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    Educational Philosophy

    CiRCE Talks: Kern’s Imitation: The Forgotten Path to Liberty

    October 29, 2010 by Brandy Vencel

    I always appreciate that Andrew Kern begins his talks with his thesis. This helps me know what I am trying to learn in my listening. Sometimes, an idea in a Kern lecture which seems initially like a digression, turns out to be firm supporting evidence for the thesis when I review my notes, and all because there is a clear thesis written down, that I might not forget it.

    The thesis he states this time is:

    Throughout human history, imitation has been highly honored, but in the last hundred years or so, we despise it, we consider it monkey-see-monkey-do, aping, rote … We regard imitation as, fundamentally, a problem.

    His real thesis is basically that imitation is integral to learning. He wonders if perhaps it is the only way we have ever really learned anything. If imitation is integral to learning, we need to understand how the process of imitation takes place.

    Kern refers us back to Guroian’s talk Mentor. Guroian says that without mentors, the arts perish. In context, he’s talking about the fine arts — dance, painting, etc. Mr. Kern extends this to … the liberal arts. As usual, I have trouble remembering that the liberal arts are arts rather than subjects, and I am grateful that the CiRCE Institute is always faithful to hone my understanding of this important idea.

    Kern tells us that the liberal arts cannot be taught in an academic fashion. Students, he says, must be discipled or mentored in the liberal arts. Freedom, he says, is an achievement which requires a mentor. It isn’t a condition at birth. The mentor takes on the role of eye-opening coach, enabling the mentee to see.

    Mentoring done properly is done through mimesis, which is the Greek word for imitation. I felt like I understood this whole concept better because my son E. and I are currently walking slowly through Marryat’s The Children of the New Forest. A boy in the story has just received his first deer hunting lesson. He was not placed in a classroom where he read books about hunting, learned the vocabulary, and so on. Instead, he and his mentor walked in the forest together. He watched his mentor, and his mentor gently corrected any mistakes, explaining why they were a bad approach to hunting. And so on.

    As an aside, this was the point where I began to be convicted {once again} that if we are actually taking on the position of mentor, we are taking on the position of … master. The children imitate us, no? How important our own education, if we are to disciple our children in the arts of freedom!

    Everything we learn, we learn through imitation, he says. I wasn’t sold on this until he explained the steps of the process. After that, I was more convinced. Of course, we also have the idea floating around that knowledge is revelatory. What about that? Kern answers that objection also. Yes, his listeners laughed. There is always a lot of laughter and delight in a Kern speech.

    This is not to say there’s no such thing as inspiration and all that. I do believe in calling on the Heavenly Muse as John Milton did. But I also believe that if the Heavenly Muse comes to you and you haven’t ever read a poem, and you don’t have any vocabulary, the Heavenly Muse will be just as frustrated as you are.

    Kern admits that we can show a child a picture of an animal, tell him the animal’s name, maybe the sound it makes, and this is a form of imitation. But it is a shallow understanding, literally two-dimensional. Kern contrasts this traditional {in a modern sense} classroom method with God’s approach of having Adam name the animals. Kern believes that Adam came to know the animals, and his naming of them was a form of imitation — a priestly presentation of the animals back to God in the form of a symbol. Adam takes what God presented to him and he represents it to God.

    I took the textboook approach when my oldest was two. I showed him pictures of animals and told him about them. I was on bedrest, so I don’t know that I could have done anything differently. But I can’t help but contrast this with how my current 2-year-old is learning. Once a month, we head down to our beloved feed store to buy bags of layer pellets for our flock. The store has a “petting zoo” out back {well, that is how the children perceive it; we adults know that this is a place where certain animals are being finished off before butchering}. Little O. runs out there screaming with delight. Any time an animal makes a noise, he’s off running to it. Never mind that two of the roosters are separated in cages by a giant yard, when one crows, he’s off, and when the other responds to the challenge, he’s back again. There is a little bench where he loves to sit, swinging his legs, watching the chickens in their caged area.

