Parents want to give their children the best education they can and there are two extremes often applied regarding what this means. On the creative, experiential end of the spectrum are parents who focus exclusively on enriching and inspiring their children; on the other end are those who believe that learning must be strictly formulaic. Which is correct?
[Nathan Siemers – Attribution – ShareAlike 2.0 Generic CC
– 5970089724_674349ede7_b_0The answer is neither.]
Students need to be constantly inspired and challenged to investigate the world for themselves, or at best, they will learn to hate school while simply “storing up” information. On the other hand, if children are not given the framework on which to “hang” knowledge, they are not learning at all, but are simply wallowing in a well of self-deception and narcissism.
A classical education is not about learning ancient terminology: it’s about learning to think for yourself, as the classical authors did.
A classical education is not about learning certain facts: it’s about developing a worldview which honors truth and beauty and engenders a love of knowledge.
A classical education is not about competing in the marketplace: it’s about believing that if students are passionate about learning they will be passionate about life and therefore, their vocations will become self-evident.
A classical education is not about believing in “experts” who claim to have grabbed the brass ring, and all you need to do is jump on their merry-go-round and — Voila! your student will be classically educated. Rather, it’s about developing a disciplined, virtuous mind and life. A person’s true vocation and joy in life will be evident if he or she follows this authentic classical path.
True classical scholarship is rare: most of us will never attain it, and that includes the many poseurs in the classical market who purport to have it and attempt to sell it to us. But given a genuine classical philosophy and pedagogy, all students can discover their God-given potential, find their place in the world, and live rich, joyous and successful lives.
Next Time~ Part 2
Curriculum Gimmicks vs. The Great Knock: Formulas vs. Structure and How C. S. Lewis Answers the Dilemma
I continue to discuss what it means to be truly classical, and this includes what it is NOT. Since we are adding Latin to our Integritas Academy courses next year using a program which is genuinely classical, I’ve been meditating upon why and how many Latin programs out there are not “classical” in methodology. What I mean is defined by what I’ve previously discussed in articles on this blog: a classical education is about how to think, not what to think, and too many schools in this rather new “classical” movement have lost track of that, in their attempts to sell their wares to a broad market and give parents a simplistic explanation of what it means to be classically educated.
First, as the motto of Integritas Academy states, students must write in order to learn to think. Many recent Latin programs which are so called “classical” are so dumbed down as to be a misrepresentation of what it means to learn Latin. A classical program must include serious writing which involves translation, not just of vocabulary, but of entire paragraphs, and later, literary works, and this kind of work must be given often, in order to move students into understanding how to read and understand classical literature.
Second, if a program is so simplistic (dumbed down) that it does not even get through the first declension, and at least most of the second declension in the first year, it defeats the purpose of presenting the student with a global understanding of the language, and therefore, any understanding of its literature or culture.
Third, students must learn thoroughly, but it is true that they must not be overwhelmed with a barrage of information which “attacks” them so that they have trouble sorting it all out. There is a balance: a program should incrementally introduce the components of Latin, yet it needs to present these components in a timely manner wherein the students understand the language conceptually; they must be able to see the forest for the trees, so pacing is everything.
Finally, students must understand early on that, unlike English, Latin is an inflected language (thus, “declensions”). For those who do not know what this means, it’s fairly simple: the meaning of English language sentences is determined by the order of the words in the sentence, so it is not “inflected.” In Latin, it doesn’t matter if the words are in a particular order or not, because designated endings with meanings which assign their syntax in the sentence are added on to the ends of the words, and determine their context; the ending syllable of the word changes, and this determines its grammar. For students to grasp what “declensions” (endings) are, they must be presented within the “big picture” – the concept that there are declensions, and what they consist of, categorically, – within the first year of their study of the language. Unfortunately, many popular Latin curricula do not accomplish this because they are so dumbed down.
