Who Leads the Dance…Pedagogy or Particulars?
V. And the point is? Preparing, not packing:
Lest it be lost in other points, let me state unequivocally: I love the great content of most classical curriculums. It is like discovering a long abandoned cache of fine, well-aged wine. It is because I hate to see its value diminished through poor use that I seek to put it in its proper place. Old wine, as our Lord pointed out, shouldn’t go into new wineskins. The “new wineskins” we too often grab are the poor teaching methods of the last couple of generations. Fine wine should go in well-worn, time-tested ‘skins.’
How then does this wrong prioritization of content over pedagogy show up in our schools?
Pacing or racing?
The temptation to race to the fire can easily outweigh the value of thoughtful pacing. In spite of hearing wise counsel to the contrary, there are many new classical educators who are striving in just one generation to regain what was lost over centuries. “Why can’t all these kids be Cotton Mathers? At least by next year!” To hear some folks talk, they won’t be pleased until their second graders have memorized the Pentateuch in Hebrew or their first graders are working trigonometry. This is a disservice not only to the students, but to the value to be gained in studying that material with the appropriate maturity and background. Understanding and teaching to the students’ frames requires that we push, challenge and support, but not make the content odious or tedious by cramming too much in too fast.
So much to teach, so little recollection
There is a tremendous amount of wonderful material and knowledge out there! If content were everything, the be-all and end-all of education, then personally I would advocate for a whole year of history spent on Theodore Roosevelt. It could easily be done. But Scripture calls us to strive and yearn for wisdom, not the mere accumulation of facts or even knowledge. A wise man may not recall everything he was taught. But he will know how to gain or re-gain knowledge, if he was taught well. Students will and do forget tons of what we spent so many intensive hours feeding them. Frankly, if remembrance of material is the only point, we of all people are most to be pitied!
Forgetting their frame for the fame of our name.
That’s a little ditty to take to heart as a warning (forged in a grammatical style) that sums up my points above. As educators in the classical revival, we are making strides in providing a better education for our children than the one we had. That can be easily documented. But we mustn’t think it’s because of the impressive content we use. We can so easily be puffed up and take ungodly pride in our school, our movement because of the “stuff.” The kids will see through that facade, and the saddest part is that though we certainly value our content, if we are just stuffing it in them, they will come to regard our gems of knowledge as just so much “stuff.”
The balance of pedagogical priorities and content should be a delightful dance, not a battle. They are not enemies, seeking to destroy each other. But they are intrinsically competitive, each competing for the attention of the student. We should obviously seek to apply the strengths of both because both are necessary priorities to our students’ education. And they are best kept in balance by knowing that teaching should lead and the content should follow.
Perhaps another analogy might be appropriate here. Imagine you have two good friends who you would like to introduce to each other. Since you care deeply for both of them you are rather sure they will be pleased to meet each other. Your introduction is critical and will get their friendship off on the right foot. Now imagine that one of your friends is a student and the other “friend” is the marvelous material you want to introduce to your student. Your “introduction” is critical. It will also take quite some time. Shouldn’t you give it a good bit of thought so these two friends might want to get to know each other better?
Paul told Timothy “But the goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. For some men, straying from these things, have turned aside to fruitless discussion.” (I Tim 1:5,6) If biblical instruction is our model and it seeks to change minds and hearts, not just impart knowledge, shouldn’t our instruction of admittedly less value seek to inspire, challenge and prepare our students? If we focus only on cramming them full of knowledge, even worthwhile knowledge, I fear we are ignoring the scriptural admonishment to ‘not boil a kid in its mother’s milk.’ We will use what should be gently and thoughtfully fed to them and cause them to hate what should be precious. Productive, classical instruction enables the students to digest the great feast of knowledge. Then not only will they love to keep learning, they will love what they learned!
“We have lost the tools of learning…that were so adaptable to all tasks. What use is it to pile task upon task and prolong days of labor, if at the close the chief object is left unattained? For the sole end of education is this: to teach men how to learn for themselves and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.” Dorothy Sayers
“Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase his learning.” Proverbs 9:9