    Little O. has had a calf “nurse” his fingers. He’s had a llama sniff his hair. He begins to name the animals on his own, using the sounds they make. I correct him with the proper name, of course, and I can’t help thinking that whereas my oldest knew what a cow in a picture was, my youngest knows a cow. It gets even more personal when I think about how my children don’t know ducks in general, but six specific ducks, their names, how they behave, what they are like. This is a sort of intimacy that isn’t achieved in the vast majority of classrooms.

    But I digress.

    What does the process of imitation look like?

    1. Attentive perception. Earlier, Kern called it “observation,” but he refined it midway through the talk. We’ve talked before about how attention is an act of the will to which children can be trained. Children in our culture are trained to not attend. They are not held accountable for not attending {unless you count drugging them}. We train them to be easily distracted by putting them in front of a screen that feeds their sensuality, overstimulates them, and causes them to crave more distraction. It makes them dissatisfied with the real world around them, and careless in their observation of it. Perception, Kern tells us, depends upon the will. Everything in life, he says, depends on what you attend to — you choose to be a certain person by choosing what you give your attention to. The reason we do not train a child’s will and train them to attend — to the voices of their parents, to the world around them, etc. — is because years ago science told us we were complicated animals, or possibly machines — that there was no soul. And so we stopped cultivating the soul, disciplining the will. We have replaced this discipline of cultivation with entertainment and distraction in the form of electronic media, which causes atrophy of the soul–and I loved what Kern said here — the opposite of what happens when you meditate on the law of the Torah day and night and your leaves will never wither. The scary thing is that it seems to be implied that children who are not disciplined and cultivated will never get past step one — their path to wisdom has a roadblock right at the starting gate.
    2. Contemplation. This has three components: memory, imagination, and comparison. Comparison is when we look for similarities and differences. There are differences in quality, quantity, kind, and degree. We do this involuntarily whenever we see anything, but the mentor can help pull it into the conscious mind so that it is harnessed for actual learning. Imagination enables us to see into the life of things — it is not calculated, but a perceptive power and act of the soul, and the ancients saw this as the beginning of reason.
    3. Formation. This is almost completely passive. As steps 1 and 2 are engaged in, the idea begins to form itself in the soul. We begin to understand cow-ness or duck-ness. We can know what things are, but this is different from knowing the thing itself. Most of our knowing today is shallow and lacking in understanding because we do not follow the steps of imitation, nor do we make it to the point of formation.
    4. Re-present it. This fulfills our priestly duty of offering the thing back to God. Re-presentation can take many forms — speak it, write it in a story or poem, sing it in a song, and so on.

    Kern made a few important points that flesh out some of the details:

    • Freedom is a long process, and the liberal arts are the disciplines of freedom. Fully mastered, they are the ability to use and interpret symbols, meaning they are the ability to do what is uniquely human. There are many small steps between not knowing math and mastering calculus. Kern encourages us to discipline the children in the arts every step of the way, taking little, detailed steps. To get to calculus, we start with counting, and then addition, and so on.
    • Play complicated, syntactical music for them to hear. Read Shakespeare or Milton to them. Don’t worry about the fact that they {or you!} can’t understand it. “Understanding what you read is vastly overrated.”
    • Seeing is important, and this is what painting and drawing are for. They train us to see things, which is perception. If you want them to see something, have them imitate it — tell about it {narration, anybody?}, paint it, write a story about it.
    • In literature, the key question is, “Should he have done it?” Should Edmund have followed the White Witch? Should Washington have crossed the Delaware? This gets us into the heart of the story. I wonder if narration without this question is really sufficient.
    • In teaching reading, ask them about what they are reading.
    • If you want them to be it, show it to them. If you can, be it yourself. If not {because none of us are perfect}, read a book about it — for instance, find a story which embodies justice.
    • Kindergarten 101: teach them how to pay attention, how to will themselves into attentiveness.


    Personal Application

    This talk reaffirmed to me some things that I was beginning to doubt myself on { they are sometimes hard and the children aren’t particularly fond of them} as well as gave me a vision for some things I can add.

