the excessively analytical modes of thinking that dominate our schools, we are continually required to learn things out of their contexts, and therefore in ways that are less interesting, less delightful, and less profitable.

The archetype of the decontextualized lesson is the dissected frog. Wordsworth even treated this activity as a metaphor if not a synechdoce for modern education: we murder to dissect. We do it to Robert Herrick’s poetry as much as we do to the frog.

You don’t learn what a frog is by dissecting it. You have to experience it in context – at the pond, with its mates, etc.

All human action takes place in a moral context. Every human action arises from a human decision, and every human decision has a moral context.

Every historical or literary event, therefore, is fundamentally moral. Every story turns on an action by the protagonist and every action follows on a decision. In most stories it is the moral dilemma that drives the plot. Every story ends up celebrating some virtue, even James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, or DH Lawrence.

For this reason, literature and history have always been seen as morally formative “subjects.” Fundamentally, as Mr. Hicks points out elsewhere, history and literature are driven by the same basic questions.

Although in my curriculum proposal I use history as the paradigm for contextual learning, the ethical question “What should one do?” might provide an even richer context for acquiring general knowledge. This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom, and it draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns. It challenges the imagination and makes life the laboratory it ought to be for testing the hypotheses and lessons of the classroom.

ibid

The question that drives the human spirit, that arouses thought in child or adult, and that makes an education worth getting is this very simple question, “What should one do?”

Writing, therefore, can be used to cultivate wisdom when we teach students to engage in this inquiry. It must not be taught in isolation, as a specialized, abstracted skill. It should be taught as a way to refine thinking about things that matter, like whether Huckleberry Finn should have helped Jim escape, whether the colonies should have revolted against George III, whether Brutus should have assassinated Caesar, whether the grasshopper should have spent his summer playing music, whether Edmund should have followed the White Witch, etc.

It should be contextualized. Notice what Mr. Hicks said above: “This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom.”

I’ll have more to say on how to do this in later posts, but this is an important starting point. Not only can writing be used to cultivate wisdom, it must be so used. When you use writing as a tool by which your students ask the question, “What should be done?” or more precisely, “Should something be done?” you have begun to do so.

You’ve also just made reading, writing, history, and literature exponentially more interesting, delightful, and profitable.

I don’t know if there is any other question that can properly integrate or synthesize the curriculum (Most attempts at integration fail because of their analytical bias. They try to integrate at too low a level, setting aside ethical and philosophical matters).

Perversion and Ignorance of Classical Education

Every now and then I am tempted to think I know something. When that happens (and it happens less frequently as I age), I have the perfect cure.

Pick up David Hicks Norms and Nobility and start reading.

What typically happens is that some great new insight on which I’ve spent years questing, will be sitting there on the surface of the page, serenely welcoming me and not even laughing at me for taking so long.

I’m doing a close study of this book for the apprenticeship even now and, once again, I am being humbled by the experience.

For one thing, when I do a deep study of a book, I like to get at the structure so I can see the flow of thought. That’s pretty easy with a modern book because it usually sits on the surface of the text, blaring at you that you are where you are.

The whole outline of a book reads like the document map on the side of a Word document with large fonts italicized, bold fonts, bullet points, tables to summarize, etc. etc. At no point is the mind of the reader challenged to engage the text directly and actually think about the relationships among the parts.

I find that frustrating and rather insulting because I know that the effort to organize the text is what of the ways to understand it. However, conventional writers don’t write to be understood, they write to be applied. So they write things that don’t take any thinking, that assume the reader doesn’t want to think, and that can be easily applied without any thinking.

Here’s the challenge with Norms. To identify the structure, you have to compress what the text says. You have to take paragraphs and funnel them down to a single core idea (this, by the way, is a great reading exercise that actually involves thinking and is much more profitable than answering worksheet questions, which almost necessarily focus on trivia and are controlled by the teacher instead of teaching the student higher reading skills).

I find that with Norms and Nobility, the impulse is always to unpack and develop a thought rather than to condense and summarize it. The insights are so profound and come from such a different perspective that I don’t trust myself to summarize them.

Today I spent about 40 minutes on chapter 1, section one. Which is three pages long!

Each page contains a doctoral thesis of analysis. Listen:

The popular mind associates the idea of a classical education with the narrow and elitist schools of Victorian England. In fact, these schools perverted classical education by teaching in precept and in example a hereditary aristocratic ideal intended to serve the ambitions of Empire and to preserve the status quo.

