Cosmology and Cosmetology

I am going to butcher this, because it is all very new to me.  I spent all last week in Hamlet’s head.  A bunch of crazies gathered under the Circe umbrella and contemplated one of the greatest feats of English literature for five days in the beautiful (and cool) mountains of Blowing Rock, NC.  Here is just one thought that came out of that time.

Education is a leading of the soul to see the world in which it lives.  It posits to that seeking soul a vision of how the world, yea, the universe, is constructed.  This is a cosmology.  It is the libretto for Creation.  True education teaches our souls to sing the same tune as the rest of the universe.  Christ is the logos of that universe, the one unifying principle of the cosmos.

In Hamlet, the whole cosmos has been exploded.  All Hamlet is trying to do is reorient himself to proper, sensible, Being.  Hence the “to be, or not to be…” soliloquy.  I won’t even try to explain how all of this relates to the Liberal Art of Astronomy and which character is what planet, etc.  But I will note that Hamlet finds this realignment much harder by dishonest use of speech.  No one in that play speaks truly (with the exception of Horatio).  Everyone is deceiving everyone else, and often themselves as well.  Does this sound familiar?  No?  Watch the evening news, then, and see this first hand.

Hamlet tells the women in his life to practice their cosmetology on themselves but not on their words.  Paint the mask on an inch thick (5:1) but be honest with your words.  He laments the scarcity of such honesty, “Ay, sir. To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.” (2:2)  At the heart of real education is the inculcation of honesty into the habits of the student’s heart, mind, and soul.  We are seeking to help them build a cosmology that brings them to a fitting life with that which is true, good, and beautiful.  No small task, but well worth it.

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Line Upon Loving Line

The following precepts are the fruit of time I am spending right now trying to better understand the role of Language Arts in the high school curriculum.

  1. Language is fundamental to human flourishing. Without some facility in communication, man is unable to express himself to another, limiting him greatly in the expression of love.
  2. Love is more powerful than persuasive force. By this I mean that the sophist (who desires to control others through speech) is inferior to the one who passionately pursues truth in himself and others out of a love for truth.  Without beating it to death, this precept depends then upon the three oppositions to sophistry stated as…
    • Truth exists.
    • Truth can be known.
    • Truth can be, and should be, expressed, and that expression should be done from a motive of love for the truth and for the ones seeking it.
  3. So at its base, the learning of a language, or the bettering of oneself in a language, should come from a center of love for truth. I will not develop a whole supraset of thoughts here about truth, God, the Logos, etc, but this is where it belongs.
  4. Language is an art. All language has science within it (there are rules to grammar, logic and rhetoric that must be learned) but it is correctly considered as an art (something the student learns to “do”).  To be precise, the above mentioned three arts comprise together the Language or Grammatical Arts (Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric) but these are so closely aligned and dependent upon each other that they can be referred to jointly when studied in English as the English Language Arts.  Emphasizing knowledge of the subject rather than requiring facility with it will do great damage to the student’s understanding and ultimately love of the subject.  This confusion of science and art is a major flaw in contemporary education.  This leads to a number of sub-precepts…
    • Each art has its basic actions or fundamental skills. For language, this seems to at least imply an artist who can read, write, speak, and listen well.
    • Art must be demonstrated. With language this means all the actions common to the art must be modeled by the master teacher, and then practiced by the student under the watchful care of the master.
    • Mastery of an art is assessed by a master seeing the student perform. So all Language Arts teaching must involve both formative and summative assessments of all four basic functions in language.  A good English teacher makes his students speak, read, write, and listen often and with constant coaching on how to do it better.
  5. All art needs a muse; some thought must precede the act of language. This seems the basis for centering the English class on great literature.
    • Great literature provides great thoughts for the student to springboard from into their own expressions (both oral and written).
    • Great writing becomes a model for the student’s own attempts at the art.
    • Broad reading in great literature (meaning from different times, places, and purposes) will provide a full palate of materials from which the student can work to build their own enlarged understanding and expressed wisdom.
  6. The Language Arts should constantly induce love of words (Grammar), sentences (Logic), and those works of art they produce (Rhetoric). Given how broad these three Arts are, this is obviously simplistic, but should contain the basis of a good English class.

