Paideia

I’m on the Board of Directors of a Classical Christian School, and I’ve been reading David V. Hicks, Norms & Nobility. Perhaps I’m an analytical kind of guy, because Chapter 10’s proposed list of assumptions for building a classical Christian School made my heart soar:

[1] The need to prepare students for future employment is overtaken by a liberal education. Cardinal Newman‘s description of liberal education remains, to this day, unimpeachable: that which teaches the student “to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to disregard what is irrelevant. It prepares him to fill any post with credit, and to master any subject with facility.“

[2] Before he is 18, no one has time to do more than a few things well; therefore, better to teach a few subjects thoroughly then to force a child to be a mediocrity in many subjects, destroying his standards, obscuring the nature of mastery, and concealing the measure of his ignorance. The school is not predominantly a place where the child is exposed to a kaleidoscope of new ideas, but where he is given the direction, the discipline, and the method to master basic ideas and where art, science, and letters are studied with the intention of forming the student’s conscience and style.

[3] … Basic skills and ideas should be introduced very early in a child’s education and enlarged in subsequent years by re-introducing them at higher levels of complexity and abstraction.

[4] Any subject, no matter how potentially complex, can be taught to any student at any level. The secret is not in what is taught, but in how it is taught. The compromise to the students level of psychological development should be made by altering the teaching method rather than by substituting facile subject matter.

[5] … The curriculum of the effective school does not duck the issue of selectivity, but addresses it comprehensively and coherently. It is the folly of many modern schools to neglect to provide the focus necessary for disciplining it students minds and wills …

[6] … “Begin with the best” … students learn excellent through the excellence of their models. “Nothing — not all the knowledge in the world — educates like the vision of greatness and nothing can take its place.”

[9] Only the careless and unskilled teacher answers questions before they are asked. The teacher’s chief task is to provoke the question, not to answer it; to cultivate in his students an active curiosity, not to inundate them in factual information. The teacher’s answers will not stimulate the formation of conscience and style in his students, nor will they impart paideia, if they are not in response to the student’s own questions.

[10] The teacher’s true competence is not in his mastery of a subject, but in his ability to provoke the right questions and to get into a new subject quickly and incisively. Although this competence derives from the teachers understanding of the nature of mastery — having mastered at least one subject himself — it implies the teacher’s peculiar eagerness to explore new subjects and new ideas with his students. What students can most hope to learn from a good teacher is how to approach a new subject with the aim of mastering it.

[11] The normative approach to learning draws the analytical after it, whereas the analytical approach repels the normative. The fragmentation of arts and letters into academic disciplines (literature, history, philosophy, religion, social studies, and so forth) answers an analytical need that pushes normative inquiry into the interstices between disciplines. This is the strongest argument for reuniting the arts and letters.

[14] Much learning is misspent because it’s not placed within a thoughtfully structured pattern. This pattern not only assists memory, which is the result of having learned something properly, but it helps to motivate the student by unfolding to him the purposes of his education. (The runner runs best on a clearly marked course.) Thus does Jerome Bruner observe that “the more one has a sense of structure of a subject, the more densely packed and longer a learning episode one can get through without fatigue.“ This observation can be enlarged to include the entire curriculum.

[15] The craze for guidance counseling in the modern school is in large measure an unwitting acknowledgment that education is failing to make the strategic connection between what a student learns in the classroom and what choices he makes outside the classroom. The modern mode of instruction undercuts responsible learning because of its analytical attack on subject matter and because of its utilitarian self-justification. Learning has lost its normative age, and we need special guidance to make our students responsible, self-aware persons. But guidance counseling cannot begin to perform the morphosis of a healthy paideia — for students acquire a lively sense of values implicitly, not extrinsically, when normative inquiry is a part of every class and discipline, not the special study of one.

[16] “Religious truth is not only a portion but a condition of general knowledge,“ wrote Newman. The history of God‘s revelation in Christ and the progress of Christianity are too central to the development of western paideia to be isolated from the study of arts and letters. Such a separation emasculates the study of religion, as well as of the arts and letters.

[17] The school should not nurture and ape the attitudes and beliefs of popular culture – what Erasmus calls “the false options and vicious predilections of the masses“ – but it must call these in the question with the inherited wisdom of its lofty paideia, its vision of greatness, its ideals of conscience and style. The school best serves society when it establishes itself as the secondary aspect of contradiction in a dialectical relationship with the state and popular culture.

[19] Education as paideia is not preparation for life, for college, or for work; it is our inherited means of living fully in the present, while we grow in wisdom and in grace, in conscience and in style, entering gradually into “the good life.“

Numbers 1, 4 and 15 probably are my favorites, though I liked them all well enough to share.


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