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    Idealism and the Ideal Type

    December 29, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    Since I’m supposed to be planning Circle Time for Term Two…and also our New Year’s Eve party…and also our daughter Q.’s third birthday party, I thought I’d try and conquer something really abstract and complicated. This sort of thing gives me something to think about once I finally buckle down and do what I’m supposed to be doing.


    The other day, I accidentally posted When the Thing Itself is the Reward before I was done perfecting it. After thinking about it, I still agree with myself. However, comma, ideally {ha} I would have posted this post first. Of course, I’m saying this not knowing if I would have thought to do it, because the helpful comments I received on my accidental post are part of why I’m writing this.

    Realistic Idealists

    I tend to be an idealist. I know this about myself, which is helpful. There is probably no more annoying person than someone like, oh, say, my younger self: an idealist who doesn’t completely realize it.

    I have been attempting to become what I like to call a realistic idealist. Though this might seem like an oxymoron, I think this is actually a healthy balance: dealing with actual reality while not losing sight of the things which can be, which possibly should be.

    This is, to my mind, refusing to forget what light is when we find ourselves surrounded by darkness, while also acknowledging that even though the sun is best, a flashlight will sometimes have to do, especially if it is night.

    With this said, sometimes I rattle off these idealistic posts without reminding myself to label them as such. That is an important step to skip. How might we connect the ideal to reality if we forget to distinguish between the two?

    That is a bit of what I hope to tackle during my procrastination post today.

    The Christian Classical Ideal

    Classical education has been dominated by what is often referred to as the Ideal Type. David Hicks devotes an entire chapter {The Tyrannizing Image} to the Ideal Type in his book Norms and Nobility. Hicks explains

    The ancient student of the Ideal Type…started out with the dogma of a moral ideal called kalokagathia–a man both beautiful and good.

    Now, Hicks explains that this Ideal Type preceded Christ. In fact, I became confused about Hicks’ relationship to Christianity due to some of what followed in the paragraph, such as this:

    Any rival ideal would have met with sheer incomprehension, as Saint Paul discovered on Mars Hill.

    As a Christian, I would say that this is the obvious nature of Christ as a stumbling block. He is the ultimate Ideal Type, the real and actual Ideal Type, but the Jews couldn’t stand that He didn’t conquer the Romans and the Romans couldn’t stand that He’d wash someone else’s feet, meaning that the Ideal Type of classical antiquity, as well as the Jewish ideal, did not match up with the real, true Ideal Type.

    However, the fact that the classical Ideal Type was deficient in that it did not accurately comprehend man or what God designed a mature man to look like, that it failed to acknowledge Christ’s kingdom when it was inaugurated, does not negate the concept of an Ideal Type in general. Hicks explains that the Ideal Type

    is an aprioric necessity of human existence, a concomitant of human life, prescribing for all time the standard by which men shall judge themselves and others.

    Our modern world, however, has almost entirely discarded the Ideal Type. Many in our culture would be tempted to declare the Ideal Type to be “not fair.” Though we know instinctively that all of us fall short, that none of us can actually attain perfection, there is a very real sense in which some of us will come closer than others.

    Classical Idealism: Tension with Academic Grading

    I mentioned in my post that I have rejected the concept of grades {meaning A, B, C, etc.–not first grade, second grade, etc.}. This is a philosophical position, and I believe that my state will require me to assign grades when the children are older. My current position does not mean that the children will not have feedback. But my approach here lends itself to mastery and excellence, talking through a project along the way until we attain something of quality, keeping in mind the individual child’s natural potential.

    On a personal note, I was the type of person stopped by grades. I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back, I think I see this clearly. Achieving high grades was easy for me the majority of the time. It required very little real exertion on my part. Because of this, I failed to imagine all that I might learn, and I contented myself with the minimum I could do, which was the modern “A.” Had I been in school earlier in the century, I would have had to work harder. {A’s have been “dumbed down” over time.} But as it was, I spent my time jumping through hoops and doing what I was told, but never really took flight in my intellectual growth until I encountered higher learning.

    The biggest gift my father gave me in sending me to college, besides purchasing a very expensive husband, was to send me to a place with enough imagination that I began to love learning for its own sake, and not for the grade alone. Because of this, my learning finally went deep into the subject at hand, rather than remaining at the level of shallow performance. This had only happened one other time in my prior thirteen years of formal education.

    Grades are essentially a replacement for the Ideal Type. They symbolize rejection of a timeless absolute. Hicks discusses this near the end of his chapter:

    The Greek doctrine of the Golden Mean prescribed man as he ought to be–physically poised, mentally balanced and rounded off, thoughtful in action and active in thought: the living embodiment of the Ideal Type. The modern mean, on the other hand, defines the individual as he is in relation to a statistical point. The Golden Mean was a dynamic principle; the modern mean is a static one. Ancient man strove to fulfill in his person the Golden Mean and was rewarded with rare moments of fleeting achievement; modern man, however, is always at–or so many points off–the modern mean.

