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Everything New is Old: Medieval Education and Neuroscience

Among the hidden treasures at a nearby used bookstore was a small, old copy of The Portable Medieval Reader (1975), an anthology of Medieval writing. Originally published in 1949, The Reader was already in its thirty-first printing. A re-printing of a re-printing.

The compact little book was stuffed full of writings from the eleventh through the fifteenth centuries, and browsing through the book, I stumbled on Hugh of St. Victor’s twelfth century essay “On Study and Teaching,” a collection of educational techniques and philosophy from medieval Europe. The essay is a plum reminder that poets and philosophers have been broadcasting for years (centuries!) what we now assert that “research has shown”--as if it were a revelation. 

Here are just a few examples of new theories and scientific ideas that Hugh described centuries ago:

Prior Knowledge
The mind, cognitive scientists have been telling us, constructs new understanding by connecting it to old understanding.  Without prior knowledge of a topic, we have difficulty retaining new information.  We see through the lens of what we have known.  And so, we should start our teaching where students are, with what they know.  Here, Hugh makes the same argument:
Learning... begins from these things which are better known, and through a knowledge of them attains a knowledge of those which are hidden...  Therefore when we learn, we ought to begin from those things which are better known and determined and comprehended, and thus, by descending little by little and distinguishing individual things... investigate the nature of those things which are related. (PMR 580-81)
Hugh was a teacher at the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris

Active Learning
The late 20th century trumpeted active learning over passive, rote learning. Similarly, describing access to the sciences of his time, Hugh said:
Anyone who would firmly comprehend the discipline of [the essential sciences] would... by investigating and practicing diligently more than by listening, attain a knowledge of [other non-essential sciences].  (575, emphasis mine)
Education circles have been abuzz with Carol Dweck’s research on mindsets.  She says, in brief, that we can think about intelligence as being malleable or fixed, and so we can have a growth or fixed mindset about our intelligence.  With a growth mindset, we believe that we can improve our learning through hard work.  So, when we struggle, we believe that with effort, we can work our way towards understanding and achieving intellectual gains.  With a fixed mindset, however, we believe our intelligence renders us capable of only a certain level, and so we are less likely to risk working beyond our limits.  The result of this difference in mindset (fixed vs. growth), Dweck says, has enormous repercussions on our resilience, our persistence, our willingness to work hard.  Success comes more, she says, to people with growth mindsets, because they are more likely to ask for help, to work through challenges, to keep at it.  People with fixed mindsets, on the other hand, are less likely to work at something, for they feel it is out of their reach to begin with.  Remarkably, eight-hundred-plus years earlier, Hugh of St. Victor describes these same behaviors:
There are some who, although they are not ignorant of their dullness, nevertheless strive eagerly for knowledge, with all the effort of which they are capable.  And they incessantly sweat in study, so that what they might have less as a result of labour, they seem to achieve by an act of will.  But there are others who, since they feel themselves unable by any means to comprehend the most difficult things, neglect the least; and as if resting secure in their own torpor, the more they avoid learning those lesser things which they can understand, the more they lose the light of truth in the greatest things.  (573)
Recursion as Necessary for Enduring Learning
Neuroscientists have affirmed the effectiveness of recursive learning for strengthening memory.  Here, Hugh writes of the relationship between intelligence and memory--and frequent exercise of the memory (recursive work) features highly:
Those who are devoted to learning should be strong in both intelligence and memory; these two are so closely joined together in every study and discipline, that if one of them is lacking, the other can lead no one to perfection, just as no riches can be of use, where safekeeping is lacking.  And he keeps hiding places in vain who has nothing to hide.  Natural intelligence discovers, and memory safeguards wisdom.  Intelligence is a certain natural power innate in the mind, and is powerful in itself.  It springs from nature, is aided by use, is blunted by immoderate labour, and is sharpened by temperate exercise. (579-80)
These last two are more philosophies of teaching, but we hear them now more and more--and Hugh anticipated them as well: 

Teaching for Transfer
What we think of as bodies of knowledge or skill, such as grammar or mathematics, Hugh described as “arts”.  And in teaching these arts, Hugh argues, as practitioners increasingly argue today, that we should teach students to be able to transfer knowledge to practical use:
In each art... two things especially should be discerned and distinguished by us.  First, how one should practise the art itself, and second, how one should apply the principles of that art to any other matters.  These are two different things: to practise an art, and to do something else by means of an art.  For the sake of an example of practising an art, take grammar.  He practises the art of grammar, who treats of the rules concerning the use of words, and the precepts relating to this.  Everyone who speaks or writes in accordance with rules acts grammatically.  It is therefore suitable only for certain writers... to practise the art of grammar.  But it befits everyone to speak or write grammatically. (578)
Simplify, Simplify, Simplify 
Anticipating Thoreau, Orwell, Strunk and White, and many others, Hugh argues for brevity and clarity:
When... we are occupied with any art, especially in teaching it, when everything should be restricted and confined to what is brief and easy to understand, it should suffice to explain that which we are dealing with as briefly and aptly as possible, lest, if we should multiply irrelevant ideas to excess, we should confuse rather than edify the student.  Not everything should be said which we are able to say, lest those things which we should say are said less profitably.  In every art, then, you should seek that which has been established as pertaining especially to that art...  Do not multiply the byways until you have learned the highways. (578-9)
Hugh of St. Victor (c. 1096 - 1141)

Not bad for a guy writing with a feather in a world that went dark when the sun went down!

Is there anything new to be said? Certainly so. Recombinations of the past are infinite, and from them we gain further insight and access to truth. But we can save much energy by meaningfully collecting and conveying what has been said, argued, and “discovered” before.

I am reminded that the New York City water supply system leaks more water per day than most small cities consume. Our collective knowledge might be said to behave the same way. The current of civilization holds on to much, but wisdom ever leaks away--wisdom is ever lost--and our efforts must be to gather, retain, and convey what is essential and important just as much as we aim to break new ground and ring in innovation, for we may find that we toiled in the name of the new, only to reinvent what has come before.

Hugh of St. Victor, I am further reminded, was a student and teacher at an abbey in Paris, and much of his work involved translating texts from the classical Greek and Roman scholars: Plato, Ovid, Homer, Sophocles, and many more. Even in Hugh’s time, the past was a shadow, and the work of the Renaissance was still more than a century away. He, too, sought to make new what was old, and his work was inevitably richer for being informed by the past.
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