    • I needed to continue to work with A.-age-five on narration. She resisted {they all resist} in the beginning. I read a Bible story from Genesis out of the King James every morning. Her job is to remember one thing she heard. In the beginning of the year, she couldn’t do it. Now, ten weeks later, she narrated almost the entire story. But two weeks ago, I was about to give up. That was when I first listened to this talk. I realized that the problem was really an undisciplined mind. So I pressed her on it. All in two weeks she went from maybe remembering one thing to giving me a full narration. And this from the child I often think has a bad memory. What she has is what we all have: inattentiveness. And she can be trained because she is a child with a soul which can be cultivated. Goodness, I am struck by how important is our theology of man in all of this.
    • I am not asking enough “ought” or “should” questions in regard to stories. I am resolving to pick out of my son’s narrations one event, and ask him of someone ought to have done something, and why. I’d like him to use Scripture when at all possible.
    • I am not requiring enough imitation. This term, we are studying the virtues. On his term exam in two weeks, he will be asked to write a story that embodies one of the virtues we have studied.
    • I need to work on drawing and painting with my little ones. I have the eight-year-old doing a weekly drawing lesson, plus a weekly craft that hones a skill that will be handy for him later, but I have neglected the little girls.


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  • Reply Jeff Robertson January 18, 2015 at 4:49 am

    Where can I find this talk so I may listen to it, myself?

    Thank you!


    • Reply Brandy Vencel January 19, 2015 at 8:54 am

      Both of the talks I refer to here are from the 2010 CiRCE Conference. I purchased all of the audio CDs here. I do not see that they are selling Mr. Kern’s talk separately, but I think you could contact them and see if you can purchase just that one talk. Usually, a single talk costs about $3 or so.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts November 9, 2010 at 5:23 pm


    Be my guest. I would love to see what you do. One of the things I learned is to keep notes while I’m writing the curriculum. When I looked at the verses I hadn’t left any notes for, I found myself wondering why in the world I chose that verse, and often spontaneously used a different one! So as you choose verses, make a note of why, especially if you are like me. 🙂

    I actually think I might do virtues again in a year or two, and try to match them up with stories from The Book of Virtues. Often, our stories matched up without any effort, but it might be nice to consistently have a direct illustration after the lesson.

  • Reply Mystie November 9, 2010 at 4:57 pm

    I might have to try a virtues study next year. 🙂 Because, after all, I am just a copycat. 🙂

  • Reply Dana G. November 9, 2010 at 4:05 am

    That does help, thanks!

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts November 8, 2010 at 11:03 pm


    I know. There is just no getting around the necessity of modeling. What I began this summer and have been attempting to continue through the school year is working with one child at a time, with the others outside playing. Everyone at once is just too hectic and I don’t think anything is learned. But when I work with one child alone, not only do they learn quickly, it also fills up their little love banks.

    Works for me, anyhow… 🙂

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts November 8, 2010 at 11:01 pm

    On teaching virtues:

    What I do is very, very simple because we are still very young here on the microhomestead. (Though my oldest is 8, the others are 5, 3, and 2.) My goal for the year was for them to know what the virtues were, and apply them a little to their own lives. In the process, we gained the vocabulary to identify the virtues in whatever we read, and to understand why they are valuable. We also emphasized that we can never be virtuous apart from Christ.

    With that disclaimer, at the beginning of each term, I post my Circle Time plans. This term’s can be read by clicking here. In a nutshell, we studied each virtue for a week or two, using various verses, and then I picked examples from our week as we went along, either from our reading or our real life. They memorized one verse for each virtue. To use love as an example, we spent one week just going over I Cor. 13:4-8. I would just pull out a phrase or two and we talked about what that would look like, and how they could try it that day. Love was by far the easiest. However, they were very attracted by fortitude and began to challenge each other to not cry when they fell down, because they discovered that fortitude means being tough (though they know it is not limited to that).

    Hope that helps. It is such an organic thing that it is a little hard for me to describe!

  • Reply Mystie November 8, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    One of the ways I realize I need to incorporate more imitation/mentoring is by letting the kids work aside me more than I am. I used to be much better about this, but for the last year or so have taken the “Go play and let me work” tactic for convenience.

  • Reply Dana G. November 8, 2010 at 6:50 pm

    Can you describe how you are teaching virtues?

  • Reply Anonymous October 30, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    Thanks for your notes. This sounds like a great talk!

    Mrs. H

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