Mastering Latin is an “extreme” exercise in logic. Students learn how to apply the various word endings in their exercises and writing, and in so doing, develop logical processes which are not gained in other ways. If a Latin curriculum does not get students to gain this skill in the first year of study, it is a pretty much a waste of the student’s time and effort. While Latin is, as many say in criticism of it, a “dead language,” it is important to know it, not just for understanding past literature and history, but because you learn how to think with the kind of flexibility which learning the various declensions demands. In fact, if you take a Latin program which doesn’t help you to understand the deeper logical aspects of learning this inflected language, it may even be harmful, because you are under the impression that learning a language is only a matter of memorization. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth, and Latin itself is a prima facie example of this, with the richness of the works which lie waiting for the student who masters the language.
So, let’s say a student completes two “years” of a particular Latin program, but the curriculum doesn’t get past the first declension, or maybe, the second. What that really means is that the parents (who, like most of us, have probably not had Latin) have been deceived into thinking that their child has now had a grounding in classical Latin, when, in fact, nothing of the sort has occurred. The student walks away with some Latin vocabulary roots, which he or she may or may not remember, but this is not the same as having gained a classical understanding. The student is not able to translate or grasp the meanings of any important classical works, and has no sense of what it means to “manipulate” an inflected language. Probably, the student would have been better served learning Spanish, French, or German, because at least these languages can be used pragmatically in the modern world, and also have referents in literature.
I am not saying that no students in the current classical school revival go on to master Latin: some do, but – not most. I am saying that there is a plethora of programs out there which simplify and slow down the process of learning Latin to the point where, unless a student perseveres and goes on to more sophisticated programs, he or she will not have gained a genuine grasp of the language, or its logic, and will not have been able to access the important classical works and thoughts of the classics.
Another benefit of actually mastering Latin is that students often do not need much instruction in English grammar (if any). The reason is simple: Latin teaches the English constructs, and more. While it might seem at first that taking the time to learn Latin well is a burden, this study time is counteracted by the fact the students grasp grammar to such a degree that English grammar exercises are either unnecessary or easily and
Detailed Roman portrait mosaic in the Museo di Capodimonte from the city of Pompeii. Found in the cubiculum of a house, this unique floor mosaic portrays a young woman of a rich family – probably the domina of the house, as indicated by the jewelry and the dress.
quickly understood. Also, one other aspect of classical learning that is often overlooked is that of the translating, back and forth, of Latin to English. It’s important to get a curriculum which does this consistently and thoroughly, in order to get the mind’s muscles practicing the back and forth “conversions” that must occur in order to truly learn and write a language.
My hope is that more and more people who seek a classical education will discover the benefits of taking a legitimate Latin course as part of their fully classical experience. Latin in the Christian Curriculum is such a program. Ever since my own five children were lucky enough to have been taught with this curriculum, I have wanted to be involved in promulgating it. It is already used in prestigious brick-and-mortar schools, such as Valley Christian in Silicon Valley, a school I am personally familiar with, since I grew up in that area. I support this curriculum because it is authentically classical, in all of the ways I have delineated above, while also teaching students in a step-by-step manner, using the mastery approach. You can find a review of the program by the homeschool curriculum maven, Cathy Duffy at this link: https://cathyduffyreviews.com/homeschool-reviews-core-curricula/foreign-language/latin/latin-in-the-christian-trivium.
Discussing the pedagogy of learning Latin is just one aspect of what it means to have a classical education, but it’s a pretty important component. Most of us are products of an educational system which has not taught us classically, but we are seeking ways in which we can expand our understanding of what it means to have a legitimate classical education, and to make sure we make it possible for our own children to do so. If you are interested in having your student take Latin, I hope you will investigate either the program I support, or some other program which is comprehensive in scope.
I teach writing according to the Jane Schaffer writing method, used by high achieving schools in their honors and AP programs. The Schaffer pedagogy meets the definition of “classical” because it leads students into developing critical thinking skills at an early age. Schaffer is qualitatively different from other popular “classical” writing methods, because Schaffer teaches them how to analyze, interpret, and assess ideas. Put another way: students’ minds are engaged in such a manner that they are inspired to develop independent thought. This is because students are led to ponder what a character’s (or historical figure’s) motivations are, or what the consequences of his or her actions or words are, within the context of the theme and diction of the story.