These musing have kept my mind swirling around the central concepts of Love vs. Power.  Far too much of education today is not about bringing a student toward the same love the master has for their subject, but rather coerce each other toward mutual power.  The teacher of today wants students who perform well so their job is secure.  The student of today wants a good grade so they can get the most financial reward from their “education” as is possible.  The sad fact seems to remain that while many “read” their way through an impressive list of books in school (or bore themselves with the Sparknotes available in lieu of such reading), once the grade is gone they have no love for or desire to continue reading for pleasure and real growth.  We may have to rethink the national literacy statistics.

What Would Constitute the Teacher’s Creed?

My school has asked me to articulate the basic tenets of education at our institution.  Is this is frustratingly fun exercise for me.  Frustrating because I am trying to boil so much down into few words, and fun because it is asking me to articulate the most exciting project I know: that of educating the souls of God’s children.

The following is not what I have put together for my school – it is its own community and cannot be expected to follow my thinking fully (I don’t think any school should fully follow any one person’s definition of education, while many try and thus fail).

The Teacher’s Creed

I believe that all education is a leading souls out from darkness into the Light of the eternal Logos, Who is Christ.

The direct effect of embodying the Logos is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue in the life of the learner.

Integrated learning within the Logos casts aside all fragmentation of knowledge, seeing the unity of all Truth within the Godhead.  All learning is moral and leads toward a greater understanding of God’s world, His redemptive plan for that world now fallen, and immortality in Christ.

Good learning in the Logos teaches…

  • that God honors those who honor Him, which is the foundation for a proper view of oneself. Respect for others and self is best found in a sincere love for the Truth.
  • all real learning occurs in the mind that is taught nothing that it can teach itself.
  • that with increased learning should come increased service and responsibility. Real learning changes how one lives, not just what one knows.
  • that loving God with our minds requires we learn to think clearly, critically, and independently while maintaining a proper respect for authority and tradition.
  • that the basis for all learning is the embodiment of ideas, so that education leads the learner from knowledge, to understanding, and then on into wisdom, which is simply artful living.
  • that most learning begins and continues in the context of great, open, compelling questions.
  • that no learner is an island unto himself, but a part of the community of truth. This means the learner must gain the ability to respect and interact with others, especially those who disagree with them.
  • that the mind, body, and soul of every learner is an integrated and real entity, requiring that all three aspects be addressed by anything wishing to be called education.

Loving Rightly

I have long been a fan of St. Augustine’s teaching on Ordo Amoris, the right ordering of our loves.  I believe it is much of what really is entailed in education.  Teaching a soul to love the best things the most really what the Liberal Arts are focused on.  So…

…If loving rightly is the key to happiness (and it is)

…and we teach children today to love themselves more than anything else

…and they learn what we teach

…then whatever comes between them and themselves will be less loved.

Fallen man has always loved himself too much.  What, therefore, is the natural result of teaching a young child to love themselves more, than how to align their love of self in such a way that God and their fellow humans come before their love of themselves?

I am afraid I have spent too much of my teaching career trying to convince students to love the given subject of study rather than showing them how their own happiness is wrapped up in the Giver of the subject.  The notion of Christ at the Center, that He is the Logos, that no matter what is being studied, all things bring us to Him and He brings us to eternal life is hard in a distracted world.  Our souls have become addicted to distraction, screens, and love of the mirror.

“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”  ― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses

Care to Roll the Dice?

It takes time for changes to become apparent. Especially in a huge complex thing such as the modern education industriplex.  I see this all the time in regard to the transition from secondary to higher education.  The college entrance game is a constantly changing dance.  Colleges change their criteria and that means high school college counselors then change accordingly, and then slowly, maybe as much as a generation later, students and their nervous parents change as well.  Much of this generational shift is because many parents work off their own college experience to guide their children.  That is not wise. There is nothing about my experience in the early 80’s that is of use to my current college age children.  We must approach this issue like any other, with careful scrutiny and real knowledge, not fear and propaganda.  Let me illustrate.

Right now many parents believe the single most important thing for a college bound junior or senior in high school is their ACT and SAT scores, right?  Of course right.  No, actually, it is quickly becoming quite wrong.  Read this article from the inside and see what I mean.  But the majority opinion will prevail and guide most entrance activity even after the colleges have left this form of criteria behind.  Why?  Because most parents and college counselors are working off past information, not current.  While the principal of a large private high school I invited college admissions directors from two large schools near our high school to come speak.  One was from a prestigious State school that everyone wanted to get into.  The other was from a very sought after private college nearby.  Both said the same thing:  what is true this year will change next year.  And one of the schools, now seven years ago, no longer required ACT/SAT scores for admission.

