Shakespeare’s Language and the Evolution of Human Intelligence

I was watching a bit of Brannagh’s Hamlet tonight and luxuriating in the language (some of which I understood) when my dear wife asked me for my opinion. “Do you think the groundlings actually understood what was going on in those plays?”

To which I answered yes, but the reasons are probably another blog post.

Then she asked for another opionion. Why do you think people today can’t understand it?

I must warn you, I’m about to say something that will sound caustic. You probably want to cover your children’s ears while you read this.

The reason we can’t understand Shakespeare or read the King James Version of the Bible or grapple with Milton or almost any poetry is because we systematically school children in our culture to become increasingly stupid. Charlotte Mason uses the term “stultify” to describe what we do.

 I understand that sounds very harsh, so I need to defend the position.

First let me say that this problem is systemic and cannot be blamed on any particular teacher or parent. Those who govern American education at the highest level are highly irresponsible, do not understand the effect of systems on education, and bear primary responsibility for this folly. In addition, text book publishers have profited immeasurably from poor theory, so they bear high responsibility as well.

What then is the problem?

It’s the way we teach reading. I can and will approach this from many angles over the next little while, but today I want to express one simple point. When we teach reading, we treat the child like she is a mechanism learning a process. We do not teach it like she is a person interacting with ideas.

The notion of a child as a mechanism learning a process arises from Dewey’s theory of instrumentalism or pragmatism, which I haven’t the time to develop right now but there are scads of resources explaining it on the internet. In short, it reduces humans to mechanisms, knowledge to a process, and learning to a technique. The person is displaced.

But to read is not simply to decode symbols (i.e. sound out letters or translate pictures into words). To read is to be a person interacting with ideas (usually embodied in metaphors, sometimes, for older people, expressed as abstractions). That’s what pre-school children do when you read a fairy tale to them while they sit on your lap.

The pre-school child handles complex syntax with little trouble. He cuts through it to the tensions and questions and actions of the main actors. It’s a human instinct to do so. Then we get them to school and we only let them read what they can sound out. In fact, and this is the FATAL mistake: even the books we read TO them have to be at what we call “their level” by which we mean what they can sound out.

This is silly. Children can understand and interpret texts far beyond anything they can sound out. But Victorian cuteness and sentimentality have overtaken the classroom, and the child’s mind and moral development suffer for it.

As a result, we undercut the development of the child’s mind by interfering with it. In kindergarten we limit our oral reading to texts with a syntax no moron would need by the time he is three. See Dick Run! Why? Why would I want to see Dick run when I can listen to something like this:

What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and movement how express and admirable; in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.

When my child is 12, what good will it have done him to have had to read something as inane, as jejune, as ridiculous, as empty, as stultifying, as stupidifying, as “see Dick run”? On the other hand, the passage above will feed the child’s soul to the day he dies. It will help him know who he is, his place in the cosmos, his likeness to God, his obligations. It will provide comfort in dark hours.

When he begins to learn formal writing skills, it will sing in his mind as an ideal to be sought for. It will provide examples of schemes and tropes. It will provide a sequence of perfect word choices.

In short, those two lines from Hamlet will feed his soul from the day he first has them read to him through his later encounter with the play in high school through the trials and tests of adulthood (for which, after all, an education is meant to prepare a child – unless we look to Professor Umbridge as our model), to the day he lies on his bed or goes into battle ready to meet his maker.

See Dick run. I’d rather not.

The consequence of our folly is that we habituate students to read and write at absurdly low levels. Then to top it off, we sentimentalize what they read, fearing that they can’t deal with monsters and werewolves.

In all these ways we truly dis-educate our children by teaching them.

What should we do if we want to cultivate our children’s intelligence and moral development (and yes, they go hand in hand)?

We should read to them works that they cannot understand. We should read rich metaphorical works, like fairy tales, folk tales, fables, mythology, legends, Bible stories. We should not ask them to analyze them.

We should just read them. We can discuss them in personal ways, but to transfer this personal activity into an intellectual exercise before 2nd or 3rd grade is counter-productive.

We should teach children to decode phonograms, but we should not convince ourselves that this is reading. It’s a very different intellectual exercise that prepares children for reading. But they do more reading with their ears than with their eyes when they are learning to decode.

Most of all, we should never forget that we are teaching persons, not mechanisms that need to master a process for efficient operations.

