The Lost Tools of Birthing

Between Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of The Canterbury Tales who died in 1400, and Edmund Spenser, who published The Sheapherd’s Calendar in 1576, you will scan your anthologies of English verse in vain for a renowned poet.
Why did English literature blossom in the 14th century only to enter an aesthetic dark age until Spenser? And why did the late 16th century, the Elizabethan age, experience a flowering that many students of English literature still consider a golden age? How did nearly 200 obscure years disappear in the radiance of Spencer, Sidney, Shakespeare, Marlowe, Donne, and so many great poets, writers, explorers, and scientists?
Grammar and rhetoric.
In 1540, King Henry VIII issued an Executive Order that every school throughout the realm should teach a uniform grammar. In the 1544 version, the following “letter to the reader” explains why he issued his history-altering decree:
“His majesty considering the great encumbrance and confusion of the young and tender wits, by reason of the diversity of grammar rules and teachings (for heretofore every master had his grammar, and every school diverse teachings, and changing of masters and schools did many times utterly dull and undo good wits) hath appointed certain learned men meet for such a purpose, to compile one brief, plain, and uniform grammar, which only (all others set apart) for the more speediness, and less trouble of young wits, his highness hath commanded all schoolmasters and teachers of grammar within this his realm, and other his dominions, to teach their scholars.”
Every English school child in Elizabethan England memorized this famous “Lily’s Grammar.” Even earlier, Dean Colet had re-founded St. Paul’s school in London, where he implemented a curriculum and text books written and assisted by his friend, Erasmus. By the time Shakespeare reached the Stratford Grammar School in 1571, the curriculum and methods of St. Paul’s had spread throughout England. Sister Miriam Joseph describes the manner of teaching:
“The method prescribed unremitting exercise in grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Grammar dominated the lower forms, logic and rhetoric the upper. In all forms the order was first to learn precepts, then to employ them as a tool of analysis in reading, and finally to use them as a guide in composition…. The boy must first be grounded in the topics of logic through Cicero’s Topica before he could properly understand the one hundred and thirty-two figures of speech defined and illustrated in Susenbrotus’ Epitome Troporum ac schematum et grammaticorum et rhetoricorum”
The assumption behind this Renaissance curriculum is the same assumption that an athlete or a painter or a dancer makes when he seeks excellence: virtue requires “unremitting exercise,” which is to say, disciplined mastery of the craft.
The Lost Tools of Writing is a shadow of the curriculum Erasmus and Lily established in 16th century England. It is hoped that this shadow, learned by eager students and taught by humble teachers, can plant the seeds of a thousand individual Renaissancen.
The Lost Tools of Writing rests on the conviction that our world is populated by geniuses and intelligent people who fail to realize their genius or fulfill their intelligence for lack of disciplined training in the craft of writing. When the insights and epiphanies come, the unprepared mind has no vessel to preserve it.
The more intelligent the student, the more frustrating the experience.
Perhaps it strains the point to insist that writing is a craft with tools that empower the craftsman through practice, that writing produces artifacts that can be objectively assessed for their consistency with the principles of the art, and that the goal of instruction is for the student to attain self-mastery, which is synonymous with freedom.
If American education is going to be reborn, if the United States are going to experience a much-needed rebirth of freedom, it will only occur through a wide-spread commitment to the verbal arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.

Lit Quiz 2: Who said this?

Wisdom must provide counsel that is consistent with the good. Knowledge severed from goodness is too dangerous – and even foolish; almost certainly fake.


Answer below

That’s JK Rowling. Yes sirree. These are the words of Albus Dumbledore.

Erasmus, Ideas, and the Soul

It is scarcely possible even to hope that all men should be good; but it is not hard to pick out from so many thousands of them one or two who stand out in virtue and wisdom, through whom in a short while a great many others could be made good.

And later:

The examples set by famous men vividly inspire a noble youth’s imagination, but the ideas with which it is imbued are of much the greatest importance, for they are the source from which the whole character of his life develops.

Erasmus: The Birth and Upbringing of a Christian Prince

In the second quotation, Erasmus brings together the idea and the type in a manner we shouldn’t overlook. Consider the power he gives to the idea, whereas the examples of famous men will only “inspire a noble youth’s imagination.”

I say “only” deliberately. It is a great thing so to fire the imagination, and the well-being of a society depends on it. But it isn’t enough.

According to Erasmus, the ideas “are the source from which the whole character of his life develops.”

The classical tradition is the tradition of  the idea. Classical educators believe that the formation of the soul (virtue) is the purpose of education and that the soul is formed by ideas. Education is not ultimately about doing and acting (i.e. power) but about being and knowing.

But then modern thinkers, formed by post-classical educations, think that if you are talking about ideas you must be talking about something theoretical and abstract. Nothing could be more obstinately opposed to reality. Indeed, that supposition is rooted in a false view of reality as something external to us, unknowable by us, separate from us; yet something to which we are bound to adapt.

Modern thought is barbaric and uncivilized, and it would be good if we would get off our scientific pedestal long enought to acknowledge that not technology civilizes us, but right relations. And we are relationally challenged at every level.