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    Book Club: Poetic Knowledge {Chapter 6, Part 1}

    June 2, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Oops. I certainly didn’t mean to disappear like I did. We had some unexpected company, and our office is also our guest room, which makes it mighty hard for me to get any work done when we have guests. {Not that I ought to work when we have guests.}

    Chapter 6 is called Poetic Knowledge and the Integrated Humanities Program. If you recall, chapter 5 focuses on expressions of poetic knowledge after Descartes. The IHP is one such expression, and Mystie has one nice concise little summary about it if you’re interested.

    Elements of Poetic Knowledge in Action
    Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of EducationThe IHP was actually living and teaching poetically in modern America. That’s quite astounding, if you think about it. What the IHP did is probably much easier to pull off in the privacy of a homeschool or some other small, intimate school. Here are some aspects that stood out to me in this reading:

    • The major work of the IHP was to “awaken wonder,” according to Robert Carlson. {Another little summary of the IHP, based upon Carlson’s book, Truth on Trial, can be read over at Life, Books and Education.} This stuck out to me as I have, on more than one occasion, witnessed the decline of a child. What I mean is, a child I knew started out in a state of wonder–he was amazed at the world around him. Then, he went to school. Wonder died. The end. If we really believe that wonder is the appropriate foundation upon which to build our houses of education, we will stop doing a lot of what we are doing. I don’t mean that we will do nothing–more than once I have seen some concept of poetic knowledge {“delight-based learning” or “unschooling”} used to excuse the sin of educational neglect–but that we will try another approach, that we will do what we can, first and foremost, to preserve the natural wonder with which children are born.
    • The poetic mode involves conversation. The conversation doesn’t always have to include the students. In fact, it might even be said that there is a time for students, especially beginning students, to not participate in the conversation. I found this fascinating: the IHP “lectures” were basically times when students listened in on three professors engaging in conversation about the readings. When I was growing up, my sister and I were taught to be quiet at the table and listen to my parents talk. It wasn’t until later in my teen years that I recall participating very much in table conversation. I have joked before that I was homeschooled at the dinner table, but I don’t think I ever before understood how true that was.
    • The poetic mode involves laughter. Laughter is a natural outcome of the delight and mirth involved in wonder-based learning, I would think. Taylor also tells us that laughter is a result of “a surprise at suddenly seeing the connection between two dissimilar things.”
    • At the beginning level, poetry, music, astronomy, Latin, etcetera, are done rather than studied. Poetry was memorized by hearing the poems said aloud by another student who already had it in his memory. {This is very similar to how we memorize poetry, which is based upon Charlotte Mason’s assertion that poetry gets into the memory if it is heard daily.} Music is experienced with the whole body; the students use their voices to sing, play an instrument if they know one, and dance. At night, students were taught naked-eye astronomy. They learned to identify the basic stars and constellations, and they became intimate with the legends and myths which accompany the names. {We plan to begin naked-eye astronomy in the next couple years using Signs and Seasons.} Latin was taught orally, with instructors addressing the students in Latin, without textbooks or any form of analysis or grammar.
    • History is taught literarily, viewed as a story unfolding. The deeds of great men are commemorated through history, and appreciation of such deeds is expected as a matter of course. This is in contrast to the modern view of studying history in the form of scientific analysis of social, economic, and geographic contingencies.
    • The authority of the teacher flows naturally from lucid knowledge. I think this is why Andrew Kern once said {well, I think it was him} that the most important area of study for a teacher is literature. If we combine this with Anthony Esolen saying that to read literature, we really just need to get lost in it over and over again, we see that this course of study is a pleasant task. Pre-reading the children’s schoolbooks becomes, then, only the tip of the iceberg. I can’t get away from it: the students must be taught by someone who knows. At the very least, they ought to be taught by someone who aims to know. I don’t mean that we have to know everything. No one knows everything. But to know something, to be able to have authority about things, is important not just for ourselves, but for the state of our educational endeavors.
    • Poetic learning involves both direct as well as vicarious experience. This is something John Dewey completely overlooked. I have seen this before in educational writings. It is assumed that with each child, we must reinvent the wheel. They must do science experiments and rediscover gravity for themselves, the laws of thermodynamics for themselves, and so on and so forth. To some extent, if they are allowed Charlotte Mason’s prescribed four to six hours daily out of doors when they are young, these things really will come to them {poetically rather than scientifically}. But, on the other hand, we forget that a child can read the journal or biography of a scientist who discovered some principle, and he can discover it vicariously with him, and this, too, is true knowledge. In the chapter, we are told that literature is “the great vehicle of vicarious experience.” Through reading, we can learn from the mistakes and triumphs of others.

    For Beginners
    The IHP drew a lot of flack. They were, admittedly, allowing college students to relive their childhoods. Or perhaps it could not be called “reliving” but simply living the childhoods they never had.

    The professors knew that a materialist society, with all its utilitarian goals that suffocate the poetic nature of the uman being, had rushed many of the studetns through childhood, that time of leisure in which teh wonders of reality are encountered simply as wonders.

