Saturday, August 21, 2004
On Education and Art and Poetry and Prose and Metaphor - for Eva's disection:
The beginnings of an article to be submitted to a trade magazine

Now all art falls into two great divisions: poetry and prose. This is, roughly, Plato's division between untrue tales and true tales. Poetry is pure imagination; prose is imagination as controlled by and consciously expressive of thought. Poetry first, prose afterwards. That formula contains the true view of art's place in life, as opposed to the false view that prose comes first and that poetry only decorates this pre-existent object. We begin by imagining, and in imagining we discover our thought - a thought that did not actually exist till discovered. Poetry is the "mother-tongue of mankind", the universal form of primitive literature, preceding it in historical evolution at every phase of the world's history. The consciousness that first expresses itself in poetry - in fantasy and myth - afterwards clarifies out and sobers down into prose - into science and philosophy. The progress of thought is a perpetual passage from poetry to prose and a perpetual birth of new thought in the form of poetry.

The distinction between poetry and prose is the key to the distinction between education and life. Education is the preface to life; the preparation for life. This preface or preparation turns out, on examination, to be made of the stuff of which poetry is made. Just as poetry proceeds by creating imaginary objects and dealing with them according to laws laid down by the imagination for itself, so education proceeds by setting imaginary problems and solving them according to arbitrary rules. By raising and solving these imaginary problems the student learns how to solve the real problems of what is significantly called - as opposed to school - "real" life. Education, as the antithesis of real life, is unreal life, imaginary life - a life in which we imagine ourselves in the world of affairs without really being there or even believing ourselves to be there. It is the essence of school life that the student should be engaged upon experimenta in corpore vili, that he should not bring disaster upon himself when he fails or involve his rivals in disaster when he succeeds; that his successes and failures should be mimic successes and mimic failures. But this imaginary or mimic life really equips him for the work of real life just because its problems, though only imaginary problems, are problems at which he really works and does not merely imagine himself as working. If he only imagined himself to be working at them, his schooling would do him no good; he would awake from it as from a dream and find the real world as alien and intractable as ever (how many students do?).

Real life, on the other hand, partakes of the nature of prose. For in prose the imagination is still awake and active, but it is working under the control of thought. Prose is not prose unless it is beautiful, but its beauty must be achieved not by the free imaginative treatment of an arbitrary problem, but by the lucidity and vividness with which thought solves the necessary problem of expressing to itself the nature of the real world. In real life we are not free to work at whatever strikes the fancy of those responsible for organizing our society; our problems are forced upon us by reality itself, which bids us solve them or perish. They are not mimic problems, but real problems. And our solutions of them may certainly be beautiful, but only as the locomotive and the ship are beautiful, with the prose beauty of clean design.

Since the purpose of education is to prepare the pupil for real life, education is poetry whose function is to pass over into prose. If this seems an unprofitably abstract account of education, a mere empty dialectical formula which, however it may amuse a frivolous philosopher, can do nobody any good, let us look at it from a practical point of view and see what consequences follow when it is so taken. Let us consider various arts, and ask ourselves how the above principle applies to them. Let us begin with literature.

Here our principle yields two propositions: first, that literary education ought to proceed by way of poetry; secondly, that its function is to give birth to prose. Its end is to enable the pupil to express his own thoughts clearly and intelligibly, and to understand the expressed thoughts of others. He is to be judged not by his knowledge of books, but by his own literary output - his conversation, his business letters, his memoranda, his instructions to subordinates, and conversely, his ability to read a letter, to listen intelligently, to understand other people's instructions. These things are the purpose of literature. Its poetry, which constitutes the means of literary education, is similarly twofold, proceeding by creation and absorption. The student must not only read Shakespeare and Milton, but - in reality far more important - hear nursery rhymes and childish stories, read all manner of fiction and of fact, read as if it were fiction; simple narrative history - novels, detective stories, and so forth - are the food for such endeavors. The teacher's part is to select such fictions as will most helpfully stimulate his imagination, neither feeding the student on food too hard for a tender stomach nor putting the student off with milk when meat is appropriate, and, above all, not frittering away the student's strength by introducing all manner of works in all manner of styles from all manner of periods irrespective of special needs and the special problems indicative of develpmental approrpiateness. On the other hand, and this is the more important side, the student must be taught to create poetry, not only by writing verse - an exercise that is not even yet sufficiently accepted as a necessary part of elementary education - but by writing prose essays on a theme arbitrarily chosen, which are philosophically, though not metrically, poetry. And here again, the teacher's function is to demand of the pupil precisely that standard of excellence which the student could reasonably demand of self.