Schaffer is simply a codification of how analytical writing was taught traditionally. As I often tell students, they are like Sherlock Holmes walking onto a crime scene. They must look at the situation presented, as a whole, and from that assess what the important “evidences” are. The Schaffer method calls these “concrete details” (CDs). From there, students use the context of these facts to determine the theme(s) of the text. Why did the author use those facts at that point? Students also bring their own knowledge of life and universal truths to bear on the situation: What is the point of the passage? What does it reveal about the character, or what message is the author communicating to the reader?
When students begin to think analytically, they begin to think independently. Of course, this is the goal of a classical education, not the memorization of a bucketful of facts or texts. The necessity of having such skills before entering the halls of higher education cannot be overemphasized. The Jane Schaffer approach takes time to learn in the beginning–students are building up their “deductive” muscles. But with guidance and practice, they become independent thinkers.
The “method” is a proven way to bringing students’ minds to bear, in order to train them to focus so that they successfully learn the process of analytical reasoning. As students begin to incorporate the techniques so that they think and write inferentially, they no longer need the Schaffer steps, as they have begun the process of independent thinking–the ultimate goal of our educational efforts.
I realize this is a shibboleth among educators today, but I’m going here anyway: recent studies have shown that there is no valid scientific evidence to show that particular students (of any nature) learn better through either an auditory, visual, or a kinesthetic approach. In other words, there are no individual learning modes. As someone who has spent quite a bit of time learning about and teaching special needs students, I do realize that the “received wisdom” in today’s educational community directly contradicts this assertion.
I have always quietly questioned the “learning styles” approach for several reasons. First–and this is purely anecdotal–I have never personally observed any remarkable improvement in a student I have taught due to using lessons which were based on how that student’s learning style had been assessed, even when I was working in special education, applying these lessons diligently.
Second, as a devotee of the Mae Carden philosophy of education (in addition to having attended a Carden school as a child and having received training in the method as an adult), I have absorbed her pedagogy: all students should learn through multiple senses: “reading, listening, speaking, and writing,” as Miss Carden put it. In other words, we develop our intellects by using our various God-given senses. Mae Carden also emphasized individualized learning. By this she did not mean developing an entire new curriculum for each student, but rather, the teacher’s taking the time to work individually with each student. Miss Carden trusted the good teacher to work at finding ways to connect with students. ( I was acquainted with her personally, and know this to be true.) She knew that a teacher who cares about her students will be given the ability to help them when she makes the effort. This is why it is important to keep class sizes small: most classical educators’ experience is that a class which has more than 15 or 16 students is not going to meet the individual needs of students. The teacher simply cannot “divide herself up” during the class period so as to meet the particular questions of students, if the class is large.
My experiences teaching larger classes live online for the past 8 years have borne out this belief. Because my own five children are grown, and because my husband is a surgeon who works long hours, I have had the time to work very long hours in order to give my many online students the individual attention they deserve, through email and phone conversations. However, larger classes are not good, even when the teacher is willing (and able) to give this kind of time commitment, because some students “slip through the cracks” during the class period, and do not learn to interact and grow intellectually through the class discussions. Because I now run my own school, I am able to restrict the class sizes appropriately.
Finally, from a broad philosophical view, the idea that we use multiple senses makes sense, because we all are human beings. That may sound simplistic, but if you think about it, it’s perfectly logical. When teachers engage students by bringing multiple senses to bear, they are teaching the “whole child.” We are whole people, not fractured beings, artificially segmented into disparate parts. It’s not possible to separate out our thoughts and inclinations into neat categories, although it certainly is a temptation!
This is not to say that we do not have different “preferred” styles of learning. I might like to learn by watching videos or listening to audio books, but there is no evidence that I learn better through my preferred modalities. In fact, I may not learn nearly as well through these methods. And this brings up the underlying point: it is a teacher’s job to help a student develop a love for learning, in all modalities; as Carden herself said, “Life is a joy, so should be learning.”
The assertion I am presenting here, while backed up with solid studies, is not popular. The government has learned how to usurp our tax money from us in ways that supposedly help our children who struggle with the accepted public school modes of learning. Other “individualistic” pedagogies popular in the homeschool movement have latched onto the “learning modes” philosophy; finally, well-meaning parents who want to find ways to understand their own children’s struggles have claimed this explanation because they have been duped.
