Norms and Nobility:To Blog a Prologue {Entry I}

June 2, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

Thank you all for your patience and your prayers. For those of you who do not know, my husband contracted a serious illness, and my son followed in his footsteps. After visits to urgent care, labs, and our pediatrician, we find we have all the more reason to be fond of our beloved Dr. Linda, whose unconventional methods must be given credit for the fact that both my guys have turned a corner this evening and are sleeping peacefully.

In order to take Si’s minds off his sorrows, I reread the Prologue aloud to him today. His hasn’t said much the past four days, but he made the effort to tell me that the prologue was “amazing.”

I concur.

And now I move on to more transcendent thoughts, which always comfort me in my toughest hours. Allow me to begin with a quote which I think we will come back to often throughout this discussion:

Our fascination with technical means, by the very nature of things, subverts the supreme task of education–the cultivation of the human spirit: to teach the young to know what is good, to serve it above self, to reproduce it, and to recognize that in knowledge lies this responsibility.

The “supreme task of education” is the cultivation of the soul. Vigen Guroian called it increasing the capacity for moral imagination. This has been lost in today’s industrial factory model which sees itself as producing workers for The Economy, and where the purpose of education, from a student’s perspective, is to attain a job and Make Money.

Hicks spends some time in criticizing modern education, but I was pleased to note that, following the prologue, we have a delightful section of the book, Part I, filled with many chapters, titled The Idea of Classical Education. So we see that Hicks spent only enough time on criticism to reveal the need for a return to the old paths, and shortly he will move on to ideas and ideals.

Now is probably the best time to mention that I already blogged a sampling of the Prologue here, and so this entry is my attempt to blog a different portion and not repeat myself.

I am going to pick out my two of my favorite thoughts thus far.

Asking the Right Questions

The first focuses on communication skills, or the lack thereof. I think we have all had the experience of speaking with {or being!} a person whose vocabulary was so truncated that they were without the ability to communicate their experiences, to categorize or describe them properly. This means the person is actually unable to think about their experiences.

Our culture has failed to realize that communication is, for the most part, inextricably tied to mental capacity, which is tied to mastery of the language. We think in words, and without words we cannot rightly think. Hicks discusses the difference in approach to communication skills between the modern schools and the schools of history:

The modern school gives the impression that communication skills are merely techniques whose mastery is important for scoring high on tests and doing well on the job. But is there no transcendent value in learning how to speak and write exactly? To what extent can man be a sentient, moral creature without the ability to communicate clearly with others and with his cultural past? Can there be true independence of thought without mastery of language? In what way is man’s verbal ineptitude a barrier to knowledge of himself and of the world and of what lies beyond the reach of his five senses?

These are wonderful, wonderful questions, worth sitting and thinking about {in the order of Pooh} for a good deal of time. What is most interesting to me, though, is Hicks’ convincing case that the methodology of modern education has no room to even raise such questions.

I can’t help myself. I’m going to have to repeat myself even though I thought I wouldn’t. The quote is just too perfect to ignore:

The modern era cannot be bothered with finding new answers to old questions like: What is man and what are his purposes? Rather, it demands of its schools: How can modern man better get along in this complicated modern world? Getting along–far from suggesting any sort of Socratic self-knowledge or stoical self-restraint–implies the mastery of increasingly sophisticated methods of control over the environment and over others. Man’s lust for power, not truth, feeds modern education. But this fact does not worry the educator. From his point of view, the new question has several advantages over the old, the most notable being that it better suits his scientific problem-solving approach.

Most homeschoolers are familiar with the pressure to measure education. I have been asked numerous times about standardized tests. And I don’t want to say that these things are worth nothing at all. However, comma. We live in a world that thinks the tests “prove” the student. Nothing could be further from the truth. If education is primarily about the formation of souls rather than the acquisition of skills, the standardized tests prove nothing and serve to distract from the point.

Might I here assert that a soul being formed properly will, in time, acquire the necessary skills regardless of tests and standards. I really think that is true, and I have seen this in action in my own home and in the homes of my friends.

