Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Poetic Knowledge Week 11

The fact is, we are not moved by thought alone but by the integration of an idea and desire, the desire for union with reality, and all our composite being perceives reality as good.  If education does not cultivate the natural desire for union with reality with the understanding that the poetic and gymnastic modes are real knowledge, then it delivers something profoundly inferior to the reality and powers of the human being.  For desire of the real to rise up, there must be something real to arouse it, and gadgets, computers, and gimmicks used to hold attention, all taking place in classroom environments technologically insulated from reality, are simply parts of the generally unlovable atmosphere of modern education -- unlovable because they are all efficiency, utility, and no longer beautiful. -- Poetic Knowledge, page 171
 In this last chapter James Taylor speaks from his experience as an elementary, secondary and college teacher as to how education should look if it is practiced in the poetic mode.   Note how much it resembles what Charlotte Mason says about a child establishing relations with the world

the whole circle of the sciences is, as it were, set with gates ajar in order that a child may go forth furnished, not with scientific knowledge, but with, what Huxley calls, common information, so that he may feel for objects on the earth and in the heavens the sort of proprietary interest which the son of an old house has in its heirlooms.
 Though she uses the word "proprietary" it seems you could almost substitute Taylor's word "participatory".   When a son of an old house wanders among his family's heirlooms and heritage, he does not finger an objet d'art wondering how much money it would bring him if he sold it, and he hopefully does not feel inflated in ego by being the heir to this wealth.  Rather, he feels a living connection with the things -- they relate him to his family's history and he takes pride in their nobility and distinction and ideally, hopes and aspires to live up to the dignified tradition. 

There is a combination of awe and desire to live up to the heritage that has come to us not through our own efforts but as a sort of gift or natural birthright. The knowledge, as you learn more about the heirlooms and what they represent, are taken inside oneself and become icons of a deeper relationship.

In the beginning of the chapter, Taylor names three schooly things that are not poetic:

  • a diagrammed sentence
  • a dissected frog
  • a list of historical dates
It's not that sentences don't have structure, that frogs do not have interior parts, or that dates do not have historical significance.   It's that the diagram, the dissection, and the chart of dates are not the things themselves.  Maybe they could all be called schemata...  organizational constructions for learning something.   But by themselves, they do not live. 

I happen to be someone who gets geeky thrills from diagrammed sentences and lists of dates, though I do not like dissected frogs at all.   This admiratio for diagrams and dates probably comes because I love language and history so seeing a diagram or chart of dates evokes all the preceding connections that I have made.  It's like those lines from Yeats's Easter 1916, which I just revisited in a good First Things article called To Murmur Name Upon Name:

Too long a sacrifice
Can make a stone of the heart.
O when may it suffice?
That is Heaven's part, our part
To murmur name upon name,
As a mother names her child . . .
Well, especially the dates.  I understand if you can't follow me with regard to the diagrams.  But they do give me a thrill.   I don't think diagrams and charts kill things the way dissection kills a frog.  Perhaps that is a blindness in me.   But I do see how, when introduced before a topic is loved, they can kill the topic for a beginner.   And when they become things to be memorized or skills to be mastered, they can quickly repulse a child thoroughly.   Taylor makes us understand why.    Would we love our parents if we never saw or touched them, but instead were given schemata representing various traits or characteristics that someone felt were crucial to the parents' identity, and then we had to memorize the schemata and reproduce them, perhaps for a grade on a test?   How horrible it would be, and how unlike the reality of a relationship. 

If you look at Charlotte Mason's analogy, what would it be like if the son of the house hadn't grown up there wandering among the heirlooms, prizing them, wondering about them and finding out things here and there all with that inherited connection to him --- but instead was dropped into the house, where a harsh light shone down and a voice told him to look carefully, because soon he would have to go to a desk and write out charts of where the heirlooms were and descriptions of their appearance and provenance?   Again, how terrifying and unnatural it would seem!

Now I don't think all verbal instruction is horrible and terrifying like this, nor do I think Taylor is making that point.  I think most children love to hear a few words or a story connected with something in their environment, especially when spoken in the course of daily mentoring by a loved parent or grandparent or teacher.    You can see that the student at IHP were silent and attentive to the discussions of their professors.    But that's something different because it connects to the reality of things and is couched in conversation and story and relationship, not isolated and abstracted.

Instead of teaching the diagrams, the charts, and the dissections, you should be exposing the children to the literary language, the historical stories, and the things of nature themselves.   Taylor  recommends a few things in this early part of the chapter:

Natural grammar by immersion in Latin

He thinks children could easily pick up on grammatical patterns by hearing the language spoken -- and that grammar, if it is taught explicitly at all, should be discussed meditatively.  What are nouns, what do they refer to?  Verbs indicate action.   My oldest son and I used to discuss this sort of thing all the time and got quite fascinated by how you can "understand" a poem like Jabberwocky that is almost all nonsense words -- the built-in syntax gives you clues.  We even made up nonsense sentences to see if we could identify the parts of speech just because of their context in the sentence.  And we used to try to talk to each other in Latin, flipping through dictionaries to find the words.  It was fun but strenuous teaching that boy!   But I think he had the right idea, approaching syntax and language in a gymnastic way. . 

Historical tales and accounts

Taylor thinks children and even (or perhaps especially) teenagers should learn history primarily through the primary sources, especially the narratives.    The dates are important, but they should be embedded in the actual story, not detached from it and memorized in isolation.

No textbooks!  He thinks they are dry, detached from reality, and secondhand in their presentation, which is not a strange thought to anyone who has read Charlotte Mason.

