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    Book Club: Poetic Knowledge {Chapter 5}

    May 26, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    I feel like I saw two separate issues in this chapter, so I think I will try and tackle them in…two separate posts, if I can pull it off. This is the first. Perhaps this will increase my chances of brevity? {Alas, brevity takes the sort of time I don’t have.}

    Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of EducationThis chapter is titled Voices for Poetic Knowledge after Descartes. Taylor focuses in on three men: André Charlier founder of a poetic-style school in Maslacq, France; Henri Fabre, the entomologist; and Dr. Thomas Shields, a professor of education noted by Taylor for his autobiography, The Making and Unmaking of a Dullard.

    This first post, then, attempts to be a summary of notable characteristics of these men, their work, and/or their opinions concerning education.

    André Charlier

    • Importance of Beauty. Taylor implies that Charlier was deliberate about the location of his school:

      The setting of Maslaq is an example of the thoughtful consideration to beauty so that the location of the school can be said to teach in the poetic mode just as strongly as the approach to the curriculum.

      This reminded me of a press release I watched concerning C. S. Lewis College’s acquisition of the Northfield Campus {of D. L. Moody fame}. I remember the Founder saying that the campus was somewhat reminiscent of Oxford in its design, and how could one expect to educate in the spirit of Lewis without that feel–right down to the lamppost which looked like it was straight out of Narnia? It seems that the great minds of poetic knowledge, both then and now, understand its wholeness. It is without and within and all around.

    • Importance of Order. This is always fascinating for me, because my knee-jerk understanding of poetic knowledge was a little chaotic. I thought of children running “free” outside with few constraints; I suppose I was more influenced by Rousseau’s noble savage than I realized. Charlier emphasized the importance of order. There was external order:

      What I ask above all from you, is to be rigorously strict about everything that pertains to the material order of the house…It is necessary to create conditions of life so the soul can bloom…Don’t believe this is unworthy of you, it is all important: the cleanliness of the house, the strict accurateness of boys in all acts of their life, their belongings, their language.

      And there was also hierarchical order:

      All [Charlier’s] military background and poetic common sense comes to bear on this issue when he addresses the older students, his “Captains,” or dormitory leaders, who will be caring for the younger students. The difference here though is that the order is to be seen as natural and good and not foreign and imposed for the sake of discipline without a reason.

      And there was internal order:

      [D]iscipline, for Charlier, is something that cannot be imposed by words and commands–first, the Captains must be a living example of what they ask of others, then only a few words are necessary for correction.


      Your function…is service. You must be more demanding on yourselves than you are on others. You will never succeed in creating real discipline if you permit yourselves what is refused to others.


      In this way the Captains are not to become clones and rational robots of a rule-enforcing headmaster, but instead, because their own obedience is to be joyful, they are to be living examples of order and goodness and humility so that only a few words should be required when problems arise among the younger pupils.

      Some of this reminds me of Charlotte Mason’s assertion that we who are in authority must not have an arbitrary authority, but must present ourselves as we actually are–as ones under Authority.

    • Importance of the Teacher. I cannot tell you how many homeschooling moms I’ve talked with who concur that one of the hardest things about homeschooling is getting the public schools out of our heads. We all agree that the public schools failed us and are failing our country {in the sense that neither we nor the country in general is educated in any true sense of the word upon graduation}, and yet when we think education, we think school. Therefore, the revolution in our homes starts with us.

      Henri Charlier begins where one must for a genuine renewal in education along traditional lines–not with buildings, texts, or even students, but the teachers themselves and their formation.

      Later, when Charlier talks about schools, he is very clear:

      It never occurs to the teachers themselves that the methods through which they form their minds are not universal at all, as they believe–but very peculiar to schools.

      More than once I have laughed when someone told me or implied to me that I was doing a disservice {or something like it} to my children because they didn’t go to school, which was declared to be “the real world.” I cannot think of anything in the real world that is much like school. When does doing 70% give you a pass with your boss? Is your church, home, workplace, or other social group segregated by age? Does a bell go off to tell you when it is time to think about the next thing on a list of things to think about, which was itself given to you by some other person? It is school which is artificial, not home.

    • Importance of Real Things. Like Charlotte Mason before him {and a multitude of others before her}, Charlier understood the importance of building a relationship with real things rather than abstract, artificial, theoretical relationships with things which may or may not exist outside of a classroom and a textbook. This is why Charlotte Mason had her students doing handicrafts and nature study, and this is why Charlier was emphasizing the importance of a craft culture.

