Thursday, November 14, 2013

Poetic Knowledge: What is It?

I finally finished reading Poetic Knowledge by James Taylor.  It only took me about 8 months. J  I won’t pretend I understood all of it…because I didn’t.  A good 2/3 of the book is a survey of educational philosophy across the ages, and much of that was difficult to unravel.  (Brandy’s book club notes helped, though!)  But in the end it was worth wading through all of the philosophy and history because the practical applications of the idea finally revealed to me just WHY Charlotte Mason promoted some of the practices that set her philosophy and method of education apart from others.  But I’m jumping ahead of myself.
What is poetic knowledge anyhow?  This is a good summary, in which Taylor quotes John Senior:
“What is poetic knowledge? It is not simply expression – we are talking about an experience, and you have to experience the experience.  The philosophers call this connatural knowledge – it is not abstract knowledge.  Here, somebody knows something, but the only way to know what he knows is to know it yourself in the same way that he knows it.  For example, you touch a hot stove, and you say, ouch.  Then you ask somebody: you think  stoves are hot?  How do you know that?  And, you say, touch it for yourself.  You can repeat this kind of experience, but it is very dangerous.  So, we have another way, and that is by doing the experience in sympathy.  We don’t actually do it, but we can do it in our imaginations.  This is what is meant by connatural knowledge.  Children do this in play, imitating animals for example.  And there is a way of understanding, say, horses, through connaturality, and that is what poetry does.” (Poetic Knowledge, p. 164)
So, in other words poetic knowledge is that knowledge that we gain through personal or emotional experiences.  It is the kind of knowledge that you gain without really trying – you just come to know somehow without really being able to explain where that knowledge came from.   Poetic knowledge inspires love and delight and wonder.  It lies in contrast to abstract, factual, scientific knowledge.  Poetic knowledge isn’t meant to replace scientific knowledge – ‘scientific’ knowledge is just as necessary and valid in its place – but rather, it lays the foundation.  Ideas, experiences, and emotional connections all help to support our rational, factual understanding.
Unfortunately, in our modern day system of education, we have all but forgotten the role of poetic knowledge and replaced it completely with scientific, factual knowledge.  (Facts, after all, are more easily quantifiable than ideas and experiences.)  In Chapter 6, Taylor described the Integrated Humanities Program (IHP) of the University of Kansas in the 1970’s and 80’s.  In this program, the professors attempted to teach in the poetic mode, to help re-lay this foundation of delight and wonder for the students involved.  In her post on this chapter, Brandy makes an interesting point:
“…the need for the IHP in the first place points to a huge problem in our culture. The IHP existed because of the insufficiency of modern childhood. Because the students were not allowed to be children, to be almost completely driven by wonder in many of their earliest years, the IHP found it necessary to recreate childhood. In this we see that childhood, if we are to really educate our students, is not optional. Education requires the proper foundation, and because we were not laying that foundation in youth {which is the best and most appropriate time}, it was imperative that IHP dig everything up and start from scratch.” (Poetic Knowledge:Chapter 6 Part 1 at Afterthoughts)
While poetic knowledge is something that should continue throughout life, it is most ideally suited for childhood since it is foundational to all other sorts of knowledge.   So how can we ensure that the proper foundation of poetic knowledge is laid while our children are still young?
This is where Charlotte Mason comes in.
But more on that next time.

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