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    Rerun: Poetry and Science Holding Hands

    April 13, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    This post originally appeared here on February 13, 2008. You can view the original here. Chances are, I edited it a little. I’m rerunning it because Mystie said she wanted to talk about wonder this week, and I realized I had thought a little about it when I read Poetic Knowledge the first time through. This is the first of a handful of posts I’ll rerun as the book club goes on.


    It’s been many years now since we first decided to homeschool our children. Our reasons are different now than they were then. I didn’t realize this until recently when a fellow homeschooling mom asked me what got us started on homeschooling. She didn’t ask, “Why do you homeschool?” She asked why we got started in the first place. And I had a moment of revelation, realizing that sometimes we continue to do the Same Thing for Very Different Reasons.

    Once upon a time our reasons for homeschooling were what I would call reactive. This doesn’t make them wrong, but just different than they are now. At the time we saw the overall quality (there were exceptions, of course) of elementary education majors at our university (yes, some of them hated reading and didn’t have a clue as to the names of the classics), and we cringed. We saw public school students in our area with a frown on their face when they discussed anything even slightly academic, and we cringed. We witnessed said public school students grow up to be young adults who could not carry a thought, speak in a complete sentence, or read a book for independent learning and enjoyment, and we cringed.

    We did not want this for our family. Not for ourselves. Not for our children.

    We didn’t know much about how we would do it all. I can’t say we had any goals at the time, other than to not turn out like the general population.

    See what I mean by reactive?

    Slowly, over the years, we have come up with qualities we desire to nurture in our children’s education, virtues we hope to cultivate, ideas we want to develop, subjects we wish to conquer, etc. In other words, we are now proactive.

    We have real goals.

    And one of those goals is wonder. Or perhaps some would call it delight.

    This is actually very different from the focus on entertainment we see in some public schools. In entertainment, the point is to keep their attention or to make them laugh. Moreover, I think an entertainment focus means that the self is the center of it all. The self exists to be served by everything external to it.

    In entertainment-driven education, the self is god.

    This is not the same as wonder. In wonder, the self is very tiny, and it stands, hopefully in humility, before a large and awesome Creator. The self realizes that it knows very little, but that it was created to learn and grow, and it delights in learning because this is its purpose: to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This purpose begins on earth, glorifying Him and delighting in who He is and what He has made.

    James Taylor would call this initial act of wonder and delight Poetic Knowledge. It is something that happens spontaneously. I would add that it usually happens when the soul is left in a bit of solitude, uninterrupted by the noise of the world. Taylor writes:

    Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education[S]ince modern philosophies have emerged that no longer regard knowing the truth as natural, or even possible, where what was recognized as self-evident is replaced with a system of doubt, under such conditions, Pieper* says, learning is now perceived exclusively as work, rather than an act of leisure. In other words, the modern idea of learning is dominated by the ratio, and the simplex intuitus acts of the mind are dismissed as irrelevant under a scientific idea of knowledge. There are no “givens” nor can “inspiration” be taken seriously as valid knowledge–all is mental work and the student, more and more, becomes the intellectual laborer. Leisure and poetic knowledge suffocate under the weight of this new scientific philosophy where the way is opened for the school and all its operations to function quite comfortably with imagery analogous to a factory where products are produced for a marketplace.

    In contrast to the modern perception of the knower as laborer, is the poetic nature of the human being. And the poetic mode at this level easily merges with a philosophy not yet ruled by methods of academic procedures…


    Certainly, no one can seriously imagine someone working hard and being proud of the difficulty encountered in falling in love; or of the great effort needed to listen to beautiful music; or of an honorable endurance required to watch an evening’s setting sun. When difficulty becomes meritorious is when one will give one’s life for the beloved, or will go to great sacrifice to conserve a life that includes beautiful music and the sight of setting suns; but that is only because one has first loved (known) these things in leisure, experienced the rest, the union, and as a consequence, always yearns to return to them.

    So at this point, we must wonder about the “expert.” Modern education is quite the cult of the expert. And we all know experts work hard to master their subject. Does knowing in depth stand in contrast to poetic knowledge? Will it kill the soul? These questions naturally arise, I think, from this line of thinking.

    Thankfully, Taylor clears it up for us:

    Of course, there is real effort required at some point in learning, and often great effort is required to learn something well. But this is a situation that arises after the experience of wonder–if it arises at all–and the exertion for this kind of learning is usually in the student on the way to becoming a specialist or expert. And, even in the case of the specialist, the true scientist for example, there would always be the memory of the original love of the thing about which he first wondered. Consider again Pasteur, Fabre, and the Faraday in this light. They all retained the initial vision of the beginner, the amateur, the one who loves.

    We can often see this sort of thing in the master craftsman as well. My son loves to build things and tear things apart and fix them. If he became good–even excellent–at this, would he love these things any less? No! In fact, I would say that perhaps he would love them more because he knows and understands them more intimately. Moreover, because his knowledge is driven by love there is a chance it wouldn’t feel like work.

    At least not like grueling, distasteful work.

    So the depth of the knowledge, the science, if you will, doesn’t dehumanize the learner if it is built on the foundation of the poetic, of love.

    So to my children I say: may you always have the heart of the amateur, even when you have the skill of the master.

    *I am amazed at how much easier it is to read Poetic Knowledge now that we have book-clubbed our way through Leisure: The Basis of Culture.

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  • Reply Mystie April 14, 2011 at 1:24 pm

    “So to my children I say: may you always have the heart of the amateur, even when you have the skill of the master.”

    That is beautiful.

    I was struck in chapter 2 by the distinction that poetic knowledge is the best starting, beginning, point. It is, in fact, most suited to the ages you and I now have.

    I think it fits well with CM’s asking that children up to age 12 have many doors opened to them, and that it matters how much they care more than how much they know.

  • Reply Charlotte Mason in the City April 14, 2011 at 4:22 am

    Another great post! You’ve described the journey of our homeschooling decision – we went from reactive to proactive, too. And, “wonder” is also one of our goals.

  • Reply Shyla April 14, 2011 at 2:29 am

    Wonderful and generous post! Generous as in:
    a : characterized by a noble or forbearing spirit : magnanimous, kindly
    b : liberal in giving : openhanded
    c : marked by abundance or ample proportions : copious

    I particularly loved your parting words.

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