Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Poetic Knowledge: Week 7

We are on Week 7 of the Poetic Knowledge Book Discussion.

For the optional discussion topic, Mystie writes:

Taylor comments that in “the ascendancy of the materialistic view of man,” prevalent from the 19th century on, “our existence is defined by doing rather than being. What does it look like to focus on being rather than doing? Would our plans look different? Our assessment? Our goals? Compare and contrast.
I am not up to giving a definitive response to this right now but I wanted to put it up to look back at because in some ways it sums up the heart of my biggest homeschooling challenge!   For context, remember that I am a classical/Charlotte Mason/unschooling mix.   For several years I wrote a column in the Kolbe Academy newsletter, about using the Ignatian method in the ordinary multi-child homeschool; I also have appeared in a couple of Charlotte Mason-inspired books -- "Real Learning" by Elizabeth Foss and "Literature Alive" by Cay Gibson, which was about using literature as the core of the homeschool.   Most recently, I wrote a chapter for The Little Way of Homeschooling, which was about unschooling and featured a few chapters by people who drew inspiration from unschooling.

All these methods, different as they may seem, have something in common -- that they focus on the person, not on a standardized curriculum.   Perhaps you could say they focus on what the person IS rather than on what he does?  I know many people think of classical as an intellectually rigorous method for very academically-minded students and perhaps it did develop that way in our Western cultural history, but it is still about the "liberal arts" which are about the development of the human AS human, capable of wonder and awe at what he perceives but does not fully understand, not human as worker bee or wizard.

I always got confused by the dichotomy between Being and Doing, because of course, Doing depends very radically on Being, so it seems obvious which comes first, but Doing is a way of Being.   Even if you are just sitting under a tree or dozing, you could say you are Doing Something (LOL, this is turning into a Pooh paragraph, which seems appropriate to the topic).    If, as the pre-Cartesians thought, we ARE our bodies, then our bodies are informed with our rational and spiritual nature, so even if we are in a coma or asleep, we are ontologically different from a plant or a snoozing animal.  

I know what Mystie means, though, or at least, I know the tension I face in my homeschool.    I want my kids to have a life with meaning and purpose.  Of course, their very existence is meaningful and purposeful.   That can't be forgotten; indeed that should be in first place.  But one feels that some people don't live out their purpose, and one doesn't want one's homeschool to result in children who seemingly drift through life at the mercy of the profit motive.   Classical, Charlotte Mason and unschooling wisdom all are firmly ranged against this possibility.   They all think of the child as full of human possibility that should be allowed to develop freely (though they might have some differences in what is meant by "freedom").

So what am I saying here?   Some things that come to mind from reading the chapter:

I.  Realize that there are more things on heaven and earth than can be perceived in the analytical mode. ... poetic knowledge is less certain but partakes of wider vistas, a more "spacious room", than mere facts and information. 

“Because the knowledge of God is not directly proportioned to the reason, St Thomas Aquinas says the mode of poetry, though defective when compared to metaphysics, is necessary to express supernatural truths and in this way is superior to metaphysics. That is, poetica scientia” in the “modus symbolicus” is appropriate, not to the study of religion, but to the acts of religion, namely, the worship and adoration of God.
I find that really, even education is somewhat like this.   Take a child.   Take his life.  His discursive reason alone is hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with life's  complexity.  Complexity is probably the wrong word.  Perhaps "mystery" or "radical particularity" would work better.  For his first seven years, more or less, he does not really reason.   But that's OK, because his approach to life  is well-suited to a developmental period of intense growth in all directions.   Reason runs along a track, or adds links to a chain.  But early childhood learning cannot be confined this way -- it must reach out exploring tendrils in all directions (almost literally/physiologically -- read the neuroscience about synaptic development)

