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    Rerun: Poetic Knowledge Recap

    June 29, 2011 by Brandy Vencel

    Yesterday, Mystie said that this week is the Poetic Knowledge wrap-up week. To which I said that I accidently wrapped up last week and so I’d try to find one of my old posts from my first reading. So, this post first appeared on July 7, 2008. You can read the original here. I’ve edited it a bit, but you’ll notice that my children are quite a bit younger, meaning I kept the original wording for the most part.

    I found a couple other posts, and I might offer them as reruns this week in order to finish up my participation in the book club.


    Before beginning Year One with my son (and preschool with my daughter A.), I decided I wanted to go back through James Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education one last time. This book, after all, has influenced my philosophy of education more than any other.

    I think it even surpasses Charlotte Mason in terms of its influence upon me*. Gasp! Of course, that might be because Mason organized a lot of things that were already in my brain, while Taylor introduced entirely new concepts and ideas.

    I’ve underlined so much of the book that it would perhaps be copyright infringement for me to share it all here. But I’m going to give some excerpts a go, and add in a bit of my own reflection.

    Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of EducationBut first…What is poetic knowledge? After reading the book, I think Taylor would say that poetic knowledge is the first sort of knowledge a child gathers (and one that is particularly shunned today), and, rather than being the only sort of knowledge, it is a type of knowledge which underpins all other types of knowledge. More than anything else, poetic knowledge is gathered using all forms of the intellect and senses and has as its foundation wonder.

    It is this aspect of wonder that really grabbed me. As a devotee of classical methods of education, I fear hubris more than anything else. I would consider my work in our home a shame and a failure to graduate children who know much and are full of self. Wonder leaves very little room for self, while simultaneously leaving much room for God. It is, I think, the perfect antidote to hubris.

    [T]his way of education for the beginner is based on the child’s natural disposition to learn by imitation; that is, not only to attempt to duplicate what they hear and see but to become the thing that is imitated…

    As an example, I would hold up my son E. We have been reading The Long Winter. One of the central activities in this particular book is haying. They grow it, cure it, gather it, stack it, haul it and even, when their coal runs out, burn it. My son spent many days last week using a toy tractor to “cut hay,” which, his imagination assured him, was growing underneath his sister’s crib. When children read books, a part of them becomes the thing they read, and they often act it out later.

    “To young children should be imparted only such kinds of knowledge as will be useful to them without vulgarizing them. And any occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or mind of the freeman less fit for the practice and exercise of virtue, is vulgar…” (Taylor quoting Aristotle)

    We are very careful with our children, and sometimes this is misinterpreted as overprotection. However, if we are in the business of growing souls, and our goal is to grow a soul most fit for virtue, then there are two aspects of this. The first is avoiding things that degrade the soul’s virtue. The second is to fill that soul with everything required to produce virtue. Some think that to take away one thing (like a television, for instance), is to leave them with nothing. It is actually quite the opposite. Leaving out influences that we consider degrading is the first step to making time for the building up and cultivation of the virtuous soul.

    [T]o “Hearken”–and “to incline the ear of thy heart” is not only the first disposition for learning anything, it is also a poetic disposition.

    This is something I want to cultivate in my children, for it is the path to wisdom. The wise man in Proverbs is characterized by his quietude, his receptivity to what he can learn around him, his eagerness to hear. I think that sometimes I have encouraged my children to speak too much and listen too little. Perhaps this is a fault in my own character as well. One of my goals for this year is for the children to learn to place value on listening with their whole beings, which is the true posture of learning.

    And although this book is devoted to the poetic mode of knowledge, gymnastic was always considered as an integrated and complimentary mode with the poetic spoken of by Plato and Aristotle. For a simple understanding for our times,…we can think of the gymnastic mode first of all as direct experience with reality, for example a life lived more out of doors…

    Hence, one of the appeals of the micro-homestead project. The children will not simply be outside, but they will experience creation’s seasons. They will see planting time and harvest. They will, in time, have trees to climb and ducks to chase. They will nurture fowl and gather their eggs. They will plant a butterfly garden and, in a few years, reap its glory and delight.

    But I’m not sure it ends there. We will not listen to hymns and folksongs in our school, we will sing them ourselves. It is such a simple thing, and yet there is a distinct difference between being entertained by something and being the source of that something’s actual creation.

    [M]odern education…has turned even play into a kind of work in that it is usually conducted as a means to learning something else rather than treated as an end in itself.

    May I never have goals for my children’s play other than that they experience delight, wonder, and the other poetic responses.