      [I]t is clear that one cannot simply think; one has to think about some thing. This requires that there be an image in the memory upon which the intellect can gaze. Education that is forced to teach in the realm of abstract ideas formed from mere language is virtually impossible–one cannot imagine ideas without the interdependence of concrete things.

    Henri Fabre

    • Naked-eye Observation. Taylor tells us that Fabre lived during a time where it was popular to study insects when they were dead…and in a museum or science laboratory somewhere. There was little to be said for going out into their actual habitat and studying them alive. This is what Fabre did. And here is what he said in his own defense:

      [Y]ou rip up the animal and I study it alive; you turn it into an object of horror and pity, whereas I cause it to be loved; you labor in a torture-chamber and dissecting-room, I make observations under the blue sky to the song of Cicadas…you pry into death, I pry into life.

    • Affectionate Observation. Taylor has been telling us that the beginning of poetic knowledge involves awe, wonder…and love. Here we have Fabre learning more about insects than any of his contemporaries, and doing it as an amateur in the sense that he is one who is compelled by love.

      Come here, one and all of you–you, the sting-bearers, and you, the wing-cased armour-clads–take up my defense and bear witness in my favor–tell of the intimate terms on which I live with you, of the patience with which I observe you, of the care with which I record your actions.

     Dr. Thomas Shields

    • Understanding Math by Means of Relationship with Reality. Thomas Shields was a self-proclaimed “dullard.” He couldn’t understand math. It didn’t connect in his brain–that is, until he performed thousands of hours of farm labor. It was in his work with, for instance, the pitchfork {which works upon the principle of the lever} that he came to understand it, for he was forced to embody the principles of math and physics in order to work well at his duties. He counted bags of wheat and knew by feel and look how much they weighed, how many bushels they were. He said:

      [T]hey were sense images of real bushels of wheat and not artificial symbols of which children’s minds are sometimes fed.

      Notice that we have one commonality so far between all three men {plus our friend Charlotte} and that is the necessity of relationship with real things to enlighten the mind and give understanding. Shields believed that hands-on experience was necessary, and not in a controlled environment. He’s talking about being outdoors on a farm, not inside in a preschool where everything is planned in advance and made of plastic.

    • General Before Details. Shields says we start at the wrong place with children. We throw them in the deep end, so to speak, with allowing them to splash around in the shallow end first. He believed that children should be given general information first, that they might not drown in the details later:

      When we begin to teach mechanics with deducting from abstract principles, we are simply reverting the natural order of the mind’s growth…[and] when our enthusiasm for the inductive method leads us to overwhelm our pupils with a multitude of details before they have obtained a general view of the subject, the usual result is an uncoordinated mass of facts, from which the pupils are unable to extract the great fundamental truths; and without these truths there can be little real progress toward the mastery of any science…[Therefore] to begin the teaching of mechanics with the definition of a machine as a transformer of energy is a very different thing from beginning to study the same subject in its concrete, germinal form, the lever.

      I have met people who try to accomplish this idea of “general preceding detailed” by cramming their children full of memory work covering basic scientific principles. But this is overlooking the necessity of children to experience a relationship with what is real and concrete. They need to be able to say they were witnesses, “what we have beheld with our eyes, what our hands handled,” and all of that. Shields’ solution is a lot more delightful, I think: allow them to spend hours playing with a good see-saw. This is the lever, as a plaything for children.

    • Delight as Controlling Motive. We want so badly for our children to do well at their lessons, and so we force and poke and prod and what have you. Shields reminds us of something wise people have always been telling us:

      There is no real progress in intellectual life until the delight in the discovery of truth becomes the controlling motive.

    Here is what I’m thinking and asking myself after reading all of this:

    • Is the order in my home beautiful? I am naturally a creature of habit. Our lives follow a rhythm, and we find freedom in that. We also have a definite hierarchy. I am both in authority over my children, as well as under the authority of my husband and God. And I’m pretty sure my children recognize that. However, I don’t think I’ve mastered Charlier’s approach–to be able to encourage obedience with few words because I’m such a wonderful example or whatever. So, I need to go back to me. I am still lacking in that the order has not reached that joyful pinnacle at which it can be called beautiful.
    • Is my home beautiful? The answer to this is mostly “no.” I don’t consider my home ugly, but I don’t have a decorating budget to speak of, and I think that shows. Of course, the easiest thing I could do is keep it tidier. That alone would help. I am a bit of a pile-er {is that a word?} and my piles seem to be everywhere, what with the school year wrapping up and all. Perhaps my first week of summer break should focus on getting my house in real order, and then I can spend the summer trying to keep it that way. With that said, I probably should try to make the house look like we’ve lived here for a while.
    • Am I in contact with real things? Taylor has a lot to say here about people who keep their noses in books all day long, something I fully admit I am apt to do. Half of the books I’m working through, though, are books I am using to make myself a better mother and teacher. I take my job seriously, and I study for it, just as I would any important undertaking. The emphasis here on knowledge of real things made me wonder if I have a knowledge enough of real things. Or have I become myopic, thinking that only books can improve me in the ways I need to be improved for my children?
    • I need to think of educating as helping my children fall in love. Sometimes, when children come up against difficulty in their learning, I just think they should try harder. Conversely, I have also thought that taking time off would help. Both of these things might be true. But I never before considered that perhaps I needed to help them fall in love with it. Delight, we are told, is the controlling motive. Something to mull over, I suppose.

