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    Poetic Knowledge Recap

    July 7, 2008 by Brandy Vencel

    If all goes as planned, today is the first day of school. The only reason I can keep blogging through such a week as this is the beauty of scheduled posting. I think I’ll make much use of this tool in the coming weeks. Before beginning Year One with my son {and preschool with my daughter A.}, I decided I wanted to go back through James Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education one last time. This book, after all, has influenced my philosophy of education more than any other.

    I think it even surpasses Charlotte Mason in terms of its influence upon me. Gasp! Of course, that might be because Mason organized a lot of things that were already in my brain, while Taylor introduced entirely new concepts and ideas.

    I’ve underlined so much of the book that it would perhaps be copyright infringement for me to share it all here. But I’m going to give some excerpts a go, and add in a bit of my own reflection.

    But first…What is poetic knowledge? After reading the book, I think Taylor would say that poetic knowledge is the first sort of knowledge a child gathers {and one that is particularly shunned today}, and, rather than being the only sort of knowledge, it is a type of knowledge which underpins all other types of knowledge. More than anything else, poetic knowledge is gathered using all forms of the intellect and senses and has as its foundation wonder.

    It is this aspect of wonder that really grabbed me. As a devotee of classical methods of education, I fear hubris more than anything else. I would consider my work in our home a shame and a failure to graduate children who know much and are full of self. Wonder leaves very little room for self, while simultaneously leaving much room for God. It is, I think, the perfect antidote to hubris.

    [T]his way of education for the beginner is based on the child’s natural disposition to learn by imitation; that is, not only to attempt to duplicate what they hear and see but to become the thing that is imitated…

    As an example, I would hold up my son E. We have been reading The Long Winter. One of the central activities in this particular book is haying. They grow it, cure it, gather it, stack it, haul it and even, when their coal runs out, burn it. My son spent many days last week using a toy tractor to “cut hay,” which, his imagination assured him, was growing underneath his sister’s crib. When children read books, a part of them becomes the thing they read, and they often act it out later.

    “To young children should be imparted only such kinds of knowledge as will be useful to them without vulgarizing them. And any occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or mind of the freeman less fit for the practice and exercise of virtue, is vulgar…” {Taylor quoting Aristotle}

    We are very careful with our children, and sometimes this is misinterpreted as overprotection. However, if we are in the business of growing souls, and our goal is to grow a soul most fit for virtue, then there are two aspects of this. The first is avoiding things that degrade the soul’s virtue. The second is to fill that soul with everything required to produce virtue. Some think that to take away one thing {like a television, for instance}, is to leave them with nothing. It is actually quite the opposite. Leaving out influences that we consider degrading is the first step to making time for the building up and cultivation of the virtuous soul.

    [T]o “Hearken”–and “to incline the ear of thy heart” is not only the first disposition for learning anything, it is also a poetic disposition.

    This is something I want to cultivate in my children, for it is the path to wisdom. The wise man in Proverbs is characterized by his quietude, his receptivity to what he can learn around him, his eagerness to hear. I think that sometimes I have encouraged my children to speak too much and listen too little. Perhaps this is a fault in my own character as well. One of my goals for this year is for the children to learn to place value on listening with their whole beings, which is the true posture of learning.

    And although this book is devoted to the poetic mode of knowledge, gymnastic was always considered as an integrated and complimentary mode with the poetic spoken of by Plato and Aristotle. For a simple understanding for our times,…we can think of the gymnastic mode first of all as direct experience with reality, for example a life lived more out of doors…

    Hence, one of the appeals of the micro-homestead project. The children will not simply be outside, but they will experience creation’s seasons. They will see planting time and harvest. They will, in time, have trees to climb and ducks to chase. They will nurture fowl and gather their eggs. They will plant a butterfly garden and, in a few years, reap its glory and delight.

    But I’m not sure it ends there. We will not listen to hymns and folksongs in our school, we will sing them ourselves. It is such a simple thing, and yet there is a distinct difference between being entertained by something and being the source of that something’s actual creation.

    [M]odern education…has turned even play into a kind of work in that it is usually conducted as a means to learning something else rather than treated as an end in itself.

    May I never have goals for my children’s play other than that they experience delight, wonder, and the other poetic responses.

    [A]ll learning now becomes a kind of effort and work which Dewey models after a dynamic idea of democracy of social change, where learning has as its end the fulfillment of a progressive society always changing toward some perfected goal. Everything is measured by the changing needs of a social end, rather than knowing and learning beginning as a natural and effortless good in itself and leading to the fulfillment of the innate desire to know and to love.

    Taylor later quotes John Senior stating that “real schools are places of un-change, of the permanent things.” And all of this reminds me, naturally, of T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from ‘The Rock’:

    The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do
    But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
    In an age which advances progressively backwards?

    That, my friends, is a good stopping point for today. Dewey invaded our educational system in order to bring about a change centered on nothing but change itself, an unstable foundation to be sure. This has resulted in an increasingly chaotic culture which, as Eliot rightly says, “advances progressively backwards.” C.S. Lewis once wrote,

    We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.

    For many of us, that is precisely what homeschooling is: a turning back that is, at its core, truly progressive. As we follow the old paths and seek out the First Things, the things of un-change and permanence, we are acting in a way that builds culture rather than tears it down.


    For another recap, go here.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply Kansas Mom July 8, 2008 at 2:09 am

    Now you’ve posted about a book I’ll add to my Wish List!

    I have to stop reading blogs…this is the reason my wish list is growing instead of shrinking no matter how many books I read. (Not that I want to ever run out, but 12 pages on Amazon seems a little excessive. And the kids’ list to preview has 22 pages…) I’m sure I’ll get to them once this baby is born…

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