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Vital Knowledge Begins with Living, Personal Experience I

All vital knowledge begins with living personal experience of an idea, either direct when the idea is embodied in things, or vicarious when the idea is embodied in texts or artifacts.

That needs to be unfolded, so let me give it a try. First, by way of context let me say that I am reflecting on the necessary sequence of an individual lesson every bit as much as I am reflecting on the “lifetime curriculum.” On the second point first (the lifetime curriculum), the early years, let us call them “pre-grammar,” are, for the most part, non-reflective. Children up to about 9 years old, though it begins to change gradually around 5 or 6 years old, are primarily building a store-house of un-interpreted experiences. When the human race lived close to nature, these years could be counted on to provide the sorts of encounters that would nourish the soul for a lifetime. The farther we get from nature, the more imperative it is that children be provided with such experiences. We were not created to be and we did not evolve into creatures whose best time was to be spent indoors. In this fact is the motivation behind all that is best in Romanticism (cf. Wordsworth’s poetry in particular).

The need for living, personal experience applies equally to the individual lesson. If we want the child (or ourselves) to have vital knowledge, then the lesson must provide living, personal experience of the idea to be taught. Such experiences can be provided a number of ways, which can be categorized into direct and vicarious experiences.

Direct experience refers to personal interaction with the thing itself in its natural or accustomed habitat. If you want to teach children about horses, they should experience horses directly. The more the better and the more environments the better. If you want them to learn about submission, they should experience it in those who have authority over them.

Vicarious experience occurs when the child experiences a living idea through another person, real or fictitious. It would seem to me that this occurs primarily through literature or history. For example, if we want a child to become courageous, he needs to see courage. A teacher or parent can certainly provide direct personal experiences of courage and if they go on outdoor adventures he or she can provide them even more readily. But to make courage particularly vivid, humans have always resorted to stories. For example, Jim Hawkins shows us a young person who overcomes every danger by overcoming his fears and staying the course through courage in Treasure Island. Few would question the courage of George Washington, and his life is an abundant resource for the child to feed on virtue.

In this vicarious context, we encounter courage, as it were, in its living environment. It is not a static idea, pinned to the wall for us to comment on from the outside. By seeing it alive, we can see it in its true nature and can learn about it vitally. We can, eventually, reflect on why a person does brave things, what causes and perverts courage, and where in our actual daily lives courage might be demanded of us.

None of this can be done when we memorize a definition of courage or retain a list of brave people from flash cards. All of that must come AFTER the living personal experience of the idea.

Perhaps you can see that what I have called vital knowledge is not the same as static knowledge and that it is more important, more transforming, more valuable than static knowledge.

Teaching a convention (as opposed to things or ideas themselves) provides a unique set of challenges. The alphabet and the number system are not natural things, but are tools invented by resourceful human beings to better understand things and ideas. We run the constant risk of turning them into ends in themselves. Perhaps unschoolers find their motivation in an intuition of this reality.

Students must learn these conventions, but the conventions will always challenge the resourcefulness of teachers precisely because you cannot have direct, personal experiences of them. You can have a direct personal experience, however, of what they symbolize, and that, it would seem to me, provides a key to their efficient mastery. Children should consciously experience discreet sounds and quantities of things. The craving for a name arises within children when they experience these realities, and that given name is the convention. We have given the relatively mild, soft popping sound we make when we put our lips together and breathe over them a onomonpoetic name: B. When we intensify the pop by resisting the breath for an instant, we call it a P.

It seems to me that children would welcome these names a great deal more readily if they were being applied to friends they have been playing with for a little while. I can imagine a delightful and valuable five minutes spent with a group of three year olds conducting a sound-making-up contest!

The following may not meet with everyone’s approval and may even weaken my argument in the mind’s of some readers, but it occurs to me that you can see this principle imperfectly illustrated in condensed fashion in The Sound of Music when they are learning the notes, Do Re Me. It might have been even better if they had simply hummed the notes a bit before applying the conventional names, but they are given something like a life in this song.

I trust this has made some sense of my contention that all vital knowledge begins with living personal experience of an idea and that that experience can be direct or vicarious. The ramifications and applications are extensive and I would be delighted to explore them with you.

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