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Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education…
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Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education

by David V. Hicks

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I recently had the great pleasure of reading David V. Hicks’s Norms and Nobility (1981) for the first time. I confess that I found the price (forty-seven U.S. dollars) rather steep for a book of fewer than two hundred pages. However, the investment paid ample dividends. I read the book with much the same enthusiasm with which I read Werner Jaeger’s Paidea: The Ideals of Greek Culture (3 volumes, 1939) many years ago. That latter work was, quite possibly, what persuaded me to study classics at university.
In his preface to the 1990 edition of Norms and Nobility, Hicks insists upon the need for dogma, for restricting the use of skepticism and analysis and for deploying teaching methods that focus not just on ideas and fact, but on norms, not just on rationality, but on nobility. He underscores his conviction that “the end of education is not thinking, it is acting.” He worries that “the moral marrow of who we are and of what our purposes are is being schooled out of children….”
I realized quite recently where I had heard about Mr. Hicks before reading his book. I frequently visit the CIRCE Institute’s homepage and have read postings from contributors who have almost unanimous praise for Norms and Nobility as a blueprint for a possible classical education in which descriptive science serves a “prescriptive ideal”. (I should like to mention that the Institute’s annual conference was held in my hometown of Louisville, Kentucky this past June and that one of my genuine heroes—Wendell Berry—served as the keynote speaker. I regret that I could not attend).
Hicks’s fundamental contention is that classical education, “the Ideal Type’s ancient prescriptive pattern of truth…remains the most durable and the most comprehensive.” Education, in other words, must take account of ultimate questions—“What is man and what are his purposes?” He decries the modern school’s efforts to supplant the “normative with the operational” and for “allowing what-can-be-done to govern what-ought-to-be-done.” This is misguided, he argues. Schools must focus on teaching “the young to know what is good, to serve it above self, to reproduce it, and to recognize that in knowledge lies this responsibility.”

Classical inquiry requires, in the first place, curiosity, followed by the formulation of imaginative hypotheses that the inquirer subsequently tests. While there is certainly ample place for logical methods in the pursuit of this inquiry, the student’s curiosity should “be stimulated” and the curriculum should “include those baggy, baffling, normative questions of style (aesthetics) and conscience (ethics) that slip from the grip of our scientific method.” This makes eminent good sense if the curriculum is not viewed as analysis or the imparting of information, but is instead viewed as an “habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows”.
Plato never questioned the assumption that virtue (the good and the beautiful and the true) can be taught. Indeed, the principal justification for making this assumption is a conviction that we possess innate ideas that are, in a sense, a gift from God. The main debates among the philosophers and the rhetoricians concern not whether virtue could be taught but rather how to teach it most effectively. The philosopher’s cure and the rhetorician’s insistence upon the “dogma of self-evident and inherited truth and meaning”, while representing different approaches to the problem of teaching virtue, are not, in the end, at all incompatible. Rather, they are rival approaches to right behavior that, in ancient Greece, did not disturb the “profound unity” of classical culture.
Hicks points out the timeless division of logos (dialectic) and mythos (dogma) and insists on the importance of preserving the latter as a means to preserve “social cohesiveness and individual coherence”. In it is in light of this need for mythos that Hicks attacks modern philosophy’s attempts to strip language of meaning and to “force upon it a material and descriptive role at odds with its normative and mythopoeic character.” In his provocative example, the word “valor” passes away in favor of words like “distributor cap”. Both reason and myth—dialectic and dogma—are necessary in educating our children. “Righting this imbalance necessitates a classical understanding of the nature of language, which acknowledges its mystery and weds the word to the mind through the imagination” and not only to “the external object through the senses.”

