Every now and then I am tempted to think I know something. When that happens (and it happens less frequently as I age), I have the perfect cure.
Pick up David Hicks Norms and Nobility and start reading.
What typically happens is that some great new insight on which I’ve spent years questing, will be sitting there on the surface of the page, serenely welcoming me and not even laughing at me for taking so long.
I’m doing a close study of this book for the apprenticeship even now and, once again, I am being humbled by the experience.
For one thing, when I do a deep study of a book, I like to get at the structure so I can see the flow of thought. That’s pretty easy with a modern book because it usually sits on the surface of the text, blaring at you that you are where you are.
The whole outline of a book reads like the document map on the side of a Word document with large fonts italicized, bold fonts, bullet points, tables to summarize, etc. etc. At no point is the mind of the reader challenged to engage the text directly and actually think about the relationships among the parts.
I find that frustrating and rather insulting because I know that the effort to organize the text is what of the ways to understand it. However, conventional writers don’t write to be understood, they write to be applied. So they write things that don’t take any thinking, that assume the reader doesn’t want to think, and that can be easily applied without any thinking.
Here’s the challenge with Norms. To identify the structure, you have to compress what the text says. You have to take paragraphs and funnel them down to a single core idea (this, by the way, is a great reading exercise that actually involves thinking and is much more profitable than answering worksheet questions, which almost necessarily focus on trivia and are controlled by the teacher instead of teaching the student higher reading skills).
I find that with Norms and Nobility, the impulse is always to unpack and develop a thought rather than to condense and summarize it. The insights are so profound and come from such a different perspective that I don’t trust myself to summarize them.
Today I spent about 40 minutes on chapter 1, section one. Which is three pages long!
Each page contains a doctoral thesis of analysis. Listen:
The popular mind associates the idea of a classical education with the narrow and elitist schools of Victorian England. In fact, these schools perverted classical education by teaching in precept and in example a hereditary aristocratic ideal intended to serve the ambitions of Empire and to preserve the status quo.
I suppose anybody could make this claim after a cursory reading in Dickens or a biography of Carroll or something like that, but with Mr. Hicks, these two sentences express the condensed result of years of reflection of his own on education.
For those of us who yearn to understand classical education he has already, in this first sentence of the first chapter, warned us off a false scent. After all, if we are looking to understand classical education, it only makes sense that we would look to that era when it stood most proudly, just before it was replaced by the evil moderns.
But Mr. Hicks says, “No, your job won’t be that easy. You can’t just bounce back 100 years and imitate what those who share your language did back then. Your going to have to think more deeply than that. You’re going to have to go beyond the surface to the spirit. And that’s never easy.” (This is my supposition of a dialogue with Mr. Hicks, not a quotation from the book.)
So he’s warned us off one false track by telling us about those who perverted classical education. The end of the first page warns us off another false track by noting the opposite error:
By the turn of the century, a growing number of self-proclaimed progressives, desiring to democratize the school and mistaking what went on in Victorian schools with classical education, began to put forward their own theories of education…. Neither ideal types, aprioric truths, nor transcendent human needs figure in the writings of these spokesmen for the progressive movement [he refers specifically to Dewey and James].
Of course, the blank stare these phrases call forth from our own minds indicate that they haven’t figured much in our own thinking either. Ideal types? Aprioric truths?! Transcendent human needs!!?? What have these got to do with education?
Heck, aprioric truths doesn’t even pass the spellcheck!
Mr. Hicks has thrown down the gauntlet. He is going to use terms that we aren’t familiar with. He has to if he is going to talk about classical education. We have all been educated under the progressives, who don’t care about the things that classical educators care about. They don’t use this vocabulary because they don’t want us to think about these things.
So you and I cannot hide behind the excuse of not knowing the terms Hicks uses. If we are going to understand classical education, we are going to have to make the effort required to learn his vocabulary. Because, as he ends page one:
To the extent that the Victorian schoolmaster perverted classical learning and the progressive educator ignored it, our modern schools have suffered.
I would change that third word from the end from schools to students. It seems like every day I meet or hear about a new person, child or adult, who has been victimized by the modern school. It’s not that the teachers don’t care. It’s that they are castrated, crippled, and crazed by administration, systems, and inhumane and subhuman ideas.
Even today a student was admitted to eighth grade in a school I know to be tutored by someone I know because someone else cared enough to see that he was pulled out of a failing school. He struggles with reading and writing apparently, but the first thing his tutor learned is that he is perceptive, intelligent, and determined to succeed.
It is no longer possible to exaggerate the negative moral impact of our schools.
Therefore, we have to be willing to put in the work this renewal requires. Forget the culture; forget schools. People’s well-being (their souls) depends on it.
Please read and meditate on this book if you are an educator or know anybody who wants to be educated.