Truth, naked and cold, had been turned away from every door in the village. Her nakedness frightened the people. When Parable found her, she was huddled in a corner, shivering and hungry. Taking pity on her, Parable gathered her up and took her home. There, she dressed Truth in story, warmed her and sent her out again. Clothed in story, Truth knocked again at the villager’s doors and was readily welcomed into the people’s houses. They invited her to eat at their table and warm herself by their re.” —A Jewish Teaching Story
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates puts forth the following statement: “Don’t you understand that we begin by telling children fables, and the fable is, taken as a whole, false, but there is truth in it also?” Alluding to the power of story, he goes on to state, “Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up? By no manner of means will we allow it.” (377a-b, trans. Jowe )
When I began teaching in a classical school, I was notorious for not taking anyone’s word for what I should be teaching and why (much to my administration’s chagrin). It wasn’t arrogance on my part; I wanted to see the ideas and research the resources on my own, all the while, not knowing what an insurmountable task that would turn out to be. At the prodding of a mentor, I began reading Martinus Capella’s The Marriage of Philology and Mercury. The book begins with a story.
After seeking to no avail a wife among the goddesses, Mercury settles his affections upon the mortal Philology. The gods disapprove at first. Later they decide that the marital union can occur but only on the condition that Philology partakes of a drink to make her immortal. When she ingests the beverage, it purges her of her mortality and also, more important to the story, of all learning – which she spews forth upon the earth. To keep all knowledge from becoming chaotic, the gods give her a gift- seven handmaidens to assist in the ordering of truth which are the seven liberal arts.
Now, some might find this story interesting or entertaining. For me, it was intellectual purgatory. Frustration began to set in. I was researching to find out about medieval pedagogy, not to hear some variations of Greek myths. Then and there I began to realize something that helped me from that point on in my research of classical and medieval resources: in investigating the pre-moderns, we see differences not only in content but also in their ap- proach to truth. It seemed (and seems) to me that it is best to think in terms of truth, generally before the thirteenth century, as being understood and promoted as mythological. For many of us, this word would seem odd to our ears as a description of truth. But we are becoming more and more familiar with this terminology.
As classical educators, the concept of “story” plays a huge role in the interaction between teacher and student. Traditionally, the thought was that you must understand the nature of truth before you communicated it. In the past, the nature of truth was considered as existing “mythologically”- which is not as philosophical as it sounds.
In his treatise on classical education, Norms and Nobility, David Hicks examines the nature of truth by dividing the idea of mythology into its two components: “mythos” and “logos”. In chapter two, “The Word as Truth,” Hicks describes mythos as a spiritual and imaginative attempt to make sense of reality that usually takes the form of a traditional story and logos as a rational attempt to make sense of reality that usually exists in the form of a word, fact, or proposition. The pre-modern mind would draw on both the rational and the spiritual/imaginative not only to make sense of reality but also to express truth in the fullest way.
This is a far cry from modernity’s take on truth and its tendency to reduce information to “just the facts!” We see this in the modern world’s viewing of “myth” as something “untrue.” Post-thirteenth century man tends to take an analytical position on truth and thinking about truth, and he seeks to reduce it to facts and “parts.” The assumption seems to be that truer meaning is found by stripping away the conceptual and imaginative “ u ” and focusing on the particulars of an object or idea. The goal of the post-Enlightenment is to “analyze to pieces.” This “de-humanizes” truth and thinking, leaving only data and parts with lesser meaning. Neil Postman addresses this predicament by writing: “the scientific age didn’t wipe out the deep need for a story. All it did was undercut the traditional story embodied in traditional teaching – the drama of sin and redemption.” In his work, Teaching as Story-telling, Kieran Egan puts forth the notion that “a fact may be the smallest unit of information, but a story is the smallest unit of meaning.”
So, what does all of this have to do with classical instruction? I would put forth two broad but practical principles.
First, I would apply this in terms of the way our students think and apprehend truth. I believe that teachers should be psychologists in the sense that we investigate the soul, especially the souls of our students, to discover how it is that they comprehend and learn. Conceptual students will lean toward more mythos-centered thinking. The more analytical thinkers will be bent more toward logos-centered processing.
The more conceptual, mythos-thinkers tend to be your global, “big picture” thinkers. We label these the “humanities” students and, sometimes (unfortunately), treat them as the non-math kids. They pick up on knowledge and ideas through stories, relationships, and discussions over the big ideas. The analytical, logos-thinkers tend to think in a more linear form. Because, generally, math is taught more analytically in the West, we label these types of thinkers the “math kids.” They more easily learn through check lists, bullet points, and formulas. However, both aspects of truth are important and are required to fully comprehend reality. So, it is important that teachers express ideas in both conceptual and analytical ways.
The second application is to the way we instruct – our pedagogy. As teachers we should seek to cast a broader net, “catching” as many of our students as we possibly can through the way we communicate ideas. Teaching with a “mythological” view in mind may be the key. This type of instruction starts with considering your personal bent by way of how you understand concepts and knowledge. Do you have a tendency toward the big picture and broader ideas? Then you may have to work harder at breaking thoughts down into bullet points for the students. More of the analytical type? You will need to make bigger connections, build relationships, and put particulars in larger contexts. As you are accommodating for your students, allow for the more conceptual by telling stories and allow for the more analytical by reducing to particulars. Using categories as a bridge between stories and data makes this transition effective.
But how does that correlate to different practices? Our classrooms should be brimming with the use of story-telling, fairy tales, fables, and narrative. We should view the teaching of grammar not only as a sentence puzzle to be dissected but also as language to be discussed both by way of syntax and the ideas behind the words. We should approach problems in math and science through context and word problems for our big-picture students. We should end our humanities discussions with a list of take- aways for our more analytical students.
In history, we should view and communicate it as a story. We should be constantly making connections between the particulars of a given society and how they relate to the broad story of civilization. For example, Steve Mansfield in his book More than Dates and Dead People uses five effective categories (religion, law, education, culture, and art) to move from the particulars of a time period to the overall story (and vice-versa).
I would offer up one point in conclusion. As Christians, we should intuitively understand this relationship on a theological and practical level between the mythos and logos of Scripture. Truth for us as Christians is first and foremost a Person – the person of Christ. God reveals this Truth to us through narratives and principles, story and law, poetry and theological principles.
In a recent conversation with Vigen Guroian (author of Tending the Heart of Virtue and several other noble works), he put forth the idea to me that the understanding of mythos, allegory, and metaphor is not an epistemological understanding but an ontological understanding of nature and creation reflective of the symbolic and sacramental nature of creation itself. He went on to say that if mythos, allegory, and metaphor become just “functional,” then they lose their meaning and ultimately their power. Metaphors, etc., are arbitrary outside of the notion on being an insight into the fabric of reality – the way things work. Great food for thought.
I would offer the following quotes in summary. In his essay On Fairy Stories, Tolkien explains that the gospel is the fairy-story above all fairy-stories (or maybe the myth above all other myth) because it is true. G.K. Chesterton writes: “Christianity met the mythological search for romance by being a story and the philosophical search for truth by being a true story.” As keepers of “the Story” we should be about the work of conveying its fullest meaning by thinking about and instructing others in a “mythological” understanding of the nature of Truth.