Mr. Hicks contrasts two types of classical schoolmasters. One, like Socrates, stimulated students by both living an exemplary life and by exposing to them to his “delightfully dialectical mind.” The second, like the Sophist Isokrates, made use of “a great tradition of learning in the arts, letters and sciences to excite in his students a vision of those enduring values and truths that underlie the world of appearances.” In this sense, Isokrates was opposed not so much to the more utilitarian Sophists of his day but to the romantic educators who advance a notion of an “ideal” and “natural” child, a point that E.D. Hirsch makes more forcefully. I will discuss this point at greater length in my discussion of Hirsch’s books below. Suffice it here to say that Hicks concludes that child-centered education produces only a “self-centered adult”.
The idealized classical schoolmaster, of whichever of the types described above, had a clear idea of the sort of person he wished to produce, one who inherited an understanding of man from the past (one embodied in myth) and whose education was inquiry-based and centered on the acquisition of knowledge. In other words, this schoolmaster wanted to provide a humane and prescriptive education that would allow his charges to live fully in their individual, social and religious domains. Unlike the modern schoolmaster, with his reliance on the appearance of knowledge and teaching technique, the classical schoolmaster engaged in an ongoing dialectical inquiry with his students, an inquiry marked by eros and mutual growth.
The Ideal Type is crucial to the classical reconciliation of reason and myth, to the passing on of the “dogma of a moral ideal”. This Ideal Type, unlike liberalism’s analysis after the fact, “is an aprioric necessity of human existence…prescribing for all time the standard by which men shall judge themselves and others.” Teaching this need not be boring at all, since literature and myth of full of fully articulated characters with whom students can imaginatively participate in the past. In addition, the modern teacher can encourage young people to act in accordance with the Ideal Type and avoid behavior described by dialectical negation of acts that are cowardly or selfish or unbecoming of man.
Although teaching by reference to an Ideal Type or a prescribed moral category has fallen somewhat into disfavor, doing otherwise is to end up “educating in a void—distrusting the appearance and disbelieving the immanent reality.” After Descartes, science, with its objective methods and analysis, “expelled the normative study of arts and letters, which had for centuries contributed dialectically to the Ideal.”
Hicks highlights the fundamental differences in conceptions of science in the ancient and the modern world. The ancient viewed “the natural world as a representation of an impalpable, unchanging reality full of meaning and truth—not as something existing in its own right apart from either the will of God or the vagaries of human perception”. He introduces the phrase “saving the appearances” to describe the orientation of the ancient scientists and philosophers. A theory about the physical universe would be acceptable, in other words, if it were both simple and explained observed irregularities. Modern science, however, rejects this approach because it does not articulate a scientific method and because ancient science did not account for the development of complex technologies.
The ancients chose to save appearances only at the crude level of external observation, however. They sought to transcend it at higher levels, on the other hand, by discovering the immaterial, immanent reality that makes true knowledge of man and his world possible. To accomplish this required imaginative thinking within a normative framework. By neutralizing this approach, modern science has evolved into a discipline that seeks to manipulate the physical universe rather than to aim for the soul’s salvation. “The student, who was once challenged to integrate his life and his learning, is now asked to observe in detached analysis nonliving matter in the laboratory or to decode dead words on a page.”
The endless atomizing of the material universe by the scientific analysis eventually leads the modern educator to embrace a new ideology, one that promises that science can provide the solution to all problems. The problem with this reliance on ideology is readily apparent. Bewildered, suffering from moral angst, the modern educator and student must reject impalpable sources of virtue and knowledge and to equate the understanding of the palpable universe with a quest for power.
By definition, the scientific method privileges intermediate (efficient and material causes) and has no place for exploration of first or final causes. But man is not a mere means to an end. Hicks quotes Aldous Huxley: “Experience is not what happens to a man: it is what man does with what happens to him.” By focusing on materialistic experiences, modern education too often excludes inquiries necessary to develop each student’s individual and religious domains. To resolve deficiency, education must “make man’s knowledge of the appearances answer to his normative concerns. Even in science, what is draws meaning and value from what ought to be.”
This is why dialectical learning is so important. To engage in such learning and to develop a conscience, the young person must first accept dogma. This is neither the fixed code of the religions nor the behavior elicited by behavioral training. “It is an aprioric human potential that either builds muscle or atrophies, depending upon the individual’s penchant for dialectical exercise.” Viewed in this light, dogmas are really hypotheses. Students must test and challenge these hypotheses throughout life, “to act on these reformulations, to take responsibility for what he knows, and to be constantly renewing his dialectical quarrel with life and letters.” A value-free (utilitarian) education might not keep us from making low-level observations, but it cannot tell us a whit about how we ought to live our lives and why we are here. To save modern education from the void into which it has collapses, we must show our students why it is so important to read widely, write carefully and engage in imaginative dialectic inquiry at all turns.
Proponents of classical education have always had to contend with charges of elitism. In fact, modern life has given unprecedented numbers of people the chance to enjoy leisure to further their potential. Leading a virtuous life is within the reach of most people, but “only a classical education is designed to turn this theory into practice, while safeguarding democracy with a norm-minded citizenry by extending culture to all.” After all, in a non-normative educational scheme, students will like likely grow up to value a life of self-interest and pleasure above all things, and this will threaten the democratic experiment at hand.
What does a classical education grounded in democratic theory offer? First, it addresses man’s needs in all of the essential domains—religious, social and individual. Also, it can help him to learn the art (techne) of making sound judgments. Finally, it teaches him to value the substantive over the procedural content of government. What it does not offer is a classroom that mirrors a democracy, where students only study what they want to study and where freedom trumps all higher values. In other words, a classical education “must offer a sort of dialectical negation of democratic society, challenging the policies and the attitudes of the state and of society inside the classroom, while educating—paradoxically—aristocrats rather than democrats.” Students do not claim inalienable rights in such an environment. Instead, they learn to demand the right to act on earned knowledge. Lacking this normative mooring, democracy’s “abundant energies” undermines it.
Hicks concedes that pagan humanism focused too exclusively on man, was open to charges of elitism and was prone to an ideological corruption that stems from a tendency to seek naturalistic explanations of first and final causes. However, he views the dialectic between paganism and Christianity as the essential paideia of Western civilization. This paideia is reflected in Aquinas’s Summa Theologica and the natural law tradition partly derived from it, though Hicks does not specifically mention this work in Norms and Nobility. The synthesis represented by this work certainly qualifies as a satisfying resolution of the conflict between the ancient schools and Christianity. “Both recognized the need for a positive force empowering man to meet the self-transcendent demands of a conscience that is perpetually negating his self-centeredness, and both identified this positive force complementing the conscience as love—the eros of Plato’s Symposium.
Hicks quotes Jaeger: “Literature is paideia, in so far as it contains the highest norms of human life….It is the ideal picture of man, the great paradigm”. Such literature can work important changes in the willing learner and in the formation of true virtues. Hicks ends Part I by asserting that the rejection of normative education in favor of arid analysis means that students leave our modern schools thinking that they know something of value when in fact they do not.
Though I read the Part II of this book carefully, I will not spend a great deal of time summarizing it, because I think Part I contains the main argument to which I wish to respond. In Chapter 9, Hicks offers a possible classical curriculum. I have no objections to anything in that curriculum and could teach it in all good conscience. He himself notes that the choices he has made here are not written in stone but are merely exemplary. I was delighted, however, to find that he had included The Everlasting Man, which is one of my favorites.
In Chapter 10, he asks some questions of teachers and administrators that are relevant and that harmonize with his arguments in Part I. I particularly appreciated this question put to teachers: “Why are your best students often the most arrogant and the least sensitive to the lively connection between ideas and action, between knowledge and responsibility, and between ability and humility?” This is an important question that I would like all teachers to ask themselves on a regular basis.

