THE ROLE OF POETIC EDUCATION: AND THE IDEAL OF A UNIVERSITY
by Dr. James S. Taylor
I recently gave a series of talks on education with two colleagues at a Benedictine monastery in Clear Creek, Oklahoma. The topic came to rest on a proposal for a boarding school for boys, 9 – 12, a project, and I should say, a dream, that we have had for over ten years. There were over fifty people in attendance in this secluded location in the northeastern hills of Oklahoma– fathers, their sons, young men, some recent graduates from St. Gregory’s Academy, priests, and two of the monks from the nearby monastery. We begin by explaining to the audience that the design and spirit of this school was first given form by the late Dr. John Senior in a series of letters he wrote to us when we asked him what a school for our times would look like, not unlike the circumstances when Socrates was asked to describe what a just society would look like.
These letters of Dr. Senior were not only the result of his private reflections on the crisis in education, but drew heavily on his experience in teaching college students with his friends and colleagues, Dennis Quinn and Frank Nelick in the remarkable course of studies at the University of Kansas, known as the Integrated Humanities Program, or the IHP. It is significant that the monastic location where I spoke included several monks who had attended this Program that had led them, years earlier, to the doors of the 11th century Abbey at Fontgambault in France. Their dream had been to return someday to America, and their dream, unlike others that drift away with the wind, had come true.
The monastic setting for these talks was also appropriate since such a school as we have dreamed of would follow the Benedictine spirit more than, say, the Jesuit high schools of the past. It is, in fact, a crucial point that as much as we would desire it, we are not in Jesuit times.
But what is meant by the Benedictine spirit and the poetic mode of education? What would such a school look like and why would it be, in our opinion, the best preparation for those called to come up to the university? Let us take these questions and attempt to reach a conclusion of how they would fit for an ideal of university.
In a little known essay by Cardinal Newman, that he did not complete, he divided the great ages of the Church into three categories: the Benedictine, the Dominican, and the Jesuit. To these he assigned particular modes of education. To the Benedictine, the Poetic; to the Dominicans, the scientific, that is, the Scholastic; and, to the Jesuits the practical application of Scholasticism into schools and universities. Newman’s thesis indicated, however, that one did not get a St. Thomas Aquinas without first the experience of the Benedictine age of toiling, and rejoicing with, the fundamental realities of nature, of Creation, while singing throughout the day the music loved by God, while following a rule of life simple and sturdy enough to revive a whole civilization; nor did one get a St. Ignatius without the elegant precision of sweet reason given form in the age of St. Thomas and the Schoolmen.
However, it was the keen insight of John Senior to give us a commentary on this essay of Newman’s that if one were to honestly reflect on our times, and to choose from Newman’s three ages of the Church which would best suit our new dark ages, it would be the Benedictine spirit, that is, the Poetic.
The reason for this choice is not difficult to present, though it‘s application often proves to be most difficult, mainly because the idea of such a school is no longer in the imagination of most people, which is an indication of how far we have fallen away from our perception of human nature on the one hand, and how serious has been the attack of materialism on the other. But let us begin with what is meant by Poetic Education, especially as it needs to exist as preparatory for the rigor of higher studies in a university.
Just as stages of human development have a proper progress, so do civilizations and eras. It is also true these stages, individual and societal, can be distorted, perverted, and seemingly lost. I find that more and more intelligent men and women have recognized that we have bypassed an essential stage of growth, which in the context of this theme will be called the Poetic. What is it? First, defining it in the order of negation, it is not necessarily knowledge of poetry, nor is it some dreamy New Age life style of irresponsibility. Positively, it is so fundamental it is often difficult for audiences to take seriously its importance, for it begins with the cultivation of the senses with nature, Creation, as the natural object for sight, touch, hearing, smell, and taste. Again, in the Benedictine spirit, much of this awakening of the senses is accomplished in manual labor and simple recreation, out of doors, playing games, building, caring for gardens and animals, and eating simple, healthy food. When in our time when the Burger is King, and the general sloth brought on by endless conveniences and electronic modes of entertainment rules, our insulated world has robbed several generations of the sharp edge of these senses so that the virtual is becoming preferred to the actual, indeed, the virtual is now being mistaken for the real. Philosophically, this separation from reality can be traced to Descartes and his radical dualism between the mind and body, and that doubt rather than simple truth is the beginning of knowledge. Materially, the divide deepened with the rise of a radical capitalism, and, as some say, with Calvin’s Institutes, the result of the impossibility of living integrated lives under the separation of will and being in understanding the love of God. But these are larger questions that this presentation will not follow. My question now is how can we teach, if students coming to us have been raised in what John Senior called “The Air Conditioned Nightmare“, one of his metaphors for a brave new world of unreality that has dulled if not ruined the senses for beauty and replaced it with the ugly; relativistic personal choice, for truth; and a new hedonism for the good?