I suppose anybody could make this claim after a cursory reading in Dickens or a biography of Carroll or something like that, but with Mr. Hicks, these two sentences express the condensed result of years of reflection of his own on education.

For those of us who yearn to understand classical education he has already, in this first sentence of the first chapter, warned us off a false scent. After all, if we are looking to understand classical education, it only makes sense that we would look to that era when it stood most proudly, just before it was replaced by the evil moderns.

But Mr. Hicks says, “No, your job won’t be that easy. You can’t just bounce back 100 years and imitate what those who share your language did back then. Your going to have to think more deeply than that. You’re going to have to go beyond the surface to the spirit. And that’s never easy.” (This is my supposition of a dialogue with Mr. Hicks, not a quotation from the book.)

So he’s warned us off one false track by telling us about those who perverted classical education. The end of the first page warns us off another false track by noting the opposite error:

By the turn of the century, a growing number of self-proclaimed progressives, desiring to democratize the school and mistaking what went on in Victorian schools with classical education, began to put forward their own theories of education…. Neither ideal types, aprioric truths, nor transcendent human needs figure in the writings of these spokesmen for the progressive movement [he refers specifically to Dewey and James].

Of course, the blank stare these phrases call forth from our own minds indicate that they haven’t figured much in our own thinking either. Ideal types? Aprioric truths?! Transcendent human needs!!?? What have these got to do with education?

Heck, aprioric truths doesn’t even pass the spellcheck!

Mr. Hicks has thrown down the gauntlet. He is going to use terms that we aren’t familiar with. He has to if he is going to talk about classical education. We have all been educated under the progressives, who don’t care about the things that classical educators care about. They don’t use this vocabulary because they don’t want us to think about these things.

So you and I cannot hide behind the excuse of not knowing the terms Hicks uses. If we are going to understand classical education, we are going to have to make the effort required to learn his vocabulary. Because, as he ends page one:

To the extent that the Victorian schoolmaster perverted classical learning and the progressive educator ignored it, our modern schools have suffered.

I would change that third word from the end from schools to students. It seems like every day I meet or hear about a new person, child or adult, who has been victimized by the modern school. It’s not that the teachers don’t care. It’s that they are castrated, crippled, and crazed by administration, systems, and inhumane and subhuman ideas.

Even today a student was admitted to eighth grade in a school I know to be tutored by someone I know because someone else cared enough to see that he was pulled out of a failing school. He struggles with reading and writing apparently, but the first thing his tutor learned is that he is perceptive, intelligent, and determined to succeed.

It is no longer possible to exaggerate the negative moral impact of our schools.

Therefore, we have to be willing to put in the work this renewal requires. Forget the culture; forget schools. People’s well-being (their souls) depends on it.

Please read and meditate on this book if you are an educator or know anybody who wants to be educated.

Why the Short Story?

When I was in high school I remember feeling some strange disappointment when I would come across a book of short stories by an author whose novel’s I admired or when I was assigned a story for school.

I loved to read and always had, and did so a fair amount, but I found that I much preferred the long form of the novel to that of the more brief, inherently and uniquely reserved, short story. I certainly enjoyed, for the most part, what I read of author’s like Flannery O’Connor (who I today consider one of America’s greatest writers ever), mostly, I’m sure, for her weirdly ambiguous endings and mysterious characters.

Yet, I seem to have found the lack of unique plot twists and of distinctly moving moral situations so common in the short form to be a negative. I’ve been wondering why. Today, I prefer few novels to a wonderful short story (and no, it’s not because a short story does not surpass the 300 page limit I often say I don’t read beyond, jokingly of course).

Don’t get me wrong. Good short stories, and certainly O’Conner’s, do contain moving moral situations. But they are necessarily reserved in their immediate implications towards the reader. Since, in the short form, the author is limited regarding how much information they can provide, how much background they can introduce, how close they can make the reader feel to the situation or characters, such moral dilemmas can only mean so much to the reader. In other words, since you can’t know Mr. Smith from Joe White’s The Made-up Story as well as you could have had the story been a novel, then the fact that he is about to burn down his home and join a militia group is going to be less meaningful than it would be if you did know him as intimately as a similarly plotted novel would allow.

