Friday, August 3, 2012

Themes of the book: 3

3. The Spiral Curriculum. The liberal arts, of course, are not everything. They were not the whole of ancient education either. For Plato a rounded education would begin with "gymnastics", meaning physical education and training in various kinds of skills, and "music" meaning all kinds of mental and artistic training. In the Laws (795e) he describes these as physical training for the body (including dance and wrestling or martial arts), and cultural training for the personality (including sacred music), so that young people spend practically their whole lives at "play"(sacrificing, singing, dancing: 803e) in order to win the favour of the gods.

The range of studies that were later codified as the liberal arts are to be built on this double foundation, and they in turn are for the sake of our growth in true inner freedom, in preparation for the highest studies – the contemplation of God, in philosophy and theology. In the Laws, Plato calls the liberal arts studies for "gentlemen", although he specifies that even the "man in the
street" and "tiny tots" should be taught the rudiments. In this place he divides them into three, in addition to the music and dance discussed earlier: "(1) computation and the study of numbers; (2) measurements of lines, surfaces and solids; (3) the mutual relationship of the heavenly bodies as they revolve in their courses" (817e).

An education devised along these lines (not too slavishly, because Plato's proposed legislation can be rather oppressive) could be said to be based upon a spiral curriculum, since each of the essential elements are returned to again and again, each time at a higher level of development, until the gaze of man is entirely on God, through the ascending path of a dialectic that leads beyond argumentation towards contemplation.

The liberal arts are not for the sake of anything else; they are not vocational in any narrow sense. They contain their aim within themselves. Even the study of numbers and ability to measure is not strictly for the sake of the many practical applications to which these skills lend themselves. In themselves, taught in the right way and studied in the right spirit, they are really about harmony, proportion, beauty, and therefore they lead the mind to the source of all beauty.

These notes are intended to help readers engage with the text of Beauty in the Word. 
NEXT: The Mother of the Liberal Arts.

Themes of the book: 2

2. The Transcendentals. I find the triad of the Trivium (Memory, Thought, Speech, or if you prefer Grammar, Dialectic, Rhetoric) echoed in many others, from the Trinity of divine persons on down through the various levels of creation. The Trivium is therefore intimately bound up with the divine image in Man, which is a Trinitarian image. God himself is the source of Memory, Thought, and Speech (Being/Father, Logos/Son, and Breath/Spirit).

One of those triads is composed of the so-called "transcendental properties of being", meaning properties that are so "general" that they can be found in varying degrees in everything that exists. The three I mean are Goodness, Truth, and Beauty – although one might also look at the threesome of Unity, Truth, and Goodness. As I explain (Beauty in the Word, p. 157), such triads are impossible to align definitively with particular members of the Trinity, because they can be looked at under different aspects. In fact each is one of
the Names of God, and applies to all three divine persons. The human being who searches for any of them is on the road to God, on whom these three roads converge. The Transcendentals are vitally important if we are to understand the world as a cosmos and build a civilization worthy of our humanity.

I want to propose an idea that came to me after writing Beauty in the Word, that might serve as an interesting footnote, or open up another avenue to explore. It is this. Human civilization seems to have three pillars: Law, Language, and Religion. It is these that make us into a community or nation. And in each case the aim or goal is one of the Transcendentals, even if they cannot reach that goal without divine assistance. The aim of the Law is goodness, the aim of Language is Truth, and the aim of Religion is (spiritual) Beauty -– that is, holiness. Culture is the result of all three; of Law, Language, and Religion acting in concert (body, soul, and spirit, as it were).

But how does this relate to the Trivium? Law it seems to me aims to recall us to our true nature, or encourages us to rise to our highest nature. In that sense it corresponds to Memory or Grammar. (The moral or natural law, as Pope Benedict has written in his little book On Conscience, may be equated with Platonic "reminiscence", which is in Christian terms an awakening to our true nature in God's intention.) Language then corresponds to Thought, meaning the human quest for truth in all things. (For in order to understand reality we must discern the Son, the Logos of all things.) Thirdly, Religion in the sense of a tradition or path of holiness is what gives the spirit that animates the community. It is this that makes us aware of our intimate relationship to each other, able to speak "heart to heart".

This is an extension of an idea I put forward in the book, that before we reform our schools we need to understand more deeply the goal of education, which is a truer humanity and a civilization of love.

NEXT: The Spiral Curriculum.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Themes of the book: 1

My recent book, Beauty in the Word (see right), a sequel to Beauty for Truth's Sake, covers a lot of ground, so I thought it would be helpful to readers if I produced a "study guide". In a series of occasional posts, I intend to look at some of the key themes and ideas in the book.

