Educational Philosophy

Ideas as Soul Formation

July 23, 2014 by Brandy Vencel
[dropcap]W[/dropcap]hat do you think of when you think of classical homeschooling? Chants. Good books. Rigorous work. Latin. I’m going to assume not only that all of these are Good Things that we’d ideally include in the curriculum — that we want to include in our days — but I’m also going to assume we’re all living an Average Life. It seems like so many pieces to fit into a day. But as Sarah wrote earlier in “You’re More Classical Than You Think” :

Many of us avoid the idea of the classical tradition because we feel rather… well… ordinary. But the true aim of the classical tradition is to cultivate wisdom and virtue, to help a person become more fully human, and to know and love God with all that we are.

There’s one key to simplifying our checklists: Ideas.


If you’ve ever wanted to ditch memorizing timeline facts in favor of reciting poetry, you’re more classical than you think.

What you’re really choosing in such an instance is to move the focus from facts to ideas. And this is a good thing, for if the goal of our education is virtue, facts alone aren’t going to get us there.

What is a fact? A fact is a piece of information isolated from its context. It is supposed to be “true” and verifiable, meaning that it shouldn’t contain bias or emotion. As a child, for example, I knew that “in fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue” — this is a fact. But the context of who Columbus was, the significance of what he did, or any emotion about the details of his life were a mystery to me. I only knew a companion fact: the names of his three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. A fact is the result of analysis. It’s predigested. If I have a list of history facts that I think my child should memorize, chances are that I went through and read a lot of history, picked out what I thought were the most important events or people or dates, and created my list. In other words, I took the whole apart and offered pieces of it. This is what analysis does.

What is an idea? An idea, on the other hand, is the universal. It’s the spiritual component — the part of the lesson that transcends time and place. It’s hard to see an idea without a context, without a whole in which to see it. I might be able to define “justice” or “love” or any other of the million worthy ideas, but it is when I see an embodied example of it that I come to really know it. Charlotte Mason tried to define “idea” early in her career:

An idea is more than an image or picture; it is, so to speak, a spiritual germ endowed with vital force — with power, that is, to grow, and to produce after its kind. It is the very nature of an idea to grow: as the vegetable germ secretes that it lives by, so, fairly implant an idea in the child’s mind, and it will secrete its own food, grow, and bear fruit in the form of a succession of kindred ideas. {Home Education, p. 173}

Near the end of her life, she added:

What is an idea? we ask, and find ourselves plunged beyond our depth. A live thing of the mind, seems to be the conclusion of our greatest thinkers from Plato to Bacon, from Bacon to Coleridge. We all know how an idea ‘strikes,’ ‘seizes,’ ‘catches hold of,’ ‘impresses’ us and at last, if it be big enough, ‘possesses’ us; in a word, behaves like an entity. {A Philosophy of Education, p. 105}

While facts are often characterized as “dry” or “dull” or even “lifeless,” ideas have a certain vitality — they give life to the intellect and stimulate growth.

 

Bringing It Back to Our Goal

Facts are necessary, of course. The goal is not to entirely abandon them, but to elevate ideas back to their rightful place, while lowering facts back to their informative yet incidental nature. In other words, it’s a change of perspective. So the question becomes, “Why?” Why does it even matter if one prefers facts while another gives preference to ideas? The question must be settled by revisiting our goal. If the goal of education is to train the memory, promote good recall, or just to generally develop intellectual faculties, facts can do all of that. If the goal of education is simply to accumulate lots of information so that people are impressed by the student and he sounds competent when he talks and he is therefore able to pass tests and get into college and acquire a good job, facts might be able to do that, too. But if the goal of education is more than this — if it’s to actually train the soul and develop character — to produce virtue — ideas must reign supreme. James Taylor goes so far as to consider the child fed on a continual diet of facts to be in danger:

Alone, though armed with Facts, such a student is likely to become arrogant. {Poetic Knowledge, p. 105}

Why would he say such a thing? It goes back to the vital, life-giving nature of ideas, especially when compared to isolated facts as dry and deadening. It is ideas — as they are necessarily presented in the whole forms of things like story, myth, poems, or history tales — that form the soul. They do this first by raising the question of “ought.” No one is inspired to ask, “Ought Christopher Columbus to have sailed the ocean blue in 1492?” Facts in isolation don’t raise those sorts of questions. But many ought questions can be raised when reading a biography of Columbus.

This is important because the “ought” question is the central question of virtue formation.

In addition to this, ideas impact the affections. While no one ever “felt” passionately one way or another about the fact of sailing in 1492, ideas-in-whole-form can touch the seat of the emotions. In her book Consider This, Karen Glass writes:

In order to properly understand classical education, we must begin to shape our own thinking into a form that resembles that of earlier educators — to understand, as they did, that all aspects of education … are a part of the greater matter of forming a virtuous person.

In the end, facts may very well tell us how the world has been changed. Ideas, though, change us.

This is important, because education is the business of making better humans.


 

Find links to the rest of this series at You’re More Classical Than You Think.

 

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15 Comments

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  • Reply Tonya May 27, 2015 at 7:53 am

    Doesn’t facts and ideas go together though? It seems you can’t divorce them. Isn’t that what classical education tries to do? Move you through the facts phase into the idea stage. You can’t really have ideas about something unless you know a little about it.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel May 27, 2015 at 8:02 am

      Facts can be divorced from ideas, but ideas cannot be divorced from facts, I would say. An idea always has to be embodied or enfleshed, basically making facts the skin, muscle, and bone that allows us to discern the idea. But facts in isolation are always separate from their ideas.

      • Reply Tonya May 27, 2015 at 8:06 am

        Yes! That’s it exactly! Thank You!

        • Reply Brandy Vencel May 27, 2015 at 8:37 am

          I’m glad I got it right. 😉

  • Reply Leslie February 7, 2015 at 9:33 pm

    I so appreciate the distinction between facts and ideas. I love the idea of cultivating wisdom and virtue, but sometimes I wonder how a classical education will look in the end, after all we are many generations removed from those native to it. I personally find our facts to be beautiful, fun, and with great purpose, but I can see how one could focus on that as the end. Thank you for the discussion and reminder to read great ideas all along, without which our facts would have no context. “Educate men without religion, and you have but clever devils.” -Arthur Wellesley

    • Reply Brandy Vencel February 8, 2015 at 1:03 pm

      I do think this is generational work. We are recovering something that is old and was almost entirely lost. We do what we can and hope our children will build upon that foundation, and so on. 🙂

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