But let us continue with the review of our poetic natures. Contingent upon the sharpening of the exterior senses on reality, is the resonance upon the interior senses of estimation, an intuitive knowledge of good and evil, (which Aesop’s lamb woefully lacked when drinking at the same stream with the wolf), the imaginative sense, now perverted by sci-fi and fantasy, and the memorative sense which holds fast to all these experiences as a kind of coherent story of life, the one interior sense the ancients considered the mother of all knowledge. Socrates, Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, were all very clear about the importance of the cultivation of these senses as propaedeutic for the proper growth of the human being and assumed in their pre-industrial times that these exterior and interior faculties would be nurtured in the natural world, the first book, the book of nature. It is painfully obvious that we can no longer see to read this book.
The integration of the emotions is also the province of the poetic mode, and perhaps their disintegration has done more damage to youth than any other. For example, we have come a long way indeed from the understanding of love, desire, and joy as the proper responses to the good, true and beautiful, to a collective urge to feel, feel, feel, as if feeling was the same thing as the range of integrated emotions. Likewise, we have forgotten what we must also hate, for it is anger at offenses against the good that can also restore health to the human being. One of the very important tenants of poetic knowledge is that the emotions are intimately involved with the will and intellect, and thus the importance of cultivating them in accordance to those things that are true, good and beautiful, and learning once again to recognize their proper enemies. But on one hand, we have had the legacy from Puritanism and Jansenism that the emotions are dangerous, to the other extreme that they are all to be given free _expression, when in fact emotions are neither bad nor good, nor are they free — they are motors that move us toward or away from objects that are perceived as either good or bad. But who will teach us these things again? Many psychiatrists now practice a craft to make us functional in society, and too priests and religious are too busy trying to feel good and get others to do the same, to offer any help. And, so bankrupt is the education once known even up to the 19th century, I say we cannot directly approach the great psychology of Aristotle’s De Anima and even better St. Thomas Aquinas’s Commentary on The Philosopher, we must return to the books of nature as the first library to which we can turn to learn again, in the simple depths of our soul, what is to be loved, feared, and hated aright.
In dealing with the will and the intellect, we do not leave poetic education behind, but rather see that the will builds on the truth of the senses and now does not only deliberate on matters of choice based on continually observing the cause and effect of things, the nature of things as they are, but also has the capacity to naturally follow the good. The intellect too is not just a thinking brain as the modern world would have it, but possesses degrees of knowledge built on sensory and imaginative experiences ranging from intuitive self-evident knowledge, to the ability to grasp conclusions from scientific demonstration, to be persuaded to the truth through rhetorical discourse, to that more obscure way of knowing that St. Thomas calls poetica scientia, actually a higher kind of intuition than metaphysical certitude because such knowledge gives us the imaginative experience of the object of knowledge, not just a descriptive account. For example, the ceremonies of traditional liturgies teach in this mode, speaking to what Jacques Maritain calls a primordial sense in the soul of the truth of God’s existence, that Being Itself is Good. That is where we can begin intellectually. But in the intuitive of our senses and emotions we begin knowing that we are loved, that the world is knowable because it is lovable, and that we love another – the lover does not ask for scientific proof of the beloved’s devotion, in spite of the new legalism of prenuptial agreements.
