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23 June 2018

On Classical Education: Embodied Learning (part 1)

Discussing the principles of Embodied Education in the context of a Classical / Charlotte Mason education in an LDS homeschool.

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
Ordered Affections
Repetition is the Mother of Memory
Repetition and the Habit of Attention
Embodied Learning (part 1) {This Post}
Embodied Learning (part 2)
Songs Chants and Jingles
Wonder and Curiosity
Educational Virtues
By Teaching We Learn
Classical Education is Like a Table

Dr. Perrin, in his Embodied Education lecture, starts out by talking about how education is more than just what happens in the mind: education involves our whole being, and the senses are how we take in our experiences. It is more dimensional than the "rational enterprise" that we think of,  because we are more dimensional than that: we are rational, thinking being, certainly, but we are more than just minds. Knowing that education is primarily about character, and about how we go about bridling our passions and ordering our affections, Dr. Perrin asks about environment:

Think about our classrooms. Think about your university education, you high school education: what were the hallways like? How were the windows? Did you enjoy your desks? They were "great". How about the parking lot? The whole design of our educational institutions, without us even being aware of it, are shaping our expectations, our hopes, and our ideals. Our affections. 
-Dr. Christopher Perrin, Embodied Education

That's pretty intense. What did your school experience teach you about the way that the world is supposed to work? When he asked about "my" desk, one of the things that I remembered is that I really didn't even have a desk that was mine: I sat in a different desk every hour, and each teacher changed the seating chart whenever they wanted, often without warning. It wasn't malicious; it was just the way things were; part of the mechanics of classroom management. The desks weren't designed to belong to anyone anyway: there was no storage, no way to personalize them short of defacing them, no privacy, no security. They were just hard plastic chairs, screwed into the frame that held up the writing surface, with a little wire frame underneath in case we had "extra" books. Although I have never known a single person who liked those desks well enough to put one in their home, I remember being excited when I was finally "old enough" to use that kind of desk: it was something of a milestone because only the high school students had them.

What kind of values do our educational institutions embody?
What are the values embodied in our homes?
How do the values differ?

My house is far from perfect, and there's lots of things that I'd change about it if money was no object, but it's considerably more comfortable and welcoming than your typical university or high school classroom. My kids will never experience having their elementary school teacher decide that their desk is so chronically messy that the only remedy is to dump it all on the ground and start over, nor will they watch as someone else experiences that particular humiliation. It won't be part of their idea of "normal" because those little boxy desks are not part of our home. They will remember sitting on our couch, or at the kitchen table, or visiting the parks that we frequent for certain parts of our lessons: these are the spaces that will shape their idea of "normal", and now that Dr. Perrin has asked, I think that these spaces do communicate some very different lessons.

The "visceral part" of the child, is trained very differently at home than it would be if the child was in an institution (public or private) for the bulk of their waking hours. Thomas S. Monson talked about four hallmarks of happy homes, teaching that there should be a pattern of prayer, a library of learning, a legacy of love, and a treasury of testimony. It's a powerful pattern for happy living; how lovely it is that we can bring that pattern to bear in the education of our children all day long, rather than in just the few hours left to us when the school day is done! How lovely that we can build a schedule that suits or family needs, rather than conforming our family to an externally imposed rhythm. In our case, one of the lessons the external schedule would have taught is that it's not terribly important to see Daddy: his schedule has always been such that a public school schedule would minimize his contact with his children. But because we set our own school hours, we can work with that, and the kids see that effort to include him in our family culture, in spite of his difficult schedule. What kind of impact would that have on the things that our children internalize as "normal"? How would that impact the way that they order their affections? How will that train and cultivate their tastes?

If we're going to love something that is lovely, we can't just hear about it in a lecture; we need to experience it.
C. S. Lewis, in his essay The Weight of Glory, said that to really
know the Atlantic Ocean, you can't just do chemical analysis of the ocean, and study how many metric tons of water exist in it, and so forth, and its stretch from England to North America. You actually have to dive in. And swim in it.
So, this is going to be the case for virtually anything that is going to make us wise, virtually anything that's truly important, and worth knowing permanently. We need to not just have it explained to us, we need to experience it
-Dr. Christopher Perrin, Embodied Education, emphasis original

Remember President Monson's story about the Sunday School teacher that asked them to give up the class party they'd saved for in order to help the a classmate's family after their mother died during the depression. They had previously talked about giving, but now they got to experience the reality that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Their education was embodied in the actions an inspired teacher encouraged them to make --years later, that lesson was still impacting the participants.

I read a while back that there are so few children allowed to mess with pumps and small engines and build things and tinker in an unstructured way, and they're finding that this trend has some surprising byproducts: medical students, for example, are struggling to understand the explanation of the heart as a pump: they've never siphoned liquids, never disassembled a pump to see how it works, they don't know how to get their hands into that kind of project, and this means they have no background information to draw on when their instructors tell them about how the heart works. They simply have no experience with that sort of thing: it all comes from books, or from computer simulations, and you just can't get the depth of knowledge that way that comes from jumping in and "swimming in it".

