Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Conversation as education

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

In chapter six Taylor gives another example of what teaching in the poetic mode has looked like in recent times, this time by describing the Pearson Integrated Humanities Program, a two-year program for freshmen and sophomores at the University of Kansas, which ran for a decade and a half or so beginning in the early 1970s.

Three professors would gather with the students for twice-weekly meetings which consisted of the students listening intently (no note-taking!) to an hour and twenty minute long conversation between the professors.

The conversations were, by design, unrehearsed and spontaneous, begun by simply taking up some moment from the Odyssey, or from Herodotus, or The Republic that interested one of the teachers, then exploring it with anecdotes, stories, connections with other readings, following where ever the theme took them. [p.147]

The example of these professors, teaching by way of their personal conversation, speaking as naturally as if around a table where a leisurely lunch was taking place, making quick connections with the similar and contrary ideas, or meandering, wandering around and around the topic, digressing to personal experiences, relevant to the subject—all taught the students, indirectly at least, the joy of the memory and a healthy independence from books and notes and all the gimmicks so often used to keep this generation’s attention. [p.149]

They made use of concrete examples from everyday life, from traditional life, from childhood, all to give a vicarious experience of philosophy, history, and so on. [p.151]

During the rest of the week, poetry, Latin, and songs were taught orally. The students learned calligraphy and spent evenings star-gazing and learning the Greek myths associated with the constellations. They read history and literature, and were taught Rhetoric using Aesop’s fables and Grimm’s fairy tales.

Each spring the students organized a waltz. They gave each other dance lessons, hired an orchestra, reserved the University ballroom. Many of the young women sewed their own evening gowns.

This program was “not an attempt to advance knowledge at all,” but was meant to lay the foundation for advanced studies. For this reason philosophy and theology as such weren’t taught, because, “while it is possible to train youth in the rigors of formal philosophy, what one often gets as a result, without the prior humanizing of the poetic mode, are disputatious young students.”

Instead the profressors’ goal was, in part, to help the students relive aspects of their childhood, “that time of leisure in which the wonders of reality are encountered simply as wonders. As this entire study has demonstrated, there can be no real advancement in knowledge unless it first begin in leisure and wonder, where the controlling motive throughout remains to be delight and love.”

A lot of this is the kind of thing the mother educating her children at home can do herself—reading stories, memorizing poetry and songs together, lying in the yard at night watching the stars… even teaching calligraphy, which is something I’ve never even thought about. I’ve barely bothered to teach good penmanship, and I guess I should remedy that.

But it seems to me that the core aspect, the conversations between the professors, is the hardest to reproduce at home, especially in the early years. I have the advantage of grown children at home who are still studying with me, so my younger children get to sit in on this kind of conversation regularly, both during our Morning Time, and during meals.

We have a rule that the younger children are not allowed to speak during supper, the only meal when Daddy is at home, so that they can listen to the grown-ups talking. It’s not a hard and fast rule—on occasion Mike will ask one of the younger ones to tell him something interesting that they learned that day—but I’ve found that when the little ones are allowed to chatter they’ll drown out everything else at the table with their silliness. I tolerate an awful lot of silliness during the day, but I want supper to be civilized. At this season of my life that means a table cloth, candles, real dishes and glasses and silverware, and occasionally playing good music in the background, but most of all, good manners and real conversation.

If you’re a sleep-deprived young mom, you may not be able to set the table like I’m able to now. We used a lot of paper plates when my children were all little, and still use paper napkins most of the time to keep from making the laundry burden even greater. But you can begin to teach your young children good table manners by setting the example yourself. Beginning the meal with a prayer of thanks and singing the Doxology will help set the tone.

When I had four children under the age of six, mealtime conversation wasn’t very edifying unless we had company. When it’s just Mama and Daddy and Babies, Mama and Daddy tend to focus on the babies’ behavior at the meal and forget to talk about anything, never mind the fact that they might not have anything much to talk about besides the children’s and coworkers’ antics. But having company over always changed all that for us, especially having over two or three single young adults.

The important thing is that the atmosphere should be “meditative, not disputatious.”

If all else fails, try Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. :-)

6 comments :

  1. I thought too it'd be difficult to have something similar to the conversations between these well educated men. In your case I'm sure the older children and you two supply them with this, but I wonder if they need this at the early years, or just the experiencing of life in the poetic mode to prepare them for later. I don't know, I think what we can do in a homeschooling setting will suffice if we do it with this goals in mind.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, I think that's the important thing -- keep the goal in mind and do whatever you can in your circumstances, but don't stress out over it.
    :-)

    ReplyDelete
  3. I loved your rabbit trail on the dinner table and how it can be conducive to good conversation, especially when some of the kids are a little older. I have a feeling that this is the kind of atmosphere that the professors were trying to capture -- and it's interesting that you have taught your younger kids not to talk, so that they can learn to be receptive, like the professors did with the students at IHP.

    Like you, I find Morning Time to be a great time for conversation, too. When we have a "text" to discuss (scripture, an excellent book, or poetry, or the catechism -- the conversational level seems to be higher and if it wanders too far off, I always have the option of turning back to the book!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Kelly, how wonderful your dinners sound! A great way to develope the poetic life!

    ReplyDelete
  5. Funny. I didn't read this until I posted mine, but I mentioned that my parents made us be silent during dinner as an example of this. Small world! Si and I try to do the same thing, and I really do think there is great benefit in this.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I feel much better about our dinnertime practices now! My husband prefers something closer to "children should be seen and not heard" at the dinner table (not strictly, but he brooks little silliness at the table). We have friends who think they shouldn't squelch their kids' enthusiasm, but then lament that the children take so long to eat and they can't have any real conversation. Of course, it's not too difficult for us because we haven't yet had a chatterbox.

    We try to often have people over, and half the time they are people with no or with grown kids, and I'm always pleased and amused about how my oldest in particular will hang around even if he's excused, doing his best to eavesdrop as much as possible. I did the same thing when I was young.

    I feel reinforced and braced. We're doing something right! :) What a relief.

    ReplyDelete

I love comments!