Even with this incomplete coverage of poetic knowledge, I think it should be easier to see the progression mentioned earlier by Newman of the Benedictine, Dominican, and Jesuit ages of the Church, how they built for the Church and how they built Christendom and analogously the life of the human being. Also, I hope we can all reflect and see the wisdom of the Integrated Humanities Program that we must first admit what has been lost. We are neither in an age of a triumphant Church or a strong civilization. As early as 1931, Hilaire Belloc recognized this crisis in an essay, “The New Paganism”. Here he defined the two main results of modernity: to revert to a pagan way of life now, because we had become a Christian civilization, is far worse than the original ancient pagans‘ errors, for, prior to Revelation they had no choice but to follow the natural lights of their intellects and Muse. So, now, having rejected the Revealed Source of all that is true, good and beautiful, only a new kind of despair will follow, worse than the despair of the good pagans that was viewed by Dante as he begins his descent into Hell. I cannot speak theologically on this point, but I do not hesitate to say that culturally we are in a kind of hell. This does not mean that truth and goodness and beauty are dead — but they are profoundly disguised, certainly not by God or His angels, not even so much by the devil, but by us, and it would be the work of the poetic way of education, in the Benedictine spirit of those dark ages from whence they flourished, against all odds, to pull back the veil again, or change the image back to the original, to open the cover of that first book, the book of nature, God’s and ours, in Whose image we are made.
But what would such an education look like? I will first comment on the environment where it ideally should start, that of a high school, even as late as that might be, then, suggest how a freshman and sophomore year at a university would appear taught in this mode.
Materially, the school itself should be a thing of beauty, but not necessarily expensive or elegant – in fact, a rough beauty seems best, for in this mode, everything should be thought to teach, and the thoughtful, simple details of a school building where natural light and shadow, stone and wood, become remote members of the faculty. And the easiest part of preparing such a school is the curriculum, the books, for as it was often said in the IHP, we do not choose the books so much as they choose us. In the poetic mode we are dealing with things that have been done, that participate in something like perfection, and it is our office, not a divine office as yet, but a humane office, an officium, a duty, to sit at the feet of the what has been finished, completed, like the perfection of the circle. For high school boys then, in this setting, we select mainly the good books that will prepare for the great ones, and there are at least a thousand of the good books for every age and taste. More importantly, is how these books are taught, that is, by teachers who not only know them, but love them, at least, love something about Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn, Robinson Crusoe, Two Years Before The Mast, Last of the Mohicans, The Virginian, The Odyssey, The Iliad, and so on. These books are read and talked about as something real, with the real absence of scholarly commentaries, taught as they ultimately apply to our lives here and now bridging the dusty scholarly walls constructed by the experts — at this ground level, we remain as amateurs, those who love. From conversations and readings of these books it is a natural step to develop compositions, recitations, which in turn can be read not only for their ideas, but correction and direction for rhetorical _expression. Latin is given pride of place in the core of the program, spoken Latin, as beginners, much as modern languages are taught, delaying the rigor of scientific grammar. Geometry, a selection of Euclid’s famous elegant Propositions that help to order and delight the mind, is also part of this curriculum. Natural history is mainly taught as field experience in the gardens and surrounding streams and woods. In fact, the theme followed here would be that of the great French entomologist, Henri Fabre, in his “laboratory of the open fields” model of close and silent observation. The same idea would be applied to astronomy, gazing at the stars and constellations with the naked eye, as well as integrating the great myths and the holy psalms that celebrate these heavenly wonders. Math is first the knowledge and measurement of real things, with which students would be surrounded, before the abstraction of number problem solving and Algebra, as well as physics being the observation of real motion, leverage, force, and mass, before being reduced to mere mathematical equations. The subjects in the sciences are remotely prepared for in the day to day schedule of such a school that includes building and upkeep of the facilities, swimming in real creeks and rivers, caring for gardens and animals. History would never use a textbook. Instead we would read history: the journals of Lewis and Clark, for example, Marco Polo, Caesar’s Conquest of Gaul (eventually in Latin), Herodotus, Bede’s History of England — again, the selections here can be wide and various, and first hand, rather than the opinions of scholars which are best reserved for the university. The boys would learn to sing the songs of the Western tradition – and Irish music can often replace the allure of rock and roll with its more natural vigor and lyrical qualities. Better, the boys slowly learn the musical prayer of Gregorian chant.
The dormitory has a quasi-military aspect to it under the kind but vigilant eye of a seasoned dorm captain — simple bunks and lockers, a wood burning stove for winter, and open doors and windows in the summer — no air conditioning here. Showers are at the end of the dormitory and are often cold. The boys rise early for prayers and Mass, a hearty breakfast, some warm ups and calisthenics, then off to the first subject of the day whatever and wherever that might be. Prayers at noon followed by a simple lunch, afternoon chores and lessons, recreation, free time, dinner, time for study, followed by Compline, lights out, and grand silence until morning of the next day.
