Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Imagination, wonder, and science

Poetic Knowledge

(Follow the discussion of Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, by James S. Taylor at Mystie's blog)


“In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
C.S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

I’m doing something new this year: teaching science to my young children from a textbook – astronomy, to be specific. A couple of weeks ago we were reading about Venus, and in the chapter’s concluding paragraphs, the author says, “It’s a burning hot planet with lava and heat-trapping clouds made of sulfuric acid swirling madly around.”

I snapped the book shut and said, “That made be what Venus is made of but it’s not what she is.”

Venus is the goddess of love, beauty, and fertility who arrives across the sea fully grown and unclothed, her parents unknown, and is clothed by the gods. Venus is the wife of the deformed Vulcan—blacksmith, and god of the fire, patron of craftsmen and artisans—but forever enamored of Mars, the handsome god of war and agriculture.

Venus is the Evening Star that blesses the night with peace and comfort.
Lo! in the painted oriel of the West,
  Whose panes the sunken sun incarnadines,
  Like a fair lady at her casement, shines
  The evening star, the star of love and rest!
(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow)

Venus is the Morning Star that brings hope of the rising sun.

Now the bright morning Star, Dayes harbinger,
Comes dancing from the East, and leads with her
The Flowry May…
(John Milton)

The Ancient Greeks originally called the Morning Star Phosphorus, the Light-Bringer, which is Lucifer in Latin, and the Evening Star was Hesperus, Vesper in Latin, from which we get the name of our Evening Prayers. Later they adopted the Babylonian view that these stars were one and the same and named the wanderer Aphrodite, after the Babylonian Ishtar. And since the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ, He is now the Bright and Morning Star.

That’s the kind of thing I want to come to my children’s minds when they think of Venus. There is so much to learn about Venus, and when you know all that, you see how fitting it is that the goddess of desire and passion is made of erupting volcanoes and swirling clouds of sulfuric acid. It’s as though God Himself named her. Well, the Psalmist does say “He telleth the number of the stars; he calleth them all by their names.”

It’s largely because I don’t want my children to turn out like poor Eustace, who had read only the wrong books, that I’ve avoided science textbooks in the early years, focusing mainly on nature studies, but, as I’ve mentioned before, I love the night sky and I wanted a more systematic way to pass on my love and knowledge to my children, thus the textbook.

Naturally, being a mom, I’m second-guessing myself. As good as this book is, should I be using any science textbook at all with young, impressionable children?

Reading Poetic Knowledge assures me that I’m right to be cautious. Taylor says that poetic knowledge is “knowledge from the inside out, radically different in this regard from a knowledge about things. In other words, it is the opposite of scientific knowledge.”

You see, there are two ways to learn about something. If you wanted to learn about roses, you could watch the rose bush in your own garden, day after day observing a particular flower as it progresses from bud to bloom to fruit, noticing how long it stays open, how it smells, what pollinators it attracts, what pests and diseases it is susceptible to, what weather it likes best. You could study roses in the wild, in other people’s gardens, in art, poetry, and music, and in folklore.

Or, you could cut off the flower, take it inside and pull it apart, naming and counting each part—sepals, petals, stamens, stigma—cutting open the ovary to find out what’s inside. There’s a time and place for that sort of thing, but you have to realize that in order to gain that knowledge, you’ve killed the flower.
Poetic experience indicates an encounter with reality that is non-analytical, something that is perceived as beautiful, awful (awefull), spontaneous, mysterious... when the mind, through the sense and emotions, sees in delight, or even in terror, the significance of what is really there.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t want our children to learn real, scientific facts about the creation—we just need to be sure that love for the creation comes first and isn’t killed by the way they learn the facts.

For me, that means I need to share with them the poetry and stories I mentioned above. As I was writing this I realized I’ve never told them any of that, and I don’t know why I haven’t. It also means that I can keep on using the science book as a framework and reference book as long as I am myself giving them “ ‘The One Thing Needful,’ that is, the kind of knowledge that derives from the love of a thing.”


  1. That doesn’t mean that we don’t want our children to learn real, scientific facts about the creation—we just need to be sure that love for the creation comes first and isn’t killed by the way they learn the facts.

    That is a wonderful observation. Your post is fascinating, your love for the skies, poetry, etc can be appreciated, and I like what you say about being cautious and doing first things first. However as you say, the textbook can be a simple indication for you.

  2. Thanks, Sylvia.

    And thanks for mentioning Horace Grant's Arithmetic for Young Children at your blog! I've only been using it for a week, but it's exactly what I've been trying to find for my youngest two.

    I'm interested in the next book he wrote, Second Stage of Arithmetic: Arithmetic for Schools and Families, but can't find it anywhere -- I've even asked my local used bookstores if they've seen it.

  3. Aha!

    now I know why you're posting poems about Venus, too.

  4. LOL. I started to include part of it in the post, but then post kept growing and I hadn't put up a poem in a few days... :-D

  5. I love it, Kelly!

    I keep wishing I knew the title of the Astronomy book Charlotte used. Even though I know it'd be outdated, I find it interesting that it caused children to talk incessantly about the stars (she mentions it in Vol. 6, if you recall). I'd love to get my hands on it.

    Maybe YOU should write a poetic supplement to coordinate with Apologia! That'd be wonderful! :)

  6. Thanks, Brandy. :-)

    I'm only a little way through book 6, so I don't think I've come across her mention of astronomy. It would be nice to know what she used.


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