Thick Black Lines and Turning Grey

Driving back from Ligonier PA yesterday I had the mixed pleasure of listening to Rush Limbaugh. After a few minutes I thought to myself, “This man is utterly lacking in political nuance,” which set in motion a long train of thoughts that concluded with something like this:

When people are new to something, they think in caricatures, in thick black lines around their images and between their thoughts, in hyperbole. It’s a necessary state to go through if you want to understand something at all.

For example, as a child I was convinced that the Civil War was fought between the SuperVirtuous North of the godly Abraham Lincoln and the Evil South of the Demonic, um, er, those guys too bad to mention. I remember one day playing with army figures with my brother Nate and he had a figure of Robert E Lee and I asked “Why would you want to be a confederate and Nate actually suggested that Robert E Lee was a good guy. I couldn’t fathom that, which is why, probably 37 years later, the experience stays with me.

I like to think I now take a more nuanced approach to the great American tragedy of the Civil War.

Of course, that gets me in trouble with people who think about it in thick black lines, but what can you do?

This post is neither about the Civil War nor about Rush Limbaugh. It is about a principle of learning and even of self-assessment. Put simply, the principle is that when we learn something new we learn it in thick black lines, therefore when we teach somebody something knew we should expect them to think about it with thick black lines. Over time, those thick black lines become a bit watery, so the distinctions between things are sometimes harder to make. Grey areas abound. But the distinctions still matter.

An example would be the Sayers understanding of the Trivium as three stages of a child’s development. When I first got involved in classical education, I thought this version of the trivium was the essence of classical education and that the lines between the stages were inflexible.

Now I see the Sayers Trivium as a wonderful doorway into the temple and I see the lines between the stages as permeable membranes.

What are you teaching your children in history, literature, or science? What are you thinking about yourself? Are you willing to let your children or yourself oversimplify at first? If not, you’ll never reach the more nuanced understanding you want to develop in time. But do become more nuanced in time!

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