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Mimetic Teaching And The Once and Future King


In chapter three of Norms and Nobility, David Hicks introduces two idealized ancient schoolmasters. Socrates, the first of the two, is familiar to many. The second, Isocrates, may be less familiar. We are told that, “he uses a great tradition of learning in the arts, letters, and sciences to excite in his students a vision of those enduring values and truths that underlie the world of appearances. Once armed with the wisdom of this tradition, he believes, his students will understand justice, heed the demands of truth and beauty, and lead the life of virtue.” Isocrates educative aim was “to form an adult, not to develop a child, and his method was to teach the knowledge of a mature mind.”

This summer I’ve been reading through books I plan to discuss with my class this fall. In the process, I encountered a type of this ancient schoolmaster in the pages of The Once and Future King. Merlyn bears the responsibility for forming, not just any adult, but the High King of England, destined to deliver his people from tyranny. As a wizard, he has magic at his disposal. He tutors the Wart (a.k.a. King Arthur) by turning him into various animals and immersing him in their societies. In so doing, Merlyn aims to instill the wisdom and virtue Arthur will need to rule justly.

In Merlyn’s fantastical curriculum, I recognize something of the way I am learning to teach through The Lost Tools of Writing and the Circe Apprenticeship. We call it mimetic instruction. In short, we;

1) Offer types (examples/embodiments) of the idea we want our students to learn

2) Prompt them to contemplate the types in order to apprehend the idea

3) Provide opportunity to express the idea and put it into practice

Witness Merlyn’s masterful Isocratic (mimetic) teaching as he leads his pupil through these 3 stages.

1) The types

Each time Wart is transformed, he participates in a type of society and encounters types of individuals. He visits fish in the castle moat, ants in a colony, and hawks in the mew (among others). These animal societies embody ideas at work in his kingdom. Here is an excerpt from his time in the utilitarian dystopia of an ant colony.

“Wart watched the arrangements with a surprise which turned into vexation and then into dislike. He felt like asking why it did not think things out in advance – the annoyed feeling, which people have on seeing a job being badly done. Later he began to wish that he could put several other questions, such as “Do you like being a sexton?” or “Are you a slave?” or even “Are you happy?”

The extraordinary thing was that he could not ask these questions. In order to ask them, he would have had to put them into ant language through his antennae – and he now discovered, with a helpless feeling, that there were no words for the things he wanted to say. There were no words for happiness, for freedom, for liking, nor were there any words for their opposites. He felt like a dumb man trying to shout “Fire!” The nearest he could get to Right or Wrong were Done or Not Done….It was not only that their language had not got the words in which humans are interested- so that it would have been impossible to ask them whether they believed in Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness – but also that it was dangerous to ask questions at all.”

2) Contemplation

Merlyn prompts Arthur with questions and contradictions, insistent that he do his own thinking.

“Well,” said Merlyn, “I don’t think he is very different from others. What is all this chivalry, anyway? It simply means being rich enough to have a castle and a suit of armor, and then, when you have them, you make the Saxon people do what you like. The only risk you run is of getting a few bruises if you happen to come across another knight…All the barons can slice the poor people about as much as they want, and it is a day’s work to hurt each other, and the result is that the country is devastated. Might is Right, that’s the motto. Bruce Sans Pitie is only an example of the general situation….and you talk about a battle being fun!”
“I was thinking of myself.”
“I know.”
“I ought to have thought of the people who had no armor.”
“Might isn’t Right, is it, Merlyn?”
“Aha!” replied the magician, beaming. “Aha! You are a cunning lad, Arthur, but you won’t catch your old tutor like that. You are trying to put me in a passion by making me do the the thinking. But I am not to be caught. I am too old a fox for that. You will have to think the rest yourself. Is might right – and if not, why not, give reasons and draw a plan. Besides, what are you going to do about it?”
What…” began the King, but he saw the gathering frown.
“very well,” he said, “ I will think about it.”

3) Expression and Application

After Arthur assumes his throne, he expresses and applies his knowledge.

“You see,” he said proudly, “I have summoned a council.”…”Its about chivalry. I want to talk about that.”
Merlyn was immediately watching him with a sharp eye. His knobbed fingers fluttered among the stars and secret signs of his gown, but he would not help the speaker. You might say that this moment was the critical one in his career – the moment towards which he had been living backward for heaven knows how many centuries, and now he was to see for certain whether he had lived in vain.
“I have been thinking,” said Arthur, “about Might and Right. I don’t think things ought to be done because you are able to do them. I think they should be done because you ought to do them. After all, a penny is a penny in any case, however much Might is exerted on either side, to prove that it is or is not. Is that plain?”

Next Arthur points out the contradiction that led him on to apply what he has learned to his kingdom:

“Merlyn was helping me to win battles. He is still helping me for that matter…That seems to me to be inconsistent. Why does he help me to fight wars, if they are bad things?”
There was no answer from anybody, and the King began to speak in agitation.
“I could only think,” said he, beginning to blush, “I could only think that I – that we – that he – that he wanted me to win them for a reason.”
He paused and looked at Merlyn, who turned his head away.
“The reason – was it?- the reason was that if I could be the master of my kingdom by winning these two battles, I could stop them afterwards and do something about the business of Might. Have I guessed? Was I right?”
The magician did not turn his head, and his hands lay still in his lap.
“I was!” exclaimed Arthur
And he began talking so quickly that he could hardly keep up with himself.
(Arthur goes on explain in more detail what he has learned and to unfold his particular plans for ruling his kingdom in accordance with just precepts.)

As a master teacher, Merlyn doesn’t skimp on student assessment. His response to Arthur is beautiful!

Do you see the idea? It will be using the Might instead of fighting against it, and turning a bad thing into a good. There Merlyn, that is all I can think of. I have thought as hard as I could, and I suppose I am wrong, as usual. But I did think. I can’t do any better. Please say something!”
The magician stood up as straight as a pillar, stretched out his arms in both directions, looked at the ceiling and said the first few words of the Nunc Dimittis.

As mortal teachers, we lack the ability to turn our students into ants, fish, and fowl. But may I suggest that we can accomplish similar feats of pedagogy by immersing our students in our great literary tradition, and leading them to contemplate and apply the ideas embodied there. As aspiring classical teachers, we may be hard pressed to find opportunities to observe an Isocrates in the modern classroom. However, after reading T. H. White’s classic, I am encouraged that we are apt to find worthy mentors in the pages of our best books!

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