I have been researching a curriculum called The Lost Tools of Writing (LTW) by Circe Institute. Ever since I have been mentoring writing, I have been feeling a greater need to fully understand how to help the student think on their own about Inventing and arranging their ideas and feeling good about their elocution of these ideas.
I think IEW does a good job teaching the use of vivid words and sentence structure, while Bravewriter uses many thinking exercises and writing activities, but neither has given me a simple foundational understanding of the bones of an essay like LTW does.
While researching LTW, I have compiled some thoughts, including some links below for additional information:
What is the Method?: LTW teaches three canons of writing: Invention, Arrangement, and Elocution. Invention (inventory) means thinking about all possible ideas, angles, and attitudes. Arrangement means to structure these in an order or pattern and Elocution means the style in which to present these things.
Each week the lessons rotate between these canons. For the first essay, students will first learn to ask the question. Why should this character have done or not done this? They will then turn this into the issue at hand, and then produce a thesis from the issue, which is the Cannon of Invention. Next, the student will learn to use the Arrangement Canon to write an outline. Finally, the Elocution Canon teaches the student to move from the Outline to concise, but persuasive sentences and paragraphs. The curriculum takes the student through 9 lessons, spending 3 weeks per lesson.
For those who have taken previous writing classes, the first essay may seem rudimentary and simplistic. However, it is necessary that every student scale back to the very foundation of writing to build upon these canons and eventually create excellent essays.
Just as a building requires both a sound foundation and precise measurements of the subsequent levels, writing also requires a basic foundation and precise components of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Often, the writer may pale at the constant pruning, critiquing, and editing of their paper and wonder if they will ever write a perfect paper without these necessary disciplines.
I love to refer to an essay by one of C.S. Lewis good friends, Dorothy Sayers. In her Lost Tools of Learning, she wrote, “Our Reading will proceed from narrative and lyric to essays, argument and criticism, and the pupil will learn to try his own hand at writing this kind of thing…Wherever the matter for Dialectic is found, it is, of course, highly important that attention should be focused upon the beauty and economy of a fine demonstration or a well-turned argument, lest veneration should wholly die. Criticism must not be merely destructive; though at the same time both teacher and pupils must be ready to detect fallacy, slipshod reasoning, ambiguity, irrelevance, and redundancy, and to pounce upon them like rats. This is the moment when precise-writing may be usefully undertaken; together with such exercises as the writing of an essay, and the reduction of it, when written, by 25 or 50 percent.”
The last few lines emphasize the idea of precise, reduced writing, or pruning, one might say. According to Sayers, the Dialectic is a pruning stage, and pruning is rarely beautiful, but just as pruning produces a healthy, beautiful, and fruitful tree, pruning produces the best writing.
The first persuasive essays your student will learn to write in The Lost Tools of Writing will not be untidy, nor will they be eloquent, nor flowery masterpieces, but they will be precise, reduced writing with the right structure allowing for beautiful, high-quality, productive growth in the years to come.
LTW teaches the student to play with ideas instead of words. Students learn the art of gathering and processing words through a moral journey of acquiring wisdom through inquiry and discovery. They select a character from a classic book they are reading (Lucy or Edmund Pevensie, Beowulf, Caesar, Bilbo Baggins, Jean Valjean, etc.) and they ask a “should” question about the character or an event surrounding the character. Should Edmund have followed the White Witch? Should Beowulf have listened to Hrothgar’s advice? Should Caesar have crossed the Rubicon? Should Bilbo Baggins have given up the One Ring? Should Jean Valjean have not testified in court to save the other man?
These questions matter because they are pivotal to understanding our relationship with the Good, the True and the Beautiful. These questions help students understand what is right or wrong, true or false, and good or bad. They focus on the virtuous attributes that all humans ought to develop within.
David Hicks writes in the preface of Norms and Nobility:
“Although in my curriculum proposal I use history as the paradigm for contextual learning, the ethical question ‘What should one do?’ might provide an even richer context for acquiring general knowledge. This question elicits not only knowledge, but wisdom, and it draws the interest of the student into any subject, no matter how obscure or far removed from his day-to-day concerns. It challenges the imagination and makes life the laboratory it ought to be for testing the hypotheses and lessons of the classroom. As this implies, the end of education is not thinking; it is acting.”
Have we thought enough in regards to the ends of education? Is the goal to use elaborate language? Or is the goal to learn, understand, and express wisdom? Knowledge, vivid words, and eloquent syntax are essential in our education, but they cannot compare to the excellent use of wisdom in creating a good and beautiful mind and heart. The end of education, then, is not merely gaining knowledge about people, places, and things, nor is it simply to learn and use elaborate language, but the ultimate goal of education is to learn right thinking and right action.
Students build character when they ask why the character did what he did or whether or not the character should have done something differently. Andrew Kern wrote, “If I want to see into the meaning of this event, learning the content is necessary. But it is not enough. You have to ask why he did it, what were the outcomes, what he overcame, whether he was wise to do so, what his courage purchased for us, and other big picture questions.”*
The “why” matters. Writing about the “why” causes it to go deep down into the soul of the writer.
* The Holy Grail of Classical Education by Andrew Kern, CiRCE Institute.