knowledge

Locke’s advice on teaching

The great skill of a teacher is to get and keep the attention of his scholar: whilst he has that, he is sure to advance as fast the learner’s abilities will carry him; and without that, all his bustle and pother will be to little or no purpose. To attain this, he should make the children comprehend, (as much as may be,) the usefulness of what he teaches him; and let him see, by what he has learned, that he can do something which he could not do before; something which gives him some power and real advantage above others, who are ignorant of it. To this he should add sweetness in all his instructions; and by a certain tenderness in his whole carriage, make the child sensible that he loves him, and designs nothing but his good; the only way to beget love in the child, which will make him hearken to his lessons, and relish what he teaches him.

John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, 161

Advertisements

“The Scholars” by W.B. Yeats

Bald heads, forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

“On Education” by Elizabeth Bentley

When infant Reason first exerts her sway,
And new-formed thoughts their earliest charms display;
Then let the growing race employ your care
Then guard their opening minds from Folly’s snare;
Correct the rising passions of their youth,
Teach them each serious, each important truth;
Plant heavenly virtue in the tender breast,
Destroy each vice that might its growth molest;
Point out betimes the course they should pursue;
Then with redoubled pleasure shall you view
Their reason strengthen as their years increase,
Their virtue ripen and their follies cease;
Like corn sown early in the fertile soil,
The richest harvest shall repay your toil.

Ways of knowing

Human beings, by their nature, seek to understand themselves and the world around them. Each of us is placed into a world which we neither created nor comprehend. It is as if we have woken up in a dark room with no knowledge of who we are or how we got here. As our eyes gradually adjust to the dark, we glimpse a variety of unknown objects, clues to our origins, the origins of the room and the task we have been place into the room to complete. Before anything else can be done, we must answer the questions: who am I and what am I doing here? Throughout history, many answers to these questions, of varying validity, have been offered.

Today, and since the Enlightenment, one way of answering these questions, the scientific, has come to predominate to the detriment of other ways of answering. While the means provided by science have provided numerous benefits, they have proven incomplete and unsatisfactory at best. While the scientific method may be able to measure the speed and quantity of the water pouring over a waterfall, its chemical composition and its erosive effects, scientists can say relatively little about its beauty and its evocation of a sense of sublimity in its human observers. This, rather, is the place of the poet and the artist, whose ways of understanding do not contradict those of the scientist but do indeed complete and even surpass them. Knowledge is the imposition of human order onto otherwise apparently disorderly experience of disparate phenomena with the bodily senses and the faculties of the mind. Genius, then, is the ability to form connections between what appear to others to be entirely unrelated experiences. With these definitions in mind, the poet is the genius par excellence; he is a creator of cosmos out of chaos through the use of metaphor.

Richard Wilbur is undoubtedly an outstanding modern example of such a genius. For Wilbur, in his poetry, there is nothing that is not both significant and signifying; each experience is both valuable in itself and valuable in its ability to represent or otherwise point beyond itself to something else, entering thereby into the cohesive network of all created (and, perhaps, uncreated) things. With this dual relevance of each thing as his axiom, Wilbur is able to transform the mundane into the infinitely meaningful and thereby imbue the mundane itself with infinite meaning. In “Transit,” Wilbur begins with a chance sighting of “a woman I have never seen before” exiting her townhouse on a city street. He describes her as “so beautiful that she or time must fade,” thereby entering through an otherwise prosaic event into a poetic meditation on beauty and time. In “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Wilbur again exhibits his ability to begin with the banal and end in the eternal. The poem begins as Wilbur sees laundry drying on the line “outside the open window.” He begins immediately to imagine that the drying laundry is “angels,” some of whom “are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, some are in smocks.” Nearly at the climax of the poem, Wilbur records the cry of his soul: “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, / Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam / And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.” In the poetic genius of Wilbur, the daily drudgery of cleaning clothes and sheets has become a celebration of life, a spotting of angelic beings and an affirmation of the inherent goodness of the created world as it stands.

That all of this may be far from the way most people experience the world, with all of its necessities and drudgeries, is precisely an argument in favor of Wilbur’s genius. He has taken up our shared sense impressions and the ideations they produce and reoriented them in an exuberant and original way. The laundry is indeed still laundry and the laundry must be done, but it is also something else; it is fuel for the often forgotten but most essential aspect of man: his eternal soul. Wilbur himself provides the most succinct, and, of course, poetical, description of his genius in his poem “A Wood”:

Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.

Wilbur has here avoided an error reciprocal to scientism. He has not asserted the tyranny of his position but rather acknowledged that if his understanding is correct, if indeed each thing is both significant and signifying, there must, then, be as many ways of metaphoring, as establishing connections between apparently disparate elements, as many ways of knowing as there are ways of being human, which is to say, they must be as numerous as are human beings themselves.

The life of beasts and the life of men

Those who live as beasts on the level of sense alone make the Word flesh in a way dangerous to themselves. They misuse God’s creatures for the service of the passions and do not contemplate the reason of wisdom which is manifest in all things to know and glorify God from his works, as well as to perceive whence and what and why and where we are going from the things which are seen. Rather we go groping through the present life in darkness, feeling with both hands nothing but ignorance about God.

St. Maximus the Confessor, Chapters on Knowledge, Second Century, 41

A teacher’s mind

The good teacher is a man or woman of exceptionally wide and lively intellectual interests. It is useless to think of teaching as a business, like banking or insurance: to learn the necessary quota of rules and facts, to apply them day by day as the bank-manager applies his, to go home in the evening and sink into a routine of local gossip and middle-brow relaxation (radio, TV, the newspaper, and the detective-story), to pride oneself on being an average citizen, indistinguishable from the dentist and the superintendent of the gas-works — and then to hope to stimulate young and active minds. Teachers in schools and colleges must see more, think more, and understand more than the average man and woman of the society in which they live. This does not only mean that have a better command of language and know special subjects, such as Spanish literature and marine biology, which are closed to others. It means they must know more about the world, have wider interests, keep a more active enthusiasm for the problems of the mind and the inexhaustible pleasures of art, have a keener taste even for some of the superficial enjoyments of life — yes, and spend the whole of their career widening the horizons of their spirit. Most people, as we see, stop growing between thirty and forty. They “settle down” — a phrase which implies stagnation — or at the utmost they “coast along,” using their acquired momentum, applying no more energy, and gradually slowing down to a stop. No teacher should dream of doing this. His job is understanding a large and important area of the world’s activity and achievement and making it viable for the young. He should expect to understand more and more of its as his years go by.

Gilbert Highet, The Art of Teaching, pp. 48-49

False religion and reason

What I might call, by analogy, the ‘false religion’, is obsessed not only by God’s power over men but also by His power to create a world; similarly, false rationalism is fascinated by the idea of creating huge machines and Utopian social worlds. Bacon’s ‘knowledge is power’ and Plato’s ‘rule of the wise’ are different expressions of this attitude which, at bottom, is one of claiming power on the basis of one’s superior intellectual gifts. The true rationalist, in opposition, will always be aware of the simple fact that whatever reason he may possess he owes to intellectual intercourse with others. He will be inclined, therefore, to consider men as fundamentally equal, and human reason as a bond which unites them. Reason for him is the precise opposite of an instrument of power and violence: he sees it as a means whereby they may be tamed.

Karl Popper, Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge, p. 363