The same principles hold good with respect to the training of the eye. Drawing, painting and modeling here correspond to the creative side of education, and the study of drawings, paintings and modeled objects to the receptive side. The distinction between poetry as a means and prose as an end holds good. There is imaginative drawing pure and simple (like an artist's sketch) and there is drawing whose purpose is to express thought (like an engineer's diagram). The function of this branch of education is to enable the student to express self in prose drawing; to draw a map to show someone where to go, or a face that needs remembering, or a piece of work that a builder or a smith must execute, and conversely, to understand and use such drawings. This ability can only come through practice in poetic drawing, the free and imaginative presentation of any form that comes into your head. First, learn to control your medium, to handle pencil and brush - then apply your skill to the problem at hand.

Without a training of this kind no one is properly educated. And this we partly recognize when we insist that everybody who is to be thought educated must read and write; for writing is nothing but a specialized form of drawing, and reading is a similarly specialized interpretation of drawings. But, by a fatal confusion of thought, we separate drawing from writing and assume that, while everyone can write if they give it time and practice, drawing requires a special gift. This is simply an illusion. The same muscular control and training of eye which enables a pupil to write applies to drawing; not, perhaps, as well as Dürer could draw; but that is no reason why drawing should be neglected. We might as well refrain from speaking because it is unlikely the we will ever to speak as well as Cicero. The ordinary human needs to speak, to write, to draw, ordinarily well, and no more - but that much we do seriously need. We recognize the possibility and the necessity of this in the case of certain professions and trades that simply cannot be carried on without drawing. In these cases no one would accept the plea that an engineer's or surveyor's drawings are bad because he is one of the people who tries to learn it. But we might extend the principle a little further. Everyone would despise a collector of folk-songs who wrote: "I heard a very interesting tune on this journey, but my secretary, who knows how to write music, was not with me". This means that the authority on ancient art is someone who cannot draw, and the one who makes a drawing is no authority on ancient art; and the result is that the expert's opinions and the artist's drawings are, each in its own way, irremediably damaged. A person can get along without being able to read; and hard labor may make the latter a scholar and the former an historian of art. But a scholar who has to depend upon others to read aloud for proper understanding is less severely handicapped than an art historian unable to handle the medium which he is studying. Learning to make a decently good drawing is no harder than learning to read.

At the other end of the scale, it is equally discreditable that an artisan should not be able to work from a drawing without somebody at hand to explain the drawing; and that any person who wants something made should not be able to supply the maker with a drawing of what is desired; and that anyone whatever should write an illegible hand. "Anyone who has the use of limbs," wrote Lord Chesterfield, "can write any hand he likes," which is perfectly true; but Lord Chesterfield, in his eighteenth century individualism, forgot that the fathers have eaten the sour grapes by which the children's teeth are set on edge, and that to have the use of one's limbs one must be trained in accurate muscular control at an early age. To write badly is certainly a thing to be ashamed of; but the blame lies partly at least with those who have neglected the bad writer's elementary education.

There is room for at least equal improvement with regard to music. Here song is the poetry of which articulate and modulated speech is the prose; and a person badly educated in a musical sense is one who cannot so control the mechanism of speech as to make his/her voice audible and expressive. The best preparation for speaking is to be had by learning to sing; and all those failures of elocution which mar the utterance of so many speakers are due to errors in the technique of voice- production which are, in the main, easily corrigible by a good teacher - are, in fact, the faults which in the very first lessons every music teacher sets about to eradicate. Yet these faults are startlingly common even among persons whose production requires them constantly to speak in public. The same general principles govern the art of bodily gesture, where the poetry is dancing in all its branches - including every kind of athletic exercise. The Greeks were quite right to regard military drill as a kind of dance; and athletic exercises in general are, as the Greeks knew, an indispensable part of all education.

These notes must suffice to show that our conception of aesthetic education is no mere theory, but a principle that may powerfully help in the work both of understanding education as it is and of creating education as it ought to be. Developed along the lines suggested above, it leads to some such educational programme as this. Education in the arts, which is the only education that can be regarded as truly universal, ought to begin - where in point of fact it always has begun - in the nursery, as soon as a child becomes educable which means, as soon as the child acquires regular physiological habits whose establishment is the first care of mother and nurse; and this should form the main contents of what we call elementary schooling. The child should learn to speak fluently and clearly, not necessarily in the standard English of literary circles, but in the dialect of their native place; for the attempt to eradicate local peculiarities of grammar and pronunication is only a waste of precious time in the pursuit of a motiveless and unattainable uniformity.

This, then is the beginning of my thought on education as a poetry to the real life we are being trained or educated for. It has, indeed, a bit of refinement to undergo, but the essence is at hand for you to address.

- posted by -g @ 5:49 PM | | 0 rocks in pond


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