Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Illuminating Texts

Every once in a while at Christmas or my birthday, I am the pleased recipient of a beautiful leather-bound journal.  My close friends and family know how I love the idea of writing and keeping a journal-- you know,  the old fashioned kind on real paper-- to record my thoughts and  ideas before they escape  the sieve that is my memory.

But as much as I love these books and appreciate the gifts, I must admit that I have not used them well.  Oh, I start out with good intentions, making a couple of entries, but soon I am overcome with the sense that my silly day-to-day thinking does not warrant a beautiful leather-bound volume.  The leather-bound books seem too special for shaky first drafts and ill-formed incomplete thoughts. A blank word document or even one of the cheap  tape-bound composition books that I buy in bulk during the August back-to-school sales seem more than adequate.  

But what to do with my beautiful journals?

I had an idea while visiting a museum at Shanghai Normal University in China.  The collection included numerous scrolls of meticulous calligraphy copied from ancient texts by Chinese officials and scholars.  If I understood the docent correctly, the scholars copied the texts as a way of preserving the texts, honoring the original authors,and gaining deep knowledge of the content.  The calligraphy reminded me of the beautiful illuminated biblical texts that medieval monks copied, for similar reasons.

Of course, we live in a different world now.  There is no need to preserve any written material by hand-copying.  We've had printing presses for quite some time now and at this stage, most texts are digitized anyway.  An enormous amount of written material is available to us instantly through the wonder that is the internet, and what is not immediately available for free can often be downloaded or ordered within a matter of a couple of hours, days at most. The incredible volume of material published these days coupled with easy access puts us in the midst of an information glut.

No, preservation is not an issue.

In today's educational and technological world, the concept of copying texts to assist in learning seems both quaint and wrong.  Learning by copying is just memorization  and we all know that such "rote learning" isn't "real learning" and that our goals should be to foster critical thinking and creativity.

There is nothing creative about copying.

But, here is where I think we are missing something important.

No one can think critically and creatively in the absence of knowledge.  Having ready access to vast stores of information is not the same as having knowledge. Knowledge is information that does not have to be looked up- information imprinted into our brains.  Information itself is not particularly useful until it is transformed into knowledge, a process that requires active attention, review, and internalization.

I call that transformation learning.

For me, learning is facilitated by writing things down.  Not underlining. Not highlighting.  Writing them down.  If it is a scientific or scholarly work, I make notes in my own words, perhaps quoting particularly concise phrases or key concepts. In these cases paraphrasing confirms understanding.  These are just notes, kept at various levels of organization in my cheap composition books.

When text is fiction, poetry, or ancient, I copy the exact words of the author or translator.  This practice allows me to internalize the the cadence and imagery and begin, hopefully, to know the work.

So, even though I have really bad handwriting and do not know any form of calligraphy, and even though it is out of fashion from a educational perspective, I use my leather-bound journals for copying texts, both ancient and modern, in order to honor the original author and gain a deeper knowledge of the work.  Just like the Chinese scholars.  Just like the medieval monks.  Well, not quite.  There is that little issue of illegible  handwriting!

In the process, I have discovered and rediscovered some wonderful words. I have been relearning T.S. Eliot's Preludes and other poems.  Langston Hughes, Psalms.  Words that are worthy of the beautiful journals into which I transcribe them.

Here is a fun little poem I came across on  our return trip from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival last Sunday.  The poem is by E.B. White, author of my first favorite chapter book (Stuart Little) and the wonderful tale of another clever spider (Charlotte's Web).  It is called Natural History.

Natural History
(A letter to Katherine from the King Edward Hotel, Toronto)
The spider, dropping down from twig,

Unwinds a thread of her devising:
A thin, premeditated rig
To use in rising.

And all the journey down through space,
In cool descent, and loyal-hearted,
She builds a ladder to the place
From which she started.

This I, gone forth, as spiders do,
In spider's web a truth discerning,
Attach a silken thread to you
For my returning.

As my family has been scattered over the globe this summer,  I am grateful for the silken threads guiding us all home.

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