Nothing replaces individual interaction with a dedicated teacher/mentor. In the ancient classical world, those lucky few who were educated had tutors who guided them into learning with personalized attention. For the past century or so, “educators” since John Dewey have been trying to find a magic bullet which will replace this traditional approach. The result has been a disastrous experiment which has damaged our children and our society beyond measure. Unfortunately, many so-called “classical educators” participate in this experiment, either unwittingly or wittingly. There is no replacement, no magic bullet. There is only the difficult but rewarding work of learning how to learn.
I don’t envy Socrates. No, not only because he drank that horrific hemlock, but because I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to play the role of a free speech advocate in his time. Talk about a tough gig. I imagine that Socrates might reiterate today in words something akin to these:
Welcome, habitués of the classical marketplace! We are here again, ready to dig into the philosophical problems of our time. And I proudly claim the moniker, “gadfly of the state,” for I reveal the foolishness of the supposed wise men of our society, and this especially includes myself.
This does not make a good sound bite today, and as we know, Socrates himself bit the dust because of his daring proclamations. But is our society that different? I’m not referring to the juvenile restrictions on free speech that are now prevalent in our universities. I’m talking about the false marketing which dominates the classical Christian homeschool movement, thus obscuring the true meaning of what it means to gain a classical education; I’m talking about what I call marketing hemlock. If you have a student who is in middle school or high school, and he or she signs up for a “classical” course in the humanities (online or otherwise) where the points of the course are “fed” to the student–that’s marketing hemlock. This poison must be counteracted by a bona fide classical pedagogy, wherein teachers/scholars are free to speak the truth about the state of classical education today, and wherein students are taught to think well enough to practice their right to free speech.
A classical approach incorporates the Socratic method, wherein instructors ask their students challenging questions, rather than lecturing them. Most teachers are terrified of “dead air time,” as the media people call it. You know–that silence in the room when no one says a thing, or has any response to a teacher’s inquiries. I understand that fear–I experienced it when I first began teaching. The problem is that if the teacher is insecure with the concept of “dead air time,” or, most likely, afraid of losing her job because silence will be interpreted by critics as incompetence, she will hesitate to practice the Socratic method. In short, the problem is with the pseudo-classical pedagogy that is peddled in much of the present home school/classical market. In 21st c. America, “results” are everything. You must have short term “provable” goals and objectives for every activity you conduct, in our utilitarian world. Those goals stand against the precepts of a genuine classical education, but more on that in another article. It may seem strange to connect silence in the classroom with free speech, but the Socratic technique is, in fact, the ultimate example of it, for the student is free to explore all thoughts out loud, without boundaries.
In the classes I teach, I force myself to wait. I – just—wait for the students to respond and interact, and they always do. Believe me, sometimes that can be awkward in an online classroom, but it always pays off in the end. I recently had a student from a last year– someone I’ve become friends with–tell me that she has missed this aspect of my class; she always looked forward to how she was going to be challenged, how she would be “put on the spot,” when she was in my class. That was encouraging and comforting to me, because teaching with a Socratic approach is an ongoing act of faith.
Sometimes in “classical” and homeschool marketing circles, teachers initially present themselves as Socratic, but revert to the regurgitation pedagogy prevalent in most schools. It’s so tempting. Teachers do this by opening the class session with thought provoking questions, but then quickly turn to answering those questions themselves. I’m not saying that a teacher should never weigh in, but once a student gets to middle school age, in the humanities courses he or she should be constantly challenged to discover the answer by applying personal knowledge, worldview, and logic, before the teacher makes any pronouncements.
Most of the time, though, teachers are dedicated, sincere, and overworked. In the online homeschool “world,” many of the school owners use the manipulative techniques of the marketplace to draw parents into their web, using catch words which resonate with those of us who have read some classical works, convincing us that they have some secret we poor, ignorant parents don’t know about. (In fact, many of these owners are not classical thinkers, and indeed, have not read the canon of classical texts they market to us.) Meanwhile, the teachers who work for these schools must conform to the prevalent marketing mold in order to keep their jobs, even when they do not agree with it.
