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Why Learn Classical Writing?

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.

Don’t Judge an Unread Book

My daughter attended a youth discussion with a mentor and she told me she had a good time. I wanted to know more, but it appeared she had nothing consequential to share with me and as a result, we changed our discussion to other matters such as Christmas plans, etc. However, the next day, as I was working on some studies, she came to me with a funny smile, “Mom, do you believe in what Plato said?” I said yes, but in my mind, I was thinking that my real answer would be loaded and deep. I kept my head turned toward my studies but began to think of what I really wanted to say to her. I turned and asked her about her query and she opened up her heart and mind to me in a genuine investigation. She recounted her experience the day before and apparently, the mentor had said that Plato’s works were bad, but that Aristotle’s were good. My daughter had read both Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics in a class I taught and over the course of two months, we gleaned many great things from both of the authors. Notwithstanding, we did discuss some of Plato’s strange ideas about educating children and the family unit, which is pretty much non-existent according to Plato. I would venture to say that those ideas and maybe one other would not be congruent with the Proclamation of the Family or the commandments of God. However, Plato’s discussion on Justice, his treatise on educating the philosopher king, his scolding of Glaucon’s promiscuity, his allegory of the Cave, and his ending testimonial lead the reader to believe in his goodness. Why would a mentor undertake to turn youth away from one of the greatest sages of all time? I think this is the case where one throws out the baby with the bath water.

I listened to my daughter try to figure out what to do with herself in a future situation like the one she experienced. She kept asking me what she could do when she knows that what the mentor is saying is not all truth and is using rhetoric that persuades youth to not even touch a certain author that my daughter has learned to love. I listened and listened and listened. As she spoke, I remembered Ralph Waldo Emerson in The American Scholar who talked of the idiocy of being a “parrot of other men’s thinking.” Many of us are caught up in the pretense of scholarship and feel so good about ourselves when we repeat the “knowledge” we get from hearing others. Unfortunately, I am not exempt from being a parrot at times. Ugh. It is one of my goals to improve.

My mind started wandering to Plato. At the end of the Republic, Socrates presents a choice for the individual to decide if he will be Just or Unjust. A person “will then look at the nature of the soul, and from the consideration of all these qualities he will be able to determine which is the better and which is the worse; and so he will choose, giving the name of evil to the life which will make his soul more unjust, and good to the life which will make his soul more just; all else he will disregard.” In other words, after examining each quality or vice, we need to discern whether they will lead us to a just life or an unjust life. For me, this is an excellent discussion to have with youth. Again, why would I want to discount Plato to youth?

Socrates’ final counsel in the Republic might be one of the greatest discussions, “Wherefore, my counsel is that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil.  Thus shall we live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerors in the games who go round to gather gifts, we receive our reward.  And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing.”

Ah! What beautiful things Socrates had to say (Plato wrote them down and now he gets the credit). My advice to my daughter was to keep reading, annotating, writing and speaking up. My advice to you, dear reader, is to do the same, but to never discount an author unless you have read him and learned what he was really saying.

 

Who Says Science isn’t part of Humanities?

earthIn recent days, I have been learning about the Universal Model, a new millennial science that inspires the questioning of current theories. Presently, the theories of the Big Bang, the origin of species (the idea that humans came from apes), the earthly Magna core, and many other theories which have existed over a hundred years and which are taught as fact in educational institutions have been unproven. UM presents a new way of thinking. Rather than trying to make the natural world fit within the limits of the accepted theories as does modern science, UM expends their energy researching, experimenting and looking for natural laws with an open and inquisitive mind. For instance, instead of assuming that the earth’s core is made of magna, they are finding oceans of water below the earth’s crust; enough water to have covered the earth at the time of the flood during Noah’s time. This and many more discoveries have they made that make sense for the Creationist’s view.

My daughter and I will be attending a presentation tomorrow night to learn more. If any of this interests you, research their website or listen to a podcast (not a great recording, but very informative).

Now, about the title of this blog post: Why would I blog about science, you ask? Well, if we lived in the time of the ancient Greek sages, you wouldn’t dare ask that question because you would know that questions about the natural world were “naturally” integrated into philosophical conversations (pun intended). Like Aristotle, I too believe that the natural world should be part of the Great Conversation.

Ramblings about Anselm

Today in my study of Anselm of Canterbury (A.D. 1033-1109), the bishop over all of Christendom in England, I was inspired by his ontological argument that states that “God cannot be conceived not to exist.” He must exist. Stating that God, who exists, cannot exist, such as proclaims the fool in Psalms 14:1, is stating an unreconcilable contradiction. He is a fool, not so much because he is expressing something false, but because he is expressing nonsense. God exists because we exist and because the world exists, the heavens, the universe, the stars, the moon and the planets exist, we know that God must exist. All of us depend on Him. Therefore, He exists.

Of course, Anselm’s ontological argument makes no sense to the unbeliever, but only to him who lays his foundation of faith in Christ. “I believe, therefore I understand,” says Anselm. He does not believe because he understands, but he understands only because he believes first. Elder Bednar in the most recent General Conference states a similar principle of how belief, obedience, and covenant making come first before understanding, “Following the Savior also enables us to receive an actual knowledge that the course of life [we are] pursuing is in accordance with God’s will. Such knowledge is not an unknowable mystery and is not focused primarily on our temporal pursuits or ordinary mortal concerns. Rather, steady and sustained progress along the covenant pathway is the course of life that is pleasing to Him.” Elder Bednar.

Anselm explains further that we do not have to give up Reason to be a believer. In this world where so many are throwing away their faith in Christ to be true only to Reason, Anselm’s discourse is a beautiful anecdote that combines Reason with Faith. He says that Reason can do its best work when it sits upon the bedrock of Faith. Reason alone is empty, cold, and heartless. Real understanding must happen in the heart.

Those who wish to cling on to Reason without Faith in Christ have something wrong with their heart because the state of their heart doesn’t want God over them telling them what to do or how to think. If they want to know about the existence of God, they want that knowledge as a cerebral exercise only. That type of knowledge is futile. When their hearts are darkened, their heads are too, says Wes Callihan, my mentor at Roman Roads Media.

Referring to Anselm’s Proslogium, Mr. Callihan says, “Knowledge for its own sake is foolish. Knowledge helps us to glorify God, achieve union with Christ, draw closer to God and love God.” In other words, the best-sought knowledge is that which is sought through and for Christ. That knowledge is the one that is directed by faith in Christ.