Contents Under Pressure

I introduced this blog in my last blog.  There I set out the three columns from M.J. Adler’s Paideia Proposal in a general way.  I now take up the first and most basic of those columns: Content.  It fascinates me how often I meet folks who think this is the sum total of what education should be.  “Just the facts” folks are like Professor Gradgrind from Dicken’s Hard Times.  “Now, what I want is, Facts. . . . Facts alone are wanted in life.”  That is from Chapter 1 of that inimitable book and should be read by anyone who loves good learning to see what it is not.  Dickens saw in his own day what we now see in spades.  People confuse learning with trivia.  But let us organize ourselves here, and stop giving you the Dickens.

In the chart from the previous post the following information was conveyed about this first column:

Column Content
Goal Acquiring organized knowledge
Means Questioning




Classical Trivium Grammar

Content is about knowledge, but it in particular concerned with the organizing of that knowledge.  Students do not need facts from a fire hose, but rather the restful, leisurely ingestion of the important knowledge necessary to any given study.  The means mentioned above are all appropriate, and should all be used.  Note that in many classrooms, the last (conversation) is often foregone for the sake of the “lesson” which is again adjusted something akin to that of a fire hose at full force.  Instead of gaining content in an integrated and restful way, here is what I have seen.

The questions are rapid fire and mainly divided between right and wrong, or “how did you feel about” this.  Lectures are, especially in our day, but even back when I attended the local cave school, boring.  One mind is listening to another.  I will come back to this in a moment.  And then there are the texts.  Today, almost without exception, this is translated out of the original into “textbooks.”  They are books, and they do have text, lots of it, but again, in being made to be easily accessible, they have become boring.  And I have already suggested that conversation is absent from most learning environments today.


Students must be engaged in Column One: Content learning.  You can’t develop skills or ideas (the other two columns) without any knowledge.  Scripture is clear that knowledge launches the life-long pursuit of truth (Proverbs 2:6).  But is supposed to lead on to understanding and wisdom.  So the knowledge being taught must be well ordered, and we must not confuse ourselves into thinking that such knowledge transference becomes the sum total of education.

We should ask questions of our students that drive them toward finding the knowledge a given scientia requires.  We should use questioning to reveal their lack of knowledge.  We should constantly expand their world by using questions to reveal the wide boundaries of a given subject.

Lecture, the direct communication of ordered knowledge through a prepared talk, is a legitimate teaching exercise.  But, but, but it should not be our go-to or fall-back mode.  Knowledge delivered in this manner can quickly overwhelm the student, burying their mind in so many facts that they don’t have time to consider all they are “learning” and thus often they are gathering trivia for the next test rather than actually bringing knowledge into their lives.

The use of texts to teach knowledge is basic and historically without doubt the most common form of presenting knowledge to a student’s mind.  But the text should be eloquent.  It should be beautiful.  It should spark their imagination and wonder. The modern use of call outs and pictures and graphics and such is not necessarily bad, but it can be a distraction.  The point of a text is again to bring order to the “facts” being presented.  Too much extra “stuff” leads the student in too many directions at once.

The most fundamental form of knowledge acquisition known to man is almost absent in our factory oriented schools.  Modern education does not have the time it takes to have a good honest time consuming conversation.  Teachers who love the rabbit trail, and who allow things to go off the tracks are viewed with disdain.  After all, there is an end of grade test to be taken and everyone must be focused on getting those scores up.  A teacher and students taking the time to bring lecture, questions, and text all together into a rambling conversation just seems inefficient.  And it is, if the test is the thing.  But it the only way I know to know that the lecture, text, and questions have resulted in real learning, not crammed information.  And conversation begins bringing the other two columns into the class as well.

I will continue soon.


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