So, perhaps you are asking, “What exactly IS the Socratic method?” Most people know that it means to teach by asking questions and then engaging with the students’ responses, but – is that it? Yes and no. The teacher must come with a good understanding of the topic at hand, of course, not just a few questions. Even more, the teacher’s larger knowledge will provide her with the ability to respond to the student’s comments with further questions. This is the challenging aspect of teaching in the spirit of Socrates. There is no “script” for what will happen next. It is also the exciting part of it: the environment which produces the “Aha!” moments that lead to independent thinking and genuine creativity.
Some committed homeschool parents feel inadequate to teach their children. They shouldn’t believe this, because they have the very tools in their own hands which will lead their children to become independent thinkers: they themselves wish to learn and grow in their scholarship. For the most part, learning is “caught, not taught,” as the old saying goes, and a parent who develops the habit of engaging Socratically with his or her children is a good teacher.
Parents should trust themselves. If they have the need to outsource some classes, they should prayerfully seek out schools which appear to promote thoughtful, genuine learning, but be wary of the hucksters who haunt our American landscape. Within the Christian community, they are the new carpetbaggers, wolves in sheep’s clothing. Here are a few suggestions I have about how to try to distinguish between genuine online classical schools and those who are pretenders. These points apply to humanities courses:
If a school claims that pre-recorded classes replace the live engagement of the “great conversation,” it is not classical school. (There may be times when you need to use pre-recorded “Self-paced” courses– that is understandable. Just don’t buy into the myth that a humanities course can be taught this way and still be genuinely classical.)
If a school presents courses which are replicated, these are not classical courses. Independent thinking demands that each teacher (i.e. mentor) must interpret the information for him or herself. Of course, sometimes teachers use study questions and resources created by others–that is not necessarily a warning sign, but it could be. But when a humanities course is “canned,” it is not classical.
If a school will not allow you to choose a particular teacher or allow you to personally engage with that teacher before you sign your student up for a course, you should have your spidey senses up.
Many parents, especially homeschool parents, feel intimidated by terms such as “Socratic learning,” “classical method,” “Rhetoric,” etc. They are tempted to defer to the “experts,” but often, they have no way of knowing if those who present themselves as scholars are, in fact, qualified to pass on a genuine classical education. As I said in a previous article, we are all products of our present dark age.
There are some wonderful teachers and schools out there, but there are also poseurs who, like the ancient sirens, lure people in with their empty promises. Unlike Odysseus, we are not caught between Scylla and Charybdis; however, each of us has a God-given mind and the parenting abilities to help us wisely determine our own family’s fate. Odysseus had to choose between two evils in the Straits of Messina, but we may choose the good–not to mention the beautiful.
As I begin my own live online school, Year of Our Lord 2017, many thoughts come to mind. My involvement in the resurgence of classical education over recent decades has taught me much, both about education and about human nature. And over the past eight years, I was privileged to have been an instructor in two popular online schools, and what a rich education that has been!
Primarily, a cynicism I had developed about American families through my previous teaching experiences–in particular regarding religious and (fellow) homeschoolers, has been replaced by a sense of hope about the future of America and her upcoming generations. Through the hundreds of students and parents I have “met” through teaching live online, I have discovered that there is a deep hunger for genuine learning, framed specifically by the historical Judaeo-Christian tradition which affirms that there IS such a thing as Truth with a capital “T”– that while many in our society wander in the wilderness seeking without finding, truth is, so to speak, in their backyard, if they care to dig it up.
Teachers who want to communicate truth have a heavy burden, for several reasons. First, many of us have had to go back and learn what it means to hold a classical worldview before we can teach it, for we were born at the beginning of our present dark age. Second, although there have been some significant books written about how to re-appropriate the classical canon, we still need to suss this out for ourselves: How do we transmit what it means to be classically educated in this society? As with apophatic theology, which is the defining of God by what he is not, genuine learning might best be described, firstly, by what it is not: it is not a checklist of books, and it is not a codification of learning “methods,” and it is not the memorization of facts.
