For your library. . . .
This was reprinted recently in a mailing list to which I subscribe. It is well-worth giving a wider audience. (At the end of the article there is some information on acquiring the book that is being reviewed.) The review is by my friend Kirk Kramer and appeared originally in The Sooner Catholic.
With the author's permission, herewith:
[Review of Poetic Knowledge: The Recovery of Education, by James S.
Taylor. 1998, State University of New York Press, for the Family Life
Office supplement to The Sooner Catholic, by Kirk Kramer]
O Lord our Lord, how admirable is thy name in all the earth!
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky.
Twinkle, twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are.
Awe. Admiration. Amazement. Marvel. Delight. The Psalmist,
Wordsworth, the child who looks up at the night sky and lisps the
nursery rhyme, all speak of that passion of wonder which Aristotle
taught is the beginning of philosphy. The immediate, direct
apprehension of reality that inspires wonder and awe is called by St
Thomas Aquinas "poetica scientia", poetic knowledge. It is the first
of the four kinds of knowledge that St Thomas distinguishes. It is
this neglected, even distrusted way of knowing that is the subject of
an important new book published by the State University of New York
The author, Dr James Taylor, explains that poetic knowledge is
not merely a knowledge of poetry, "but rather a poetic experience of
Poetic experience indicates an encounter with reality that is
nonanalytical, something that is perceived as beautiful, awful (awe-
full), spontaneous, mysterious. . . . Poetic knowledge is a
spontaneous act of the external and internal senses with the
intellect, integrated and whole, rather than an act associated with
the powers of analytic reasoning. . . . It is, we might say,
knowledge from the inside out, radically different from a knowledge
about things. In other words, it is the opposite of scientific
If this passage seems like heavy going, abstract and difficult,
it must be said straight away that it is, and that it is not the only
one. This book is a work of philosphy, the kind of book that calls
for the powers of a Francis Kovach or an Etienne Gilson or some other
great teacher of the Thomistic Revival to be properly studied and
absorbed. The author's elucidation of the distinction between
subjectivism and subjectivity is brilliant (and incidentally of great
value, at least to this reviewer, for understanding the philosophical
personalism of the present pope). Dr Taylor has has made an
exhaustive study both of what poetic knowledge is, using the methods
and vocabulary of scholastic philosphy, and of its history from
ancient Greece through the Middle Ages down to its deformation since
the time of Descartes in the 17th century.
However, the book is not only or principally a philosophical
treatise, of interest solely to academics. Consider these passages:
When Wordsworth writes "My heart leaps up when I behold / A
rainbow in the sky" . . . , something of the rainbow's reality is
truly known, but rational explanation alone is insufficient, in fact
impossible, for this is the gaze of contemplation, of love. It is the
difference between being unexpectedly moved by an unknown attractive
face--desiring to know the person better--and the desperate
premeditation of computer dating.
Knowledge at the poetic level considers neither ends nor means.
. . . For example, in the case of furniture there are chairs and
tables placed together in such a way that we may sit and have a meal.
Sometimes we consider these things in themselves apart from any
purpose as in the case of their beauty: a Shaker-style chair, for
example, set on a polished wood-plank floor, against a white-washed
wall with the sunlight from a bare window fallings in beams and
shadows across the room. It is a serene view, and for that moment
completely without purpose, yet the viewer is certainly filled with a
profound and mysterious sense of the real and of the beauty of this
So when Aristotle speaks, in the tradition of Socrates, about
the qualities of music contrary to the virtues, to grasp his meaning
we have only to recall the obvious effects, worldwide in our day, of
rock music and musicians on manners and style of life on millions of
children. Braving a generalization in the spirit of Socrates, I
would say that such music perfectly promotes the contraries of the
virtues: violence, brazen vulgarity, and intemperance.
And a marvellous section, too long for quotation here, where Dr
Taylor comments on these lines from Rousseau: "Love childhood,
indulge its games, its pleasures, its delightful instincts", and "May
I venture to state the greatest, the most useful role of education?
It is: do not save time, lose it".
As Dr Taylor says above in defining poetic knowledge, "it is the
opposite of scientific knowledge". The scientific knowledge he speaks
of is not science in the ancient and Thomistic sense of metaphysics,
but knowledge which is empirical, quantifiable, dialectical. It is
the kind of knowledge demanded by Professor Thomas Gradgrind in
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 modern West (far more than the East), and modern education
especially, are faithful disciples of Thomas Gradgrind in believing
that "Facts" are the only thing of any importance.
The chief interest of this book for parents, and its importance
for family life, lies in its discussion of the role of poetic
knowledge and experience in education. Having laid the philosophical
and historical groundwork, the final chapters of this book discuss
concrete, practical ways in which a school inspired by the poetic
mode of learning will teach and function. They also relate the story
of two attempts in the 20th century to take seriously Aristotle's
dictum that philosophy begins in wonder, and that unless a man's
education awakens his heart to this disposition of wonder, he can
never fruitfully study anything. One of these was a boarding school
for boys at a village in France called Maslacq, which closed in 1950
(among its alumni is the Abbot of Le Barroux). Nearly twenty years
later, in the midst of the student unrest of the late 1960s, the
second was established at the University of Kansas. It was called the
Integrated Humanities Program.
Dr Taylor writes:
The professors of the I.H.P. clearly recognized the steady
falling off of students' abilities to read, speak, and write on a
general level taken for granted only a generation ago. But the goal
was never to improve test scores. They would say that the tests
themselves and the entire system built up around such Cartesian
measurement instruments were an indication of the problem in modern
The professors in the I.H.P. did more, however, than bemoan the
problem. They set out to solve it by stirring up wonder in the
hearts of their students. How?