The point of the entire school experience, whether for boys or girls, reading the books, working and recreating out of doors, is one of admiration and delight, to learn what is already there, the leisure as well as the harshness of life, discovery rather than invention, to come to know what is old and enduring rather than what is new and quickly passing, that is, what once was known as the knowledge of the permanent things. At this level of education, there is no attempt to advance knowledge as in a scientific model, but as I said, to discover and admire. The idea of such a school is not to make students smarter, but better, more human and more humane. Follow this schedule for four years, and these students will be ready for any college and university that would be ready for them.
However, in the absence of such a school, at least for the meantime, and given the cultural malaise we are all aware of in which our youth are now raised, what can be done for those students coming up to college or university if we are to agree that this mode of poetic education, the cultivation of the poetic nature of the human being, is prerequisite for higher studies?
Here, I can do no more than recommend moving some of the high school experience described here to the first two years of their higher education experience; to do, actually, what Professors Senior, Quinn, and Nelick did in the Integrated Humanities Program at the University of Kansas. Again, first of all these professors knew and loved the books that had to be read, drawn from the good and great books. Moreover, they knew that the students coming to them had none of the experiences and formation I have outlined that would take place in such a high school. So, what did they do? They let the students know from the beginning that two times a week they were to attend an hour and twenty minute lecture, actually, a conversation among the three professors, to not take notes so they could relearn how to listen, to discover they had a memory, to do the reading, and reflect on what they had read, and in so doing, at some point, connect it to their lives or at least their imagination. In addition to the formal meetings twice a month, there were Latin classes, memorization of poetry, rhetoric (based on the perfect models of Aesop‘s Fables), stargazing, calligraphy, and an annual waltz. It was an education by the Muses, as Dr. Quinn [photo: Dr. Quinn with Plato and Aristotle] was fond of saying. Several trips to Europe were organized, to Ireland, Italy, and Spain. Off campus, catechism classes were held, the Little Office of the Blessed Virgin Mary was recited at a local church, and throughout there was much contact between professors and students. It was the conviction of the professors that students attempting to read the great books without this integrated approach to first knowledge, while often quite intelligent students, were lacking the necessary sensory and emotional cultivation in the soil of reality, imagination, romance, and wonder, and would therefore, at best, simply learn to repeat stock answers without ever really thinking, and at worst, and more likely, be lost in the often complex and contradictory voices of the great conversation.
In fact, what the professors of the IHP did was deliberately remedial, and is what I believe a college or university should do in its freshmen and sophomore years in our day — to supply as best as possible what should have been done, what should have been read, when their students were teenagers. Something must have been correct in this two-year college within a university: the religious vocations, the teachers, the attorneys, doctors, and business professionals that emerged from this program were, and still are, numerous. In fact, a real network of IHP graduates are now in these positions throughout the world, from simple farmers in Kansas, to countless school teachers, to those in the Department of Justice, others became monks, priests, and nuns in various orders in Europe and American, and even one graduate with a prestigious position in the Vatican who is a member of the committee that advises the Holy Father on the appointment of new Bishops. And I must not pass over the equally numerous marriages and families living as best as possible, often in great difficulty, the ideals of the truly good life discovered in such a program.
Therefore, my suggestions for an ideal of a university should be applied with tact and art to what I have said about a school and what was done with the IHP — but with this advantage that such a school and the IHP did not have in place: that is, the opportunity to take up after this cultivation of the senses, the emotions, the experience of leisure in learning — the more rigorous studies, for those who are able, of St. Thomas Aquinas and in every area of what we have come to know as the seven liberal arts, even as they extended into the Renaissance, where medicine, law, and commerce can be pursued in an intelligent and humane manner. A freshmen and sophomore years of the ideas of the school and the IHP will simply make better vocations, marriages, attorneys, doctors, men and women of business, and the other professions with which a higher education is concerned, and without which our society is certainly doomed. And even though I hold fast to the distinctions made by Newman, mentioned earlier, and with John Senior that we are closer to the Benedictine times, and though I still dream for such a school prior to higher studies, I see no reason why we cannot also begin to follow these three ages, and touch upon something of our inheritance of the Dominican and Jesuits so that, as Herodotus said, the great deeds of men, in this case, these saints and educators, not lose their due meed of glory. Students attending such a university will be further awakened to the life of the mind that has never lost its grounding in the book of nature, the book of God.