Friday, September 20, 2013

Book Review: Poetic Knowledge


I think I first learned about this book on Brandy's blog about five years ago, but Kansas Dad has been encouraging me to read it for at least a year. Until recently, I knew I didn't have the mental energy to tackle a book like this. During the day there were too many kids and crises and after they went to bed I couldn't think coherently about anything. Then, when I finally did begin to read it, I got horribly bogged down in the second chapter, which is a lot of philosophy. A lot of philosophy. I married a philosopher turned theologian, but I am a microbiologist by training, so I was a bit overwhelmed.

I am every so thankful I persevered through that second chapter, because it was all fascinating after that!

If you haven't read the book, you're probably wondering, "What is poetic knowledge?" (If not, you might want to skip this whole post.)
First of all, poetic knowledge is not necessarily a knowledge of poetry but rather a poetic (a sensory-emotional) experience of reality…Poetic experience indicates an encounter with reality that is nonanalytical, something that is perceived as beautiful, awful (awefull), spontaneous, mysterious. It is true that poetic experience has that same surprise of metaphor found in poetry, but also found in common experience, when the mind, through the senses and emotions, sees in delight, or even in terror, the significance of what is really there. (pp. 5-6)
Poetic knowledge, then, is not something that can be experienced through a book or through a lecture. It is an experience in which a person sees, hears, touches or feels something. I was still thinking about Poetic Knowledge as I was reading Schoolhouse in the Parlor aloud to the children and was struck by this passage in which Bonnie and Debby have been awakened in the middle of the night by their father who takes them outside to see the aurora borealis:
Time and again, over and over, over and over, the vast sky was filled with the rolling and folding of the yellow-green curtains of light, tipped with fieriest red fire, as if a mighty wind were blowing. And below, on the still, snowbound earth stood the Fairchilds, wrapped in blankets, watching, watching. (p. 61)
No one was telling the children what the phenomenon was called, what caused it, how long it had been studied, what the technical terms would be...They were all simply experiencing it, together. For the expert, or the person studying to become a specialist, there's plenty of time to learn all the technicalities, but this first moment is one in which to wonder, to cultivate the curiosity and desire to learn more.

I thought it was interesting when Mr. Taylor spoke of wonder and fear because the first response of both Bonnie and Debby is one of profound fear. One of them even wonders if the world is ending. (She is quickly soothed by her parents.)
Aristotle...recognizes that there is a poetic impulse to know in all men, an experience he calls “wonder,” that initiates all learning…First of all, wonder is an emotion of fear, a fear produced by the consciousness of ignorance, which, because it is man’s natural desire (good) to know, such ignorance is perceived as a kind of abrupt intrusion on the normal state of things, that is, as a kind of evil. Something is seen, heard, felt, and we do not know what it is, or why it is now present to us….the traditional idea of wonder expressed by Aristotle operates within the ordinary, simply “things as they are.” (pp. 24-25; from the infamous second chapter)
I haven't read much philosophy, but I have heard quite a lot about wonder in my course for Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. In The Religious Potential of the Child, of which I have only read bits and pieces, Sofia Cavalletti said:
The nature of wonder is not a force that pushes us passively from behind; it is situated ahead of us and attracts us with irresistible force toward the object of our astonishment; it makes us advance toward it, filled with enchantment. (p. 138)
If I understand any of this correctly, Mr. Taylor and Ms. Cavalletti are both speaking of those moments in our life when we feel our hearts rise within us, when our stomachs drop, when we are startled out of our complacency by amazement and awe. For Bonnie and Debby, it was while shivering in the cold, watching ripples of light in the sky. It could just as easily be stroking the cheek of a newborn child, painting with finger paints, watching a summer thunderstorm, gazing at sunlight reflected on water, seeing a sublime work of art, digging in the dirt, building bridges with sticks and stones across a stream, or stomping in rain puddles.
Poetic experience leading to poetic knowledge is concerned “with bringing men into engagement with what is true. What is important is engagement with reality, not simply the discerning of reality." (p. 73, Mr. Taylor is quoting Andrew Louth from Discerning the Mystery.)
For me as a homeschooling mother, this quote means that we must allow our children to interact with real things. We cannot merely sit inside and read about everything (as much as I might prefer that, and certainly even though it would be easier). We must go outside to learn about nature. We must gaze at the sky to learn about astronomy. We must build with sticks and stones and dirt and sand to learn about engineering. Even more, we must begin with the real things. We must begin with looking at a real tree before children can possibly begin to learn what the parts of a tree are, what the purpose of a tree is, how a tree interacts with its environment, and how a tree is important to our environment. This is not because they could not learn the words to explain those other things, but because they would not be able to place that knowledge in a context with the real world.

Applying this to more traditional education (all those age-segregated classrooms), children should begin studying ecology and biology by going outside and experiencing nature. I think most teachers would welcome that sort of education, but it gets complicated when there are principals and consent forms and bells ringing for the next class and (yes, I'm going to say it) end-of-the-year standardized tests that will be asking only for the vocabulary and not whether children really know what a tree is.

I don't think Mr. Taylor is right about everything. For example, he seems to encourage teaching a child to read merely by reading to him or her. Eventually, the child will learn simply by imitating. I am obviously supportive of reading aloud to children from a variety of books in nearly every kind of situation (skimming through the blog for about five minutes will tell you that much), and I believe choosing the right kind of books is essential to encouraging a love of reading, but I think it's naive to think every child could learn to read with nothing else, let alone learn to read well.

Overall, though, I loved this book. When visiting Boston earlier this year, I discussed home education and public education with two dear friends. I remember talking about the non-profit organization for which I worked, a non-profit that supports career academies in public high schools. This is a good organization working to make the lives of students better, to guide them toward good jobs and maybe even college. I knew that and believed they did good work but I also knew I would not want that education for my own children. I wanted something more, something that, perhaps, is outrageously complicated and practically impossible on the grand scale of public education in our country. The education described in this book is the kind of education I want for them all -- one in which the person of the child is honored and taught to become whoever they are meant to be, without regard for future earnings or the names of the parts of a flower -- and the defense of this kind of education (in the book) is much better than anything I could articulate myself at the time.

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