Thursday, June 16, 2011

Poetic Knowledge -- more on chapter 7

For there must be no confusion about this:  that while the poetic mode of education teaches finally by the muses, as Quinn says, this does not mean there is not much to be done, deliberately and consciously, to learn to trust these ways of knowing again.   As Jacques Maritain carefully observed:

If the very act of the perception of the beautiful takes place without discourse and without any effort of abstraction, conceptual discourse can neverthless play an immense part in the preparation for the act...

In the last chapter of Poetic Knowledge, James Taylor talks about how a school devoted to the poetic and gymnastic modes would look.

Here are some more features (part 1 of my notes):

No complex bureaucracy or fancy educational amenities necessary.

Probably one reason why homeschools succeed in comparison to expensive government schools!

Deliberate "poverty"

Without all the trappings, the school can move closer to nature.  For example, let in the outside air, plan the building to let in natural light, and use a fire rather than sophisticated central heating, so as much as possible the children are in a natural setting.

This is much easier to do in a home than in a school building -- in fact, you can actually go outside!

Simplicity is not "easy"

Facing natural temperatures and not insulated and protected by a cushy indoors environments is a kind of challenge, but a good "gymnastic" one.

"Like the memories of light and shadow, the memory of cold and hot, the smell of the open field for playground and science, the drowsy afternoon after a simple but healthy lunch, the sometimes tedious drills for math, would all be recalled in a sympathy that had joined the passive and active powers of body and soul."
"Few books indeed"

Taylor says that the books we would use in a poetic school have chosen us rather than we them, as they are the books in the great Western tradition.   They are like the heirlooms of our family home, not like things we go out to the store to pick up according to our taste.

One book, he says, could suffice for an entire curriculum for a semester.  In his words:

"Furthermore, to teach in the integrated way, so that students see that knowledge is not a set of discrete subjects to be mastered but rather a whole that instructs by delight, one book could suffice for an entire curriculum."
 Not a "Concentration Scheme" though

Now, people who are familiar with Charlotte Mason's thinking on the subject of "concentration schemes" will perhaps pause here a moment, thinking of her pithy description of a 19th century unit study on Robinson Crusoe and her conclusion that it might entertain the students somewhat and make the teachers feel useful but in the end:

The whole thing must be highly amusing to the teacher, as ingenious amplifications self-produced always are: that the children too were entertained, one does not doubt. The teacher was probably at her best in getting by sheer force much out of little: she was, in fact, acting a part and the children were entertained as at a show, cinema or other; but of one thing we may be sure, an utter distaste, a loathing, on the part of the children ever after, not only for 'Robinson Crusoe' but for every one of the subjects lugged in to illustrate his adventures....The children who are capable of and eager for a wide range of knowledge and literary expression are reduced to inanities
 I will not be able to decide how much agreement Taylor and Mason would be able to come to but I would point out that his approach is much different from the systematic, scientific-psychology approach of Herbart and other thinkers of Charlotte Mason's time.   They were doing a form of what we might call "outcome based education" and trying in a sense to manipulate the students' minds.  Their thought was that integrated subject material, as evidenced in extended unit studies, would form "apperception masses" within the student mind as a result of the work of the teacher.  As Charlotte Mason puts it:

here is a scheme which shows how every child is a new creation as he comes forth from the hands of his teacher. The teacher learns how to do it; he has but to draw together a mass of those ideas which themselves will combine in the mind into which they effect an entrance, and, behold, the thing is done: the teacher has done it; he has selected. the ideas, shewn the correlation of each with the other and the work is complete! The ideas establish themselves, the most potent rule and gather force, and if these be good, the man is made.

Taylor's intention is the reverse.  He wants to open up the world for the students, just as Charlotte Mason does.   He is not thinking of the teacher as the sort of Mastermind who puts things in the students through clever techniques.  He is thinking of the students and teacher as having sort of a friendship -- exploring things together. 

