It seems like we often talk about how our lives are a rich tapestry where everything fits together, where even the tiny bits of our lives end up being useful and practical. We look at our future and think of all the significant things we’re going to do. We look at our past experiences, trials, and circumstances and we try to fit them into a nice narrative of what God was doing to prepare us for something. And when we’re in the midst of trial or pain, we try to find comfort in the fact that perhaps one day it will all fit together and be of some use.
The 2011 documentary Precious Knowledge, though featuring an ethnic studies program accused of Marxist indoctrination, sheds light on the power of classical education. It shows that our students need an identity rooted in a meaningful culture—which is precisely what we classical educators aim to recover from our past.
This is the third article in a series on how cognitive science provides empirical support to the methods of classical education. Having clarified some essential information about learning in the first and second articles, let us now shift into looking at specific principles that enhance learning. The first of these is that learning is most effective when a broad foundation is in place.
When studying the arts of argument and invention with my composition students, I like to show them an image of Michael Craig-Martin’s An Oak Tree (1973) from the Tate Museum. It’s what appears to be a glass of water perched atop a shelf roughly eight feet off the ground, a simple installation accompanied by a printed interview with the artist himself. As a class, we read through the interview together—half puzzled, half amused. The text starts like this:
Money is the root of all evil and fame is hell.
Who would have thought that Ed Sheeran, one of the world’s most popular musicians, would proclaim such a dark truth on the first track of his latest album?
The comedian Bo Burnham, with his sarcastic tones hiding the underlying themes of depression, fear, exhaustion, suicide, and feeling out of place, forces crowds into fits of laughter over things that should never be laughed at, while he himself is standing on stage simply hoping that one person might hear what he is really saying: help.
In my first article in this series we explored benefits classical educators can derive from interacting with cognitive science. There we examined the first of six systematically constructed principles for learning: that learning takes time and reflection. So, what we are thinking about is the best barometer of what we have the potential to learn. However, that leads to a second, essential question: how much can we think about at any given time?
There’s a diligence to swimming in the mornings. There’s a willingness in rising early to suit up and shake off the solemnity of slumber in order to make your body do something it doesn’t want to do. There’s an accomplishment to the training, the exercising, the stroking, the breathing, the kicking. The reach of the stroke seems to express the metaphor of one reaching toward the new day. “I’m ready for you,” it says. “I’m coming for you and I’m intentional in my pace.”
As the beginning of another school year looms in front of us, and as I attempt to align enough ducks to guard against any irreparable meltdowns during the first several weeks of class, I find myself, yet again, thinking more about the broad teleological nature of this work rather than some of the specifics of my lesson plans. Surely the former informs the latter, but perhaps there is a degree to which I should shut down the armchair philosophizing long enough to tighten a few practical nuts and bolts.
I live in two very different worlds. On one hand, I am a father of four who supports and helps in the homeschooling of our children with a Christian and classical approach. On the other, I have spent my entire professional career in public education as a K-12 teacher and university professor. Perhaps because of this immersion into two very distinct settings, I have been able to bring them to bear on each other. I want to share in this short article one of the wonderful overlaps that few may have seriously looked at.