Monday, November 2, 2009

Core Knowledge and Education by Intimacies

On my CCE list a friend linked to this article at the Catholic Education Resource Center: ED Hirsch's Curriculum for Democracy. The main idea is the same as the main focus of the Core Knowledge Blog -- that it is rich content that makes for good education.

While I was browsing through CERC I found another article on religious literacy. In some ways the parallel seems well made -- mere content doesn't make good education, any more than religious knowledge will save you. Nevertheless, all else being equal, ignorance is a deprivation. If a child has only the vaguest, most trite idea of what grace really is, his understanding of what Our Lord did is impoverished. Not that reciting a formula from the catechism is sufficient, but a serious purpose in teaching religious ideas and history and how they fit into the framework of our faith can build and enrich a child's understanding of what he believes. At the very least, he learns what his elders understand by their faith, and that is not so little in these days when many adult's religious understanding seems permanently frozen at about an 8-year-old level of maturity.

The Core Knowledge curriculum is in many ways very different from Charlotte Mason's ideal of education. It seems to me to be inspired in several ways by enlightenment thought. It was Samuel Johnson who said (and this is quoted by Hirsch in the beginning of Cultural Literacy):

"Sir, it is no matter what you teach them first, any more than what leg you shall put into your breeches first. Sir, you may stand disputing which is best to put in first, but in the mean time your breech is bare. Sir, while you are considering which of the two things you should teach your child first, another boy has learnt them both."
Charlotte Mason, who seemed to be quite influenced by the Romantic era that followed the Enlightenment one, yet seemed to hark back further than either the Romantics or the Rationalists for her educational philosophy. I don't think she would have thought of learning as a matter of "just do it" -- she wrote of education as a "Science of Relations"
The idea that vivifies teaching. . . is that 'Education is a Science of Relations;' by which phrase we mean that children come into the world with a natural [appetite] for, and affinity with, all the material of knowledge; for interest in the heroic past and in the age of myths; for a desire to know about everything that moves and lives; about strange places and strange peoples; for a wish to handle material and to make; a desire to run and ride and row and do whatever the law of gravitation permits.

Therefore. . . we endeavor that he shall have relations of pleasure and intimacy established with as many possible of the interests proper to him; not learning a slight or incomplete smattering about this or that subject, but plunging into vital knowledge, with a great field before him which in all his life he will not be able to explore.

In this conception we get that 'touch of emotion' which vivifies knowledge, for it is probably that we feel only as we are brought into our proper vital relations."
But I do think that because of this very affinity with and appetency for created things, common to all humans, Johnson's maxim applies in spite of its pragmatism. While a pedogogue is pondering what to teach the boy, the boy is often off learning something on his own. If you open up the world of knowledge to the boy, he has a chance to learn what you think worth sharing -- you get the privilege of transmitting a real and vital culture to that child. All knowledge of real things -- history, culture, nature, religion and the Big Questions -- is worth learning, so Hirsch's curriculum ideas seem to overlap with Charlotte Mason's more than one would think at first glance.

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