What amazed me most about those evenings were the large number of parents who afterward over cookies and coffee said something like, “Well, I listened, but I don’t believe them.  We are still going to put our eggs in those baskets.”  One of those parents dropped almost $40K that year to ensure that their child (in addition to the tuition for a private high school diploma) was given coaching and tutoring on all aspects of getting into an Ivy League school.  Their fear over their child’s success being tied to what college they got into made them deaf to the very folks trying to tell them that the rules were in constant flux.  They just couldn’t hear it.

All this to say two things: a) as long as we continue with this unsustainable thing we currently call higher education, admissions will be a roll of the dice, not a guaranteed anything, and b) fear will continue to be the main controlling factor for parent’s choices in guiding their child toward higher education.  We need the college bubble to be popped, loudly.

What Does a Grade Mean?

After establishing what a grade or assessment is, we move on to the issue of what it indicates or means.

If a grade indicates the teacher’s assessment of learning, then we have to distinguish between the “kinds” of learning occurring.  The first distinction I would make is between Arts and Sciences.  In short, we teach students either to do or to know.  A full discussion of this can be found here, but you can’t teach, or assess, these two things the same.  An art (the ability to do something) is not taught or tested in the same way as a science (something we learn intellectually or that which we know).

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As I see it, the following are at the very least the ways in which these things must be assessed differently.  In the arts we seek to judge how well the art is able to be done.  This further breaks down into those who have obtained enough of the ability that they can be said to be able to do “x.”  These assessments of basic ability, when done correctly, indicate that Johnny can dribble a basketball and Susie cannot, etc. But most times, the instruction is more than just distinguishing between those who can or cannot, but how well one can do the thing being taught compared either to other artists or to some standard for that art.  Here the task of assessment is to demonstrate a growing ability with the art.  “You started at this level and have progressed further to this current level.”  This is demonstrated well by such things as various karate belt colors.  You progress from white, to yellow, to gold, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, red and eventually finally to black (which then even has degrees within its highest distinction).  The color around your waist is an instantaneous indicator to all who care with what level of proficiency you have progressed through your karate training.  And that leads to the final act of assessment in the arts.  Though no art is ever perfected in a human, there are masters of the art, and at some point one must be judged such, usually demonstrating their readiness to leave formal training in that art and become a teacher of the art themselves.

The sciences are taught and assessed quite a bit differently.  I must reiterate from other discussions on this that Arts and Sciences work together.  Confusing the two is problematic to be sure, but sealing them off hermetically from each is equally harmful.  At least three things are assessed in a student’s growing knowledge of a subject: the level of knowledge, the student’s competency of that knowledge, and his ability to integrate his knowledge of the subject with the rest of his life.  The first is often what most people default to in educational assessment:  “How much do you know about the subject.”  But most teachers want students to know the material in such a way as to be able to connect the content together into something like understanding.  Given that these things (the knowledge) are so, how does fact A connect to and affect facts B, C, and D?  And this simply leads right into the third aspect of this mode of assessment:  how does subject A integrate or fit into the other subjects or “sciences” of life.  See my discussion here of the four sciences and how they are used to better educate the whole student.

So a grade or assessment shows a great number of things, depending on what is being assessed.  The last question for this blog is just as fundamental:  Who wants to know?  As an assessment is a judgment being made, it seems the main purpose of the grade is to communicate the judgment among all involved parties.  I think the teacher, student, and depending on the age, the parent behind the student, want to know the judgment contained in an assessment.  The teacher can use assessment to better his teaching, determine the progress of his students, and be clear with student and parent where he thinks the learning process currently resides.  A student is able to adjust his learning experience based on this feedback from his teacher.  And the parent, who is often funding and responsible ultimately for the learning going on, but not in the classroom, is able to know how things are progressing.

Some of the following questions flow out of these thoughts:

  1. How individual or collective can assessment be? Can the same assessment judge all students, or should there be individual tests for all?  The whole standardized testing thing comes into the discussion here.
  2. How objective or subjective is a grade? What can affect the objectivity/subjectivity of assessment? [I wander over into this sticky mud hole in my next blog].
  3. Should teachers seek premade test banks or make all their own assessments?
  4. If the arts and sciences are assessed differently but their grades appear side by side on a “report card” what is to be done to avoid the common confusion of these things?