Educational Philosophy

Ideals: Loving Knowledge for its Own Sake

October 9, 2012 by Brandy Vencel

Socrates conceived that knowledge is for pleasure,
in the sense, not that knowledge is one source,
but is the source of pleasure.

Charlotte Mason

I ‘m not going to pretend that we aren’t born sinners and that some little children (initially, at least) refuse to learn or to even entertain the idea of learning. Now, of course even these children do learn. The vast majority of them really do become adults that walk and talk — most of them even read, more or less (usually less). I also think some children are born with an insatiable desire to learn whatever they can about anything in front of them, or maybe even anything that comes across their minds.

Ideals: Loving Knowledge for its Own Sake

Regardless of what sort of child sits before us, learning to love and pursue knowledge for its own sake is the ideal. We shoot for the ideal, knowing that we may never reach it, because we are better people for having aimed at it rather than mediocrity. The ideal does not crush us or discourage us; it challenges us to be more than we currently are, to be more of what we ought to be.

C.S. Lewis once wrote:

St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in ‘ordinate affections’ or ‘just sentiments’ will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful.

It must be trained to feel.

Let’s think about that for a moment.

We live in a culture in which our feelings are considered completely subjective. If you feel, you just do, and nothing can (or even should) be done about it. That is the general sentiment, right? Out of this is sometimes born a philosophy of child-led learning. My concern about this philosophy is never that a child is studying what he likes, but that I have encountered children who are not required to study what they don’t like.

If a child rejects the subject at hand, the tendency is to panic. Or, at least, that is my tendency.

Now, we’ve talked before about readiness, so I’m going to assume that little Johnny is quite ready and simply doesn’t like memorizing his Latin charts or doing his math or what have you.

Charlotte Mason’s fourth principle of education is this:

These principles are limited by the respect due to the personality of children, which must not be encroached upon whether by the direct use of fear or love, suggestion or influence, or by undue play upon any one natural desire.

In other words, we are not allowed to manipulate our students into learning using threats (empty or otherwise), emotional ploys, grades, marks, prizes, etc. etc. etc. the list goes on and on and on. In this modern world, we do a lot to try and get children to learn. Actually, we do it to get them to move through the material and pass standardized tests at the end. How much they actually retain and learn is debatable and varies widely among graduates.

In my local Charlotte Mason study group, there are a number of former classroom teachers that tell me that this is what they were taught in teacher’s college: how to “encourage” students to learn by attracting them to other things — by playing upon their natural desires.

By cultivating the flesh.

I knew a family once who paid their child to obey. Who gave their child a prize for everything he struggled with. Over time, he became the child who thought adults owed him for every minor triumph … and he didn’t know how to enjoy his successes for their own sake.

When you’ve be educated using a thoroughly modern educational philosophy, it is easy to read Charlotte Mason for the first time and think that she was revolutionary, or that she was thinking original thoughts. I would say that she was conservative in that she was conserving things that came before her, and I number her among our greatest Afterthinkers, because she was thinking and rethinking and translating into her own culture the best thoughts that had been thought about education throughout history.

She said that knowledge should be loved for its own sake — that it could be loved for its own sake.

And so did Euclid…two millenia before her.

What is the point of studying mathematics? The question was posed long ago to Euclid, an ancient geometer who could properly be called the Shakespeare of mathematics. In one of the few surviving biographical fragments about him, we have an answer to the question. After having learned the first geometrical theorem, a pupil inquired of Euclid, “But what shall I get by learning these things?” Euclid called one of his slaves. “Give him a coin,” Euclid ordered, “since he must make a gain out of what he learns.” Unfortunately, we do not have recorded what effect Euclid’s stinging words had upon the student, so we do not know whether the student blushed from embarrassment or was simply stunned by incomprehension. either way, the point of Euclid’s remark is that the study of geometry is intrinsically good and needs no further justification. While it may have practical uses, these are accidental to its true merit, the peculiarly human joy of gaining knowledge about mathematical things. Flipping the student a coin was a way to chastise him, marking him as one with an attitude unworthy of the study of mathematics for its own sake.

The authors of A Meaningful World go on:

[T]he attempt to justify the teaching of Euclid or Shakespeare in terms of material gain is not far removed from the attempt to reduce the works of Shakespeare or the works of Euclid to some material cause.

And later:

The truth about human nature is that humans take immense joy in knowing for its own sake.