1. The Trivium. This is what the book is about. The word refers to three of the traditional "seven liberal arts" that were the basis of the classical and medieval school curriculum, namely Grammar, Dialectics or Logic, and Rhetoric. (The other four, the so-called "Quadrivium" of Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy, were discussed in the previous book.)

I must admit, when I was first asked to write on this topic, I wondered if it could be made interesting enough. The Trivium sounded a bit boring to me, as I'm sure it does to many people. The rules for correct speech and the dry bones of logic? Give me a break! But as soon as I entered into the subject I found unexpected vistas opening up. It is a bit like entering the Tardis.

The key for me was to discover that the three elements of the Trivium link us directly with three basic dimensions of our humanity. No wonder they are so fundamental in classical education! I tried to bring out this hidden depth by talking not about Grammar and so on but about Memory, Thought, and Speech. To become fully human we need to discover who we are (Memory), to engage in a continual search for truth (Thought), and to communicate with others (Speech). (I suppose I might equally have approached these in terms of Maurice Blondel's three categories of Being, Thought, and Action.)

In modern times the most famous writer on the Trivium, whose essay "The Lost Tools of Learning" inspired the revival of classical education, is Dorothy L. Sayers. In it she wrote:
"The whole of the Trivium was... intended to teach the pupil the proper use of the tools of learning, before he began to apply them to 'subjects' at all. First, he learned a language; not just how to order a meal in a foreign language, but the structure of a language, and hence of language itself – what it was, how it was put together, and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language; how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument. Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation. Thirdly, he learned to express himself in language – how to say what he had to say elegantly and persuasively."
But modern education, she went on, has put the cart before the horse. It has reduced the Trivium to the teaching of various "subjects", and neglected the tools of learning. She proposed to reinvent it. She did so bearing in mind a rough theory of child development, based partly on self-observation. (I did not give this enough attention in the book, I admit, so this is by way of reparation.) She had noticed that children go through a Poll-Parrot, a Pert, and a Poetic phase before they reach puberty. At each stage a certain approach to each subject will come easier than others. Thus she writes of the need to teach the "Grammar" of the various subjects (languages, history, geography, science, mathematics, and theology)
at the Poll-Parrot or imitative stage, the "Dialectic" of each subject at the Pert stage, and finally the "Rhetoric" dimension when the children reach the more Poetic or Romantic stage of their development.

It is a brilliant approach, and one that has since revolutionized education in many small schools. As she says, "the tools of learning are the same, in any and every subject; and the person who knows how to use them will, at any age, get the mastery of a new subject in half the time and with a quarter of the effort expended by the person who has not the tools at his command." It may offer a key to reversing the decline that followed the dismantling of the liberal arts in most Western countries:
The truth is that for the last three hundred years or so we have been living upon our educational capital. The post-Renaissance world, bewildered and excited by the profusion of new "subjects" offered to it, broke away from the old discipline (which had, indeed, become sadly dull and stereotyped in its practical application) and imagined that henceforward it could, as it were, disport itself happily in its new and extended Quadrivium without passing through the Trivium. 
Of course, the history of the liberal arts is actually quite complicated, more so than Sayers had time to explore in a brief essay. Quite how complicated may be seen from an outstanding doctoral dissertation by the inventor of Media Studies, the philosopher Marshall McLuhan, published in 2006, long after his death. The Classical Trivium explores the development of the three elements of the Trivium, and the way each vies for supremacy until by the Renaissance they appear to have been wound around each other inseparably, only to be unpicked and stretched to breaking point by the new learning. (I have written about this already here.)

NEXT: The Transcendentals

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Christian Platonism

Christian Platonism or Augustinianism seems to be undergoing a kind of renaissance. Here are some books I have found interesting, in no particular order, with links. David C. Schindler, Plato's Critique of Impure Reason; Douglas Hedley, Living Forms of the Imagination; William Riordan, Divine Light: The Theology of Denys the Areopagite; C.F. Kelley, Meister Eckhart on Divine Knowledge; Christian Moevs, The Metaphysics of Dante's Comedy; Robert Bolton, The Order of the Ages and Self and Spirit; Adrian Pabst, Metaphysics: The Creation of Hierarchy; John Rist, What Is Truth?; Svetla Slaveva-Griffin, Plotinus on Number; and Giovanni Reale, Toward a New Interpretation of Plato [congenial with Plotinus on Number, but see critique].

