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Balancing Normative and Analytical Thinking

Over in the CiRCE apprenticeship, we’ve been discussing Norms and Nobility by David Hicks. If you can reduce this book to a single point (and I’m not sure if you can), I would propose that Mr. Hicks is arguing that classical are Christian thought are normative while conventional thought is analytic.

This raises two practical problems for us. One, we aren’t used to talking about “normative” things, so we have to read and think to understand what Mr. Hicks means when he uses the word. What is this “normative” puppy?

Second, we are analytical by training, so it’s a bit much to ask us to critique analysis, much less throw it aside.

Let me address the second problem first. Nowhere does Mr. Hicks as us to drop analysis or analytical thinking. What he asks us to do is to recognize that it is not and cannot be ultimate and that by making it ultimate we eliminate crucial elements of the student’s education.

Indeed, give analysis it’s rightful place and you have exalted it, not tossed it into the junk heap.

How then do we find the balance between normative and analytical thinking?

First, we should acknowledge that analysis is vital and that some people are more gifted at analyzing than others.

Next, we should recognize that the way we recapture the balance is by setting the idea of balance aside.

Normative and analytical inquiry are not of equal worth. The one has to serve the other. If the normative serves the analytical, then we are thinking like slaves or at least we are enslaving the normative. And the analytical has no way to know the place of the normative so it will eventually throw her into a prison.

But the normative not only knows the place of the analytical, she loves him. The normative approach civilizes and orders everything. When she’s in charge, she’s very modest and unassuming. When she’s not, she still is. She lets people unravel on their own, always waiting patiently to be invoked.

But if we are guided by the wisdom of normative thought, analytical thought is exalted because it has a purpose, which gives it energy, which sustains it, and keeps it from sinking into cynicism.

When you read a book, for example, the normative (and normal) thing is to want to know what will happen and to take sides with or against characters. We identify with characters based on norms and ideals. When we try to answer questions about whether X should have done Y, we find that we aren’t as smart as we thought. We’ve missed a lot. We will naturally call upon the analytical for help.

So we’ll use the topics of invention, all of which are tools of analysis. We’ll watch how characters are effected by their decisions, how they grow or diminish, and someone will come along and call that a character arc.

Then in our next reading, we’ll be so excited about the character arc that we’ll forget why we used it in the first place. And if we’re writing a reading program, we’ll think it’s pretty smart of us to notice the character arc (or themes, or motifs, or settings, or whatever) so we’ll make our students learn how to do one, never showing them why, because, frankly, there is nothing brilliant in doing what a four year old does when he reads – asking whether X should have done y.

That’s how Analysis overthrows Norms.

So we need to put normative reading first and then make analytical reading (which, I hope it is obvious, I love – thus highlighting, margin notes, etc. etc.) serve the normative. Then we can grow wise and skillful as readers.

How do we put the normative ahead of the analytical? The easiest way I know is by asking whether a character should have performed some action he performed. Let your student ask the question and watch him connect to the book.

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