This morning while doing some research for a couple clients, I came across two interesting articles that seemed to connect.
One article was a piece by Rod Dreher talking about his time at the recent Society of Classical Learning (SCL) conference. Titled ‘The Problem with ‘Worldview’ Education‘, Dreher shared Joshua Gibbs’ insight that “real art is not something that calls forth an immediate response. You have to contemplate it, turn it over in your mind for a while.” Gibbs went on to suggest that one of the casualties of the worldview-based approach to education is that the rush to analyze texts through a worldview grid can prematurely foreclose–or even completely short-circuit–this necessary process of wondering about and contemplating texts.
I’ve been involved in various college prep schools, including charter schools and classical schools, and when I talk to the educators in these systems the one thing they always lament is lack of time to cover everything they would like. Content, content, content – the more the better. Accordingly, curriculum is structured with the goal of cramming as much information as possible into the students’ minds. As inputs are continually increased, the outputs expected of the students also increase, with the result that little space is left for reflecting deeply on any one thing. Thus, from an early age students learn that success in life is directly correlative to the speed at which they can absorb inputs and produce outputs. When students are occasionally given time to reflect deeply on a single thing, their minds often find it difficult to adjust to the slower pace. When the freneticism of information overload is the norm, thinking deeply feels strangely uncomfortable, while stillness comes to feel unnatural, even frightening and disconcerting.
From ‘Best Kept Secrets About Brain Fitness: a Conversation with Graham Taylor and Robin Phillips (Part 4)‘
When I used to teach high school history, I often found myself puzzled why some students would diligently take notes about all the different historical figures I discussed in class but then as soon as the final test was over they would throw away a year’s worth of notes. Why was it that some students were genuinely interested in the material while others didn’t care and only learned for the test? We could probably think of lots of different reasons for this, but one important factor seemed to be the total lack of intellectual curiosity in some students.
Without intellectual curiosity learning is boring. Without intellectual curiosity the justification for knowledge ultimately rests in pragmatic concerns outside the material itself, with the result that knowledge is reduced to a utilitarian tool. Intellectual curiosity saves us from the type of servile mind that sees knowledge as only useful for material gain. That’s why intellectual curiosity is freeing, dignifying and humanizing. Intellectual curiosity arises naturally from the best education, since the finest education is able in instill in us the sense that life is intensely interesting and worthwhile to study for its own sake.
But intellectual curiosity is also very practical since it is closely connected with memory. When knowledge ceases to be interesting for its own sake then we find it difficult to remember the content. The brain is very efficient so that when something is boring for us the brain gets the message “This isn’t worth remembering, I need to conserve my resources for stuff that is more interesting.”
Most of the time those students whom we think have inherently good memories are simply the ones who are curious about the world and who therefore find the content they are learning interesting. Again, if content interests or excites us, then it is more likely to embed itself in our long-term memory as part of a larger web of schemas, associations and interconnections. But if something is boring to us, if we are only learning something because we feel we ought to, and if we don’t have the type of internal incentive to learn that comes from being genuinely curious about the world, then the knowledge is more likely to sit in our brain as isolated facts without any hooks to hang it on. Either that or knowledge is reduced to merely a pragmatic tool to help career advancement, which is what seems to be happening in a lot of science education today. (Matthew Crawford touched on this in an excellent article for The New Atlantis called ‘Science Education and Liberal Education.’)
From my Touchstone article ‘More Than Schooling‘:
“Our loves orient us to visions of human flourishing that pull us towards a certain telos far more effectively than someone trying to push us there. …the real competitor of classical education is not the public schools, as so often thought, but the panoply of what [James K.A. Smith] calls “secular liturgies,” which also aim to capture our imaginations on an instinctive level. For him, Christian education is important, not because the public schools are so bad, but because shopping malls, commercials, and clothing advertisements are so good, or appear so to the impoverished soul.
The idols of the materialistic world usually reach our hearts only because they have first captured our imaginations. Now, capturing the imagination is also what a liberal arts education should fundamentally be about. It’s not simply about learning things, but about being nourished, and coming to love what is good, true, and beautiful at a gut level.”
In Part 3 of my interview with Graham Taylor on brain fitness, I talked about educational reform. I pointed out that sometimes our educational efforts are focused so much on content that we neglect to give adequate consideration to the skills that go into being an effective learner. For thousands of years thinkers have been developing techniques of memory and learning, yet modern education tends to neglect these techniques to focus exclusively on content. Here’s one of the points I made about this:
Growing up in the modern West, most of us have been conditioned to think that the best students are those who don’t struggle. Successful people are those who easily achieve straight A’s, who can get their homework done as quickly as possible, and who rarely have to deal with unpleasant realities such as frustration, struggle, confusion or failure. The notion that struggle is a sign of low-ability is such a part of the very air we breathe that it is rarely questioned and permeates the culture of the classroom.
Throughout my career as a freelance author, there have been certain themes I keep returning to. One of these themes is the necessity for parents to demonstrate to their children that Christianity is beautiful, that following Jesus is not simply the right thing to do but also lovely and attractive.
Christians have often failed to take seriously Friedrich Nietzsche’s critique that religion has a tendency to stifle joy and to bring death rather than life, and that consequently Christianity is life’s nausea. Sadly, what often passes for “Christianity” has often been nauseating and succeeds only in driving children away from the faith. Continue reading
From Part 4 of my interview about brain fitness:
To cultivate learning without cultivating the imagination is to create automatons. That’s why the capacity to imagine has been the enemy of all great totalitarian regimes in history, since it is through the imagination that we are able to make connections, to form associations, to conceptualize long-term consequences and to see the infrastructures of meaning that lie beneath the surface of things. In other words, the imagination feeds all the things that make us truly free.
Father Seraphim Rose
Last night my wife and I finished listening to a talk given by Father Seraphim Rose (1934-1982) on the topic of developing an Orthodox worldview. (The talk is available on Youtube while a transcription is available HERE.) He spoke about the challenges facing Christian parents in today’s world. He gave the talk in the early eighties so some of the end-times stuff towards the end is a bit dated, but if anything the general problems he diagnosed have become even more acute since then, making his message all the more relevant.