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    Norms and Nobility: The Spirit of Inquiry

    April 5, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    I had gotten about halfway through Norms and Nobility over the course of the last year, but since Cindy announced that she was reading through it, I decided to begin again at the beginning and follow along. We’ve had a lot of company and activity {still do, actually}, but I have managed to read a section before bed on most evenings. Reading section by section is more helpful to me than I had anticipated. There is so much packed into each section. Hicks is really amazing that way, I think.

    Last year when I read chapter one, I really didn’t connect much with section one, which states that classical education

    is not, preeminently, of a specific time or place. It stands instead for a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and of conscience through myth. The key word here is inquiry.

    Hicks goes on to discuss forming “imaginative hypotheses” and “devising methods” to test them, and, upon my first reading last year, I wouldn’t say so much that he lost me as that it all sounded rather dull to me by the end of the second paragraph.

    Good thing I have resolved not to stop books in the middle anymore in order to battle my character flaw of forgetting to finish what I start.


    As I was saying.

    Hicks begins to make more sense as he goes on, but I think I have also been formed by yet another year of lessons, another year of watching Charlotte Mason’s ideas work their magic in our home.

    Hicks explains that classical inquiry has the tendency to “rely more heavily on logic than on experimentation.” This has more to do with the nature of the questions than anything else. Questions of beauty, ethics, and truth cannot be answered using the scientific method.

    Hicks then explains that this is the downfall of how schooling is done today:

    [T]he modern educator looks upon observation, not reason, as the starting point; and he distrusts the classical schoolmaster’s tolerance for normative questions and for the use of methods appropriate to such questions, as well as his insistent search for moral content and reasonable form in history, literature, religion, and art. His misgivings stem perhaps from a too lofty regard for the experimentally verifiable or from a lack of sympathy with the goals of the classical teacher, who is not trying to serve up verifiable facts, but is hoping to ingrain in his students the wonderful spirit of inquiry. {emphasis mine}

    When people ask what my children are learning, my tendency is to answer with “verifiable facts,” because that is how our culture, by and large, views education. It is believed, generally, that children are fit for graduation when they have memorized and verified and certain number of facts about various subjects. So I will say, for instance, that we have focused, in history, mostly on the years 1000 AD through about 1400 AD, and specifically our study has concerned the kings of Britain, though there have been other European events which coincide with those kings studied as well. My children “know” the kings of England.

    What I do not say is that the kings of England have turned out to be nothing but a source of documentation which provokes a single question which stands above all others this year: What makes a good king? And another is like it: What makes a bad king? Over and over, we find ourselves asking that question.

    This began innocently enough. We read a short chapter on a particularly awful king early in the year, and my horrified son begged me to tell him why that king was so very bad. Over and over we have asked these two questions, and now, if you asked my son about Richard the Lion Heart, he would tell you quite confidently that Richard could have been a wonderful, amazing king, but that he went to the Crusades instead of staying home, and even though there are wonderful tales to be told of his valor, citizens at home suffered under the wicked man who ruled in Richard’s absence.

    He would also tell you generally that good kinds tend to love their country. I have never appreciated patriotism as I do now. We have studied leader after leader. Some were smart, some were illiterate. Some were great strategists, and some were a little dull. But over and over, we find that if they were great, they were driven by a passionate love for their country and its people.

    And the antithesis of this are the wicked kings descended from Normandy who smash the people and import nobles from France who crush and steal and wound and are never held back in their crimes against the people. A lack of love for the country, or a greater love for some other country, is the single distinguishing mark of a bad king.

    That, of course, and a disrespect for the Lord and His word and His church.

    I see even now the beginnings of that spirit of inquiry. What we are studying is fodder for asking some of life’s greatest questions. We have hypotheses now, such as: good kings love their country and their God; bad kings love themselves and power, and hate their country and countrymen. We test our hypotheses by reading about more kings and more rulers in other places and other times and seeing if our theories stand the test of time. Is this hypothesis timeless, a permanent thing? we ask.

