Reading About Our Wastelands with Russell Kirk

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Not so much a “book report” here as it is quotations that struck me as I worked through Kirk’s chapter, “Cultivating Educational Wastelands” from his work, The Politics of Prudence

All the normal obvious things have to be said:  Kirk was writing as I was coming into education.  Things have not gotten better.  But Kirk was speaking of those things prudent, not just holding up unreal ideals.  To have something like his vision in front of us as we try to pursue what is best in education is helpful.  I offer these quotes in hopes that you will read his entire essay; it is quite worth it.

“The United States is now the great power in the world.  Nevertheless, who can praise an educational system that turns out young people marvelously ignorant — except for a very small minority — of history, geography, and foreign languages, and so unfitted to have anything to do with concerns larger that those of their own neighborhood.  Worse still, what future have a people whose schooling has enabled them, at best, to ascertain the price of everything — but the value of nothing?” p. 240

“The primary end of the higher learning, in all lands and all times, has been what John Henry Newman called the training of the intellect to form a philosophical habit of mind.” (p. 241)

“The genuine higher education is not meant, really, to ‘create jobs’ or to train technicians.  Incidentally, the higher education does tend to have such results, too; but only as by-products.  We stand in danger of forgetting, during our pursuit of the incidentals, the fundamental aims of learning.

“Why were colleges and universities established, and what remains their most valuable function?  To discipline the mind; to give men and women long views and to instill in them the virtue of prudence; to present a coherent body of ordered knowledge, in several great fields; to pursue that knowledge for its own sake; to help the rising generation to make its way toward wisdom and virtue.” (p. 243)

“The education of yesteryear was founded upon certain postulates.  One of these was that much truth is ascertainable; another, that religious truth is the source of all good; a third, that we may profit by the wisdom of our ancestors; a fourth, that the individual is foolish, but the species is wise; a fifth, that wisdom is sought for its own sake; a sixth, that for the sake of the commonwealth, schooling should quicken the moral imagination.

“These postulates have not ceased to be true; it is only that they have been forgotten in our century’s obsession with power and money, and our century’s illusion that ideology is a ready and satisfactory substitute for thought.” (p. 251)

“Renewal failing, by the conclusion of the twentieth century America may have achieved complete equality in education: everybody compulsorily schooled, and everybody equally ignorant.” (p. 252)

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In continuing to write on this blog, it is my hope and prayer that we together are pursuing something more than ‘power and money,’ but rather wisdom and virtue, the Great Good.

More on the Modes of Teaching: Mimesis

It has been awhile since I wrote directly on the two modes of teaching.  I still hold to what I said in my previous writing, but I wish to add to it.  I believe that of the two modes, dialectic and mimetic, one allows itself to be “planned” and the other must (to be effective) be extemporaneous (out of the moment).

The mimetic mode of teaching is a closer approximation to what most would call “teaching” in our modern day of knowledge transfer.  The Bible seems to favor the process of knowledge (the basic facts) leading us to understanding (a connecting of facts into a meaningful idea) and finally arriving through that understanding at what is called wisdom (not just knowing how things are, but living in a manner that reflects that understanding) [see Exodus 31:3; 35:31; Prov. 2:6; 9:10; and even Daniel 1:17].  Mimetic teaching focuses on being a bridge between knowledge and wisdom by helping bring the student to a place of  “understanding.”

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There are three movements in the mode of mimesis.  The first movement depends heavily on the teacher.  This is where the student is led to the necessary knowledge they must “have on the table” in order to pursue understanding.  Let us say for illustration’s sake that the course is a U.S. History course and the current period of study is World War 2.  In this first movement the student would hear the teacher lecture on important names, dates, places, and events of that war, as well as being assigned reading in the time period, and perhaps even sent to research other avenues of such information (eyewitnesses, video, artifacts, maps, etc.).  The teacher is very active in this movement, steering and assigning the student the most engaging manner of gaining this needed information.

But then the teacher takes a step back and begins engaging the student in the second movement of mimesis.  Here the teacher begins asking questions of comparison, contrast, and conflict.  “How is WW2 related to WW1?”  “What caused the war?”  “What causes war to occur?”  “What are the classic positions on war-making and which do I hold to?”  This necessarily brings out much class discussion and debate, with students pulling from their knowledge and intelligence to bring the facts into a more organized form that takes on properly the label of “understanding.” Note as well that in this movement the point is not to simply “learn about WW2” but also to learn how such past events inform the life of the student here and now.  In this movement teacher and student share an almost equal amount of the activity or work of the movement.

