“The most extraordinary thing in the world is an ordinary man and an ordinary woman and their ordinary children." G K Chesterton

Monday, May 12, 2014

"Conscience is the Most Sacred Property of All."

Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education Chapter 2 Continued.....

We are probably not going to get through the chapter in this post either. Each subsection is too meaty to pass over but it is this first chapter of the book which is transformational to the discussion of classical education and we are in no hurry.

In the section titled Defending the Art of Memory Caldecott brings up the famous Dialogue of Plato in the Phaedrus where Socrates "suggests (writing) has a tendency to 'implant forgetfulness' in the souls of men."

Imagine living in a world where it was imperative to remember. Homer lived in that world and that is probably why we still have his words. Imagine now a world where you needn't remember anything because of Google. It is a scary thought.  Writing has given us textbooks and textbooks have given us information and now we have Wikipedia and Google. "The written text pretends to master and contain truth. which in reality exceeds anything that one person can grasp."

On the other hand, writing can often be a form of memorization. We may write something down, not to have it on hand for the future but to solidify it in our minds. Do you remember a sermon better if you have taken notes rather than just listened? I am not sure.

Caldecott then makes an important distinction. The point of the Phaedrus is not for us to memorize by rote vast amounts of information.

"But how is this to be achieved? By bringing back rote memorization in schools, and by testing students on their recall of information? Partly, no doubt, but it is worth noting that there is also implicit in Plato a critique of ‘rote’ memory. True human memory is not mechanical repetition; it is an organic assimilation and appropriation. What is remembered is not something other than the self, but something experienced and known through the self. This means that we must probe a little more deeply into the meaning of memory, before we try to work out how to recover it."

Benjamin Jowett in his introduction to the Phaedrus reminds us that what Plato is doing is giving us "a picture not a system."  I just love this distinction. Systems get us in trouble. Systems are for machines not humans.

Likewise, Caldecott reminds us that "remembering is inseparable from knowing and loving...." 
Augustine then says that education is not about the trivium of remembering, knowing and loving ourselves but rather education is remembering, understanding and loving God.

"This by speaking of Memory or Remembering we are rally speaking of the foundations of attention of the integration of personality, and of the road to contemplation. We are also speaking of  'conscience.'"

Wow!! This is it. This is why we are educating. One of the most intriguing manifestations of education in our day is The Principle Approach. They place great emphasis on conscience using James Madison's famous quote:
 "Conscience is the most sacred property of all."

The problem is that there are no shortcuts to this sort of education. The development of the conscience is a delicate matter which can be easily derailed by over-zealous educators as Charlotte Mason warns us over and over again.

Caldecott is telling us that we have a tool to shape the conscience: not memorization but remembering.

What does this mean?
How does it affect our planning?


  1. I've been doing a lot of reading of classical authors lately--not much more recent than the Renaissance. One thing that has struck me repeatedly is the way that these older authors emphasized making knowledge your own. That's seem like a newer concept, but it is not. Just today I was reading that Augustine that there is, actually, no such thing as teaching if you define teaching as "giving someone else knowledge" because everyone has to appropriate knowledge for himself.

    I thought this quote from Montaigne was germane to this discussion as well:

    To know by rote, is no knowledge, and signifies no more but only to retain what one has intrusted to our memory. That which a man rightly knows and understands, he is the free disposer of at his own full liberty, without any regard to the author from whence he had it, or fumbling over the leaves of his book. A mere bookish learning is a poor, paltry learning; it may serve for ornament, but there is yet no foundation for any superstructure to be built upon it, according to the opinion of Plato.

    And one bit more, about making knowledge your own:

    Truth and reason are common to every one, and are no more his who spake them first, than his who speaks them after: 'tis no more according to Plato, than according to me, since both he and I equally see and understand them.


    I love the part about "'tis no more according to Plato than to me..."

  2. Karen,
    This concept seems to me to be a sticking point with purely classical educators who place the major impetus for education on the teacher. I think CM understood this much more clearly. I find myself getting muddled when talking about this because I am much more interested in learning than teaching.

    1. This is me too- more interested in learning than teaching. It seems to me that being a lover of learning is really the only way to be an effective teacher.

  3. Hi Cindy,
    I apologize ahead that I haven't read the book, but am so enjoying your main points on the chapters....
    So what does this mean? I think it is about anchoring. Memories provide anchors, hence memories are very important and I think that in our planning we need to understand that what gets memorized isn't just the "facts" but how we felt when we learned the fact, or maybe when the fact became known to us.
    For instance....We recently moved into what I call our "Ranchette." The other day I had a small patch of dirt, maybe the size of a three car garage that needed to have the iceplant pulled up.
    Now I spent many many hours as a child of eight learning from my father how to weed and pull up plants. His philosophy was to plant a lot and pull up what doesn't fit later as it grows in. He was a master weeder and I also remember a lot of talking about getting at the roots.
    So here I am passing down the same information and in much the same way, as I remembered about getting at the roots. I told my son, also 8 now, about how I learned to pull weeds in the garden and orchard. And it was with great joy that I shared that day with my son.
    He greatly enjoyed it as well.
    So we arrive on Sunday for a sermon, and in God's providence the sermon was on killing the tree at the root.....You better believe that my son and I shared a knowing glance. That was worth all the back breaking work of pulling, just to see the light of scripture illuminated for him so meaningfully.
    Not that I think everyone needs to move to the county to be close to God, however God spoke in a time and place that was agricultural and to be too far removed from the soil and it's preparation distances us as well from some of the knowledge that is caught by just gardening and talking together and telling stories of yore......
    Lastly, I hated weeding when I was growing up, and today I can't wait to get my gloves on, grab my shovel and go to town.....I am not sure that there is anything as gratifying as getting a weed out by it's root.

    I don't have time to pontificate on my views of writing, I do remember somewhere though that the Greeks had schism when they were going to copy the early epistles.....they thought that copying was going to change the world and didn't it.
    Have you ever read or heard any of T David Gordon on Media Ecology? You can find some of his articles on his Grove City College Site.....You would really appreciate how he speaks and handles technology in the present day. He has some lectures and conference talks on Sermon Audio.

    All the best,

  4. Hi Cindy,
    I thought you would appreciate Evan Millner. Her is a youtube of him discussing serial or oral teaching method...


    The fact he speaks with a British Accent only aids in the pleasure of listening.


    1. Thanks, Ginger. I have been at two out-of-town baseball tournaments so fell behind in reading comments. I look forward to watching these.