    So far, we find that our theory transcends time and place. A wicked pope, bishop, or friar tends to be distinguished by a love for self and power rather than a love for God and church and Scripture. A good lord loves his people more than his riches. And so on and so forth.

    Hicks writes of the modern classroom:

    [H]uman experience tends to be dealt with narrowly and reductively, broken down into isolated, unconnected units; students ignorant of what questions to ask are presented with uninvited and consequently meaningless information; and there is no basis for making moral and aesthetic judgments or for attaching learning to behavior.

    I see the truth in this when I compare my own education with the education Ambleside is offering to all of us {including my husband and myself}.

    Hicks would say that an education which is not asking the Great Questions…is no education at all.

    Read more:
    Cindy wrote on this same section. I haven’t read it yet, but I am sure it is wonderful because most of what she writes is wonderful {and the rest will make you laugh}.
    Karen wrote about this section, too. I am thrilled that she is blogging again!

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  • Reply Mystie April 13, 2010 at 6:00 pm

    Oh, I just saw that I didn’t reply to your answer, but I had meant to! 🙂

    Thank you, Brandy. It makes sense to let the questions come as they occur; you never know what connections will be relevant or interesting at the time. And, after reading your post I started trying to think of such a question for our studies next year, and I couldn’t come up with anything. 🙂 But after this, my antennae will be perked up to try to pick up on a thread that presents itself.

    Actually, I was going to go back over some of your previous posts to get a picture of your Ambleside time discussions. So far our circle & reading time have been pretty much straight reading and maybe some factual questions, but I haven’t pursued “thought” questions or discussions yet. We’re getting the hang of narration, though. I know the hardest part will be my own attitude which tends toward wanting things accomplished rather than patiently letting discussion happen and go as it will. That is one reason I stay in these discussions, is to hear again and again from others doing it that it is what I need to aim at.

  • Reply dawn April 13, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    Brandy, This is great! Hicks kept referencing “normative questions” and I wasn’t sure I could figure out what/how to develop them. Your “What is a good king?” really helped me understand. Thanks 🙂

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts April 7, 2010 at 3:40 am

    Sorry it took me so long to check back in. We had a stomach-turning illness today, throwing a wrench in my plans for the day (and possibly the week).

    In answer to your question, Mystie, I just don’t know if I could plan it in advance. It would be possible, perhaps, if I pre-read everything during the summer. But really this developed accidently. Due to the texts we happen to be using, the question becomes an obvious one.

    Another question that I feel is coming is going to concern the ethics of Robin Hood. It is a perennial question, really: did “the times” make Robin Hood’s crimes justifiable? I know we’ll be debating this from now to the end of the year.

    Personally, I don’t plan to plan (ha ha) my questions out anytime soon. Some questions seem to demand to be asked when we are reading the right sort of books. Others seem to come up because of the particular bents of particular children, and I mightn’t of thought of them on my own.

    Does that make sense?

    Time for bed…

  • Reply Mystie April 6, 2010 at 8:03 pm

    This is great, Brandy. So if you were planning the year, would you now start with questions you wanted to follow the whole year or would you wait for them to come, as they did for you this year?

  • Reply Krakovianka April 5, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    This was great reading–I was especially interested in what you wrote about kings, and the question, “what makes a good king?” because I *almost* used that exact same example in a post I’m preparing for the next section. You can memorize a list of kings without ever really understanding what it means to be king, and which one is more important? Good stuff.

  • Reply Jami M. April 5, 2010 at 6:54 pm

    Excellent comments, Brandy. I, too, tend to want to answer “what are you studying?” with “verifiable facts”. To show what my children “know” rather than talk about the questions they’re learning to ask. I’m at a point where I just prefer not to be asked many questions about our homeschool or what type of education we’re pursuing. If I answer “classical” than a whole host of assumptions are made. And if I start to try and clarify what I mean by classical…it gets a little philosophical and then eyes start to glaze over!


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