The third movement is almost entirely the work of the student.  In it the ideas or understanding gained is restated by the student as clearly as he can so as to demonstrate to his teacher that he truly understands it, and to clarify yet more in his own mind the understanding achieved.  It is also the mode in which the student, by the aid of the teacher, will think through the necessary changes in his future life that such understanding should and will bring about.

I have used history as an example, but this mode applies to every subject in the curriculum in which the student is seeking to learn content or ideas.  We can never cease to draw the proper distinction between arts and sciences, as they must be learned differently.  But any science can be taught in this mode with these three movements.  This chart may be of help to you in considering any science being considered.

This mode can be to some extent planned and considered in advance of the classroom moment.  The first movement will probably fail miserably if there is not some advanced thought on the part of both the teacher and the student (at least thinking about what was assigned to him to read or do).  The beauty of where we are in educational theory at the moment is that because many define this first movement as the entirety of education, there are a ton of engaging, useful, and ready-to-go materials available to the teacher.  With a modicum of knowledge about your students, you should be able to quickly find a great way to bring them this knowledge.  The second and third movements can at the least be considered in advance as to the proper questions to be asked, and the most fitting way for the student re-express the ideas: oral, written, or some third alternative.

Much of this theory is derived from others to be sure, especially the work of the Circe Institute, but it has come as well through especially the writings of Plato.  His work in refuting the Sophists seems especially pertinent in our day.  In this post I have developed a skeleton for mimesis.  Next I will work on dialectic teaching, or what might be called controlled chaos.

The Way of Humble Ignorance

I want to try and define a roadblock to becoming a better teacher that I see in myself and others regularly, but that our culture has made very difficult for us to apprehend. I think this struggle reveals several issues in our modern definition and pursuit of education that have contributed to our current rather dismal practice of formal education.  The easiest way I know to introduce the obstacle is to use the term “sophomore.”

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Every year that I can, I try to help the current crop of sophomores in high school understand the meaning of their label.  Because we don’t teach Greek anymore, most of them have no idea what their title means.  If you know Greek, then you immediately see that the title is paradoxical.  Sopho is rooted in the term for “wise.”  More is derived from the form for “fool.”  This means that these young scholars are labeled those who are wise fools.  I think many in our day struggle with this syndrome.  Believing ourselves to be wise, we become fools.

Now that I have offended us all (and most kids that listen to my presentation are offended by the “fool” part even if they are surprised that anyone would accuse them of being “wise”), let me explain.

Becoming wise is the end accomplished through the means of knowing, understanding, imagining, and doing.  We live in a world created in just such a way by its Creator.  To live happily in that world, we must live according to its created order, not against it.  This means we must come to know how it is made by essentially accumulating facts about it.  Then we must seek to understand how this accumulating knowledge integrates into a synthesized whole (note for later that we never stop any of the acts of education at any point in our lives).  We are then faced with a moral set of decisions which demand that we engage a prepared imagination which leads us to act differently and purposefully upon what we have learned.  This is very compact and rushed, but if you follow me so far, we can now look at the sophomore’s problems.

Facts are Enough – Many believe that education is simply the acquiring of facts.  They think of it simply in terms of learning what I need to know, which might at most include the first two acts.  This destroys the overall scheme by cutting off its necessary ends.  There is no education without “facts” or knowledge, but there is no education with “just the facts.”

Understanding is Personal – Even if many do move on to trying to organize and understand the facts into a meaningful whole, our culture teaches them that it is just their own opinion, or that it’s personal.  What does it mean to you?  This kills education by making it of no use outside the singular individual.  And it kills education by ultimately leading us only to a contemplative cul-de-sac.  Stopping here is the error of those in ivory towers.

Learning is Specialized – Because we have taught ourselves to believe that facts define education, source becomes king.  The best education is gained by seeking the facts from the specialist, he who has gone beyond all the rest in obtaining facts about the specific subject we are seeking to learn more about.  But then we begin to believe that in the subject of “learning” we are at the mercy of the learning specialists.  We can’t teach ourselves much of anything, but rather have to go somewhere and be taught by specialists in teaching.  Now our formal program of education becomes the measure, not what we actually learned, but that we survived the gauntlet of specialized experts who lined up along our formal years of schooling.  Sophomores think all learning only occurs in school.

