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Knowledge and Little Children

Charlotte Mason spoke of Living Ideas. James Taylor developed the ideas of John Senior and others under the concept of Poetic Knowledge. Michael Polanyi wrote an important book called Personal Knowledge. Christian de Quincey pushed a lot farther with his book Radical Knowing, looking to eastern mysticism for his foundations. But in all of these cases, the authors challenge what westerners seem to take for granted: that knowing is a conscious, rational process or act.

The truth is, conventional western ideas of knowing are rooted in Descartes and Bacon, and they have been deterioriating among philosophers of knowledge for over 200 years. Old habits, especially bad ones, die hard. I’ve been forced to reflect on these issues because I’m working on a pre-school curriculum and also because I keep finding myself in conversations with heads of school and teachers who have ideas about how to teach young children that don’t make a lot of sense to me. Let me address the second point first because one, it’s most easily described, two, I like chiastic structures, and three, it seems to be pretty common so I’m most likely to offend a lot of people.

What I keep hearing is that in the grammar stage (what Dorothy Sayers referred to as the poll parrot stage) children should be taught reams of information through repetition because they are in the grammar stage and the grammar stage is about facts. Some go so far as to say that they should not be required to use reason yet because they can’t. The thing is, teaching this way differs from everything else we do with children at this stage. For example, in the classic illustration, if a four year old child touches a stove, do we respond by having him memorize a jingle about things to avoid in the kitchen? No, we are perfectly comfortable with the child’s instinctive, “hard-wired” capacity to recognize both cause and effect with one hand and associations with the other. We comfort the child. But if we want to teach a seven year old grammar, we have him sing songs about it, songs that are remarkably abstract, that refer to things he doesn’t know, and that he will be quizzed on the next day. Let me be clear and careful: I have no trouble with singing songs to help kids remember things (though they need to get rid of the crutch/song as fast as possible), nor do I object to them memorizing passages that use language beyond students’ understanding (creeds, catechisms, Shakespeare, etc.). My heart still leaps up when I recall my then four year old daughter standing front of the student body at Providence Academy and reciting Wordsworth’s “My heart leaps up…” No, that is not my objection.

My objection is to two contradictory notions, both of which I keep finding people seem unwittingly to hold: 1. that the child has learned grammar when she has memorized this chant/jingle/song and 2. that children at that age can’t learn grammar anyway so they should just learn this chant/jingle/song. Either they are capable of learning grammar at that age or they are not. Since grammar is the application of logic to our verbal communications (not, as modern theorizers would have us believe, the mere application of rhetoric (i.e. usage) to our verbal communications), the question comes down to whether grammar stage children are capable of reasoning logically. Of course, that becomes a question not of kind but of degree. Of course they are capable of reasoning logically. At a certain level, even a cat or a dog is capable of that. That’s why, apart from dead puppies, they come when you call. The question is how much, or rather, at how high a level is a small child capable of reasoning logically.

I’ve raised five children (the youngest is 12 now). I’ve taught every grade from 2-12. I’ve interacted with preschool children. The one thing I can attest to, and that research verifies, is that children from the womb have an innate capacity – even a necessity – for logical reasoning. Around the time they reach the age of three, they begin to develop the ability to reason logically on purpose, consciously, using words and quantities (numbers and shapes). They are not very good at it, which is why they are so cute. By the time they reach kindergarten, they have become remarkably adept at it. They could outsmart any non-human creature in most purely logical activities, though I suspect they would probably lose to the cleverness of a chimpanzee on its own turf. By the time they have reached third grade, the grammar stage proper on most charts I’ve seen, their reasoning capacity is extravagent and a wonder to behold, especially if they haven’t been to school yet or watched too much television. They can remember long passages (I had my third grade memorize the magnificat and Proverbs 8 each year), they can find associations between seemingly unrelated ideas, they can calculate and estimate. And yet, there seems to be a notion that we should not engage them in discussions about what we are teaching them. We should just fill their heads with information. This is NOT what Ms. Sayers was suggesting. Read her essay again and you’ll see something much more jolly, interactive, intellectually assertive on the part of the child. She demonstrated the pleasure that children derive from the rough and tumble of meaningless sounds, but she was not arguing for a meaningless classroom.

What I’m arguing is this: children can actually learn grammar, in the abstract, grammar itself – not just words that represent grammar. In other words, they can actually understand grammar lessons. But it matters enormously how they are taught. The notion of how we teach causes me to realize that I may have wandered a little off course, so I need to correct myself and get back to the point, which is about knowledge and how we teach. I was pointing out that some people seem to have developed notions under the name of classical education that are not particularly effective at education and are certainly not classical. You can, perhaps, see it most clearly in grammar, where we are teaching “grammar” stage children grammar in ways that don’t make sense and don’t work. What I’m really thinking about is, “Why do we do that?” Why do we simply press information into the heads of grammar stage children and call it teaching? I honestly believe there’s an element of naive pride involved. We have long heard that rote memory is deadening, and we have discovered that, in fact, children enjoy it, when put to a rythmn or a tune. We have been told that school should be fun and that children are not able to learn very much, but we have discovered that children are bored when you try to make them have fun (they prefer trees and playgrounds to classrooms no matter how entertaining you make the classroom) and they are able to learn a great deal. So we aren’t going to be pushed around by those who smirk at us and throw down terms like “rote memory” and “drill to kill” at what we are doing. We’re the classic adolescent who lets his adversary control him by defining the opposition. There is no opposition between learning by heart and thinking. Grammar school children CAN understand so much more than we seem to be willing to recognize. By denying that, we fall into the same trap that caught the conventional educator. But why did it happen? Because, I’m going to argue in a following post, we have adopted the same rationalist and pragmatist assumptions about what knowledge is and that has prevented us from seeing the true glory of what Christian classical education can achieve. Necessity may well be the most powerful teaching instrument available.

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