    Thomas Aquinas College faculty and students, for instance,

    tended to regard the IHP as “romantic,’ undisciplined, and not really serious.

    This criticism didn’t bother the IHP faculty much, and Taylor explains why:

    As this entire study has demonstrated, there can be no real advancement in knowledge unless it first begin in leisure and wonder, where the controlling motive throughout remains to be delight and love. Without the reconnection with their childhood and the appropriate emotions, the students would not be teachable*.

    Something I think was overlooked in all of this was that, at least in my opinion, there is an extent to which this is inappropriate for college students. Ought a student who is {or is almost} a man still be considered a beginner? Isn’t college the time for soaring into the heights of the four sciences?

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the IHP was wrong. I’m saying that the need for the IHP in the first place points to a huge problem in our culture. The IHP existed because of the insufficiency of modern childhood. Because the students were not allowed to be children, to be almost completely driven by wonder in many of their earliest years, the IHP found it necessary to recreate childhood. In this we see that childhood, if we are to really educate our students, is not optional. Education requires the proper foundation, and because we were not laying that foundation in youth {which is the best and most appropriate time}, it was imperative that IHP dig everything up and start from scratch.

    This is why Poetic Knowledge is most important for mothers of young children, regardless of how difficult it can be to read. If we build the foundation at the right age, we won’t have to worry about utilizing age-inappropriate methods to build a foundation in early adulthood.

    This is hard for me to articulate because Taylor makes it clear {and I agree} that poetic knowledge is not something that is outgrown. Even when I use the word “foundation” it sounds like I’m implying there is a time when we leave poetic knowledge behind, and I don’t think that’s true. Nevertheless, Taylor has made a convincing case that poetic knowledge is prerequisite for all other types of knowledge, and this is why we want to begin with poetic knowledge, rather than realize we missed it to our {or our students’ detriment} and go back to rebuild later.

    *We’ll talk about this more in Part 2 of Chapter 6.

    Read More:
    -Other book club posts are linked at Mystie’s blog

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  • Reply Shari June 4, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    I,too, was struck with the thought that this really wasn’t appropriate at a college level but I came to see (and admire) that the professors were beginning where they needed to. I know I can see a presumed lack in my kids’ education and go off the deep end trying to fill the gap when a gentle approach is what is needful! It isn’t always easy to take it slow and with laughter!

  • Reply Kelly June 3, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    “Homeschooled at the dinner table.” Yes, exactly.

    When I was in high school my favorite part of the day was after my mom and brother and sister had gone to bed. I’d wait up for my daddy to come home from work and we’d sit up and talk. He was very smart and had a wonderful background (I mentioned it a few times during the 10 Ways book club), and we talked about everything — science, music, books, stories of his childhood, history, politics, and everything in between. That those late-night conversations are where I got my education — where I learned how to think.

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts June 3, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Silvia, In my book, “young” moms *are* moms with young children! 🙂

    Willa, I actually had an entire paragraph on that, and I cut it! I haven’t met many TAC graduates or families, but I must say that the ones I have encountered were homeschooled, and I think that alone has a tendency toward the poetic, besides mixing in the fact that most of us tend to have more babies, or live on farms (or in national forests!), or some such combination. I recently discussed a different Great Books program from a different college with a graduate who was complaining about what she saw as the outcome {as well as the faults she thought she had to remedy in herself after she graduated}. The interesting thing is that these were, mostly, *public schooled* students taking the course. I spoke with her before reading the chapter, but I’d like to go back and discuss poetic knowledge with her and find out whether she makes any connections with that.

  • Reply Willa June 3, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    My oldest son graduated from Thomas Aquinas College, and my daughter is going into her junior year there. I have sometimes wondered if the reason they succeed there is because they had a “poetic” background. This wasn’t because I understood how to teach poetically, because I didn’t, but just because of how things worked out — I was having babies (and babies are very poetical) and we lived in a national forest, and our lives were relatively slow-paced and they were also naturally imaginative kids who loved to immerse themselves in books. So in a way they already had the background that prepared them for more formal studies in the Grear Books such as TAC offers (though I do think TAC has been influenced by Poetic Knowledge, especially around the edges — they have regular seasonal dances, plus a lot of impromptu student cultural activities, and the tutors will sit with the students and they converse about the classwork, though perhaps not so much in the poetic, literary mode as IHP did it — there is more of a friendly disputatiousness, as the book mentioned, but still very different from the conventional university where the last thing students want to do is talk at lunch about what they read for class, especially with a professor!).

  • Reply Silvia June 2, 2011 at 10:50 pm

    I couldn’t agree more. That part of this IHP college was very revealing, the fact they had to ‘relive’ or live their childhood with the Grimm Fairy Tales and Aesop Fables.
    I agree, Poetic Knowledge is an important book for young moms, or ‘old moms’ with young children :O
    And as you say, this is a foundation that springs or circulates all along the rest of the building, because, as you say, it’s not outgrown but enhanced. Yes, I find it difficult to articulate, but I understand what you are telling us.

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