Loss of Imagination – All of the above add to the loss of any imagination.  True learning calls for action, and not actions that only relate to learning.  Most people equate learning with performance in school:  What grade did you get?  Are you studying for exams?  How is your paper on ___ coming along?  I am not calling for a tossing of these actions, but rather for moving beyond these actions to the real life applications of these things that cause moral movement.  The grade, paper, exam, etc. should cause me to learn in such a way as to change how I live my life.  That class in X should in some way prepare me to view and act in this created world in a way I did not imagine before I learned those lessons.  And real imagination brings me outside the formal classroom into the “class” of life where lessons abound.  Sophomores remain grade hounds.  They constantly remind us of their GPA while living the life of hard knocks.

Ordering of Affections – I hesitate to even bring this up, because it is too big for this place.  But it is at the heart of our struggles with education.  In our desire to get kids to learn we have made all subjects equal, taught by specialists who each believe their piece of the pie is best, and thus we confuse ourselves about the hierarchy of goods in this world.  Some things are worth more of our love than others.  Just to be brief, consider that many mainly are motivated to excel in school in order to obtain a good living wage.  I maintain that such an end is much “lower” than the pursuit of a good life, but many define the good life by one’s salary, thus aiming for the lower good.  Aim for the highest good (the good life) and you should be well prepared to gain the lower goods as well.  Sophomores are too easily satisfied.

Learning is Temporary – all that has come before this brings us to this point.  If education is mainly defined by fact acquisition from experts who help you obtain the wages you seek, then school/learning/education are all temporary pains for the vaunted end.  You get your degree, burn your notebooks, and start living the real life.  Sophomores are people who think you graduate out of education.

But I stated at the start that I was identifying roadblocks to good teaching.  And I have been, but only if you define a teacher first and foremost as a learner.  If a teacher buys any or all of the above for himself, then he will reproduce such in his students, and will resist the life of a teacher as learner because he thinks he already went “to school” and got his degree and now simply needs to transfer said knowledge to the young minds before him.  The greatest teachers in the world are those who most voraciously devour learning daily.  One overcomes being a sophomore by remaining a freshman all his life.

I can’t possibly develop all this in one blog and keep it to a readable length, but if you have grasped the husk of the issue, perhaps you and I together than pursue its remedy.

What is Education, part 236?

I just can’t get past this basic question.  I don’t want to get past it.  Coming back to center and “base” is fundamental to maintaining a sane position in a world whirling out of control.  It is my attempt to overturn the notion that “the center cannot hold.”  And as I am back in the classroom at least part time, it is necessary to keep asking this one question over and over.  The “236” of the title is not literal, and both literally and figuratively is way too low a number.  I have asked the question perhaps thousands of times by now.

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In my own thinking, here is the outline in short form:

Education is…

  1. Toward the objectives of wisdom and virtue (not to be distinguished so much as intertwined as really one objective = wisdom being shown by virtue, virtue informed by wisdom).
  2. As such then, it is the forming of proper appetites, or affections, or loves.
  3. The proper object of this love is God, found in all that is True, Good, and Beautiful.
  4. As love demands action (what the student does) as well as orientation (what his appetites lead to) I must distinguish and address what the student loves, knows, and is able to do.
  5. What a student is able to do is developed through the human “arts” (of which the Medieval educators were able to distinguish seven arts that lead to liberty, the seven liberal arts).  What the student knows is circumlocuted in the four sciences.
  6. Therefore, while I must and am always concerned about the content of what my students are learning (that is important, accurate, clear, memorable, etc.) I must also be equally (?) or even more concerned about what abilities are being enacted in their lives (are they becoming better at thinking, reading, listening, speaking, writing, etc.?).  And behind all this is the question of affection.  While they are becoming wiser and more virtuous, how is the ethos of my instruction bringing them to the right affections and then helping them order those affections rightly?
  7. And finally, how does one assess all this in any way even approaching wisdom and virtue itself?  At times it seems like all is going well until this last question is raised.  How can one human benchmark wisdom and virtue in another, or even more importantly, as I am standing in at the request of a parent who is ultimately responsible for assessing the wisdom and virtue of their child, how can I the teacher approximately assess the attainment of wisdom and virtue in my student and then communicate that to the parent in any manner that is loving, humane, and clear?  It is easier if we don’t insist upon it being “objective” or communicated through a “number.”

