I have vigorously defended contextual learning in my book because I believe that it is the key to how we learn as well as to the delight we find in learning. Children learn to speak by hearing words used in context, not by memorizing their definitions or studying their etymologies.
David Hicks: Norms and Nobility, page vi
Contextual learning is called by some synthetic learning. It is the learning that comes out of the whole to engage the part. It is the context that makes learning interesting, delightful, and profitable.
However, in the excessively analytical modes of thinking that dominate our schools, we are continually required to learn things out of their contexts, and therefore in ways that are less interesting, less delightful, and less profitable.
The archetype of the decontextualized lesson is the dissected frog. Wordsworth even treated this activity as a metaphor if not a synechdoce for modern education: we murder to dissect. We do it to Robert Herrick’s poetry as much as we do to the frog.
You don’t learn what a frog is by dissecting it. You have to experience it in context – at the pond, with its mates, etc.
All human action takes place in a moral context. Every human action arises from a human decision, and every human decision has a moral context.
Every historical or literary event, therefore, is fundamentally moral. Every story turns on an action by the protagonist and every action follows on a decision. In most stories it is the moral dilemma that drives the plot. Every story ends up celebrating some virtue, even James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, or DH Lawrence.
For this reason, literature and history have always been seen as morally formative “subjects.” Fundamentally, as Mr. Hicks points out elsewhere, history and literature are driven by the same basic questions.
Although in my curriculum proposal I use history as the paradigm for contextual learning, the ethical question “What should one do?” might provide an even richer context for acquiring general knowledge. This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom, and it draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns. It challenges the imagination and makes life the laboratory it ought to be for testing the hypotheses and lessons of the classroom.
The question that drives the human spirit, that arouses thought in child or adult, and that makes an education worth getting is this very simple question, “What should one do?”
Writing, therefore, can be used to cultivate wisdom when we teach students to engage in this inquiry. It must not be taught in isolation, as a specialized, abstracted skill. It should be taught as a way to refine thinking about things that matter, like whether Huckleberry Finn should have helped Jim escape, whether the colonies should have revolted against George III, whether Brutus should have assassinated Caesar, whether the grasshopper should have spent his summer playing music, whether Edmund should have followed the White Witch, etc.
It should be contextualized. Notice what Mr. Hicks said above: “This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom.”
I’ll have more to say on how to do this in later posts, but this is an important starting point. Not only can writing be used to cultivate wisdom, it must be so used. When you use writing as a tool by which your students ask the question, “What should be done?” or more precisely, “Should something be done?” you have begun to do so.
You’ve also just made reading, writing, history, and literature exponentially more interesting, delightful, and profitable.
I don’t know if there is any other question that can properly integrate or synthesize the curriculum (Most attempts at integration fail because of their analytical bias. They try to integrate at too low a level, setting aside ethical and philosophical matters).