CONTOURS OF CULTURE by Ken Myers
The Lost Sense of Learning
Many books that most wisely describe the ideals of cultural flourishing (and which thereby diagnose cultural confusions) are books about education. This should come as no surprise, since the work of education is at root the transmission of culture—of a body of knowledge and a way of situating ourselves in the world so as to seek understanding and live well.
Our society typically regards education as a means of progress to some unknown and better future, not as a matter of cultural conservation. So we tend to think of schools as places where individuals acquire dispositions and skills to live out their idiosyncratic dreams and remake the world to satisfy their desires. Our schools thus transmit the cultural values of individualism, progress, and relativism, and thereby conserve the anti-conservative ideology of modernity. Neat.
"Behind every constellation of educational practices," the philosopher James K. A. Smith has observed, "is a set of assumptions about the nature of human persons—about the kinds of creatures we are." Pedagogical models also convey a set of assumptions about the nature of the cosmos—about the kind of world we inhabit and about the ultimate origins of its order. How we teach, how we approach the conveying of knowledge, is shaped by assumptions about the nature of human knowing and the shape and source of human well-being.
The teaching methods of Dickens's Professor Gradgrind, for example, clearly embody assumptions about the contours of human experience in the world: "Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of service to them." Hard times indeed.
Gradgrind's educational method assumes that human beings are most essentially reasoning (that is, calculating) animals who best make their world by the assembling and ordering of data. Gradgrind embodies a modern mechanistic model of man and cosmos. There is no room in his classroom for the older ideal of education—a fixture in the West from Socrates until the late Middle Ages—according to which the task of schooling was training the young to love the beautiful, true, and good. In that model, love was understood as a more fundamental human attribute than reasoning, and the world was known to be more than a jumble of practical problems.
A Poetic Way of Knowing
In his book Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, James S. Taylor reminds us that "medieval man, like ancient Western man, considered the universe a whole and living reality, significant and mysterious." Coupled with this understanding of the unity and integrity of the cosmos—in Christian terms, a creation ordered by the Logos—was "the consistent view that it was the whole person who experienced the world—not just the eyes or just the mind, but the composite being, body and soul, man."
Like C. S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man and Josef Pieper's Leisure, the Basis of Culture, Taylor's Poetic Knowledge examines how the modern understanding of the kinds of creatures we are and the kind of world we inhabit is intertwined with assumptions about what constitutes real knowledge, and is thus about the aims and methods of education. Taylor explains at the beginning of the book that the term poetic knowledge refers not to a knowledge of poetry but rather to "a poetic (a sensory-emotional) experience of reality. . . . Poetic experience indicates an encounter with reality that is nonanalytical, something that is perceived as beautiful, awful (awefull), spontaneous, mysterious."
In his work to recover an understanding of a poetic way of knowing the world (and so to recover the proper end of education), Taylor looks at how Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Benedict, and Aquinas all described human knowing with more complexity and subtlety than do modern theories. Their understanding of knowing was a far cry from the simple "data processing" of modern models, and involved the interaction of the senses, appetites, intuition, imagination, will, and reason. Knowing was a process of the body and soul, not just the brain. Knowing was an aesthetic act, not (as has been the case since Descartes) a detached cataloging of facts. Reality was best known by committed and loving engagement with it, by submitting to it.
All of the educational experiences detailed in The Republic for the child—songs, poetry, music, gymnastics—
Interactions with Dissenters
Taylor summarizes the changes in modern philosophy, society, and schooling that have occurred since Descartes, changes that "violate a primordial disposition of man, doing violence to his very nature as a specific being, who is capable of knowing his world as a whole being, integrated and entire, body and soul, recognizing unselfconsciously and spontaneously, that all is real and good."
There are, of course, many thinkers who have dissented from the Cartesian orthodoxy, and Taylor interacts with them richly: John Henry Newman, Jacques Maritain, Josef Pieper, E. F. Schumacher. There are also many lesser-known thinkers—including a number of educators—who have creatively refused to bow the knee to the modern Baal, and Taylor's discussion of their writings and their classroom practices is one of the most distinctive contributions of his book.
Some decades back, the philosopher George Parkin Grant lamented the aimless and pragmatic spirit of modern technocratic culture:
James S. Taylor's Poetic Knowledge is a rich chronicle of how we lost such a recognition, and a compelling argument for why we should seek to recover it, in our schools and beyond.
Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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“The Lost Sense of Learning” first appeared in the May/June 2013 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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