The Classical World, Marketing & the American Educational Disposition
More apophatic statements: Classical learning is not about grades, or competition in the marketplace: rather, it is a path to enlightenment. Students develop the ability to think for themselves; they grapple with difficult moral dilemmas; they strive for the good and the beautiful; they seek virtue as they engage in, as Mortimer Adler framed it, “the great conversation.”
Another apophatic assertion: if you are listening to videos as a replacement for humanities courses, you are not engaging in that conversation, because just covering the “facts” of the western canon doesn’t teach you how to think; videos have their place, judiciously used, in the classroom, but recorded courses cannot duplicate the experience of interacting, debating, questioning, and growing that occurs among students. The “great conversation” cannot be conducted without live people who engage within the Socratic environment. If you are attempting to become an independent thinker, recordings of this sort will not help, no matter how many so-called “classical” schools market them as a learning tool. What they really are is a way for greedy school owners to make a lot of money without having to pay to engage real teachers in classrooms in real time, with human students, while dealing with all of the attendant problems that come with negotiating with embodied people, not “virtual” life. Schools which provide such videos in place of genuine learning should, at the very least, delete the word “classical” from their marketing and their vocabulary. Let us strive, on our classical journey, to be honest with ourselves and be sure that we do not take shortcuts which are, in fact, wanderings in the educational wilderness.
So students (and teachers, and parents) must first learn how to distinguish the good and the beautiful from the deceitful salesmanship of our present American society, because a classical education is about finding the good and the beautiful, and learning how to love them. This is difficult, and it takes a kind of disciplined effort which is often interrupted (sometimes necessarily) by the distraction of test scores and college requirements, and significantly but unnecessarily, by the slick marketing of some schools which present themselves as classical but all too often are really just repackaged versions of the bureaucratic public school system which has developed in this country; a system which provides false formulaic answers to the nagging question which rightly besets all of those called to the vocation of teaching: How do I pass on to others what it means to think for oneself? And this will be the foremost question for upcoming devotees of genuine classical learning: how to distinguish between and among schools which use the word “classical” as an appeal to gain certain clientele, and those which rightly and truly practice the classical way: that of teaching students to think for themselves in the light of Truth. (May 2017)
We cannot have it both ways, and no sneers at the limitations of logic . . . amend the dilemma. ~ I. A. Richards
In a film my graduate class viewed on T. S. Eliot, one of the people interviewed stated that Eliot converted to Christianity merely because he came to believe that a Western man can only partake of Western tradition—he cannot truly appreciate or understand Eastern philosophy and religion, as he is culturally an integral part of the West. I find this statement to be an intolerable condescension—a prejudicial way of denying the validity of Eliot’s religious experiences without denying his artistic greatness. For it is only just to attribute to Eliot the Anglican the same characteristics one attributes to Eliot the searching agnostic: the qualities of honesty, desire for truth, deep thought, and consummate intellect.
It is universally recognized that Eliot’s poetry draws upon the history and traditions of both East and West, but with his post-Wasteland (post-conversion) poetry a question has arisen as to what extent his works contain not just reference to the Eastern tradition (that is a given), but also—to what extent they incorporate the essence of Eastern philosophy, as opposed to that of Christianity. In other words, how Christian, in the orthodox sense, is Eliot’s later poetry? An investigation of the concept of time in “East Coker” in light of Eliot’s post-conversion worldview, as compared to the Eastern (Hindu) understanding, sheds light upon the meaning of the Four Quartets and specifically here, in “East Coker.”
Four Quartets contains evidence that Eliot’s conversion was a deeply thought out shift in philosophy which affected the entire framework upon which he viewed his personal existence in space and time, and that of modern society. To discover any less would be to reveal a disappointingly shallow thinker who had lost his moorings in a sea of confusing and contradictory panaceas, grasping at Christianity in the desperate hope of finding some answer—any answer—to the modern dilemma. If Eliot truly converted to Christianity but did not infuse his work with his beliefs, then he was, in the final analysis, a hypocritical and duplicitous poet.