But when you start doing conventional schoolwork -- what happens?  Your world is narrowed to a sort of paradigm, something discovered by others.  Your mind runs along a preset track.  There is no discovery, usually, only Right or Wrong.   If you are studying grammar, you are given sentences to diagram, or parts of speech to memorize, or often, nowadays, worksheets with an isolated concept and lots of practice sentences to work on.   This is certainly not fatal, and may be somewhat helpful to some extent, but it's a step away from the larger grasp of things in their multi-fold elements.    Furthermore, success with this formal mode  is dependent upon a broader exposure to words and sentences in their natural habitats, which are in conversation, stories, and poetry, among other locations.   To put it more simply, the children who do well in formal language studies are those who have the rich informal background of reading and conversation.   I think this is pretty much indisputable, but it is often ignored.   People talk about income levels when this is only an indirect correlation -- the difference income makes is that it can provide the margin, the leisure, in which language thrives and which desperately poor people often lack.  But my family lives under the poverty line most years and we have a language rich environment so it is NOT income level that makes the primary difference.

II.   In education, focus on transmitting ideas of value (not propaganda, though).  

Modern man does not experience himself as a part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature… Science and engineering produce “know how” but “know how” is nothing by itself; it is a means without an end, a mere potentiality…. The task of education would be, first and foremost, the transmission of ideas of value, of what to do with our lives
 Schumacher here, quoted by Taylor, seems to emphasize "doing" in "what to do with our lives"  But is it really so?  He is talking about value-based "doing" -- a kind of stewardship of what we have been given.   This is a Doing that acknowledges Being as primary, a certain way of Being.   Product-oriented education seems to start with the achievement and work backwards to try to change the person so  that the person, in a way, becomes the tool of the product rather than the other way around.    On the other hand, a person who has been formed as a person, not just as a mobile brain and pair of hands, will do things that are integrated with his being.

III.  Let children play and have sensory experiences in leisure, for these are the basis for further development.
He (the child) wants to touch and handle everything: do not check these movements which teach him invaluable lessons. Thus he learns to perceive heat, cold, hardness, softness, weight, or lightness of bodies, to judge their size and shape and all their physical properties, by looking, feeling, listening, and above all, by comparing sight and touch, by judging with the eye what sensation they would arouse when touched….. His sensations are the raw material of his mind;

“Love childhood, indulge its games, its pleasures, its delightful instincts…As soon as they are aware of the joy of life, let them rejoice in it, so that whenever God calls them they may not die without having tasted the joy of life”

This is Rousseau.  Taylor quotes him both to show his strengths and his limitations.  Rousseau opposed the hyper-rationality, the Angelism, of the Enlightenment philosophers, but of course, you can see that he never moves beyond the material.   He is like Aristotle and Aquinas in emphasizing that knowledge comes through the senses, but he does not really have a concept of Knowledge as being immaterial.    His idea of joy is a naturalistic one.   One likes his reminder that life is concerned with joy (in reaction to Kant and others who thought it was about Duty and Doing Difficult Things for difficulty's own sake).   But one realizes that he thinks that children are firmly embedded in temporality and that there is no partaking of eternity.

.IV.    Cultivate, nourish and enrich the passive susceptibilities as well as the active capacities

I saw… that the habit of analysis has a tendency to wear away the feelings: as indeed it has, when no other mental habit is cultivated, and the analyzing spirit remains without its natural complements and correctives…I was thus… left stranded at the commencement of my voyage, with a well-equipped ship and a rudder, but no sail; without any real desire for the ends which I had been so carefully fitted out to work for: no delight in virtue, or the general good, but also just as little in anything else… There seemed to power in nature sufficient to begin the formation of my character anew, and create in a mind now irretrievably analysis, fresh associations of pleasure with any of the objects of human desire.” “I had now learnt by experience that the passive susceptibilities need to be cultivated as well as the active capacities, and required to be nourished and enriched as well as guided.
This is John Stuart Mill, who was raised as a classical prodigy by his father (who sounded like a kind of Tiger Father of his day).    He went on to contribute notably, but not for the better, to philosophical thought of his day.  

His epiphany, when he realized that his active intellect had been developed at the expense of passive receptiveness, came from reading some of Wordsworth's poetry. 

V.   There are more kinds of intelligence than simple book-knowledge or 3Rs.  "Cherich Mother-Wit."
  “The imagination must be addressed. Why always coast on the surface and never open the interior of Nature, not by science, which is surface still, but by poetry?”