The core of the I.H.P. was a four-semester sequence of
humanities courses in which the students read and considered the
great books of Western civilization: in the first semester, Homer and
other Greek writers, in the second, Virgil and the Romans, in the
third, the Bible and St Augustine and other writers of the Middle
Ages, and finally Shakespeare and other modern writers. So far the
curriculum appears identical to Great Books or letters programs at a
hundred other colleges. But there the similarity ends.
The three professors of the I.H.P. spent class conversing
together about the assigned books. The students were not allowed to
take notes, but rather were asked to listen. The aim of these
conversations was not to use the books to impart moral instruction,
much less to pile up facts about them and their authors and their
historical setting. Rather the professors sought to help the students
to experience the purpose of all stories and songs and poems:
delight. In place of Cliff notes and all the other suffocating
apparatus of modern critical scholarship, the conversations of the
professors revealed the beauty of these books and made the hearts of
their students leap up in delight. Outside of this core class, the
students met in smaller groups to memorize poetry, not by reading it
from a book, but by hearing it recited by upperclassmen and then
repeating it. The students also learned calligraphy, the art of
beautiful writing. An attempt was made early in the program to teach
horseback riding, a poetic way of teaching young men chivalry (a word
which means a man upon a horse) far more effective than mere didactic
instruction. In Dr Taylor's words, "Night-time outings were organized
for star gazing with the unaided eye where students learned to
recognize the constellations and their main stars and the Greek
stories that accompanied them." (How important for wonder is that
verb to gaze!) "In addition to the weekly lectures, the I.H.P. also
offered Latin, taught in the beginning entirely by the oral method,
that is, without the use of a textbook or formal grammar." Each
semester the students learned several traditional songs, and often
the class would begin with the students singing a favorite by
Stephen Foster. Each winter the older students in the I.H.P. began
teaching the younger ones to waltz, and together they hired an
orchestra and organized a formal spring waltz--poetry incarnate.
The Integrated Humanities Program, as it had existed in its
heyday in the 1970s, had come to an end by the mid-1980s. But it
remains an example and a lesson today. It reminds homeschoolers, and
the veterans of the pro-life movement and of the battles against the
silly liturgical and educational experiments of the last few decades,
not to succumb to a mean, hypercritical spirit that is suspicious of
everything and expects the worst of everyone. Braving, as Dr Taylor
has done, a generalization in the spirit of Socrates, I would say
that it suggests to parents, teachers, and students that they should
worry less about science and math, and devote more time to
literature, history, languages, music, and art, taught and studied
poetically (throw out the textbooks, smash the televison, and
disconnect the internet). And never give a thought to ACT scores,
grade point averages, or how something's going to look on your resume.
The last chapter of the book, 'The Future of the Poetic Mode of
Knowledge in Education', begins with some other lines from Wordsworth:
I listened, motionless and still;
And, as I mounted up the hill
The music in my heart I bore,
Long after it was heard no more.
Dr Taylor, both as a student and as a teacher, has harkened to the
music and the Muse of poetic knowledge. In the final chapter, he
makes a passionate call for the restoration of the poetic mode to
education. Or if that is too much to ask, then the establishment of
at least one school grounded in this way of knowing and the tradition
that grew out of it in pagan antiquity and the Christian West. Let
his eloquence have the last word:
To found a school (of this kind) requires only the listening
heart of perhaps just one courageous, poetic soul who has come to
see - intuitively and positively in an awful delight of wonder, as
well as from the heights of reason and deliberate serious thought -
that our land, our homes, the heavens and the earth, and those dear
and those distant from us are important not only in their nature, but
have meaning and purpose far beyond the reach of the current means of
analysis and measurement. . . . Science sees knowledge as power;
poetic knowledge is admiratio - love.
[This book can be ordered by calling the SUNY Press tollfree at
800/666-2211, or from Amazon.com.]
The following passage is an example of the poetic mode of knowledge
that will delight every Sooner Catholic.
The immediate (practical) purpose of drinking a cup of coffee is
to wash the biscuit down; the proximate (ethical), the intimate
communion of (say) cowboys standing around a campfire in a drenching
rain, water curling off their Stetsons, over yellow slickers,
splashing on the rowels of spurs, their faces creased with squinting
at the sun, drawing the bitter liquid down their several throats into
the single moral belly of their comradeship. The remote (political)
purpose of coffee at the campfire, especially in the rain, is the
making of Americans: born on the frontier, free, frank, friendly,
touchy about honor, despisers of fences, lovers of horses,
worshippers of eagles and women. Nations have their drinks: the
English tea, the Irish whiskey, the Germans beer. Drinking coffee
from a can is us. The ultimate purpose is mystical. To drink a can
of coffee with the cowboys in the rain is as Odysseus said of
Alcinous's banquet: something like perfection.
John Senior, The Restoration of Innocence.
"Out of curiosity, I phoned the
SUNY Press to see whether this book is still available from them.
The paperback is out of stock, but the hardback is available for
$22.50 plus $4 shipping, for a total of $26.50 (no tax). That's
considerably less than the $60 it originally cost. Call 'em on
800/666-2211 & you can order it with a credit card. If you do not
own it, you absolutely should order a copy. The author speaks
explicitly of the kind of poetic knowledge given in the old Mass.
This book is of particular interest to teachers and homeschoolers."