(Note that I said that short stories are limited in their “immediate implications.” Further contemplation and interpretation certainly will open up a world of implications to the thoughtful, observant reader.)

So, it would seem, the short form is concerned above all with the “why?” of the tale and the novel above all with fact, incident – the “what” of the story.

Of course, part of my lack of affection for the short form back then probably derives from the fact that novels – and the good one’s especially – are uniquely capable of creating plot-based excitement and anticipation, emotionally transfixing moral conundrums, and characters whose many layers offer insights into the human existence. Things that the short story simply cannot provide in the same way. The short story writer must work within the confines of their form and therefore they must say what they want to say, or rather show what they want to show, in a much less complicated – though, hopefully, no less thoughtful – fashion.

Necessarily, therefore, the short story, since it cannot do all the work itself, demands much more of the reader than the common novel (there are exceptions, of course). This is probably why, as a high school student, I didn’t much appreciate the form. I didn’t want to have to work as much as was being demanded of me.

I love this quote by Harold Bloom (from How To Read and Why) that, I think, sums the idea up pretty well, and provides some advice to boot:

Short stories favor the tacit; they compel the reader to be active, and to discern explanations that the writer avoids.The reader… must slow down, quite deliberately, and start listening with the inner ear. Such listening overhears the characters, as well as hearing them; think of them as your characters, and wonder what is implied, rather than told about them. Unlike most figures in novels, their foregrounding are largely up to you, utilizing the hints subtly provided by the reader.

From Turgenev through Eudora Welty and beyond, short story writers refrain from moral judgments… The most skilled short story writers are as elliptical in regard to moral judgments as they are in regard to continuities of action of the details of a character’s past life. You, as reader, are to decide if moral judgment if relevant, and then the judgment will be yours to make.

The short story provides some unique challenges for both writer and reader, challenges that they must, in effect, confront together, in concert with each other.

In it’s own meta-fictive way, reading a short story is a bit like solving a mystery. The clues are laid out for us (one hopes) and it is our job to make sense of them.

It is for this reason that I love reading a good short story.

And I suppose, therefore, that writing a short story is something like creating a puzzle, perhaps one of the crossword variety even. It is the job the writer to set forth pieces whose shapes will appropriately fit together. With just the right amount of ambiguity of course.

I for one hope the short story makes a comeback.

Living Like You Mean It

When Andrew Pudewa and I present our writing workshops, one of the topics we address is what we call the five paths to great writing. I’ve introduced them HERE.

I need to clarify that those five paths arise from a direct consideration of the use of language. There is one more thing a writer needs to do besides reading, thinking, and writing – and that is living. Some would-be writers, and I suspect I have this tendency, want to write because they love writing. This is a bit like teaching because you love teaching.

Fine. Do it. But have something to teach too!

Same with writing. I have this old New Yorker cartoon in my computer where a man’s wife is leaning over his shoulder while he is trying to come up with something to write in his journal. He has writer’s block. She says to him, “Maybe you should do something first and then write in your journal.”

Indeed. The greatest poets and writers all wrote about things they experienced or at least witnessed and their souls were informed by the experience. When poetry is written by poets who sit around writing poetry for readers who sit around reading poetry, poetry is living off the neighbor’s stream. The poet needs to dig his own well, just as the teacher needs to reinvent the wheel every year or two.

The poet must not only write the poem but must scrutinize the world intensely,  or anyway that part of the world he or she has taken for subject. IF the poem is thin, it is likely so not because the poet does not know enough words, but because he or she has not stood long enough among the flowers, has not them in any fresh, exciting, and valid way.

Mary Oliver, A Poetry Handbook (highly recommended!)

As Mary Oliver is using standing among flowers as a synechdoche for the act of living perceptively, I’m confident she will not object if I add a few more: from engaging in battle, raising children with your eyes open, holding a lover’s hand always for the first time, listening to Mozart’s Concerto for Harp and Flute with mind and ears engaged, participating in the liturgy, eating a freshly picked radish that you grew yourself, jumping out of an airplane, teaching an eager student, teaching a stubborn and unperceptive student, contemplating Euclid’s definition of a point, looking into your spouse’s eyes – you know, living like you mean it.

That’s what literature and writing should teach us.

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Andrew and I will be in California from June 7-10. Please come see us!

The Best Read Ever

Would you like to see how reading a great story humanizes and edifies and unites us? If you do, read this and if you don’t read it anyway.