    Education’s graduation from a Golden Mean philosophy to one of statistical mean is not yet complete. Despite our failure nowadays to agree on a Golden Mean, the demands of the Ideal Type persistently tug at our hearts. These we dismiss as subjective longings for some bygone era. We quiet these urges by reminding ourselves of how psychologically damaging and undemocratic a Golden Mean philosophy is to the student who must endure the tensions of constant self-denial and self-control in pursuit of the Ideal….How much easier and safer it is to adopt the philosophy of the modern man. Judging the student against what he is or against what his peers are, after dividing them up by their number, seems far less arbitrary and demanding. What could be more democratic and less controversial? How could a student fail to measure up to what he is? Unfortunately, however, the statistical mean is a solution with mathematical–but not human–efficacy.

    The Ideal of Love

    Now that we’ve established this concept of the Ideal Type–which is revealed to us not by Homer, but by Christ, and which is accessible to us, in varying degrees, not by our own efforts, but as a gift of the Spirit–I will discuss my post. If I had written this post first, then I could have started off that post, as a subsequent post, with the acknowledgement that an important aspect of the Ideal Type is that it is motivated by love. For instance, I believe in doing one’s duty, but I think the ideal motivation for performing said duty is love–love of God who created the order around which duty revolves, and love of the object to whom one is being dutiful. To bring this home to the world of education and learning one’s lessons, I believe in teaching grammar and I believe grammar is best learned when one appreciates it–loves it–for what it is.

    Idealism Meets Reality

    In the comments of my original post, GretchenJoanna said something very wise:

    There can be value in a system that builds good habits, even if the system is not adequate to maintain the habits long-term.

    Sometimes, we have to be realistic about our children. If we have potty-trained enough children, for instance, we know that some children just aren’t that interested. And some of these disinterested children are not interested even when they should be, when it is age-appropriate for them and they have shown every sign of capability.

    Some children have to be pushed out of the proverbial nest.

    So though it is wonderful to have a child that relishes maturity and loves it for itself, some children, especially in the area of skills like this, do not love or appreciate the skills until they have already mastered them. This is why I don’t feel one ounce guilty over the bribery I use in potty training {though I did feel guilty when I once prolonged it longer than was necessary or helpful}.

    Which brings us to the point: sometimes we will use a means other than love–be it a bribe or praise or a reward–to help the child get a taste for the thing at hand. Once they have the taste, our job is to wean them from the means and help them grow into the love for the thing itself. In the world of potty training, as GJ said, treats may be a good way to help build a habit, but not a good way to maintain the habit.

    Clearing the Landscape

    Because each of our children falls short of the Ideal Type in unique ways, we need wisdom in training them up. This is why, in my original post, I alluded to the idea that I intend to spend some time surveying the landscape and seeing what things distract my children from loving things for themselves.

    I used this imagery because I think our modern world presents a unique problem of clutter. I want to consider, for instance, whether or not I have anything out there which is replacing love as a motivation. Am I inadvertently corrupting or distracting the hearts of my students?

    I once met a family who paid their children to obey. I am not kidding. I think they believed that using this means was encouraging good habits in their children. They did not see what my husband and I saw, which was children who were becoming increasingly interested in their own financial gain. The parents thought they were tutoring their children in obedience, but instead the means of encouragement misdirected the heart into a love of money.

    I say all of this knowing that I, too, could be blind. We pray for wisdom, that we may see what distracts from what is Good and True and Beautiful.

    There is clutter everywhere. To bring it back to the topic of educating, we see this in elaborate lesson planning, where an idea, a beautiful, important idea, might be inadvertently drowned in a sea of cutting and pasting and songs to chant and pages to color and so on and so forth. None of these things are bad, but I often fear that in piling on so-called “busy work” there is much more lost than gained.

    I could give a million examples, but they would all be personal, and this is the nature of education. We are teaching people. So we must know them intimately and clear the path according to the need. One family’s busy work might be another family’s treasured memory, truth be told.

    However, comma.

    David Hicks warns us not to dispose of the Ideal Type, which necessarily means slipping into a sea of relativism:

    Relativism flourishes in a setting where appearances become tantamount to reality and where there is no longer any transcendent basis for judging one appearance as better than another.

    Beginning with Me

    GJ also made the important point that:

    I think the most important way to cultivate proper affections in children is to do it in oneself.

    The worst version of myself wishes there were a way to get around this fact. Hicks agrees with this, by the way:

    The ancient schoolmaster in his intense struggle to achieve a living synthesis of thought and action exemplified this Ideal and passed it on to his pupils by inviting them to share in his struggle for self-knowledge and self-mastery, the immature mind participating in the mature. Against this Ideal were the master’s achievements and his pupils’ judged. All fell short, of course, but some–and here’s the rub–far less short than others…[I]t is apparent that the greatest teachers still exhibit an Ideal in their speech and behavior and in their normative approach to learning. Their lessons spring to life in the moral climate surrounding them.

    And later:

    [The Ideal Type] adds enormously to the burden of being a teacher, who must struggle to embody the Ideal and who must take responsibility for cultivating in his students a sense of conscience and style both inside and outside the classroom.

    What was it that Paul said?

    Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

    I Corinthians 11:1

    In regard to achieving the Ideal of love, I think that GJ is right on target. If our hope for our children is that they be abounding in love of all kinds, for a broad variety of ideas and tasks, we, too, must shake off the apathy and encounter the world with delight.

    Which, for me, means I might have to clear my own landscape a bit.

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    1 Comment

  • Reply GretchenJoanna January 2, 2010 at 5:25 am

    You make me want to read Norms and Nobility again. Thanks for all your thoughtful words.

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