Rethinking the foundations of education

Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education (2012) is like no book in the genre of classical education that I have read to date. It is personal, reflective, profound, spiritual, psychological, learned, practical.

I have hopes that it will fill a great need in my work with Catholic schools seeking to recover and develop our lost traditions, but it might be too rich and varied for most educators. Still, I recommend it to anyone who is serious about Christian education at any level and has time to think with a man of great heart who has read widely and reflected deeply.

Caldecott faces the problem that all contemporary treatments of the Trivium must address: The Trivium cannot be for us what it was in classical times, when mastering the language and literature of ancient Greece and Rome was the whole of pre-collegiate education.

“The lessons drilled on in the morning were regularly recited in the afternoon, and all the work of the week was reviewed in recitation on Fridays and Saturdays. A 16th century schoolmaster estimated that one hour of instruction would require at least six hours of exercise to apply the principles to writing and speaking.” Our segregated curriculum in which the traditionally advanced subjects of mathematics and science claim a large portion of school time does not allow for the focus of yesteryear. And, as Christopher Dawson has pointed out, educators in a democratic age can never leave aside the concern for vocational training.

In this context, Caldecott’s reflections can serve Christian educators well.

But what kind of education would enable a child to progress in the rational understanding of the world without losing his poetic and artistic appreciation of it? This is what I am searching for in the present book.

Caldecott gives us glimpses at how to achieve this goal, while helping us to enlarge our own hearts and imaginations. He precedes his treatment of the Trivium with a chapter on the relationship between teacher and student, which he considers to be the heart of the school. He generally, though not uncritically, approves of the Romantic conviction that the natural impulses of the child towards learning need to be the beginning of education and that the best teachers pay great attention to them. The teacher develops the child as a person by fostering his powers of attention, empathy and imagination as he initiates him into a larger cultural tradition, “…to grow as a person we must learn self-transcendence.”

The chapter on grammar exemplifies the richness and challenge of Caldecott’s whole work. Like others, he wants to free it “from the narrow confines of an association with sentence construction,” but he goes far beyond Dorothy Sayers in presenting the developmental importance for mankind and each child of naming, listening, remembering, imagining, creating.

Rooting his ideas theologically in Genesis, he draws lessons from Heidegger and Pope Benedict XVI, Chesterton and Tolkien, Pieper, and Guardini, and many others. He makes important philosophical and psychological claims about the human person: “By speaking of Memory or Remembering we are really speaking of the foundations of attention, of the integration of the personality, and of the road to contemplation.” He arrives at the practical conclusion that “the restoration of Grammar… must include not only the revival of memory and the discipline of learning by heart (enlarging the heart in the process) but the cultivation of imagination and a poetic or musical vision of the interconnectedness of all things.” Reliance on computerized memory banks is dangerous; crafts, drama and dance, poetry, and storytelling are foundations for independent and critical thought. The chapters on dialectic (logic) and rhetoric offer similar depths and similar difficulties.

Caldecott extends his consideration beyond the Trivium to the importance of philosophy, the fine arts, and history; he dreams of an elementary curriculum devoted to storytelling, music, exploration, painting and drawing, dance, drama, and sport. Finally, he shows how an education centered around “Beauty in the Word” forms the moral imagination and educates the heart.

“This book has touched on many themes—no doubt too many, though the case for inclusion of each was overwhelming.” The casual reader will probably share Caldecott’s conflict. The serious reader will look forward to spending some time reflecting with him on the many strands of traditional and contemporary educational thought contained in the work. I will look forward to forming a more complete judgment as I work through it with Catholic educators around the country.

This is reprinted with permission from The Imaginative Conservative.

ANDREW SEELEY is executive director of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. He is also a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College, where his love has been teaching and learning with his fellow faculty and students from the greatest minds of Western Civilization.

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