Connections

Education is the Science of relations, says Miss Mason.  The world is full of these relations, connections, intersections, cross-pollination, and Great Recognitions.   Both remarkable discoveries which benefit mankind and personal epiphanies which primarily refresh the mind and spirit of a single individual have been the result of happy accidents of such relations.  A scientist ponders the Bible verse about paths to the sea and discovers ocean currents. A boy reads Homer and grows up to become the archaeologist who discovers Troy and proves it wasn’t all a myth.  A poet reads Chapman’s Homer and his mind is so blown by the experience he writes a magnificent poem about it, comparing it the European explorers first looking on the Pacific ocean, silent on a peak in Darien, and a children’s author a hundred years later includes it in a fictional story read by a child 80 years later who is then inspired to travel, or to write, or to sail.  Another child reading the same story feels the same thrill of excitement on first looking at a diatom in a microscope and grows up to be a microbiologist.

“There is absolutely no avenue to knowledge but knowledge itself, and the schools must begin, not by qualifying the mind to deal with knowledge, but by affording all the best books.…” (Charlotte Mason)

The way to knowledge is actually knowledge, one thing builds upon another, concepts and vocabulary picked up in one area weave together with ideas and words collected in another setting, building a background of knowledge that makes further knowledge possible.

We all bring certain background knowledge and experience to the learning table, and some background knowledge is so basic and universal to an understanding of western civilization that those who have it are blessed with a genuine head-start.  (Hirsch has a to say about this)

We can interfere and hinder children from establishing their own relationships with knowledge, from making connections, from building that broad background of knowledge, in various ways.  One of them is to artificially separate the knowledge of God from ‘secular’ knowledge.

Mason spoke and wrote of her own Great Recognition, which informed her own ideas of a wide and generous education for *all*,  inspired by viewing a fresco of the seven liberal arts. 

“These frescoes… show the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the mind of men. Within His light are the Apostles and the prophets, and below, centrally enthroned, sits St. Thomas Aquinas. Above him float the figures of the seven virtues. In a row at the foot of the picture, beautiful in dignity and alertness, sit the fourteen ‘knowledges’ or sciences, accompanied by their greatest exponents.
Miss Mason follows Ruskin’s interpretation of the frescoes (footnote here – Mornings in Florence.) describing them as ‘a harmonious and ennobling scheme of education and philosophy.’ Then turning to the figures of the sciences her thought goes out to the many relationships and activities of human life in the past and in her own times. Above all she thinks of ‘the intellectual life, the development of which in children is the aim of our subjects and methods of instruction.’ Education, she sees, is at present divided into ‘religious’ and ‘secular’ and so is common thought which makes education secular, entirely limited to the uses of this visible world.”

Putting an artificial wall up between the holy and the secular in education creates an unnecessary road-block that hinders our children (and ourselves) in developing our own connections and relations.

Another way is to give them dry as dust factoids, long lists of words and dates to memorize, and other substitutes for real knowledge in place of the education, ideas, and the rich, textured experiences that reading living books, spending time in nature, observing real bugs, living art, and listening to great music offer.   Culturally, our approach to schooling has done to education, to the life of the mind, what Michael Pollan says we have done to food- we have separated it out into unrelated, unconnected strands, teased it to bits, and turned it into fancily labeled (active enzymes!  New! Improved! ) package of cardboard within and cardboard without.  (more on that connection here)

You can spend a lot of time creating a curriculum that will try to make those connections for the student, composing vocabulary lists, creating worksheets, or you can spend a lot of money on packaged materials that purport to do this for you.  Or… you can recognize the world at large is inherently full of connections, relationships, complementary ideas and concepts that occur naturally.

Recently I’ve been doing some extra tutoring for a child who speaks English as her third language.  She speaks well enough to hold a conversation, but there are some delays that hinder her getting on in the classroom.  Some of them may be things that come with diagnoses, but some of them may just be some lack of background exposure that her classmates have. I am not her primary teacher nor am I the one who assesses her struggles and offers specialized services and an IEP.  Mainly, I’m acting as a kind of surrogate Grandmother.  We get together a couple of times a week and read together, she narrates, we discuss what we are reading.

The tools at my disposal are limited to the books i have on hand and those in the school library.  I have put together some living books in the fiction and biography department. It’s a bit harder to find science books I consider living, so we make do.  I have chosen the books largely on quality of the literature and reading level suitable for her, and I been astonished every week at just how many connections we come across.

For example, one week as she came into the classroom where we meet, I was crocheting.  She had a few questions about what I was doing, and was unfamiliar with any word other than thread and needle which might apply to my tools.  We briefly talked about words like crochet hook, knitting needle, yarn, thread, string, shoelace, sew, and button.  I picked up one of our books and started to read our chapter- there was a reference to a mom sewing on a button, a pair of boots that needed lacing, and sewing a quilt.  When she finished narrating the reading, I pointed out the use of those words.  I picked up our next book, a different story set in a different time and place, and again we came across two or three usages of some of the words that were new to her- a kite string, a lacing skates, knitting a scarf.   In one reading that day she stopped and asked me what ‘bare’ meant, and in the next two readings the word showed up again in slightly different contexts, broadening her understanding.  In another

I read to her from a science book on plants for a few minutes twice a week.  We’ll read three or four fairly easy books on that topic, and then we’ll pick a new topic and read two or three books on that.  She sketches something from the reading and explains her sketch to me, again using some of her new words.  She asks questions about something that confuses her.  So far, we’ve stumbled across references to the plants ‘drinking’ half a dozen times, and every time she is confused because trees do not have mouths so how do they drink?  Every time it comes up again, she gets a slightly different explanation. Every time she grasps just a little bit more. Every week, I am delighted and surprised when something in our fictional stories includes a reference or allusion to something related to the science reading.

Knowing the names for things around her- tree, trunk, branch, leave, root makes them part of the vast array of things she can think about in meaningful ways, things she can discuss with some understanding, things she can transfer to other areas.   While trying to demonstrate to her some concept of how the tree ‘drinks’ by moving water through the roots and up through the trunk, I showed her how the water spreads through a paper towel, and to make it more visible, I added some dots with a magic marker. Enchanted by the result, she turned it into an art project and made flowers by carefully placing marker dots on the  papertowel and then dropping water on them.  And so, she moved effortlessly to and from between science, art, literature, and language- this child who struggles with all of those topics in a formal setting, and who never passes tests.

Education is the science of relations. Another way of describing those relations, those connections is unity.  The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is supposed to have defined beauty as unity in variety.
“Science,” says Bronowski in the book Science and Human Values, “is nothing else than the search to discover unity in the wild variety of nature,—or, more exactly, in the variety of our experience. Poetry, painting, the arts are the same search, in Coleridge’s phrase, for unity in variety.”

Together, she and I read reading together and discovering that unity in variety.

If you liked this, you might enjoy: http://thecommonroomblog.com/2015/03/liberal-arts-education-not-for-prize-pigs.html

These connections came up when we were homeschooling, too.

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