    [A]ll learning now becomes a kind of effort and work which Dewey models after a dynamic idea of democracy of social change, where learning has as its end the fulfillment of a progressive society always changing toward some perfected goal. Everything is measured by the changing needs of a social end, rather than knowing and learning beginning as a natural and effortless good in itself and leading to the fulfillment of the innate desire to know and to love.

    Taylor later quotes John Senior stating that “real schools are places of un-change, of the permanent things.” And all of this reminds me, naturally, of T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from ‘The Rock’:

    The Church disowned, the tower overthrown, the bells upturned, what have we to do
    But stand with empty hands and palms turned upwards
    In an age which advances progressively backwards?

    That, my friends, is a good stopping point for today. Dewey invaded our educational system in order to bring about a change centered on nothing but change itself, an unstable foundation to be sure. This has resulted in an increasingly chaotic culture which, as Eliot rightly says, “advances progressively backwards.” C.S. Lewis once wrote,

    We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.

    For many of us, that is precisely what homeschooling is: a turning back that is, at its core, truly progressive. As we follow the old paths and seek out the First Things, the things of un-change and permanence, we are acting in a way that builds culture rather than tears it down.

    *I now think the two are simply complementary. After re-reading Charlotte Mason, I found she came much more alive because of Taylor. So I say they are both a huge influence.

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

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  • Reply Phyllis July 3, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Out of all the wonderful ideas you have here, I grabbed this: “One of my goals for this year is for the children to learn to place value on listening with their whole beings, which is the true posture of learning.” Can you share more of how you’re doing that? My family needs a similar goal!

  • Reply Silvia June 30, 2011 at 3:21 am

    Pam, you made me laugh when you said that they probably don’t want you to hear or understand what they are saying! And it’s true… my friends tell me I even speak fast in English, and it’s not quite half the speed of my Spanish! Colombians have a nicer pace, I love how musical they sound.

    I did not know that. See, I have two but I understand you. We have the means but we don’t. I don’t know how to say. We technically have the money to have put them in things, but we deliberately didn’t because we felt that it was materialistic and it won’t teach them to be humble, and because if we put them through those activities, we may have ended up with debt for sure. We have old Europe, or older American people mentality. We by principle wear second hand clothes, we don’t even go to the movies or expensive nothing, period. We thought when we came in the nineties that we had to save up money, try to pay off a home, and have no credit card debt. And now we have a dilemma, because we really don’t want to leave them with anything. We don’t want to pay for college, but help. All our luxury it’s to save up every three years for plane tickets for four people to visit our families in Europe.

    Funny you mentioned the Amish… I was thinking about a documentary about them, Lost in Paradise, I believe… though they don’t have the dance, music, or art studies (although in this documentary I saw all of them gathered in a ‘fest’ of a sort, it looked like celebrating, poetic, with all the girls in dresses giggling at the boys… ah, it was the men riding horses or with cattle. And I also saw the dissident families singing hymns a Capella and outdoors). I thought how interesting that the two men interviewed were very well educated though they have no books or extra curricular activities other than the teaching and learning a farm and their trade gives them. It was very poetic. And I saw purity in the heart of those families for what I believe to be less contact with the ugly in the world that bombards us continuously and sometimes we embrace voluntarily.

    But though it may be different to want or think you want something and know you can’t afford it, to the voluntarily deprivation of it, the feeling of not being sure if that’s adequate, or if you are not measuring up as a parent and being selfish instead of sacrificing and paying for that class, etc, stays with me. My husband is best for that. He has no doubt, and in his wise simplicity, he knows his daughters life is RICH. I should listen to him more, and to our Lord, and to you, ha ha ha.

    But conversations like this, though I don’t take them as to say we are the true better moms, give me peace and tell me it is fine to opt or be cornered to a simple life… ah, but full of passion and poetry and art and music and joy!

    Funny this. I remember the one and only time we took the girls to a not so great fair. In the carousel, they stood up in the middle of the kids crowd as the only two children with a smile and indescribable joy. I think about that day, and I said thanks to Him for their ability to feel like that.

    I thank you friends, and I say too that I’m blessed beyond my dreams.

  • Reply Pam... June 29, 2011 at 11:14 pm

    Yes,Brandy, it would be great if your neighbor spoke Spanish to your children. It would bless her too, that her language is valued.

    We hear much Spanish around here from the migrant workers, mostly. But it is spoken so fast! Truth is, I don’t think they want me too know what they are saying, as they are bartering my yard sale prices down!

