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Answering the First Questions Right

In Norms and Nobility, David Hicks talks about the difference between normative and analytical questions. Normative questions are questions that reveal the nature of things, especially human nature. These are questions that have to do with the meaning of existence, man’s absolute rights and duties, the best way to live, and what is good and what is evil. Analytical questions provide information, but they do not render value or wrestle with understanding the nature of things.

It is important, in Hick’s assessment, that the normative inquiry must precede and sustain analysis (Hicks, 64). In this way the answers to the normative questions, the answers to the questions of the meaning of existence, man’s absolute rights and duties, the best way to live, and the difference between good and evil, can guide our analysis of literature, art, politics, science, or whatever it is that we are trying to understand.

But how do we get the right answers to the normative questions? According to Hicks, normative questions are primarily human questions. They are questions that center on the questions: What is a human being? What are the purposes for human existence? Hicks states that the best answers to these questions come from myths because it is in myths that we find the Ideal Type.

The record of man’s study of himself suggests answers falling into two broad categories: the prescriptive and the descriptive. The early record favored a prescriptive understanding of man embodied in myths . . . Myths whether they sang of the exploits of demigods or of heroes, caught in their perpetual flames a unifying vision and standard of man, an Ideal Type striding between the poles of human strength and human frailty (Hicks, 4).

The human condition as it is described in myth gives a picture of humans and demigods that are heroic and courageous, but imperfect. The characters of interest are always flawed and frail in some way. This manifestation of the Ideal Type found in ancient and modern myths provides an ideal that no human being can match and yet an example to which all people can relate. The Ideal Type is resolute in its expression and yet always requiring improvement. The Ideal Type is prescriptive. It provides a pattern, an example, a way of living that is desirable for all people. Hicks explains and offers some illustrations of the Ideal Type in this way:

This Ideal Type was at once immutable yet ever in need of refinement. It was the metaphorical incarnation of wisdom and truth, empowered by education to metamorphose the diligent student. Both an elaborate dogma and a man, it defied comparison with any man, yet all men discovered themselves in it. The Ideal Type embraced Gilgamesh’s love for Enkidu and David’s love for Jonathon, Odysseus risking his precarious safety to hurl gratuitous insults at the Cyclops, and Achilles deciding at the dawn of human history to die at the supreme moment of glory rather than to live through the long, wizening, connubial years. What made these stories valuable was not their historical authenticity or experimental demonstrability, but their allegiance to a pattern of truth. Whatever fit this pattern was retained and added to the education of future generations. What fell outside this pattern was judged superfluous to the education of the young (Hicks 4).

Thus, the characters in art and literature that embody this Ideal Type provide a pattern for education. Their lives, actions, and attitudes provide a template for living our lives. They show us how we should be and how we should not be.

We are better people when we emulate their strengths, and we avoid trouble and calamity when we learn from their mistakes and flaws. This pattern of truth was regarded as the heart of education. The central concern was how we should live and what we need to know in order to have a good life. In this way, art and literature become the conduit for learning and true education. Hicks describes this phenomenon as follows:

By insisting upon descriptions conforming to a prescriptive pattern of truth, our cultural forebears made art and language the midwives of sound learning, while behaving, to our enlightened eyes, like tribal doctors intent on making the disease match their cure. They never hesitated to prescribe good manners and proscribe bad taste by falsifying the infallible proofs of their five senses. Fabricated descriptions, mere imaginative inventions in homage to the Ideal Type, served the chief aim of their education: imitatio Christi, the incarnation of a metaphor (Hicks, 4-5).

So ultimately, we answer normative questions by appealing to myth. We point to the incarnation of a metaphor as an answer to the most important questions that we can ask—questions about the meaning of life, the nature of a human being, the best way to live, and what is good and what is evil. The pinnacle of education is to imitate Christ, the one who provides a perfect example and has no flaws or frailties.

We have to begin with the normative questions. We find answers to these questions in studying the Ideal Type. This is where education must begin. This is where normative questions find their best and strongest answers. Then we can go on to analysis and learn so that our experience may become valuable to us. Once we have rightly answered the first questions, we can fulfill the true purpose of education:

The purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows (Hicks 20).

True education helps us to make the connection between knowledge and action. It goes beyond teaching us what we can do to teach us what we ought to do. True education is prescriptive not merely descriptive. It forces us toward imitation of the Ideal Type.

The single greatest problem of modern education is that the hierarchy of question answering has been reversed. The analytical questions have been given precedence and they guide how normative questions are answered. The prescriptive understanding of man is dismissed and tossed aside. The aim of education becomes descriptive, but not prescriptive. Hicks states:

Now, the modern educator is apt to dismiss prevarications told in deference to an Ideal Type, while he condemns the arbitrariness of a prescriptive understanding of man. He presumes to have found a method for replacing it, at least initially, with a descriptive understanding. . . . So without much sober reflection, the early record is quietly dismissed as unscientific—therefore, error-ridden and useless. In its place, the educator erects a sort of science without reason, random induction predicated upon gnomic utterances like those of Marshall McLuhan: “Data accumulation leads to pattern recognition” (Hicks, 5).

Hicks avers that the accumulation of information does not constitute education, but unfortunately this is a fact that is entirely missed by most modern educators. The primary problem here is that the link between knowledge and action is lost.

Information alone does not lead us anywhere without the help of normative inquiry to ground and to guide our journey. Without knowing where we are starting from and where we are going, a map does us no good regardless of the level of its detail and accuracy.

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