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The world on a bad day

The massacre at a cinema in Colorado where audiences were enjoying The Dark Knight Rises – the culmination of Christopher Nolan's Batman movie trilogy – seems to have provoked only a feeble discussion of gun control that is going nowhere, and very little on the showing of extreme violence in movies. The contrast with an earlier superhero film I have praised here – Marvel's Avengers – is very marked. I don't believe that the fact this massacre happened during the Dark Knight Rises rather than the latter is merely coincidental. Both deal with the battle of good and evil, but in very different ways. In fact two different kinds of imagination are
involved. In order to understand this we need to look at the relation of art to entertainment to pornography.

Art can deal with any kind of subject matter, but the way it does so matters. Great art deals with its subjects in a great manner. Commercial entertainment is both (usually) crasser in its methods and more limited in what it encompasses – essentially, subjects with mass appeal, in order to maximize profit, but with certain limits, pornography being one. But the boundary between them is hard to define, or rather hard to agree upon. The most successful entertainment is often a work of art, and of course both art and entertainment may contain elements or notes of pornography (art may even deal explicitly with pornography as a topic).

Guernica by Picasso is great art dealing with the topic of state-sponsored violence. We are meant not to like it, but be disturbed by it. The Hunger Games trilogy covers the same topic in the mode of "entertainment". But a pornographic photograph or movie depicts violence in a way designed to titillate the human organism into wanting more. In fact some neurophysiologists regard pornography as addictive, due to a release of chemicals in the brain. But there is more to this than physiology.

The human imagination mediates between the senses and the intellect, or the world and the spirit. It can therefore face in two very different directions – call them up and down. Facing "up" it is open to the light of the spirit, and reveals a world of forms shining through the images it constructs. An extreme example would be an icon or work of sacred art, which acts as a window towards the heavenly world that is more real, and more eternal, than the everyday. But any great work of art, I would argue, does this in a way. For example A Child Consecrated to Suffering by Paul Klee, which bears relatively little relation to naturalistic forms, may help to reveal a spiritual essence more effectively than a photograph or naturalistic painting, or a work by a lesser artist.

But what if the imagination faces "downwards"? In certain types of surreal art (though not all) and also in pornography, whether of violence or sex, images drawn from nature are blown out of proportion and arranged in such a way as to turn the soul away from the world of the spirit and introduce it to something baser, more corrupted, and more dangerous – also something less real than the world around us. The effects on us as consumers is rapidly apparent.

The Dark Knight series is not pornography, but its imagination is looking in several directions. It looks down into the pit of evil, it glances up to archetypes of heroism, and a lot of the time it looks around at a caricature of the world in between, in order to assure us that this is what it is really about: the world of the everyday, or rather the world on a bad day. Avengers has a different balance to it. The sense of violence and evil is less overpowering, because it is not intent on gazing into the abyss; it is less oppressive, because the movie is not trying to convince the cynics among us that it is about real life. (Compare Tom Hiddleston's Loki with Heath Ledger's acclaimed Joker, both great performances.) Avengers tries to look more in the direction of the archetypes, which inspire heroes. It does so lightly, with a generous seasoning of humour. And in so doing it lifts the spirit rather than casting it down.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Science and faith together at last

The latest issue of our twice-yearly flagship journal, Second Spring, this time guest-edited by Christopher O. Blum of Thomas More College, is devoted to the relationship between faith and science – a question whose answer defines the spirit of the age. Schools and colleges will find this issue invaluable for classroom use with intelligent pupils. It covers scientism (Michael Aeschliman), neuroscience (James LeFanu), the Galileo myth, the anthropic principle, intelligent design, physics, and much more. Order now, if you don't already subscribe.

"Nature is either the source and the measure of our knowledge, or, if it is somehow beneath us and we are somehow its measure, then nature – including human nature – is merely some kind of cosmic playdough that we manipulate at will. The dire practical implications of such a view are evident to all men and women of good will. How is it to be refuted? Not so much by argument – for this view does not repose upon argument – as by example. It is by the patient and sober, but loving and attentive study of nature, and by the careful exposition and sharing of the results of that study, that confidence will be restored in the harmonious vision of nature as an ordered cosmos through which man the wayfarer makes his way home to his Creator." (Christopher O. Blum)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

RSA on Academy Schools

With over 50 percent of secondary schools in the UK having converted to academy status, it is time to radically slim down the Department for Education and devolve powers to new regional or sub regional education commissioners that sit alongside an independent regulatory body, says a Report from the RSA. Of course, it is very "managerial" and not much about the content or meaning and purpose of education, but it may be useful to someone.