    Silvia, you said “Nowadays people start with the expert and formal class…” Yes! And some of us are ‘left behind’ to struggle with this. We, with large families and no money for many lessons begin to feel inadequate. I know of moms all caught up in these many lessons and car pools here and there too. There is a superior attitude in it, also.

    But I have new light on these things now. I can cherish the simpler, smaller things that others in their rush of technology and running may completely miss. I suppose this is how the Amish feel about our busy lives! Their quiet and calm is certainly poetic, yet may great pursuits (dance, music, art studies..) are not embraced.

    I suppose you find out the ‘poetic way’ within your own circumstances. It is unobtrusive. Our world is loud and busy and shouts “more!”. We have to seek it out, and lift it up don’t we? Thanks ladies. I am blessed!

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts June 29, 2011 at 10:42 pm

    The amazing thing to me is how Charlotte understood all this and wrote it in a way that is *so* much more accessible than Taylor. It is really hard to go wrong with our dear friend!

    There is a chance that thought on wonder was my own self, but the progress in the form of repentance is all C. S. Lewis! 🙂

    Funny what you said about learning hymns because I said that same thing on the AO Facebook page today to someone. 🙂

    It really is easy to have a mindset of “what book” as Silvia said. I don’t know about everyone else, but typically for me this means that I am using it as a substitute for actually doing something. Sometimes that is laziness on my part, and sometimes it is because I feel inadequate in some way.

    Silvia just reminded me that I need to ask my neighbor if she will speak Spanish to my children. She tries to hard to speak English to all of us, and I know the children could learn a lot from her–she knows the names of all the plants and trees and flowers in our neighborhood. It’d be a wonderful poetic language lesson for them, I think…

  • Reply Silvia June 29, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    I meant one child!

  • Reply Silvia June 29, 2011 at 9:07 pm

    Pam, what a great comment. I agree with you, Brandy has a wonderful way with words and thoughts.

    To me those things we can DO, we should DO, and for the others gleaning as you say is perfect. We all have these days that mindset of *what book?* I confess to have the same tendency, but thanks to CM, Taylor, and specially thanks to you who make all this alive and easy for me to understand, I KNOW now we need to know things, not know about things, be in direct contact with things as much as possible, for example, the nature walks, versus reading living natural science books, though the second is also good and advisable, if I got this right, Taylor and Mason tell us to not pervert the order of these two, and to always start with the poetic mode first, and never abandon it either, even when through books we can also establish relationships with people and gather ideas vicariously, it’s always necessary, specially for children, to start with the play, drawing, playing an instrument, singing, dancing, etc. and then the books.
    Nowadays people start with the expert and formal class with books since children are little.

    They’ve asked me sometimes about Spanish classes, and I have such a ‘lazy feeling’ about it, because I mostly like speaking it and for that I’d prefer if the moms could join and we would be more people speaking. If I have say on child, it’s very oppressive for him or her, and not natural or poetic, if I have five, given they are little, I’m outnumbered. The perfect scenario is the whole family and me and the girls, and the moms joining and speaking it too, so they can participate and everybody can DO Spanish! in a more natural scenario too, while cooking, or while drawing, etc.

  • Reply Pam... June 29, 2011 at 7:02 pm

    YOUR lovely page, I meant! Not mine.

  • Reply Pam... June 29, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    I’ve heard these before, but in Charlotte’s voice: time outside, finding out the seasons, learning to listen, a sense of wonder, virtue vs vice. Magnanimity is the word she uses: greatness of soul is what her great hope for all.

    And that contrast of gaining knowledge vs. taking in information; the first fed by ideas and full of wonder. The second a potential source of pride.

    I never thought of this: “Wonder leaves very little room for self, while simultaneously leaving much room for God.” Or this: “If you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” Are these your own? Fascinating.

    In a discussion at another site on learning hymns and drawing the majority wondered “what book do we get?” I felt a bit sheepish in saying it, but I just kept thinking “to learn hymns, we sing them. To learn drawing, we draw…often.” To KNOW OF is not the same as TO KNOW.

    Not that we can’t glean from those who have gone ahead of us. We should glean. Then we should ‘do’. I confess to sometimes getting stuck in the ‘gleaning’ mode when it is time for me to ‘just do it’!
    Thanks for letting me philosophize on our lovely page.

  • Reply Silvia June 29, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Great rerun too, Brandy. I agree homeschooling is progressive, and I like that, wonder as an antidote to hubris (we call it hybris in Spanish, a word I hadn’t heard since college! 🙂

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