The subtitle of James Taylor’s Poetic Knowledge is “The Recovery of Education”. Taylor’s book is not a discussion of poems and poetry. It is a discussion of knowledge, and the kinds of knowledge that are fundamental to a Christian education.
It is an admittedly difficult book. But then, thinking about knowledge is an admittedly difficult task. Most people don’t like to think too much, let alone think about thinking. Taylor’s work is seeking to explain that there is a kind of knowledge that is the most fundamental to human flourishing, and it is not the kind taught in most schools today.
Let us, for the sake of explanation, imagine some hard divisions and distinctions in the human mind. There is a kind of knowledge that is rational, logical, cognitive, and denotative. Then there is a kind of knowledge that is intuitive, imaginative, affective, and connotative. These different kinds of knowledge do not stand in antithesis or contradiction to each other. But taken in isolation, they do contrast one another, for they are different ways of thinking, knowing, and understanding.
The first kind is the mind that is now regarded as “scientific”. It deals in supposedly empirical “facts”, loves quantifying things in numbers and statistics, and desires precision in definition. It knows through logic, through deduction, through analysis. It is what Thomas Gradgrind says in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times: “Now what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them.”
The second kind is the mind that begins with a posture of love or awe towards the world (“all philosophy begins with wonder”, said Aristotle). It deals not so much in facts, but in meanings: what things symbolise and point to. It thinks in analogies and metaphors: what symbolises what, what creation points to beyond itself. It is concerned with the qualities of things: their goodness or beauty. It desires not precise denotation, but a right use of connotation: what associations and qualities are attached to words or ideas. It knows through analogy, through induction, through affective intuition. One kind of mind wants to know what is, the other kind wants to know what response it deserves.
Of course, we are making vicious oversimplifications here, because the human mind does not operate in compartments, nor is one kind of thinking ever without the other. But it is true enough to say that many philosophers, theologians and teachers have recognised these two modes of human knowing. It’s also true to say that a certain kind of thinking is in vogue in modern education, and the other kind is regarded as dispensable. One kind of thinking is being vigorously trained; the other kind is given a cursory pat on the head.
Some of this repeats what Lewis is trying to prove in The Abolition of Man. Knowledge with a human subject is not the same as subjectivism. Apprehension of beauty is not merely a private matter beyond the scope of public judgement: a subject’s judgements can conform to the true, the good, and the beautiful. Subjective knowledge is not fanciful or unreal knowledge.
Ask yourself what the average school curriculum seeks to shape in children. Awe? Wonder? Reverence? Delight? No, these are useless if we want a productive economic worker-ant in twelve years’ time. We need facts, and plenty of them. We need cool, neutral observations about the natural order. We need plenty of numbers, and we need the human condition reduced to a science: psychology, I.Q. tests, and all things humane explained as the mere personal preferences of the powerful patriarchy pushed on the oppressed and poor.
But Christians are not immune from this. It is entirely possible to have a “Christian” education that never takes seriously the imagination, the power of metaphor, the importance of beauty. Some “Christian” curricula are basically Mr Gradgrind’s notes with Bible verses sprinkled in. Eustace Scrubb would read them with delight, and just ignore the superfluous Bible references.
Taylor’s book reminds us that a Christian education is to regard this knowledge as vital, because it is fundamental to understanding the Bible and knowing God. It is not merely a matter of making sure the child has some fine arts credits along the way. It is understanding that educating the imagination is at least half of what you should be doing, all along.
For example, we teach children literature, not just to know how to read, or how to “criticise” a work, or how to comprehend a narrative. We teach literature to give the archetypes of the good and bad, the noble and the ignoble, the just and the corrupt. We teach literature to give them examples of godliness, of leadership, of servanthood, of masculinity and femininity. These are exercises in the imagination, if they are rightly taught. We teach them mathematics, not simply to enable calculation, or to facilitate good budgeting. We teach them mathematics to see the beauty of numbers, the elegance of God’s coherent cosmos, the glories of a finely-tuned universe. Whether we are speaking of poetry, composition, history, science, music, theology, we are concerned with teaching them to see meaning, beauty, analogies, symbols, purpose, meaning. We want them to adopt a posture of awe, wonder, and admiration.
Admittedly, as Adler taught us, children are often immature, lazy and scornful of our attempts in these directions. Particularly boys tend to scorn the aesthetic and imaginative, not because it is feminine, but because it requires patience and sophisticated judgement. Boys prefer things that go boom and splat. Nevertheless, we patiently instruct both the mind and the heart, waiting for the day when all the kindling we have laid will ignite in the hands of God.
A Christian education is deliberately seeking to develop the affective power of the child, not just the rational kind. Christian education has failed if it has stored the mind with facts, but left the heart to be trained by Youtube, Hollywood and Amazon. To educate is to shape the whole person, and the human person is fundamentally a worshipper.