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What are the Tools of Learning?

This is a post I added on the Well-Trained Mind Forum in response to a question about Aristotle‘s Organon and Francis Bacon’s Novum Organon. You can follow any dialogue that might develop here.

A couple thoughts on teaching these organon:
First, they are extremely technical and practical works that should be taught over a couple years. Aristotle’s Organon is the foundation of what became the seven liberal arts and is essential to a complete education. But to teach these books, you’ll want to take a different approach than, say, teaching a novel.

Here’s what I mean. Organon is Greek for instrument or tool. We get organ from it. When Dorothy Sayers referred to the Lost Tools of Learning this is the thing she was referring to, or at least this is the beginning of the tradition that identified tools of learning as the foundation of all learning.

Specifically, the organon are the tools of logic, but in Aristotle’s day Grammar was understood to be based on logic, not on usage (a belief I share), so the organon weaves grammar throughout.

There are six handbooks in the Organon: The categories, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics (the syllogism), Posterior Analytics(demonstration – the so called scientific method comes from this), Topics, and Sophistical Refutations. Five minutes spent with any of them will improve your thinking more than almost anything written since then. Aristotle is a Super-Coach of thinking.

In the 19th century, American schools decided to merge everything into subjects and to neglect or even eliminate the tools/organon. So when you teach Aristotle’s Organon, you can’t approach it like a subject. It’s more like learning piano. Take your time and provide coached practice.

So far, that might all sound like bad news. Here’s some good news. They are absolutely well worth learning and you are wise to have selected them. As indicated above, all learning depends on mastery of the organon.

Here’s some more good news. They are advanced skills, so if you don’t feel like you have prepared yourself or your child for them, don’t worry. If you and he can listen, speak, read, and write (the preliminary language skills), then you can learn the organon. But TAKE YOUR TIME!! They can’t be learned in a hurry any more than piano can.And here’s one more piece of good news. There are curricula available that are faithful to the spirit and practice of the organon. For example, Memoria Press and its logic materials developed by Martin Cothran. Brilliant and easy to use.

Also, The Lost Tools of Writing applies material logic, topics, and elements from the categories and the other handbooks. It is a rhetoric program, which, strictly speaking, is not part of the organon, but it applies the organon dynamically. I would suggest, therefore, that you ensure that your child has studied as much of Martin Cothran’s logic and of The Lost Tools of Writing as possible so that when you turn to the Organon the terms and ideas are not completely alien.

An aside: the reason Aristotle developed the organon is because he believed we live in a world that can be know, so he developed tools to help us gain that knowledge. Modern educational theorists do not believe the world can be known (you have your truth and I have mine), so they do not bother teaching the tools that help us come to know it. That is why you and I have to “Recover the lost tools of learning.”On Bacon’s Novum Organon: this book is important as a historical document but much less important as a curriculum. In other words, while Aristotle’s work is essential to being fully educated (having a thoroughly “well trained mind”) and is the root of the whole renewal, Bacon’s is not necessary in the same way.

For one thing, Bacon was at war with Aristotle and the reason he felt a need to write a “New Instrument” was because he felt Aristotle got it all wrong. He was wrong. Bacon misdirected the western mind and laid the “foundations” for the chaos of modern thought.

Thus Bacon is historically important, but not necessary as a handbook on thinking. If you want to read it, by all means do. Don’t bother “reading” Aristotle. It would be like reading a car repair manual. Instead use Aristotle’s Organon as a lesson guide and use Bacon’s as an interesting history lesson with some great insights and some enormous errors.

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