Eastern and Western concepts of time are fundamentally different. The Eastern concept of time is circular—symbolized by the wheel or mandala—and the Western concept is linear. Since FourQuartets describes various cycles and since Eliot often utilizes Eastern cultural references, critics have made the connection with the circular mandala. However, I propose that the cycles seen in the “Quartets” represent a more linear, Western concept of time than is generally appreciated. In the Four Quartets, Eliot presents cycles repeating along a linear course, which in three dimensional space could be thought of as a focusing spiral, a concept analogous to the traditional, Western literary device of the seasons repeating their cycles in the context of advancing time: not the same as, but reminiscent of, Yeats’ widening gyre.
What is the fundamental philosophical difference between the mandala and the seasonal cycles? The Eastern wheel returns repeatedly upon itself, while the progressing element of the seasonal cycles allows for variance and newness to occur. Thus, the more linear concept of seasonal cycles reflects Eliot’s Christian theology (Eden -> sin -> fall -> birth -> death -> resurrection -> salvation ->conclusion), while the mandala, revolving upon itself, yields the solipsistic experience of continuous reincarnation.
It is with these differences in mind that we turn to the Four Quartets and the nature of Eliot’s view of time, as reflected, specifically, in “East Coker.” East Coker is the town to which Eliot’s family moved when they came to England from America, and it was in that same Somerset district that their ancestors had also lived. In Section I of the poem, the narrator associates himself with the past through family ancestry and through all of the generations in time (Weitz 60). The section begins “In my beginning is my end, “ and goes on to list all of the things that are either “removed” or “restored”: houses, open fields, factories, a bypass, fires, ashes, bones, leaves . . . and subsequent to the list, an Ecclesiastical placing of these events in time. Each creation or destruction is placed within its own framework:
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto. (I: 9-13)
By using the structure of Ecclesiastes’ “a time . . . ” to open the poem, Eliot conjures up the consciousness of the Western, Judaeo-Christian concept of time; it is ordered; it is both developmental and progressive in nature. The timber goes to the fire; the fire to the ashes, the ashes to earth; the earth is flesh, fur, feces. The ecological “chain” must move in orderly progression concluding at its starting point, the earth itself. Its cycle is a natural, empirical one, not a philosophical one. “In my beginning is my end” is signified not only through the narrator’s return to his ancestral home, but by the earth’s continual metamorphosis as it cycles, making “all things new.” In the end of Section I, the ancestors’ lives are also described in terms of Ecclesiastes, thus associating the narrator’s present visit with their past—they stand together as one experience:
. . . [K]eeping time,
Keeping the rhythm in their dancing
As in their living in the living season
The time of the seasons and the constellations
The time of milking and the time of harvest
The time of the coupling of a man and woman
And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling,
Eating and drinking, Dung and death. (I: 40-47)
In the second stanza we see the thesis: “In my beginning is my end” gather into itself the future. If time makes all things temporary, changing and metamorphosing them, the future is part of that; the future is actually integral to the present and the past:
In a warm haze the sultry heat
Is absorbed not refracted, by grey stone. (I: 20-21)
Just as the light is absorbed, not refracted, so the experiences of the past and present are melded into the events of the future. All earthly experiences will disappear, but as Eliot makes clear in “Burnt Norton,” the foundational poem of the set, there is found in the midst of it a “still point of the turning world.” This still, permanent point, the Word of God, the Logos made flesh in Christ (V in “Burnt Norton”) is the eternal, unchanging locus about which all other events, past, present and future, revolve, and in which they are actually contained: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of the Lord endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8).
Section I Ends:
. . . Dawn points, and another day
Prepares for heat and silence. Out at seas the dawn wind
Wrinkles and slides. I am here.
Or there, or elsewhere. In my beginning. (I: 48-51)
The dawn is “point”ing towards another day—time progresses—but it also points towards the narrator’s place “here . . . there or elsewhere. In my beginning.” As the new day dawns it brings a new time, but not a new identity. His beginning is also his end; he finds his being stable as he looks at himself in changing space and time, because is grounded by “the darkness of God”—that is, the overpowering, inexorable permanence of God (see II: 12-13).
