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    Norms and Nobility: The Mythopoeic Nature of Language

    April 23, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    Hicks begins Section II of Chapter II with some comments on Plato I won’t go into, mostly because I don’t pretend to understand the context of his discussion, having only read a couple of very brief excerpts of Plato which I no longer recall. I have Plato’s Republic sitting on a shelf in my library, and I keep telling myself that someday I am going to read it.
    Anyhow, Hicks writes:

    Plato’s sin {and that of all antiquity} is that he tried to think with language.

    What is so wrong with language? Well, all that Hicks explains boils down to the fact that it is not precise. It carries associations from the past–the far distant past. It is “value-ridden.” These qualities are what give it what Hicks calls its “mythopoeic character.” I love that word: mythopoeic.

    See? Words are distracting. The mere sound of a beautiful word has turned my head already.

    Mythopoeic language might have been fine for Plato and his cronies, but we moderns have Advanced. And because we have Advanced, our Experts have helped the language keep pace by neutralizing it, cutting off its connection to “mythopoeic imagination.” Hicks explains:

    Norms and Nobility book cover

    Scientific rationalism and its methods of analysis demand a language of pure denotation to explain programs, techniques, and mechanisms. When the analytical methods and denotative language of scientific rationalism are forced on human learning, however, a reverse distortion occurs, with behaviorism replacing humanism and a mood of professional disinterest supplanting the emotional atmosphere of the ancient classroom. Where distrust of connotative language–with the baggage of value it carries–invades the modern school, there is a methodological tendency to exclude myth and to encourage detached analysis at the expense of the imaginative mind. Words like valor fall away…

    I happen to have here in my hot little hands a teacher’s guide for the second grade Rigby Literacy curriculum. On page T14, there is a section entitled “Determining the Purpose.” Here is a sampling:

    • You model and children practice a single comprehension strategy throughout…This clear, direct instruction helps children learn the comprehension strategy and how to use the strategy as they read.
    • When you focus on word level skills, you help children learn to look at word structure and patterns and develop their vocabulary.
    • When you focus on  sentence level skills, you help children learn to look at sentence structure and use cuing systems to read sentences that make sense…
    • When you focus on text level skills, you help children learn to look at the book as a whole, examining literary elements such as text structure, organization, and writing.

    The above is exactly what Hicks is talking about. This is the teaching of reading as a method of detached analysis–as a science. And yet I have yet to meet a strong reader who does any of these things. Do you have a comprehension strategy? Do you use “cuing systems to read sentences that make sense?” {Did the author of the book seriously believe that it made sense that one would need a system to read a sentence which already made sense?}

    Yes, as you know I am a firm believer in phonics. But I am under no illusion that teaching phonics is the same as teaching reading. Phonics is a skill, yes, and I believe it to be a very helpful one to possess. But to read in such a way that one is formed by the reading is not possible with phonics alone. Phonics simply unlocks the door to the Room of Knowledge in the first place. The nonsense above does not teach reading any more than phonics does. In fact, my guess is that the vast majority of children learn to use these “skills” to pass tests, but remain in the dark about reading as a form of participation in the conversation of men throughout history. I am reminded that Dr. James Taylor wrote:

    [O]ne cannot really read and know the words–the signs of things–without first a knowledge of the things themselves, which we must come to love.

    That reading is being taught this way in our schools reveals one important thing: the schools believe that the purpose of reading is to gain information.

    But if reading is, at its core, character forming {an act of spiritual formation, even}, we would need to take Dr. Taylor’s approach, no?

    I will conclude with one last quote from Hicks on this subject:

    A student cannot experience valor through analysis any more than he can a distributor cap through the imagination; hence, the analytical method itself calls into question the utility and reality of such concepts as valor, while affirming that of the distributor cap.

    Reading which builds a better culture is not what Rigby Literacy and programs like it are doing. They are building a world in which the proverbial distributor cap prevails. The method is utilitarian, and the children are formed by the method in ways unseen at first {though who can deny that we are producing utilitarians left and right?}.

    A child immersed in myth is impassioned. Oh, he may not know the word valor in second grade {then again, he might!}. But he is beginning to sense the rights and wrongs and questions in the world. He reads and hates Prince John, loves the knight Ivanhoe, and has mixed feelings about Robin of Locksley who is so darn appealing but then there there is that outlaw aspect.

    Robin Hood troubles us all, does he not?

    But I digress.

    In the modern methods, the book is mastered. In the poetic method, it is the man who is mastered.

    Further Reading:
    An Argument for Good Books
    A Brief Argument for Reality
    Cindy’s Chapter II Wrap-Up

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    1 Comment

  • Reply mtwiss April 26, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    Great post, Brandy. I agree entirely.

    Funnily enough, I read someone’s comment about Robin Hood the other day (was it Doug Wilson?) and he has been lurking in the back of my mind since, troubling me.

    In Him,


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