How to Teach the Iliad as a Living Text with Living Ideas

You want to start by getting students involved in THE QUESTION that drives the text or as close as you are able to do so. The Iliad puts it right on the first line: Why is Achilles so angry? I convert the question to a judicial issue: Should Achilles have been so angry?

Before starting the Iliad, prepare your students for the theme by asking them about the last time they’ve seen a fight, the last fight they had, whether they’ve ever been dishonored, why they get angry, etc. etc. I find that the very act of asking this question and genuinely listening leads students to open up quite surprisingly (but never force a child into a therapy session in the classroom!).

You could also ask them what they already know about the story, especially the first book (this is where background sticks up its head – but you are asking them what they already know, not telling them something they may or may not care about). Ask them if they have ever heard of the Greek gods, which they know, whether they’ve heard of the Trojan war, why it was fought, etc. etc.

Then ask them to read the first book. When they come to the next discussion, ask: Who should get Briseis? Or, Is Achilles over-reacting? Or, Is Agamemnon over-reacting? Then let them have at it. They should have their books in front of them. If one person says yes and another says no, the class has just come alive.

In this context, you can begin to intoduce plot lines, character development, use of imagery and symbols, key words, even settings.

For example, say one student has argued that Achilles is in the right. Another contents that point. You are the referee! Say to them, “OK, let’s examine this together.” Be very, very respectful and don’t let either of them attack the other or lose face. And don’t ask them to side with you. That would be fatal. Also, don’t ask them to do more than they are able to do. They’re new to this.

Instead, ask a question like this: “Where did this argument take place?” Some will say, in the camp, before Troy, in front of the men, etc. etc. Let the whole class participate. Then, after the discussion has dug out a bunch of information, say, “Given where the argument occurred, does that argue for or against Achilles?” Then let them have at it again.

You could also ask, straightforwardly and repeatedly, “Why is Achilles so angry?” Another way to phrase that would be, “What did Agamemnon take from him? Why does that matter so much?” And bingo, now you can talk about kleos, and time, and athanatos (glory, honor, and immortality) – though I’d suggest doing it one at a time and reminding them that this is all about them. “Which of you would like to receive glory?” Or “Which of you likes to be humiliated?” Better would be, “Have any of you ever had this happen to you?” I’ve even asked, “Have I ever done this to any of you?”

Do you see how they are BOTH taking a close look at the text AND relating it to their own situations and experiences and that they are able to do so with no loss to either? This is THE WHOLE POINT OF LITERATURE!!!!!

And do you see how the word Kleos is not given to them in an abstract, empty form, but as something they now are beginning to realize is the very core of the soul of the heart of their spirits? In other words, kleos isn’t background to the Iliad, it’s the idea that drives it!

Praying this is helpful!

NB This is an excerpt from a post in the CiRCE forum, to which allow me this opportunity to invite you! Please come and participate in any of our forum discussions, by clicking here. See you there!

teaching living ideas

At the heart of the Christian classical curriculum and methodology is the presentation of living ideas. The soul feeds on ideas, and its health is determined by the quality of those ideas and the life found in them.

When we teach children about butterflies, we do not begin by showing them dead butterflies pinned to a board. We show them living butterflies in their natural environment.

When we teach them about moral habits, we do not begin by memorizing definitions of the virtues. We present living virtues by modeling them ourselves and providing vicarious experiences through literature, music, and the arts. This does not mean that we reduce stories, music, and the arts to moral lectures; rather, we concentrate on human works that are excellent themselves (the artist was virtuous in his performance) and that embody the virtues in the work (e.g. heroes who model courage, rhythms that are temperate, color selection that is appropriate).

Sometimes students need to learn things that are not “natural” but are man-made, such as letters and digits. In cases like this, an additional difficulty arises because these man-made conventions do not have a “natural” state. They are symbols for other things. In this case, the children simply need to learn the conventions (the man-made symbols). However, before learning the conventions, they will experience as much of the natural thing as possible (e.g. the sounds that go with the letters and the numbers that are represented by the digits).

Charlotte Mason on Neuroscience

She was up on the latest before most people even knew the lastest was up! Wisdom like Charlotte Mason’s is our only hope as we progress into a biotechnological future.

There is no more interesting subject of inquiry open just now than that of the interaction between the thoughts of the mind and the configuration of the brain. The fair conclusion appears to be that each is greatly the cause of the other; that the character of the persistent thoughts actually shapes the cerebrum, while on the configuration of this organ depends in turn the manner of thoughts we think.