Whatever education is, it is not easy, quick, generalized, or for the faint of heart.

Ordering the Soul 2

Continuing with my earlier blog on a summary of why the cultivation of virtue is a central key to education, I take up here the relationship between thought and action.  Again, pardon my attempt at being very basic and elementary.

I began our tour with “Man is a rational but fallen creature” and wound up with the assertion that “Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.”  I am aware that I left rather vague the connection between wisdom and virtue, choosing to focus on virtue.  This must be addressed.

  1. Virtue is man’s pursuit of godliness.  I believe you can by and large use Aristotle’s classic definition of virtue being the mean between two vices in this context.  Sin is possible through either excess or ommission.
  2. Plato’s Meno does a fine job of demonstrating that virtue is dependent upon wisdom.  One must know the truth in order to do the good.
  3. Wisdom surpasses knowledge and understanding.
  4. Wisdom is cultivated through the teaching modes of the didactic (the contemplation of models) and the dialectic (the conversation of two souls through questions).
  5. Education cannot be content to cultivate either wisdom or virtue, but must pursue both together.
  6. An excellent education will cultivate wisdom and virtue by contemplating models of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
  7. An excellent educator will bring his students to question their inadequate concepts of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful by his examination not only of their thoughts but their actions.

With all these blogs the author’s intent is less to be dogmatic and more to seek other’s thoughts both as to where they agree with me and where we differ.  Chime in and help this pilgrim learn.  I know of nothing more difficult than leading another soul toward Christ while dealing with my own sinful self.

Cultivating Wisdom and Virtue Physically

 In considering the role of physical exercise in schools, we have to keep our eye on goal.  We state that education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, and so if we are arguing for some form of physical training to be included in education, then it must come within the pale of this goal.  So how does physical training cultivate wisdom and virtue?

I will deal first with virtue, as I think its points are more obvious.

1.       Self-control is developed in physical training if it anything close to training.  Just kicking a ball around might not reach up to such a virtue, but as soon as we bring in the notion of competition, keeping track of scores, developing skills, playing as a team, etc. we are at the level of needing to control oneself for the accomplishment of the objective.  I think this is by itself a very compelling reason for having athletics in a school setting.  Self-discipline is at the heart of the Christian scholar, and sports/physical training develops this in spades.

2.       Unity is obvious in team sports, but even respect and manners (sportsmanship) should be taught and learned.  They are left behind in our dying culture, but good schools would still teach such and seek such.

3.       Courage is also quite predominant in physical activity, and definitely a needed virtue in our time.

Perhaps wisdom is less clear.  Many would use the cliché of “dumb jock” to argue against my position.  But I of course disagree with the following thoughts.

1.       At its heart, wisdom is applying what I know to what I do.  I learn the rules of a sporting activity, but then I go out on the field and attempt to practice those rules, learning as I do so how hard it is to convert theory into practice.

2.       Wit or “quick thinking” or “thinking on one’s feet” is often the sign of someone who is developing wisdom.  Sport takes speed of thought as well as action.

3.       Practicing something over and over in one’s mind and with one’s body is forming habits of thought and action that are necessary for #1-2 above.  In sport we call this practice the “fun” of drilling.  I suppose one could say that the mental stamina that is being built by running “suicides” translates into so many other parts of life as to constitute a veritable training ground for wise living.

4.       Compassion should be the clear result of Christian physical training.  The fact that every athlete must agonize on the field, fighting his body into submission, should, when coupled with Christian humility, cause empathy and compassion in fellow athletes.  The manners addressed with virtue come from a wise mind that sees reality on the field – “We are all in this world together.”

I admit to blogging on this subject because I am so deeply concerned at the bizarre oddity of living in a culture that worships the star athlete but does not seem to seek in those athletes or in themselves the wisdom and virtue that athletics historically was supposed expected to develop.  If I am not making sense, juxtapose “Sports Center” with “Chariot’s of Fire.”  Would you rather your child learned at the feet of almost any current superstar or Eric Liddell?  My choice is quite clear.  I feel a whole paper coming on in my heart and my head.  We need to think about these things and pursue them earnestly.