“A man should have a farm of mechanical craft for his welfare. We must have a basis for our higher accomplishment, our delicate entertainments of poetry and philosophy, in the work of our hands.”
“I advise teachers to cherish mother-wit. I assume that you will keep the grammar, reading, writing, and arithmetic in order; ‘tis easy and of course you will. But smuggle in a little contraband wit, fancy, imagination, thought.”
This is Emerson.   He makes a more extreme dichotomy between the poetic and scientific mode than the ancients and medievals would have -- they thought of the different modes as complementary, not in opposition.

Last but not least:

VI.   Foster curiosity, look for the sources rather than the results. 

The great temptation of education is to insist that one should memorize the results of science instead of flinging open its sources. This is why it costs us so much trouble in later life to delve deeper into what we have learned in a bookish and thus apodictic, authoritarian, and quasi-definitive manner. All too often at school the curiosity that might lead to closer acquaintance is nipped in the bud, and we are left with a collection of slogans and quotations that we call general education. … Verhoeven
I was just reading today about how some people go through a whole physics course without ever actually doing an experiment with materials.    If natural science is about anything, it is not about condensed and formulated results.   I used to love the formulas, personally, since I'm so linguistically oriented.   I wanted to skip the experiments and just get to the pretty formulas.   But I realize that is not poetic, nor is it in itself real knowledge.  


These six points  have become to some extent Homeschool Conventional Wisdom, at least in the circles I seem to move in.   Perhaps we are the most at a loss when we try to figure out how to "cultivate passive susceptibilities" but whether we know what it means or not, we tend to do it whenever we slow down on a nature walk so that a child can watch a bug or examine a flower; whenever we cry over the ending of a book we have been reading together; whenever we light a candle for prayer, or set a table for teatime, or discuss a catechism question and its ramifications (and listen to the wisdom of the 4 year old too!) rather than simply move on to the next rote question.

Basically, whenever we do or participate in something that seems good but not merely functionally good, something that we could do more efficiently or economically but choose not to do that way.    Things that you do that go beyond mere efficiency are usually done in respect to the Being of the person, so they are not simply Doing.   They have value invested that goes beyond functionality.  

I think unique and cherished family traditions are in this category, too, so perhaps that is another criterion -- something that lives in your memory pleasantly and seems to define and elevate something in your life.

I guess that helps me understand better the difference between the Teflon spatula and the lovingly handmade ladle!  hooray!   you want your life to be handcrafted, not generic, and a child's education should perhaps be somewhat the same way.  Or at any rate, it is the beautiful "handmade" parts of a childhood that most people tend to remember with the most fondness. ... not literally "handmade", necessarily, but somehow distinctive to that particular family.

Another long and rambling post!  My excuse is that my daughter is home from college with a friend and there are lots of other transitions going on, plus it is SNOWING again up here!    I did not decide on how this would change our planning, our assessment, or our goals but this is definitely on my mind since I am hoping to move towards a more organic or "poetic" mode next year and I'm trying to figure out a way my organizer left brain can have some peace with this.


  1. "Product-oriented education seems to start with the achievement and work backwards to try to change the person so that the person, in a way, becomes the tool of the product rather than the other way around. On the other hand, a person who has been formed as a person, not just as a mobile brain and pair of hands, will do things that are integrated with his being."

    I am reminded again of the thought "all these things will be added unto you." We are to seek God and disciple the nations (which begins with our children!) and obey God, trusting instead of worrying about the outcome. Of course, wrapped up in discipling and obeying is inclusion of what would have made me sputter, "But, but!" a couple years ago. :) I used to be very uncomfortable with this sort of idea because I interpreted it as more ethereal and spiritual only -- as being without doing. But if you are truly being who you are called to be, the doing flows from that -- with us and with our children.

    I will be very interested to hear how you end up meshing these ideas with the organizer mode. :)

  2. Snow?! I guess I won't complain about all the rain here! Another very thoughtful post. I think the gift of a childhood is the best thing we homeschool moms can give our kids. I love your point of a handcrafted education.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!