Modern education does not even address the existence in the soul, and is completely disinterested in its development, at least in practice.

Characteristics of a Good School

I am still mulling over what impact Hicks’ thoughts on a Good School should have on our home. {I’d ask Si, but he’s only semi-conscious right now.} Hicks writes:

The good school does not just offer what the student or the parent or the state desires, but it says something about what these three ought to desire. A school is fundamentally a normative, not a utilitarian, institution, governed by the wise, not by the many. It judges man as an end, not as a means; it cultivates the human spirit by presenting a complete vision of man as he lives and as he ought to live in all his domains–the individual, the social, and the religious. It teaches the student how to fulfill his obligations to himself, to his fellow man, and to God and His creation. Its understanding of man, therefore, is prescriptive–and its curriculum and organization allegorize the scope, the sequence, and the vision that all men must recognize and accept as fundamental if they hope to grow to their full human stature.

The word ought is going to be central in this book. Classical education doesn’t tell the student what to know so much as it tells the student what to be. As the soul expands, it has room for knowing all sorts of things, but those things reside in the full soul of a person who understands their duties and responsibilities, not just their subjects.

Parting Quotes

A few other things I underlined, and then I’ll be off:

The first premise of classical education is that the Ideal Type’s ancient, prescriptive pattern of truth–which served Christian and Jew, Roman and Greek–remains the most durable and the most comprehensive.

If any of you wondered why Ambleside focuses on so many “hero tales,” this is why. Early childhood is optimal for thinking big thoughts of great men.

[I]t is my intention in this book to ponder the difference between the man who was educated to believe himself to be a little lower than the angels and the man whose education permits him to ignore both angels and God, to avoid knowledge not of the five senses, and to presume mastery over nature but not over himself.

I don’t know about you, but I was definitely educated with a dichotomy, a deep divide between school and church. Socially, church affected school, but intellectually, my education for the most part ignored God, for sure, and ruled out the things we cannot see, while telling me that what can be done and never questioning what should be done.

Classical education refreshes itself at cisterns of learning dug long ago, drawing from springs too deep for taint the strength to turn our cultural retreat into advance.

Amen.

More to come.

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6 Comments

  • Reply Morality, Myth, and the Imagination | Afterthoughts August 24, 2019 at 8:30 am

    […] a prerequisite, we need to remember that David Hicks said that the supreme task of education was the cultivation of the soul. I used to think that the task of education was to get a diploma, but I now realize that many, many […]

  • Reply Phyllis August 7, 2016 at 12:01 am

    I know this post is ancient history, but I’m reading Norms and Nobility now, so I’ll be digging up your old posts. I hope you don’t mind.

    That last bit you quoted… I puzzled over it a long time in my reading. Is it missing a word or something? (Not in what you typed, in the book, I mean. You have it exactly as it is.) Or am I just not getting it?

    • Reply Brandy Vencel August 7, 2016 at 12:41 pm

      It’s there, but it takes some going over. Maybe this will help?

      Classical education refreshes itself at cisterns {of learning} dug long ago, drawing {from springs too deep for taint} the strength to turn our cultural retreat into advance.

      Read it without those two phrases, and then put them back in. 🙂

      • Reply Phyllis August 9, 2016 at 6:48 am

        Thanks! So it’s missing punctuation, not words. Now I understand.

        • Reply Brandy Vencel August 9, 2016 at 9:37 am

          I think so! I’m not that great with grammar, so I’ve never been able to figure out WHAT is wrong with that sentence, but the flow just isn’t right! 🙂

  • Reply Mystie June 2, 2009 at 12:18 pm

    I will be coming to the conversation tardy. Turns out we’re buying a house, which means we have to sell our house! So, it’s been a crazy week and will be another crazy one to come. But this will be a good, centering, thinking respite between furious cleaning and packing. 🙂

    I’m glad you have a doctor you can trust and who has been able to help!

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