And when our children do not do this, they are behaving less than human. This is why we teachers must humanize them. We must help them become what they were created to be but which, because of the fall of man, they are not.

We must aim for the mark.

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9 Comments

  • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts October 19, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Oh, Sarah, you are making me want to read Gregory!

    • Reply Mystie October 19, 2012 at 3:14 pm

      It *is* a short, easy-to-read book. 🙂 It might not even be too bad to print….

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts October 19, 2012 at 3:30 pm

      Really? I hadn’t even thought about printing it. Thanks!

  • Reply Sarah October 19, 2012 at 5:43 am

    Cool! That confirms it for me. I believe you are right. In the 7 Laws he says just that…questions excite the mind, and not just obvious questions like what just happened, but ones that make you think more on what was said, or draw in information you already know to solve the problem as you beautifully explained. I have ben experimenting also with giving answers in such a way that leaves the issue open enough for more questions. It is easy when we are tired or disinterested ourselves to be quick to wrap it all up instead of opening it all up. John Milton Gregory from the 7 laws also says it is important to leave each student with questions in his mind to ponder at the end of each lesson. This was a new and refreshing thought for me. Thank you for answering my question. 🙂

  • Reply Sarah October 18, 2012 at 5:30 am

    Thank for stimulating my thoughts. I think upon this topic a lot. Aiming high and respecting the child as a person is a fine balance. May I ask in more detail how you go about it, finding the balance between freedom, individuality and the musts. I have been reading The seven Laws of Teaching by John Milton Gregory and in the chapter called the Law of the Teaching Process he writes:

    “all telling, explaining, or other so called acts of teaching are useless except as they serve to excite and direct the pupil’s voluntary mental powers.” pg. 100. I love the idea of not getting in the way but I also realize I do have a role which gets blurry to me at times. what does He really mean by exciting and directing. where is the line?

    I am curious what you think about this.

    BTW I enjoyed seeing your book stacks on the side bar. 🙂 I am reading Give them grace too! ANd I love Raising Real men.

    • Reply Brandy @ Afterthoughts October 18, 2012 at 8:28 pm

      You know, I really have been meaning to read 7 Laws of Teaching for some time, but I don’t have a copy and I am never very good about reading something book-length on a screen. You remind me once again that I need to do it! 🙂

      I really think that going back to Socratic principles can help us a lot. Learning to ask good questions is, I think, harder than learning to tell good answers, but it seems like just giving out answers rarely gets minds moving, especially when it comes to the young. As CM said, they often take what they need or want and discard the rest!

      So, for me, I’m trying to learn to guide with questions. I’ll give a quick example. We read a chapter in Tree in the Trail today, the girls and I. In it, two buffalo hunters are being chased by Indians, who are shooting arrows at them. When they get to the tree in the story, the Indians turn away instead of pursuing them. The men are baffled, and frankly so were my girls. They didn’t immediately make the connection about the tree. I hope you have read it because I don’t have time to explain the whole story.

      It was so tempting, especially because I was tired and wanted to be done. with. school., to tell them why the Indians abandoned their pursuit. But instead, after they narrated, I asked them:

      -What tree is that? What tree did they run to? {The Medicine Tree was one answer}
      -Did they know it was the Medicine Tree? {No.}
      -Why did the Indians turn away? {They didn’t know, so I told them we would think about it.}
      -What are the other names for the tree? Are they allowed to have a war near the tree? Why not? {Finally at this point one of them remembered that it was also called the Peace Tree.}

      The nice part was that I could see lightbulbs coming on at that point, which I don’t think would have happened if I had just told them the Indians went away because that was the Peace Tree and no wars could be had there. In fact, I don’t think they would even have cared about the idea if I had said it that way.

      Of course, as with all ideals, I do not execute this perfectly, nor often enough, but I think that Socratic questioning is the ideal when it comes to getting children thinking in the direction we want them to go.

  • Reply Naomi October 16, 2012 at 9:46 am

    Always love reading your posts Brandy! Loved the story about Euclid 🙂

  • Reply ...they call me mommy... October 10, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    “Regardless of what sort of child sits before us, learning to love and pursue knowledge for its own sake is the ideal. We shoot for the ideal, knowing that we may never reach it, because we are better people for having aimed at it rather than mediocrity. The ideal does not crush us or discourage us; it challenges us to be more than we currently are, to be more of what we ought to be.”

    YES!!! Thank you!

  • Reply Erin October 9, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    Oh wow Brandy, lots to ponder!

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