Saturday, November 7, 2009

"Memoria" and Core Knowledge

(I'm writing notes as I proceed through Hirsch's The Schools We Need and Why We Don't Have Them, and this blog is sort of my notebook. Since I'm notetaking, I'm raising questions in my mind rather than answering them. So I apologize if this comes off as rambling and not very conclusive. )

The development of real-world language skill results, then, in functional masteries which are extremely complex in their interactions but which can be schematized for convenience into three aspects:

(1) Mastery of the continually repeated formal elements of language to the point of automaticity
(2) The gaining of a content-rich knowledge base represented by particular word meanings and cultural conventions
(3) The successful active deployment of these elements in comprehension and problem-solving.

This general pattern holds not just for speaking and listening but also for reading, where the mastery of decoding skills belongs to the realm of continually repeated formal elements that need to become unconscious and automatic.

The same three-part pattern holds for penmanship and composition, where a great deal of effort is required to habituate the learner to the continually repeated formal elements of making letters and words, so that level-one letter formation becomes sufficiently automatic so as not to interfere with the conscious deployment of written words to convey meaning. Because of the limitations of working memory, the more these formal and foundational processes are automatic, the more effectively the comprehension, expression, and problem-solving aspects of any intellectual skill can be deployed. Higher-level skills critically depend upon the automatic mastery of repeated lower-level activities.
from The Schools We Need by ED Hirsch. Also see The Magical Number Seven.

If you look at the three essentials he mentions above, you can probably see the temptation to make an analogy to the traditional classical trivium of grammar, dialectic and rhetoric. Here's an example.

Aristotle writes:

All instruction given or received by way of argument proceeds from pre-existent knowledge.
and Aquinas wrote:

“The nature of the true consists in a conformity of thing and intellect....”

“Our knowledge, taking its start from things, proceeds in this order. First, it begins in sense; second it is completed in the intellect.”

One of the five canons of rhetoric is Memoria, which meant not rote memorization but a rich stock of knowledge upon which to base communication, and it strikes me that Hirsch is evoking this concept when he talks about "core knowledge". Knowledge, he affirms, rests upon knowledge. (here's an interesting article called "On Cultural Literacy" -- a View from Rhetorical Tradition).

Given all that, it makes sense for Hirsch to hold that learning needs to be based on knowledge of real things, not simply on empty structures or methods. And that knowledge of real things is intrinsically related to language. Ordinary verbal communication can only take most of us so far -- higher-level reasoning is very much intertwined with reading and with systematic verbal instruction such as is found in lecture or seminar formats. He discusses the Fourth Grade Reading Gap -- reading ability at the "content" levels is based not so much upon decoding strategies as on understanding of syntactic conventions and vocabulary -- vocabulary not meaning mere word lists but rather, understanding of words in their context.

To use an example that comes to mind, Paddy noticed "Nile" written in some context and his eyes brightened. "The Nile River!" he exclaimed in delight. It was because he had been learning about Ancient Egypt in his history studies. A little door was now unlocked in his mind. Another example is how we learned recently about how the leaves change in autumn. Of course, Paddy had seen leaves turn red and fall before, but somehow discussing it for science opened a verbal door and he was thrilled when we walked through fallen red and gold leaves later that day.

Charlotte Mason talks about the role of knowledge using the example of how we all, having once heard a name or learned something, seem to stumble across it everywhere all of a sudden. This sense that everything is connected is one of the purest delights given to human beings and is a motivator for further learning. Hirsch's point is that given a set of children in a classroom, the ones that have already discussed and thought about the Nile delta or leaves falling will be able to build on this in other contexts while the ones that don't have the prior knowledge will have to construct in a bigger hurry. This sort of thing leaves disadvantaged children behind much further and faster than it does children who have access to books and verbalized experiences in their own homes.

I think this CLAA article on True Education makes a good point that is necessary to make, that things like the Nile and even leaves falling don't of themselves lead to anything beyond the material world. It's not so much that these things are unworthy to know, as that they aren't sufficient and they can become a distraction.

Another thing about the Nile, in particular, is that it is for most of us second-hand knowledge. Paddy believes on faith, basically, that the Nile exists as a reality, but neither he or I have seen it in reality, touched it, or been part of the ancient Egyptian society. Our modern world tends to focus overmuch on material things as "realities" not realizing that to most of us, concepts like the orbit of the planets around the Sun are taken on simple faith and not really "known". This doesn't detract from Hirsch's point that knowledge leads to knowledge, but it does put it in perspective. Nor does it necessarily detract from the worthiness of such knowledge, because the very essence of cultural transmission is that it leads from mere appearances and accumulations of memory to things beyond.

Aristotle writes:

The animals other than man live by appearances and memories, and have but little of connected experience; but the human race lives also by art and reasonings. Now from memory experience is produced in men; for the several memories of the same thing produce finally the capacity for a single experience. And experience seems pretty much like science and art, but really science and art come to men through experience; for 'experience made art', as Polus says, 'but inexperience luck.' Now art arises when from many notions gained by experience one universal judgement about a class of objects is produced.

But he goes on to say of the distinction between wisdom and mere memory, even memory that proceeds to experience and judgment, that wisdom is ordered to the higher things:

We suppose first, then, that the wise man knows all things, as far as possible, although he has not knowledge of each of them in detail; secondly, that he who can learn things that are difficult, and not easy for man to know, is wise (sense-perception is common to all, and therefore easy and no mark of Wisdom); again, that he who is more exact and more capable of teaching the causes is wiser, in every branch of knowledge; and that of the sciences, also, that which is desirable on its own account and for the sake of knowing it is more of the nature of Wisdom than that which is desirable on account of its results, and the superior science is more of the nature of Wisdom than the ancillary; for the wise man must not be ordered but must order, and he must not obey another, but the less wise must obey him.

"Such and so many are the notions, then, which we have about Wisdom and the wise. Now of these characteristics that of knowing all things must belong to him who has in the highest degree universal knowledge; for he knows in a sense all the instances that fall under the universal. And these things, the most universal, are on the whole the hardest for men to know; for they are farthest from the senses. And the most exact of the sciences are those which deal most with first principles; for those which involve fewer principles are more exact than those which involve additional principles, e.g. arithmetic than geometry.
and finally, in opposition to the idea of knowledge for merely utilitarian purposes -- "production" he calls it:
That it is not a science of production is clear even from the history of the earliest philosophers. For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant (whence even the lover of myth is in a sense a lover of Wisdom, for the myth is composed of wonders); therefore since they philosophized order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end. And this is confirmed by the facts; for it was when almost all the necessities of life and the things that make for comfort and recreation had been secured, that such knowledge began to be sought. Evidently then we do not seek it for the sake of any other advantage; but as the man is free, we say, who exists for his own sake and not for another's, so we pursue this as the only free science, for it alone exists for its own sake.
To go back to Paddy and the falling leaves -- focusing on them in conversation, in "studium" led to a new sense of wonder which his senses affirmed. Just living through six years of leaves falling in autumn did not wake up that sense of wonder and mystery that potentially leads to more questions and answers.

1 comment:

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!