“The great difficulty in education is to get experience out of ideas.”
When The Restoration of Christian Culture was first published in 1983, the Integrated Humanities Program, founded by John Senior and his fellow University of Kansas professors Dennis B. Quinn and Franklyn C. Nelick, had just had its funding withdrawn by the university’s administrators, in spite of having been a minor sensation in more traditionalist academic circles since its founding in 1971. While IHP was known for its unorthodox attempts to transmit the cultural heritage of Christendom to students by means of direct experience rather than bookish study, the burden of Senior’s book was that the concept of education by osmosis, in the experiential mode, is hardly “unorthodox.” Rather it has a long and dignified tradition dating from the ancients, and it is precisely the loss of that tradition in modern academia that accounts for the sterility of higher education in America. The republication of The Restoration of Christian Culture and the release of a new study firmly in the IHP tradition entitled Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education by James S. Taylor make this a good time to examine the current state and future prospects of IHP’s educational theory.
While part of transmitting the Western tradition is a matter of education, the project depends largely on the pre-existence of a cultural context promoting an inherent feeling for Western modes of thought and contemplation. The Restoration of Christian Culture described a revitalized Christendom and set forth a program for achieving it. Rereading Senior’s book today, those in sympathy with his goals should be sobered by the recognition that we are considerably further from his ideal of a Christian culture than we were when the book was first published 15 years ago.
Senior rightly saw the home as the primary transmitter of the traditions, mores, and customs of Christendom. Contrary to this is the passive, ersatz “culture” of mass entertainment, the goal of which is to stimulate the senses and appetites of “cultural consumers” with a prepackaged “product.” When this anti-culture predominates, the result is the deadening of the imaginative faculties as well as the destruction of the contemplative sense necessary to all rational human activity. Today, with domestic life weakened further by the continuing flight of married mothers to the workplace, the dominance of the entertainment culture is greater than ever before.
While not a Luddite, Senior sees clearly the inherent destructiveness of technological developments such as television, which militate against the home environment, replacing it with an illusory sense of community and purposeful action. “Technology,” he writes, “must be regeared to the proper dimensions of the human good—and not the other way around.” Here one finds an echo of Pope John Paul IPs repeated insistence that all systems and institutions must have as their end to serve man, who can never be relegated to the status of means to some greater end, be it cultural, intellectual, economic, or technological.
Taylor’s book is focused more exclusively on restoring the culture by thoroughly reforming our idea of what constitutes education. Its thesis is that any successful attempt at passing on the cultural heritage of Western Christian civilization in an academic setting must be based on a personal love for, and appreciation of, Western culture by the student himself. While laborious study involving textbooks, footnotes, memorization of facts, and the ability to regurgitate those facts in formal exam settings may be necessary at a certain, more specialized, level of “liberal arts” scholarship, unless those tools of the modern academic method are firmly based on and sustained by the pleasure derived from personal enjoyment, they will fail completely in the aim of transmitting the tradition. “It was never the plan of the IHP.” Taylor writes, “to simply teach the books of Western culture, but rather to discover the roots of that culture and give, to the extent possible, the actual experience of that civilization.” His book is an impressive attempt at tracing the idea of poetic knowledge in the Western tradition. Along the way, Taylor investigates the reasons for the concept’s virtual demise in Western educational theory and considers the prospects for its revival, which do not appear to be promising. Taylor argues persuasively that, the tradition of poetic knowledge having been lost in the post-Cartesian era, what is known as a “liberal arts” education—to the extent that it survives at all —is increasingly regarded as just one specialized field of education among many others: a practical preparation for an academic “career” rather than the essential bedrock underlying Western citizenship and a vital link to a living cultural tradition. As Dennis Quinn observed,
The humanities have been professionalized and scientized to the point where the ordinary undergraduate with a budding love for poetry or history or art or philosophy finds his affection returned in the form of footnotes, research projects, bibliographies, and scholarly jargon—all the poisonous paraphernalia that murders to dissect.
Taylor’s book is most useful for its examination of how the tradition of forming students’ minds by communicating “the actual experience of civilization,” or “poetic knowledge,” has been lost in the theory and practice of education. The experiential mode of teaching was strongly present from the time of the ancient Greeks through the late scholastics, constituting an essential part of the standard curriculum in European schools as late as the Reformation. It was only with Descartes’ establishment of the scientific method of systematic doubt as the way to sure knowledge that the classical notion of learning in the “poetic mode” began to be neglected. Since poetic knowledge entails direct experience of real and objective essences outside the mind, and the mind’s intuitive identification with those essences, it was attacked for being empirically disprovable, hence invalid. The exaltation of the experiential mode of knowing in the Romantic era proved a short-lived reaction to the hegemony of the scientific mode, while in the modern era John Dewey, more than anyone else, is responsible for the triumph of the systematized and sterile approach to learning that dominates American education today.
Taylor and the school of poetic knowledge he defends seem to be right on the money in their identification of what is wrong with our current system of education and why it achieves such dismal results, particularly in the all-important task of transmitting what remains of our cultural tradition. A large part of the abysmal and demonstrable failure of our schools and universities to capture the attention, imagination, and energy of students today is the remoteness of the subjects they encounter—and the way in which those subjects are taught—from the love of knowledge for its own sake and the enthusiasm that accompanies the thrill of enjoying the beautiful, making study mere drudgery to be borne for the sake of the utilitarian, careerist ends it serves. Unsurprisingly, the reaction of young people, most of whom have no intention of entering into academic life, to such an atmosphere is the determination to escape it as soon as possible and get on with the business of living—an urge directly comparable to the desire to escape the drudgery of sweatshop labor held by their counterparts in a previous age.
While Taylor’s conclusions regarding the weaknesses of the modern educational system are sound, some of the anti-modernism inherent in the IHP philosophy he champions is questionable. Contrary to the contentions of Taylor and Senior, the specialization of professional life and technological development does not necessarily preclude the cultivation of a sense of wonder in leisurely contemplation of reality. One could reasonably argue, indeed, that it makes contemplation possible for a greater number of people than ever before in history. And while the conditions of modern life work against the contemplative attitude necessary for learning in the poetic mode, this simply makes the project of restoring that essential aspect of any curriculum more important.
Further, the most promising development of recent times for those who maintain the primary place of poetic knowledge is the rapid growth of homeschooling. In the home, away from the scientific model that permeates our Deweyized, politically correct classrooms, young children can experience the thrill and wonder of discovering our common cultural heritage in the company and under the direction of the persons best situated to devote themselves wholeheartedly to their development.
[Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, by James S. Taylor (Albany: State University of New York Press) 211 pp., $59.50]
[The Restoration of Christian Culture, by John Senior (Fort Collins, Colorado: Roman Catholic Books) 244 pp., $19.95]
Leave a Reply