Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Music, poetry, and gymnastic

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

What interested me most about the first part of chapter two is the idea of music, poetry, and gymnastic as the way to prepare your child for an education.


[P]oetic knowledge… tends to take us inside the objects of knowledge through the immediate powers of the sense and emotions. For example, this would be the difference, for the beginner, between studying music—theory, harmony, rhythm—and actually doing music, by singing and dancing, to become, in a sense, music itself.

[S]ongs, poetry, music, gymnastic—are meant to awaken and refine a sympathetic knowledge of the reality of the True, Good, and Beautiful, by placing the child inside the experience of those transcendentals as they are contained in these arts and sensory experiences.

[T]he child's natural disposition [is] to learn by imitation; that is, not only to attempt to duplicate what they hear and see but to become the thing that is imitated…

[M]inute sifting of the particular passages of poetry, music, and movements of physical exercise to be taught [is required], so that only a balanced and refined character emerges to take up much later the rigor of those higher modes of knowledge contained in geometry, logic, and, finally, dialectic.

The “rhythm and harmony” is not meant to be restricted to music, but under the Greek notions of proportion and integration, would be applied to all prerational modes of knowledge.

Music has always been a large part of our daily lives, and about three years ago when I started using Ambleside Online’s suggestions I began reading a poem a day to the children and became more diligent in memorizing Scripture with them. Well, they’re memorizing it anyway—I’m reading it to them and hoping it sinks into myself since it seems my ability to memorize has evaporated.

Something this chapter impressed on me was that quality is very important. Not that I’m going to be a perfectionist about every poem, Psalm, and song they learn, but that at any given time we need to have one piece that we’re perfecting. Our tiny church doesn’t have a choir so my family is asked to sing during communion on occasion, so it would be a good idea to have a hymn that we’re perfecting at all times, so we can be ready when asked, but also so that they learn what excellence is. This is significant to me because I tend to be a “that’s good enough” kind of mom.

What we’re doing precious little of is gymnastic. The children spend plenty of time out-of-doors, but beyond me correcting them for their posture on occasion there’s not much that could be considered physical training. On special occasions we move the dining room table out of the way and dance country and square dances. We love that, so I should probably do more of it… find a way to incorporate it on a weekly basis, at least.

The elegant art of eighteenth-century movement was an integral part of daily living for the cultivated elite. All aspects of life related to it. Enthusiasm and excitement should never show. Lord Chesterfield, whose book of letters was in Washington’s library, cautioned his son to curb his excess of passion. “Do everything in Minuet time, speak, think, and move always in that measure, equally free from the dulness of slow, or the hurry... of quick time.” (Dec. 12, 1767, quoted in Annas 54) In his period slow time for military purposes was 60 steps per minute, quick time, 120. (Camus 7)

As might be expected, this suppression of feelings creates an inner tension and intensity that acts as a buoyant force. All movement appears to float without effort; the dancer’s sinking into a demi-plié is a push down through the heel into the floor, and the rise to the demi-coupé is a release upward. Movement is direct, the body does not sway or waver, and the paths are straight or in clear curves. This inner energy should be carried into all dance types, and, in fact, to all movement.

[from George Washington: A Biography in Social Dance, p. 123]

I love that. Doesn’t it make you want to learn the Minuet? This idea of teaching movement in one area so that it translates over to the rest of life only went out of favor recently.

I would love to learn swing dancing, too. It’s so fascinating the way the man leads and woman responds. And it has something in common with the Minuet: in both of them there are particular steps that must be learned (and the Minuet requires that the dance describe a Z-shaped pattern across the floor) but there’s no set order to the steps as in the Virginia Reel. Each dance is an improvization where the man leads by subtle cues and the woman must pay attention in order to do her part. That’s a movement that we could probably all learn a lot from.


  1. My husband and I took swing dancing lessons in high school and college and can still pull off enough to be respectable at wedding receptions, but once or twice a year we always say we should get back into it. :)

    I forgot about dancing, though! Every time we do dance, I always proclaim, "Traditional Education always included dance lessons, and my boys will know how to dance!"

    My mom put me in ballet when I was 6 & 7 to improve my posture and uncoordinated movements, and it did help quite a bit. By the time I was 8 lessons moved to twice weekly and we stopped, but the practice had sunk in.

    I just had a thought while reading your post -- a way to do this without lessons. Would doing a "dance" or Pilates-type exercise video cultivate controlled, rhythmic movements?

    My husband has suggested fencing as the option for boys instead of ballet, but part of that might be that it is unavailable. :)

  2. Video's a really good idea. We did a little swing dancing to a video series on YouTube. I first looked into after you (I think it was you) mentioned something about it a year or so ago.

    I hadn't thought of Pilates -- I have a book, but I didn't get too far with it. I've also thought of Tai Chi for myself, but if I could find a decent video series it would probably be good for everyone.

    I took ballet for a couple of years too, and always wanted to take fencing! I was planning on taking it for PE in college, but I quit before getting to PE classes.

    Those are all good ideas. :-)

  3. Good comments and ideas. I enjoyed your quotes, and specially these thoughts because they make me think of practical examples of how and what to attempt to have music and DANCE as part of our education and life.

  4. Ah, gymnastic. I am still undecided about what to do...

  5. Brandy are you still doing swimming lessons?

  6. This was actually the last week of the term for swimming. My problem with so much of "gymnastic" is that I cannot afford it for four children, at least not year-round. This is why I say I just don't know...I guess I need to pray for inspiration!


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