Saturday, June 09, 2012

Norms and Nobility (again): Preface Summary

When I was a kid, I tried to read Jane Eyre.  It was hard for me, so I would read as far as I could and then set it aside for a couple months.  Then I would pick it up again and read from the beginning and get maybe a chapter or two further than last time.  This continued for years.  Finally, I got all the way through the book, which remains one of my all-time favorite novels.

All that to say I'm beginning Norms and Nobility again.  I got maybe two chapters into it last time.  I have now thought more and learned more.  I am ready to go again.  I don't know if I will make it to the end this go round, but I will try.  I want to understand what he is saying.

I will post my short chapter summaries (short in comparison to the actual chapters).  This is more for my own benefit than anyone else's.  I looked back at my last attempt to narrate Norms and Nobility and can see many failures of understanding.  I expect I will fail to understand again.  But I'll be further down the road than before.  :)

Preface Summary:

David Hicks, a young teacher interested in educational (esp. curricular) reform, wrote the book in 1980. For the next ten years, he read much commentary on the subject and refined as well as validated his ideas. If he had written Norms and Nobility ten years later, he would have been more balanced in his claims regarding the wisdom of the ancients. However, we should remember the author's topic is not “ancient education”, but an ancient ideal known as “classical education”, against which the modern educational establishment is weighed and found wanting. The author wishes to acknowledge the work of other writers such as Mortimer Adler, whose discovery of classical principles is not limited to personal experience.

Hicks promotes learning in context, especially the answering of the question, “What should one do?” as the key to delightful and fit learning (as opposed to memorization of lists of facts). Education being more than the mastery of thinking skills and traditional intellectual ideas, right thinking should lead to right acting. Education must encompass the spiritual and emotional sides of the student as well as the rational, tending toward nobility. Other writers, including Adler, object to this idea of dogma, saying it turns education into indoctrination and puts too great a burden on the teacher.

But skepticism and analysis taught too soon kills the moral imagination and leads to the belief that all ideas are relative. The great books of the Western tradition are worthy, not just because they teach basic intellectual ideas, but because their emotional and spiritual content inspire people to transcend self-interest and act nobly. Hicks believes today's moral relativism and hedonism is the result of educators placing modern scientific principles at the heart of the curriculum, which, while feeding the technological needs of our age, spiritually starves the student. The modern empirical model fails to address the ideal, neglecting urgent moral and ethical questions.

Norms and Nobility focuses more on curriculum, but the author now believes the teacher ought to be the focus of reform. If teachers continually learn and grow themselves, they will motivate students to learn. The general principles outlined in the book (called “normative contextual learning”) are universal, and can be used to develop effective practices specific to the school, the teacher and the student.

In seeking specificity, however, American teachers must be careful not to exclude studies that unify us. We need that common culture in order to properly frame debate between specific groups within the United States. Respect for truth, not regrets or hopes or a desire to build up our students' self-esteem, ought to guide us. As a nation, we have become uncertain of our ideals (“norms”) and abandoned education's ennobling purpose. Without these two things, we cannot bring up free and responsible people.

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