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.


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.

A Review? More of an Homage.

The new year begins for our Apprenticeship on Monday and because of a late cancellation we have one difficult to fill seat remaining. While I would invite you to pray that the seat fills, that is not the real purpose of this post, which is to comment on David Hicks book Norms and Nobility.

I would like to say I discovered this book, but the truth is that it was forced upon me. When, in 1994, I began to research in earnest the meaning of classical education, I entered the term into the computer of the Concordia University library.

The title Norms and Nobility came up, but the description seemed so unpromising and my interests were so directed to what was done in the ancient world as opposed to what we ought to do now that I ignored it.

I tried another phrase, perhaps classical learning. One book: Norms and Nobility.

Yet another. One book.

No matter how I tried to phrase my search, even “classical education in the ancient world,” or “classical learning among the Greeks,” or “classical education as understood by Plato in 385 BC and not including anything David Hicks has to say about it,” every time I hit that enter key, one book came up.

It was as if the computer was possessed.

Finally, I let out a sigh, sagged my shoulders a little, and wrote the code.

I walked over to the shelf where the computer insisted this book was waiting for me and there it sat, all by itself, in a coarse blue hardback cover.

Norms and Nobility.

I sluggishly pulled it forward, so sluggishly that it dropped to the floor, where I started kicking it out of the aisle toward a nearby table. Arriving at the table, I grudgingly, perhaps even bitterly, bent over to pick it up, grabbing a corner in complete disregarding indifference to the well-being of the spine.

At this point, my appetites were much more interested in food than in Nobility and Norms or whatever, so I yawned a bit, stretched a bit more, and left the library to seek the life found hidden in a Snickers bar.

Feeling a bit better, I strolled back up the three flights of stairs and returned to my table.

The book was gone.

I didn’t care much about the Noble Norms or whatever, but I was pretty irritated about the inconvenience its disappearance caused me. I had a paper to write, dang it, and this was the only book the stoopid modernized library computer could find for me.

So I went back a little peavishly to the shelf from which I had pulled it earlier.

It wasn’t there either.

My peave was no longer little. Now I was downright upset. What a waste of my precious sacred time this book was proving to be.

So I went to the libariarians desk, which I could scarcely approach without thinking of that terrifying scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Jimmy Stewart is looking for Donna Reed only to learn from Clarence that, God have mercy, “She’s in the LIBRARY!” and I cautiously approached this poor forlorn creature and demanded of her where my book had gone.

She said it was back on the shelf, “Were you still needing it?”

No, I put it on my table because I’m such a Noble Norm. I didn’t say it, and therefore it is not in quotes, but I wanted to.

What I did say was, “No, it’s not, I just looked there, it’s not there.”

“Yes, it is, I just put it there,” she said. 

I was already married, so I couldn’t continue to flirt with her.  “I just checked,” I said, one last time, in my most savagely polite voice.

She huffed a bit and lifted her delicate frame resolutely from her librarian’s chair behind her librarian’s desk and puffed her way past me like a wisp of smoke and walked over to the wrong aisle.

“That’s the wrong aisle,” I tossed before her tread.

“No it’s not,” she repudiated.

She stepped down the aisle and pulled out the very same book I had dropped on the floor earlier and let it drop on the floor and walked back to her desk without another word.

“Dang,” I thought. She was right. So I kicked the book back toward the table, picked it up by its scruffy ears, and tossed it back on the table.

This time I opened it and began reading. At the beginning, which is terribly unusual for me.

“Ten years ago I wrote the book you are about to read,” said the Preface to the 1990 edition, and I thought, “What is this, some kind of David Copperfield plup? And what makes him so sure I’m going to read this book anyway?”

I forced myself onward, but I can’t say I really became interested until I got to the fourth paragraph where he wrote:

This is not a book about ancient education. it is about an ancient ideal expressed as “classical education” against which the modern school is weighed and found wanting.”

Now, I had grown up in this modern school and we had had a very uneasy relationship. I liked most of my teachers, enjoyed going to school for the most part, and learned a bit here and there. But I knew from around 7th grade on that it was a fraud for two reasons.