The first strophe of Section II of “East Coker” is a contemplation of the seasons’ relationship to time:
What is the late November doing
With the disturbance of the spring
And the creatures of the summer heat,
And the snowdrops writhing under feet
And hollyhocks that aim too high
Red into grey and tumble down
Late roses filled with early snow? (I: 1-7)
While one critic sees this section as the seasons “cancel[ling] one another out rather than adding to a pattern” (Headings 127), I see the section as describing the tension between the seasons as a framework upon which time eventually concludes in “that destructive fire”—most likely the end of time as described in the book of Revelation and other places in the New Testament.
November is in tension with spring–summer creatures with snowdrops–roses with snow—all pull against each other and press time along to its final conclusion of “destructive fire,” even as earlier, the dawn has pointed towards it. The essence of the world in time as it is now will eventually disappear. In Yeatsian terms, “The center cannot hold”; “The houses are all gone under the sea. / The dancers are all gone under the hill (II: 49-50). In other words, nothing which is only “in time” will stand, because time deceives—it causes us to think we have a larger , more encompassing knowledge than we do: “The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies / For the pattern is new in every moment” (II: 34-35). Section II concludes with the only path for approaching God and thus, permanence and significance, ‘The only wisdom we can hope to acquire / Is the wisdom of humility; humility is endless” (II: 47-48).
Through humility one can attain eternal existence, because only through humility can the window be gained which will lead to knowledge of the Logos. But such self-abnegation is the hard road; one must, as Section III reveals, travel through the dark. The dark (the suffering God brings as the way to humility) will strip the soul of its pride and bring it to a place of recognizing the vanity of trying to discover any purpose outside of the context of the Logos. This process of developing humility occurs with an unfolding of time which reveals to the narrator the true insignificance of his own identity and existence in the universe and throughout time, as he looks back on all of time and imagines also the future.
This leads to the specifics of what it means to allow humility to have its way. At the end point are the qualities associated with the Logos itself, “But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” In Section IV the Logos is symbolized in the person of a wounded surgeon, and the Church as a dying nurse (Headings 128)”:
The wounded surgeon plies the steel
That questions the distempered part;
beneath the bleeding hands we eel
The sharp compassion of the healer’s art
Resolving the enigma of the fever chart. (IV: 1-5)
Here the solution to impermanence is found: the deceived and the transitory state of mankind can be cured with healing through the Christ surgeon, by the Church, as is symbolized by Good Friday and Christ’s sacrificial death on that day (Headings 128). His sacrifice transcended time and covered the condition of mankind of all time—past, present and future—thus drawing together all of time and all people into one unit and given them a transcendent permanence and meaning. Thus the section concludes:
The dripping blood our only drink,
The bloody flesh our only food:
In spite of which we like to think
That we are sound, substantial flesh and blood–
Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good. (IV: 21-25)
Section V is contemplative; the poem draws a distinctive conclusion, an end point viewed through age, as the narrator looks back over twenty years. He sees failure and hopelessness in frail human attempts at greatness along the way. But these years of living reveal the need for a “further union, a deeper communion” (35-36). His final conclusion can be termed as a kind of Christian existentialism: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business” (18); our human responsibility is to follow the way of humility and let God and the unfolding of time and eternity determine the rest. In the final analysis then, there is only this—a clinging to the unchanging Word: “The here and now cease to matter” (30) because eternity is seen as having the only lasting and overriding value. However, specific individual experiences in time lead toward that eternity; the distinctly temporal journey propels one forward into the ultimate reality of “union and communion” with God. The poem closes by turning its opening phrase, “In my end is my beginning,” because the narrator has realized that eternally speaking, he is no more (or less) now than he was at birth; he is only of significance in terms of the Word as both the Alpha and the Omega.
By using the theme of time and then proceeding to compress, expand and unify it throughout the work, Eliot has give us a poem of lasting value and spiritual significance; when placed with the other poems in the Four Quartets it presents a kind of brief “poetic epic,” revealing an inner journey of a soul’s awakening to and discovery of eternal and transcendent values.