In the second half of this chapter, Hicks offers a list of his own assumptions about education. I thought that this was particularly provocative and useful. In the near future, I will make an attempt to articulate my educational philosophy directly as a list of assumptions and compare this statement with the more discursive statements that I have made previously.
I do not disagree with any of Hicks’s assumptions. However, I agree more strongly and less strongly with some of them. For instance, I strongly agree that students should be introduced to “the best” at the earliest possible age; that basic ideas should be introduced at the same time and developed at greatly levels of complexity later; that teachers must provoke questions rather than answer them definitively; that religious truth is central to the formation of Western paideia; and that education is not to prepare for college or the workplace but to acquire the sentiments and knowledge required to live the good life.
The last two chapters and the epilogue repeat claims that Hicks has made in previous chapters and provide practical examples of implementation that merit our attention but not, at this juncture, a detailed summary. In reading them, I came back to the epigraph to Chapter 9 from H.I. Marrou: “A classical culture can be defined as a unified collection of great masterpieces existing as the recognized basis of its scale of values.” I concur.
  august30 | Feb 13, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0761814671, Paperback)

A reissue of a classic text, Norms and Nobility is a provocative reappraisal of classical education that offers a workable program for contemporary school reform. David Hicks contends that the classical tradition promotes a spirit of inquiry that is concerned with the development of style and conscience, which makes it an effective and meaningful form of education. Dismissing notions that classical education is elitist and irrelevant, Hicks argues that the classical tradition can meet the needs of our increasingly technological society as well as serve as a feasible model for mass education.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:58 -0400)

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