One, because on occasion they would herd the hundreds of us into the cafeteria where we would be given standardized surveys that asked us about things that were none of their business and we couldn’t help but laugh at the patheticness of their open manipulation of our minds.

Two, because twice between grades 7 and 9 the teachers in the Milwaukee Public Schools went on strike. This put me in an interesting bind. I had been told repeatedly how important education was. I had always been told repeatedly how important I (you know, the future and all that) was. Occasionally, teachers and principles even tried to tell us they cared about us.

Well, I was a kid, I couldn’t work these things out. To me, the message was: either school doesn’t matteror we don’t care about you.

I concluded both, though I always had individual teachers with whom I enjoyed conversing.

But I got Hicks point. The modern school is wanting.

One thing I have always loved is learning. That is why I’ve never respected systems schooling. It’s too hard to learn in such a setting.

So when I read

The tacher, not the curriculum, needs to be the focus of reform. The greatest value of the curriculum proposed in this book, I now believe, is that it sustains and nurtures teachers as practioners of the art of learning while discouraging non-learners from entering the profession.

I thought maybe this Hicks guy might have something to say after all.

By 1994 I was just about old enough to figure out that the really important questions don’t have easy answers and that the answers they have have to be adapted to circumstances. So I was touched when Hicks spoke of The Rector of Justin as a novel that raises “the sort of questions that possess a wisdom apart from answers.”

I was beginning to sense that this Mr. Hicks was almost as insightful as I was.

Then he started talking knowingly about Polybius and Livy, Montaigne and St. Augustine. He was able to critique in a sentence the flaws in the thinking of men like Hegel, Comte, Marx, Darwin, and Freud (some of whom I had heard of!).

Every now and then he’d throw out a wise metaphor, like

Classical education refreshes itself at cisterns of learning dug long ago, drawing from springs too deep for taint the strength to turn our cultural retreat into advance.

and I’d have to admit Mr. Hicks was worth listening to.

I couldn’t put the book down, but everything he said demanded so much reflection.

Classical education is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language adn of conscience through myth. The key word here is inquiry. Everything springs from the special nature of the inquiry. The inqiry dictates the form of instruction and establishes the moral framework for thought adn action.

Before long I realized that I had hardly smelled, much less tasted the inner life and soul, the living truth and penetrating beauty, the soul-transforming goodness of what classical education could be.

Soon my spirit was soaring into worlds of virtue and truth, straining to see the tyrannizing image of the ideal man and how a child can be equpped to see or blinded to the vision of this ideal, meditating on the place of the sciences and what can be learned through the senses, rearranging my mind and the ideas that furnished it to attempt to grasp a way of thinking that had room for both truth and Socratic instruction, dwelling on the possibility that a Mozart is born in every neighborhood, and seeing that in fact, only the Christian tradition can fulfil the potential of education (which is to produce a human being).

It wasn’t long before this vision of Nobility in education had brought me to the point of metanoia, of repentence and turning around, and I realized that the computer had pushed me in the direction of a book that itself belonged in the great conversation.

This morning, I picked up Mr. Hicks book again, reading for the apprenticeship, where we use it as a text book. I felt like a child again. Or maybe a patient just having been through surgery, when the bandages are taken off the eyes. It is still too bright for me. I still can’t see it all.

But how beautiful it is; how true; how good.

I have made it my mission to ensure that every possible human being reads this book. At CiRCE we have sold hundreds of copies at a steep discount to the market price because it needs to be read. It needs to be digested. It needs to absorbed.

It needs to be done.

Norms and Nobility is the best and most important book written on education since CS Lewis wrote The Abolition of Man in 1943.

Teaching By the Numbers

Yesterday’s post was infinitely long, so I’ll give you something shorter today: a quotation from David Hicks in Norms and Nobility:

The modern educator tends to define his tasks too narrowly, and when things go wrong, his impulse is to double -check his calculations rather than to doubt the significance of his research. He finds it impossible to understand that a correct answer can be a wrong answer.

Government and its money encourage him in this delusion by creating the need for “objective criteria.” These criteria do not and cannot measure quality, or for that matter many of the goals they propose to measure….

Nowhere is this confusion of quality and quantity so evident as in the area of teacher certification.