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11 February 2016

On Classical Education: Make Haste Slowly

This post is part of a series:

Character is the True Aim
Cultivation of Godly Character
What is a Student? 
Make Haste Slowly (this post)
Much Not Many
Ordered Affections
Repetition is the Mother of Memory
Repetition and the Habit of Attention 
Embodied Learning
Songs Chants and Jingles
Wonder and Curiosity
Educational Virtues
By Teaching We Learn
Classical Education is Like a Table

The way that Dr. Perrin retells the story as he's chatting about the phrase Festina Lente, or "Make Haste Slowly", the tortoise is slow but constant, the hare fast but distracted. It is the hare's distraction that creates the possibility of the tortoise, but it still wouldn't have been enough to upset the race, had the tortoise not been moving steadily toward the goal the entire time. It was the constant, slow progress -even in the face of the impossible odds- that allowed the slow tortoise to beat the much faster hare. We can learn from this, and apply it to education as well as many other areas of our lives.

...but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in very many instances doth confound the wise. 
-Alma 37:6

Classical education does not fear or disdain the repetition necessary to gain mastery of the skills. It is patient practice of phonics, day after day, that polishes the understanding of reading, and hones the tools for attacking the difficult words the student will meet down the road. My boys are taking violin lessons, and our teacher shared this gem with Hero: "The slower you practice, the faster you learn." And they had this fantastic discusion on how rushing through the song doesn't allow real study, and so the process of mastering the music takes longer. It's the same way when studying martial arts: slow, careful movement during practice teaches far more than fast, sloppy work. My Mom used to give me grief about doing fast sloppy work cleaning up the kitchen -- and it took twice as long as just doing it right, because she'd make me go back and do it again. Charlotte Mason talked about the value of reading books slowly when she said,

"We hear of 'three books a week' as a usual thing and rather a matter of pride. But this, again, comes of our tendency to depreciate knowledge, and to lose sight of its alimentary character. If we perceive that knowledge, like bread, is necessary food, we see also that it must be taken in set portions, fitly combined, duly served, and at due intervals, in order to induce the digestive processes without which, knowledge, like meat, gives us labour rather than strength. (vol. 5, p. 382, quoted in Savoring Books)

Another way that we can make haste slowly is by making sure that we learn things in order- no skipping to "the good parts" over the fundamentals. It is the unglamorous time spent working on scales, exercises, and music theory that allows the budding musician to eventually achieve mastery of their instrument. This practice takes time, but to attempt to enter advanced repertoire without it will slow or stop progress altogether. The reader patiently works through the phonics lessons. A martial artist spends time working on basic exercises. A young mathematician works toward mastery of basic facts. In nearly every endeavor, the magic is in the fundamentals; you cannot skip the foundation and expect the structure to be sound.

Andrew Pudewa tells a very interesting story about his time in Japan studying under Dr. Suzuki, and he tells the story of how in Eastern cultures, they take a whole different take on repetition, and how he saw this play out in the group violin lessons he had with Dr. Suzuki. He talks about a Japanese proverb: "10,000 times, and then begins understanding." All that practice allows you "do something so naturally you "don't have to think about it, see what it is you are doing." Mr. Pudewa tells the story of a new Austrailian student who came to Dr. Suzuki's class. Dr. Suzuki tells him to do a certain exercise with his bow 10,000 times. The next week, when that student was playing, Dr. Suzuki stopped him and re-demonstrated the bow exercise. "Did you do this? 10,000 times?" The Western student had taken this as hyperbole, but Mr. Pudewa says that the Japanese students would have taken it literally, and figured out how much time would need to be devoted to the project in order to do the exercise 10,000 times. That much work would have fundamentally transformed the student's bow usage. It's very interesting to watch this kind of idea play out in the Suzuki Method violin lessons Hero is taking, versus the more ordinary piano lessons I took as a kid. When I took lessons, I learned a song, passed it off, and typically never played it again. Hero, on the other hand, learns a song, often memorizes them, and then continues to review them. And it's interesting to see how this affects those old, "easy" songs that were already learned. And those songs give him a place to practice new skills on old, familiar music. In doing so, he continues to show incremental improvement on those "completed" songs. I don't think that he's even aware that it's happening.

After careful consideration, I'm breaking up our read-alouds, reading them relatively small portions. We've been reading Lord of the Rings for months now, and I frequently stop at cliff-hangers, deliberately. When we were reading Lamb's version of Taming of the Shrew, and they weren't ever satisfied with where I stoped in that one, either. This is deliberate. I want them to be hungry for more. I want them to be thinking about the stories in between our readings. I want them to have to do the work of remembering until the next time. I want them to have questions that they mull over. Things they wonder. This is a good thing.

"What is the act of thinking? To ask the questions! To ask the tough questions!"
-Andrew Pudewa, "What Are We Really Doing Here?"

Their questions need to be urgent enough, their curiosity strong enough, to carry them through the hard work of learning. It is interesting that Dr. Perrin spends several minutes talking about the importance of virtue in education. But upon further reflection, that makes sense. When progress is slow and incremental, as it typically is in education, then virtue becomes a critical element of success: work ethic, persistence, resilience, to name just a few, are necessary for the student to reach their full potential. All education is self education. Teachers can put a feast in front of the students, and entice them, but it is, in the end, the student who must do the work of learning. And it is work. In addition to learning to read, write, calculate, and all the other necessary skills and facts, the student must acquire enough virtue to see them through the vast project we call education, which, ideally, is a life-long pursuit and joy. The hare looses the race, not because he is incapable of winning, but because he lacks the self-discipline and constancy to carry him through the task.

Our culture, in so many ways, glamorizes the hare. Our movies switch angle every few seconds. It's remarkable how different the experience is, watching the original Star Wars movies, versus what it's like watching The Force Awakens. The long, contemplative spaces were almost disorienting to me when I watched the older movies, because I just wasn't accustomed to the older pacing. Current movies don't do that; they're often almost frantic by comparison. Our culture values the hare, not the tortoise. But it's the tortoise qualities that our children need (and that we need) in order to be successful at education, and at life.

Festina Lente.
Make haste slowly.
Little by little.
Consistent and lasting effort.
It's how progress happens.

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