    And you? What does this have you thinking about?

    Read More:
    -more book club entries linked at Mystie’s blog

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  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts May 30, 2011 at 12:01 am

    Shari, I just wish I could say my piles were all of books or projects. *Some* are, for sure, but some are just things that I can’t figure out how to deal with. I think if I didn’t have such a wonderful husband, I would just live in a giant pile! Yikes! This is a definite fault, though it has lessened over the years. But I am glad to know you would feel comfortable in my house. 🙂

    Mystie, I had to be forced outside, too! I wish you lived here so we could sit indoors together and chat. 😉

    Personally, I was turned off my hands-on activities, but I think that is because most of them were disingenuous. What I mean is, they were not things worth doing on their own, but mainly attempts to teach through forced play. The things I remember liking were things that had their own worth, such as handicraft types things.

    Our park here has a version of a see-saw, but it more complicated, and this is to its detriment. It lacks the simplicity of what is discussed in the book. However, I have seen children learning to balance one child on one side with two on the other, either by adjusting weight or distance from the fulcrum, so it is not a total loss.

    As far as love goes, I have wondered if my own faults could be more easily fixed if I focused on loving {or learning to love} the things I ought to love.

  • Reply Mystie May 28, 2011 at 1:57 am

    Even though I was allowed lots of free time and space, my mom had to force me outside and I never really enjoyed it. I am by nature an indoor bookworm, who always thought “hands-on activities” were patronizing. On the other hand, learning to do and to make things of real worth and beauty is very human, part of our image of God and task of dominion. But how that can work into our lives, that’s the question.

    None of the playgrounds I’ve been to with my children have see-saws. All the ones that used to have them have been redone with safety-minded play equipment (which, as a mother at the park with very small children, I’m not totally against; my 15-month son can climb and slide and explore without me hovering). My husband did show the boys the basic principle of the catapult, and that’s mostly what they do with lincoln logs and with boards and logs in the backyard. 🙂 I have pretty much zero mechanical ability or knowledge or aptitude, not even the textbook exposure a public schooler would have had. So I don’t even know what it is I don’t know. And, unfortunately, I still don’t really care personally — I don’t have a desire to know myself…. one can only do and be so many things.

    “Sometimes, when children come up against difficulty in their learning, I just think they should try harder. Conversely, I have also thought that taking time off would help. Both of these things might be true. But I never before considered that perhaps I needed to help them fall in love with it. Delight, we are told, is the controlling motive. Something to mull over, I suppose.” — I have definitely been in the “difficulty = opportunity to push through and learn work ethic through force of will” camp. But I am starting to see that it’s not force of will so much as something deeper within one, the love, the desire to do the right thing rather than the easy thing, desiring the joy that comes after fulfilling one’s duty rather than the ease of giving up…..since my character and will are not strong, I have misinterpreted where that work ethic is really grounded and founded.

    I am naturally much more analytical, sequential, logical, but with abstract and not at all good with concrete, physical things….when it comes either to physical or “gymnastic” areas or to emotional sensitivities, I am really not in my element *at all*. Now this philosophical book is taking me down roads I thought I could leave blocked off…..*sigh*

  • Reply Shari May 27, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    I imagine we have all heard the “real world vs. homeschool seclusion” comments and I agree with you–there is nothing “real” about school! And as to piles of stuff laying around I personal love to go to someones home and see the piles of books they are reading and the projects they are working on laying about. I think it is a thing of beauty in itself!

  • Reply Rebekah May 27, 2011 at 8:48 am

    I really enjoyed this, great summary. I look forward to pondering your questions and seeking answers.

  • Reply Silvia May 26, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Oh, I wanted to keep reading… I’m going to answer in a post. I liked your questions very much, and your synopsis too.

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