A few weeks ago, I spent the week studying the Greek word "paideia" and how that relates to "embodied education" in Christian Classical Education. Paul uses this concept of paideia in his letter to the Ephesians, where it's rendered into English as "nurture":

And ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.
-Ephesians 6:4

Paideia is a fascinating concept: Paideia is education, but to the Greeks it was much more broad than what we think of when we think of education. Paul is using a Greek concept here that's about the transmission of culture. Brandy Vencel talked about how Paideia reminds her of that verse in Deuteronomy: teach your children when you rise up, when you walk by the way, when you lie down at night... basically all the time in everything you do. All that would be part of the Greek concept of Paideia: it's the enculturation process. "School", certainly is part of the process, but so is walking past the temple on the way, the smells that tell them what's for breakfast, the games they play in the afternoon: all the different things that go into teaching Greek children how to be Greek. So Paul is telling the Ephesian saints (who would have know all this without explanation) that they need to be teaching their children, enculturating them, bringing them up in the Lord's Paideia, in the Lord's culture, which is a much more expansive process than just teaching and educating that we associate with schools and education: 3Rs and so forth is only the tip of the iceberg.

That's pretty awesome. But then I sat down to do my Sunday School lesson. The week prior, we had talked about the Family Proclamation, and the ways that women and priesthood holders work together. I started to try to figure out if we're supposed to continue that lesson or do a new one and I realized: there's that word:

"Mothers are primarily responsible for the nurture of their children." 
-The Family: A Proclamation to the World

That night in family scriptures we read where Enos went so far as to say that, because his father raised him in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, this was how he could tell that his father was righteous. It's that word again, nurture, and it's a powerful statement. 

If we borrow Paul's word for nurture, then "Mothers are primarily responsible for the [Paideia] of their children." Guys are entrusted with the administration of the Church, but especially with the ordinances as priesthood holders. But Mothers are entrusted with enculturation, with setting things in order and living, with her children along side her at every step, so that Christian values and culture continue into the future generations. How cool is that?! Just as Joseph was responsible for all that went on under his leadership,  so are we, and this enculturation process, the way that we and the home that we make, the education that we select, these all go together to teach our children, and shape their ideals, and how we do this is something that we will have to account for: it is the Great Work that mothers are entrusted with.

The Classical tradition says that we are to pay attention to this triad of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty --together. So, not to downplay truth, but Truth exists with Goodness and Beauty, and they're always in this dance with one another. But because because we've become kind of gnostic, we're focused on truth, particularly via the rational channel, so that we've become kind of... disfigured. Disfigured souls, you might say. I think of it this way: we've got big heads. We tend to think that what we need to teach children is a kind of list of ideas that are true, that need to be believed, to counter all those false ideas that are out there. And we present this, and we talk about this in the rational mode. Nothing wrong with that. But it's just not enough. ... If we're just teaching to the rational... we seem to be betraying an assumption that we're primarily Minds. And so we've got "big heads". The trouble is, what we're not appealing to is the heart. ... We have people who are focused on the mind, but they don't have any visceral life any more, they don't have a chest! ...What we need most is not to cut back jungles, but to irrigate deserts. We have dry souls that need to be watered.
-Dr. Christopher Perrin, Embodied Education

Certainly dry deserts in need of watering at the heart seems an apt metaphor for the hard, bare lines of most educational institutions. Where is the experience of beauty? What kind of emphasis on Goodness is there in the environment our children are educated within?

Miss Mason approached this same idea this way:

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?
-Charlotte Mason

We often advise young people to "follow their passions" when choosing their field of study at college and the life's employment that follows. The child that has been trained to see God's hand and love in Creation through the natural sciences, to trace His order and perfection in mathematics, to seek out the highest quality literature for its ennobling qualities, the child who has been trained to order his affections and cultivate his curiosity, will naturally have more options because he will have more things that he loves: his feet will be set in a larger room. This, then, is the task of the educator: to create the atmosphere that nurtures, that embodies that spark.

Education is about character: we are teaching our children to prize Christian culture. But for this to work, the ideals that we talk about have to be embodied and lived out in our lives, and this means that, because we should have them with us "when we rise up, and when we lie down, and when we walk by the way", it's not only the literature, the science, math, art and so forth that we bring them to, but it's so much more. If we are living the Christian life with them alongside, then these ideals will also be lived out -embodied; made tangible- in their lives, and it becomes synergistic with the ideals placed in front of them during school hours, and the combination assists them to absorb it deeply, and those things that help us to live after the manner of happiness are more likely to become etched into the heart of their being.

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