Time Spent Outdoors

A rose pulled apart is no longer so much a rose.  Same with the frog.  Charlotte Mason says pretty much the same thing in Out of Door Life for Children:

Is it advisable, then, to teach the children the elements of natural science, of biology, botany, zoology? on the whole, no: the dissection even of a flower is painful to a sensitive child, and, during the first six or eight years of life, I would not teach them any botany which should necessitate the pulling of flowers to bits; much less should they be permitted to injure or destroy any (not noxious) form of animal life. Reverence for life, as a wonderful and awful gift, which a ruthless child may destroy but never can restore, is a lesson of first importance to the child:––
     "Let knowledge grow from more to more;
     But more of reverence in us dwell."
 We are trying to encourage wonder and love, a combination of desire and reverence, and this is nurtured by watching and participating, not by destroying and isolating.

Even though I have only gone through about 4 pages of the reading, I am going to stop here because I want to spend more time in this last, operative part of the book.    So here I already have a few things to do in my homeschool that have the Poetic Knowledge seal of approval and also probably will seem fairly unschool-like to my children.

Gymnastic Immersion in Language --

I can't speak Latin to them, because my Latin is by no means spontaneous, but I can read Latin and we can try to converse a little.    And I can read them beautiful English language, which nowadays is almost a foreign language to most American schoolkids.

Maybe we can do dialogue readings.   Sometimes my family takes parts and reads a play; one time we took dialogue in a Dickens story.  It was so much fun.

History Readings

That's easy.  All literature from the past is by definition embedded in history, and there are any number of interesting retellings of historical events and legends.

Maybe we can compile a family historical notebook.

The things to talk about aren't so much the facts, per se, but as Charlotte Mason says, the relationships.  In her words:

Perhaps the main part of a child's education should be concerned with the great human relationships, relationships of love and service, of authority and obedience, of reverence and pity and neighbourly kindness; relationships to kin and friend and neighbour, to 'cause' and country and kind, to the past and the present. History, literature, archeology, art, languages, whether ancient or modern, travel and tales of travel; all of these are in one way or other the record or the expression of persons; and we who are persons are interested in all persons, for we are all one flesh, we are all of one spirit, and whatever any of us does or suffers is interesting to the rest.
This precedes talking "about" the work -- about story elements like plot, etc, and "what the author is trying to say here" and "how it is said".   This kind of thing comes later, and I've done some of it with my high schooler, but I haven't pushed it on him in season and out the way they do in public schools.  (One thing I have done is talk about plot, literary effects and the like through the filter of a story writer, since he likes to write stories -- and so this is participatory and gymnastic in that the young writer is learning about story elements and effects in order to use them). 

Go Outdoors

That's not so hard.  I just have to DO it.    The rest follows from there.  My older kids grew up thinking of themselves as natural historians.    They kept little journals, consulted field guides to learn about what they saw, and paid attention to the changing seasons and what each season brought.   My younger set grew up differently, partly because of Aidan's medical needs and immunesuppression.   They aren't nearly as attuned to the world outdoors.    My youngest is actually a bit nervous of the outdoor environment.  So I need to get out there and be their mediator, but for some reason it always takes last place on my daily priority list.

Some things to think of:

Go outside at night.  Go to different places in our area, so they can see different things.   Go to the beach (if it ever gets warm around here).   Take water bottles and snacks and go for a long ramble.    Bring the camera, take pictures, and try to sketch from the photos.   Collect things and bring them back.   Get close to the ground to see the ground life.   Look at the sky and see how it changes.   Eat lunch outside, or read outside.   Play in the water.  Dig.   There is a whole world out there.  

Well, this is long enough now, I think!


For links to more discussion, go to A Healer's Geste.

I've written more notes on Chapter 7 here.  


  1. Oh, Willa. This book has made us all wiser, I am getting much from it and much more from your posts about it.

    What I appreciate most it's that for the first time for me, after reading such a philosophical book, the last chapter is a simple but well elaborated conclusion of how all this looks like and effects our teaching, 'real life', the same as your post now speaks clearly about things in your household you intend to do, will continue doing, or start doing once you've gotten the principle behind this.

    I've also found the correlations with Mason very inspiring.

    I'm with you in the dissecting of the language, not in the dates. I love that because by the time I learned languages like this, such as Latin, Greek, English and German, I already had an immense love for languages that started with my own, but I can see how I don't like much the mechanical aspects of math because I never approached it poetically, and it can be done, only that for this, in my opinion, it's truly imperative we are in touch with a person who has a poetic knowledge of math.

    I have to say though, that once I took a course for the TAAS in math with a man that was a 'weird person' socially speaking, in appearance and talk, but who during the class totally had a gift of presenting it in a way we all got it and could do it!

    So much to look in my past and present and see all the great things poetic knowledge has done and can do for me and my family.

    Like you I've read this chapter twice, and I'll come back to it. It's been a wonderful effort and a refreshing and moving experience, this book club.

  2. I loved your comparison of knowledge to heirlooms! And also that it is a great thing to immerse our kids in the English language. You are right that this has become almost a foreign language, umm, you know, like, omg, I just don't get this!

  3. I loved the book club Silvia! It's the first one I've been involved in. Question: Is Spanish your first language? I am admiring that you have experience with so many languages. I think it is a good "poetic" road into seeing how people from other cultures think... there are some ideas and expressions that are untranslatable. I was just reading a bit of Charlotte Mason where she simply writes in French and doesn't translate, assuming that all her readers will understand. You don't get that kind of thing in books written since World War II.

    Shari, LOL -- exactly.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!