Sunday, February 08, 2015

The Master and His Emissary, Pt 3: Education

Final thoughts on The Master and His Emissary. (Part 2).

Perhaps the best picture of the differences between the right and the left brain approaches in education was given by Charles Dickens, in Hard Times. Mr. Gradgrind, the teacher devoted to Facts, is examining the students, first Sissy Jupe, whose father is a horse handler for the circus:

'Your father breaks horses, don't he?'
'If you please, sir, when they can get any to break, they do break horses in the ring, sir.'
'You mustn't tell us about the ring, here. Very well, then. Describe your father as a horsebreaker. He doctors sick horses, I dare say?'
'Oh yes, sir.'
'Very well, then. He is a veterinary surgeon, a farrier, and horsebreaker. Give me your definition of a horse.'
(Sissy Jupe thrown into the greatest alarm by this demand.)
'Girl number twenty unable to define a horse!' said Mr. Gradgrind, for the general behoof of all the little pitchers. 'Girl number twenty possessed of no facts, in reference to one of the commonest of animals! Some boy's definition of a horse. Bitzer, yours.'

 . . .
'Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.' Thus (and much more) Bitzer.
'Now girl number twenty,' said Mr. Gradgrind. 'You know what a horse is.'
The irony, of course, is that Girl Number 20 is the only one in this conversation who knows what a horse is. Gradgrind and Bitzer know only a list of words so distant from reality that they have almost ceased to have meaning. There can be no question who would be the best one to care for a horse.

But the kind of learning that Gradgrind and Bitzer have engaged in is something that can be taught and measured. You can go round to a school and set out a piece of paper and find out how many approved facts about a horse the students have memorized. It is exactly what the left hemisphere loves: measurable, identifiable, transmittable. And exactly where the left hemisphere is weak: by itself completely irrelevant to reality.

The kind of knowledge of a horse that Sissy has, though, cannot be measured. You cannot really "teach" the knowledge of the right hemisphere. It must be learned by the learner's own connections. At best you can do what Sissy's father has done: be with the learner and the thing and care about it in front of them.

Sadly, most of our society's thoughts and deeds about education have been caught in a left-hemisphere death spiral for several decades. We know that what we are doing doesn't really lead to learning in any meaningful sense, and yet we can't let go because we have to have something that we can measure. So we do more tests, more detailed lists of benchmarks and standards, and just keep taking things farther down the same road of increasing futility. (Which of course, is not to say there aren't still plenty of good teachers who really do help their students--but I think everywhere you find them you will find it is because they care, not because they have amazingly detailed benchmarks to follow.)

Of course the left hemisphere shouldn't be shut out of education altogether--it just needs to be kept in balance, to remember that it is the servant, not the master. At some point, Sissy ought to be able to put into words what a horse is. (Perhaps she could already if it were not such an obviously pointless exercise.) But that can only come after she already knows the horse itself, and can only be useful if she remains in touch with the living, breathing reality of horses.

I think this articulates why I find Charlotte Mason's educational principles so compelling. She articulates and maintains the balance consistently throughout education. Poetry, art, music, literature, nature are not nice extras or frills--they are the essence of education. Skills and facts are only useful if learned in the context of those realities. And we cannot force education on the child, nor do the work of knowing for him . . . all we can do is bring him into contact with it and leave it to him to form a relationship.


Diary of an Autodidact said...

Very much agree with you on this.

Also, your mention of master and servant strongly reminds me of The Righteous Mind, which I read recently, which makes the case that this relationship persists despite our best attempts to make the intellect the master.

If you haven't read it, maybe we should swap books (in the figurative sense - I borrowed it from the library) and compare notes...

Queen of Carrots said...

Sounds intriguing. And luckily my library has a copy, although apparently there is a wait list. :D