He is pointing out how rich a single book can be if approached meditatively, not trying to trap a classroom into the confines of a single book, or so it seems to me.     His approach reminds me a bit here of Melissa Wiley's thoughtful post Way Leads on to Way (here's an index of her posts on Tidal Homeschooling in case you want to see the context).

Taylor writes:

It was a kind of thrill for both myself and the students to realize that within one book, and one that they were coming to love, their whole life as a student was contained.   But the end of such an education is not more and more books or even necessarily smarter students.  Poetic and gymnastic education has as its end the cultivation  of the senses, the imagination, and the will, not the elevation of the IQ.  ... the books... are not the end of education and certainly not intended to produce "bookish" students with overstimulated minds.  It is not a school for people to be able to say, My kid is smarter than your kid.

And later, when talking about high-schoolers with whom he read The Iliad and The Count of Monte Cristo, he describes cheerfully how he found out that they remembered very little of what he had said about the books, but that they told him that they loved the books, that "they were the best books they ever read."

We read a great deal aloud and would talk whole hours about one scene, recreating it in our minds, savoring some moment or event that seemed true to us.
This is the very sort of thing that can come naturally to a homeschool.   Since the intelligence of the student or the teaching expertise of the teacher aren't the main factors, children of different ages can respond to the same reading, and learn to listen to each other.  

 So here we are in our home-school, in a setting as much as possible influenced by natural light and temperature and rhythms of the day.   We do not have fancy lab equipment or expensive athletic facilities or carefully organized lesson plans with stated objectives, but we do have free access to nature and the kind of natural gymnastic discipline that affords; we have excellent books, not a huge quantity, but invited into our homes for their timeless quality; we acknowledge that some tedium is necessary sometimes, as with math drills, but that the total of education is far more than the sum of its mechanical parts.    We don't worry about progress so much as just a good steady rhythm and a kind of truth and honesty in approach -- not wrenching the books towards "teaching a lesson" but allowing the books and other elements to sink inside us.

Though the teachers and parents don't jump down from their position of authority and become "peers" of the children, in a certain respect they are "friends" in that they have things in common because they are human and the children are as much persons as the adults, though still unformed and inexperienced.   (Taylor writes quite a bit more about friendship but I'm saving that for a difference post because it's so important).

So my take-away points.
  • Keep things simple -- cultivate a certain poverty and healthy austerity so that the students aren't so coddled and insulated.   
  • Don't regret not having lots of formal educational accessories, since the best ones at the schools echo what a home has naturally, anyway.  
  • Take time and provide space to develop relations, connections between the books and the materials and the children.
  • It's not hard to choose books, because the books have already chosen us through becoming classics in our culture.  But if you need a start go to Ambleside Online  -- the literature selections are particularly good, and you can find resources for art study and composer study and poetry there, too.  
  • Don't worry too much about developing IQ and maximizing academic achievements -- all students, no matter what their gifts or lack of them, deserve a whole living education and in many of the things Taylor is proposing, small can be beautiful -- a child with fewer intellectual capacities can still be wise and insightful in his own way.  
  • But laughter and connections are important.  I can't count the number of times Aidan has enriched a bookish conversation or added a gift of laughter and love to the read-aloud.  That's probably one of the things we will remember best about our Morning Times -- sometimes it slows us down but Taylor's point is that slowing down, dwelling and pondering, is actually what we want to encourage.  And also laughter and the surprise of the unexpected connection -- Aidan is a master at that. 


  1. Keep writing, Willa. I did not want this book to end for that matter. I specially appreciate what you wrote about the books, for I thought I had it right but I was still holding to a bit of a wrong idea.

    I'm very excited about your thoughts on friendship and your connections with parenting book you reviewed.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Silvia,
    Of course there is no guarantee I am interpreting everything as Taylor meant it ;-). I guess that's why it's good that several of us are writing because we all draw from our own backgrounds to understand it!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!