Why we think and how we can do it better

Portrait of Chaucer from a manuscript by Thoma...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because thinking takes practice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firstfruits

How do you teach a group of 7th grade students the meaning of “firstfruits” in relation to the resurrection?

At the beginning of each year I like to take my students through a simple overview of the biblical narrative with something I have put together under the title of “God’s Redemptive Story.”

Outlined in this story are 7 clearly defined parts: creation, redemption, kingdom (of Israel–or, Man), Jesus, church (kingdom of Heaven/God), resurrection, and new creation.  You can read any portion of scripture and locate the reading within one of these 7 parts.  It is simply a helpful tool for young students who are now being asked to read and think about scripture anew.

While I was discussing the basic concepts of the resurrection I came upon Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15, “Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.”  I saw numbness settle upon my students with the word “firstfruits.”

And then it hit me.  My colleague had brought in a tomato plant and set it outside our classrooms, and I remembered one red tomato standing out through the leaves.  “Alright, outside,” I said.

In the end, it boiled down to Christ being the one ripe tomato, the “firstfruit,” and the rest of us being a bunch of green tomatoes to follow after in like manner.  Our hope is to ripen into a perfect red tomato. (No, there was absolutely no mentioning of that vegetable cartoon.)

How could you teach that, that clearly, without a garden?

Prejudice the Soil

The essentialist rejects the progressive theory of growth with nothing-fixed-in-advance, a planless education based upon the unselected experiences and needs of the child or even selected by cooperative, shared discussions of pupils and teachers.  Growth cannot be self-directed; it needs direction through a carefully chosen environment to an end or ends in the minds of those who have been entrusted by society with the child’s education.  The problem is not new; it was first posed in modern times by Rousseau and has been the subject of controversy ever since.  It was answered for all time by Coleridge nearly 100 years ago in the following story.  –Isaac Leon Kandel, Prejudice the Garden Toward Roses?, 1939

Kandel then quotes from Coleridge’s Table Talk, July 26, 1830.

Thelwall thought it very unfair to influence a child’s mind by inculcating any opinions before it should have come to years of discretion, and be able to choose for itself.  I showed him my garden, and told him it was my botanical garden. “How so?” said he, “it is covered with weeds.”—“Oh,” I replied, “that is only because it has not yet come to its age of discretion and choice.  The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow, and I thought it unfair in me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries.”

E. D. Hirsch argued that Romanticism took root in American education and has continued to infect it with the kind of naturalism prescribed by Rousseau (The Schools We Need, 1996).  What I continue to appreciate about Coleridge is that he breaks the Romantic mold as it displaces the divine with the human.  The result is, as seen in the above quote, that Coleridge perceived the true nature of education as that which seeks to “exhibit the ends of our moral being.”

Children and Metaphors

I am an Arkansan by birth and currently live in Mississippi. Due to my Southern upbringing, I have always been surrounded by analogies, similes and metaphors. I have always loved colorful phrases such as “like an old dog looking at a new gate,” used to description a facial expression, or “I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age” – which I believe is self-explanatory. I don’t love them just because they are delightful and entertaining (they are), but also for their concrete descriptions of the abstract. They are descriptive and vivid, versus esoteric or philosophical.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the thinking processes of students, namely younger children. One of the biggest myths that we, as modern educators, buy into from time to time is the idea that children can’t think abstractly. Anyone that has spent much time around children knows better.

It is not that they can’t think abstractly…they just express concretely. So, what do you do language-wise to maintain a pattern of healthy, abstract thinking (which the students are doing already) while connecting those abstract thoughts to the concrete?

You focus on metaphors.

My eight year old, Alexandria, finds similarities and connections every moment to things around her. She once pronounced that our horse Shadowfax “was like medicine” in describing the affect that the animal had on her soul – it made her feel better to be around him. We cherish these moments so we should cultivate the skills that multiply them.

Surrounding young children – yea, students of all ages – with metaphors in literature, poetry and life develops children’s ability to express the imagination that God has given them. It also cultivates the skills they need to make sense of the abstract nature of truth and reality and enables them to communicate poetically and appropriately.

not on the test

I’m guessing this one will get around or even maybe already has, but I have to go ahead and post it here. My first successful video blog!. Enjoy (and thanks to Steve Elliott for letting me know about it):