A Review of
Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education
Paperback: Angelico Press, 2012
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
Reviewed by Brett Beasley
Americans have never been more aware that our schools are letting our children down. We face the disturbing truth again and again on the radio, in the newspapers, and in political speeches. A few blocks from my home a billboard announces, “30% of High School Students Drop Out.” Films like Waiting for Superman expose the bureaucracy and special interests that made the problem so intractable. Nevertheless, we hold out hope that another program, another initiative, or another piece of legislation might come in time to alleviate the worst effects of the problem.
What we don’t often consider is that our educational system might be, to quote Donald Kagan, a professor of Classics at Yale University, “a system rotting from the head down,” that is to say, a system sabotaged by its own ideas. We don’t consider that our foundational concept of what it means to be an educated human being might demand revision. Stratford Caldecott’s newest book, Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education offers just such a revision, taking us back to an education founded on the liberal arts. While many of us will associate the liberal arts with small, elite four-year colleges, Caldecott explains that they were “intended for the cultivation of freedom and the raising of our humanity to the highest possible level.” His book concerns the first three liberal arts, the “Trivium,” comprised of Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric. The Trivium, Caldecott explains, is not so much a field of study or a subject as it is an essential preparation for all subsequent knowledge, the very foundation itself.
If Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric sound daunting, Caldecott adeptly situates them in everyday life. He makes no calls for his reader to memorize Latin declensions or read Cicero–at least not at first. What he does suggest, however, is that we can locate the basis for Grammar, Dialectic, and Rhetoric in the universal practices of Remembering, Thinking, and Speaking. Each of the arts is given its own chapter and situated at a particular point in the development of an educated person, building on one another and forming a synthesis. Caldecott’s broad and universal approach allows him “to emphasize that we are discussing the fundamental skills of humanity itself.”
In his discussion of memory Caldecott appeals to the Greek notion of anamnesis, a form of memorization that is not “rote” memory but rather “an organic assimilation and appropriation.” This section has some of Caldecott’s most perceptive comments, demonstrating that memory can overcome the mental shallowness and loss of tradition fostered by instant access to information in the form of computers and the internet. “If human memory and knowledge is evacuated into cyberspace, the past too becomes something we treat as external to ourselves, something other than us, something we sit back and observe…Technological consumerism at its worst thus threatens to become not just the enemy but the perfect inversion of tradition.” Tradition emerges as something revolutionary and counter-formational in a culture that has abandoned its own sense of the past.
Caldecott helps us reexamine even something as fundamental (and seemingly drab) as thinking itself, transforming it into a lively and adventurous process. Thinking, in Caldecott’s view, remains the analytical side of education, but it does not manifest itself in the form of academic argument, but rather in the “search for truth.” This search is dynamic, involving interaction and dialogue. “Truth,” Caldecott writes, “is not a quarry that can easily be pursued without the help of others, because our own thoughts have a tendency to run in circles. Our friends…are given to us as ‘helpers’ in that quest, which leads ultimately to God.” The dynamics of Caldecott’s approach include an interplay between faith and reason:
Faith opens reason to a transcendent horizon; it assures reason that the world as a whole does make sense; it encourages reason to aspire to a greater truth. Without the assurance of faith that the truth is somewhere ‘out there,’ reason would stop short on its journey…. At the same time, faith needs reason…in order to penetrate ever more deeply into the mystery that has been revealed, to unfold its implications, and to explore the world in its light.
Caldecott offers an invaluable example of how this cooperation of faith and reason might approach the “challenge” of evolutionary theory, an especially contentious topic in American education today. For Caldecott and Pope John Paul II, whom he quotes, “the teaching of the Church does not ‘change’ though it does ‘develop.’” Caldecott shows how Christian faith can align itself with evolution even while offering a productive challenge of its own, showing the difference between final and material causes and upholding the inherent mysteries of “personhood.” Caldecott’s handling of this problem is a vivid example of his claim that a Christian education is more broad, not more narrow, than a secular education.
For most of us, “speaking” in school usually meant one of two things: either punishment for talking out of turn, or worse, a dreaded in-class presentation. However, the liberal art of rhetoric, which Caldecott discusses under the heading “speaking,” is something completely different. For Caldecott, the essential lesson of speaking is that we always speak out of our identity, which is why it is important to realize that, “you cannot communicate a truth that has not changed you. You cannot build a community on a truth that has not been incorporated into you, making you the kind of person you are. The person is, to some extent, the message.” Caldecott’s emphasis on embodiment of truth leads him to a discussion of poetics. Rhetoric is not just a set of tools you use to get your way, but the study of all aspects of communication, from form to narrative, imagery, and musicality.
Caldecott manages to make each part of Trivium captivating and exciting, but nothing is more captivating than the vision of wholeness that results. While “our curricula have become fragmented and incoherent because we have lost any sense of how all knowledge fits together,” Caldecott takes pains to get the order, and therefore the synthesis, right. While nowadays many of our institutions of higher education market themselves based on their direct relationship to profitable employment, promising, to use an example I see every day, “Education that Works” (City Colleges of Chicago) or to get us “Ready. Aim. Hired.” (Roosevelt University), Caldecott’s approach reminds us that “we have been educating ourselves for doing rather than for being.”
Despite the breadth of the book’s vision, it is far from comprehensive when it comes to actual application. The reader looking for lesson plans and real-word programs will be disappointed. There are hints and suggestions here and there for how this approach might look on a practical level, but this idealism is also the book’s strength; it refuses to turn from its unwavering commitment to how things ought to be. The difficult work of applying these insights in our real-world contexts and institutions is something we can only do for ourselves. The good news is that, thanks to immensely suggestive guides like Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word: Rethinking the Foundations of Education, we will never grow weary for lack of inspiration.