Thursday, October 23, 2008

Primary Sources

Another "From the Files" -- carrying over from my other blog. As I explained over there, I'm trying to go through my old paper printouts and basically record them and annotate them on my blog, so that I can retrieve them mentally and physically when I need them, and maybe throw the actual paper into our ever-active-in-winter wood stove.

Actually, there are two that are related to each other. I printed these out about seven years ago when my oldest was in high school.

These are both college-level resources, I suppose, though they can easily be read by a high schooler, but I think they are useful to starting thinking through as a child starts what Dorothy Sayers calls the "dialectic" age when he or she starts questioning or thinking more critically about her reading and other influences. That would be about middle school, or early adolescence. As Sayers writes in The Lost Tools of Learning (a very elegant and amusing blend of educational medieval and modern concerns that has unfortunately become a bit discredited by counter-reaction in modern classical homeschooling circles):

Do you ever find that young people, when they have left school, not only forget most of what they have learnt (that is only to be expected), but forget also, or betray that they have never really known, how to tackle a new subject for themselves? Are you often bothered by coming across grown-up men and women who seem unable to distinguish between a book that is sound, scholarly, and properly documented, and one that is, to any trained eye, very conspicuously none of these things? Or who cannot handle a library catalogue? Or who, when faced with a book of reference, betray a curious inability to extract from it the passages relevant to the particular question which interests them?
This probably sums up in negative question form the goals I have in dealing with primary sources with my children. As homeschoolers we generally want our children to be able to tackle new knowledge for themselves; to discern between the wheat and the chaff in their research (especially in these Googling days); to extract relevant information from passages; and to read critically but not with the reflexive negativity which so many middle schoolers (and some older than that) seem to mistake for objectivity. We want them to balance out respect for eternal truth with careful reflection on how it applies in their lives.

Later in her essay, Sayers gives some positive ideas for remedies for the common modern deficits:

History, aided by a simple system of ethics derived from the grammar of theology, will provide much suitable material for discussion: Was the behavior of this statesman justified? What was the effect of such an enactment? What are the arguments for and against this or that form of government? We shall thus get an introduction to constitutional history--a subject meaningless to the young child, but of absorbing interest to those who are prepared to argue and debate. ....
Wherever the matter for Dialectic is found, it is, of course, highly important that attention should be focused upon the beauty and economy of a fine demonstration or a well-turned argument, lest veneration should wholly die. Criticism must not be merely destructive; though at the same time both teacher and pupils must be ready to detect fallacy, slipshod reasoning, ambiguity, irrelevance, and redundancy, and to pounce upon them like rats. This is the moment when precis-writing may be usefully undertaken; together with such exercises as the writing of an essay, and the reduction of it, when written, by 25 or 50 percent.
.....Once again, the contents of the syllabus at this stage may be anything you like. The "subjects" supply material; but they are all to be regarded as mere grist for the mental mill to work upon. The pupils should be encouraged to go and forage for their own information, and so guided towards the proper use of libraries and books for reference, and shown how to tell which sources are authoritative and which are not.

This gives more details about the fair-minded, but not simply credulous approach a student should learn to take towards new material. We learn to think by thinking; by first understanding an argument in the terms the arguer meant it in; and then discerning whether we agree or not, and to what extent, and why. This approach is always informed by some sort of moral system, whether the moral system originates from TV watching, or from glib propaganda on the evils of cigarette smoking and SUVs, or from the folksy proverbs of one's grandmother. So given that, it is good to make sure one's moral system is something that is thoughtful and substantial and principled, in turn. It is something that comes through practice and can't really be learned in isolation, though it CAN be learned in the company of a master teacher in the form of the book itself -- the mind of the author speaking to the mind of the reader. As Mortimer Adler points out, this is or ought to be an active process.

For more on the balance between receptivity and criticism, CS Lewis has some good things to say:

I found a few articles on teaching historical thinking with elementary and middle school students:

Of course, the danger with too many "lessony" type resources is that they make for the glib superficiality that a true liberal education is supposed to avoid. Lewis and Sayers et al are proposing a process, a mentoring and modeling in "how to think", not a quick occasional lesson plan or a shallow skimming through historical photographs.

I suppose for the homeschooling parent, the first thing is to improve one's own ability to learn (fortunately, homeschooling is almost a natural recipe for filling in personal gaps in investigation and researching). The process of active improvement itself is a teaching example to the child, and searching, though imperfectly knowledgeable conversations are often better lessons than any amount of lesson plans written by someone else (though I personally do like looking at study guides and lesson plans to start my own mind working on the subject).

For the child, I think it is valuable to have a wide exposure to the best and earliest kinds of primary sources -- the folk tales, legends, nursery rhymes, popular games, and Bible stories and "wisdom" literature that are part of our heritage.

I also think that having a few OLD, treasured books around the house is a wonderful environmental foundation for a future scholarly mindset. Old books, particularly those with a family heritage (if your family didn't preserve old books, it's also cool to pick up unique shabby treasures at library sales or at places like Advanced Book Exchange), present in living form the truth that "you can't judge a book by its cover." I think modern libraries, trying to make books attractive to young readers, sometimes go overboard with the cheap, bright book covers. Falling in love with a wonderful classic story in an old but fine hardcover binding is a natural remedy for this tendency to color the universe Google.... to substitute quick judgment for thoughtful reflection.


lissla lissar said...

About the cheap, flashy covers for classics- did you know they've done manga versions of Beowulf and Shakespeare? ;) I find the graphic novel format difficult at best, myself. I read much more slowly with pictures to interrupt!

I read an interesting review of a pair of homeschooling videos today that talked about how much of homeschooling can be accomplished simply by talking and reading with your children, instead of arming yourself with an arsenal of intimidating lesson-plans and books. It was reassuring.I'm just beginning to grasp emotionally that I'm going to be an educator and role model. It's a terrifying thought. A good examination of conscience and work habits.I'm very glad I don't have to jump straight into dialectical education.

You've springboarded me (sprungboard? Sprangboarded?). I realise I tend to write only slightly related comments in response to your posts. Sorry. I'll try to stop.

Willa said...

I think it's because with graphic novels, the graphics ARE the message in so many ways. Manga does better with a quirky storyline in my very limited opinion. Maybe if the manga author sprangboarded (LOL) off the classic theme, like Kurosawa does with King Lear and MacBeth, it would work?

Don't stop, please : ). I like slightly related comments.

I think you hit the nail on the head with the basic simplicity of homeschooling. I think of the more structured stuff as the tip of the iceberg. The foundation is relations, relations, relations -- love, conversation, focus on interests, support of talents. That's what successful education seems to have in common whether the student goes to a Catholic school or a public school or stays at home.

Anonymous said...

More history resources are always welcome. ON the point about critical thinking, I have come to the conclusion that many people confuse "critical" with "negative". And in some contexts that's what it means. But a lot of students think that when you ask for critical comments you want the negative stuff. I have found it useful to tackle that head-on and explain what is meant by critical in this context.

I'll have to explore your resources more. They look handy for my little historian.