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23 March 2016

On Classical Education: Much Not Many

This post is part of a series:

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

Mothers who know do less. ... These mothers choose carefully and do not try to choose it all.
-Julie B. Beck, Mothers Who Know, October Conference 2007

This talk has become a favorite in the Church - aren't we all trying to become Mothers Who Know? - and the thing that stuck with me most then, and still resonates loudest now, is that "mothers who know" do less. They do not try to do everything all of the time; they protect the "white space".

That includes educationally.

Which is completely counter-intuitive. But it's true. There isn't time to do, to learn, All The Things, and if we try we lose the opportunity to do a few things really well. I've been listening to Dr. Perrin's thoughts on the topic, and he suggests that we ought to prioritize depth, rather than breadth: less is more. And it's more because it enables excellence in the things that we choose.

"Where do you want to end up? Where do you want your son or daughter to end up? Because if they're going to master the piano, it's not going to happen in a couple of years. It's going to happen over the course of sustained study and time. And, if we privilege the mastery of piano, it means that we will have to de-privilege the mastery of some other things and other activities. We will have to not do some other things. ... Not just academic activities, though of course we are talking of academics. How do we spend our time?"
-Dr. Perrin

Multum non multa - the Latin proverb meaning much not many - is a reminder to choose carefully and thoughtfully that which we choose to do, in order that we may do it thoroughly and well. It is rejecting to the temptation to be a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. 

Charlotte Mason said, 

The question is not, -- how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education -- but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?

You cannot care deeply about something that you have not invested time and effort into. That includes educational pursuits. When we care, we work at it. And we cannot have too many things that we really truly love all at once, particularly not at the start -- and children, even older children, are still really beginners. But the goal of Classical Education is to help them develop the capacity to love, and love fully, the things that are lovely. That kind of caring requires work. Sustained, focused work, work that dives deep into the topic, over a long period of time.

Brother Oaks also talked about how these principles that need to guide our priorities:

"We should begin by recognizing the reality that just because something is good is not a sufficient reason for doing it. The number of good things we can do far exceeds the time available to accomplish them. Some things are better than good, and these are the things that should command priority attention in our lives."
-Dallin H Oaks, Good, Better, Best, October Conference 2007

In teaching this principle, both Brother Oaks and Dr. Perrin appeal to the story of Martha: in her desire to be a good hostess, she let her priorities get tangled, and it cost her at least part of the learning opportunity that Mary embraced: it cost the full chance to learn from the Master. We can miss opportunities, too. The work Martha was doing was good, respectable work, likely of a sort that would inevitably have to be done at some point-- but she didn't put first things first, she undervalued the opportunity to learn from the Master. It can be very easy for us to make the same type of mistake in education and many other aspects of life. 

Dr. Perrin gives some ideas of how all this might look when applied to education, but he also challenges his listeners to "think, and think deeply", about how this might look. He then goes on to talk about how nicely the study of Western literature also covers history and Theology.

This idea of combining topics of study immediately reminded me of the conversations I've had with my friend B, who teaches at a bilingual school. They don't teach Spanish as its own topic so much as they use it much the way that Dr. Perrin talks about using literature: it's the vehicle for teaching other things. Rather than teaching the kids a list of Spanish words and a list of science words, they conduct the science lesson in Spanish, which does much the same thing, only more deeply. And, because they start out with kindergartners and build language skills for both Spanish and English as they go along, by the time the kids get to her 5th grade class, it's no sweat for the kids to talk about volcanoes and life cycles and whatever, regardless of which language is their native language.

Our family is studying Japanese, and I'm not nearly as fluent in Japanese as B is in Spanish, but with her encouragement, I do try to do some of these same sorts of things. Our calendar time is done in Japanese. We have a lot of math overlap in Japanese, though I need to study up on some more vocabulary if we're going to continue that. But we're working on it - and even with an incomplete command of the language, it's working. We're all improving.

Science was another area that Dr. Perrin suggested could be simplified. So much of science curriculum tries to learn All The Things that have to do with science, which typically means learning a little about a lot of things, and therefore loving these things but little, and forgetting most of it. That's certainly how it happened for me in school. Ironically, a number of the things I "learned" back then are things that I have since become interested in and learned again - only this time, for real. Bird calls and bird identification, for instance. I "learned" 50 birds - I did reasonably well on the test. But by the time that I noticed the birds (Cedar Waxwings, I eventually discovered) visiting my window, 15 years later, I only remembered one of those 50 birds: Red-wing Blackbirds. And I remembered that one because, of all the birds, I loved the way it sounded. It's still my favorite. I was also made to study trees and rocks, but I didn't remember even one of those. They had no context, and I had no understanding of why I should care - so I didn't. And I didn't learn, though I did pass the test. But those classes studied a little bit of everything, and didn't say long on any topic, though any of them could have involved us for months, if not the entire year.

Instead of trying to do a little of everything, we are focusing heavily on Nature Study, and plan to continue this focus for years to come. In addition to the body of knowledge they are building about our world in a direct experiential way, Charlotte Mason taught about how Nature Study imparts skills that can be readily turned to other studies they as they mature:

This is all play to the children, but the mother is doing invaluable work; she is training their powers of observation and expression, increasing their vocabulary and their range of ideas by giving them the name and the uses of an object at the right moment, when they ask, ‘What is it?’ and ‘What is it for?”

The richness of what we can learn by consistently returning to nature is readily apparent to me. Already my children know a number of the calls of common songbirds in our area, as well as a few of the other types of birds. The discovery that our park has a history as a quary has lead to awareness that there are different types of stones - and the kids have spent many happy hours discovering how they behave differently when whacked together. We have begun the long process of learning the local botany, and by adding a jewelers' loop to our equipment, we are discovering all sorts of tiny attributes of the plants that were previously invisible to us. Diving deep into nature is already paying lovely dividends. 

Another thing that has struck me as I've pondered Multum non Multa is the importance of certain skills that are used across the various areas of content. By prioritizing skills such as phonics, spelling and writing, narration, mathematical competence, and drawing, the student is equipped with the tools of learning which will allow them to learn a host of content areas. At this stage, where my children are still so near the beginning of their education, I think that careful attention to the development of these skills needs to be one of my larger priorities. 

It seems to me that this idea of "much not many" is an expression of the need for balance, a proverb which draws our attention to the dangers of impulsiveness and inconstancy in education. In the past several years as I have studied the gospel, I have noticed that Correct Action is usually to be found by balancing between two apparently opposing principles. The Lord said we must not kill (murder), but we also have a duty to defend ourselves. We should show concern for and give assistance to the poor, but we should not destroy their self-reliance by doing for them that which they are able to do for themselves. This tension between opposing principles is not a bad thing: there is opposition in all things. We should not be surprised to find it is true in education as well. Correct Action will be found on the balance point between the extremes: the sweet spot between frantically doing too much all at once, and complacently doing too little. When we find that "sweet spot" it's a beautiful thing.

1 comment:

Anne Chovies said...

Nice thoughts. I think this is one of the reasons it's so important to teach critical thinking skills, logical reasoning, and the like - there is simply too much to try and learn it all. I learned early in life that once I got out of school it was more important and useful to know where and how to look something up than to try and learn everything I might need. I simply don't have the memory skills for that.


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